People filed into the 1920s Craftsman nestled in a downtown Phoenix historic district. Most were armed with gift bags or bottles of wine with bows affixed to the neck. All wore big grins above the turtlenecks or cardigans they donned against the blustery late autumn afternoon. An excitable, merle Yorkiepoo on hopping hind legs greeted each new arrival on the porch. Of the cars stretched up and down the tree-lined street, there was a conspicuous preponderance of small hybrid and electric vehicles.
Hector and Peter received their guests in the great room they had created by demolishing the walls that previously divided a living room, family room, and kitchen. Gifts piled up on the soapstone counter of the kitchen island, which was large enough to be its own continent within the sea of old world charm and new world luxury that the couple had painstakingly curated over the past year. Soft jazz played on an unseen Alexa. The centerpiece of the entire space, a massive spanish-tiled fireplace was prepped with logs, but unlit beneath the reclaimed driftwood mantel despite the dreary weather.
Guests mingled and made small talk in between trips to the antique dining table for appetizers. Its drop leaves fully upright for the occasion, it held platters of shrimp cocktail, aged cheeses, exotic fruit, and fresh, organic veggies. The aroma of fair trade Bolivian coffee that percolated on the bar top made its way to every nose in the house. Clad in black tuxedos with green ties and cummerbunds, waiters circulated amongst the revelers with flutes of champagne, as well as sparkling cider for the non-drinkers.
Fifteen minutes after the arrival of the last guest, Hector cut through the conversations around him by clinking a fork against his glass. Only when the most boisterous conversationalists finally took notice did he begin to speak.
“Distinguished guests,” he greeted with as much force as his thin voice would allow, “Thank you all for coming today. Even you, Dorothy.”
Polite chuckles and several catcalls arose from the crowd as a skeletal woman with severe eye makeup and a shock of silver running through her spiked, jet-black hair affected a deep curtsy in response.
“As you all know, Peter has been hard at work honing this diamond in the rough into the jewel you now see today,” he continued, gesturing at his sheepish husband who was attempting to disappear behind him. The size disparity between the couple making the spectacle absurdly hilarious, another wave of laughter rippled through the crowd.
“It was a team effort,” the towering architect demurred.
His voice was a deep, throaty bass that didn’t match his demeanor. The vertical stripes on his grey suit may have been slimming, but they also made him loom even larger than his six foot six frame normally did despite his cowering.
“Shush,” Hector chided him. “Peter did everything. Drew the plans. Selected the finishes. Met with all the contractors. I just paid the AMEX bill and yelled at people on the phone.”
Another chuckle from the crowd.
“Accept your flowers, honey,” he insisted, raising his glass. “To Peter!”
“To Peter,” the crowd echoed back.
Peter took a reluctant half bow as everyone took a sip of champagne or cider.
“But this isn’t just a housewarming party,” Hector continued when the voices died down. “We fibbed a little bit on the invitations. Peter and I invited all of you here today to make an announcement.”
The crowd tittered.
“Oh my God, you’re adopting,” one guest gushed.
“Where from,” another demanded. “Russia? Africa?”
“No, no, nothing on that front yet,” Hector corrected them. “We are still buried on all the waiting lists. Things have gotten more complicated in the last couple of years, but we remain hopeful. China is looking promising.”
He held up crossed fingers before lowering his hand and taking Peter’s.
“This is a gender reveal party,” Peter boomed, finding his voice.
The crowd stared back at the smiling couple with blank stares.
“Gender reveal,” a slight man in a top hat and overcoat asked. “You just said there was no baby?”
“No, we just said the adoption hasn’t been approved yet,” Hector clarified. “This is our baby!”
He made sweeping gestures in all directions, The guests followed his hands, confused.
“What, the house,” one asked with a derisive scoff. “You can’t be serious.”
“Why not, Chad,” Hector replied, offended. “Didn’t you name your car Christine?”
“Well, yes, but-“
“But what,” Hector pressed. “You assigned it a name.”
“It’s not the same,” the man squeaked. “I just named her for fun.”
“Ah, but why did you presume your car is a her,” Hector followed, well-practiced at the art of cross-examination.
“Come on, Hector. It’s a teal blue Tesla with cream leather interior, not a jacked up Ford.”
“That’s sexist and you know it,” he sang to the tune of the ubiquitous Right Said Fred tune.
“It’s a model Y, Chad,” he said with the air of a closing statement.
“But not an XY,” Chad sniffed, taking a step back in defeat.
