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Before we found the Right House, we offered for the Wrong House.

It was sad and tired and peeling; the carpets were well-trodden and the drop ceilings sagged; the wallpaper had faded to beige.  But we loved it.

The Wrong House as we first saw it (filtered, in case you know it).

We loved it for its 100-year-old grace and charm.  We loved the floor plan, which included a huge living room with a fireplace and french doors, a little bonus room (study!) on the way to the dining room, a sunny breakfast nook, a second-floor sunporch, and a dressing room (nursery!) off the huge master bedroom.  We loved the original (ancient!) plumbing fixtures in the half bath, and the vintage porcelain light fixtures (fire hazards!).  We loved the gracious stairway (needed refinishing) and the huge attic (needed first finishing).  We loved the big windows (drafty) and the odd nook off the front door, neither a closet nor a foyer, just a…space.

We could see that the house had drawbacks, but we thought we were willing to deal with them.  We pictured ourselves ripping up carpet and tearing down those drop ceilings, sanding and painting, learning about plumbing.  I pictured B electrocuting himself.  He wondered if I would *really* insist on moving the refrigerator.  But we were game!  We knew it would be a lot of work and a big learning curve, but hey, we were young and broke and in love — it was the perfect time to rescue a house that needed us.

Walking through it again with our inspector, I felt needed.  I felt that the house was waiting, wistfully, for us.  The owners had some hoarding problems; they had attempted plumbing repairs themselves, ruining the plaster over the dining room; they had tried to re-wire the attic on their own, duct-taping a junction box to the wall.  That house wanted us; it needed us.

The morning of the inspection, we arrived early, clad in our eagerness.  The homeowner came out, a thickset woman in a down jacket and a wooly hat, crunching up the snowy path to the street.  It seemed too odd to ignore her.

I stepped forward.  “Hi,” I said.  “I think we’re not supposed to talk, but I just wanted to say hello.”

“Hello,” she said.  “I’m Gladys.”

We introduced ourselves.  She was friendly and surprisingly rational for someone with an altar in her dining room, 14 broken computers in her basement, and $9k in back property taxes.  She told us that she’d replaced the furnace about five years before, and what a great house it was, and how with old houses you can be sure that you’re getting something really sound.  They don’t build ‘em like that anymore, we agreed.  It’s a nice old house, we agreed.  We parted smiling.

The breakfast nook (also filtered, because I felt vaguely that I ought to).

Our smiles faded somewhat during the inspection.  Our inspector, Tom, was admirably thorough.  We arranged to come back again two days later with specialists: an electrician, a plumber, and a foundation specialist.

Oh yes.  You know what that means.

The electrician pointed out that old knob-and-tube wiring is always a potential hazard, and quoted us $3k.  But the house hadn’t burned down yet, so we thought we might try learning how to fix that ourselves.

The plumber quoted us $1k to fix the previous owners’ mistakes.  We thought that was pretty fair.

The foundation guy cast his expert eye around the wet cinderblock walls in the basement, rubbed a thumb across the mortar, drew a ballpoint pen out of his breast pocket and stuck that pen in the wall.

A little loose cement skittered down the wall, a tiny fall of dust and pebbles.

Now, the pen didn’t go in very far — maybe the length of my little fingernail.  But still, in a match-up between mortar and plastic, the mortar is supposed to win.  “Don’t do that,” said our realtor, nervously.  We’re not supposed to move or destroy anything during inspections, and that ballpoint pen had definitely destroyed a little bit of basement wall.

The expert mason walked around the inside of the basement, pointing out the damp marks, the drainage ditch along the floor.  He explained that old mortar was made of sand and natural lime, and that after 100 years of spring rains, of groundwater seeping through the mortar, the lime gradually erodes.  He showed us the mineral discoloration on the walls.  He said that the foundation of the house would need substantial work within the next decade.

I found this daunting.

He and B went out in the February snow to inspect the exterior foundation.  Meanwhile, our realtor shook her head.  “You got the Mazerati of masons,” she said.  “He does great work, he’s careful, but he’s expensive.”  I liked the “careful” part; I want to get my masonry advice from someone as careful of the house’s structural safety as I would be (if I were in a position to know anything about it).  I was less pleased with “expensive” but foundation work, I knew, was unlikely to be anything else.

B looked shocked when they came back in.  “I gotta do some calculations,” said the mason.  “I’ll send you an estimate.”  He shook our hands.

We watched as our realtor locked up the house.  B told me that there was a long horizontal bulge under the dining room windows; the house was sagging slightly there.  The mason had taken one look and said, “This has to be fixed as soon as possible.”  So we didn’t have ten years anymore.  The house was going to need to be jacked up and the foundation enhanced or replaced.

When the estimate came that night, it was $60k.

The next week, Gladys got her own estimate; hers was $4k.  To this day, we don’t know who she consulted or what he said, or why there was such a disparity in price.  Given how she’d neglected the house, we didn’t have much faith in her judgment; given what we’d seen ourselves, her estimate seemed absurdly low.  We realize that we might well have been able to repair the foundation for some sum in the middle.  But the structural integrity of our house was not something we were willing to take risks on: it wasn’t just a matter of money, but of our safety.

We loved that house.

But not enough.

My heart broke, just a little, as B officially withdrew the offer.  The first house is, perhaps, like the first boyfriend: falling in love will never be quite like that again.  We were saddened by the loss of a house we’d thought, for a few short days, would be our home.  But although we had made the error of offering for a house that was more than we could handle, and was thus the Wrong House for us, we weren’t trapped; because we checked (with a house inspector) and double-checked (with specialists) we were made aware of the problem before it was too late to withdraw.

In retrospect, even without the foundation issue, that house may have been too much for us.  Someone else bought it late that summer, for $12k less than our offer.  I wonder, sometimes, what they did about the foundation, the drop ceilings, the wallpaper.  By then, we’d already bought a different house: the Right House.

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