Sunday, November 15, 2009

A Sneak Peek at Our House

Assuming all goes well with inspections, we'll be moving on December 15.

We're excited. We'd looked at about 20 different houses by the time we saw this one, many of those documented in an earlier post, but when we saw this one we knew it was the right one for us. I'd actually seen the house online before and liked it, but at the time it was a good $25,000 out of our price range, so I put it out of mind.

But then the sellers dropped their price significantly, putting it in the range in which we were looking, and it showed up in the set of new listings our agent sent us. We immediately made plans to see it. And as soon as we walked in, I was hooked. It was what we'd been looking for: an old house with character, in a neighborhood within walking/biking distance of Duke and downtown, two stories, three bedrooms, and in move-in condition.

The Kitchen

The Dining Room

The Living Room

So after seeing it for the first time on Tuesday morning, we returned Wednesday at lunch time for a second look. We received answers to a few questions Wednesday night, and then on Thursday at lunch time, we made an offer on the house.

The Durham market isn't much different than any market around the country at the moment, and there are a lot of houses sitting a long time on the market. We'd seen a lot of houses that had been listed for 200+ days. This wasn't the housing market of a few years ago when you had to make an offer the moment you saw a house and sometimes even offer more than the list price.

But I guess a good house is a good house, regardless of the market. As soon as the sellers dropped their price, the house started to see a lot of traffic, at least according to the listing agent. We had time to see it twice, but this wasn't a house for sitting on. In fact, as we were putting in our offer, we learned that another couple was seeing the house for a second time at that very moment. Hoping to beat them to the punch, we put a short expiration on our offer. But we still took a gamble, offering them $7,000 less than list price. We are in a buyer's market, after all.

All evening, whenever the phone rang, my heart seized up. But we didn't get any news except that one of the sellers was on the way home from out of town, and we wouldn't hear until the morning. The expiration on our offer was noon. At 6:10 am, we had to be on a plane heading to Texas for a wedding. We let our agent know when we'd be available while on layover in Houston, and when we'd finally land in San Antonio.

Through our entire layover, we held onto the phone and checked in for messages a few time, but it didn't ring and we were told over and over no new messages. Then we get on the plane and go to turn the phone off and are suddenly told we have two new messages. We dial up and listen.

The first message: They've countered with an offer $3,000 higher than ours.

We're thrilled. We expected a counter-offer, and this will work for us. We're ready to call our agent back and say accept. But first we check the second message.

The second message: As our agent was conveying their counter-offer to us, she got another call. Deal off. The sellers were getting a second offer. We now had to put in our best and final offer.

Elation to disappointment within a minute. Of course at this point the plane is about to take off and the stewardess is making us turn off our phone. There's nothing we can do but spend the entire flight thinking about the situation and what we want to do.

Once safely on the ground in San Antonio, we're on the phone. First to our agent to talk about our options. Then to our parents in search of some advice. We weren't really looking to get in a bidding war. Damn it, this is supposed to be a buyer's market! But we feel really strongly that this is the house for us. We think and ponder and debate. We pro and con. I try to rationalize my emotional response. In the end, we go for it. We put in an escalating bid, offering to pay $1,000 more than the other people placing a bid, but capping our offer at $1,000 over list price. We want the house, but we decide that if the other people are willing to pay well over list, then it just isn't meant to be. We also figure that if we do win, we'll be paying full price + $1,000. Knowing they're in competition and have to put in a best and final offer, we figure they'll put in full price. Why would you do anything else?

Well, I still don't know the answer to that question, but the other couple offered $3,000 less than list price. This means the house is ours, and we still don't have to pay full list price in the end. Woohoo!

When the call came, we were thrilled...and relieved.

I have to say that I hated the whole experience once we got into the offer phase. I am not a gambler and that's what this felt like to me. That kind of anxiety is not for me. I also don't like that kind of disappointment. So thank goodness we won. I love the house. I love the location. I love the neighborhood. It's an exciting new move for us.

But I'd be lying if I didn't admit that I have some reservations. A house is so permanent, so tying. I can't just call up my leasing office and say I'm moving out in 6 weeks. I'm stuck with it. And the financial responsibility is pretty darn big too. I have to say that when we signed the contract, I felt thrilled, as well as completely sick to my stomach. Do you know how many times we could go around the world with that kind of money?

Monday, November 09, 2009

Silly Zoo, That's What Lions are Supposed to Do

Check out this article in the Washington Post: At the Zoo, No Escape for a Deer in the Lions' Den

Is it just me or does anyone else think they should have just left the deer in there? I, for one, am happy to see that the lions, probably zoo animals since birth, still retain their natural instinct to hunt and kill. I think it would have been awesome to witness this. I certainly wouldn't have run away screaming nor would I have cheered for the deer; I'd be cheering for the lions.

