Sunday, August 2, 2009

real estate adventures

I owe an immediate apology to anyone who is genuinely interested in my real estate excursions: I did not bring a camera and I have no pictures to share. I'm very sorry. Particularly because some of these things would have to be seen to be believed. I'm not sure I could have feasibly taken pictures anyway, but it would have been nice.

So I'm trying to come up with some intelligible way to share what we saw...I thought maybe a comparison/contrast chart, but I'm not sure how to do tables with blogger. Maybe I'll just do bullets; those are simple. The summing-up of the day's visits was, simply - wow. Here's what we saw.

House #1 (Maryland house, of which I posted all those pics):
  • First off: it looked to be ugly but in good repair, but that's not true. Apparently the house was jacked up for structural reasons some years ago - but the engineer was incompetent and moved it too far. They did hire another engineer to fix it, but ran out of money before they could repair the cosmetic damage from the over-jacking-up. The plaster on most of the walls and ceilings has cracks and has to be replaced. I think I could plaster walls. I do not think I can plaster ceilings. Apparently they got a contractor to estimate $50,000-60,000 to do all this (obviously less if we did some ourselves).

  • The electrical system and furnace have been inspected (of course I would inspect them again) and seem fine thus far, but they are old. Their efficiency is perhaps best indicated by the figures showing the owner paid $564 for heating oil in January 2008. (The water heater may be newer.)

  • Power is from oil dropped off by a contractor periodically. Which is fine, but it means the house is not plumbed for gas - no gas stove for me. Also, if I want a more modern heating system, I will probably have to build it from scratch, starting with a gas line from the street.

  • Roof - no idea how new it is.

  • At least some (maybe all) of the windows don't have storms. I don't mean no modern sliding storms - I mean no storms at all. Which also means no screens. I don't even know where you'd start, trying to buy storm windows and screens for non-standard windows from the 1920s, and I don't buy the realtor's comment that the windows have a really good seal (see heating bill cited above).

  • It has hideous old aluminum siding.

  • All the bedrooms are really small, including the master (no surprise, in an old house, but I've seen bigger bedrooms in older houses).

  • The main bathroom is miniscule - it has a bath but no shower, and is extremely cramped even that way. (My plans to add a claw-foot tub there are now scrapped.) However, it is not pink. It's sort of yellowy/peach - I think I could even live with it. (It was recently redone.)

  • On the bright side, the dining room really is big - enough for a nice long table. The yard is nice and spacious (needs trees around it for more privacy). The kitchen is not actually a bad size or use of space. The fridge is vintage, which is actually really fun.

  • The "walk-in closet" for the actually the sun porch, which the insane current resident is using as a closet. Obviously it should be a sun porch, but the included closet is tiny.

  • The 2nd and 3rd bedroom have a "jack-and-jill" style closet (i.e., they share one big one), which backs onto the hallway linen closet. This could be knocked out to add a bath big enough for a 5' tub (according to my inexact measurements). Of course, then neither of these rooms would have closets, and I can only figure out where to put a new closet in one of the rooms. That also means building walls...

  • The downstairs bath also has unmaximized space - knock out the built-in china cabinet, and it could be a 3/4 bath instead of 1/2.

  • The attic is fully as cool as expected.

  • The study has basically the potential expected. It used to be the kitchen, so it doesn't have hardwoods under the carpet and they'd have to be laid, but it is certainly ripe for floor-to-ceiling bookshelves.

  • There's a window-seat bench with storage on the stair landing. And there's the built-in china cabinet. And the built-in shelving in the living room is original, too.

  • The house is being sold as is, so all of these costs would have to come off the fair market value before picking an asking price. It's come down $40k already. I think FMV is about $30k below that - but that's without having to do any structural repairs. (Cosmetic, updates, whatever are fair game.) So that means we'd have to offer them around $100k below their asking price (pending inspections and getting some better numbers). They're not too likely to consider that.

  • On the whole, however, I like the house. It's lovely. It's charming. It has a great yard. It's on a pretty street. I think I would like living there. I could afford my renovations if I budgeted for them one at a time and did a lot of work myself.

  • It's adjacent to a couple of things that have been rezoned commercial - a lovely old church, and I think maybe a dentist's office. It could potentially be rezoned also. If it were, the value would increase (although it would drag down the overall value of the neighborhood as a residential area, I think).

  • Bottom line: it's still in the running. We've decided we don't want an offer on it ASAP (I was thinking we might be tempted). We want to wait and see what happens to it; whether any of the pricier properties in the neighborhood (in better repair) come down; and learn more about the type of repairs it needs.

