The second real-estate market

by Gautam Raja

When you buy a house in the US, the public record is changed, and this is a trigger for a whole industry in your mailbox. Some letters are helpful (offering discounts at local supermarkets), and some are outright scams.

There’s a company in California called Local Records Office, that sends business solicitations to new home owners. It charges $89 to furnish a copy of the title deed, something you could get for a few dollars from the actual records office. To be fair to Local Records Office, they clearly say (perhaps after litigation?) that they are not a government agency. Even so, the wording and style of the letter is clearly intended to deceive.

Less egregious, but still annoying, are the ways companies get your attention and make you open their mail. Important Security Document Inside, said one envelope. It contained an offer for a security system subscription. Final Notice About Your Mortgage Papers, said another. It was selling mortgage insurance.

All of these attempts to fool us into engaging, stung all the more, because my wife and I have a clear memory of being duped. We weren’t even new in the US at the time, having come back after two years away. We were looking for rental housing, and because we had a large dog, it was hard to find something suitable. (When you’re renting, “large” is any canine over 10 kg.) We got nervous and signed up for a company that promised to send hand-picked listings over 21 or so days, for a $50 fee. They didn’t email or text the listings; they faxed them. So we had to download a free fax program on a laptop, and dial in every day, to be sent lists of houses to visit.

The list didn’t seem to adhere to any of our requirements. Many said “no pets”, many weren’t in cities we’d asked for. We drove to a few, and some of the houses weren’t on the market. Others were so rundown, we didn’t even stop. And when we navigated the Byzantine rules for getting a reimbursement, I found that I need to have checked into the office every day to be eligible for it.

We’d been properly scammed, and it felt worse because we’d been vulnerable. Coming back to the our new house, it helped that those weren’t the only notices directed at us. The previous owner, a lovely lady in her 70s, had left us handwritten notes all over the house, starting with a big welcome taped to the kitchen backsplash. She explained the workings of various objects, from thermostats to the electric stove. She described the use of the remote controls. She left a list of the neighbours, and made sure the bathrooms all had toilet paper and hand soap.

Ultimately, this was a business deal, and if the financial machinery moved as well as financial machinery can, no more was needed. But there was a connection in this deal that was much bigger than mortgage and home appraisals. For some reason, we bonded with the home owner and she with us, through the medium of the property, in a way that belied the amount of time we’d spent with each other (almost none). Everyone involved could feel it, and the first time we saw the house, my wife cried, because it was over our budget, but she knew right then that this deal was going to happen. We all did, and this makes me think, you can only be duped if you allow it.

First published in Gulf News, January 17, 2017