“Know all men by these presents.” It sounds like the kind of thing that should get said at a sheriff’s sale, but I don’t think anybody actually said it. In fact, the whole atmosphere of my first sheriff’s sale – I went to one in Union County, N.J. – was remarkably informal.

When I was real estate editor at the New York Post I cautioned my readers against buying any foreclosed home because it’s a box of chocolates – you never know what you’re getting. The average Joe can’t handle surprises, but I thought maybe I could, and I had my eye on a house in Plainfield that I had seen listed in the local paper. I’d sauntered by the house – in that way that two bus rides and a half-mile on foot is a saunter – and thought that the outside, at least, looked remarkably well kept.

Union County (which includes Roselle Park and Elizabeth as well as Plainfield) is busy enough that there’s a sale every Wednesday. My partners wanted me to go and learn the lay of the land, although they hadn’t authorized me to bid. “These people are your competitors,” Ken had warned me. “Stay under the radar.”

Like that was even possible because a) I’m a chick and b) like a newbie I showed up on time, to be eyed by the Six Fat Guys who were obviously regulars and c) they told us to turn off our cell phones. I was trying to seem neither reporter nor Realtor; turning off TWO cell phones pretty much blew that cover. And did I mention that I’m a chick?

The sale itself took place in a rectangular conference room/kitchen. It had a row of cabinets and a refrigerator along one long wall, a whiteboard on one end, and a big conference table in the middle. The whole thing was done in Danish Modern Fiberboard, from the cabinets to the table to the Eames-meets-Costco chairs that were ranged all around the edges of the room.

Slowly people filed in: young cute guys who stood lined up against the cabinets, newbies who sat scrunched in one end of the room, three female clerks who got to actually sit at the table. The Fat Guys dispersed themselves, some sitting at the end with the newbies but mostly plopping along the long wall facing the hot guys.

One of the Six Fat Guys is talking to a newbie: “A house in Westfield went for $1 million dollars in this very room,” he says. “If I don’t get this one, next time around I’m just going to go straight to the house, knock on the door, and say, ‘hey, I’m going to make you a deal.'”

Then the sheriff’s deputy walks in and the whole thing starts. The first bewilderment: houses are identified not by address but by case number. It sounds like a couple of houses get passed on completely – maybe the judgments against them are too high? And then finally bidding begins on a property in Hillside. The cute guys start bidding against each other in hundred-dollar increments, and as the price slowly rises, it dawns on me they are contractors.

The bidding zips between them for a while…$144.1, $144.2, $145, $145.1…and then there’s a tidal shift as the price breaks two hundred thousand. Turns out the contractors were just the undercard, and now the heavyweights are in the ring: $291 Lacey, $292 Campbell…

The house finally goes for $308.1K to Campbell and then we’re done for the day. There are some two pages of sheriff’s sales in the Star-Ledger and they boil down to one house, that’s it. It turns out “my” house got postponed, which is what happens to most of this batch.

I begin to glean more of the Hillside house story from what other people are saying as they leave the room.

“It’s worth probably $350,” says one contractor who dropped out early. “But you got to have a little wiggle room. He’s a Realtor, he’ll probably price it at $375 and sell it.”

Certainly the winning Realtor looks like he got a deal. If the repairs aren’t bad, he’ll make what, thirty thousand? One of the few other non-clerk women in the room is smiling and laughing with him (his wife maybe?) and other people in the auction are patting him on the back. “Well, Christmas is coming,” he says to one. “And baby needs a new pair of shoes.”

“And a coat,” replies the other.

But nobody’s forgetting the contractor who dropped out early. One of the Fat Guys comes up to him and thumps him on the back, too. “Congratulations,” he says. “You lost again.”

***

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