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Realty Bites

By Erika Erhart

I have no idea how much mon-ey is in the bank and I'm not sure if I can borrow against my 401(k), but I thumb through the Tribune's Sunday real estate section and next thing I know, I'm on the phone with a realtor.

I was surprised someone was in the office on a Sunday. The agent laughed throatily when I told her this. "I'm here Monday through Sunday," she said. I agree to meet her in Streeterville to look at a "gem of an apartment with treetop views."

We meet at noon on a Tuesday. Pat double-parks her Lexus in a loading zone and sets the alarm off three times before spotting me and yelling, "Yoo hoo, Erika! Hiya!" while adjusting her curly strawberry blond wig.

We enter through the lobby. "Barcelona chairs. Marble floor. Laundry room through those doors. Freight elevator." She recites the building's attributes as we ride the elevator to a corner apartment on the fifth floor. It's painted light blue with wall-to-wall mirrors that clash with the brass Home Depot light fixtures.

"Wow," I exclaim, staring at my many reflections.

"Perfect condition. Lots of closets. And the mirrors make it feel larger. Treetop views."

I look out the expansive floor-to- ceiling windows and see a naked man across the street adjusting his blinds. He smiles and waves.

"Friendly neighbors. Garbage disposal." Pat waves back at the man and tugs at her wig.

"Where are the treetops?" I ask, looking down at a construction site on Delaware.

"Oh, we say 'treetop views' when an apartment doesn't have a view of the lake."

"So there are no trees?"

She stares at me and smiles. There's orange lipstick on one of her front teeth. "There's a tree over there." She points to a branch that in a strong gust of wind might scratch the bottom of the bedroom window. "Anyway, inexpensive parking. Friendly maintenance guys. Basic cable. Grocery store and dry cleaner. Greek guy owns it, good-looking, too."

"Is there anything else in this building? Without the mirrors?"

Pat sighs heavily and replies, "If you don't like the mirrors, take them out. All it takes is money, money, money."

"Right. Anyway, do you think--"

"Hello?" She interrupts me to answer a call on her cellular phone. I go back to the living-room window and look for the nude man. He's still standing there, arms outstretched, eyes closed.

"Let's go, kiddo!" she says, jangling her keys toward me. "Beauty on the 25th floor. Two bedrooms. Two baths. Great view."

As the elevator climbs Pat counts the floors aloud.

"Is there a sprinkler system in this building?"

"Nope. Built before the code went into effect."

"What do you do in a fire?"

"Put wet towels around your doors, stick your head out the window, and pray." She smacks her lips together and laughs. "Twenty-five!"

The apartment is a disaster. The carpet has oil, paint, and cigarette burns on it. The sink is filled with garbage, and there are Kentucky Fried Chicken boxes on the floor. Handles are missing from the windows and wires stick out of the walls.

"Two bedroom. Two bath. Two sixty-five," Pat says, fanning her face with a file folder.

"Wait. That seems high. How many square feet is this place?"

"Ah, let's see, I don't know." She starts rifling through her large Coach purse.

"Isn't this a TLC-type place?" I ask, pointing at the water stains on the ceiling.

"Nope. TLC means lots of work. This stuff is purely cosmetic. No biggie. Remember, Erika, all it takes is money, money, money."

"Well, I think I'll pass." I notice some hot wings on the kitchen counter. "I can't believe they didn't clean this place up before they showed it."

"Honey, the market is hot, hot, hot. Clean up the trash, paint the walls, and put new carpeting in here, and you're good to go, go, go. But if you don't act now, someone else will." She stares at me, smiling menacingly. The lipstick is now covering three of her teeth.

"Are there any others you can show me today?"

She sighs and we head down to a two-bedroom on the sixth floor. There we meet a "listing agent," Sue, who wears a fancy round black hat. Her oversize wool swing coat makes her tiny frame appear to float around the apartment. Her legs don't seem to touch the ground as she glides from room to room, remarking on the amenities.

"New counters. New tile. New paint. And my client is eager to sell," she says, looking me over like a hawk eyeing a mouse.

"And I'm eager to buy," I lie, to put off the attack.

Smiling, she offers me a piece of candy from a bowl the seller has left out. She pushes it into my hand and says, "Have this mint and go look around, Erika."

I retreat to the bathroom to examine the "upgraded Corian countertops." When I return to the living room I startle Sue, whose hat flies off her head when she turns to greet me.

"Do you want to make a deal?" Pat asks, flapping a long pink contract toward me.

"Maybe."

