Reassembling our lives

The Thinker by Rodin

The goalposts kept moving. Finally yesterday, three weeks after the date when our house was supposed to be completed, we actually staggered across the finish line. The finish line in this case was settlement. We were fortunate to be able to move into our house on September 24, which was good because after September 30 we otherwise had been either homeless or squatters. So it goes in the nerve-wracking business of buying a new house where completion dates are purely aspirational. Settlement dates came and went but eventually the necessary signatures were collected to add our property to a master deed, which meant we could actually settle.

9:30 a.m. yesterday found us in our attorney’s office where all the documents were ready. The odd thing about this settlement was that the seller was not present. In fact, the seller’s attorney didn’t show up either. He sent his paralegal who presumably had authority to sign their documents, but he would not show up until later that afternoon. And so we spent nearly as much time chatting with our attorney and his paralegal as we did signing papers. It was the first time we had actually met him and most likely the last as well.

There were the usual bizarre forms to sign. In one we signed our names three ways, with middle initial, with middle name spelled and with middle name absent I guess so they could have some assurance our signatures on the other papers were legitimate … but how do they know this one wasn’t fake? In another we agreed that if there were a clerical error we would not sue anyone. We signed one paper claiming a homeowner’s exemption. In Massachusetts the first $500,000 of your residence can be safe from creditors, but only if you take the time to sign the right document. Whatever. By 11 a.m. we were out of there with the usual cramped fingers from signing documents. Using pen and ink is so old fashioned — hadn’t anyone ever heard of electronic signatures? Also old fashioned were the stack of checks that would go to various parties, many for overpriced legal documents of dubious significance. Ever hear of bank-to-bank transfers fellas?

Monday we finally liberated our stuff from our storage unit. No more torrential rains that left a mini mudslide in our new backyard to allow the mover to postpone delivery. No more unexpected engine and brake problems to further delay things. My wife was fed up enough to find another mover instead. This mover delivered a very full twenty foot truck full of our stuff leaving us with a new house we mostly owned (except for a $30,000 mortgage from the credit union) and at least three times the boxes from the move from our apartment.

Which leaves us at the end of our long relocation journey, except for putting away all the stuff in these boxes. The piles of boxes are quite intimidating. But at least all our stuff has arrived. So far there has been little damage of note. So kudos to JK Moving. Expensive china emerged from our boxes with no breakage. Putting items away though assumes you know where you want it to go, and that’s not always intuitive. For our new house is not the same as our old house. It has more space in general but less space in certain areas. So everything has to be puzzled through. Our strategy is tentatively place items in certain places. When all the boxes are unpacked and are on the curb for recycling then we’ll probably have to go through everything again and figure out where we really want to store them.

The other hard part is remembering where you put stuff. I waste about an hour a day opening drawers thinking I placed an item in it, but not finding it there. This requires opening other drawers and if you are lucky finding the item after a couple of attempts. The kitchen at least is now wholly unpacked and I am remembering where certain common items like silverware are located. It’s all the other stuff, like the waffle maker or the measuring cups that are hard to find.

A new house takes some getting used to. Not only are rooms in different places but like a new car it has a new house smell to it. Our wood floors still smells of recently applied polyurethane. Our unfinished basement has a weird odor that I can’t quite place. It may be the insulation hanging in the ceiling or it may be the foam insulation along the perimeter and in the crevices. Speaking of insulation, the house is so weather tight and energy efficient that the designers were aware it would lead to indoor air pollution. So there is a special ventilation stack to ensure this doesn’t happen with blowers that come on periodically. Other noises take some getting used to, such as the icemaker in the refrigerator. It’s a house so solidly constructed that at least for the moment it does not creak or groan. When fans and the icemaker are not making noise, the house is eerily silent.

Two days later at best a quarter of our boxes are unpacked. There are so many things to reassemble, such as a china cabinet and various bookcases. Furniture is tried in various locations then gets moved somewhere else, in hopes of an optimal configuration. It’s hard to know what fits best until it’s all in place and you use it for a little while. Pictures and artwork need to be placed, but where exactly? Clocks need to be hung, floor lamps need to be screwed into a stack, carpet runners need to be placed and plastic and metal shelves have to be reassembled. At some point the house starts to feel like a home. It didn’t feel much like a home to me until Monday afternoon. That’s when the large pier behind our bed arrived and was reassembled. It’s amazing it all arrived undamaged. Suddenly my bedroom looked familiar again. No longer using the guest room furniture, things were right back where they used to be, just facing west instead of east. Our bedroom at least felt like home.