House #2 (the one-time "my house" with the siding falling off):

  • To be fair, we expected it to be a disaster on the inside...we were not disappointed.

  • The elderly (80?) homeowners stayed right in their living room while we viewed it. They are somewhat unusual sellers.

  • The kitchen is square (rather than long and skinny), and a good layout. Pretty much everything in it would need to be replaced for cosmetic reasons, though it's all functional now.

  • The ceilings are really high - maybe ten feet. The trim is all beautiful. But...some of it has literally fallen off. (Replacement pieces could be bought at Home Depot - not an expensive fix, just kind of surprising.)

  • There are three fireplaces - dining room, living room, and hallway. None of them is working (i.e., thousands to get someone in and repair all the chimneys).

  • It's gas heat (yay!); like the other house, it has the original radiators. The water heater and furnace are five years old.

  • The roof appears to be very old and there are places where the siding is just plain missing - doesn't appear to have been added at all. It does have the original wood siding (where there is siding).

  • The brick back patio is in great shape. The second story of this patio (which opens out off the master) is big and an awesome feature. But I suspect it would require an engineer before it would be safe to walk on.

  • The attic is quite small; might admit one additional room. It has no basement, which is a real black mark from my point of view. The boiler and furnace are on the first floor!

  • There's only one bathroom - for a four-bedroom house. On the bright side, it's a really good size, and it already comes complete with a clawfoot bathtub! However, it is in SHOCKING shape (the bathroom, not the bathtub).

  • It's got built-ins almost everywhere - shelving space in the bedrooms, an angly storage space in the bathroom under the attic stairs, you name it.

  • They put on an addition...I don't know, a very long time ago. It basically makes an upstairs bedroom larger, and creates a good-sized extra downstairs room for which even the realtor could not name a purpose, although I asked him twice. Among the things I'd like that the house lacks are a downstairs bathroom and a library, and the added room seems like an obvious place - but it's got a lot of windows and it's open to the kitchen and foyer, and isn't really ideal for either of those purposes. Maybe if the dining room went there, the current dining room could become a library...?

  • I haven't yet set the overall tone of the disrepair (though it's actually not as shocking as I expected). The whole downstairs has hardwood floors...that have never been refinished. I mean not even originally. They look like the floor of your attic. I'm just bewildered.

  • Perhaps more interesting, the kitchen and part of the hallway downstairs have linoleum. It's so old that the pattern has literally been worn off all the middle blocks - they were printed, now they're smooth and beige. And yet it's not cracked or curled. The original builders used high-quality materials - and nobody has touched them since!

  • It's on a .55 acre parcel that is imagined by the city to be three adjacent lots, each 40' wide. They're asking more than $1M for all three lots, which is nonsense, but in any case many times what we could pay. We'd just want the middle lot with the house. But I think it might be too narrow even to have a driveway, and for me that's a deal-breaker. I won't buy a house and then park in the street.

  • Here's the most interesting part. Apparently there are some developers who have recently expressed interest in buying the whole property. Because of the local historic registry, the house could not be knocked down. The developers would have to find a buyer for the middle lot (and might insist before they would buy the whole parcel). I'm not sure anybody else has expressed interest in the house, and apparently it's only because of this development that the realtor would show the property to people (us) who aren't interested in the whole thing. The current sellers are obviously irrational; their property is worth (according to my research) about 60% of the asking price, but they have in months past turned down several offers (presumably for far less than they were asking). A developer would have no motivation to be irrational, and might sell the property for something like its true value. And the realtor said he would keep us in mind.

So that, anyway, is my not-at-all brief rendition of my adventures. The second house is not a disappointment - it's not as shocking as I had feared. The lack of a basement is a real blow, though. The first house - I'm shocked by the walls falling down (and even more concerned by the idea that, once we rip the walls down, we'd be obliged to take the opportunity to replace the wiring at heaven knows what cost), and by the fact that it's not plumbed for gas (so far as I can tell). I think I'm only really floored by things I wasn't planning for.

But I have learned at least two things. First, although I thought I had decided on the compromises I would make before I started looking, I am going to have to do what all those people on "Property Virgins" do - I'm going to have to make tradeoffs. One house is missing a room that I want; another doesn't have a basement. One house has gas heat; but none of the fireplaces work. I need to turn my research energies away from pricing tile and toward learning how expensive it is to replace wiring and whether I can really install plasterboard (walls, not ceiling) myself, so I can come into this educated.

