As a Philadelphia real estate agent, Jeanne Whipple has found herself in some terrifying spots, but a boarded-up corner property in South Kensington is the one that stays with her.
She rolled up a metal grate, unlocked the door, and, shining a flashlight, guided a prospective buyer through the darkened shell. But in the basement, they froze: Someone was down there with them. They scrambled backward up the stairs and ran outside. There, Whipple hesitated. Had someone been trapped in there? Then she heard a voice call out from the dark.
“He said, ‘It’s OK. I live here. You can close the door,' " she recalled. "We thought it best to just let him be and move on.”
If you sell real estate in this city long enough, you’re bound to encounter the unaccountable.
“You see drugs. You see people’s underwear. You see overflowing cat litter boxes. Weird art. Nude people. Porn. You see it all,” said Whipple, of Philly Home Girls.
The oddities they see track Philadelphia real estate trends: In disinvested neighborhoods that are suddenly hot markets, prospective investors come face to face with shooting galleries and squatters. On gentrifying rowhouse blocks, they find “grandma specials” -- still with the same wood paneling and popcorn ceilings installed 40 years ago. And everywhere in the city, they catch intimate, sometimes disquieting, glimpses of private lives.
Then, in some cases, they try to unsee it.
“As the inventory has shrunk and the market has become more aggressive, nobody is getting caught up in the little stuff anymore,” said Realtor Laura Seaman of Love Your Block. “People are willing to look at houses and take on projects they probably would not have in the past. They'll say, ‘Dead possum? We can hire someone to get rid of that.’ ”
Animal encounters (both dead and living) are perhaps the most constant threat for real estate professionals.
Brooke Willmes, a Realtor affiliated with Space & Co., tries to walk through properties ahead of her clients to warn them about any tripping hazards -- or, if it comes to it, any wildlife. (Often, she’ll wear high boots; that proved helpful recently when a homeowner’s dog sank his teeth into her ankle.)
In the last year alone, she’s run across a dead possum in a bedroom, a snake in a basement, and, memorably, an iguana lounging on a couch.
“ ‘Don’t pet the lizard.’ Those were my showing instructions,” she recalled. “And I thought, ‘Why would I do that?’ That was the farthest thing from my mind.”
Once, she left an uninhabited building in Kensington with a box of kittens to place for adoption. Another day, she found a cat left behind in a short sale. She went back to feed him every day for two weeks, hoping his owner would return. Finally, she found him a new home.
Sightings of naked people are almost as common, and even more uncomfortable. Usually, they’re tenants, either indifferent to the sale or actively sabotaging it.
Whipple once walked in on a pair of nude lawyers after a seller’s agent left a master key and directions that led to the wrong unit. Being lawyers, they threatened to sue.
Paul Chin, a listing and buyers specialist on the Mike McCann Team, had the opposite experience, with a couple of unclothed tenants who enthusiastically welcomed him and his client -- and then proceeded to tout the apartment’s features while they were, as he put it, “doing the do.”
“It turned out they were exhibitionists,” he said. “We looked the apartment over, and left as quickly as we could. They were like, ‘Come back any time!’ ”
More commonplace, though, are the horrors of bad taste, poor home maintenance, and decorating fads gone by.
“Fishtown used to be the land of sponge painting and above-ground swimming pools,” Whipple said, “just as South Philly is the land of mirrored walls and drop ceilings.”
She once showed a house with metallic wallpaper covering the walls and ceilings. Willmes mentioned a top-to-bottom Halloween-themed Victorian house in Germantown -- complete with crows on the fireplace mantel and a graveyard scene in the bathroom.
At times, selling real estate can feel like urban exploring, as in a historic mansion at 12th and Pine Streets that came on the market last fall.
“The basement floor was dirt. It didn’t have any running water or plumbing. There were holes in the roof and bird droppings in the attic, and animals scampering around inside,” said Kristin McFeely of Philly Home Girls. Her client beat about a dozen other offers to buy the house anyway.
Other times, it can feel like urban warfare.
Seaman recalled a house in Devil’s Pocket where the owners followed her and her client through the house, then sat them down in the living room, where there was a gun on the coffee table.
“They were basically screening my buyer as to whether she would be Devil’s Pocket material,” Seaman said. “We made no sudden movements and politely exited.”
Space & Co.-affiliated Realtor Elizabeth Clark recalled a property in Grays Ferry that she’d warned her clients was too cheap to be promising. Upon inspection, it became clear the house had been the scene of a violent crime.
Other agents described encountering dead bodies, signs of mental illness, hoarders and slobs, extensive sex-toy collections.
They spoke of aromas best left undescribed.
Seaman recalled the aftermath of what she assumed was an epic party.
“The house was strewn with passed-out young men everywhere," she said. "We just stepped over them, because it was a good house.’”
McFeely has shown two houses she thought were haunted, with echoing footsteps, slamming doors, and lights that turned on of their own accord.
In another house, she faced down squatters who fled out the back window as she opened the front door.
Still, Clark said those kind of encounters are less common than they were several years ago.
After the recession, she said, "it was the Wild West. People were walking away from difficult situations. They weren’t bothering to clean the blood off the walls,” she said. “Now, people are taking care of their properties a little bit better.”
One thing hasn’t changed, though, Willmes said: It’s never boring.
“You see them at their best and at their worst. You see houses that are perfectly manicured and you see others where the owners just need to get out,” she said. “What I like about what I do is I do get to see people’s lives.”