The complete home feeling will probably have to wait until some time after everything is put away and all the photos and artwork are again on our walls. For our house is missing something vital: a cat or two to take possession of the place. Until I see paw prints on the windowsill, I am changing the litter box twice a week and am vacuuming cat dander off the sofas, it won’t quite feel like a home. Cats don’t like change so there’s no point in getting a cat until everything is put away. I expect a new feline or two to arrive in our lives in November.

Meanwhile there is plenty more unpacking and rearranging to do, and more weeks of feeling lost in my own home until things settle in.

Shiny and new, but feeling ephemeral

The Thinker by Rodin

Muscles hurting? Check. Sweating much of the day while I frantically move things from one place to another? Check. Feeling overwhelmed with this business of moving in general? Check. Feel like I am in real estate hell? Check, check, check.

But here we are in our new house on a prominent hill in Florence, Massachusetts with about a third of our stuff in it. The rest of it remains in a storage unit until a mover can get to it. While we are in the house, we still don’t own it due to some frustrating real estate settlement issues. I’ll have more on that in a bit. But the builder was nice enough to let us in, as they have done with other owners in the past when things were not 100% done and these snafus happened. We had to sign a “hold harmless” agreement and if we don’t settle by October 7 (it was originally October 1) we start paying rent of $100 a day.

We can be annoyed with our builder for his extended delays, something not unusual in the home construction business. But we can’t complain that they did a poor job constructing our house. The house is solidly constructed and the standards for its construction were very high throughout the whole process. We know because we had five months to watch the process. Our house sits in a 55+ community. It comes with a full but empty basement and a huge loft bigger than our old apartment. Also up there is a large adjacent storage room. The main level has a kitchen and living room of course, but we also have a sunroom in the back. The main level has two bedrooms, two baths and extra wide doors. It is highly energy efficient. We have gas heat when we need it and a gas stove too. The master bathroom includes a shower and a soaker tub, as well as two vanities. It anticipates a time when we might be aging in place and need to navigate in wheelchairs. The wood floors were not prefinished. They were installed untreated and stained three times with the stain of our choice, and lacquered twice. We have a two-car garage with the interior actually finished and painted. We have a deck made with plastic wood that will still look pristine when we are dead. We even have a sprinkler system built in that we can’t control, part of one that belongs to the whole complex. It comes on whenever the system figures our turf (landscaped in earlier this week) should be watered. The house definitely smells new and everything is pristine, clean and shiny. Of course there are some lingering issues and mistakes. They will be addressed in time.

I can’t complain about our movers. There wasn’t much in our apartment, but they emptied our apartment and placed its contents in our house in about two hours. I can’t complain about the boxes everywhere and the sheer work in putting stuff away, although I’d like to. There is much more of this to go. It will take a couple of months for our house to resemble the way we want it arranged. I should be thrilled with the new house experience and all this space but I am too exhausted to appreciate it at the moment. It’s going to take a while (and a couple of new cats) before our home really feels like one.

But I certainly can complain about our crazy settlement process, full of highs and lows much worse than any roller coaster ride you can imagine. What’s infuriating is that I did everything I could to mitigate problems and it wasn’t enough.

Settlement was supposed to be Thursday morning. We had been “preliminarily approved” the credit union told us, but the settlement papers had not arrived on Wednesday and calls to the credit union only resulted in being sent to voicemail. I had heard our house needed a final appraisal, but had not heard if it had happened. The appraiser was late filing his report and in fact it didn’t arrive until Friday, the day after settlement, and it was the preliminary appraisal. Late Friday the credit union found a problem in the appraisal that had to be corrected. Settlement was effectively delayed to some indeterminate time in the future.

