His father’s life insurance policy had provided Hoyt and his mom with money for the funeral and quite a bit left over. They could have lived off that money, without scrimping, for a couple of years. After that, however, there would be no more coming in.
His mom did the only thing that made sense.
She went back to work.
She found a job almost immediately doing graphics for one of the local TV stations. She had done something similar years before and by sheer force of will had managed to talk the station manager into believing that it would be a small adjustment for her to use the newer technology.
She found it much more difficult than expected. Almost everything in the systems and applications had changed. The woman who was about to go on maternity leave – the reason for the opening – could sense her deer-in-the-headlights reaction and generously spent extra time bringing Hoyt’s mom along. As it turned out, his mom had a knack for the job. At the end of the other woman’s maternity leave, the station kept both of them on, full-time. His mom enjoyed the outlet for her talents and loved the job. Had they cut her position, she probably would have asked to be kept on as an unpaid volunteer. She loved her job right up to the day she died. Things could have been worse, Hoyt told himself.
Her life insurance – including a small policy from the TV station – covered the cost of her burial with some, not a whole lot, left over. Adding that to what remained in savings from his dad’s policy did not stack up to a sustainable fund. As a college student, there was no way he could maintain his parent’s home or manage being a landlord if he rented it out.
Hoyt did the only thing that seemed to make sense.
He sold the house.
The first thing was to get a cleaning company to come in and get rid of anything that wasn’t worth keeping. Next he hired an auctioneer to sell off what was worth keeping. His parents, he found out, had incredibly good taste in their possessions; the sale brought in over twenty thousand of dollars.
He intended to sell the house immediately. That didn’t work. Every real estate agent he approached gave him the same story: dated, worn, shabby, rode hard and put up wet. The descriptions each used were different, but the consensus was the same. They said it lacked curb appeal. They said the interior simply lacked any kind of appeal. It was hard to see his home through the eyes of strangers but once he did, the shortcomings were obvious.
He used the money from the estate sale and some of the money that remained from his parents’ insurance to flip his own house. He tore down walls on the ground floor to open things up, completely gutted and remodeled the kitchen. He added stone countertops, new appliances, new cabinets, new everything. The same with the bathrooms. He refinished the hardwood floors, tore out the oversized brick fireplace, added puck lights everywhere imaginable, painted the walls in subtle barely-off white. Outside, he ripped out overgrown and leggy evergreens, replacing them with soft savannah grasses. He jack-hammered out the concrete porch and sidewalk and laid slate in their stead. When he was done – below his original budget estimate – he hired a staging company to bring in furniture, accent pieces, wall decoration. With the staging in place, the house looked like something he might see in a catalog.
Before the first open house, he took a moment to review what he had done. How his parents would have loved to live in this house!
What a shame we waited to do this until they were gone. That thought stuck with Hoyt long after the sale of the house. Why was he so comfortable with the run-down known rather than try to reimagine what it could be? He didn’t like spending time in self-analysis, so he tried to push the thoughts away. Somehow, someway they would percolate back to the top once again.
It was a bit like the old movie classic Field of Dreams. He could hear his father saying “Do it right. Do it now. Take what it is and make it what it should be.” This didn’t happen often enough that Hoyt felt he was hearing voices, but when it did happen it was a bit spooky.
Hoyt missed fall semester of his sophomore year, busy cleaning up and clearing out. He went back for the spring semester. He had a full scholarship, including books and housing. He wasn’t going to run out of money because of college.
What he ran out of was “give a damn.”
He listened and talked and read and wrote whatever was needed in whichever class needed it. The interest in it, any of it, had evaporated. He simply no longer cared if he did well or not. Mostly he did okay, but sometimes not. It seemed pointless. He took summer session courses, with mediocre results. His objective had not been to learn or get good grades – he took just enough credit hours to have his scholarship cover his housing expenses.
After the half-assed half year in the spring semester and entirely forgettable summer courses, he decided to change majors for the start of his third year. When he registered for classes, some of the mandatory courses were at 101 levels. Backtracking to freshman classes meant he would be the oldest student in many of them.
