I think I've worked out why house auctions are so depressing. Apart from the obvious casino stench of fear and disappointment and greed, obviously.
30 Anita Ave, Mt Roskill, was too big for us. Five bedrooms plus rumpus. What would we want with so much space? But it's in pretty good shape, nice area, has a large living room and beautiful views. If we could get it at a bargain price, it'd be - well, a bargain.
Prowling around the rooms before the sale, I felt a distinct chill in the region of my feet. That is, of course, what you get if you lay carpet directly on a concrete floor with no underlay. But it's also what happens when you're thinking of paying every penny you can scrape up, for a house that's in urgent need of new windows.
Back in the living room, we had ample chance to see just how spacious it was as more people filtered in. The family, their friends and extended family, neighbours panting with anticipation to see how much they could get for their own houses, or perhaps - more charitably - simply wanting to get an early view of their own new neighbours. Estate agents, drawn to the money like flies to a cowpat. And quite possibly a couple of random passers-by, sheltering from the rain.
Among this crowd - easily forty people - the actual bidders were easy to spot. They were the ones who were looking about appraisingly (as I was), sizing up the crowd (as I was), checking the terms of sale for last-minute alterations (three paragraphs about vendor liability had been crossed out). There was a tall, patriarchal Indian man, about my age; an attractive Malaysian couple, with older relatives in tow; a Pacific family (I have yet to learn the ethnic tells that allow one to distinguish between Maori, Fijian, Samoan and other related peoples); and a vaguely Latinate-looking pakeha couple.
And all of these people, myself included, had the same body language: uncommunicative, defensive, as if trying to cut themselves off from all distractions and focus only on not getting screwed.
Proceedings began punctually at noon. The auctioneer rattled through the documents (excusing the crossings-out), reassured us what a wonderful house it was and how happy the current owners had been here, and tried to open the bidding at $400,000.
I wondered if I'd heard correctly. The CV of the house was $495,000, and it was surely going for more than that. What's the point of starting so low? I looked around at the other bidders. They looked at me. They looked at each other. Nothing happened.
The auctioneer was quite unfazed, sticking to her figure. "Come on, you have to agree it's a bargain at that price, don't worry, you'll be in no danger of buying, won't someone offer me - thank you, madam!" The Malaysian woman had cracked, and raised her hand.
Now she wanted increments of $10,000. I looked at the bidders. They looked at each other. The auctioneer was shouting $400 for the second time when the pakeha guy raised his hand.
Good grief, this was painful.
The hell with tactics, I thought, we'll be here all day. I started bidding. $420, 440, 460, 480, 500. There we paused. For a moment I wondered if I'd actually bought it. Oh please god no...
$510. The Malaysian girl wasn't done yet. Now it was out of my hands; I heaved a sigh of relief.
With me out of the bidding, the Indian man took over, offering increments of $5000, then $2500. Progress was still slow, but not as agonising as the beginning. We watched, dispassionately, as the bidding crept up to $550, then one more step... Finally, it seemed, we were done. So that's what this house was worth. The auctioneer kept talking. One of the agents tried to get me back in, but that wasn't going to happen.
"I can't sell it at that price", announced the auctioneer.
I was surprised, and a little disappointed. I'd liked the family, and found it sad to see how greedy they were being - more than 10% above CV, in a declining market? Please. It's not like you've maintained it so immaculately...
The custom is that, at this point, the final bidder gets to haggle with the vendor one on one. I don't know what the procedure is for that, but I had no wish to hang around and find out. We slipped through the crowd, found our bearings in the huge sea of shoes by the entrance, and set out to get on with our weekend. My heart, I found, was lighter for knowing that the place was hopelessly out of reach.
Very different from the last time we tried to buy at auction. We are indeed hardened house-hunters now. Tougher, more efficient, more ruthless. And yet I can't help feeling we've lost something.
Where's the heart? What happened to the love? For all that we've been seeing "better" houses, I can't recall the last time I walked into one and thought "Yes! I want this place!"
I miss it.