Wednesday, November 2, 2016

. . . To Make a House a Home

My friend Xavier has been telling the story of the house that he and his family have lived in for the past several years. It's a great story, and I encourage any of my readers to go and read it (here, and here and here and here). His story also provoked my own memories of how we came to live in the house we do, which is a pretty decent story in its own right. . .


It was 17 years ago this month, in November of 1999, that Jenn and I went on a 'couple's getaway' to a bed-and-breakfast in Pentwater, MI, a lovely village on the shores of Lake Michigan (honestly, if you ever get the chance to spend time in Pentwater, take it). We had a lovely time together, walking on the beach (the rapidly-chilling fall weather notwithstanding), and enjoying the ambience of an off-season tourist town, and each other's company, glad for a weekend's respite from our seven (at the time) children. Reluctantly, when it came time to return to home and the real world, we got in our car for the three hours' drive home.

We were maybe 20 minutes into the drive when Jenn turned to face me and sighed heavily. "We need a new house," she said, soberly.

Clever woman, my wife; get your husband all softened up with romantic walks on the beach, and, um, you know, romantic stuff, then drop the hammer on him.

I continued driving, my eyes fixed on the road ahead. "Why do you say that?" I asked.

Honestly, I knew what she was talking about - our 1400-square-foot domicile had long since become too small for the two of us and the seven children God had blessed us with. We had taken some measures to squeeze as much 'living space' as we could out of the increasingly meager space we had. I had built a loft in the three boys' (3M, 4M, and 5M) bedroom, so they could all sleep in their tiny 10x12 bedroom, but still have a bit of open floor space in which to play. And Jenn and I had taken to sleeping on a hide-a-bed in the 'back bedroom' which mainly served as a playroom for the 'little kids' (6F and 7M) during the day. But no matter what we did, it was becoming impossible to cram the nine of us into the house we had.

I had floated some ideas about expanding the house - adding a second floor to the back addition, converting the attic into 'liveable' space - an office, or play space, bumping up the liveable square-footage to something closer to 1700 or so, and I was in the planning stages of financing the project, but now Jenn was weighing in with her thoughts on my plan.

"None of those things does anything about sitting all our kids, and their spouses and kids, around our table for the holidays," she noted. "We'll just end up needing something bigger in another few years, anyway."

I had to admit, her logic was pretty flawless. Leave it to my wife to be thinking ahead to holiday dinners with our kids' families, years in the future. We talked some more, and then I mulled her words over for a while as we drove ever-closer to home. I really didn't want to move; the last time we'd sold a house, we'd ended up owning two houses for two years or more, and ended up selling our first house at a loss, just to get out from under it. So I was not exactly looking forward to going through another round of buying and trying to sell a house.

Finally, I collected my thoughts into a pile and told her, "Okay, I'll agree to move, if three conditions are met. One, we're walking distance from the kids' school right now; I still want to be walking distance from the same school." (It was our parish school; we knew and were comfortable with the school and all the teachers, and were well dug-in with lots of good relationships there). "Second," I continued, "it has to be at least 2000 square feet, or it's not worth moving. And third, it has to be affordable." I named a price which was about double what we were paying for our house-at-the-time, but wouldn't strain our budget more than we could handle. "If you can find that house," I said, "I'll buy it. But I don't think you can."

You can see why Jenn likes to call me 'Mr. Supportive'. . .

We got back home, and life returned to normal - including the cross-bar in the hide-a-bed that ground against my ribs every night - and I almost forgot about our conversation in the car on the way home from Pentwater.

Then one day, Jenn came to me, more excited than usual (and you know, she's usually pretty upbeat and energetic, so this was notable). "I want us to go look at a house tonight," she enthused.

Damn; so she'd really meant it.

I agreed, so she called the realtor, who came by and let us into the house. It was three blocks from the kids' school (on the opposite side of the school from where we were living), on a dead-end street with a large park at the dead end. Okay. . . so far, so good. We drove up, and it was obvious that it was much larger than the house we then had. Okay. . . that's two. And the neighbors on both sides of the place were good friends of ours. Hmmmm. . . bonus points?

We went inside and looked around. Which wasn't easy, because the power had been turned off.


At this point, I need to go off on a bit of a digression, which (I hope) will, in the fullness of time, add detail to the story. . .

The house was originally built in 1922. At the time, it was a large-ish single-family house. In fact, it was a farm house, just outside of the 1922 boundaries of OurTown, between OurTown proper and East OurTown, the college town five miles away. In time, both OurTown and East OurTown expanded, and the small farm for which our house was the farmhouse was broken into lots, and it all became part of the surrounding city. And so life went for the first 50 years or so of its existence.

Then, sometime in the 70s, the neighborhood we live in went through a kind of mini-collapse, and slumlords investors came in and scooped up all kinds of newly-distressed properties, of which ours was one.

The slumlord gentleman who bought our house reasoned, with flawless logic, that he'd wring more money out of his property if he could collect two, or even three, rents every month than if he rented it out as a large single-family dwelling. And it was certainly big enough, if a slumlord fellow were a little creative, to do just that.

He boarded up doorways and dolled up one end of the basement (including punching a hole in the foundation wall for an egress door), and turned it into a three-unit rental. Then, sometime in the 80s or early 90s (we think, from the neighbors' stories), they had a whopper of a flood, and the basement unit became functionally useless (at least, he couldn't muster the motivation to clean it up and render it habitable again).

I'm not sure what, exactly, precipitated the crisis, but in the fall of '99 the slumlord (who may or may not have been living in one of the units) abandoned the property. And when I say he abandoned it, I mean he abandoned it. . .


