Wednesday, November 4, 2009

In Which We Find Our Real House

Our home is the biggest house on our street. Don’t get all impressed by that. Not only is it the biggest house on the street, the view from the street shows that it also has the most peeling paint and the most cracked windows. I have not conducted a personal inspection of the interiors of every other home on the street but I strongly suspect that our house also has more unpainted walls, more unfinished floors, more untrimmed windows and doors, and a vastly more ancient and inefficient heating system than any of the others. In short, we own what is optimistically called a “fixer-upper”.

We bought this house just over three years ago from people who had owned it for forty years. At the time, Sam and I had four children, ranging in ages from five years to three months. We’d started our marriage in a small, two-bedroom bungalow that we owned, then sold that and bought and sold an apartment building, then bought and sold another, each time talking about what we wanted our “real” house to someday be. We talked about the possibility of building a house, looked at land and drew out countless graph paper floor plans.

The last apartment we lived in had three bedrooms. We had our third and fourth babies in that apartment. The building had a tiny yard, a large parking area, and ridiculously high flood insurance because the nearby river had flooded once in the past seventy years. The front of the building was right against the sidewalk- we overheard bits of many, well, interesting conversations during the two years that we lived there. The large picture window in our living room made it possible to get a great view of the many passers-by during the day and for them to take a good look at us, as well. We used the upstairs apartment for Sam’s office mostly, and briefly rented the back half of it as a one-bedroom apartment to a vegan college student who felt trapped into her relationship with her much older Indian boyfriend who was paying the rent for the apartment. We had interesting conversations with both of them and I still sometimes wonder whatever happened to Lacey and Mahit after they broke up. The apartment itself was fine but between the traffic noise, tiny yard, and the overflow from the bar next door, it just wasn’t where we planned to raise our kids.

After we’d lived there for the two years that the government requires so that it won’t tax the heck out of you if you sell it sooner, we started house hunting. And we found it- our real house. It needed a lot of work, in fact in order to make it presentable, it would have sucked up every spare penny we had plus many more. But it was big- plenty of room for our growing family. And it had character, complete with a spacious front entry that included a beautifully bannistered stairway that led to the second and third floors. It had a stream that meandered by the house, disappearing into the seventy acres of woods behind the back yard, and was located on a lovely, rural road just over the hill from an apple orchard. Sam talked about building a small studio behind the house for me, which just sounded so wonderful and luxurious. We made an offer, contingent on our apartment building selling, which was accepted. I packed while we waited for our house to sell.

There’s only so much packing you can do when you’re not actually moving yet. After that you just twiddle your thumbs and wait impatiently. The terms of our offer expired without a nibble on our house. The sellers of “our” house graciously renewed the contract, which included their option to sell the house to another buyer if we couldn’t come up with someone who wanted our house.

You guessed it- the sellers got another offer while our two-unit remained pathetically unwanted. Poof- our real house, gone in a puff of magician’s smoke.

We moped and “Why God?”-ed for a week, then received an offer on our home. I’ll tell you, there’s nothing like accepting an offer on the house you’re living in to motivate you in your house hunting. We scoured the listings and visited every house on our A-list, even making an offer on one. No good. We scoured the listings again and visited every house on our B-list. No good. We half-heartedly inspected the listings again and put together a C-list, while discussing the possibility of buying a camper and taking off to tour the United States.

Houses look different on paper than they do in real life. When we pulled up to the curb of 69 Meadow Street, I actually began to feel slightly optimistic. I could see that it was certainly large enough. There was an actual front yard, with a couple of good-sized trees, and a large back yard, with a well-established lilac bush (I love lilacs) - and behind that were acres and acres of city owned woods, full of trails and, very occasionally, deer.

We surveyed the neighborhood. I liked that it was a quiet, side street even though it was still in town and close to stores. Our realtor liked that a cop lived a few doors down- “neighborhoods with cops are safe neighborhoods,” she told us.

Then we went inside. Remember how I said that the people who lived in this house before us had owned it for forty years? Yes, well, nothing that had ever entered that house in all of the previous forty years had ever, ever left the house again after that. Ever. I was carrying our daughter in her infant carrier seat and I literally had to turn sideways and hold the seat out in front of me in order to maneuver the paths that led throughout the house. There were multiple bookshelves and stands that I believe were purchased just to house the multitude of knick-knacks. Boxes were piled shoulder high, filling every room. The cavernous attic boasted clothes-lines hanging with clothes from who knows what decade, and 1960’s National Geographic stalagmites rose from its floor. You may have seen something like the interior of this house in the movies but I know you haven’t seen it in real life.

