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Zillowing Out

A $1.3 Million House To Help Erode The Soul Of A Town

Chris Thompson

In April, I am controlled by the weather. The rest of the year, I am more stable. The sun has no ability to sway me from my worst mood, and the rain no power over my best. But in April, with summer threatening to emerge and winter receding slowly, the weather is my only god. I woke up this week grumpy everyday. It is so gray outside. It is colder than I feel in my heart it should be, but not cold enough to wear the coat I like. I had stress dreams. I hated that I had to work. I hated that I had to do anything. One of those weeks.

Whenever I have this kind of week (month) in April, I begin to have the same fantasy. In the fantasy, I own an old beat-up truck that never breaks down. Also in the fantasy, I am an entirely different person: one who is spontaneous, who is reckless, who does not consider other people’s opinions equally important as her own. OK so the different version of me, in this fantasy, takes flight at the first mention of April. Instead of enduring this month of gray and cold and rain, she will drive in her truck to a part of the country that feels cozy and inspiring and beautiful (a place where she has never experienced April and therefore cannot know if it is terrible or not). In the fantasy, I just live there for a little while because money isn’t real and neither is work. In the fantasy, the place is always the Chisos Mountains on the border between Texas and Mexico.

The Chisos shine in the bright daylight, their rocks a portrait of stability, eternity. And at night they haunt, projecting unexplainable lights that can be seen from miles away. Ghost stories are stashed in every rock crevice there. The land on the United States side is sparse and beautiful desert. It is a retreat. It is an emptiness so big and a sky so encompassing you feel insignificant beneath it. It’s Texas still so, to me, it feels like home.

This fantasy has been running in the back of my mind for years now, so vivid and true and available to me on any gray, bleak spring day that it cannot be shaken. I fully believe that abandoning everything and moving to the desert would fix my grumpy mood, would maybe fix everything wrong with me.

I was delighted to receive an email from reader Conni this week in the midst of my Chisos fantasies titled “can you explain this house and also the concept of Marfa, Tx to me?”

For those of you unfamiliar, Marfa is a tiny little town close to the Chisos Mountains and Big Bend Park.

Conni told me what she knew about Marfa writing, “Marfa [is] a city I know only as the setting of the ‘I Love Dick’ tv show but not book and the place with the empty Prada (?) store.”

I had a question. How does one encounter a house in Marfa if you do not know anything about Marfa? Conni found this house because she was looking at a website for a fancy olive oil/skincare company that charges $25 for soap, and assumed it would be located in California. Here’s what she said happened:

Their only stand alone store the Oil Shop (sure) is located in Marfa, which was shocking given my baseless assumptions about the socio-economic demographics of Marfa and belief that it would not support a venture such as an Oil Shop. I genuinely thought the Prada store, which would suggest a high net worth for the town, was an art installation for years (is it?). so I got curious about the actual demographics and broader housing market because  so I took to Zillow as any American would and immediately lost my mind because I was on nyquil this house is so much more expensive than almost every other available house and then, of course, the kitchen. Also I bought the $25 soap which I feel the need to admit while continuing to be a hater about it. 

That is an extremely relatable paragraph to me, someone who does this exact series of events far more often than a person should. Makes perfect sense.

Couple things to begin with. First off, you were right. The Prada store is an art installation. Second off, though, it’s not in Marfa. It’s on I-90 just outside of Valentine, Texas.

The long version of the story about why this house is so expensive includes the railroad, Lonesome Dove, a military base, and Donald Judd. What you really need to know is that after Donald Judd died, a bunch of art people decided to come to Marfa (which had no industry and was bleeding residents) and turn it into a cool-kid oasis. Despite its rebuilding, the population of Marfa (approximately 1,900) is still far less than the almost 4,000 residents it had in 1940.

Here’s a quote from a Texas Monthly article written in 2002:

The recent boom has already made Marfa unaffordable for the town’s working poor. Ten years ago you could buy an old adobe home for $20,000. Now, even if the walls and the roof have caved in, adobes go for twice and three times that. And if they’re in good shape or in a good neighborhood, they go for a lot more.

The question Conni asked is: Why is a house that looks like this selling or $1.3 million?

Screenshot: Zillow

The first answer is: it isn’t. It’s been on the market for 63 days and hasn’t sold yet, which in a low-inventory time period is a quite a while. It has been listed for sale repeatedly since last April (first at $1.415 million) without selling. But the second answer is: American housing is absolutely fucked right now.