That might have been the reason he never went to class. He couldn’t say. He did not understand why he didn’t go and did not understand why it didn’t bother him. He simply stayed at his apartment and watched his roommates go off to class. When they came back from class they usually found him watching daytime TV. He did not date or socialize. He hibernated, waiting for some external event to tell him it was time to wake up. That event never came.
At the end of the add/drop period, he got a call from his advisor. She wanted to meet. Hoyt agreed and they picked a time.
His advisor’s office was in one of the older buildings on campus, built sometime in the 1970s. Its attempted modernity simply looked cheap. The bright colors in bold geometric designs in the corridors reminded him of Sesame Street. Ms. Jennings office was no better. Floating shelves on one wall were filled with books and bookends that seemed to be trying to be edgy and cool. To Hoyt they were trying too hard. Framed certificates covered the wall next to the dingy windows. Her desk was a slab of a dull wood, once quite Scandinavian it was now simply quite old. Stacks of folders, periodicals and books covered much of the desktop and had overflowed to the floor, where they leaned against the stainless steel legs of the desk.
The door was open when he arrived, so Hoyt walked in. Ms. Jennings was facing away from her desk working on a keyboard. Hoyt was about to clear his throat so she would know that he was there when she said, without turning, “Sit down, Mr. Harris. I will be right with you.”
There was one chair on the room, facing the desk. It was some form of dull green fake leather, a one piece chair that swiveled on a chrome base. It was several inches lower than a normal chair, making Hoyt look up to see the back of his advisor’s head.
Cheap theatrics, Hoyt thought, trying to put me at a fundamental disadvantage.
The content of the conversation was not unexpected. His grade point average was below scholarship requirements at the end of last semester. They had given him some allowance for what Ms. Jennings euphemistically called “family matters.”
Dead parents, Hoyt thought. Whatever.
Ms. Jennings went on talking. There was a problem, a situation. His projected GPA for this semester was currently below one-point-oh. Even when averaged with his previous good grades there was no way the committee could continue to extend his scholarship for such a “disappointing” GPA.
No surprise. Hoyt shrugged, unconcerned that his apathy was obvious.
At some point he stopped listening. Just because he had gotten himself into this mess didn’t mean that he should be expected to listen to an outsider’s opinion of it.
“Are you listening, Mr. Harris? Do you understand what I just said?”
“No,” he had to admit, to either question. Or both. Whatever.
“Today is the 17th. You need to be out of your apartment no later than the 25th. You have a little over a week to pack up and clear out.”
He nodded, but the information wasn’t actually getting through. Ms. Jennings could tell that and lost her composure.
“You are no longer welcome here,” she said, pointedly, her anger showing.
“Go home, Mr. Harris”
Damn, Hoyt thought, I don’t have a home. I sold it.
“Okay, got it,” he told Ms. Jennings. Maybe there was something else she wanted to say or she expected him to say, but Hoyt stood up and walked out. No idea of what would come next.
The next morning after his roommates left for class he loaded everything he wanted to keep into his VW, and threw away the rest. Why stay? Couldn’t think of a reason. There was nothing there for him now. He had no plans, no destination.
He just drove off.
Any direction he chose would be away from there, and that was just fine. A couple of hundred miles down the road reality began to sink in. He had money in his bank account. Not a lot, but if he was careful he guessed it might last a year, maybe.
He needed to be doing something better than being homeless, that was clear.
So what, exactly, did his three semesters at college prepare him to be?
That sucks, he thought, almost wandering over the lane makers on the interstate as he realized just how screwed he was. It was at this moment that he heard his dad’s voice. “Do it right. Do it now. Take what it is and make it what it should be.”
“What?” Hoyt shouted out loud, banging his fist into the steering wheel and accidentally honking the horn.
“I’ve got nothing. I have no home. I have no money. I don’t have what it would take to start a career. I don’t have any skills. I have NOTHING.”
A flash of insight, startling, close to electric, punctured his gloom.
He had one marketable skill: he had successfully flipped a house.
Nearly all of the work in his parents’ place was something that he had done on his own. Things that needed inspection, like electrical and plumbing, he would do all the rough-in work and then pay, and pay well, for a licensed electrician or plumber to come in, double check his work, and then sign off on it for the county inspection. Everything else, with the exception of cutting and fitting the stone for the countertops, was done with his own hands.
