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Wanted: The one

A true odyssey of housing loved, lost and found

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June 17: My big move a few weeks away, I look up the real estate listings online from my Chicago apartment, call the first ad that catches my interest (“large windows, big kitchen”), and talk to Becky, a political consultant looking for a roommate to share her newly rented house. We hit it off. An hour of bonding later, I’m in. Becky even offers to pick me up at the airport when I arrive.

Total time devoted to housing: one hour, 11 minutes.

July 8: My flight into Missoula touches down at 9:45 p.m., 20 minutes ahead of schedule. I find my luggage, and Becky finds me. We shake hands and start wheeling my stuff out to her Saturn. As the automatic sliding doors shut behind us, Becky says she has to tell me something: “We were evicted.”

“Evicted?” Funny. By the sound of my voice, you’d never guess I went through puberty over a decade ago. Must be the mountain air.

“Well, served 30-day notice,” says Becky. “A week ago. The landlord decided he wants to rehab the house and raise the rent. I tried to call.”

“Evicted a week before I arrive. Is that a record?” I ask.

“Here’s your key,” says Becky. “Don’t get attached.”

July 9: Denial. I spend the day shopping for a bed, desk and chairs, brought back to reality every time I’m about to complete a purchase and the clerk asks, “So, where would you like this shipped?”

That night, I roll out my sleeping bag on the bare wood floor and sleep fitfully until sunrise, clutching the Kmart housewares ad from the Sunday supplement.

July 10: We rise at dawn, drive to Bernice’s, pick up the paper and start circling listings.

“Some people say the housing market here is as tough as San Francisco,” a real estate agent cheerily announces as she shows us and three other groups through a Prairie Style house in the University area. Other than the fact you can’t sublet a spice rack in San Francisco for less than $500, she may be onto something. We don’t visit another open house with fewer than 10 other applicants.

“How do you decide who to rent to?” a member of the competition asks.

“The first party to complete the application and submit a deposit after approval,” the agent answers.

Easy enough, until I start thumbing through the application. It’s 11 pages of tiny print, some of it legalese so obscure it may well be ancient Aramaic.

I tell my references to fax me their dental records.

Total time devoted to housing: 13 hours, 11 minutes.

July 11 and 12: After eight more stops, from the South Hills to the Rattlesnake, we find the perfect house—cozy porch in front, fruit trees in back, beautiful interior, and all on a quiet street three blocks from downtown. This is The One.

We interview with the owner, who loves us. She and Becky swap Central American herbal medicine recipes. I tell her about my visit to the area of Tibet to which she traces her religious roots.

“I’ll call you tomorrow morning,” she says.

Tomorrow morning, she calls. “I really like you guys, but I decided to rent to a family.”

We slink from house to house the rest of the day in a funk. One visit goes well until the owner announces, “My little brother will be here, too, but he won’t bother you because he plays Super Nintendo all day.” Then he introduces us to the Dobermans he keeps in the back.

Total time devoted to housing: 22 hours, 11 minutes. July 13: We split up and search for housing separately. Though we work together well, losing The One has put a strain on our partnership.

Becky and I decide to go it alone.

I leave 17 answering machine messages in the morning. When I return in the evening, I have two call-backs, and a message from the landlord who served us notice: “Jeremy, if you’re staying here while you look for new housing, I’ll need a security deposit.”

July 14: I visit my call-backs. One’s house faces I-90. The other’s backs into the airport.

“It’s not so bad unless the trucks have to brake,” one says.

“I use the 6 a.m. flight out as an alarm clock,” says the other.

I pull my sheets over my sleeping bag.

Total time devoted to housing: 30 hours, 11 minutes. July 15 and 16: Becky’s luck is no better. We decide to team up again, and divvy up the listings like pros. By now, we’ve filled out so many applications together, I know her social security number by heart, and she can spell the name of my last landlord—Reuben Ghorbanin—better than I can.

My calves cramp after hours of biking cross-town. Her clutch gives out after one too many sudden stops at “For Lease” signs. Both our city maps are torn to shreds.

“Do you know the Missoula area?” listers always ask when I call for their location.

“I do now,” I tell them.

Total time devoted to housing: 45 hours, 11 minutes.

July 17: I toss and turn all night, dreaming that Becky’s waking me to hunt for houses with her. On my way back from lunch, I cross by her office to ask if a leading contender has called.

“No,” says Becky.

“Let’s call them,” I say.

Her phone rings. “What do you want to bet...?” asks Becky before answering. “It’s them,” she says. “We’re approved!”

We’ve only seen the site from the outside, and we hustle to the real estate office to pick up the keys. They’re due back at 5 p.m., we’re told, as is our decision.

The spacious first floor smells like a kindergarten class’ rabbit cage. “The last tenant had a dog they weren’t supposed to,” the super shrugs. “I prefer the second floor rental myself.” He leads us upstairs.

The smell’s right, as is the price, though the one hall is only a foot wide, and it lacks a living room altogether. We don’t love it, we decide. But we’ll take it.

“Let me just call the one place I talked to yesterday,” Becky says. It’s two o’clock, three hours to signing time.

By cell phone, we reach the Realtor, who agrees to meet us at the place in 15 minutes. We beat him there, and Becky, a green thumb, looks longingly at the apple tree in front and the flora in back. An amateur cook, I’m more interested in the long counter I see in the kitchen. The Realtor arrives, gives us the tour, and it’s The One all over again.

“Who’s the owner?” we ask.

“About eight years ago, a couple came out with their daughter to help her find a place before she started school,” he tells us. “They searched a whole week, eight hours a day, and couldn’t find the right rental. So they bought this house instead.”

“We’re looking at a five o’clock deadline,” I say.

“We’re willing to write the check right now,” says Becky.

The Realtor points out the little matter of completing an application. “Besides, it’s my wedding anniversary,” he says, “and the wife and I were hoping to get out of town early.”

“We can fill this out in our sleep,” I say. “Get it back to you by the hour.”

“We’ll bring the checkbook,” says Becky. “Just in case.”

He looks us over. “I’ll see what I can do.”

The application is finished and proof-read by 4 p.m. The Realtor says he’ll come by Becky’s office at 4:30 to pick it up. Five minutes past that point, he hasn’t shown. Becky bargains us a 9 a.m. extension on the other place, and I head off to return the keys. By the time I get home, sweaty and exhausted, Becky’s message on the answering machine is an hour old.

“We got it!” she shrieks. “We got it! We have a hooooooooome!”

August 4: I wake up my first morning in my new home.

Total time devoted to housing: when you’ve got a place, who’s counting?

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