Sunday, June 26, 2011

House Hunting

We looked at a bunch of houses before we started getting worried. There was the log cabin that had views of the nuclear reactor from the front porch. That wasn’t even the reason we rejected it. Though it was surrounded by beautiful farms with silos and fishing boats in the yards and reminded me of Misty of Chincoteague, and I love log cabins, the town itself was a ghetto. I’m talking gangland ghetto. Let’s put it this way. Even though I come from Jersey City, I was scared when we were in McDonald’s. Kelly would have to go to school with these kids. I bet all the farmers’ kids who were stuck between the ghetto and the bay where their families had crabbed or farmed for generations, were homeschooled, and the farm families were cringing at what grew up around them like weeds on the other side of a fence. I liked the house and the neighborhood so much, for a split second, I not only dismissed the nuclear reactor but I wondered if I could homeschool Kelly. Then I remembered that I don’t even know my times-tables so that was out.

There was the old stone house with the bathroom in the middle of the bedroom with a shower curtain that you pull around the toilet for privacy and all the plaster falling off the ceilings and walls in all the bedrooms upstairs, plus a kitchen that needed to be totally gutted. It had great acreage, even more than I have here, and we might have considered fixing it up if it wasn’t so overpriced.

There was the house on a busy road in a bad part of town that was too small and didn’t have enough acreage even if we didn’t care about living within walking distance of a check cashing place and a dollar store.

There was the house that the sellers refused to let anyone see.

There was the house next to the power lines. (It wouldn’t stop me. I don’t like it but power lines are a good place to ride—you can ride for miles and miles. But Kurt says no on the power lines.)

One possibility was the newer ranch house in pristine condition on twelve beautiful pasture acres that you could move right into. The house wasn’t old, like I wanted, but it was practical. My father would approve. It was a little small but it had a full basement, a den, and a Sub-Zero refrigerator. It had a carport for the dually and a fenced-in backyard for the dog. It was nice. But there’s always a downside to everything in our price range. It was on a busy road. Somewhat of a highway. A country highway. But a highway nonetheless. On the good side, you could have horse shows there. That’s something I was actually looking for—a place that would be conducive to having horse shows. It would help to pay the high New Jersey property taxes. It would even be a good place to build a warehouse for our flooring business. Tractor trailers would be able to access it. But it was also overpriced. They’d have to come down. We filed this away as a back-up house—something we’d buy just to get up there and maybe sell later if we couldn’t stand the road. Maybe it wouldn’t bother us. You never know. It’s not something we wanted to do, buy a back-up house—we’re tired and are sick of moving. But we had to find a house.

There was the house in historic Smithville. Smithville! Smithville is one of the reasons I want to move back to Jersey! Smithville is a little village of shops on cobblestone streets that sell gourmet coffees, homemade pies and chocolate, candles, antiques, pottery, lavender-scented lotions, homemade goat soap, I Love Lucy collectibles, restored Schwinn bicycles, incense, beads, rocks, shells, Violets candy and Bazooka gum, vintage toasters, movie posters, and wind chimes. It’s where I got my magic wand from.

I love Smithville! When we left New Jersey, I thought the whole Virginia was going to be like Smithville. But I haven’t found anything like that here. As soon as we moved back to Jersey, I was going to go to Smithville right away and get some chocolate-covered strawberries and maybe a piece of rose quartz for my rock collection. So I was excited when I realized the next house on the list was actually in Smithville!

The listing said “dry basement,” but this one had the wettest basement of them all. We actually might have considered it just for the location alone, but like most of them, it needed way too much work for what they were asking. Overpriced with a capital O.

We ruled out handyman specials in worse shape than the winery house, houses that needed to be burned down, houses on small acreage,
a house next to a gas station, a house that used to be a truck terminal, foreclosures and short sales (they take too long), and a house that was so far down at the bottom of New Jersey that I might as well stay in Virginia, that’s how long it would take me to run up to the family’s for a cup of coffee or to take my father to a doctor’s appointment.

We were worried.

And then we found the Alloway house.

Friday, June 17, 2011

A Second Chance to Get the Winery House

When we lost our buyers because they couldn’t get a mortgage and the seller of the winery house wouldn’t wait for us to find new buyers, I heard my mother’s voice when I was out in the field one morning, picking up manure. That’s when it’s peaceful. That’s when I do all my thinking. She said, “Don’t worry Debi. You’re going to find an even better house.”

Truthfully, I was mad. I didn’t want another house. I hesitated telling Kurt because, even if he didn’t think I was crazy, hearing my mother’s voice, he didn’t want another house either. Plus, I didn’t believe her. No way was I going to find a house that was better than the winery house. Yeah, it needed work but anything in our price range in Jersey was going to need work. This was something that we would never be able to afford otherwise! It was a grand old house, the kind that when you passed it on the street, you thought, “Rich people live there.” There was no way we were going to find anything that could compare.

My father thought we were crazy and insisted it was still going to be there when we found a new buyer. He said, “Nobody’s going to buy that thing!” I said, “Dad! Did you see the architectural details? Did you see the banister? It’s got pocket doors!” He rolled his eyes. Fathers care about things like heating houses without going broke and they worry about roofs, bathrooms that need toilets, and tax bills.

