Tuesday, July 24, 2007

This old (not really) house

We discovered a slight leak under our dishwasher last night, which Pete is in the process of repairing. When he told me that he'd found a leak, my heart just sank, because house repairs stress me out. Not because we don't know what to do with them, but because we once lived in a house that could have been in the movie "The Money Pit."

Let me tell you a bit more about that house...

When Pete and I got married in 1991, we were living in the college town where we'd gone to school. We had both gotten jobs upon graduation, but weren't making very much money, and it soon became clear to our young newlywed eyes that we would have to move elsewhere to find better jobs.

Early in 1992, Pete was offered a job in Washington, DC. It was with Very Large Corporation, which had a specific training program for techno-geeks such as my husband and the salary was almost as much as the two of us had been making down here in College Town. The Very Large Corp. had amazing benefits for its employees, including good insurance and fabulous retirement packages. There was even a program wherein Very Large Corp. would help employees buy their first home. An employee would have to work there two years to take advantage of this housing benefit.

So in 1994, Pete and I started looking at houses. We pored over maps trying to decide which suburb we wanted to live in. We drove through neighborhood after neighborhood to see if it was cute, if it was homey, if it had the right vibe. We looked at house after house, many of which were terrific, but that one of us would reject because it didn't smell right or it creeped us out or the neighbors creeped us out or it simply wasn't cute enough.

We eventually found a cute house that I fell in love with before we even walked in the front door. The owner had bought it as an investment property and ended up taking a bath on his investment, so he was ready to divest his holdings. The owner's name was Tony and I want you to imagine a contractor with a heavy New Joisey accent and Italian parentage. Tony bitched and moaned constantly about how much money he was losing on the deal. Tony owned some sort of home repair / handyman business, so he presumably knew what he was doing when he bought our house as an investment. Or, maybe he was simply an idiot.

Let me tell you now: If you ever plan to buy a house that has previously been used as a rental property, you should either 1) go inspect it thoroughly and run for the hills at the first sign of trouble OR 2) just run for the hills first and save yourself the hassle of the inspection.

Our home inspection didn't really turn up much of anything, except for a small leak in the basement, which Tony, after much grumping, had repaired, and then we moved in.

Our house had been built in the 1980s and I think the basic materials were cardboard, spit, and a little glue. Oh, and there was some glass in the windows, but the window frames were cardboard and spit too. The construction was that shoddy and it started to show before too long.

Our first sign of trouble in the house's long-term maintenance was when we noticed that Tony's crew had not bothered to wipe off the window sills when they painted the windows closed. We had to eventually scrape out dead bugs and even a couple of nails when we were trying to get the windows opened.

That leak in the basement? Another one popped up before too long. We had it fixed. Another one popped up several months later. This became a recurring theme in the five years we lived in the house.

We noticed a rotten place in the siding outside our kitchen. We scraped out the rot, filled in the siding, and repainted. More appeared. We dealt with it. More appeared again. We began to wonder if perhaps the siding hadn't been painted and maintained the way it should have been over the years.

The house was so poorly insulated that during the winters we kept an electric blanket on our sofa and encouraged guests to wear heavy sweaters. Even adding storm windows didn't help. We added insulation where we could, but it wasn't enough.

We then started hearing an odd crunching sound when we sat at the table in the kitchen. After many, many months we discovered that we had a serious rot problem in exterior siding (the same place I've already mentioned) that had led to carpenter ants coming in to eat the rotten wood, which then led to termites. How did we find out about all this? We came into the kitchen one day to find that termites had swarmed into the house.

We replaced the rotten siding and trim and paid an exterminator to put a lot of poison in and around our house. We also had all the rest of our siding and trim inspected carefully and then we had the exterior painted so as to 1) improve the color and 2) seal everything in the hopes that we wouldn't have any further problems with the rot. In other words, we did everything we could to fix the problem. Nothing seemed to work well for very long.

So we basically spent five years battling rot and a leaky basement and a house that had been poorly maintained during its lifetime.

