How I met my neighbors … And saw their homes

“Open house next door. I guess they’re selling the unit. Should I go?” My husband, who is out of town this weekend, doesn’t respond to my text. 

“Do you think it would be weird if I went next door to an open house?” I text my friend. I know she’s out and about, probably driving, so I’m not surprised when she doesn’t respond within the minute.

“Should I go check out the next door neighbor’s condo? There’s an open house. Is that weird?” This time I try my sister-in-law, who I know has been viewing real estate recently.

No responses. It is 1:44 p.m. The sign says the open house ends at 2 p.m.. I was more than thrilled to see balloons and “Open House” signs pointing to my building this morning. The excitement only grew when I realized it was the unit next door being sold.

The neighbors next door usually last about a year before they move. I try not to take it personally. The last time someone moved in, my husband and I thought it was a couple our age. We left a note welcoming them to the building under their door, saying how we “couldn’t wait to meet them!!!” Only later did we find out that said couple lived on a different floor, and that in fact, it was a sports coach who was living next door. Not being a big sports fan, his name or position meant virtually nothing to me, but others in the building seemed to know who he was.

I’m guessing he thought our card was a ploy to get season tickets. Needless to say, he never came over to say hi.

But now the unit next door is vacant. At this very moment, potential new next-door-neighbors could be examining the condo! Not that I’m one to be overly social, but I do like a good dose of people-watching.

1:46 p.m. “I’m going to go over! Wish me luck!” I text my husband, thereby making him a virtual accomplice to my endeavor. I grab my keys, slip on my Toms, and depart. It’s only a five-second commute, and without the hassle of winter clothes, I’ve saved myself at least three-minutes of valuable prep time.

As I knock on the door, I hear voices inside. Oh dear. I hadn’t considered that I would have to explain to a crowd of people why exactly I wanted to visit.

A man comes up. “Welcome,” he says.

“Oh, hi. I live next door. Is it okay if I take a look?” I ask.

“No, not at all,” he says. I appreciate his sense of humor, assuming it is humor. “Have a look around,” he says after a dramatic and slightly-longer-than-comfortable pause. “I’m going downstairs to let some people in.” Some people who are actually here to potentially buy the unit, I think.

There are three people examining the door handles, bathroom fixtures, and balcony. I pop into the bedroom, notice that the carpet looks about 20 years newer than my carpet – impossible, I know, because the building isn’t 20 years old – and I snap a few pictures while praying that the realtor doesn’t walk in on me. Then I notice an area rug in the dining room and quickly get my phone out again.

The place is staged. It must be. There is virtually no clutter, everything is matchy-matchy, and there is a perfectly placed vase of flowers on the center of the kitchen island. Snap goes my camera.

A knock at the door! That means it’s someone within the building; otherwise they would have used the callbox. The realtor, who has returned, opens the door and in walk three of my neighbors. I recognize them as well as the sheepish look in their eyes.

“Oh, we have this nook in our unit, too, but it’s on the other side when you walk in,” one says.

“Look at how they painted the ceiling white. I’m not sure I like that,” says another.

We are definitely here to compare and contrast.

Another knock, and in walk two more neighbors! We all break into nervous laughter. At this point, there are six building residents and one potential buyer in the room. The potential buyer is filling out paperwork at the kitchen counter. Adding her name to an email list? Making an offer? I have no idea. I strain my eyes to see. I eventually decide against taking her picture.

What I don’t understand is why she doesn’t ask us questions. Here we are, building residents – she can learn whatever she wants! Maybe this possibility makes the realtor nervous, because he doesn’t suggest that she use us as a sounding board.

I remember back to when my husband and I were condo-shopping. We had identified this building as one of two we wanted to live in. Our realtor had a hard job – patience. We knew what we wanted, and all we – and he – had to do was wait. When a unit that wasn’t exactly what we wanted opened up in the building, he suggested we take the opportunity to tour the unit and get a feel for the building.

On that day, our realtor took every opportunity to speak with building residents we encountered. We met one couple down in the parking garage.

“How do you like living here?” he asked. They only had good things to say.

Leaving the building that day, we ran into another resident and our realtor promptly introduced himself and us. “Hey, you don’t happen to know of anyone in the building thinking of selling their unit?” he asked. Maybe he was getting sick of having us as clients. Or maybe this is just how it’s done.  