Also, didn't the zoo realize that this would be one less meal they'd have to provide if they just left the deer in the cage? It died anyways, so now it's just wasted meat. Plus, anyone who has lived in the area knows that Rock Creek Park has a serious deer overpopulation problem. It's not like they're endangered. And, finally, the deer jumped into the cage. Obviously, he's not the brightest of the bunch, so let's let survival of the fittest do it's job. What do you say?

Thursday, November 05, 2009

The Hunt for a House

Jeff and I decided that when we moved to North Carolina we would buy a house, so before we got here we spent a lot of time thinking about what we wanted. We had a few solid ideas. We wanted an older home with character in a lively neighborhood close to restaurants and shops (think Highlands if you're in Louisville; Ballard if you're in Seattle). We wanted to be close to Duke so that Jeff could continue to ride his bike to work. We wanted 3 bedrooms and 2 baths, something with room for guests and an office but not too much extra space that we'd just have to furnish and clean. We wanted it to be in live-in condition. Though the idea of renovating an old house has its appeal, we're realistic enough to know that right now we don't have the time...or the know-how.

So our first two days here, we just rode all over Durham trying to get a feel for it, figuring out which neighborhoods looked like good fits and which didn't. On our third day, we went out with a realtor and saw 11 houses. Two days later we went out and saw 2 additional houses. On Tuesday, we went and saw 1 more. So far, that's 14 houses that we've seen in person. How many we've looked at online I can't even begin to guess. Yet we're still at square one, without a house that we want to purchase.

We've seen some interesting houses though. We've seen two that must have had previous lives as boarding houses, as none of the rooms were connected, with each and every one opening up into a hallway that ran straight from the front door down the middle of the house. They had some cool old fireplaces and doors but weren't exactly livable. One also had a styrofoam ceiling. That's a new one for me.

We've seen one that was firmly situated on the corner of Okay and Not Okay. The tricky thing with Durham is that you can cross one street and go from a neighborhood of lovely, well-maintained homes to a neighborhood you wouldn't walk through by yourself at night...and maybe not during the day. This house, if approached from the south, seemed to be well located. If approached from the north, it seemed to border the ghetto. And for us, the corner of Okay and Not Okay is pretty much Not Okay. (Props to my friend Kate for this original reference, which Jeff and I love.)

We've seen a couple that used to be duplexes but have been reconverted back into single family homes. By reconverted I mean that they simply filled the window and door areas with drywall while leaving the framing. Very classy.

We've seen a cool solar home, but it was a bit far away and more of an ideal set up for a single person, or at least a couple who never intended to have overnight guests.

We've seen one or two homes that are nice, but just aren't us.

And twice we've seen our dream house. The first one was oozing with character---beautiful wood floors, a cool closed in sleeping porch, an amazing fireplace surrounded by built in bookshelves in the living room, an updated but not at all sterile kitchen.

But it was on a busy street, set only a few yards from it (so a good bit of street noise), and with a driveway about as big as one car. It's impossible to get in and out, and the nearest street you can park on requires you traipse through your back neighbor's yard. It also only has one bathroom, and there wasn't an obvious place to put a second one. Also, near the top of our price range, we won't really have extra funds for adding bathrooms. And finally the washer/dryer was in the basement, which totally reminded me of a cave (or being on the Seattle Underground tour). It is not what anyone in Louisville would call a basement, but apparently the standard for around here. It was exposed dirt...with exposed wiring and exposed insulation to match.

The second one we adored was an Arts & Crafts style bungalow (exactly what we were looking for!). It had great hard wood floors and fireplaces, lovely crown molding, a nice front porch, cool built-ins, a redone kitchen, redone bathrooms, and a good yard. Perfect. Except for the neighborhood. The immediate neighbors looked good. (Though the house immediately next door isn't as nice, and is, in fact, on sale for $70,000 less than the house we looked at!) But the house backs up to an apartment complex that appears to house a lot of people who like to keep the majority of their possessions on their front porch. Three houses down in one direction is a house with literally 15 cars parked in the yard. Three houses down in the direction is a house with a falling down barn-like structure and a driveway filled with junk. At the end of the street is a used car lot and a checks cashed place. I really wish we could just pick up the house and move it.

And then there was the house we'd probably put a bid on if it weren't for one major thing. The house isn't our dream house, but we like it a lot. It's just down the street from Dream House #1, and it's a fantastic neighborhood of mainly much bigger houses at much higher prices. It's right across from a lovely park, a short bike ride to Duke, and best of all, just a mile walk from the newly revitalized downtown area. It's set much farther off the street than the other house, has a turnaround and garage, and has a large, terraced lawn that blocks out most street noise. The kitchen and bathrooms are a bit smaller than we'd like, but livable. The living/dining area is great as are the bedrooms. There's a nice fireplace, beautiful hardwoods, elegant crown molding. There's also a closed in sleeping porch that would make an awesome office, and a large and very light-filled sun room. It would make a great house.