"Remember, the market is hot, hot, hot."

"Can I call you later?"

"Let's make it happen," Sue says as she closes the door, her eyes never leaving my face.

When Pat and I get to the lobby we see that her Lexus has a Denver boot on the left front tire.

"Oh crap!" she exclaims, exiting briskly through the revolving door. I follow her outside and tell her I'll call her.

"No, I'll call you," she replies, sternly kicking the yellow lock with her loafer. "Dammit!"

The next morning I get a voice- mail message. "Yoo hoo, Erika. This is Pat. Just checking in on the status quo. Hope you're doing well and thinking about making an offer on one of those apartments. Things are moving. The market is hot, hot, hot. Give me a holler!"

I call her back promptly. "Pat, it's Erika. Status quo remains steady. Glass ceilings abound. Call me."

Pat shows up at three with a contract. I'm making an offer on Sue's unit. I have no idea what I'm doing, but I bring a pen, a checkbook, and my copy of How to Buy a Home.

She picks me up in an old Acura. Her wig is crooked. She's wearing plum lipstick and a green wool pant-suit. It's about 70 degrees outside and she's sweating profusely. Her boxer, Billy, is lying in the backseat eating turkey slices and wheezing.

"Problems with the Denver boot?" I laugh, getting in the front seat and sitting on Billy's chew toy.

"No, I got a yellow thing on my front tire yesterday when I was showing a unit. So I'm borrowing my son's car today."

I realize Pat has no idea who I am.

"Can I pull around and just double-park here?" she asks, stopping in the taxi lane of the DoubleTree Guest Suites.

We fill out the contract in less than 15 minutes. People drive by and stare at us. I'm convinced it's because we look like we're doing a drug deal, leaning forward, heads buried in our laps. A van pulls up in front of us and rips off the spare tire of an air-conditioning service truck.

"Don't call the cops. They'll get you." Pat points at me and winks.

"Here you go." I hand her the completed contract and a deposit check for $1,000. Billy the boxer licks my cheek, Pat shakes my hand, and I exit the car elated. I've made my first bid.

The following morning I get a call. "Oh hiya, Erika, still waiting to hear from Sue's client on a counterbid. But the market is hot, hot, hot. Call me back and let me know what you think you want to do here. Do you want to up your offer if we don't hear anything by, say, noon? Give me a holler!"

At 11:30 I receive a call from an Officer Johnson. "Hi, Erika. My son was on the Clark Street bus and he found an envelope. He opened it up and found a contract and a copy of a check that is yours. The contract is for some condo you bid on yesterday. Should I mail it to you?"

After profusely thanking Officer Johnson, I call Pat and ask her how on earth someone could have misplaced my contract, with my address, checking account number, social security number, and other personal information on it, on the Clark Street bus. "How could this happen?" I stammer.

"Don't know. Don't ride the bus," Pat replies.

For a moment there is silence. Then she turns serious: "But let me call Sue and get to the bottom of this thingamajigger."

Turns out the owner of the condo was reviewing my contract while riding the bus home from work when she became disoriented and "lost stuff." Pat has no idea why this happened and tells me that I'm lucky to have someone like Officer Johnson in my life. Apparently Sue feels really bad too, and wants me to accept a formal letter of apology from the owner of the unit. I decline and thank her for her consideration.

Later that night I call Pat. "I'm done with you. This whole process annoys me."

Pat is very empathetic. She listens as I vent. Then she apologizes and calls me Veronica.

"So, Pat. I guess what I'm saying is that--we're through. It's over."

There's a long silence on the other end, and it occurs to me that I'm breaking up with my real estate agent.

"Well, I'm sorry to hear that. I really want to help you. You know, the market is hot, hot, hot."

"I know, but--"

She clears her throat. "Can I call you from time to time if I see listings that might be of interest to you?"

"Of course you can," I lie.

Three days later I get a message. "Oh hiya, Erika. It's Pat here. Just checking in on the status quo. No new listings in the ah, Mies van der Rohe area, but the market is out of control. Let me know if there's anything you want to see. Hot, hot, hot."

She tries to hang up but accidentally pushes the speakerphone button. I hear Billy barking in the background. Papers shuffle. She mumbles something and coughs. "I need a sale," she mutters.

I delete the message without listening to the rest.

On Sunday I toss the real estate section and write a check to my landlord. I put a huge smiley face in red pen next to his name. I know he'll think I'm crazy, but I don't care.

I'm off the market for now. I guess it's just too hot, hot, hot. But I feel good, good, good.

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