June 30th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

Follow-Up: The $15,000 House (Almost Literally) De-Constructed

I got a chance Friday afternoon to see, by daylight, the house whose listing prompted Tuesday night's journal entry about the house in my neighborhood that's listing for $15,000. I still haven't been inside it, or gotten detailed disclosures from the realtor. But by daylight, for anybody with the right eyes to see, the story is fully visible. Like many real estate stories, it's a sad story of human frailty and folly.

The house at 3350 Eminence Boulevard in St. John was built in 1920, at a time when the St. Louis metro area's population was expanding to the edges of the streetcar lines, when farmland along those rails was being converted to tiny housing lots at heroic speed to build houses for the now-Americanized grown children of the most recent major influx of immigrants, escaping their parents' slums. The county seat in Clayton was far away, and since the Great Divorce from the county the City's government cared very little what happened past Skinker Boulevard. That's the only explanation I can come up with for this scandalous fact:

3350 Eminence has no true foundation. It's described as having been built on a concrete slab, but that's not strictly true. The "foundation" for the oldest part of the house, the part built in 1920, consists of perhaps no more than two long wooden 8"x8" beams resting directly on the mud. Floor studs span the gap, and the wooden floor is built directly on top of that, then a house with a curtain wall that sunk down into the mud to conceal this little fact. At some point in between -- I'd guess around 1960 from the proportions -- a large "living room" was built onto the front of the house; a concrete pad was poured for it. But the back two thirds of the house were left floating on their wooden floats.

And so it went, changing hands who knows how many times over the years. Until, apparently in 2005, the gradual subsidence of the soil under the weight of the house took its toll. The wooden pier on the north side of the building broke. The whole wall sagged, warping the vinyl siding, twisting the gutters, and sagging and perhaps cracking the roof beam. (You can see all of this from a hole that's been knocked in the wall at ground level, showing the broken beam.) In January 2006, the City of St. John hung a condemnation notice on, of all weird places, the back door, citing the collapsed foundation. Judging by some hints that were given to me by the realtors' office, what must have happened is that the then-owner simply walked away from the place. Eventually the city got stuck with it. Apparently in late February the city sold it to someone who bought it, sight unseen, at a city auction. They apparently didn't realize the foundation couldn't be repaired, because without doing anything more than putting a new front door on the place they tried to flip it for $40k, thinking that even in its current condition it was worth at least half of what the other houses on the block, the same size, were selling for.

Now they've given up, and just want their money back out of it, which presumably must be (counting brokers' fees) $15,000. And sad as I am to say it, they're probably not going to get it. We had something less severe than that happen to a house across the street from my apartment complex, four blocks away from the place on Eminence. It was also a house that had been walked away from by someone who went broke. Before it could sell, local kids figured out how to break into it via an insufficiently secure basement window, and turned it into their own private clubhouse. But they left it open to the elements so long, and did so much damage of their own to it, that the building ended up being condemned. The city tried for over a year to find a developer interested in it. No deal, not even for free. No developer was willing to pay the demolition costs. So the city ate the demolition costs, cleared the land ... and it's still vacant.

Last winter, a house burned badly enough to be condemned about halfway between here and the place on Eminence, and again, the owners walked away from it. (No insurance? I haven't found anybody who knows.) After trying unsuccessfully to find any investor, the city gave up and paid to have it bulldozed, too. They did an even cheaper job of it, too; the lot is sliding into the street. No developer has chosen to invest in it, either. So with two lots just as good as the one on Eminence up for sale by the city, both of them already cleared and ready to build on, whoever bought that poor pig in a poke is probably stuck with it. In all likelihood, the city will end up in possession of it once again pretty soon. Once they get the land cleared and planted in grass, probably in a couple of years, it may not even be bad news for the homeowners on either side of it; a grassy, partially tree-shaded lot between them might actually improve their property values. But in the short run, it's a disaster ... and one that doesn't tempt me to touch it with a ten-foot pole.