I asked a veteran real estate agent, someone who had been selling houses since the mid-1980s, to find me a happy seller among his many clients.
Here's what I want, I told him. I want someone who sold a house within a couple of weeks of listing and for about what they were asking.
The agent promised to get back to me at the end of the day.
Three days pass. Finally, I check voicemail at 6 a.m., and the agent has left a message.
"I looked through all my listings for the last year, and I couldn't find a single one that wasn't reduced at least once before it sold," he said apologetically.
Here's a guy who weathered the two really hopeless, high-interest rate, overbuilt markets of the late 1980s and mid-1990s, who knows that this one, as hard as the media tries to make it so, will never be a market as bad as either of those – this one has low interest rates, low inflation and a local economy diverse and growing -- yet he sounded really down anyway.
On the other hand, a couple on my street have a happier story to tell.
After commuting more than 100 miles roundtrip to work every day, Rick finally talked Amy into selling the house they'd bought for $319,000 three years ago and moving closer to his business.
They listed the house for $379,000, lower than the comparable houses for sale within a few blocks of theirs, including two within a couple of hundred yards.
Within two weeks on the market, the house had 12 visitors and two offers – the last one for $369,000, which Rick and Amy were seriously entertaining. Because they were not planning to move until Christmas, and this was early October, they weren't in a rush.
Last Saturday, I was walking past the house and noticed that the for-sale sign had been removed. I saw Rick walking later in the day and asked why.
"I got another job in the city (which is nine miles from the house), so we decided to take the house off the market," he said.
His take on the current state of affairs was refreshing.
"Look," he said. "There are tons of houses for sale, and we had 12 people come in two weeks and got two offers from among those 12. So they weren't exactly what we wanted, but they were both for much more than we had paid three years ago, and we haven't really done all that much work."
If anything, the experience gave Rick confidence in the health of the real estate market, knowing that houses in his area still sell for much more than they were bought for.
"We're going to put an addition on the house as soon as possible," he said. "I have no doubt that we'll be able to get our money back and more whenever we do sell."
I feel sorrier for the two investors who sold them their house. A banker picked the place up in 2001 for $136,000, and sold it to a couple of flippers who were hoping to make a killing. They paid $250,000 for what was basically the same virtually roofless, moldy shell. They didn't know how to work with the borough to plan the renovation, and were shot down when they tried to bump up the attic space to a full second story.
They ended up expanding the half-story by reworking the attic dormer into an addition that could be best described as the result of collision of house and motor home. That was the worst they did, but other things, such as failing to control basement moisture in an area with a high water table compounded a bad situation.
When they finished, they had, at best guess, a $200,000 house, if your measurement of price was quality.
In the spring of 2003, when you could sell a tent in a back yard for $350,000, they asked $395,000 for their creation. And it sat for three months. Price readjustments? Four, right down to $325,000.
Finally, Rick and Amy figured it would be a good starting point for a much better house, and offered $319,000, which the flippers took because they were behind on the taxes and the mortgage. They spent about $125,000 on renovations alone, so this house will be a subject on "Flip This House."
In my region for the first nine months of this year, sales are down about 9 percent over the first nine months of 2005. But median sale prices are almost 8 percent higher than last year.
Looking at those numbers, I guess that at least 91 percent of our sellers must be listening to their agents.