“Anyone else have thoughts about this,” Hector quizzed his guests. “How about you, Daniel? I saw that look. Need I remind you that you refer to your hairless cat as ‘Them’?”
“Yeah, because They have nine lives,” A small disembodied voice answered. “Get it?”
“Look,” Hector announced. “It’s twenty twenty four, and the world has gotten scary enough. Half the country wants to cosplay the 1950s as it is. I didn’t expect our own friends and families to judge our choice to respect the right of our home to self-identify.”
“You’re right,” Chad said, reemerging from the crowd. “Hector, Peter, I am sorry for my closed-mindedness. I respect your choice and did not mean to offend you.”
“Thank you, Chad. No offense taken.”
Murmured approval went through the crowd.
“A house may not have an identity,” one surmised. “But a home is different. You pour your love and energy into a home. A home is a living thing. Of course it has feminine and/or masculine energy. Why wouldn’t it have a gender?”
Everyone looked at the mousy speaker, stunned, but nodding. Those standing near him pat him on the back and narrow shoulders.
“Percy,” Hector exclaimed, grabbing the wincing man in a fierce embrace. “You spoke!”
“Well, should we get this show on the road,” Peter asked, raising his voice above the din.
Replies to the affirmative rang out.
Peter withdrew a long lighter from his jacket pocket. He approached the fireplace and bent the long way down to the hearth. He turned to the throng of guests with a raised eyebrow, and touched the lighter to the firestarter brick beneath the waiting logs as cheers erupted.
“To the back yard,” Peter bellowed, leading the way as everyone hurried out of the house through the french doors, past the koi pond and herb garden to the lawn. There they craned their necks to watch the roofline.
“Pink smoke for a girl,” Peter announced. “Blue smoke for a boy!”
The anxious crowd waited.
“Definitely a girl,” one voice assured those around him. “Did you see those curtains?”
“Definitely a boy,” another challenged. “I haven’t seen that much red oak since the 1987 Boy Scout jamboree.”
Peter was about to return inside to make sure the fire was actually lit when the first few faint wisps of smoke appeared. Guests shushed each other as all attention turned to the chimney.
Cheers and I told yous went up as a light stream of pink trickled out of the roof. Only to be followed by opposing voices cheering as a trickle of blue chased it.
Peter cast a squinty-eyed look at Hector as a full rainbow of color billowed out of the chimney.
“What the fuck, Hector,” he whisper-scolded his partner. “What happened to green?”
They had settled on the home being gender neutral, at least until their tenth anniversary of home ownership, when the home’s identity would reveal itself organically rather than having one forced upon it. They had not even discussed its orientation.
“Oh lighten up, silly,” Hector responded with a glint in his dark eyes. “If Bob and Tina can fly that flag upside down and blast AM radio sermons every weekend, we can have a big gay house.”
He let the party-goers enjoy the spectacle for another minute before heading back inside to extinguish the fire. It was a no-burn day after all.
Is it a good time to buy a house?
If I had a donut for every time I have been asked this question over the past quarter century, my whole family tree would have diabetes.
In the pantheon of real estate inquiries, it remains unrivaled. All other frequently asked questions flow from its headwaters. You never get to is this a good area, or how are the schools without first fielding the pre-requisite question that begets all others.
No one cares about the specifics until satisfied that buying a home at this (or any) particular time is a good idea in general.
Over the years, I’ve had different responses to that question based on current market forces, prognostications, etc. Sometimes it’s a no-brainer, like when the foreclosure and short sale market started to clear out on the back side of the great recession of the late aughts. It didn’t take much foresight to realize that prices had reached a nadir and were about to slingshot the other way.
Indeed, over a decade of value gains catapulted those fortuitous buyers to equity piggy banks larger than even the most optimistic predictions could have anticipated.
Similarly, there were clear signs in 2005-2006 that an impossibly hot market was bound to cool. Once again, it wasn’t too challenging to see a slowdown and potential value dip looming, even if the full scope of the crash was far beyond what anyone saw coming.
Beyond those times where there are bright flashing warning signs, however, what I have learned more than anything in this business is that the prognostication game is a fool’s errand. Things change too rapidly, and factors too numerous to account for and predict tend to upend forecast models with alarming regularity.
I have been expecting a dip in values since about 2018, convinced that price points have become unsustainable, particularly for entry level buyers. No entry level buyers means no move up buyers. And so on and so forth. It seemed the inexorable march of rising prices was fueled by artificially low interest rates. As soon as rates crept up in response to inflation, I just knew values would suffer as a result.