So what's the problem? Well, it may just collapse on us if we bought it. You see, the first time we saw it, we noticed a bit of cracking inside by the windows and doors. We took some photos and sent them to my brother, an architect who works for a firm that pretty much specialized in this kind of thing. He got back to me and said that they didn't look too bad from what he could tell, but we should look more closely and especially pay attention to the outside. So we revisited the house, and I don't know how we missed all the cracks the first time. They were everywhere. And worst of all, they were outside. There were lots of stairstep and pyramid cracks, which indicate that the foundation has shifted (or is shifting). There were cracks that had been filled but had cracked again, a sign that it wasn't a one-time thing. There was a crack that was 1/2 inch wide, which my brother says is pretty substantial in the world of architecture. And there was a long horizontal crack, which is apparently a sign of wall failure. Fan-freaking-tastic.

Not wanting to entirely write it off, we requested info from the sellers. They were, however, completely unhelpful. They claim that they had it looked at when they bought the house 10 years ago and were told it was fine, but they can't provide any paperwork to substantiate it. They also claim it hasn't moved since they have lived there, though they haven't had it looked at any time recently and don't have crack monitors, so I don't believe they have any way of knowing, except that it hasn't fallen on them. And they don't appear to have any interest in having a structural engineer look at or in paying for any necessary repairs.

So we're walking. And it's back to square one. Though sort of fun at first, I'm already getting tired of the house hunt. It feels like it's been a long hunt already (as evidenced by this long post!). Not exactly inspiring is the fact that we're moving into the holidays and winter, which is not a popular time to be house hunting. But I guess all it takes is the one perfect house. Cross your fingers for us!

Monday, November 02, 2009

Three Things I Miss and Three Things I Don't

The Things I Miss

1. Jeff

Today, Jeff started work in his lab at Duke. For the first time in a year, we're not together all day, every day. You think that would be enough togetherness to drive anyone insane and make them long for time to themselves, but really, we have a damn good time together, and I miss him. The fact that I'm home completely alone probably doesn't help.

2. Walking
During our travels, we pretty much walked everywhere. We walked to the grocery and to restaurants. We walked to the store. We walked to the beach. We walked through town. We walked up mountains. We walked and walked and walked. I wish I'd taken a pedometer to determine how far we walked each day because it was a lot. Now, we drive. It's too far to walk most places, the road's aren't pedestrian friendly, and well, it's just not what you do. Sure, you can go for a walk, but walking as a mode of transport is not common. We're looking to buy a house in an area where our feet would be our main mode of getting around, but right now, the car is what we use.

3. Summer
Fall was nice at first. The crisp smell in the air, the crunch of leaves on the ground, the splendor of trees in full color. I enjoyed putting on a sweater, and not sweating while I slept. But okay, that was enough. I'm done, especially now that we've changed the clocks, and it gets dark so early. Winter is on its way, and I, for one, am not a fan. I want summer back.

The Things I Don't

1. The Clothes in My Backpack
The five tops and five bottoms I took with me on the trip are still in Seattle, and for all I care they can stay there forever. I love having jeans again, enough underwear to not have to do laundry every week, and clothes that actually look good together. It's a bit overwhelming though, and I have to admit that rather than decide between the many items I have, I sometimes just put back on what I wore the day before (though I do change underwear, don't you worry). If I could re-wear clothes in stinky, sweaty developing nations, then I can do it in clean, clean America.

2. Dirty Bathrooms
I walk into public bathrooms here and marvel at the cleanliness. There's toilet paper, soap and running water, hand towels or dryers! Though before I'm sure I found them a bit sketchy, I'm now quite certain I could probably eat from the floors. Private bathrooms are simply
phenomenal. The soap smells nice! The showers don't require shoes! The toilets flush! We are spoiled I tell you.

3. Eating Out
When you go on vacation, one of the highlights is getting to eat out the entire trip. When you go on vacation for a year, however, that gets old really, really quickly. You get really tired of sitting at a restaurant, only getting to eat what's on the menu, waiting for food, paying the bill, etc. You sometimes want nothing more than to open your refrigerator, pull out your favorite foods, and home cook yourself up something delicious. In South America, a lot of hostels had kitchens, and we took advantage. In Africa, these kitchens disappeared after we left South Africa, and they were pretty much non-existent in budget accommodations in Asia. Now that we have a kitchen back, we don't want to leave it for a restaurant. I'd rather cook.