Tuesday, July 12, 2011

When It's Right, You'll Know It

Even in its state of disrepair, I knew I'd
found my home.

   On a Tuesday morning in mid-June, I found myself once more driving past the familiar Talladega Super Speedway. on my way to Atlanta. I had an 11:30 rendezvous with a lavender bridesmaid dress. My friend Kaye is getting married for the first time and I was happy to oblige her request that I stand up in her honor. "I'll wear a feed sack, if that's what you want," I said, although I was relieved to find she had selected a fashionable forties-style knee-length number instead. Two years ago, Kaye met her true love, and they are destined to be wed in July. When I met her husband-to-be, Todd, I could understand why she knew he was "the one" within a few short weeks of their meeting. He had all the right stuff: smart, self-aware, very kind and compassionate, with a great sense of humor—plus he looks like Steven Spielberg.
   I stopped at the Starbucks in Oxford to fuel up on an iced-Chai Latte and called my realtor, Shirley, who was anxious to hear my reaction to the inspection report on the house I had contracted to purchase. After my first ill-fated attempt at home buying, I now had my financial ducks in a row and was ramping up for the big commitment. In hindsight, I was grateful that first house fell through. The initial disappointment gave way to clarity, and I knew more now about what I required in a home—specifically, what I could live without and what was essential to my happiness.
   I'd been looking at homes in the neighborhood where I lived with my now-ex-husband for the past seven years. I wanted to stay close to Jack's school, but houses in the area come at a premium, and property taxes reflect the neighborhood's fine public school system. Plus, to stay in the same 'hood meant running into my past. When I thought of my dream house, something different always came to mind: An airy, two-story home, with a porch, a foyer, spacious rooms with high, high ceilings and solid, hardwood floors, built-in cabinets, french doors, and a claw-foot tub. Unfortunately, I could not afford this house in my old zip code.
   One day, while checking the dismal real estate listings in my price-range, I typed in the zip code of a nearby neighbor known for its historic homes. Images of turn-of-the-20th-century Craftsman bungalows and stately Victorians soon populated my search results. I could get twice the home and be just a 10-minute commute away from Jack's school.
   The first house that caught my eye was a grand Craftsman, which needed a new roof and soffits, but was well-priced. It was in "short sale," which meant the bank, as well as the owner, would have to approve the offer and months could pass before receiving an answer on a contract. The home possessed the aesthetic all details I desired—right down to the claw-foot tub—but it had also suffered from some bad remodeling along the way. There would still be trade-offs. As the realtor and I stood outside, admiring the detailed gables, I noticed a similar house under renovation two doors down.
   "What's going on with that house?" I asked. Many homes in this area are fixed up and split into apartments to accommodate the college students.
   "Oh, that house?" the realtor said. "The guy who bought it is fixing it up to sell. It will be a single family home, but all new inside. Not what you want at all."
   I envisioned a sterile, new interior, gutted of all charm and didn't give that house a second thought. We continued on to tour another home, also a Craftsman design, but smaller and with fewer historic amenities. This home had the basics (hardwood floors, high ceilings, a charming staircase leading to three bedrooms upstairs), however, and seemed move-in ready. I could close by the end of July and be done with the time-consuming house-hunting process.
   "This house will be more manageable for you,"Shirley said. "Since it's smaller, it will be less expensive to heat and cool, too."
   The realtor's practical advice beat down my desire for aesthetics. The larger home did seem imposing and needed a lot work. I decided to write an offer on the smaller Craftsman. I would install my own claw-foot tub, thank you very much! I wrote a fair offer, and told the realtor I would not negotiate. Of course, my contract was contingent on having a home inspector peruse the place thoroughly. To my surprise, the Sellers accepted my price and met all my terms, save one: They wanted the inspection conducted quickly so as not to drag out the process. Although I was very busy and traveling on Tuesday, after making a few calls, Earl the home inspector, agreed to meet me first thing on Monday.
   At 8 a.m. the air was already thick and hot, but Earl donned his overhauls and climbed up into the attic. As I waited on the second floor, I began to notice flaws that I had previously overlooked. The floors were definitively bowed inward from the exterior walls to the center of the house—like the way New Orleans creates a bowl. And several of the door frames had a Dr. Seuss aesthetic. When I closed the bathroom door, a full two inches of daylight could be seen between the top of the door and the frame. Could I really live with that? How much would it cost to straighten the door frames and shim the floors? Downstairs too, there were issues with settling. Yes, this house was over 70 years old, and some settling was to be expected, but how much settling should I settle for?
  That night when the inspection report arrived in my Inbox, more issues were evident. Although the current buyers seemed attentive, the house had been neglected at some point over the years. Wood rot had set in. Repointing the brick was long overdue. A shoddy job bolstering up the floor joists added to the complaints. This home had "issues" and clearly needed some TLC, but I wasn't sure I could make that commitment—for better or for worse.
   Fortunately, I had not succumbed to the cardinal sin of house buying this time: I had not let myself become emotionally involved. Although caught up in the initial infatuation of owning this old home, I was reluctant to take on its many problems at this point in my life. I refused to settle.

