Sunday, July 24, 2005

A New Home, Part III: Sanding, scraping, and sealing the deal

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[In our last two episodes, we followed Dan and his wife as they found and bought a new house. In this final episode, the two new mortgage slaves dig themselves a money pit -- but one of those nice ones.]

To make a long story a little longer, one day my wife and I got together with the fantastic lady who sold us her house. And in the presence of the Almighty and the registrar of deeds, we closed on our new home.

The lawyer pushed at us a stack of papers the size of a Brooklyn phone book.

"Sign every page," he said.

"Just a sec," I said, carving my signature into a potato stamp.

After a brief tug of war over the down payment check, my wife and I, giddy with excitement, headed to the house. My wife put me down on the other side of the threshold, and we took our first look at the new place.

"I hope this place is haunted," I said.

"Me too," my wife said.

The handyman can

My whole life, I'd lived in apartments under someone else's liability. When I became a homeowner, I had to adjust to being in co-charge of everything -- and co-fixing stuff.

"Are you handy?" the nice lady who sold us her house had asked me at the closing.

After the laughter subsided, I wiped my eyes. "Oh, God. Don't do that again -- my stomach hurts."

But, overnight, it was imperative that I become at least handy enough.

This was difficult. Somehow, every little piece of the house became broken. The doors began to stick. All the window screens had holes in them, and some also had dead beetles fused to the metal. If I looked at the kitchen drawers cockeyed, they wouldn't open. I'd force them open, and then they couldn't close again. Worse, I found stuff in the walls that needed a professional touch, like electrical wires and gas pipes -- expensive stuff.

After a day or so, I developed the habit of involuntarily groaning whenever I bent over or picked anything up or sat down.

I also tapped reserves of chronic profanity I never knew I had.

"#$%*!" I yelled one day, watching toast crumbs fall on the floor. I pulled a paper towel off the roll and felt that the spindle was loose: "Blankety-blank!" Then I bent over to wipe the floor: "Unnngh."

"You OK, honey?" my wife asked. She was covered in sweat and flecks of wallpaper were tangled in her hair from remodeling our new offices.

I pointed at the floor. "It's [expletives deleted] and [expletives deleted] I can't [expletives deleted] a [expletives deleted]." I leaned over to toss the paper towel in the garbage. "Unnngh."

"There's more crumbs over there," she said.

Mow better blues

And then the dreams started.

They were all identical, and I had them every night. They left me with a strange feeling I couldn't shake, no matter how hard I tried.

One evening, my wife caught me picking listlessly at my dinner, then flinging gobs of it on the floor and mashing it into the wood with my bare fists.

"There's something wrong," my wife said, her arms streaked with blue, green and white paint. "Don't try hide it from me."

"I keep having these recurring dreams," I said. "In them, I'm mowing the grass."

A very long, very quiet time passed. We both felt a slight quivering motion that could only be the turning of the earth on its axis.

"And?" my wife said.

"That's it."

My wife cracked her knuckles. She lives for dream analysis. "I'd say you're experiencing acute anxiety over taking on the new burdens of being a homeowner. Your subconscious is literally mowing your overgrown post-adolescence into the neatly trimmed plateau of adulthood."

I was staring out the window, my lower lip quivering. "I never had grass before. I'm Portuguese -- we pave that over, except for the kale garden." I had a spate of chronic profanity for a few minutes, then said, "I see dead grass."

Then, I had other dreams. In them, I was pulling crabgrass. I was spackling holes. Most bafflingly, I was not replacing light switches -- in my dream, I was on the Internet, looking up how to replace light switches.

For a two-week stretch, I literally went to Home Depot or Lowe's or Job Lot every single day. One day, I went to all three, just to catch up with the guys.

My wife and I were resting one day, on the floor, slick with sweat and stoned on latex paint fumes.

"Unnngh," I said as my legs twitched reflexively.

"Good -- you're getting up," she said. "I need something from Job Lot."

I scream, you scream

At the end of our third week, my wife and I realized we hadn't seen each other in days. I'd been working seven days a week, and she'd been painting and stripping wallpaper nonstop. And what was the point of having a house if I couldn't see my wife?

"Let's get [expletives deleted] ice cream," I said.

We drove to Somerset Creamery and sat under a tree.

"You like the house?" I asked.

"I do, but it's nice to leave it once in a while," she said. "Do you?"

"[Expletives deleted]," I said.

My wife held up her poor hands, twisted into claws. "I can't move my fingers -- it's from holding the wallpaper scraper and the paint roller. It feels like I have arthritis."

"My hip hurts," I said. "I nicked it with the weed-whacker."

Suddenly, the streetlights came on overhead.

"I think our house is haunted," my wife said. "By old people."

"And they're taking possession of our young bodies," I said, picking up a fallen napkin. "Unnngh."

We let that sink in slowly for a while, then went to the car and sat there in silence.

My wife let out a roaring six-second belch. She glanced quickly over at the next car, where a couple not much younger than us was eating cones on what looked obviously like an early date.

"Uh-oh," she said. "You think they heard me?"

"I think Connecticut heard you," I said. "Who cares? It's a story they can tell their grandchildren."

And then we went home again.

