Sketchy Job

Clay Seibert's done 7,000 cute little sketches of houses listed for sale on real estate fliers. Yeah, 7000.

Last weekend, we were curious to look at the mansion for sale down the block. We are not currently in the market for a mansion, but you never know. We learned that besides its rose chintz wallcoverings and decrepit hot tub, the grand Victorian had suffered other horrors. Its previous owner, the real estate agent told us, had been "some big computer person," and had bought the house less than a year ago for more than $1 million. Fallen on hard times, he was selling it now -- for less than $900,000. So what else is new?

But you know what they say: One man's financial ruin is another man's bonanza. Which is why Clay Seibert is having his best year yet. Seibert, 48, is the guy who does most of the little drawings of houses for sale that appear on real estate fliers. For 70 bucks, he'll photograph an agent's listed property, whip up a drawing of it, and send it to the agent in a day or two, unless the house is already in his files. (Since he started his gig in 1989, Seibert has drawn more than 7,000 San Francisco addresses.) With requests already topping 900 this year, Seibert works 12 to 16 hours a day and has invested in a hydraulic drafting table he can raise and lower, to combat neck problems from long stretches of hunching over his creations. Trained as a fine-art painter, Seibert also bought himself a spiffy new easel and plans to jet to Umbria, Italy, to paint landscapes later this year.

Seibert got into the house-drawing biz when a real estate friend suggested he underbid the guy who usually did the sketches for agents. Seibert had been working for a carpet company, where his job was to hand-copy the intricate patterns of antique rugs, so they could be re-created for rich peoples' floors. Today, he has a Rolodex of 600 real estate agents who use his services, and he did 140 drawings in April alone. His work graces the fliers of agents working for Pacific Union, Coldwell Banker, Zephyr, and others.

"There is always someone coming in, doing this for a while, then freaking out and leaving," says Seibert of the competition. "I've developed a rhythm."

Seibert's sketches have a hand-drawn look that obviously didn't come from Photoshop. And like the flowery descriptions that accompany his drawings ("Beautifully manicured garden!" "Gourmet kitchen!"), the pictures themselves are idealized versions of the actual properties.

"I don't like to lie," says Seibert, "but I try to bring some romance into it. A sense of the potential." First, he "deletes all the ugliness." That includes power lines, junky cars, and peeling paint. He also ignores trees, no matter how lovely, that are blocking the view of the house. When a building's façade is god-awful, Seibert emphasizes the "horizontal and beautiful lines" and sometimes adds dramatic shadows. Planter boxes appear where none were, and maybe some ruffled curtains, which Seibert calls "window treatments."

"There have been a number of houses that were just a box with a window and a door," says Seibert. "But again, just some flowers to soften it up a bit."

Until 2000, Seibert drew houses all day long but didn't own one. He rented a house in Noe Valley, and was part owner of a house in Napa.

But that year, he drew a Marina-style house on Silver Avenue, off Bayshore, and could no longer resist the romance. He fell hard, and bought the house himself. He now lives there with his two cocker spaniels.

"I love my little house," says Seibert. "I don't feel the need to live in all the houses I draw. I already feel like they're mine." Unable to resist a corny line, he adds, "I'm drawn to the city, you might say."

 
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