05 September 2010

Hunting Houses

My daughter and her fiance have decided it's time. They need their own place. Unfortunately, they both work such hours that it's difficult for them to look for houses together - which is why I've spent the last two Saturdays wandering around town looking at "fixers" with Bri.

Last week was with the realtor who helped us buy this house. She's also a friend, and she was willing to go out with us once for "window-shopping." Five houses, four of them "shotgun" style (originally three rooms, lined up front-to-back, so you could stand in the front door, fire a shotgun, and have the shot go straight out the back), although three of them had been added to. The remaining house was a two-story; we never left the ground floor.

Houses #1 and #2 were in acceptable structural shape but needed some updating. #3 was a tragedy: a beautiful, 100+ year old house with original, detailed, beautiful woodwork around the doors and windows, a front door that needed some gentle repairs to be restored to its original gloriously embellished state - and a ton of black mold, growing out of the mud room walls in huge tufts. Up to that point, we'd noted the floors needed refinishing, the fireplaces needed some work, the walls would have to be redone - but when we stepped into the kitchen and looked out the back door, we were horrified. And I was sick for four days after breathing mold spores for 10 minutes while we were there.

Bri was practically in tears. I could see why. Here is a lovely house, once a sweet home - one that could be again. But it's toxic. There's no way. They'd have to live in haz-mat masks for weeks, until they could get the back entry demolished and cleaned out. And if it was that bad on the surface, what's inside the walls? What's under the floor? What's living in the cellar?

We're all about "green." A big part of "green" is reusing, repurposing, and recycling. But I'm not sure that house is still in any condition to be repurposed or recycled. It may be too far gone for that. It's damn near criminal - a huge waste of resources and beauty.

The fourth house was the two-story. It took us a couple minutes to figure out it had been the scene of a rather nasty kitchen fire. It's going to take someone twice the mortgage amount to bring it back to a healthy standard of living.

The fifth was a charmer. Completely renovated, new kitchen, second bathroom, finished attic adding two bedrooms. Loads of natural light. All was well until after Judy, the realtor, had left. Bri and I were unloading my B-cycle (work bike-pool vehicle) from the rack so I could ride it back to the building to turn it in. We'd worked our way close to downtown, and in spite of the heat, I wanted to get a couple miles in. And up the street came a gentleman (I use the term loosely) with a brown paper sack grasped firmly in his waving right hand, shouting at the top of his lungs about what we could do to his hmm-hmm. And on and on. And on.

He never came more than about 20 yards from where we were, just stood in the middle of the street and bellowed obscenities and angry, drunken epithets, except for the seconds when he stopped for another gulp from the paper sack. But that was close enough. Our smittenness evaporated as I circled the bike around and took off up the street, with Bri in the car on my back fender.

She learned later from a friend who works for a mortgage finance company that there's a halfway house for recently released sex offenders a block up from the address. Um... no. Thank you.

This week was somewhat stressful. I was struggling to get a handle on an essential - but complex and very alien - process at work, I was sick for much of the week with evil allergy-related symptoms, and the young lovers were having some communication issues. (They're learning quite quickly to navigate those rough waters - it's one of the major advantages to waiting until you're old enough to know your own priorities before you commit to sharing a life with someone else!) We didn't have anything we needed to go back out with Judy, so instead, we girls struck out on our own this afternoon.

We viewed six houses from the outside. We found two keepers. One is another shotgun, in the Highlands - one of those charming neighborhoods made up of Victorian- to Arts & Crafts-period houses in a wide range of states of repair (or not). It's on a narrow side street, clean and bright, with sidewalks and beggar cats on the walk. It's blue, it has good windows and a cute fireplace (we could see it through the front windows), and a postage stamp yard. It backs up to an alley; there's room to park behind.

The other is a few blocks away from where I sit right now. It's one of those 1960s cookie-cutter ranches, and it's sad. The shrubs are overgrown, the flagpole is bent, the fence is falling in huge chunks of unfinished lumber. It's painted gray.Or putty. A non-color. But it has three beautiful trees in the front yard. The floors are bare plywood, some of the storm windows have come loose from their frames. The rail on the front porch is inexpertly constructed; it needs to be taken apart and rebuilt.

It has half again the floor space of the house in the Highlands. It has a garage - closed in now (apparently, someone had ideas of turning it into a family room) but easily opened back up. It has three bedrooms, two full bathrooms. It needs work, but they all do, in the price range of young lovers with excellent carpentry skills.

Mainly, that house needs love to break through its depressive state and bring it back to life. By the time we got home, Bri was thinking bright white exterior, red shutters, a cheery, welcoming blue front door; I was thinking a swing in the tree out front. Rocking chairs on the porch, azaleas in the yard, tomatoes and herbs by the kitchen door. I'd already made a list of the essential basic repairs - in priority order.

It's about green. It's about recycling and reusing. It's about giving new life to things someone else thought were worn out.

Both these houses have a lot of potential. I'm looking forward to next weekend.

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