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Monday, June 29, 2015

A Look Inside the Richmond District's "Hoarder Mummy House"

Posted By on Mon, Jun 29, 2015 at 1:46 PM

click to enlarge PHOTO BY BOB CALHOUN
  • Photo by Bob Calhoun
On Sunday, real estate agent Cheryl Bower stood in the sunlit living room of the Queen Anne Victorian at 152 4th Avenue in the Richmond District, greeting potential buyers with a well-rehearsed cheeriness.

"You do know the history of the house?" she asked as my wife Rosie and I inspected a shallow, "decorative" fireplace that was no longer suitable for burning things, if it ever was. We told her we were. Bower let us know that a "disclosure packet was available."

The words "disclosure packet" was an oft-repeated refrain during Sunday's open house. Phrases like "mummified corpse" or "dead body" were never uttered by Bower or any of the wannabe buyers with dreams of scooping up the property for anything close to its $928,000 asking price. Almost everyone there had seen the Chronicle and SFist stories about how cleanup crews and firemen had pulled 300 jars of urine and a long-dead body out of the house — almost everyone, anyway.

"Who lived here? Who lived here?" a girl of about seven with sandy blond hair asked repeatedly as she and her parents wended through the row house's claustrophobic rooms.

"A lady lived here, and now we've answered your question," her exasperated mother replied.

An older woman with long, gray hair beat a speedy retreat when she found out she had strayed into the infamous "hoarder house."

"Oh my God," she gasped before scrambling down front steps that bowed almost to the breaking point with even the lightest footfall.

But she was the only one deterred from pressing onward. Several brave real estate speculators wanted to see the attic even though it was only accessible through a rectangular opening in the ceiling of one of the closets. Fortunately for the safety of all concerned, the home stagers employed by Zephyr Real Estate didn't leave a stepladder behind.

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Built in 1904, this little house in the avenues not only withstood years of neglect but also the great earthquake and conflagration of 1906 that leveled the San Francisco of the Gold Rush and Barbary Coast. Archibald and Anna Mae Ragin bought the place on June 29, 1954, after securing a loan for just $7,500. If people still put down 20 percent back then, it means the home's asking price was under $10,000. After Archibald died in 2000, Anna lived in the house with the couple's daughter, Carolyn Ragin, a retired Pac Bell worker. The Ragins stopped paying their county property tax in 2006.

Some time after that, the neighbors stopped seeing Anna around the house. When Anna Mae died, Carolyn either didn't notice or just couldn't bear to let go. Carolyn continued living in the house with what was left of her mother as liens piled up for unpaid garbage bills and property taxes. Eventually, the County Assessor’s Office filed a notice to sell the property to claim $1,651.28 in back taxes. The home was foreclosed on. The city cleanup crews were summoned, whereupon they found a true house of horrors.

"The police captains I've spoken with tell me this is the worst case of hoarding they have ever seen," Supervisor Eric Mar told the San Francisco Chronicle in April when Anna Mae's worldly remains were discovered in rooms filled with rat-infested trash piled up to the ceiling. According to several news reports, Carolyn was taken to a hospital to undergo psychiatric evaluation.

Meanwhile, professional cleaners continued to excavate detritus from the Ragin family home.

A fresh coat of paint on the walls and scrubbed floors couldn't quite chase away the smell of toxic mold and urine from the corners of the bedroom and kitchen. In the bedroom, a large square about the size of a bed was cut away from the top floor, revealing boards even more worn and ancient underneath. Bower claimed not to know why the floor had been removed, but we could all take a wild guess.

"I'd start brand new," Bower advised. "Take it down to the studs."

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In the backyard, another real estate agent named Adam directed foot traffic, which included a well-to-do looking white couple wearing pullover shirts with the logos of Northeastern colleges; a young, beardy dad hauling his baby around in one of those detachable car-seat carriers; and a pair of elderly Chinese men.

"This is going to be a pretty popular house," Adam said, "so I'm just helping out."

The middle-aged man in a Middlebury sweatshirt congratulated Adam like he was the CEO of a company that had just launched an IPO on the NASDAQ.

"It's going to do real well," the Middlebury alum said. "It's a real diamond in the rough."

The two men agreed that the 2-bedroom, 2-bathroom house that originally sold for something like $9,375 could fetch as much as $2.5 million after being rehabbed.

As we started to leave, I prodded my wife to ask if there had been any paranormal activity in the house.

"The house doesn't feel creepy," Bower chirped, adding, "If there were ghost stories, we could probably charge more for it."

But it’s only been a couple of months. There will be ghost stories. Just give it time. 

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Bob Calhoun

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