Of houses and men

The Thinker by Rodin

During the spring we watched our house — supposedly under construction — largely sit there for two months. It was a frame with windows and wrapped in Tyvek but that was about it. Yesterday our house was a beehive of activity as contractors tried to finish it at last, presumably to meet a September 15 deadline. They are unlikely to meet this deadline either, but it’s not from lack of trying during this final effort. Trucks working on our house were blocking traffic in and out of our development. We had to park down the street and amble up to our house. The din of construction equipment had doubtless woken up the whole neighborhood by the time we arrived around 8:30 am. The first layer of asphalt had just been laid on our driveway and was steaming in the morning sun.

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We walked slowly on some planks to get onto our porch rather than step in the mud that will eventually become our lawn. Inside dozens of workmen were running around on every level. The smart ones were wearing hearing protection because it sounded like a rock concert in there, principally due to the placement of the staircase to our basement. A carpenter was creating a space for the stairs to sit with his miter saw. The electricians were busy wiring up the kitchen lights, but needed to consult with us on the placement of hallway lights, which was why we were there so early. Upstairs they were nailing down carpet tack in our loft and storage room. The painting at least was done with the main walls colored a nice light peach color, just like in our last house. The kitchen looked nearly done with all the cabinets and the countertop in place, but with the appliances still missing. Our newly stained and polished hardwood floors thankfully were still covered in plastic, since workmen didn’t have time to remove the mud from the soles of their shoes.

We returned later in the day to find the foreman there. The carpet was being installed in the loft, while in the master bedroom the padding was being stapled into the floorboard. A second coat of asphalt was going down on the driveway while the truck carrying it totally blocked traffic. The hallway lights were in place, but the ones in the bathroom remained to be done. We discussed where they should be seated and noted that our toilets had arrived, just had not been connected.

In the midst of all this chaos, the appliances arrived. With the asphalt still settling they had to be lifted over the mud, dollied into the house and then positioned into place. It was organized chaos, but at least the windows and doors were open, letting in fresh cool air. The foreman had a group of guys working on windows. They were already in place but the plastic was still on the panes and the screens needed to go in place. We discussed concerns about a duct that was blocked and a vanity that didn’t quite fit on its cabinet. It’s on backorder, along with a missing light at the top of the stairs.

Even with all this work there was still plenty more to do. The air conditioner needed to go in and a lot of electrical mysteries needed to be solved. Plugs that should have current did not. Outside, there was still no landscaping beyond a general grading, but at least the deck was completed with railings and some steps. Would this all be completed by September 15, our latest completion date?

It was not likely but it didn’t matter that much because we had finally nailed down a settlement date: September 24. This effectively postponed the delivery date and would put our actual occupation date some two months after when it was originally promised. Promises in the home construction business don’t mean a whole lot, so it’s best to have contingency plans. Nonetheless, we were getting antsy. We had given notice that we would be vacating our apartment at the end of the month. Without a settlement date until yesterday we could not book a mover. The mover’s schedule was already largely full, but he was free on the afternoon of the 24th to move the stuff out of our apartment. I was able to get the settlement time moved to the morning so that would work. Moving the voluminous stuff out of our storage unit will have to wait until near the end of the month when our mover is free.

After a week trying to get a hold of our loan processor, and even leaving a note with her supervisor to call us, she finally deigned to call us back. She ordered the belated appraisal of the property at once, but the appraiser could not actually stop by for nine days. Due to her incompetence, if the house had been ready by the 15th we would not have been able to settle. It’s still unclear if we will be able to settle on the 24th because our loan is apparently competing for her attention amongst many others and her boss keeps sending her to mandatory training. New documents were demanded because the loan processor had changed and apparently they couldn’t be bothered to save the records we sent them in February. This meant more scrambling to assemble papers, some entirely new.

It seems both home construction and loan processing aren’t very amenable to deadlines. It helps to know this is normal, so it must have been normal for me to fret and wonder if we would be sleeping in a hotel October 1 with the contents of our apartment in another storage unit. When sufficiently pressed by exasperated homeowners like us things though generally do move toward the finish line at last. I have figured out that it will be generally up to me to dot the I’s and cross the T’s, as it is up to whoever cares the most to shriek the loudest to bring it all together. I am going hoarse.

Still, in a few weeks it will be over. A 14-month relocation odyssey will be over. It will be replete with innumerable pitfalls along the way that only sustained focus fixed. Barring any last minute deal breakers, two weeks from now we should be living in our new house with all the hassles of this relocation appearing blessedly in our rear view mirror.

Ducks in a row

The Thinker by Rodin

Houses are not really sold until closing. That’s something I am beginning to understand in my gut after our house was “sold”, i.e. put “under contract”. A real estate contract is actually a highly conditional contract that gives the buyer plenty of reasons to later opt out. These typically include a satisfactory home inspection, a termite inspection and a radon test. No house is perfect, of course, and home inspectors are paid to find stuff.

