Sunday, July 17, 2005

A New Home, Part II: We'll take what's behind Door No. 1

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[In last week's episode, Dan and his wife began their search for a new home. This week, the house-hunters become the house-hunted.]

When my wife and I were in the throes of a frustrating home search, I couldn't go five minutes without getting advice. Everybody and his left-handed Eskimo uncle would wrap an arm around my shoulder, lean in confidentially and say, "It's the hardest thing you'll ever do."

And everybody's left-handed Eskimo uncle would add, "But it's also the easiest!"

"Buy cheap. Fix it up. Then move somewhere else in two years."

"Get ready to sign your name 479 times!"

"Listen. You need a yard."

"Taking care of a pool's a wicked pain. Don't buy a pool."

"It's not just for grass. You'll use the yard for everything."

"Unless the house already comes with a pool. Then I'm coming over. Every day."

I would say, "Yeah, yard, schmard, whatever. I won't care about the yard." Then I'd confide in everybody and his left-handed Eskimo uncle about the search. I'd say how this area has some of the highest real estate prices in the country, and how it was becoming a problem.

"We just had to bump up our price range another $100,000," I'd say miserably. "The only thing we could get in our first budget is a modestly sized pile of crumpled newspapers under the Route 79 overpass on President Avenue. Every day that goes by and I don't have a house, I get priced out of the housing market that much more. Tell me what to do!"

"I bought my house for $27,000! That was 1983."

"You know where's cheap houses? South Dakota."

None of this helped. But it is true. I looked it up. You can get a four-bedroom, two-bath house on 1.6 acres for $119,000 in South Dakota. And not just South Dakota! Pierre, South Dakota! That's the state capital!

I was telling my wife about this one day while we were driving around, checking lawns for "For Sale" signs.

"I heard Pierre has a drive-through bank and everything," I said, "just like the movie stars have. And one of them fancy stoplights with all three colors. We'll run a gas station and make a fortune -- when people decide they have to get the hell out of South Dakota, they'll need gas."

She looked out the window at a "For Sale" sign on a tan house right around the block from our apartment. The house was enormous, historic and beautiful.

"I wish we could get that house," she said.

"Me too. They're probably asking too much. We'll never afford it," I said.

We went to an open house for that same house not long after that, just for laughs. It was roomy and way, way out of our price range. We had to reject it. But when we left the open house, I had a weird feeling I'd see it again. I had a premonition of myself walking down the hall in that house, in my boxer shorts -- a premonition that would come true.


Yard games

We spent much of our time looking at this other house. By coincidence, we were the first people to see it. It was an old Victorian in decent shape -- in Fall River, too. It was practically within yelling distance of our price range.

During the showing, my wife played Good Cop. I played Bad Cop.

"Oooh!" my wife said as we took the tour. "Marble fireplace mantle! Oooh! A second staircase in the back of the house! Oooh! Two porches!"

"Look at this crack," I said, jamming a pen into the wall and working it into the plaster. "This joint's coming apart!"

"That just needs more spackle," the real estate agent said.

"Pfft. It'll take thousands of dollars. I suspect this spackle is structural."

"The thing about the yard is that it's small, and someone else has an easement to keep a driveway on it," the real estate agent said. "But for the buyer, they're willing to give up part of the yard next door, because they own that property, too."

"Yeah," I said. "I couldn't care less about the yard."

The Victorian was nearly perfect, and full of charm. There were not two but three porches, and room for my wife to have her office, me to have my office, and for us to put a kid without having to stick it in a dresser drawer. Not that it wouldn't be fun to do that anyway.

We talked it over in a bedroom.

"I want this house," my wife whispered.

"Me too. I was only fooling about the crack in the wall."

She peered out one of the many windows. "There's not much yard."

"So what? Who needs a yard?"

So we made an offer, and they responded positively. The negotiations went smoothly for about 12 minutes. Then we got the call.

"The sellers don't want to give you a yard," the real estate agent said.

I heard something inside me snap like a chicken bone--if I didn't have a yard, where was the grill going to go?

"What? Are they insane?" I asked. "I need a yard! I can't buy a house without a yard! There's no yard at all?"

"They're willing to give you this," the agent said, and showed us a map with a bizarre almost W-shaped boundary drawn on it, with one zig and at least two zags.

"That yard is shaped like a curly fry," I said. "I was thinking more of a tater tot."

"Nope," the agent said.

It went back and forth like this for three weeks. I threatened to buy the house, keep the driveway in my yard, and stake a 6-foot fence right through the tar. In the meantime, we learned all about easements and surveyors, and we even visited that office in Government Center where they keep the maps. I had grotesque visions of the future, of our kids playing on the swing set we'd shoehorn into our W-shaped yard--they'd fly forward feet-first into the fence, then careen backward into the bushes. Their teachers would see the bruises and call the cops. I'd deny everything, but of course they'd never believe me. I'd have anger management problems from wrestling a lawnmower around the W's center zag every week.

Finally, we couldn't stand it.

"Do we get a rectangular yard or what?" I asked.

"Nope," the agent said.

So we became depressed, visions of marble fireplaces dancing through our heads.

My wife lay on the floor of our apartment, which by now felt as small as a shoebox. "I can't look at another house ever again."

"Me, either," I said. "Let's look at another house."

I suggested we try that other old house, around the corner, the one where I saw myself in boxer shorts. "Let's give them an offer that's low but not insulting. All they can say is no, and we already heard that today."

So we went back to that house.

We made a low offer.

The seller counteroffered.

We said, "OK."

The seller said, "OK."

Boom. We had a house.

It was the most polite house transaction I'd ever heard of. Took about five minutes.

My wife and I jumped for joy in each other's arms. "We have a house!" I said. "Hooray!"

"And look at these mortgage calculators!" my wife said, smiling. "If we eat peanut butter and jelly for 30 years, we can afford it."

I stopped jumping.

"Damn," I said.

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