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.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

A New Home, Part I: The smell of the house-hunt

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I clearly remember a time, not so long ago, when I promised that if Hess won the right to put a liquefied natural gas terminal here, I would not be around to hear the energy corporation fat-cats decork the champagne.

"If Fall River gets that lousy LNG terminal, I'm so leaving!" I said to my wife one day. "I mean -- we're so leaving."

"Yeah!" she said.

"I won't watch everybody's property values go in the toilet! And I'm sick of polluting industries taking a crap all over this city because it's full of poor people!" I roared. "And I'm even more sick of idiots who want to whore this city out to those industries and let them abuse our natural resources! Sure -- put a landfill near the drinking water! Oh, we'd love to put your rubber factory near the tenements!"

"So true!" my wife said, coughing a little.

"Want to heave a colossal 980-foot tanker full of explosive fluid up the river, past where moms are walking their babies by the waterfront that we finally started fixing up? And then you want to dock the LNG tanker next door to some old lady whose house is now as cheap as a six-pack? Go ahead -- I live across town!"

"Preach!" my wife said.

I began laughing hysterically, then crying hysterically, then laughing hysterically again. At some point I recovered enough to pick up my Chinese food again.

"This city's rotten luck keeps repeating itself because greedy morons will never stop exploiting this city and its people! If the LNG tank comes, we'll move!" I said. "This, I vow!"

My wife nodded. "Fall River needs nice, young professional people like us to live here," she said. "But if this city lets itself stay a dumping ground for industry nobody else wants instead of courting better industries, then we should blow this taco stand."

A strange but true coincidence: On June 30, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission gave Hess LNG the right to build its massive import terminal on about 60 acres of land in a residential neighborhood. FERC put thousands of people in the LNG blast radius, thousands more in the radius where you'd only get second-degree burns, and made the rest subject to snarled traffic, a blighted waterfront and lousy property values.

On that same day, my wife and I closed on our first home. We began moving an hour later.

The house is in Fall River.

Yes -- that Fall River.

These things happen, I guess.


Abe Lincoln in Bristol

We lived in a fantastic apartment. It was as big as your average starter home. The landlords were wonderful people, and still are. But my wife and I entered that stage in life where we need something to own. Also, I really, really wanted to buy a meat smoker.

So we made a list.

"Where do you want to spend the next 30 years?" my wife said.

"Rome!" I said. "Remember the ice cream?"

My wife's fingers poised over the computer keys. "The commute is kind of long. Say, this place looks nice. A three-bedroom cape with a workshop and pool. It's in Bristol."

Bristol! Historic Bristol! Upscale, fabulous Bristol!

"This place is a dump," I whispered to my wife as we strolled through that house. Every inch of it was covered in some sort of country kitsch decoration like an invasive, tacky mold.

My wife could only stand to peek through her fingers. "It looks like a Christmas Tree Shop threw up in a log cabin."

"They have an Abe Lincoln thing going," Agent No. 1 said, then lowered her voice. "The sellers are motivated. They're having marriage problems, and it's getting worse every day."

"Is it over the putrid decorating?" my wife said.

In not as many words, she said yes. It was.

We went upstairs, into a flimsy addition. Between the creaking, the swaying, the cramped quarters and the old exposed wood, I felt like I'd finally realized my dream of being on a pirate ship. I dropped a pencil and watched it tumble quickly against the outside wall, then roll back.

"Got anything else?" my wife said. "We don't want a raised ranch, nothing on the far side of Bristol, and nothing too pricey."

"I'll put you on my list!" Agent No. 1 said. Later, my wife would receive daily e-mails, all of them expensive raised ranches on the far side of Bristol. They ended up in her "spam" folder.


The agony of the feet

We went to open houses in Somerset, made appointments in Warwick. We looked near and far.

"For the price of a house in Fall River, we can get a condo -- and live in the best city on the East Coast!" I said.

"New York?" my wife said.

"No, New York's for self-important phony assholes," I said. "Boston!"

So up to Jamaica Plain we went. We had a bunch of condo viewings on the same day and drove to the first one, on Heath Street, near Roxbury.

I'm wondering how to describe it. You know crackhouses? That.

"Gaaaaah!" we said.

I gestured wildly to my wife, who was at the wheel. "Drive drive drive! Go go go!"

At the next one, Agent No. 2 stood us up. We stood outside in a mist, bouncing on the porch's soft wood, while Agent No. 3 showed up with two guys.

"Where's your Realtor?" No. 3 asked us.

"I don't know," my wife said, checking her watch, "but as of six minutes ago, she's a jerk."

"It's sort of under agreement already, anyway." Then No. 3 turned to his clients. "They're taking backup offers," he told them.

We left and tried another place, by a small park in Dorchester. Real Estate Agent No. 4 took us inside another condo. It smelled like sour feet.

I nudged my wife. "It smells like--"

"I smell it, too," she said.

The interior wasn't bad -- but it was tiny and there was no place for my wife to put her office.

"Mphfm thrf phrfmh," I said.

"Excuse me?" No. 4 said.

I took my hand off my nose. "We'll let you know."

My wife and I were strolling through the park, hand in hand.

"I like the city, but I don't think we'll ever find anything nice here," my wife said.

"Even if we do, there's something to think about," I said.

I pointed. In the distance, closer than I'd realized, was Boston's huge, striped LNG tank.

"Damn," I said.
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