And I was dead wrong.
Sure, the market cooled when rates first shot up, and prices did see a modest dip. Not nearly as sharp of a decline as I expected, however, and it came much later than I expected.
If you listened to me and sold in 2019, you likely lost out on some additional gain. If you purchased despite my warnings, you realized additional gain.
Why didn’t it go the way I expected? Because homeowners that locked in 2.5 – 3% interest rates in the last five years are now refusing to move.
Why would they?
Those who would like to sell to upsize, downsize, move out of state, or whatever, will have to move somewhere. If they require financing to make the move, as many do, they can look forward to an interest rate that is, at minimum, double their current one.
Kinda kills the vibe.
Fewer sellers, means fewer options for today’s buyers. High demand and low supply has kept home prices high, despite affordability concerns.
The point being that the market is always as likely to zig as it is to zag, because the thing you think is gonna be the thing, turns out not to be the thing at all.
So when people come to me today, in 2024, asking if it’s a good time to buy, what do I tell them?
I answer the question with two of my own:
- Are you financially able to purchase a house?
- Does the security of being a homeowner outweigh the freedom from attachment that renting offers?
If you answer ‘yes’ to both of these questions, it’s a good time to buy a house. If you answer ‘no’ to either of them, it’s not.
Stop listening to the talking heads with red faces and halitosis who shout their investment/financial strategies at you via cable TV. They don’t know you or your goals. If they want to watch the price of yak milk in southern Sri Lanka to determine whether the Swiss Franc will hold up to the deflationary pressure in the Argentinian gold bullion market, thus spiking land values in the least of the Lesser Antilles, creating a flood of American ex-pat migration, leading to a glut in the US housing supply that crashes the national median sales price by $5000, let them. Doesn’t mean you need to join them on that hamster wheel.
Need a house?
Can you afford to buy one?
Want to put some roots down?
It’s a good time to buy.
“So this is what this place looks like,” Howard noted, scanning the posh party room with approval. “No wonder the waiting list to use it hasn’t gotten any shorter.”
The event he had in mind was gonna be legendary, if he could ever get management approval to reserve it. It had occurred to him that he might have been blackballed, but he tried not to dwell on his intrusive thoughts. His therapist always preached the importance of challenging the negative voice inside his head whenever it sought to drag him back into the muck.
“Thank you for coming in today, Mr. Botkins,” an attractive blonde in a red blazer and miniskirt said, gesturing to a throng of empty chairs. “Please, have a seat.”
“Thanks, but I think I’ll stand,” Howard declined. “Sitting for extended periods of time makes my sciatica flare up.”
“Of course,” the blonde replied, sitting down next to a dour looking man in a rumpled suit and very bad toupee. He smelled like strawberry milk.
The slight frown that appeared on April’s face was quickly replaced by a thousand watt smile. She wasn’t accustomed to being told no.
“I’m sure you know why we asked you here today,” she resumed, crossing her legs and smoothing her skirt, drawing attention to her bright red nails. “As the numerous letters and citations we have mailed and posted on your door can attest, you have been quite the topic of discussion amongst your neighbors and the staff here at Briarpatch.”
“Quite,” the mothball sitting next to her added.
Howard turned to face him.
‘I’m sorry, but you have me at a loss,” he said. “I remember April here from my initial tour and lease signing, but who are you exactly?”
“Bartleby Jacobs, attorney at law,” the man croaked.
“Mr. Jacobs is the in-house counsel for Briarpatch,” April clarified.
“Is this about the music,” Howard asked. “Because I keep telling Stan downstairs that I only play classical to keep Steven company when I’m at work. I am always conscious of the volume. I never set it above three.”
“It’s not about the music, Mr. Botkins, it’s about the … wait,” April started. “You are supposed to be the only resident in your unit.”
“I am,” he confirmed.
“Then who is Steven.” she demanded.
“An emotional support tiger.”
The room fell silent. April’s frozen smile seemed to hold too many teeth. Any moment now, Howard was sure that her jaw would unhinge and reveal row upon row of pearly whites waiting in reserve should any in the front line fall.
“What,” he asked the apartment representatives with evident confusion. “I provided a doctor’s note when I moved in.”
“D-did, you say t-t-tiger,” the attorney stuttered. He had mastered his childhood speech impediment long ago, but it still showed up from time to time in moments of extreme distress. His left eye began to twitch.