The actual house itself was a whole other story. The owner was a silver haired woman who didn’t utter a word and who disappeared somewhere into the disarray soon after we arrived. Her forty-something year old son, who still lived at home, proudly showed off his handiwork. It turned out he had started many renovation projects on the house over the years. He never actually completed any of them so the result was that the majority of the house had portions of it torn apart and either not put back together at all or only partially, and poorly, completed. The couple of projects he had finished were no great improvement. The bathroom had been “remodeled” and, though I hate to use the word I can think of no other that fits better, it now has the stupidest layout possible. At five foot nine and a hundred and twenty-five pounds (that’s my non-pregnant weight, anyway, I’m not telling what I weigh right now.), I am a fairly thin individual. But I have to turn sideways to fit between the corner of the sink and the corner of the shower, in order to get to the toilet. See what I mean? The kitchen has “custom”-made wood cabinets- really just wooden shelves that are not standard height so that none of your taller countertop appliances (say a Kitchen Aid mixer, for example. Or a blender.) can fit on the counter underneath them. Nor can a cereal box fit upright on any of the shelves. Though the basement, which was the son’s woodworking shop, has been decked out with enough electrical outlets that a couple of dozen power tools could all be run at once, the kitchen blows a fuse if you attempt to toast a piece of bread while the microwave is running.

For all of the house’s faults, I was delighted to see that there was a fireplace in the giant living room. I had given up on the idea of getting to have a fireplace, since none of the A-List homes had worked out, and the paperwork on this house had not mentioned one. Sam is a visionary and has the ability to see whatever potential may exist in even the most decrepit buildings. Between knowing that we could never afford a house of this size that was in good condition, envisioning the potential, and praying about it hard-core, we came to the conclusion together- we would make an offer.

That forty-something year old son turned out to be quite the stinker. He refused our lowball offer and countered only slightly lower than their asking price. If the clock hadn’t been tick-tick-ticking against us, we would have just walked away and let him stew on that for a while because there sure as heck wasn’t going to be anyone else making a better offer but, as it was, we needed a place to live so we agreed to it. The closing date was set and I began packing again.

We lived with my in-laws for a month after we closed on the house, while Sam and a couple of carpenter friends worked full time on it. They removed the drop ceiling and “wood” paneling from the living room and re-sheetrocked it, the upstairs hallway, and three of the bedrooms. Windows were replaced in three bedrooms and trim added around the windows in all of them. A wall in one of the bedrooms was moved to restructure the room’s closet and the hall closet. The stairway and its railings were torn out and replaced. Lots and lots of mudding. Three of the bedrooms were painted. The wood floor in the living room was refinished. Etcetera. And there was still plenty more to do that would have to wait until we had more time and money.

All along we had been discussing it as if it were just another step along the way to our elusive “real” house. But the day we moved in, the third time in four years that we’d rounded up our family and friends to help us deposit all of our earthly possessions into our newest home, Sam announced, “I’m not moving again for another thirty years.” Although I was slightly startled by this proclamation, when I stopped to consider it I didn’t think I could face the prospect of fixing up a house just to sell it and move again in another two years, either. For better or for worse, it seemed that we were home.


  1. Wow! What a story. I can relate to not wanting to fix up another house to turn around and sell it. I did that with my first two homes. Then I married my husband. I wanted six years (because he was Navy and always under the threat of being moved) before he retired. The summer he retired we spent the money to make main floor of the house the way I wanted it. I wasn't going to wait and only get my house the way I wanted it before we moved. I wanted to enjoy all my hard work. And I have...for six years now.

  2. Hubby and I lived in Shack #1 for 17 yrs, we did do some fixing up and duct taping it together.

    We had to move last year. I seached and seached couldn't find anything in our prize range. Hubby found shack #2 (we are fond of shacks, I guess).This shack also needed major new floors, walls, ceiling.... We didn't have the option to fix and then move in, we had to move in regaurdless.

    We worked and spent and went into debt. A little over a year later we are only halfway there. Had to stop and recoop our funds.

    Hubby says IF we ever have to move again, he is only taking a bundle of clothes!

  3. That's a beautifully written account of your experience. I've been in my home now for 13 years. I've been slowly redoing everything that I said I was going to do "right away" when I moved in.

    I'm almost completed.

    Which probably means I'll move soon.

  4. Speaking of fixer-uppers...the bathroom you have now sure beats the outhouse you were almost born in! =)

    Feel free to tell that story anytime!

  5. I have lived in a few major fixer-uppers that we sold, and the one we live in now continues to be improved...My husband is a carpenter and the nice thing about my house is, it is uniquely ours. And every new improvement makes that particular place in the house the new favorite hang. Like you, I hope to stay here a long time.

  6. Wow, I didn't realize that by having a fixer-upper, I'd have so much in common with so many! Maybe that thought will encourage me on the days when I feel discouraged by the slow (non-existent) progress on this place.

    f6hasit, thanks so much for joining my blog! And I very much appreciate the complement. : )

    And, Mom... yes, maybe that will be a story for another day! lol

  7. Oops, I meant "f8hasit". Sorry! : )

  8. I have an award waiting for you on my post. I have enjoy reading your posts. I think it is deserved.

  9. Wow, thank you so much, Heather, I feel honored! I'm so glad you've been enjoying my blog. : )

  10. You've got a great blog started, Kristin. A very enjoyable read.

  11. I cannot wait to move into my own house and remodel it to my hearts content. The problem is, I'm seventeen and make $8 an hour. No good.

  12. Thanks a lot, Mollie, I'm glad you're following my blog. : )

    And, shelbyisms, though $8 an hour doesn't help a lot with getting a house remodeled, *dreaming* about remodeling is half the fun! So look at it as getting to do the enjoyable part without having to spend the money! (Or not spending the money and living in a half finished house which is more the track that my husband and I currently seem to be stuck on... : / )