But he was right. Father knows best. The winery house was still available when we sold our house the second time! And my mother was wrong. Maybe it wasn’t her speaking to me after all. Maybe it was just my grief, grief over losing her, grief over losing the house—no wonder I was hearing things! It was my mind’s way of helping me cope. And now it was still for sale!

But we’re not stupid. This time we planned to look it over real good and figure out exactly what it was going to cost to fix, plus we were going to look at as many other properties as we could find so we could compare it. We didn’t have time to do this the first time because we were closing so fast in Virginia, plus a blizzard was happening. Now we’d have time. And we’d be comfortable in good weather. We thought we might even end up offering the seller of the winery house less money than we had in the winter if it needed more work than we had originally estimated. Also, we were coming out with less money this time because we sold our house for less. She had her chance to lock us in but she’d refused to take a house-selling contingency and wait for us. Now she might get less! It was her own fault.

Ironically, the people buying our farm the second time are from New Jersey. We turned them on to a local mortgage broker who knew this was a horse farm and was waiting anxiously to lend somebody some money to buy it. He didn’t care about the agricultural zoning or the “income producing nature of the property”—meaning the buyer could give horseback riding lessons if she wanted to. He gives loans out for small horse farms all over this area regularly. He said our new buyer looked good. We waited until every i was dotted and t was crossed. We waited until our buyer’s buyer got all his inspections done and got his mortgage commitment. We double- and triple-checked everything and as soon as we were sure nothing could go wrong, we got Pearl and Eldon to watch the animals and we went to Jersey to buy a house.

By the time we got there, our real estate agent told us we had to go see the winery house right away. She said if we still wanted it, we had to make an offer immediately. That day. Even though I told the seller of the winery house that we were coming and she said she’d wait for us to look at it again, she took another offer. And if we still wanted it, we had to decide now, before it was through attorney review. Tomorrow attorney review was over.

We were mad. There wouldn’t be any time to look at any other houses. There wouldn’t be time to leisurely dig into what it would take to hook up the sewer pipe to the septic system or to find out even if there was a septic system. Really. When you think about it. Maybe it was a cesspool. Maybe there was an outhouse. Technically, we didn’t know. We’d have to forget trying to get prices for replacement radiators (the radiators had exploded in the winter), and we wouldn’t be able to examine the roofs, the electrical wires that draped across the front yard and were propped up by a stick, or the garage in back which was locked up the last time we were up there. Now we were under pressure again.

The other offer was for $196,000. Our original agreement was for $200,000. Meaning don’t bother to try to get it for less. I didn’t like it. I also didn’t like it that the seller would renege on her deal with the other guy, if there really was another guy, if we offered her a better one. Business is business but they had an agreement. It didn’t seem right. Still, we went right away.

Let me put it this way. If there is another buyer who is giving the seller $196,000, then I’ll smoke my hat. It was a disaster! Being vacant, it did not weather the winter well. There was more peeling paint, the tarps had blown off the roofs of the outbuildings, and the property was so overgrown and neglected that the little clearing I was going to squeeze my horses onto wasn’t big enough for a goat. Now that the snow was gone, we saw trash and debris all over the yard, there was plywood covering mysterious holes in the ground (perhaps the septic tank), and broken glass crunched like corn chips under our feet—obviously the house had been continually vandalized over the years and broken windows was the destruction of choice. It wasn’t the picturesque property I remembered from Christmastime. It looked like a city lot.

In the back was a garbage pit. I know old houses have garbage pits. But this one was about the size of a swimming pool and though I was busting to start digging because I could see old stuff right on top—milk glass, broken blue bottles, china—there was also new stuff in it. Plastic Snapple bottles, brown beer bottles, ribbons of rubber from car tires and other new things not interesting or collectible fanned out from the pit into the yard and spread toward the house like it came with high tide. And it was black. Not from being burned. It looked like oil.

I didn’t know what Kurt was thinking. The real estate agent was with us and you can’t always talk openly plus I knew how much he loved the house and I didn’t want to be a downer but I was thinking no way am I going to buy this thing! I watched his face trying to discern if he was as shocked and disappointed as I was. He didn’t reveal anything. He was looking around, stepping over boards and brush. We went inside. Instead of being freezing and dark like it was in the winter, this time it was about a hundred-and-fifty degrees and dark and smelled like cat piss. In the cellar it was cool. Kurt noticed condensation. He poked the insulation above us. Water trickled down. Everywhere we poked, water came down. We peeled back the insulation. The rafters were drenched. Turns out someone, trying to do a good thing, put in the insulation incorrectly and it trapped all the moisture. It was a mold explosion waiting to happen.

Honestly, I was relieved. There was no better reason to reject the house. I was hoping I wasn’t going to have to persuade Kurt that we shouldn’t buy it. But it wasn’t necessary. He didn’t want it either. We didn’t even have to mull it over. The seller of the winery house wanted an answer now? Then the answer was flat out, unequivocally no. No way.

We felt like a load was lifted. Now we could go house hunting without worrying about the winery house, without wondering what-if, without mooning over the grand old house that got away. Losing our first buyer and causing that deal to fall through, was, it turns out, a blessing in disguise. And maybe my mother was right. Because anything was going to be better than the winery house.