There and back again: a three-day nerve-wracking adventure in house hunting

It’s been a while since I have put out a post. When that happens it is usually because I am busy. Retirement is supposed to be less busy and more restful. So far that hasn’t proven to be true. Of course, most retirees don’t start their retirement actively working to move 500 miles away. We are moving of course to simplify our lives, but at least for a year or so it will make our lives much more complex.

Case in point was last Wednesday through Friday when we made a whirlwind visit to our future home in western Massachusetts. We had to go to pick a home. A confluence of events made a trip a necessity, but it all boiled down to my wife’s great desire to move into a new house. New houses don’t grow on trees, although it takes a lot of trees to make one. A new house takes six months, sometimes more to go from plot of land to house and it starts with the hassles of picking a plot and a style house at a negotiated price and then financing the deal. So we were there to look at a few final candidate-housing sites and hopefully make a selection. All this right before Christmas and after being delayed for a few weeks while my wife recovered from another cold from hell.

It could have been delayed again by winter weather, always problematic in December. But the weather gods were benevolent this time. We dealt with cold weather but no precipitation during our drive from Northern Virginia. We try to avoid the New Jersey Turnpike, which also allows us to dodge most Washington area traffic. So this meant sneaking out of town the back way, up U.S. 15 past Gettysburg, around Harrisburg on I-83, then I-81 to I-78, and then about forty miles of I-287 in New Jersey until we slipped into Connecticut on I-84. The only toll on this route was $5 to cross the Tappan Zee Bridge over the Hudson River. Traffic congestion was not too bad either: some roadwork on I-287 and some delay getting through Hartford during rush hour. Otherwise it felt surprisingly speedy, just 8 hours and 45 minutes with minimal stops. We arrived in Holyoke, Massachusetts in darkness and wended our way back to the now comfortable D Hotel where we had stayed in August. The affiliated restaurants at the hotel were jammed with locals there for holiday parties, but the hotel itself was largely empty, which was how we could get a room there for $68 a night at a Hotwire rate.

In the winter the Northampton Massachusetts area remains pretty but definitely looking different than in the lushness of summer. The trees of course are largely bare and the days are very short with near total darkness by 4:30. There was no snow on the ground except in a few piles in parking lots, but the temperature was at or below freezing most of the time with stiff breezes. It’s a beautiful area even in the winter without snow, but one thing I noticed in this trip is that it is obviously less prosperous than Fairfax County where we live. All the money in our county buys large houses that are newer in general but also meticulously well maintained. Fairfax County also has stricter zoning: no ugly billboards to view driving down the road. In Northampton there are quite a few shabby houses, shabby mostly due to age (many are a hundred years old or m ore), but also because people earn less there. Northampton has pretty good zoning laws, but go outside the city limits to places like Hadley across the Connecticut River and it quickly turns ugly. No place is perfect.

Thursday was decision day and it was as challenging as you can imagine. Next to deaths in the family, divorce and losing a job, buying a house out of state must be the next most challenging event in life. In August we had scouted lots of neighborhoods so we knew what we liked and where. In January there is not much on the market. But if you are going to have a house built it’s a bit past optimum time to place your order. Ideally you make these decisions before the foundation is laid but it took months of discussion for us to get this far. This late in the year it is problematic but still possible. Wait too long and groundbreaking is likely to occur April 1.

We looked at a new community being built in Hatfield, a bit north and east of Northampton. The houses we looked at were large and quite fancy, not to mention an excellent value. It’s just that no one was actually living there yet, and only one plot of the 12 had been sold. Two units had been finished, and one was under construction.

The salesman with a ring in his ear told us his husband was the architect and was currently out of state. (I mentally noted how completely banal gay marriage was in Massachusetts. It is so institutionalized that no one gives it a thought.) While I loved the house, Hatfield did not agree with me. It is filled with mostly old houses, very large and many not well maintained, often with a farm in the backyard. There was no bike path, no restaurants to speak of and no place to buy groceries beyond a corner store. My wife really liked the community but I couldn’t see myself spending the next thirty years in a community that did not appeal to me, no matter how nice the house. It was not yet noon and already we were in arguing.

So it was back to the 55+ community near Northampton that was the reason for our visit. Armed with our buyer agent realtor Craig, we met again with the realtor selling the property to go through available plots and other issues. Our realtor took us through a nearby park and we ate lunch at a local diner while we argued and tried his patience. Eventually we sent our realtor back to his office while we went back to the hotel to hash through all the options and then drive through both neighborhoods again.

We took a break to meet a client of mine living in the area. We met him at Joe’s Pizza in Northampton, so popular that even on a cold Thursday night there was a significant wait for a table. But the pizza at least lived up to its reputation. My client Roger turned out to be a really nice guy and we all got along great. Count one future friend in my future neighborhood. Roger helped take our mind off the impending decision and we agreed to sleep on it. Sleep was somewhat restless as we weighed in our own minds the size of our decision. Having a new house constructed would most likely mean we would close on the sale of our house first, so we’d have to endure temporary housing in the area. We were not thrilled with the alternative, but it’s the price to be paid when you make the decision to go for a new house.

Morning though at least brought clarity: we wanted a particular lot in this community in Florence, which is on the west side of Northampton. We ate breakfast at Sylvester’s in Northampton while trading calls with our realtor. Mostly though we needed to get back on the road for home. The greyish skies suggested snow and/or ice but nothing happened. The weather improved the further south we went. We tried a different route going home by taking I-84 through southern New York State and northern Pennsylvania, then connecting with I-81. It turns out it is just as quick as our other route, much less used and thus much less likely to be affected by traffic accidents. We made great time. Driving time was about eight hours.

