Matthew Reader unlocked the front door of a Palm Desert house and ushered his client into the entryway. The Realtor had studied a write-up of the home ahead of time and was pleased to note that the two of them would have the place to themselves. No one was at home.
At least, that’s what he believed until he walked into his very own Goldilocks and the Three Bears experience and discovered the owner asleep in a bed.
“At first I thought there was a dead person in that bed. When she suddenly woke up, we both flipped out,” Reader says, speaking in a manner that conveys simultaneous amusement and dismay.
He apologized for the intrusion and immediately guided the startled client out of the house. A sale would have to wait for another day.
Real estate agents and brokers in the Coachella Valley like to emphasize the positive. Most clients and owners, they say, understand the rules of salesmanship and civilized behavior. Traditions and rituals are honored. They point with pride to factors that have energized the market: the growing embrace of modernism, which draws in tourists and wealthy buyers; the increase in year-round residents; and the “Coachella effect,” which has introduced a new, youthful generation to the desert’s charms. They note several high-profile sales in 2016, including designer Jeremy Scott’s purchase of the John Lautner–designed Elrod House for $7.7 million and Ron Burkle’s purchase of Bob and Dolores Hope’s Palm Springs house, another Lautner home, for $13 million.
But almost every Realtor or agent has a story about an unexpected encounter. Some are amusing, some are disconcerting, and others … let’s just say they weren’t as funny when they happened.
Reader, who has been working for the Paul Kaplan Group in Palm Springs for six years, sips an iced latte at Ernest Coffee on North Palm Canyon Drive as he contemplates another anecdote. Dressed in a yellow cardigan over a lighter yellow button-down shirt and wearing geeky hipster glasses, Reader looks the part of the hip, cool kid who hangs out in indie coffeehouses and is unfazed by much of anything. Then he tells the “ham story,” which leads to a break in composure and a brief episode of cackling.
Reader says he was a relatively new employee with the Kaplan Group when he was recruited to take care of an undefined “problem” at a home that was listed for sale. “This was about three or four weeks after Easter,” says Reader, who walked into the home and immediately noticed a foul odor. “Someone had left a ham on the counter — not on a platter, but the counter!
“Can you imagine?” he asks, leaning forward to convey that feeling of distress that is, apparently, easily recalled. “There were bugs! I had to clean it up!”
Todd Hays, an agent at Podley Properties and a member of the Palm Springs Historic Site Preservation Board, laughs as he recalls a visit with a client to a large Palm Springs condo complex on a warm-verging-on-hot morning in May. They were lingering by one of several swimming pools and hoping someone might direct them to the others.
“We noticed a person sitting at the edge of pool reading the newspaper. We could see the top of her head and she could see us,” Hays continues. The willingness to make eye contact emboldened him. “So we asked her, ‘Where are the other pools?’ ”
That’s when the sun-worshipper and informed citizen stopped reading and placed her newspaper by the lip of the pool. “She was,” Hays says, “topless.”
“She was clearly in her 60s or 70s,” he continues, “and she looked great for her age. But we were all a little dumbfounded. My clients asked, ‘Does that happen everywhere?’ and I explained that it was a first for me.”
When it comes to the unexpected, pools and the people who love them are a recurring motif. John Nelson, who with Cat Moe runs Nelson-Moe Properties in Palm Springs, recalls the story of a young couple who’d been looking for a weekend escape property. “I had a house listed in Palm Springs and the buyers were very excited. I asked them to meet me at the house, but they didn’t know I had the deal signed off and that they were actually getting the house,” says Nelson, who specializes in high-end properties.
“When they arrived, I gave them the news. It was total excitement.” Then the husband disappeared while Nelson was chatting with the wife inside the house. “We heard a big splash and when we went out, all of his clothes were on the pool deck,” Nelson says. The happy husband “was doing joy laps.”
“We heard a big splash and when we went out, all of his clothes were on the pool deck.”
Not every pool story has a happy ending. “I’ve had open houses where people got into the pool,” says Brian Beard, an agent with Keller Williams who has been licensed in Palm Springs since 2005. “Once it was a husband and wife. They came in and wanted to know if the pool was heated. They wanted to know if it was really a saltwater pool.
“I said yes,” Beard continues. “ ‘Feel free to check it out.’ Then they both got into the pool with no clothes on.” He sighs as he adds: “You have to be careful what you say to these people.”
The real estate scene in the Coachella Valley is diverse, as are the expectations of everyone involved. According to the Palm Springs Regional Association of Realtors, the median price of a single-family detached home in Desert Hot Springs in 2016 was $180,000, compared with $564,950 in Palm Springs and $849,500 in Indian Wells. From an all-time high in 2006 to the dark days of 2011, prices of homes have steadily recovered, though none of the nine cities in the Coachella Valley have surpassed their 2006 numbers.
Buyers and sellers who do business in the high-end market tend to have high-end issues: One agent recalled a seller who preened by a pool in a Speedo, refusing to leave the premises (as promised) during a showing. Another Realtor tells the story of a wealthy buyer who sulked when the seller refused to leave a pricey antique as a parting gift.
But those who eschew the social contract that governs behavior in the real estate scene are everywhere.
“We did have police tell us at one point in time that there was a swarm of thefts during open houses,” says Kathy Coulter, a broker who specializes in properties in La Quinta and nearby communities such as Indian Wells, Indio, and Palm Desert. “People would come in and ask to use the bathroom. They would take pills and pop them in a purse.”
Upon occasion, it’s the sellers who have some messy drug issues. “I was going to a house to sign a listing agreement and when I got there, I noticed one of the sellers was acting very strange,” says Richie Delao, of Keller Williams. “He was all over the place and wouldn’t stop moving and making strange noises.
“It turns out,” Delao explains, still amazed by the bizarre experience, “he had been smoking some crystal meth. I was so freaked out, but I had to stay around and get them to sign the contract. I just said, ‘Sign here. I’ll send [a copy] to you as soon as I get back to the office.’ ”
“It turns out he had been smoking some crystal meth. I was so freaked out, but I had to stay around and get them to sign.”
Brad Hudson, an associate broker at the Paul Kaplan Group who works with Reader, shakes his head and smiles as he narrates his “guy passed out on the floor” saga. “It was an appointment-only showing last year at a Palm Springs home with an asking price of $725,000,” Hudson recalls, “and I went there first to turn the lights on. No one was supposed to be there.”
But when he walked up to the midcentury home that boasted a wall of large windows opening onto a yard, Hudson noticed “someone sprawled, and not moving, on the living room floor” — someone who was unable or unwilling to answer the doorbell.
Hudson was reluctant to enter the house, so he called the owner, who eventually called him back, explaining that the uncommunicative person inside was his boyfriend. “I told the owner, ‘You are going to have to deal with this!’ ” Hudson says. “The [clients who] showed up here were a little freaked out!”
“We have a fair number of nuts out here,” says Reader, but it’s clear he has a certain affection for some of the eccentric buyers and sellers who pop up on occasion. “It’s the desert, for heaven’s sake. It’s uncomfortable, but that’s part of the fun.”