Everyone tells you it’s hard to sell a home nowadays. No one tells you how hard it is to sell a home while black.
Last March we did all the things you are supposed to do when selling a half-million-dollar Orange County, Calif., home. We packed items we were no longer using. We downsized our furniture. We painted baseboards and repaired walls. We even bought new wall art to neutralize the feel. After seeing several comparable homes sell within weeks of listing, we were certain we would only be on the market for a month at most. We were wrong.
Our agents held open house after open house. One Saturday, a white couple was returning to the home for a second visit. They had come before without their children and wanted to show their oldest son. But he wouldn’t walk upstairs. According to our agents, he seemed anxious. He just wanted to leave. Sadly, the couple never returned.
Following that experience, we removed a few more of our personal items, thinking maybe the home wasn’t race-neutral enough. We put away books, removed every photo of our children—no matter how small they were—and even packed away Christmas cards from family and friends.
Soon, we saw an uptick in interest and traffic. Interested buyers were coming by every day. We had already lost thousands in potential proceeds and were a few weeks from our targeted move date. This process was not only becoming economically untenable; it was emotionally overwhelming.
One afternoon, while I was sitting at my dining table with my children, a man walked up and retrieved a flier while admiring the exterior of the home. Immediately, a neighbor approached. He was a renter in the process of moving because the homeowners were selling the property. We didn’t know him well but had always been cordial when we saw him in the neighborhood.
He shared a language with the interested buyer, who appeared to be South Asian. Surprisingly, I saw the neighbor shake his head at our home. I watched as he pointed to other properties in the neighborhood. He seemed to be directing the interested buyer away. Eventually they shook hands, smiled at each other and parted ways. The interested buyer was no longer interested: He put the brochure back in the flier box and he never called. We never asked the neighbor what he said to dissuade the interested buyer. But it was clear that something motivated him to intervene in a potential sale.
Several weeks and price drops later, we were again inundated with showings. Nearly twice a day, there were visitors. But still no viable offers. One Asian couple had tried to schedule a showing several times but couldn’t find a time when they could attend with their agent. We were told that they loved the area and were close to buying our home. They just wanted to see it in person.
One evening we heard keys in the door. My husband went to see who could be visiting our home unannounced. It was the Asian couple.
“Hi. Did you have an appointment?” my husband asked, knowing the answer.
“No. Can we see the house?” the young man asked.
“We are sitting down to eat dinner right now,” my husband replied.
“Yeah, can we see the house?” he asked.
“This isn’t a good time. Can you call the agents?”
They closed the door slowly and never called again. When our agents reached out, they wouldn’t answer. Perhaps after seeing our family, they lost interest altogether.
By the end of summer, we had several low offers and were approaching a deadline to move out of state. We had seen homes identical to ours sell for much higher than our list price. Homes that came on the market after ours sold within days. The only discernible difference was the race of the occupants. More than one real estate agent acknowledged that they couldn’t figure out another reason for the house’s failure to move, and understood our distress.
In desperation, we re-listed with new agents and hired a professional stager for one last push to sell the home.
When we finally received a cash offer well below our asking price, we accepted. But instead of meeting the buyer and shaking his hand, we avoided him. Every walk-through was scheduled with our agents. Every transfer of documents went through them. Paranoid about him discovering our race, we were unwilling to risk losing another buyer.
In the end, we sold our home. It took longer than planned and cost us both emotionally and financially. Our experiences showed us that while we could change everything about our home, we couldn’t change the color of our skin, nor the stigma attached to it. From the onset, we knew that black-owned homes were deemed less valuable. But we underestimated the impact that would have on our sale in a predominantly white neighborhood.
We have added this to our lessons learned. Now we know better than to underestimate the power of anti-blackness.
Jenn M. Jackson is a writer, mother of three, educator, politics scholar and recovering misanthrope. Follow her on Twitter and read more at her website.