So, when we came for our first look at the house, it was December. The first thing I remember about the house that would eventually become ours, is the puddles of ice on all the floors. The slumlord previous owner walked away from the place, and didn't even bother to drain the hot-water heating system before winter (it wasn't his house anymore, so what the hell did he care?). So, all the old cast-iron heat radiators cracked and spilled water on all the floors, which (mercifully) quickly froze.

But, as we looked around, I started to see possibilities in the place. The front door opened into the living room, and just to the right of the door was a small 'parlor' which whispered to me, 'Study'. I'd long wanted to have a study, where I could retreat for some short relief from the chaos of seven kids. It was part of my plan for the old house, to finish the attic. But. . . here was a study, ready-made and waiting. Nice. . .

There were other nice features - the built-in china cabinets in the dining room (which we found out later were mahogany that the slumlord previous owner had painted over; in fact, all of the trim in the living and dining rooms was painted-over mahogany. . . aarrgghhh!), the honest-to-goodness master bedroom (good-bye, hide-a-bed!), and a spacious family room in the back (at the opposite end of the house from the 'Study'!)

To make a long story a little less long, the house was to be sold at auction, and the 'nominal' price was exactly the number I'd given Jenn in our talk in the car. We could have put in a lower bid, but we thought, why try to grab it on the cheap and risk getting outbid? So we made a full-price bid (plus $10, just to remove the possibility that another bid might tie ours) (yeah, we were probably a tad over-eager. . .)

The day we closed, our new neighbors ripped out the fence separating our yard from theirs, opening up the three back yards together for their kids and ours. . .


We were still left with the problem of selling our then-current house. We interviewed four realtors. Two of them took the attitude that our house was a slum-house in a slum-neighborhood, so we should just low-ball the price and get out as quick as we could. The other two actually saw some possibilities in the place, and were aware of a swell of demand in our part of town. Obviously, we chose one of the latter, and set the price at a level that I thought was extravagantly high, but our agent assured us that it was well-priced, and if it didn't sell, we could drop the price, but let's give it a chance. . . And he gave us a set of 'assignments' to get the house ready to sell. We pulled up the dingy old living-room carpet, only to find a full hardwood floor underneath it; we painted, we pulled up the carpet from the upstairs bathroom (yes, you read that right), painted, finished the living room floor, and then painted.  He even told us to put our books (35 boxes worth!) in storage, to make the place look more spacious. We rang in the New Milennium painting the living room (and duly rejoiced when the lights stayed on past midnight. . .)

Lo and behold, within less than a month, we had a full-price offer. In fact, the buyers specifically asked if we would mind leaving the loft in the upstairs bedroom. Which I was only too happy to accommodate, since I didn't really want to deal with the hassle of dismantling and disposing of it. . .

One final bit of the story. Our buyers were financing through the VA, and VA inspectors are notoriously, um, I don't want to say 'capricious', but you get the idea. The inspector wanted us to reseal the flat roof on the back addition. Well, I had just resealed it the previous year, and I told him so, but he wouldn't budge. Thing was, it was early March, which is still winter in this part of the world, and you can't seal a roof in early March - the tar just won't flow. He wanted us to set up an escrow account to have the work done the following summer, but I just told the guy (and not with a smile), "First 75-degree day that comes along, I'll seal it." And lo and behold - I think it was the very next day - we got a 75-degree day. In the single-digit days of March. So I took the day off work, went and bought a 5-gallon bucket of roof tar, and sealed the roof. Never let it be said that I'm un-cooperative (and, uh, hat tip to God. . .)


Turns out, we turned enough of a profit from the sale of the old home to fix the new place up and revert it back to single-family status. We replaced the broken hot-water system with forced-air and central A/C for the same price we would have paid for a new hot-water system, restored the basement apartment to useability (which was nice for us, since our older kids were just approaching college age, and it was a nice feature for us to have the basement unit for them to use as a kind of 'launching pad'), and we even discovered 100-or-so square feet of 'dead space' which we added to the two second-floor bedrooms.

And we bought a brand-new queen-size bed for Jenn and me to sleep on. . .

There are more stories I could tell, but this is already waaaayyyyy too long. We've been living here for more than 16 years now, and even welcomed another kid into our family.  And we've made a few more improvements along the way (those mahogany china cabinets are magnificent without the paint; to say nothing of the skylights in the family room; or the kitchen remodel that Jenn's brother did in '07). The place has its idiosyncracies even still, but we have no doubt (and perhaps you'll agree) that God gave it to us. . .


  1. Awesome story! As they say on HGTV, sounds like your home has lots of character.

    1. 'Character' is a kind way of putting it. . .


      Actually, I really like the neighborhood we live in. The houses were mostly built in the 1910's and '20s, and the best of 'em have lots of beautiful hardwood trim. 'Course, sometimes, you have to strip away 50 years of paint to find the hardwood. . .

  2. Sounds like you've gotten more accomplished in 16 years than we've managed in 26 .... but those old structures sure are tough, ain't they?

    1. Where we live, it ain't so much that the old houses are tough, as it is trying to 'restore what the locust/slumlord has eaten'. . .

      (and if it seems like I'm comparing slumlords to rapacious insects, that would be entirely intentional. . .)

  3. Your description of the house prior to your purchase reminds me a lot of what happened in certain neighborhoods of Palo Alto in the late '50s to early '70s.
    Those homes all had really good bones and survived much turmoil if they didn't burn down.
    I believe the same thing occurred in Berzerkley, as well.
    (misspelling intentiional - it's a state school)

    1. I've heard about Berzerkley. . .

      The thing that keeps impressing me, over and over, about these older, urban neighborhoods, is how well they thrive if all they have is people who give a shit. . .

  4. You are in many, many ways a lucky man and i know you know that.

    1. I DO know that, and thanks for reminding me of it. . .

      But now I'm wondering what you've read here that provokes the comment (one can never be too specific about counting one's blessings. . .)