“Oh relax, Steven wouldn’t hurt a fly,” Howard assured them, chuckling. “Do you really think they would let just any old tiger become an ESA? Anyway, sorry about the music. He gets antsy when I’m away. Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead helps him relax.”
“You can’t have a fucking tiger in an apartment, you psycho,” April exploded. Her chair shot into the wall behind her as she jumped to her feet.
“Woah, woah, woah, now,” Howard shouted back, hands up to ward off her words. “What did you just call me? A person in my condition? Do you have any idea how offensive that is? My attorney is waiting outside. One call and I could own this place, but I will settle for an apology.”
“Apologize, are you out of your fucking mind,” April screamed. The lawyer grabbed her by the wrist and shook his head once, silencing her.
She closed her eyes and took three deep breaths.
“I’m sorry I called you a psycho,” she said at last through clenched teeth. “We here at Briarpatch Luxury Apartments are an equal opportunity housing community committed to empathy, compassion, and inclusiveness for all.”
The lawyer relaxed his palsied grip on her arm.
“Apology accepted,” Howard sniffed.
“Mr. Botkin,” April resumed. “With all due respect, we have a strict ‘no pet’ policy here at Briarpatch-“
“Steven isn’t a pet,” Howard interrupted. “He’s an emotional support animal, which by law, you must accommodate.”
“Not if it violates both state and federal law, and puts our other tenants at risk,” April corrected. “The documents you provided with your lease indicated that you had an angel fish.”
“Oh, Ariel.” Howarded lamented. “Yeah, she died.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” April said under the watchful eye of the attorney.
“It’s okay,” Howard assured her. “We didn’t really click anyway. She was kind of judgy. I just didn’t think I needed to get permission to swap out a dead support animal for a new one. It wasn’t really top of mind while I was grieving the relationship I wanted, but never had with poor Ariel.”
“Well, it wouldn’t be that big of a deal if you got another fish, Mr. Botkins. Maybe even a bunny. But a tiger?”
“Oh, I didn’t replace the fish with the tiger,” Howard chuckled. “Heavens, no. I’m a fish and reptile kinda guy. I only got Steven to help Pisces with his anxiety.”
“Who is Pisces,” April inquired, regretting the question even as she asked it.
“Pisces is my emotional support python,”
April was again rendered speechless. Her nostrils flared in horror beneath her arctic blue eyes.
“W-w-w-w-what k-k-k-ind of p-ython,” the lawyer stammered. “R-rosy? P-p-p-pigmy?”
“Burmese,” Howard boasted. “He really is the sweetest lug. It gets expensive feeding him, but rest assured, the goats and pigs don’t stick around the apartment long. And the thumping that Stan loves to complain about is over well before he starts banging on his ceiling with that broom handle of his. Is this a bad time to file a formal harassment complaint?”
“Trust me, I tried everything else,” Howard continued when he was met with silence. “Miniature donkey, baby hippopotamus, a very short giraffe … Pisces ate every last emotional support animal I brought home for him. I would have tried a salt water croc if I had a bigger tub. Steven was a last resort.”
“Your emotional support animal can’t have an emotional support animal.” April managed. She felt as if she were breathing through a straw.
Is Ashton Kutcher still punking people, she wondered. Is that still a thing?
If that’s what was happening here, Bravo. Mr. Kutcher.
“Well, my attorney says otherwise,” Howard retorted.
Just then the double doors to the room burst open. A tall, dark figure in a three piece suit strode confidently towards them, his highly polished shoes echoing on the porcelain tile floor with each satisfying tap. He held a patent leather briefcase in one hand and a business card in the other.
“Johnie Cockatoo, tenant’s rights advocate at your service,” he boomed in a deep baritone as he handed the card to April. She gave it a quick glance.
The tagline read: If the snake don’t hiss, you must dismiss!
She flipped it over.
And if it don’t constrict, you can’t evict!
“Cute,” she deadpanned as she passed the card to the slouched and twitching corporate attorney to her left.
The new entrant placed his briefcase on an empty chair and opened it with two loud snaps. He withdrew a single page and handed it to April.
“A letter from my client’s vet for his ESA’s anxiety.”
“It is this herpetologist’s professional opinion that Pisces would benefit from an emotional support animal to help combat anxiety inherent in a 6 meter python bivittatus confined to an 800 square foot apartment,” April read aloud.
“Sure,” She added. “Why not?”