    Sipping my latte in the parking lot, I explained my concerns to Shirley the Realtor.
   "It's an old home!" she countered, feeling her commission grow cold. "You can't expect everything to be perfect and new! Just give it a little more thought. We can have a foundation specialist come out and look at the basement, and I know someone who can shim up those floors upstairs—"
   "Okay, okay!" I said. "Let me sleep on it. I'll call you back tomorrow with my final decision."
   An hour and a half later, I stood in front of a fitting room mirror, having a lavender dress altered to my curves. Despite my wise-cracks, the dress was lovely. I had never had a dress tailor-made to me, and I realized I perhaps all this time I had been going about things wrong. I always excepted what was on the rack and then fit myself into it. Perhaps it was time that I allowed someone to fit things around me. Sure, it might cost a little more, and take a bit more time, but the end result was custom-made and unique to my liking.

  The next morning, as I spend west I20, an idea crystalized in my mind so clearly that I laughed out loud. Why hadn't I seen it before? I recalled something Shirley said, "You can't get everything you want! You can't have an old home and have it be all new." Actually...I could.
  Arriving in Birmingham, I drove straight to the house that was being renovated next door to the grand old Craftsman. The electricians were taking a smoke-break outside and I sweet-talked them into showing me around. Even with its walls torn out and plaster shards on the floor, as soon as I walked into the foyer, I knew this was it. I was home—and I didn't have to settle.
   In a few days I returned to my house with the builder. Since I was writing a contract on the place at this point, I could choose the paint colors, floor finishes, fixtures and tile. I was relieved to find that the builder had saved the old built-in cabinetry, and kept intact the century's old staircase, which led to the second floor from that gracious foyer. Yes, he was even restoring the claw-foot tub. The new floor plan would be spacious and airy, combining a smart modern floor plan with old-world character. It was as though the home were custom-made just for me. I had to share the good news with someone, so I called Kaye.
  "That's wonderful," she said. "I'm so happy for you!"
   I described the house to her and we chatted for a while. Then she handed the phone to her beloved, Todd.
   "Mazel Tov on your new house!" he said.
   "Thank you! Can't wait for you guys to come visit," I said. "You know, Mr. Groom, you're very fortunate to by marrying my amazing friend Kaye."
   "Yes," Todd said softly. "I am very lucky to have found my love. She is home to me."
   I smiled and tried to swallow the lump in my throat. For a moment I couldn't respond,  but I knew exactly what he meant.

1 comment:

  1. I liked to read your home hunting story. A few years back when I was looking for my first house to buy, it happened to me too. The realtor was showing me all these wrong houses, too expensive, too boring, too I don't know. Then one day he said he had something special. Indeed, the minute I walked in I was sold on it: open spaces, vaulted ceilings, wooden floors and huge windows everywhere. When I walked through the second door into the backyard I was already fearing that someone else would bit on it. There was a stone garden in a completely wooded lot... a dream came through - it had to become mine. Yet, life circumstances change and suddenly - although I still love it dearly - ... house hunting again. Do you happen to know a lake house with a loft on a mountain top on Southside with a view over Birmingham? Just day dreaming! I guess I will know it again when I walk in.

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