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Things that don't move around--land, anything growing on the land, structures, "firmly attached and integrated equipment," and all "interests" in the land such as the right to future ownership (remainder) and what back in my law school days in Louisiana we used to call "usufruct" (the right to use and enjoy the profits of the property without owning it)--are "real property."

As opposed to the other sort of property, unreal property, better known as personal property. Personal property is anything you can take to the pawn shop. Since personal property generally wears out, personal property generally loses value over time. Personal property is generally a sucker's bet.

Not all of it, mind you--some personal property might appreciate in value. But you shouldn't buy a guitar or a Corvette as a place to park your retirement funds. Guitars are for playing and Corvettes are for driving, and you should buy a thing in order to use it for what it was designed to do.

Houses are for living in. Houses are also real property. I have a house and will soon have a different one. (In eight or 10 weeks, maybe. As soon as the check clears.) And I can remember a time when I didn't think I'd ever own any real property.

My parents bought and sold a lot of houses; we moved a lot. I've had between 30 and 40 addresses in my life. I've been at this last one for 20 years.

We're building a new house. Now when I say building, what I really mean is we're answering a lot of questions posed by the people who are building the house for us. It's like going to an ophthalmologist--painless, but not without anxiety. We're clicking through options, being asked, "Is this better or worse?"

Which is the way to do it. Over the years, we've talked about building our own house, even once going so far as to call an architect/builder (who never, thankfully, called us back) to ask about it. I have a clear memory of killing time on a flight to London by sketching out floor plans, thinking out loud about what kind of house might suit. What we needed, what we could do without.

What I wanted most of all was John Lennon's floor-pit bed from Help. (I still want that. But it wasn't an option.)

What I will have is plenty of grounded outlets. Walkable access to a couple of downtowns. Some nice amenities. A custom living space that ought to fit us very well. We're downsizing, but not by that much. I'm looking forward to the new place.

And I'm not going to get sentimental about the old one. I was brought up not to get attached to houses, and I never expected this to be my last one. It's a good house, with a little history--built by a golf pro in the '50s, and I've been told it was the first all-electric house in Little Rock. I never found the Total Electric Gold Medallion I'm told was once affixed to an exterior wall, but by the time we got here the place had undergone a lot of renovations.

Someone incorporated the original carport into a living area, complete with teak parquet and one of those built-in vacuum units. The original yellow brick was painted gray, while stained cedar cladded the new addition.

Later someone, apparently with a sense of humor, enclosed the patio by building a sunroom with 13 skylights. Someone covered the oak floors and the parquet with carpeting. At some point, a gas line was connected. The kitchen floor, originally linoleum, was covered and recovered. Someone commissioned an architect to build a carport in front of the old one. Someone put in a koi pond. An elaborate deck that stuck out through the backyard like a pier was built. A privacy fence was erected around a portion of the deck.

At some point the entire interior, except for the kitchen, was painted black. Track lighting was installed in the living areas. A wall between two modest bedrooms was knocked out, making for one large master suite.

I don't remember why we bought it, only that we'd been looking for a while. We wanted Hillcrest. We wanted something modern. We needed a big yard for our big dogs. I think I saw the possibilities the first time I looked at it. We knew it would be a project. Karen was skeptical; she needed to be convinced.

With some help, I convinced her.

We spent nearly six months working on the house before we moved in. We did a lot of it ourselves. I pulled up six inches of old flooring in the kitchen, demolished a couple of walls and an old cast iron bathtub, stuck a pry bar in my side. She raked for a solid month, coming over most days after work to clear out a yard knee-deep in leaves.

We tore out the koi pond, giving the fish to our new neighbors. We tore down that redundant privacy fence.

We hired a painter. He worked for weeks on the black walls and ceilings. We sat down on the plastic tarp that covered the carpeting we were going to pull out anyway and cried because we knew we'd made the biggest mistake of our lives.

Mostly we wrote checks.

We hired a kitchen designer. He used a computer and we had custom cabinets delivered. They sat in their boxes for weeks. We wrote more checks. Finally, it was all done but for the window sill in the new kitchen. There was some confusion about whose responsibility it was to replace the old one. For weeks they argued--the kitchen guy and the window guy. Then one day a carpenter with immaculate silver hair, pressed jeans and a Dolce & Gabbana work shirt arrived with a carefully pre-sawed piece of wood, a few silver nails and a small velvet-lined Pelican case from which he extracted a titanium tack hammer. He set the board in place and ticked around it for a moment, then turned around, went out the door and got in his Mercedes G-Wagen and rode off into the sunset.

Karen painted it. We wrote a few checks and . . .

A couple of years later, we put in all new windows. A couple of years after that, we tore out the old sunroom and built a new one (minus leaking skylights). We remodeled the bathroom we hadn't remodeled when we moved in. New air and heat. New roof. New cedar siding. New deck. New appliances.

Someone is going to get a nice house.

It's starting to feel real.


Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at and read his blog at

Editorial on 01/08/2019

Print Headline: PHILIP MARTIN: Realty checks

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