“You can’t exactly prescribe a snake Xanax now, can you,” Cockatoo answered.
“Your client never even told us what his actual disability is,” April objected, casting a sharp look at Howard.
“Careful,” Cockatoo warned. “You don’t want me to give you the other document in my case, do you?”
He withdrew a much more substantial stack of papers and waved it in her face.
“You think Matlock here is up for a fair housing lawsuit,” he asked, jerking the thumb on his free hand in the direction of his counterpart. “Ask him what the penalties are for discrimination against a protected class on a per violation basis. That doesn’t even begin to address damages for the pain and suffering this harrassment has caused my client. It doesn’t stop there. I’ll subpoena your records from the last decade and go through them like a goddamned spelunker on methamphetamines. If I can’t find a hundred other disgruntled former tenants like my client here to join in a class action suit, well, my name isn’t Johnnie Cockatoo.”
He winked, returned the document to the briefcase, turned on his heel and strode out of the room. The clacking of his shoes on the tile seemed somehow even louder. The doors slammed shut behind him with a punctuating boom.
April and Howard locked eyes in the ensuing silence.
“Relax, Steven is agoraphobic,” Howard said at last. “He’s never going to get further than the balcony. I do want to talk to you about what accommodations can be made for his fear of heights, however.”
“So who was that really,” April demanded. “Friend? Co-worker?”
Howard let out a big sigh, realizing the jig was up.
“Character actor I found on Craigslist,” he admitted. “Had you going though, right?”
Her bright red lips peeled back in a predatory smile.
“We’ll be out by the end of the month,” Howard relented. “It’s for the best anyway. I found a two bedroom for the same price across town at Shady Cove. Gives me a lot more space for the exposure therapy my shrink wants to try for my arachnophobia.”
The apartment lawyer fell out of his chair and started flopping on the floor like a fish. Howard shuffled out of the room, grabbing at his hamstring.
Dave and Becky scanned the busy, sun-drenched coffee shop patio. They had shared a laugh on the drive over about the fact that neither of them had any idea what the person they were meeting looked like. He had simply assured them that they would know him when they saw him. Searching the crowd for a single patron amongst the crowded tables, Becky tugged at Dave’s sleeve when she spotted a bald man in aviator sunglasses sitting bolt upright in a metal chair. He was sitting well away from the crowd, all alone but for the unleashed golden retriever laying next to his table. He was wearing a silver jumpsuit with reflectors all over it.
It had to be him.
The couple approached with polite smiles and outstretched hands.
“You must be Markus,” Dave hazarded. “I’m Dave DeFonso, and this is my wife, Becky.”
The man did not answer. Nor did he flinch. He just sat there still as a statue. A fly landed on his nose, stayed a few seconds, and then buzzed off with no reaction from its host.
“Uh, are you okay,” Dave asked, furrowing his brow. “You are Markus, right? The real estate agent?”
“Affirmative,” came the belated response. “This is Markus Ruhl, real estate agent with EKG Properties.”
The man spoke in an odd, detached monotone. His mouth moved mechanically, emphasizing each syllable. The rest of him remained preternaturally still.
Dave furrowed his brow even deeper. He was one of those affable types whose face seemed to be made of silly putty, every thought conveyed by a telltale dimple or wrinkle. Becky had always teased him about being the Shar Pei she always wanted as a girl.
“Jinx,” Becky whispered, understanding the look and giving him a good-natured jab to the shoulder to show they were on the same page.
“Alrighty then,” Dave said with a raised eyebrow and sideways glance at his wife.
Fuck if I know, her shrugged response implied.
“Greetings,” the man continued. “It is a pleasure to meet you, potential residential real estate clients.”
He raised and extended his gloved hand towards Dave, who took it. The man gave one formal shake, released Dave’s hand, and repeated the ritual with Becky.
“Right, greetings and salutations,” Dave played along, raising a palm in mock salute. “Nanu Nanu!”
Becky shoulder checked him, silently imploring her overgrown manchild of a husband to behave. If the agent took any offense to the joke at his expense, he didn’t show it. His deeply tanned face remained expressionless; his eyes a mystery behind those absurd shades. Even the dog at his side sat motionless but for shallow, rhythmic panting as it cooled itself against the midday heat. The agent couldn’t have chosen a more exposed table.
“We want to buy a house,” Becky blurted, taking the initiative to prevent Dave from embarrassing her further. “We just moved here from Seattle in the fall, and apartment life just isn’t for us. Can you help us?”