The other thing I've learned is that the things I want in a house are not the things I thought I wanted. I thought I wanted three (or four!) bedrooms, something really historic, original floors and moldings and built-ins, two stories PLUS an attic, at least some yard, and all the finishes crying out to be redone. (And then there were perks I would love - an extra room for a library [what is this "den" business the kids are going on about these days? Two TVs? No, it needs bookshelves], a nice long dining room, a nice closet in the master bedroom, an extra full bath.) It looks like my heart will be swayed by the pretties, but my decision will be made by grimy practical things like whether it has a basement and a driveway, whether it's plumbed for gas, and the condition of the wiring. I note that I don't care about things like insulation (can put it in myself with a blower thing) or the roof (can just take $15k off the asking price). It's the things that creep toward $100k and whose cost can't easily be predicted that I'm going to have to worry about. Because I don't want to turn into my parents - moving into a lovely place with some invisible but important defects that they can never scrape together enough cash to fix, so they always live in something slightly decrepit. That's embarrassing.

Anyway, never fear. New adventures, and new properties, will shortly be forthcoming. And I will work on the brevity thing.


  1. I think I know a lot more about house hunting just by following your blog. So thank you. I am sure we will actually buy a house someday.

    Seriously, the con.ception isn't bad. But like I said, I do really like biology so I wasn't weirded out by having to find my cervix and what not.

  2. Structural issues are always, always baaaad news. I'm sorry that the house turned out to be more trouble than it looked. And while doing drywall yourself is far from impossible, it's a royal pain in the ass and a huge nasty mess. My extremely handy FIL who worked as a master carpenter and quality assurance guy in construction always hires someone to do it, because it sucks so much. Plaster ceilings with cracks... ay ay ay. That's a real hazard.

    I think you have to look at properties to get a good sense of what might work and what's a real deal breaker. We fell for the outside of this amazing Gothic-style farmhouse with upteen porches in a gorgeous remote spot--only to discover it had one of those craptastic outdoor furnaces (just wait 'til they start taxing carbon, people), NO WELL (!!! they got their water in a huge tank on the back of their pickup from down the road), and no updates since the early 1960s (and little cleaning in the last few years). Sigh. However, it showed us that we weren't really up for a complete redo, nor that we were into things like digging wells and removing outdoor furnaces. So you've already learned a lot and will continue to get a grasp of the perfect balance.

    I'm loving following your househunting! Too bad I can't reciprocate by getting hunting myself. Soon, soon...

  3. Good luck on house-hunting. I know first-hand what a pain it is. I've owned before, though, and I must say it's wonderful to finally walk into house with which you fall in love right away, and everything works out (re: financing, etc.).

    By the way, I answered your mortgage question on my blog. :) I guess what I was saying must have sounded odd to an American person!

  4. As the owner of a house built in 1902 and having spent 10 years completely restoring it, I must tell you that the first house sounds as if it would take a considerable amount a time, money and expertise for a first time home buyer to make habitable. There is a very good reason that that house is still available and is being sold as is, when you move a house you can damage many things if it is not done correctly, and the damage to the plaster walls indicate that the plumbing will also need to be redone as the pipes are broken and the wiring will need to be redone as they will be stretched against the wood and can some day fray and cause a fire. All of this is very expensive and is why no one has bought this house, please have an inspector look at this before you purchase this house.

  5. I like what Melissa had to say...get an inspection. To me...since neither my dh or I are the handy type or do it ourselfer's...neither house sounds appealing to me...too much work and the asking prices don't sound reasonable. I wonder if that older couple don't really want to sell that house? It's odd that they have gotten offers but refuse when their house needs obvious repairs. You have a good eye when looking at houses. I wonder if there's anyway you can get that vintage house without having to break the bank or your back! I'll keep praying for you and your dh as you continue on this house hunt! Blessings.

  6. Thanks for all the wise comments. I would never close on a house without getting all the inspections (and having an inspection contingency so I can drop the price or walk away), but with House #1 having so many unknowns, I might need to do an inspection *before* I made an offer. Never fear - I'm not just going to roll the dice. (You may be interested to know that I've found four more worth visiting - all a little out of my budget, in hopes that they come down in fall.)

    Melissia - you made a really good point that I (can't believe I) didn't even think of - cracks in the plaster mean damage to the wires and pipes! Certainly if the plumbing is clay. PVC might survive but no way she updated her plumbing that recently. And I just can't imagine taking on walls, ceilings, and a HOUSE FULL of plumbing and wiring, unless I could knock the full cost of repairs off the price, add it to the mortgage, and pay to have it all done the month I move in. (Also, Melissia, I commented on your blog.)

    Which brings me back to shinejil's point. If I want a historic fixer (and I do) and there's any chance I could get pregnant, I need to get this house show on the road before I have to worry about VOCs and, God forbid, infants.