Once back home we immediately started trading emails with our realtor and chatting with him on the phone. Yesterday we went back and forth on the wording of an offer. It was declined, not because they don’t like us, but because the seller wants a guarantee that we will buy the house even if our current house doesn’t sell. So more paperwork remains and our credit union will get a call in the morning.

Three days. There and back again. More forms to fill out. More paperwork to file. More decisions to be made. More house to clean and prepare to show. The house decisions at least is made but waiting to become more concrete. A new year approaches. 2015 looks like it will end a whole lot different than where it will start: in our new home in New England.

Howl-o-screaming at Busch Gardens

Need to scream a bit? I didn’t particularly feel the need to do so. But when our adult daughter suggested that we drive down to Williamsburg, Virginia to join her for a day at Busch Gardens during the Halloween season, we took her up on it.

We’re not much for theme parks, but if you have to go to a theme park then Busch Gardens during the off season is the place to go, particularly after 6 p.m. when they crank up the fog machines and the haunted houses open. My memories of theme parks usually involve three things: summer, sweat and long lines. Busch Gardens on an autumn Friday had temperatures in the sixties, no sweat and only modest lines to the various attractions. For someone not into theme parks, Busch Gardens was almost fun. Even the traffic cooperated. Amazingly, there were no traffic tie-ups or slowdowns on I-95 and I-64. This may be a first.

I have a pathological hatred of Disney World, and was only reluctantly prodded to go there in 1996. I went on the insistence of my wife, who said our daughter “still has the magic” at age six to believe in the crap Disney was selling. I still have memories of trying to take her out on her first Halloween at age three. Her mother made her a beautiful Mary Poppins dress but Halloween proved too traumatic for her, so she observed it from the safety of her room. Now at age twenty-two, she is quite comfortable regressing to age six. I wondered if she was high on candy corn, so often was she tugging at our arms leading us into rides, shows and various haunted houses at the park.

Busch Gardens is a right-sized theme park, neither too small nor too enormous, pretty, family-friendly and with plenty of screaming even when it was not the Halloween season. The screaming is provided year round, courtesy of the roller coasters at the park. If you ask me, riding some of those coasters after dark with about ten million fog machines cranked up to maximum was likely the scariest part of their “Howl-o-scream” weekend. When you watch some of their roller coasters in action, particularly the Griffin, you wonder why anyone in their right mind would get on one of those machines. They certainly make its occupants scream. Jeffrey Dahmer himself could not get more vitriolic screams out of his victims. The Griffin in particular is a feat of fright engineering: designed by sadistic engineers for masochists. Give me a funnel cake instead.

Griffin roller coaster at Busch Gardens Williamsburg
Griffin roller coaster at Busch Gardens Williamsburg

Busch Gardens goes with a European theme, specifically a western European theme, and bad themes at that. Depending on what “country” you are in, you will get frequently annoying stereotypical music of that country ringing in your ears. Don’t you know there is nothing more to Germany than Bavaria? Moreover if you were to visit Bavaria, it would be 1920 or so, they would be all be in native dress and playing accordion music. And what’s with Handel’s Water Music in “England”? Yes, it was written for English royalty, but Handel was German. A map of the park was essential because signage was not great. I wondered how people made it out of the park when it closed at 10 p.m. with the lights so low and little in the way of directions. Maybe they were chased away by various assorted clowns and zombies.

The highlight of our day was not the rides (some of which were converted into haunted houses), but the many shows you could take in instead, all near Broadway quality, all with a Halloween theme and all quite fun. Considering we paid about $50 each to get in (with discount coupons) we easily got our money’s worth, although Busch Gardens picked our wallets in other ways with parking fees ($13) and mediocre meals ($60 or so). One thing I can say for Busch Gardens is despite its somewhat kitschy “countries”, it is a beautiful theme park that manages to integrate nature rather well.

Would Busch Gardens deliver the goods with its haunted houses? This is, after all, a family theme park. For those of you into haunted houses, what you get is a PG-13 version of Halloween. Kudos on all the fog machines, Busch Gardens. It’s hard to imagine how you could have generated more artificial fog; even in our jackets we were downright cold. The haunted houses though turned out to be relatively tame. No dismembered corpses. No blood on the floors. In fact, there are only a relatively small number of quickly mastered tricks to these haunted houses:

  • Use lots of darkness and strobe lights.
  • Enforce feelings of claustrophobia from time to time. One of them did it quite well by hanging plastic sheeting three to four feet above the ground.
  • Have people in ghoulish costumes hoisting fake weapons appear randomly from dark corners or out of windows.
  • Have those same people invade your personal space but not actually touch you.
  • Use air horns religiously.
  • Use plenty of clowns if possible. There was a kind of “clown alley” where you were accosted by creepy clowns all very much in your face and not afraid to follow you. Who needs zombies when clowns are so much scarier?
  • Make sure you run into things unexpectedly in the dark, particularly stringy stuff.
  • Dirty toilets and urinals are okay.
  • Go with a theme for each haunted house. I preferred the haunted house with the man-eating chicken and the bee man; now that’s creative.

In truth I had more fun interacting with the performers than they had performing for me. I enjoyed giving them stink eyes and trying to get into their personal space. After all, where is the fright when you know they won’t actually do anything to you?

In short, you may howl more from laughter than from fright, particularly if like me your heart medicine controls your heartbeat, so you know you won’t get an adrenaline rush. Still, altogether the Howl-o-scream is well worth the price of admission. However, if you demand lots of blood and guts in your haunted houses, better pick a more violent venue.