A House Up the Street

It sold for $550,000 in 2003. It sold for $985,000 in 2015. In 2019, after a small addition was added, it sold for $2,050,000.

You may have heard that the Bay Area real estate market has veered into the crazy zone and the nutty rices that buyers are shelling out for shelter. Not too long ago, that seemed like something happening far away — maybe down in Palo Alto, the cradle of Silicon Valley and all its wealth, where we used to hear stories about modest old bungalows being purchased for millions just to be knocked down and replaced by something grand, or at least big.

Well, the irrationality — I won’t try to diagnose the causes right now, or comment on the unsustainability or the fact it has made my own neighborhood neither we nor our kids could possibly afford if we were buying now — has shown up right on our street. We’ve lived here since the late ’80s after a house turned up that owners were selling in “as-is” condition and we were able to scrape up a down payment with help from my parents and my wife’s employer. I can’t tell you how lucky we felt to be able to do it.

Late in 2017, a house that had been in the same family for more than half a century went on the market. The specifics: two bedrooms, one bath, a little under 1,300 square feet. A relative of the elderly owners, who had passed away, traveled back and forth from Southern California to update the house, which looked nice when the “for sale” sign went up.

The asking price: $875,000. Now, it’s understood that in this market that figure was a fiction, one meant to attract attention and leave plenty of room for the price to be bid up. Friends who long ago lived on the street were interested because their daughter was looking for a place. They have some resources, but were not optimistic that they’d win the bidding war, which they were certain would go well over $1 million. As a last resort, they wrote a letter to the sellers about their past connection to the street.

I’ll bet it was a nice letter, but they needn’t have bothered. The little bungalow sold for $1,650,000 . Nearly double the asking price and well beyond the offer they stretched themselves to make.

Once you’ve seen that happen, it’s not surprising when it happens again. And since early last year, sales in the $1.5 million range have become commonplace in the surrounding neighborhood. Not that that’s the limit: Earlier this year, a nicely redone home a couple blocks from us — four bedrooms, three baths — sold for $2.8 million. The agent sent a flyer around after the sale that bragged the home had attracted five all-cash offers — including the eventual buyer — that were over the $1.8 million asking price. (Did I bury the lede there? The house sold for $1 million over that original price, which today is better thought of as a reserve price, a minimum acceptable bid in what is understood to be an auction).

And this keeps happening. A month or so ago, another home on our street — next door to the one that sold last year for $1.6-million plus. I found the sales history: In 2003, the long-time owners sold the home, which was then probably two bedrooms and one bath, for $550,000. I’m guessing they felt they made out all right on the deal.

In 2015, the house, which I believe was at least modernized by the interim owners, sold for $985,000. High, perhaps, but in the current situation not insane-sounding. The new buyers added a 500-square-foot addition — a master bedroom and full bath — and remodeled the kitchen. A couple of months ago we ran into the owners, who still seemed like newcomers to the neighborhood, on what happened to be their last night in the house before they moved to Copenhagen.

The house was staged for the sale, the sign was posted out front, and I believe the bidding began at $1,395,000. How high did it go? The sale became official just yesterday. The price was $2,050,000.

As it happens, I crossed paths yesterday morning with a real estate agent who was putting up a sign for an open house. I said hi, and he responded with a bright, “Want to buy a house?”

“Ha!” I said. “Not in this neighborhood. You know that story.”

“Keep saving your pennies,” he said. “Maybe someday you can.”

Road Blog: Writing It Down

We’re on an overnight trip to Fort Bragg, up on the Mendocino County coast, and that’s where I’m writing from right now.

While assessing the weather and lodging possibilities (there was actually rain in the forecast for most of California for Sunday, and on Saturday, there were big thunderstorms with very heavy rain northeast of Los Angeles), the Pinnacles came up. As in Pinnacles National Park.

Before that, the park was called Pinnacles National Monument. We drove down there once — the park is about 100 miles south of us as the crow doesn’t really fly — after hearing that some very, very rare California condors were nesting there.

In recalling that trip the other day, Kate mentioned a couple things she remembered about it. Specifically: Talking to someone who had talked about how curious and mischievous condors could be, and how some of the immense birds had visited a construction site where he had worked and managed to open a box of nails and spread them around.

Huh — that sounded familiar. What I remembered hearing — wasn’t sure whether it was on that trip or another — was that condors had a thing for insulation-type material and that they had been known to rip it out of the roofs of homes under construction or even tear apart the operator’s seat on a bulldozer. I wasn’t sure, though. Then I wondered whether I had written any of that stuff down somewhere. “Somewhere” being right here in whatever you call this long, long collection of scribblings.

So I searched — there actually is a functioning search on this site — and a post from March 2010 emerged. It said in part:

“… While we stood in the parking lot outside the visitors center, Kate pointed and said, “Look!” Big bird overhead. Didn’t look like a vulture; bigger body and heavier wings. Didn’t look like an eagle; heavier wings with those splayed-out feathers at the tips. We grabbed the binoculars and each looked. No doubt about it: a California condor. In two or three minutes it was joined by one, then four, then five others: six condors wheeling upward–directly above the visitors center. One-thirtieth of the wild population, circling overhead.