He had no capital to start his own house-flipping business. That was out of the question. He needed to find some way to get someone to fund him. Or, he thought, uncharacteristically realistic, I need someone to hire me to work in their house-flipping business.
The sign on the highway informed him that he could take any of the next 3 exits for an upcoming city. Three exits. That meant it wasn’t a small town yet wasn’t a major metropolis. That could be just what he needed.
He took the first of the three exits, and pulled into a Wendy’s parking lot. Hoyt told the VW nav system find real estate offices in town. The nav system picked the closest one and guided him to it. It was an office that was part of a national chain, he one with a hot air balloon. Pretty upscale, he thought. He asked the receptionist if she knew someone who was involved with flipping houses. No luck.
The next one was also part of a chain. No luck. The next one – local rather than national – had a rather posh looking display of homes for sale in the window. The agent he tried to speak to cold-shouldered him out the door, barely taking the effort to dismiss him. The next two made him feel like he had wandered into a kosher restaurant asking for a BLT. He was about ready to pack it in. A person can only deal with so much absolute rejection and Hoyt was probably a bit passed his limit. Or more.
Then there was the next one. This was a small agency, clearly not part of any chain, a storefront in a small strip mall. From the outside, crammed between a pool supply place and a carryout pizza joint, it didn’t look like much.
Inside didn’t look like much either. The lighting was dim and it took Hoyt a moment for his eyes to adjust. There were two chairs and a coffee table in the front. Beyond that were five desks, one behind the other, down the left hand side of the space. He saw a bulletin board but it only had what looked like notices on equal opportunity rather than homes for sale.
There was only one person in the office, sitting at a the second desk from the front. That person was on the phone when Hoyt walked in. He decided to wait.
The woman on the phone seemed a little older than Hoyt. She was dressed in a blue button-down shirt and tan slacks of some kind. Slim, but not skinny. Without really thinking, Hoyt checked the ring finger of her left hand. No ring. He tucked that thought away for later. She had auburn hair cut a bit above shoulder length, not quite curly. Lots of freckles. There was something about her that Hoyt classified as “cute” as opposed to “pretty.” She laughed at something she heard on the phone and it was a good, full-throated laugh. Hoyt liked her immediately, though he wouldn’t really be able to explain why.
She ended her call and looked up at Hoyt. As with his visits to other agencies, he asked about flipping houses. This time the answer was different. She gestured to one of the chairs in front of her desk, then looked at him for a minute before speaking.
“Why do you ask?”
Hoyt saw no reason to sugar coat the truth. “I’m just out of college and I need a job. I have experience in flipping. I can do demo, rough-in, finish work. I can hang cabinets, install sinks and dishwashers. I have laid carpet, tile and hardwood floors. I can also refinish hardwood to save the money on new. I can run electrical and plumbing. Not licensed, mind you, but I can do the work and do it to code.”
She looked at him as he spoke, even squinted her eyes at him. It seemed to take a long time to size him up. At least that how Hoyt felt.
“How many?” she asked.
That was the one question he was hoping to answer later rather than sooner.
“You want to know how many homes have I flipped, right?”
“Yes, that was my question but you just answered it,” she said.
Hoyt tipped his head to one side but didn’t say anything.
“You’ve only flipped one,” she said. “You said homes, not houses. When you do enough of this work you flip houses. Homes are where people live.”
Hoyt nodded. Perceptive person, he thought.
“The one house you flipped, it was yours, yes?”
Hoyt laughed but had no answer, silenced by what seemed like her telepathy.
“Why did you flip your home?”
“My mom had just died, my dad had died a couple of years before that. I didn’t need the place, but I needed to make sure I sold it for the right price.”
“And did you?”
“I put in 30 thousand, under my original budget. I gutted the first floor and rebuilt it from scratch. The agent I used to list the place knew my parents and knew the house. She reckoned that I bumped up the sale price by about seventy thousand, so I cleared 40 on the rennovation. It sold in three days after a bidding war between two buyers”
That raised eyebrows. “If I call your agent will she say the same thing to me?”
“Sure. I imagine, anyway. Want her number?”