“Affirmative,” the agent replied.
“Great,” Becky exclaimed, sweeping her long brown hair off the back of her neck and over a slender shoulder. Dave would have a fit, but she had already made the decision to chop it all off in advance of summer. It didn’t play well with the desert heat.
“Your website mentioned something about a commission rebate that you apply towards all of our closing costs? Is that for real?”
“That’s incredible,” Becky marveled. “Can I ask why you do that?”
“Markus Ruhl is a protoype,” the agent answered, shifting his body ever so slightly to escape the shade of Dave’s notable shadow as the couple sat in the chairs opposite him. “He is still in beta testing. Volunteers receive compensation for utilizing Markus Ruhl’s services and providing real time feedback on his performance via the proprietary app you were prompted to download. It is very important to Markus Ruhl that he provides you with five star service.”
“Prototype,” Dave interjected, the crevasses in his forehead threatening to swallow his face whole. “Prototype of what?”
“Markus Ruhl is the first neurochipped real estate agent in the history of human existence,” the agent responded.
“Okay, now you sound like a Realtor,” Dave chuckled,
“Did you say … neurochipped,” Becky interrupted. “Like there’s a microchip in your brain?”
“Affirmative, Markus Ruhl is the first human recipient of this ground-breaking technology from Zillia Home Corp,” the agent droned. “Patent pending.”
“So that’s why you were so specific about us turning our phones off for this meeting,” Becky concluded. “Like signal interference or something?”
“Affirmative,” Markus Ruhl answered. “Interference … or something.”
“So how does this technology work,” Becky asked.
“Markus Ruhl is currently connected to the MLS,” the agent answered. “Tell him your property needs.”
“No way,” Dave replied. “Okay, we need three bedrooms, two baths, with a two car garage and a pool for under six hundred thousand.”
“There are sixty seven active listings within a five mile radius of this location that fit your property requirements,” the agent immediately answered. “Correction. Sixty six. The home at one four two two East Tucker Way has been updated to ‘Sale Pending’ status as of one point three seconds ago.”
Again, the agent shifted his body to follow the sun.
“We need to be in a good school district,” Becky added, touching the imperceptible bump in her abdomen.
“There are forty six active listings in districts classified with ‘excelling’ schools,” the agent announced.
“With an open floor plan, and no busy streets,” Dave said.
“There are thirty one active listings that indicate a ‘great room’ concept,” the agent updated. “There are eighteen active listings that do not abut major thoroughfares.”
Becky and Dave shared a look, then turned back to Markus Ruhl.
“Big yard,” they said in unison.
“There are six active listings on parcels with a minimum of one half acre,” the agent responded.
“When can we see them,” Becky pleaded, suddenly eager.
“Markus Ruhl has scheduled all showings with the automated service,” the agent replied. “The first appointment begins in precisely fourteen minutes.”
“Hot damn,” Dave exclaimed, jumping out of his chair. “I could get used to this!”
“What are we seeing first,” Becky inquired, standing to join her husband.
“Property one is located at eight one seven five North Oakshore Drive. It is listed for five hundred ninety five thousand dollars, and has been on the market for seventy nine days. The current owners are Donald and Maisel Levin. They have three children: Samantha, Davis, and Aidan. Ages five, eight, and sixteen. Donald is a software engineer with Trixeo Industries. Donald has recently accepted a promotion and transfer to Dallas, and scheduled movers for March nineteenth at eight AM. The Levins purchased the home for four hundred thirty thousand dollars on May third, two thousand nineteen, and currently owe three hundred seventy two thousand dollars and eighteen cents on their mortgage. Markus Ruhl estimates that this property is worth five hundred eighty one thousand dollars and fifty two cents, but there is a ninety two point four percent chance that the Levins will accept an offer of five hundred fifty seven thousand.”
The couple stared at the agent with mouths agape.
“Please, demonstrate your satisfaction with Markus Ruhl by giving him a five star rating at the conclusion of this appointment,” the agent commanded.
“Markus Ruhl requires thirty seven more seconds of charging,” the agent then stated. “Please, do not obstruct the ultraviolet radiation.”
Dave stepped out of the way of the sun.
“That thing in your head runs on solar?”
“Affirmative,” Markus responded.
Half a minute later, a faint series of beeps indicated charging was complete. The agent stood, as did the dog laying next to him.
“He is very well behaved,” Becky noted, gesturing at the golden.
