Real estate: The ties that bind

Owning real estate can tie you down–in good ways and bad. Sometimes the plans you have when you buy a home or piece of property change quickly and dramatically, and yet dispensing with real estate isn’t necessarily a quick or easy process. I discussed this the other day on Seattle real estate radio show “Brashenomics,” hosted by mortgage expert Ben Brashen, on Seattle’s a.m. 1150.

This aspect of home ownership has been on my mind lately because since January I’ve had two deaths in my family — my father, my uncle — and part of the funk of these losses stems from the fact that my family wound up distributed all over the country, far away from each other. And this means that visiting each other, helping each other, and, well, resolving real estate choices made by other family members becomes all the more complicated when negotiated at a great distance.

My father, for instance, bought a piece of land in North Carolina in 2002. He’d been widowed a year, was in his 60s, and was facing retirement alone. So he thought he’d build a little house in the mountain town where he’d spent much of his childhood and where his father had been a Presbyterian minister. But before any hammers started swinging on the property, life presented other plans for him: He met a woman, remarried, and wound up moving to South Carolina, where she and her late husband had bought a lakefront lot and built on it. Fast forward to 2012, and my sister and I — who live 300 and 3000 miles away from my father’s lot in North Carolina, respectively — will have to sort out what to do with Dad’s property in a down market. Don’t get me started about his timeshare.

I asked my father earlier this year why he’d held on to the property.

“It’s a nice investment!” he said, pointing out that lots in the area had risen in value, but forgetting that all of that began changing direction in 2007.

A nice investment for whom? I wondered, since my father, in his late 70s, had clearly chosen to live elsewhere and my sister and I would one day have to choose what to do with the property. Ironically, the property he viewed as an investment is one we’d be inclined to price low and move fast, given the logistics of our situation, and so, in the end, we’ll probably get much less investment gain on it than is possible, simply because we live across the country and want to move it along as part of the posthumous organization you have to undertake when a relative passes.

I don’t fault my father for his dreams of his little house on a mountain, or his sentimental choice not to sell the land when he could. But sentimentality informed his purchase, which he then rationalized as an investment. Sentimentality and rationality… always at war!