“There were about 40 people standing in line to catch a shuttle bus to a trailhead higher up, and not one of them was looking up or seemed aware of what was happening above them. I couldn’t resist calling out, “Look up, everyone,” and Kate walked over to point out what we were seeing. Binoculars and spotting scopes came up. I had my radio sound kit with me and talked to a few people about the condors. I found two people in line who had close encounters with them in Big Sur. One of the people was a volunteer condor guide and knew all about the birds, the other had managed a construction project that the condors visited. The endangered birds pulled stunts like pulling out a 50-pound box of nails and strewing it around the site. The condors apparently love to dig into things and would rip out insulation when they could get at it; on one occasion, a bird ripped out the seat from a bulldozer.”

I was gratified that I had taken note of the moment and written perhaps a fraction of it down. I might even still have the audio I recorded from that day — haven’t checked yet. (The one sobering thought: This was nine years ago.

This morning — the early sun that lit up the ocean in our clear view to the west has given way to a flat low overcast — Kate saw a man outside our motel who reminded her of someone we encountered during our 2017 Eclipse Odyssey.

On our second night out on the road from Berkeley, we had stayed in Twin Falls, Idaho. Before shoving off on Day 3, we hiked up to a pet supply store to buy a bed for Scout (aka The Dog), who didn’t seem to be very comfortable in the back seat of our rented Toyota 4Runner. When we got to the little mall where the store was, we could see we were right on the very edge of the Snake Creek Canyon, which is a sight. It’s remembered in popular lore as the chasm that Evel Knievel launched himself partway across in a September 1974 stunt that happened to occur the same day that President Gerald Ford pardoned the previous officeholder, Richard Nixon, though Nixon had not yet been criminally charged in connection with the Watergate break-in and coverup. (No, it seems I cannot mention Knievel’s Snake River “jump” without saying something about Nixon’s pardon — the two events are welded together in my mind.)

Back to Kate, though: She remarked on this person we met in Twin Falls a couple years ago. I remembered we sat in some shade outside the visitors center after watching people base jump from the U.S. 93 bridge and paragliding the several hundred feet down to the river. I remember telling him we were from Berkeley and that he met that with some California reminiscence.

I couldn’t remember all the specifics, so looked to see whether I had written anything at all about that encounter. Here is what I found:

“We started out in Twin Falls, Idaho, today, walking through a mall to the Petco with, guaranteed, the most scenic view in all of Petco World. Or, it would be the most scenic view if the entrance was at the back of the store, because that’s where you can look down into the Snake River Canyon of Evel Knievel fame.

“Alas, Evel is pulling his cheap stunts in the afterlife now (and maybe still getting upstaged by Richard Nixon). But there were base jumpers leaping, one after another, from the big beautiful steel arch bridge that carries U.S. 93 across the canyon. Here’s a video — watch it full screen — that sort of conveys what that was about:

“At the visitors center, near the Petco and overlooking the bridge, I had a talk with a guy who arrived with a daypack and a longboard-style skateboard who confided early on, “I’m a bum. I live down in the canyon.” But what he really wanted was to talk about losing a camera over the side of the canyon rim earlier in the week. He also confided he was an old time base jumper who had gone off the high bridge outside Auburn many times (OK — he said 1,000 times).”

Which isn’t to say I captured a wealth of detail. But — maybe this reflection is sparked in part by listening in the car to an Anne Lamott lecture on writing and the importance of attentiveness — I was glad that I had put something down that sort of anchors the historical moment.

City Planning

I have spent part of the evening trying to find some statistics on the East Bay’s old Key System — our local streetcar system that once upon a time ran through Berkeley and Oakland and neighboring cities and crossed the Bay Bridge to the late and mostly unlamented Transbay Terminal.

I didn’t find, yet, the stats I was looking for — what the peak average transbay ridership was — but I did stumble across a 1915 report that laid out city plans for Oakland and Berkeley and talks about the role of the Key System. I find old studies and reports like this fascinating when contemplating the current landscape and wondering where it all went wrong.

I’ve hardly looked at the report, partly because I was stopped by this declaration on the page facing the preface:


City planning means co-ordination of the activities that make for the growth of the city, especially the activities of railroad and harbor engineers, landscape architects, street-building and civil engineers, builders of factories, of offices, of public buildings and dwelling houses. Without this pre-planning co-ordination, clashes between these different activities, unsatisfactory results and most expensive rearrangements, become unavoidable. City planning therefore does not mean additional expenditure of money, but it means an INSURANCE AGAINST INEFFICIENT EXPENDITURE of the enormous sums that go — in the regular course of events — into the development of a progressive city.

Sounds straightforward.

‘Above All … Keep Moving’

I heard the beginning of this quote from Tim Dee, a British nature writer and BBC radio producer who I’m going to meet Sunday on a panel about one of his books. It’s from Kierkegaard, and I find the observation about sitting as compelling as the one about walking:

“Above all, do not lose your desire to walk. Everyday, I walk myself into a state of well-being & walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it. But by sitting still, & the more one sits still, the closer one comes to feeling ill. Thus if one just keeps on walking, everything will be all right.”