Talk of the Town - A taxing experience December 25 2003

Close this!

I have an industrial-strength case of writer's cramp. A team of neurosurgeons labors to pry the pen from my hand. I have signed and initialed more documents than the Japanese surrender delegation aboard the U.S.S. Missouri.

I have closed on my new house. Closing is an apt term for the final purchase of a residence. During the process, stacks of paperwork close in on you.

Sure, for the first one or two signatures, you're a Really Important Guy signing Really Important Stuff. But after that inaugural Ed Norton pen flourish, it degenerates into an incomprehensible scribble fest. For all I know, I've also signed myself into a nursing home and given power of attorney to Carrot Top.

And speaking of attorneys, it was sheer coincidence that the lawyer who handled this closing is the same guy who did my first closing a decade ago. Despite the thousands of closings he's done in-between, he actually remembered me. That's because the first closing was highlighted by a vitriolic argument about a brand-new living-room carpet vandalized (with red clay, the most convenient artistic medium for a Georgia vandal) by disgruntled ex-employees of the homebuilder. I wanted a new carpet to replace the damaged one. The builder said it could be cleaned and rendered good-as-new.

The hour-long contretemps reached its zenith when the builder (only present via speakerphone; it was like addressing the Great and Powerful Oz) said, "Now, if you bought a new coat and didn't know someone else had tried it on in the store first, that would be OK, wouldn't it?"

At which point I turned deep magenta and clutched at my aorta. The lawyer, fearing a stroke victim on the premises, leapt in. With Solomon-like alacrity he declared, "I will decide about the carpet." (Note to historians: The rug was replaced. Massive quantities of red clay can never be completely exorcised from beige carpet.)

What the second closing lacked in acrimony, it more than made up for in sheer anxiety. Because if you divided all closing-related documentation by category, I'd say 90 percent of it relates to foreclosure. Banks are very particular on the subject. They want you to know, at length and in great detail, that if you do not pay up on time, a team of sheriff's deputies will labor to remove you from the aforesaid domicile.

Trouble is, you'd have to be a cum laude grad of the Evelyn Wood Speed Reading Institute to get through all the paper stuffed with foreclosure-related legalese — at least during the couple of hours it takes to have a closing. It would be far more effective to have a dollhouse on the conference table, with two dolls and some credit-financed doll furniture used to illustrate the process.

"Here you are, " the lawyer would say, holding up one of the figurines, "and here are all your worldly goods." There's a crash as he empties the dollhouse with one hearty shake. "Now that's foreclosure."

Almost as impressive as these veiled threats are the array of taxes and fees one pays in buying a house. It's akin to visiting a foreign country where there are 125,000 units of local currency to the dollar, and money suddenly ceases to have any real meaning.

Once you get into the spirit of the thing, you blindly pay for services that make no sense at all. I shelled out $100 for a "rent comp fee," even though I'm not renting anything. I paid an $80 tax service fee, as if paying the actual taxes wasn't bad enough. There was also a $90 "document control" charge, although the number of documents coming down the pike was completely out of control.

There was a "Georgia Res Mtg Tax," which seems to imply that if you live in the state and go to a meeting, they can tax you. Plus application, processing, underwriting and flood certification fees. The latter really has me worried, because I'm not sure if they certified that I won't have a flood or will have one.

Then there were express mail charges, since documents related to the sale of my home we're being airlifted to Billings, Mont. As geographical non-sequiturs go, Billings is sure up there. I mean, you don't think of it as an international center of high finance. I suspect my mortgage is being held by the Cattle Rustler's Savings & Loan, Walter Brennan, chairman of the herd. All mortgage payments to be made in gold dust.

But my favorite charge — the piece de resistance — is the intangible tax. According to Webster, intangible means "incapable of being defined." So I'm being taxed on something I don't even know I have. It must have been a bourbon-kissed night when the legislature came up with that one.

Despite it all, buying property is a good investment. As someone pointed out, God isn't making any more land.

Now, if He'd just cut down on those fees.


Glen Slattery is moving from Alpharetta to Alpharetta.

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