The home inspector for our house sure found stuff, stuff we would have never noticed in a million years and stuff that really didn’t matter. A handrail we added for support on the stairs to the basement had pickets too widely spaced in this inspector’s opinion. A really stupid child might fall through somehow and hurt themselves. So Elias, our handyman, is busy adding these redundant railings to preclude any such thing, although we are pretty sure the buyer is a single guy. He also noticed a vent missing from a room in the basement and wrote that one up too. And lots of other stuff. But we could get rid of the contingency just by reducing our sales price $7000, the maximum price to fix these “defects”, which included a pool of water from snowmelt in our backyard too he felt should require us to regrade the lawn. Apparently, someone had not informed that the buyer the house was 30 years old, not brand new. I guess if you are a home buyer, you have every incentive to shoot for the moon.

We fought back of course and figuring we had the better bargaining position (given that we had two full price contracts to choose from) told him we wouldn’t fix the swale or tear up the stucco ceiling to add a vent that really wasn’t needed. And we crossed our fingers he wouldn’t walk away. He didn’t. The rest of it we can fix up for another $1000. So that contract contingency is satisfied, as is the radon test. The termite inspection will come in time but that has never been problem. Which leaves the appraisal. The appraiser may tell the buyer that he paid too much for our house, so he should pull out of the contract, or negotiate a lower price. I doubt that will happen.

This is the downside of owning a house. The mortgage interest deduction is nice, but a house is a second child that never stops going to college. It means you don’t have to sleep on the street, providing you can keep up the payments for thirty years. To translate its value into hard cash you have to jump through these flaming hoops, the next one more daunting than the last. But increasingly it looks like we will get through them all with only minor burns, but not without ingesting a lot of antacid.

So now we are here back in Western Massachusetts looking at a hole in the ground. It’s not any hole in the ground, it’s our hole in the ground, what will be our next house, a condominium in a 55+ community which is actually a single family house. As holes go it looks pretty good and that’s because the foundation is laid. Moreover, despite the freezing temperatures and most of the snow unmelted the land is reasonably graded. What’s missing is all the rest that makes a house a home, like a frame and a roof, but that will come in time. We have to be ready for that time, which is why we are here not only pondering our frozen concrete filled hole in the ground, but shuttling around Western Massachusetts talking to vendors about stuff like floors, lighting, cabinets and appliances. Gas or electric appliances? Which of the hundreds of chandeliers we looked at today will hang from our foyer? Hallway lights in the ceiling or on the walls? The builders need to know these details, not immediately, but they must be planned for, and now is the time to figure out these details.

Then there is the minor matter of living somewhere until the house is ready. There are plenty of places to rent out here after our house is sold near the end of April. Unfortunately, almost all of them require a yearly lease, so we have to spend time calling around and scouring Craigslist for sublets and month-to-month rentals. It’s a hit and miss process, but we found a renovated apartment building in Easthampton that will work, only because it is nearing completion. The investor-landlord need tenants in an otherwise empty building. New carpet and appliances make it appealing, but the neighborhood is a bit sketchy. An auto repair shop is across the street and down the street are many old Victorian houses, some somewhat dilapidated. It will do for the four months or so we need temporary lodging. The good part about paying rent is you don’t pay a mortgage, or property taxes, or for the general property upkeep. Owning a house in many ways is a foolish thing to do. The owner is willing to cut us a deal just to start to get the building occupied.

It’s unclear where all our possessions will sit in the interim. There are the usual storage facilities out here and we visited a few to discover they can’t take our stuff, at least not yet. Check with them a week or two before we move up, they tell us. We’ll have to find something. For now we take it on faith that it will somehow work out.

When not occupied with these logistical maneuvers, I ponder this major life change we are about to make. I know I will miss many things about Northern Virginia, where I spent the last 31 years. I will leave behind a daughter, the bulk of my friends, a whole network of doctors and  various other professionals, and many pleasant memories. There’s really no going back. It’s a big gamble that life will somehow be better up here in Massachusetts, and it’s harder to believe two days from spring when the temperature here is below freezing, the winds are gale force from the northwest, piles of snow are everywhere and killer potholes pocket virtually all the streets. If it had been just me, I’d probably not have chosen to live here, but of course it’s not just me. It’s also my wife, who hates Northern Virginia and needs a colder climate. It’s what we could agree on. I know that it will take a long time to feel this place is my home, and not just another way station in life.

Selling our house though will be a gigantic relief. It’s been a money pit and a constant hassle. I’ll be glad to finally cash in on that asset, which may mean no mortgage at all for the new house. A new house will buy us, at least for a time, a respite from worrying about infrastructure. Then perhaps retirement can genuinely begin.

All it requires is getting all our ducks in a row. After much work they are at least all moving in the same direction. That’s progress.