Well, we’ve done it again. Not only are we moving — we’ve already switched houses! Confused? Check out our first house-buying adventures from two years back, when we offered for the Wrong House before we found the Right House.
Now we are leaving our beloved Right House for a new house in a new town. The second new house… oh, you’re still confused? So are we, frankly. Let me begin at the beginning.
No, that’s too far back. Let me begin in April, when after a long and complicated series of coincidences, opportunities, and interviews, B was offered a position at another university, much closer to his family and to mine. We hadn’t planned to leave here so soon, but sometimes opportunity’s knock can’t be ignored.
Still we were caught, I confess, flat-footed: despite the lengthy lead-up, we hadn’t really believed that this would happen. We hadn’t considered where and how to live in a new town. We piled into the car and set off to investigate our options, and this is what we found.
1. How We Found Our Dream House (and what we found there)
On our first trip, we fell in love with — of all things — a contemporary home built in 1958. You know: white brick, beamed ceilings, walls of glass, open spaces. We couldn’t go in, but we walked around the outside of the abandoned house and gazed longingly through its floor-to-ceiling windows. It filled our heads and our hearts; we didn’t see anything else that compared to it. It was a foreclosure and had some obvious problems, but we were smitten with the light and the space, the floor plan with its great flow, the private patio sheltered in the ell of the house, the open kitchen at the heart of the home. We ran some numbers. We researched renovation loans. We went back down with a contractor… and when our realtor opened the front doors, the SMELL hit us.
After that we referred to it as “the cat pee house”.
It had been, truly, a beautiful house in its heyday. It had wonderful open rooms in front, huge windows along the sides, and an L-shape that gave privacy to the bedroom wing. Its design was conducive to entertaining and to nesting, to ease and to elegance. But it had fallen on harder times than we knew. The last owners had not been kind — our realtor speculated that perhaps they’d inherited the house from the original owners, and hadn’t had the means or the knowledge to maintain it.
Or the sense God gave a goose. I mean, REALLY.
To begin with, the carpets were sticky and matted with what I can only assume, from the smell, was cat pee. There could have been other substances, but I didn’t get down on my hands and knees to investigate. The carpets were so awful that there was almost certainly damage to the subfloor beneath them. Someone had installed hardwood in the hallway but never replaced the baseboards, giving new meaning to the term “floating floor”. The natural cherry kitchen cabinets had been abused until they sagged out of true. One bedroom door had a hole knocked through it. The enormous finished basement included a large smelly room with a wet bar, and a number of small smelly rooms with graffiti. I was particularly struck by the legend “Beer and Bitches” in one room, which revealed all too much about the most recent occupants of the house. I suppose that old beer in the carpets smells quite similar to old cat pee in the carpets. We also found the wall of cages that must have contained the cat breeding operation.
The Dream House turned out to be a Nightmare Mansion, and like the original Wrong House, more than we could handle.
2. How We Chose a House in a Hurry
Other people loved the Right House as much as we do, so it sold remarkably rapidly. I’ll write more later about what we did to help it sell so quickly in a slow market; as regards our search, what’s salient is that the quick sale put pressure on us to find another home fast. By the time we were walking through Nightmare Mansion, we knew that we needed to find a house in a hurry… just not THAT house.
After that experience, we were determined to make a sensible decision — we felt much the same as we had two years ago when we reluctantly abandoned the Wrong House and its failing foundation and resumed our search. But this time, we had a strict time limit (imposed by the super-fast sale of the Right House). And we had a Battle Plan! By our second house-hunting trip, we knew what neighborhood we wanted to live in: a tree-filled, park-like older development within biking distance of the university. And as seasoned homebuyers, or at least, more seasoned than last time, we knew what we needed from a house and what we merely wanted.
We know what we can forgo. Hardwoods? Like ‘em but don’t need ‘em. Granite countertops? Lead to broken teacups. Master bath? Overrated. Mudroom? We’ll make one. Garden? Tomato plants in pots. Fireplace? We really really love our fireplace — but we know that we can always install a wood stove down the road.
What we really need, and what necessarily drives our house selection, is not any singular feature but a good, practical floor plan. We need a living/dining/kitchen plan that’s conducive to entertaining, and that’s more about flow than size. Also, since we both do a lot of work at home, we need good office space. For preference, good office space that does not use up all available bedrooms — just in case we’d like to have guests someday or even, maybe, children.
The other priority was that the house be in good shape. Much as I enjoy DIY, my skills are limited. My time is limited. And my budget? Definitely limited. We wanted a house that offered reasonable comfort, right now. I know what you’re thinking: we were willing to renovate the Dream House! But we were planning on getting a loan and hiring professionals, and the house’s amazingly low price made that seem (at first) like a good investment. A house that was merely outdated wouldn’t justify the expense of professional renovation.
We visited about a dozen, and looked at more online, rapidly rejecting houses with sagging roofs, cramped floor plans, or burnt orange shag carpeting. Rotting windowsills sent us running. Yellow formica counters made us sad. We gradually resigned ourselves to baseboard heaters and window air conditioners.