He got the man’s email address and promptly followed up. Nothing came of it, but I still thought it was pretty amusing, awkward, and awesome. Which only made us want to draw out the condo-buying process more so that we could hang out with him for a while longer…

Back to the open house. “Well, our unit has only one big room,” one of my neighbors is saying. “You know what, you should just come see it!”

Within minutes he organizes a tour. “Do you want to come?” he asks me. “We’re going to go down the hall and then downstairs to see our units.”

I don’t want to be un-neighborly. “Do you want to see mine too? We could start there; it’s right next door.”

We set out for the tour. Everyone just picks their shoes up and carries them next door. I don’t have to go through the uncomfortable routine of asking them to remove their shoes, because they don’t even think to put them on. It’s like unspoken condo code. I love our building.

What I don’t love is letting everyone see our space. Luckily we are all on equal ground. None of us knew we were having visitors; none of us had time to tidy up. The only mess in our place is the office: my husband’s current system is stacking files on the carpet, which definitely is an improvement over the prior system of stacking files on our bed. There are a couple mugs on the kitchen counter, and the floor could use a good sweep, but other than that, it’s presentable.

“Your place looks like it’s staged too!” one of my neighbors says. I think this is meant as a compliment, but due to my recent insecurities about sparsity, I’m not sure how to take it.

I immediately feel better when he notices the three framed prints by local artists on the kitchen wall.  “I love your artwork,” he says. That’s right, we’ve started to work on our 2016 art resolution. And our bathroom is even clean when I show it to them!

Sigh of relief.

One neighbor is doing a lot of comparing. “Our closet is so much smaller than this,” he says. Uh-oh. I can see where this is going.

Then we walk down the hall to the next stop. I’ve been to a party here once and know the place is big. Today’s in-depth tour reveals a luxurious laundry room and a master bedroom closet that is so big they actually have a couch in there. Imagine! If you had company, you could just say you wanted to change your clothes and instead take an introvert-break in the walk-in closet, curled up reading a book.

Another great hiding spot would be the large closet near the front of the condo, which houses things like hockey skates and bike helmets. “This is what we condensed our old garage into,” my neighbor says proudly. This couple has done a lot of downsizing, moving from a large suburban house to a condo. I wonder how many days of scanning papers they did in preparation for this move.  

I’m glad we saw my smaller place first. The neighbor whose home is coming next says, “Wow, look at all this storage space! In our place, if you get a new pair of socks, you have to get rid of something to make space for them!”

But isn’t that the dream? To never have even one extra pair of socks?!

While touring this condo, I notice the Marie Kondo book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. “Our whole family is reading this,” my neighbor tells me: she, her husband, and their three grown children. Looking around their place, it shows.

On today’s condo tour, the messiest of the four condos will be mine – specifically, the office area, which really isn’t even all that messy. This gets me thinking: is there something about condo living that makes people keep things neater? Maybe it’s just because none of the four condos on the tour have children living in them. But a few months ago, a neighbor with two kids invited me to her unit for an impromptu visit, and her place was organized and uncluttered as well – though obviously in a kid-friendly way.

This condo-tidiness stuff is just a theory I’m working on. I’ll have to make some unannounced visits to gather more data. Please don’t spoil the surprise for my neighbors.

The third and fourth units on the tour are about the size of my unit, which means they are much smaller than the second unit we saw. The owners of the units have an apologetic tone: “I know it’s small, but it works for me…”

But why apologize? The condos are beautiful, and they even have partial views of downtown. One is a corner unit with lots of windows. Another has especially tall ceilings and a walk-out patio. They’re tastefully decorated and above all, clutter-free.

I’m not ashamed to say I snap photos in my neighbors’ units, with their permission, of course. Their use of area rugs intrigues me. I jot down another mental note to share with my husband. He’ll be bummed that he missed the tour.

On my thirty-second commute home, I reflect on the spontaneous condo tour and the lesson I have learned: What better way to see multiple neighbors’ homes than to attend an open house? I’ll keep an eye out for the next one. I don’t want to miss the chance to snoop around more people’s homes.

I’ll just be sure to stash our files in the filing cabinet ahead of time.

Carissa Jean Tobin lives in a condo in Northeast Minneapolis with her husband. Her hobbies include creating humorous surveys for friends, lounging at the Wilde Roast Café, and scanning old papers in an effort to minimize. She teaches first grade in North Minneapolis.