Both the agent and the dog just stared off into the distance in response, the only sound coming from a nearby patron answering her phone.
Was that smoke coming out of his ears?
“Um, should we get going then,” she asked, disconcerted.
Still there was no response.
Finally, both the agent and the dog seemed to jolt awake and turn their attention to Becky.
“Apologies,” the agent said. “A staff member of this establishment was using the microwave.”
“I was just saying your dog seems highly in tune with you,” Becky said. “You’ve got this whole mind-meld thing going on.”
“Markus Ruhl is connected to his companion animal via neurolink,” the agent told her. “Markus Ruhl was the first human test subject for this technology. Perseus was the first canine subject.”
“So they moved on to humans once it was found safe and effective in dogs,” Becky asked.
“Negative,” the agent corrected. “Perseus received his implant once it was determined safe and effective in Markus Ruhl.”
“Sounds about right,” he laughed. “Realtors, first. Then dogs, and then people.”
Becky hit him again, harder this time.
“Markus Ruhl is ready,” the agent informed. “Are Dave and Becky DeFonso?”
“Ready,” Dave agreed, rubbing his shoulder as Becky nodded.
The group began walking towards the parking lot. Becky couldn’t help but notice how the agent went to great lengths to avoid coming close to other pedestrians. He gave a wide berth to every person they passed, as did the golden.
Out of nowhere, a biker crossed in front of them. His cell phone made an ungodly screeching sound as he nearly collided with the agent, sending the biker crashing into a parked car. People came running from every direction to help. As the crowd surrounded them, one cell phone joined in the screeching, then another. Soon enough, it sounded like the emergency broadcast warning had taken over the PA system at a Spinal Tap concert.
A man grabbed his chest and fell to his knees.
“What’s happening,” Becky screamed.
“Pacemaker … or something,” Markus Ruhl answered in the same monotone.
Dave grabbed them both around the shoulders and pulled them away from the chaos. A cacophony of car alarms erupted across the parking lot. Upon reaching his Tesla, it started itself and drove into oncoming traffic. Squealing brakes, followed by the sickening crunch of heavy metal as a massive pileup ensued.
“Road hazard reported,” Markus Ruhl announced. “First appointment rescheduled to twelve forty five pm.”
A flock of flying birds fell at their feet.
The air itself crackled with electricity, and smelled of scorched circuitry. Police sirens warbled to life in the distance.
Dave and Becky took off running, the golden retriever joyfully pursuing them before bounding off to chase a squirrel up a tree.
“Recalculating,” Markus Ruhl called out, matter of factly.
The couple turned to look back to see the agent turning in tight circles.
“Recalculating,” he repeated, over and over again.
Becky pulled the phone out of her pocket as they ran. Once it powered on, she opened the Zillia app. Encouraged for a review of Markus Ruhl’s service, she highlighted one star.
The agent’s head promptly exploded, coating a twenty foot radius in a red mist.
Becky shrieked. They kept running.
When they could no longer run, they walked in silence for what felt like hours. When they could no longer walk, they sat down on the street curb.
“Jesus,” Dave breathed, running a hand through his shaggy hair. “Who knew Blade Runner was a fucking documentary?”
“I can’t stop shaking,” Becky answered. “I’m ready to get off of this planet.”
Dave held her for a long moment.
Eventually, Becky remembered the phone in her hand and opened her Uber app.
Prompted to enter a destination, Becky turned to Dave.
“Did you happen to catch the address of that first place,” she asked.
Dave turned his palms up and shrugged in response.
Her phone screeched in her hand.
“Eight one seven five North Oakshore Drive,” a new voice said just behind them, followed by shallow, rhythmic panting.
“I’m sorry, but the CCRs are very clear,” Lucinda informed her young client. “Daily rentals are not allowed in this community.”
Dimitry stroked his thin black goatee as he paced, agitated.
“Fine,” he sniffed, his black horn-rimmed glasses sliding down his nose as he stopped abruptly in front of his agent. “I’ll rent it out weekly.”
Lucinda looked up from the paperwork in her hands, taking in the Gen Z programmer anew. His white t-shirt depicted a red nuclear explosion under black lettering that read Ctrl-Alt-Del.
Whatever body spray he had drenched himself in this morning, the unmistakable notes of Rockstar Energy Drink and curry assaulted her sinuses. She assumed the scent had a name like Alpha Disco Party or Purple Daze. She made a mental note to use a little more sage than she normally did when she smudged the room between appointments.