There was really only one house that stood out as a reasonable possibility: a well-maintained 70’s split-level. The house was attractive, with a cathedral ceiling in the living room, an exposed second floor hallway, and a wall of stone fireplace in the basement family room, which offered not only the coveted fireplace but also adequate office space. On the down side, the bedrooms were small and cramped, and so was the kitchen.
It was priced a trifle high for its size and situation, so we offered low, hoping to reach an accommodation in the middle: a good price for us, a good profit for them. However, the sellers held out for almost their asking price — and as they were putting a new roof on, their desire to recoup that cost through our mortgage seemed understandable. We were disappointed, but we felt that although the price was not enticing, the house was still the most sensible choice available to us, and we went coolly, calculatingly forward with it.
After the home inspection, however, the owners balked at repairs to the chimney. Now, the prospect of a fireplace in our office (because that is what the family room would have to be, in a house with so few and so small bedrooms) had been one of the primary actual attractions of this otherwise eminently practical house. And since we’d agreed to pay more for the house than we really wanted to, we weren’t going to have a stash of spare cash for fixing the fireplace right away. We had not been enthusiastic about this house to begin with, the negotiations had left us resigned, and now we were reaching a stage that might even be termed “grumpy”.
At this point our realtor suggested that we cut our losses and look elsewhere. “But we’re under contract!” we cried. Well, their inspection negotiations offered us the chance to walk away. “But we’re out of time!” Not necessarily, he said. “But we’ve seen all the houses!” Well, he knew of one that was just coming back on the market following the collapse of its contract. And as the Practical House had pushed our price higher than it was initially, we might try looking around at that new price point…
It was suddenly a whole new hunt.
3. How We Wound Up With a Whole New House
B was at a conference in Florida when he first had this conversation with our realtor. He called me the next morning while I was driving home from a visit to my mother. We had a hasty, panicky phone call and then we spent the next 24 hours poring over the new house listing. It looked, quite frankly, too good to be true: spacious, clean, well-maintained, nearly new by our standards. It cost a bit more but was undoubtedly a better investment. And we thought we might like it better — but we couldn’t say for sure until we saw it.
We had to wait until B flew home from his conference before we could drive down to take a look in person. In just those three days of delay, another offer came in. And when we arrived, there were other prospective buyers standing in the driveway of what we were beginning to call “our” house. They looked suspiciously happy. We detested them on sight. We parked down the street and glared at them until they left.
When the coast was clear, we walked up the sidewalk and surveyed the house, getting our first good look at it. It looked bigger in person than it had in the pictures. Perhaps the classic Colonial proportions had fooled the eye. Or perhaps it looked bigger because the lot runs slightly uphill, so the house loomed over us. Our realtor pointed out neighboring houses and told us who lived in them; one neighbor called a greeting to him and another came up the street to say hello, carting a weed whacker. The May day was warm and everything seemed touched by sunshine — the weather, the house, the neighbors.
A car with a red ball on top cruised past.
“Hey,” said B, “Isn’t that the Google street view car?”
We took it as an auspicious omen.
Inside the house, we sped through large rooms that flowed into one another, noting the good points: a gas fireplace AND a woodstove, a dedicated first-floor office, a spacious kitchen. Upstairs, the bedrooms all opened onto a central landing, daylit by a window over the stairs. In fact, the floor plan is exactly like that of our beloved Right House (but bigger, and with a family room sitting in what would be, here, our neighbor Pat’s driveway). Perhaps that’s why it felt like home to us, despite being 50% larger and half a century younger.
We had planned to see other houses, too, on that trip. But we didn’t bother. We looked around the Whole New House for fifteen minutes and went back to the realty office to write up an offer. The owners had left and the house was empty, so we asked for a quick closing (so we wouldn’t be homeless once we’d left the Right House). Our realtor was wonderful: he pushed the contract through that afternoon, and everything was signed and set by the time we left town: the Right House will close in three weeks (sob) and the Whole New House will close two days later. We need to get packing!
We drove past the new house — OUR HOUSE — once more on our way out. There were people in the driveway, second-showing people our realtor had mentioned to us. They were measuring their Hummer to see if it would fit in the low garage. But we are mature adults: we refrained from rolling down the window to yell, “Too late, suckers!”
My students tell me that every good story has a moral. But I don’t think I share their faith in that stricture.
I could tell myself that the moral of this story is, don’t settle for less. Hold out until you find what you really want. But it isn’t. We snagged a house we like by the skin of our teeth. If our realtor hadn’t been on the ball, and in the loop… If our first sellers had tried to make us happy, or even hadn’t balked when they did… If they’d seemed more vulnerable and we’d felt guiltier… If we’d chosen a different house to settle for, and hadn’t looked further… If we’d delayed our visit, instead of capitalizing on B’s willingness to climb out of the airplane and into the car… If we hadn’t been in the right place at the right time… If, if, if.
The truth of the matter is, that we did nothing to deserve this good fortune. There is no moral. We are lucky, and we are grateful.