The House Hunt Begins

My sister will be so disappointed.  Recently, she observed — enviously — that I was the only adult she knew who could still sleep late.  Not in Montgomery.  I’ve been going to bed earlier and getting up earlier.  Maybe it’s just the time change.

This morning I woke before my alarm and headed out to meet Susan, my realtor, at 9 am.  After taking virtual tours, I had sent her a list of a few properties I wanted to see in person.  By the end of the day, I had seen sixteen.  She was heading out to a birthday dinner party tonight, and I hope she has a good time.  She deserves it.

The realtor made sure the homeowners were out when we came to check into their closets, inspect their bathrooms and poke into their lives.  Only one was home, feeding an infant and apologizing for having taken the extra time to “get this one thing done before we leave.”  Otherwise, the homes, locked and alarmed, blazed with lighted lamps and breathed with the sound of music coming from every room.  

Some years ago I remember one was advised to throw some cookie dough in the oven (advice promulgated, no doubt, by Pillsbury) to lull prospective buyers into a state of helpless house lust.  I detected a candle or two, but today music and light have trumped cinnamon and spice as the way to a homebuyer’s heart.  Everywhere I went, the home’s entire inventory of televisions was tuned to a light jazz cable music channel.  

Sometimes it works.  Sometimes no amount of light and canned music is going to help.

I liked visiting houses with Susan.  Either she shared my taste or had the occupational ability to suss it out and claim it for herself.  By the fifth house she knew in advance if I’d like it, and we freely admired and deplored the same features.

I’ve lived in the New York house long enough to have done everything to it except tear it down and start all over again.  We ripped the roof down to the rafters; replaced the windows — twice; re-sided it; built a deck, and then a few years later, built an addition to the deck; renovated the bathroom; renovated the attic; cut  windows into the living room wall; laid new hardwood floors; converted from a behemoth oil burner/boiler to a miniature and highly efficient gas boiler; replaced the lead water main with 70 feet of copper, buried deep underground; built 70 feet of retaining wall; and renovated the kitchen, twice. 

I don’t want to do one-tenth of that stuff again.  I never want to see the fine particulate dust of three layers of asphalt roof puffing through every crack and seam in the house.  I never want to live for weeks without a kitchen, or have to wash dishes in the bathtub.  If I buy an older house, I want one where someone else has already done all this stuff, and to my taste.  

Is that too much to ask?

Apparently it is.  So I also saw new houses, even though they were farther out than I’d like, and older homes that needed something — like a new kitchen — but were substantially cheaper.  I am not eager to replace a kitchen, but this time vowed to do every bit of the work before we move in.   

Of the sixteen homes I saw, I liked five well enough to keep them in consideration.  That leaves eleven we can celebrate for various degrees of awfulness.

Perhaps I’m too harsh.  But you be the judge.

There was the “classic craftsman and Tudor … charmer” where “the bathroom enjoys a claw foot tub.”   In many ways the house was lovely, inside.  Outside it lacked curb appeal.  The door to the screened-in front porch hung open on its hinges, unable to close.  An odd-looking mound of sand on the front steps turned out, on closer inspection, to be a termite mound.  Even my untrained eye spotted the tunnels. 

Mr. NYer wants to garden, so the unassuming but substantial cottage that sat on the 98 x 200 foot lot looked like a winner.  Inside, it felt like a fortress, with solid wood floors and walls.  Outside, though, in the deepest recesses of the swampy backyard, was an ancient brick cookout that resembled a crematorium.  The house also featured a “guesthouse,” with a tenant, a gentleman who lives alone and seems to enjoy cigars. 

Then there was the gracious 1911 Victorian with beautiful woodwork in the front, great mouldings,  and a kitchen whose floor pitched downhill at about 20 degrees.  In the back, another guesthouse, this one with a roof line like a swaybacked horse, and a three-by-three foot metal roof patch blowing in the wind to reveal a gaping hole beneath. 

Another early twentieth century home, one Susan assessed as a “grandma house” included a large country kitchen with plywood cabinets and avocado dishwasher.  Finally, on the same street was a house so historic it had a name.  To protect the guilty, I won’t repeat it here.  We entered the “Famous Last Name” House to find large, gracious older rooms with full-length windows and French doors.  To the right was the formal living room, with fireplace and doors to the veranda.  To the left, the formal dining room, with fireplace.  Behind that another room that could be … the parlor?  A grand central hallway brought us to a galley kitchen with pink Formica counters.   Behind that, the house lost its senses and continued in a warren of rooms that connected through maze like corridors or anterooms.  Our favorite was a later addition, a huge wood-paneled room with odd stained glass pieces hung here and there.  On its interior walls were two windows revealing where the house used to end.  They opened into a now-interior bedroom that had no other source of ventilation. 

Finally, there was the grand house — also on the same street — where the owners took a corner bedroom and converted it into a master bath complete with separate shower, garden tub, double sinks, and … vinyl floor tile.  They created a sort of secret entrance to this room from one of the bedrooms — NOT the master bedroom as it happened — by removing two closets.  To get from the bedroom to the “adjoining” bath, you passed through a closet door, hung a sharp right and then a sharp left, and emerged from another closet door.

But it wasn’t all bad design and poor maintenance.  We saw some lovely homes, one that I considered making an offer on right away.  One of many nice things about Montgomery homes is the high ceilings and large floor-to-ceiling windows.  Another is the expectation that each bedroom should have its own bathroom, and a walk-in closet.  Since it’s not New York, where you leave your home to meet people, the houses are built for entertaining, with big dining rooms, connecting living rooms, generous galleries, bar areas, and convenient powder rooms. 

I was dismayed to see how many of the homes’ windows were painted shut, and surprised when I realized that none of them had screens.  It’s just too hot, humid and buggy to keep windows open here, Susan explained.  For a few short weeks in the spring and fall you might open the door for a while, but pretty soon you shut the house up tight and work to keep the moisture out. 

Anyhow, I got home, pulled out my notes and proceeded to fill out an excel sheet to compare the homes that got A’s or B’s.  Sent that off to Mr. NYer and we’ll review them tomorrow.  The realtor thinks a new house on a hot street will get listed on Monday recommends I see it.  Woohoo!

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3 Responses

  1. >>I don’t want to do one-tenth of that stuff again. I never want to see the fine particulate dust of three layers of asphalt roof puffing through every crack and seam in the house. <<

    Having renovated two old houses in three years, I hear ya. I would imagine that comparable houses in Birmingham would be half as much as one on SI, or am I wrong?

  2. You can definitely buy a lot more house here in Montgomery (about 90 miles from Birmingham) for less money than on SI. Maybe not half, but 60%, yes.

  3. How did I get the cities mixed up? I blame Randy Newman.

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