At the same time, we were living in a decidedly unfriendly place -- the man next door actually encouraged his 11 year old son to shoot bottle rockets at our house and another neighbor waged a border dispute with us for years because she couldn't read a land survey and wanted to put her rabbit hutches in our yard. Virtually every family living around us had adults who were in their late 30s - early 40s and 1-3 children. We were 25 and childless when we moved in. We didn't fit their demographic so our attempts to get to know our neighbors were rebuffed repeatedly.

We knew northern Virginia was not the right place for us. We wanted to live in a real town with nice neighbors and a strong sense of community. By 1997 we were looking hard at other towns and even other states to find the right place for us. By 1999, when Graceful was only a few months old, Pete was interviewing for jobs elsewhere. He got an offer back down here in College Town and we put our house on the market and had five offers within 48 hours. We accepted one offer and worried for days about the coming inspection, which only turned up a few minor things. We suspected there was more that was not found. We had recently discovered that there was a class action lawsuit against the company that produced our exterior house siding, and we gave this information to the new owners of our house. This was a family that fit our neighborhood's demographic -- a father (who owned a painting company -- a very handy guy), a mother,and three children -- and we hoped they would enjoy the house and make friends with the neighbors.

When we moved back down here, our criteria was much different when we looked for houses. "Cute" didn't cut it. The house had to be built of brick or stone, not wood or composite siding. If there were any signs of water damage in the basement or elsewhere, all bets were off. The house had to be solidly built, so we tested for squeaky floors, doors that stuck (or not), and general use of materials. We looked closely at the overall maintenance. When we walked into this house, we knew we'd found the right place. We bought it from the original owner and she was absolutely meticulous. The builder has a solid reputation in this town too, which helped greatly. Cosmetically, this house was a nightmare, but anyone can fix paint and wallpaper, even if we'd never tackled anything like it before.

We've learned so much more in the past eight years. We'd never really done much interior painting, which is something we've since spent countless weekends doing in this house. Pete has learned a lot about plumbing and electrical work and we've replaced toilets and light fixtures. We've paid someone else to replace windows and doors, add two porches, and finish the basement.

Every now and then I think about that first house. We've driven by and seen what the new family has done to it. We think they've replaced the siding and we wonder if they've solved the water problems in the basement. We wonder if they curse us as much as we cursed Tony before us. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if we'd stayed there. Would we have eventually painted all those bland white walls with more vivid hues? Would we have renovated the kitchen and put in cabinets that didn't scream 1988? Would we have ripped up all the gross carpeting and put down wood and tile?

In spite of the problems we had with that house, I'm glad we bought it. We learned from it and it led us to this great house. A house that we've loved, even if it's not what we want architecturally. Even more important, our house is in a wonderful neighborhood that we love so much that we don't want to leave.

And, so I'm not so worried about the leak under our dishwasher. Pete will fix it and life will go on. Something else will pop up eventually and we'll deal with it. Yes, I might wring my hands and fuss a bit, but we can handle it.


Josie said...

I'm going thru growing pains with my house right now so I can relate to a point - but not on the same scale as your first house. Mine are electrical at the moment...

Aims said...

oh that sux....having got a tip-top building inspection done on my own place I am praying that nothing bad is going to happen... but one thing...I forgot to check the water pressure of the shower and it's bad. It's like someone sneezing on you, and just as pleasant. Plumber bills here we come!

Happy Working Mom said...

Wow, I would completely shoot myself! We're not much into home renovations at all, so if we had moved into a house that needed that many repairs we would have seriously cried.

I'm glad everything worked out for you guys, and I'm guessing by how quickly the offers came in that you made good money on the house anyway?

Jennifer said...

Happy Working Mom: We got lucky. We bought the house when the market was down and sold when the market was up, so we made a healthy profit. And then, we made the wise choice to buy a house

We had made almost no cosmetic changes and had not repainted any rooms, so the interior was pretty bland. A blank slate waiting to be filled with color. If I could go back in time, I'd put loads and loads of color on those vanilla walls.

Lori Anderson Designs said...

I miss my first house, ALSO in College Town. Sigh. Built in 1940, that thing was solid. This house -- not so much. Built in 2001 and it sucks eggs. I was sitting in the bath the other night and POW a nail popped out of the wall hard enough to shower me with paint chips.