“Jeff Sherman’s calling from the walk-through,” said my assistant, transferring the call into my office.
“Great,” I said, rolling my eyes, “that’s just what I need this morning.”
During my career as a real estate closing attorney, receiving calls from clients at their final inspections was among my least favorite tasks. No one ever called to say: “The house is beautiful; the seller left it spotless.” Rather, I expected a recitation of some or all of the following common complaints:
- The seller isn’t finished moving;
- There’s a carpet/floor/wall stain we never saw before;
- The seller mistakenly took the washer/dryer/chandelier;
- The leaves have not been cleared.
There are hundreds of such gripes; over the years, I thought I’d heard them all. Each such item required me to spend time and bile arguing with the seller’s lawyer at the closing for no additional pay. Sometimes, the problems were resolved relatively amicably and sometimes not. In either case, I roused righteous indignation on behalf of my clients, regardless of my personal feelings, which usually involved a mixture of “why are they making a big deal out of this?” and “how much arguing do I need to do to make it look like I really care?”
Jeff Sherman and his wife, Wendy, were first-time buyers of a modest home in Waldwick, NJ. They were moving to the suburbs from an apartment in the Bronx and presented themselves unexceptionally. When I’d met them six weeks earlier to review the contract, they made no effort to ingratiate themselves. They barely smiled at me and didn’t hold eye contact. Wendy, a freckle-faced blonde and Jeff, a paunchy redhead of medium height, offered identical limp handshakes.
“This meeting isn’t adding to our fee, is it?” was Jeff’s first question.
“We only owe seven-fifty, right?” added Wendy. “There won’t be add-ons, will there?”
“Just $750 to me,” I said, fighting against a fairly common surge of suspicion. Lawyers, I understood, are not always the most popular service providers. “I’ll also collect from you to pay the surveyor, title insurance, county clerk, etc. It’s all detailed in writing.”
I handed each of them a letter I’d prepared for all my clients explaining the procedures and likely costs of a closing.
Sitting across the desk from me, Jeff peered at the paper through thick glasses. Like many a husband in this circumstance, he felt compelled to ask several questions. I answered as cheerily as possible, hoping to put the young couple at ease, but was unable to elicit a smile from either of the Sherman’s. Still, after our meeting, the transaction proceeded as usual. Wendy called with occasional inquiries. They lined up their loan, and the closing was scheduled without notable stress. Despite my initial concern, though the Sherman’s were not among my favorite clients, neither were they exceptionally difficult. They simply were no “fun,” and I could live with that. From representing several hundred clients a year, if nothing else, I knew “everyone is different.”
“Good morning, Jeff,” I said into the receiver, with as much hearty good cheer as I could muster. I had a pen and notebook ready to jot down what I assumed would be complaints. First-time homebuyers were particularly picky, in my experience. The slightest thing could make them angry. I was only half-heartedly listening while standing and gazing out my second floor office window.
Without any pleasantries, Jeff said: “There’s a body in the bathtub.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, coming to full attention.
“The seller, Mr. Brown. He stabbed himself in the main bathtub. I think he’s dead,” said Jeff.
My thoughts exploded in several directions at once, like the finale of a fireworks display. “Is he joking?” I wondered for an instant. “No way, Jeff Sherman is not a man who jokes.” I proceeded to: “This is a disaster. Who is there with Jeff? The police? The seller’s wife? Will the Sherman’s cancel the deal? Is this the basis for cancellation? Who can I ask? They need a lawyer. Wait a minute, I’m their lawyer.”
All I could think to say aloud, however, was: “Uhhhhhhhh.”
Thankfully, Jeff filled in several of the blanks: “We arrived ten minutes ago and were walking through the house with Mrs. Brown, but when we got to the main bathroom, she gasped and shut the shower curtain. I asked her what was wrong, and she told me not to look.”
“So, like, this just happened?” I asked.
“Yeah, she said her husband didn’t want to sell the house, so he killed himself,” said Jeff.
“Okay,” I said slowly. “So he stabbed himself during your walk-through?”
“Appears that way,” said Jeff. “I think the police and an ambulance are on the way.”
“Um, is Mrs. Brown able to function?” I asked.
“Yeah,” said Jeff. “She seems sort of okay about it, actually.”
I was trying to process this situation. For sure, I imagined, Jeff and Wendy would want their money back, or a credit for the trauma, or a new bathroom, at a minimum. For a moment, I tried to picture the degree of agony that had led Mr. Brown to stab himself. Awful.
But then I turned to my own relatively minor agony. I realized my entire day would be dominated by this situation. Perhaps my entire week. Also, I thought, even though Mrs. Brown may be calm right now, she’s going to be overcome by shock at some point. Perhaps, she won’t be willing or able to negotiate a settlement. She’ll be too upset to proceed.
“What do you want to do about this?” I ventured, tentatively.
“We want to close today,” said Jeff.
“You do?” I said, feeling a mixture of bewilderment and relief. “What about the body? What about Mrs. Brown?”
“She said she’d have the body taken away as soon as the police check it out,” said Jeff, sounding as calm as though a lamp or a couch had to be removed.
“And that’s okay with you?” I asked.
“Wendy just wants to make sure there are no stains,” said Jeff.
“That’s certainly reasonable,” I heard myself say, then shook my head in amazement.
Two hours later, Jeff and Wendy arrived at my office to close, as scheduled. In the meantime, the police had arrived at the house, concluded Mr. Brown had, indeed, stabbed himself in the chest with a kitchen knife, and committed suicide. The coroner had removed the body and Mrs. Brown had scrubbed the bathroom.
“Is everything else okay at the house?” I asked Jeff.
“Yeah,” he shrugged, as though he experienced something like this every day.
“Will Mrs. Brown come to sign her paperwork?” I asked.
“She said she’d follow in about ten minutes,” said Wendy. “She just had to gather a couple of things.”
“You know, nothing like this has ever happened before,” I said.
“Pretty unusual, I guess,” said Jeff. He turned his attention to the pile of mortgage-related papers on the conference table and indicated they were ready to sign.
While we were reviewing documents the new widow arrived. She was a thin, athletic-looking woman of about forty. She wore a sweatshirt over jeans, standard moving attire, and acted as though she were under no stress at all.
“Sorry I didn’t dress up,” she said. “It’s been a busy morning, and I have a long ride this afternoon.”
“I’m so sorry about your loss,” I said.
“Thanks,” she said. “It’s for the best.”
I’m not sure what I expected Mrs. Brown to say, but “it’s for the best” was not among the choices. I nodded as though I fully understood what she was thinking, but I was confused.
She continued: “I told my husband last night I wouldn’t live with him anymore, and I wanted a divorce. I’m moving back near my family in Canada. He obviously didn’t take it too well,” she added.
We sat in awkward silence for a moment, taking in the truth of her last comment. She broke into a smile, and added: “But this way, I’ll save a ton of time, not to mention the legal fees and stuff.”
There was nothing to do but nod again in agreement. Before this transaction, I considered myself nearly infallible at predicting human behavior and reactions in the realm of real estate closings. Wrong!