March 12, 2022

FIRST PERSON | How a house flipper tugged at heartstrings to get hold of my grandmother’s family home | CBC News

This First Person article is the experience of Brennan Neill, the evening assignment editor at CBC Montreal. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

To put it plainly, my grandmother loved her home.

She loved it for more than 50 years, right up until she died in March 2020. After she passed, it fell to my parents, aunts and uncles to figure out what to do next. It was decided the house, located just south of Montreal in Châteauguay, Que., would be put up for sale. So my grandmother’s belongings were boxed up and handed out to relatives, and then the offers came in.

One offer from a young man, which included a personal letter and video, stood out. He came across as sincere and spoke about saving up for a house to live in with his girlfriend. It looked to be a perfect match, a well-loved family home going to a potential new family. The offer was accepted. My mother, a sweet and kind person, even brought them a welcome basket. But little did we know what was lurking below the surface.

Months had passed after the sale and suddenly my grandmother’s home was back on the market. My stomach sank as I flipped through the realtor’s photos. Cold, white, sterile, my grandmother’s house had been completely gutted. My cousin rightly described the new look as “low-fat vanilla yogurt.”

Brennan (left) sits on his grandmother’s front steps, along with his sister and cousins. (Submitted by Brennan Neill)

Gone was the kitchen where countless joyous holidays were celebrated. Gone was the closet where my grandmother kept a time capsule I made in fifth grade, hidden for over a decade. Gone was the fireplace nook that had kept us warm during the 1998 ice storm. Everything was gone, and now the house was a complete stranger to me.

It was at that moment it became clear: the young man was not hoping to make it a new family home — no, he had always intended to flip the house.

House flipping is not a new phenomenon. Flippers buy up houses, usually at a low cost, and quickly try to put them back on the market, after doing some work, at an inflated asking price. There are websites, books and television shows dedicated to the practice.

But there’s no house-flipping association, no oversight body and no code of ethics. This house flipper sank low enough to plainly lie to my family, all in the name of making money hand over fist. It was hard to shake the feeling that this flipper only ever intended to profit off the death of my grandmother.

Mildred Neill sits on her front porch. Her home was sold after her death in March 2020. (Submitted by Brennan Neill)

I admit, I may be attaching sentimental feelings to a house I knew well. But the intention was always to give a young family an affordable foothold in a piping hot real estate market. The flipper who bought my grandmother’s home put it back on the market for tens of thousands of dollars more, putting it further out of reach for some.

Our experience is unfortunately not isolated. After sharing what happened on social media and talking with colleagues, others had eerily similar stories about house flippers saying whatever sellers wanted to hear. But once they got their hands on the property, it was only a matter of time before it was put back on the market — gutted and at a higher price.

There’s really no satisfying conclusion to draw from this experience. In Châteauguay, the average time a house is on the market is 28 days, according to Centris, the province’s real estate listings bank. Sellers receive a flurry of offers and what, if anything, can you do to make sure people making those offers are not boldly lying or plucking heartstrings to buy the home?

Mildred’s home, decorated for Christmas. (Submitted by Brennan Neill)

With projections of a record year for real estate sales and prices ever increasing, there’s no doubt more house flippers have more lies to tell. But with each lie, a home gets snatched up, and put back on the market at a higher price that further buries the hope of finding affordable family housing.

So I’d like to make a simple plea to house flippers — be honest about your intentions no matter what they may be. Lying to make a buck off of a grieving family is no way to make money.

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