That’s why I chose Conni’s email this week. Because I feel like this column needs to acknowledge that no one should be paying $1.3 million dollars for a four bedroom, three bathroom house with a pool that is, let’s see, a four-hour drive from the nearest major airport. And the reason houses can be listed for this much is because the system is screwing over everyone but the richest Americans right now with, absolutely nothing stopping it. Maybe you own your house and don’t realize what’s happening, but rent increases in America this year are averaging 40 percent in major cities. Last year, those increases were almost 20 percent. There is very little housing supply. So even in a city like Marfa, houses are overpriced. Maybe especially in a town like Marfa.

The reason this house is worth so much is because they are not trying to sell it to someone who will come live in this town and commit to the city and invest in the community. It is priced for investors. This house is on AirBnb currently for a whopping $856 a night. It is not booked very often for the next few months, but it doesn’t have to be. $856 a night makes a dent in a mortgage payment if it’s two nights a month. The AirBnb listing says they renovated it in the last year, which might explain the jump in tax appraisal from $229,460 in 2017 to almost a million dollars in 2020.

The city council in Marfa right now is trying to pass a few laws to reduce the number of short-term rentals in the city. I wish them luck.

Because let’s see just what $1.3 million dollars will get you in this house.

Screenshot: Zillow

I do not have a lot to say about this little living room. It’s cute. I love the wood ceilings and find that really beautiful. (Conni also liked this). I do not really understand why, if someone has been renovating this place for a year, they didn’t strip the paint from what appears to be original wood doorframes and moulding, but I guess house flippers are lazy. The fireplace is nice (you need one because it gets cold in the desert). Other than that there’s nothing special happening in here. Let’s move on.

Screenshot: Zillow

Yet again we have some beautiful original doors and moulding all painted white. Everything is painted white. This feel’s like a young ghost’s room. There is no character here. “I also love how open and bright the house is while still having dedicated rooms with clear purposes instead of the god awful open floor plans that everyone that’s bought a house in the past 10+ years has had to pretend they like!!” Conni said. I agree Conni, thank you.

Guess we will keep going.

Here is the dining room:

Screenshot: Zillow

I love the second fireplace but hate that both have televisions and are so close to each other. Why do you need this? The transom window that opens above the doorway between the dining room and hall is lovely. The ceiling still rules, but Conni warned me that the kitchen was a mess, so let’s get to that.

Screenshot: Zillow

This is an AirBnb kitchen if I’ve ever seen one. No dishwasher. No backsplash to keep your actual cooking off those white walls. No knife block. No cabinets. Just a coffee maker, a fridge, the cheapest stove we could find that looks nice, and a statement island. Beautiful and useless. I hate it!

Here’s another room.

Screenshot: Zillow

Wow I feel nothing.

Here’s another bedroom:

Screenshot: Zillow

This one at least has a sloped ceiling but nothing else going for it. What is through those two weird doors?

Oh of course, a bathroom.

Screenshot: Zillow

I cannot tell if the two doors both go to this bathroom or not, but it is extremely funny to think about having these lovely doorways that go right to a toilet. I understand why someone thought it would be cool to put the tub here but if you are going to put a tub in the middle of the room it should be a STATEMENT TUB. If you zoomed in really close on this I would think it was a kitchen sink someone had photoshopped tiny hardware onto. This is wrong. It should be a nice claw foot tub, or at the very least a big curvy tub without cabinet siding.

This is kind of everything to see in the house so we will go outside.

Here we are:

Screenshot: Zillow

All right. We have a pool. That is very rare (expensive) in the desert. I do like that it is a party pool and mostly shallow, as that’s the kind of pool I like, but I don’t like that this is also a boring pool. No cool waterfall. No good tile.

I do not know what that shack is with the strange tub on it. My assumption is that it is for water collection, but honestly I have no idea. Sadly, it is the most interesting part of this property, which does not even have a garden of location-appropriate plants.

The house itself is inoffensive. Someone with good taste and a willingness to work could turn it into something really special. But that’s the thing that feels so bad about browsing Zillow recently. We know that won’t happen. For a house to be turned into something loved and interesting and special it has to have owners or residents who are secure enough in their time there to invest energy and creativity into making it special.

We will see more and more houses like this every year until the country dies or someone bothers to legislate the housing market. It sucks. The rapid inflation of cost driving out long time residents only to leave those houses empty most of the time is happening everywhere. It’s happening in Galveston. It’s happening in New York City. This feels like the depressing future of American real estate: overpriced, inoffensive houses, with no soul and no roots in the community, sold at auction to the highest bidder so that a group of people can party there for one weekend a month. It sucks. But it feels even worse because it’s April and the weather’s bad and this house is ruining my beautiful escape fantasy.