My friend Alice is a graphic designer who draws, for a living, those funny little tags you see on gifts and bouquets; she also creates greeting cards and sometimes ventures into websites for others. She is a very creative person -- she writes poetry, haiku (Japanese poetry of only 17 characters, even shorter than a tweet), and just started scribbling a first novel. She is also a psycho Internet shopper. If she could, she would buy her daily food online.
First, she bought a car on eBay, one of those oldie "woody" station-wagon from the '70s (or was it the '60s?). It had two colors and looked very long to me. She had to meet the seller at a generic hotel by the Miami airport; he had only two hours before his flight back to California, so had to sell the car really quickly. This already sounded fishy to me, but only to me. He had intended to cross country with the said car, but soon came to realize that it would take him too long to do so. I thought the car would not make it that far.
The asking price on eBay was $800, which seemed like a good deal after looking at the pictures he posted online. Alice and I met the guy in the lobby. He was deeply tan and explained to us that he was a pro surfer who came to teach a class in Palm Beach, trekking from New York where he had bought this junk car (he did not say that) to drive down to Florida. Now he was flying home to Santa Cruz.
Alice scrutinized the car from every angle, and took a test ride around the parking lot while the man grew impatient. He asked if she wanted a better deal. Since she thought the $800 price tag was already a deal, she was a little surprised by the question, and before she could answer, the guy said, "Okay, I'll make you a deal: $400, and I'll let you have the bicycle that's in the back of the car."
Huh? Bicycle? Yes, he had a ride, brand new toy, that he was going to fly back to California with him, but had to change his mind when the airline flatly announced that he was going to be charged hundreds of dollars extra, as he was already checking in two massive surfboards that could not possibly be considered luggage. They were going to suck him dry for the extra piece.
So he decided to give Alice the bike as an added bonus. She said okay, $400 for a running car and a brand new bicycle, what did she had to lose? The deal was sealed in less time than it takes to fill up a gas tank, the $400 exchanged (Alice had $800 in cash with her), and the man ran back inside to get his boards and bags, and left in a waiting taxi, an extra long taxi.
The good news is that the car lasted six months before dying of old age, and the bicycle turned out to be a $500 mountain racer toy. The bad news is that the bike was stolen on the campus of the University of West Florida a few months later, by an obvious specialist, who was able to manage through the heavy padlocked ride.
A few months later, Alice bought a beautiful Jeep Grand Cherokee, on eBay again, fire-engine red, with plenty of added features and gizmos, for $3,000, in small bills as per the request of the seller. He had the title! I did not go to assist with the sale of that one, but Alice told me the man looked exactly like Steve McQueen, and that she would have bought a piece of junk from him, just to see him smile at her again.
The Jeep lasted a few months as well, until a tow truck from a company called We Meet by Accident (seriously) backed up into the parked car, taking out the entire front when pulling back out. The car was not even movable. The company had excellent insurance, of course, and that was the end of the Jeep adventure. I really liked that car; however, the $50 every two days that my friend had to spend on gas was a reminder for me to never buy such a huge guzzler.
Next, this is the part where we enter the believe-it-or-not territory so familiar with Alice. And I am not making this up. She decided to buy a house on eBay! I mean, a real house, in a city where she had never set foot (Pittsburg, Pa.). I tried to put a stop to that strange idea, but Alice was convinced that this was a great deal. The pictures of the house looked nice, really nice, a little too nice. It was a Victorian-looking red bricks and shingles affair, with a large back yard, in a trendy neighborhood, next to an organic food coop, a farmer's market and an outdoor café. Ta-da!
I had never been to Pittsburg either, so my reservations had very little effect on Alice, and the temptation was too... hum, tempting for her. She had all the arguments to convince me that a three-story, four-bedroom house, with three wood and marble fireplaces, a large backyard, situated in a tree-lined charming street (according to the owner, and the pictures) for the total sum of $10,000 (as in ten thousand), was too good to be passed. So she jumped.
The Belgian owner was living in Sarasota, and all he had to do was drive across the state to meet Alice at a bank in Miami and collect his cash. Yes, Alice bought the house without seeing it. Gulp, if you ask me. She did check with the city about possible liens and other due taxes, but the house was clear.
The (almost former) proprietor explained that he was an antique dealer, and that his trade was to buy houses everywhere in the country, just to remove precious fireplaces and antique staircases, to feed his flourishing reselling business.
Alice justifiably inquired about the mentioned fireplaces, was he going to remove them? And if he was, how come they were part of his sale pitch? It turned out that the three fireplaces in that particular house were all located on upper floors, and had been constructed from inside the rooms, therefore impossible to take away without destroying walls and stairs, so on this one, he had to pass on the mantels, hence the reason he was reselling the house. He was letting it go for the same amount he bought it for, and this was documented by the papers from the city that he provided.
Alice was a proud owner. Now that she had the house in her name, she finally decided to visit her property. She was enchanted. She loved it; the house was even prettier than on the photographs. She met the neighbors, who were delighted that somebody finally acquired the home, but she had to disappoint them by telling that she was not going to live there. She decided to fix it a bit and rent it.
For the next year, she hired (long distance) a friend of the same neighbor, a handyman, and she spent another $5,000 renovating (long distance) her acquisition. She had him repaint the whole thing in a delicious eggshell neutral color, sand and varnish the wood floors, patch a few holes in the roof. She bought (long distance) a claw-foot bathtub she saw on a website, as well as a Victorian pedestal sink, more appropriate to the style of the house, she said. She went back once to check on all the work when it was finished. Everything was dandy.
She then put an ad on Craigslist (I told you, she is the ultimate online chick), and found renters in less than a week. That did not work out well. She had to have them expelled, after discovering (long distance) that they were growing marijuana in the dining room. A community patrol smelled the goods, called the cops, they called her. She filed paperwork, they were taken out.
With the next online ad, a charming couple applied, a naval officer and his student boyfriend, who both had astonishing rental references, and ended up renting the house for three years, at $800 per month, you do the math. They had a nice flair for interior decoration, Elle Décor style, they send pictures. All blue and white, some stripes, some plants, a delight.
After three years, they sadly had to go. Alice put the house for sale (guess where), quickly selling it for $20,000, double what she had paid for it. She sold it long distance; she never set foot in Pittsburg again. Later, she got a dog, a blender, a kitchen counter with four stools, and a pair of snow boots, all on Craigslist.
She is now looking for a timeshare in Colorado, on eBay.