Truth in advertising
Everyone dislikes real estate listings because they’re so often filled with exaggerated advertising catchphrases, but back in the 1960s, English real estate agent Roy Brooks wrote honest ads. He had no desire to ignore egregious decor or shabby condition. (His firm is still doing business today in the suburbs of London.) With great delight I paged through “Brothel in Pimlico,” one of the reprints of his best adverts. A typical example:
“FASHIONABLE CHELSEA. A dreadful working-class terrace house of sinister aspect in one of the meaner streets at the bitter end of CHEYNE WALK in the grimy ambit of LOTS RD. POWER STN. Time and decay have not softened the hideous aspect of this typical example of Victorian speculative building, 6 rms., kit. (generations of women have looked out, over the shallow sink with its one cold tap, slap onto the crumbling, claustrophobic backyard and outside lav.) The Master bedrm. has had its door torn off at the hinges, several windows have been broken, what is left of the paintwork is in a nasty, dirty shade of green and the wallpaper hangs dankly down in shreds – otherwise there’s probably not much wrong, as people have been living in it up to now. The gaping holes gnawed at the edges in the basement flr. may not have been done by rats, but merely large mice.”
His comments ranged widely. They were sometimes objective; “Decorative defects include a fine growth of fungus on the wall of ground floor rear room….A fussy purchaser would presumably have the gaping hole in the top bedrm. ceiling — open to the sky — repaired.” At other times he made political observations: “…the pampered tenants live Eloi-like in between flitting to the executive suites” and “CHELSEA IS FASHIONABLE, that is why it attracts predatory business men, with their awful wives & poorer envious detractors.” Sellers were variously described as “Welsh maiden”, “Hairy Architect”, “Erstwhile conductor” and Dr. X”. Negatives were amusingly twisted into positives: “A glow of warmth is generated by the stairs; no lift.” And sometimes he delighted in pure oddity, as when he quoted an owner of a house as telling him “a dull house with 3 lousy bathrooms….a few miserable lilies-of-the-valley in the tiny back garden; we found the dachshund carrying bone — a humerus; but we never found the rest.”
Delighted by Brooks’ bravery, I wondered what a modern-day local example of such advertising style might look like.
“AFFORDABLE LIVING in a quiet neighborhood, although the odor in the front hallway is reminiscent of the Exotic Feline Rescue Center. Previous tenant appears to have been Breaking Bad in the garage and has abandoned a pile of foil and effluvia. Master bdrm. is adequate if you don’t require aesthetics or light; the bathroom is windowless, airless and chronically mildewed, prone to giant slugs. The horrible decorative paper frieze around the top of the kitchen wall has been applied with adhesive tape. The puppy has gnawed off the lowest basement step but don’t worry, it has been repaired with a board set atop two concrete blocks. The deck is small and meager but is shaded from the hot afternoon light by its thick plantation of ailanthus saplings.”
But it’s unsporting and unfair to pick on houses of this type. So what about the more expensive variety of house?
“MORE SQUARE FOOTAGE THAN A BED, BATH AND BEYOND. The builder of this soulless manse spared no expense when installing gratuitous amenities designed to overwhelm the visitor. The 2-story ceiling of the great room dwarfs its puny human inhabitants and sucks warmth upward through the roof all winter long. An entire Brazilian sub-province was denuded to provide the 10,000 square feet of gleaming hardwood flooring. The home’s intercom system ensures that you won’t lose your loved ones for long in the series of enormous, echoing spaces. Passive solar design in the sunroom means that you can feel good about the environment in this single room despite the fact that three furnaces and heat pumps are laboring 24/7 to cool and heat the rest of the house. The floors of the gourmet kitchen were specially reinforced to guarantee the weight of forty people plus two tons of granite countertops. The immense eight-burner cooktop nestles beneath a structure resembling a Roman triumphal arch. The master suite is on the main level to ensure that you will never be bothered by the cries of your young.”
But it’s much too easy to jeer, period, and as a long-time homes journalist I walk a fine line and must not annoy the local realtors. (LET ME EMPHASIZE that the above faux-real-estate listings are COMPLETELY fictional and were in no way inspired by any individual dwelling; and the MLS images were lifted at random from listings in a city that is not my own.) With a twinge of regret, I’ll leave this sort of thing to Roy Brooks, who was the undisputed master. Americans are simply too prickly about this sort of thing. In fact, I apologize in advance should any realtor cast his or her eyes upon this essay.
(But wouldn’t it be amazing if all house ads were like those by Roy Brooks?)