“No weekly rentals either,” she answered, thrusting the paperwork at her aspiring buyer.
Dimitry waved it off, opting to resume pacing instead of scrutinizing the document himself. His black and white checkerboard Vans squeaked on the vinyl imitation wood plank flooring with each sharp left turn.
“Monthly then,” he conceded, throwing his skeletal palms up to the sky in exasperation.
Lucinda just shook her head, her tight black curls dancing in the low light of the dual wall sconces centered on either side of her on the wall to her back. She detested her appearance under the overhead light of the ceiling fan directly above her head. The lighting had been the very first change she made upon taking occupancy of the corner office the previous year.
On this day, as with most days, she had nearly the entire building to herself. In years past, senior agents would have bloodied each other for a shot at this particular private office. Most of her colleagues opted to work from home or coffee shops these days, however. She was unique in preferring the power of a formal business venue, and counted her lucky stars that the titanic shift towards home office culture had opened up opportunities to eager novices like herself. From her black on gold emblazoned nameplate on the door to the precise arrangement of the two high-back chairs situated opposite her mahogany desk for clients, every last detail had been painstakingly designed to portray the trappings of success she had not yet attained, and the authority she did not yet possess.
The office served as her de facto closer until she became one herself.
Dimitry was blind to it all, refusing Lucinda’s repeated invitations to sit. She was not in control of the dynamic, let alone the dialogue. She needed to break the momentum of this runaway train that was threatening to run away with her sale. She threw the papers in front of Dimitry on his next pass by the desk. Startled, he actually yelped, “Eek,” as he jumped away from the resulting thud of the heavy stack thumping the floor.
“For the tenth time, Dimitry,” she hissed. “No.”
“Semi annually,” he squeaked.
“Make it a timeshare?”
“Can I rent out one bedroom and occupy the rest?”
“Can I rent out the pool for private parties?”
“Can I rent out the garage and charge event parking?”
“Can I charge memberships to my home gym?”
“Can I rent my coat closet to a fashion influencer?”
“Can I rent the pantry to a culinary student?”
“Can I have a roomate?”
“A roommate that pays me rent?”
“Dimitry, the covenants, codes, and restrictions make it crystal clear,” Lucinda replied. “No rentals of any kind allowed. Period. The end.”
“That’s insane,” Dimitry exclaimed as he stepped over the papers and sank into one of the previously refused chairs. “It’s bad enough they expect me to pay three quarters of a million dollars for a starter home, but now they won’t let me recoup any of the cost? What kind of bullshit is that? Maybe I should just rent for another year and wait for this bubble to pop.”
He looked utterly defeated.
Lucinda could relate. She neglected to mention that she, herself, had a forty minute daily commute from the boonies because she couldn’t afford Scottsdale prices either. That commute wasn’t going to get any shorter if she couldn’t close more skiddish buyers like young Dimitry here, however.
“Affordability is certainly an issue in this market,” Lucinda agreed, expanding with new confidence as Dimitry shrunk deeper into his chair. The conversation had moved to much more familiar terrain, and she was ready with her scripts.
She straightened the gold REALTOR pin on her red blouse as she continued.
“But the flip side of the coin is that current rental rates are even more ridiculous. You can either pay through the nose to the bank to own a place, or you can pay through the nose to a landlord and own nothing. I’d rather pay my own mortgage than someone else’s, personally.”
“Yes, but I hear interest rates are going to come down and values are going to crash,” Dimitry countered.
“Rates are expected to come down, yes,” Lucinda agreed. “But prices are actually expected to climb a bit in response. This same house might cost eight hundred thousand next year instead of seven.”
“Insanity,” Dimitry repeated, checking the time on his pink iPhone 13 Pro. “I make good money, have seven fifty credit. If I can’t afford to live here, who can?”
“Well, I suppose folks just have to cut back on some extravagances these days,” Lucinda offered. “Or they move back to Ohio.”
Dimitry stiffened, pantomiming the sign of the cross despite having never set foot in a church in his adult life.
“Low blow,” he whined, reaching for the papers on the floor with a heavy sigh. He scanned the document for what felt like an eternity to Lucinda in complete silence.
And they say kids today can’t focus, she thought.
Finally, Dimitry sat back in the chair. A wide Cheshire Cat’s grin rolled up his face as he held his agent’s stare.
“It doesn’t say anything about lemonade stands,” he declared. “Gimme the fucking paperwork. Looks like I’m hitting Costco on my way home.”