The woman said she did, so Hoyt pulled his agent’s card out of his wallet and handed it over. It was a bit rumpled. He didn’t know why he had hung onto it after the house closed, but he was glad that he had.
Ten minutes later, the phone call was over and Hoyt had a job. The woman stood up and held out her hand. The handshake was firm, rather than fishy. Another plus in Hoyt’s estimation.
“My husband and I own this agency,” she explained, “We run the agency as a way to cut our expenses in buying properties. Our real money comes from flipping houses.”
That sounded good. Except for the husband part. Can’t win ‘em all, Hoyt thought.
“We have earned a reputation for getting the lowest possible price when we buy a house,” she explained. “That works great for our flips, but it discourages people from coming to us to list their house.”
She stopped, then waved at a white board on the wall beside her desk. “We do have a few clients who list their houses with us.”
Hoyt had missed it in his initial scan of the office, but there were three or four photos of homes with prices and information listed beside them.
“Any seller who wants a quick, painless cash-out of a run-down property will come here. I think they hope we will buy their property and sometimes we do. For the others, we have a good track record for quick sales, but not one for getting top dollar for the seller. That also brings in buyers who want a reasonable home at a reasonable price.”
“The only thing we don’t do is list our flipped houses. For those we use whichever agency has the most interest in selling it. With our reputation for cheap house prices, we would never be able the get out of our flip what we need for the next one.”
This was interesting and perhaps even useful. Hoyt didn’t know how to transition from this conversation to the one about getting a job, so he just sat there and hoped the topic would come up again.
It turned out he didn’t need to work at it.
“Getting houses to flip isn’t the hard part. The hard part is finding and keeping the right people in our work crews. Mostly,” she told him, “we feel like we’re training people. They come in green, learn how to do something almost well enough on their own and then imagine there are better places to work than ours.”
Hoyt heard something that concerned him in that statement. “Why do they want to leave?” He wanted to ask if it was because the job didn’t pay well. Of course, right now, any money coming in would be better than his current total lack of employment so he didn’t ask.
“I know what you want to ask,” she laughed. “I’ll answer that question now. We pay well,” she said and quoted a figure that astounded Hoyt.
“Okay,” he said, “it’s not the money. The why do people leave?”
“Pressure,” she said. “We are all under pressure on every flip. Can you handle pressure?”
“I’d say better than most,” Hoyt remembered how well he had done on last-minute projects at school when he cared about the results. “Won’t know until I get started on the first job, I guess.”
“You just started,” she said. “We can do paperwork later. Until then you’re on a cash payroll. You have your own tools?”
He laughed and shrugged at the same time.
“Right. Just out of school. I get it. Okay,” she said, “I’ll front you money for tools if you make it through today.” She wrote something on a piece of paper and handed it to Hoyt. “Go there, tell my husband, that I sent you over and he will put you to work.”
“How will I know which one is your husband?”
“He’ll be the man pulling his hair out and screaming at people,” she said. Seemed to Hoyt that she was serious.
“Does he always scream at people?” Hoyt thought maybe this was a reason why people quit.
“Not usually. We’re in trouble on this one, running over budget, running into problems and running out of time.”
“Okay,” he said tentatively, “just how bad is it?”
“German wasps in the attic. Built a large nest we didn’t see before we started. Once they were in, termites followed the wasps and ate into the ridge beam.” Susan rolled her eyes in what looked like exasperation. “What day is today?”
“Thursday,” Hoyt said, fairly certain he was right.
“We have until Monday to finish the house and get it on the market. I have a buyer if we’re done on time. If we don’t have it ready on Monday, I lose the buyer.”
Hoyt started to leave. “One more thing,” he said, turning around. “What’s the name of the screaming man?”
“Ty,” she said, “short for Tiberius.”
Hoyt wasn’t certain if that was a joke.
“And who do I say sent me over?”
She laughed, got up from the desk and walked around it to Hoyt. “Sorry. This house has me running in circles. I’m Susan. Never Sue or Susie, just Susan.” She held out her hand again.
“Nice to meet you, Susan. I’m Hoyt.”
“Nice to meet you, Hoyt. Now go over and do something to bail out my husband.”