Also Friday night came a major shock. The title insurance company our credit union is using requires our title to be free of exceptions and they were adamant about this. As we are technically a condominium, there must be exceptions, none of which affect the use of the property. All the other units have these exceptions and to leave them out would constitute gross malpractice by our attorney, subjecting him to legal jeopardy. If this cannot be resolved our whole mortgage may be in jeopardy. I tried to reach the credit union Friday night but while they were answering the phone, no one who could actually do anything about it was available and I was sent to – you guessed it – voicemail. So we’re living in suspended animation until Monday.

Our builder is not faultless either. Settlement did not happen principally because documents did not arrive from the builder’s attorney. He and his assistant are Jewish so of course they went off to celebrate Yom Kippur even though our settlement date was known more than a week ago. They simply let it slip and didn’t tell anyone including the builder who was clueless. The only good part of this was that the screw up allowed me to convince the builder to let us occupy our home. This was good because we had given notice on our lease and the movers were already scheduled to move us the next day.

We are feeling our way through this mess, none of it our fault. The worst-case solution seems to be to cancel the mortgage application. The mortgage amount is only $30,000. I can probably cobble cash and a personal loan to make up the difference. But of course that will take time too, and reduce our savings buffer. I’m guessing it won’t come to this.

So we wander a house customized to our specifications and wondering if it will really be ours, or if it’s all an illusion. Meanwhile we have to put stuff away and hang things on the wall and buy lots of stuff to make it livable.

And I ache. I spend much of my day in motion, lifting, stretching and moving. My calves are as hard as a rock. My shoulder muscles throb. What’s discouraging is that I was already physically fit and it still hurts. It’s too much all at once, and my aging body pushing sixty is complaining. My wife meanwhile spends much of her day in extreme pain due to chiropractic work that left the muscles attaching to her sacroiliac joint throbbing, with Percocets not quite taking care of the problem. I pick up a lot of her slack, of course. Stuff has to get done, and quickly. She needs rest, but moving households means she must move anyhow and that included cleaning up our apartment yesterday. We ache and snipe at each other.

At least we have utilities. DirecTV came yesterday and gave us a satellite dish. Comcast won’t give us Internet until next week but I was surprised to find a strong Comcast Wifi signal in the neighborhood. That’s a great relief. At least I have a tool to manage all this mess. My Internet phone won’t work with the Wifi. Otherwise everything else seems to work.

It will all settle down soon, but I fear there is more chaos ahead.

Life in suspended animation

The Thinker by Rodin

There’s siding on our house now. The plumbing is mostly in place, but no water is running and nothing like a sink is connected to the plumbing yet. A skeletal electrical system runs through the house, but also is not connected to any actual electricity. The floor of the garage is now concrete instead of sand. A gas fireplace is in its spot in our future living room. The gas line now comes up to the house but that’s as far as it goes. Two shower inserts are also in place. The rooms in the upstairs are sealed off from the attic. Most of the ducting is in place. But that’s pretty much all that the developers have done to our house over the last three months. No drywall is up. No insulation installed. Sawdust and debris litter the floors. Construction crews can’t be bothered to sweep or pick up stuff. Old soda bottles sit in the corners of our rooms to be.

It helps to be patient while we cool our heels eight miles away in a tiny and uncomfortable apartment in Easthampton, Massachusetts. The house was supposed to be done in about two weeks. The new estimated completion date is September 15. While we wait in an apartment with one window air conditioner and a few fans trying to keep us cool, our developers are busy working mostly on other houses. It’s pretty clear that we are not that important to them. Weeks go by sometimes without anything happening to our house. Sometimes there is a day or two burst of activity and then people and trucks disappear until some ambiguous future time when more return.

I’m not sure how this house construction business is supposed to go, but I doubt it’s supposed to go like this. The developer has his excuses, of course. It was an exceptionally cold and snowy winter and yet they were able to pour a foundation in February. In March when we visited a frame was up, along with a roof. By the time we arrived three months ago, Tyvek was covering the outside and the windows were in. Then weeks went by and absolutely nothing happened. They can’t say it was because there was still snow on the ground.

The real reason for these delays seems to be twofold. The developer has another project twenty miles south of us. There they can concentrate forces and work on many units at once. Whereas we are a single unit in a development that is already three quarters complete and with only forty houses altogether. So it’s more efficient and profitable to do those houses and keep us in suspended animation. In addition, their subcontractors are busy doing work elsewhere. I guess the housing sector is doing quite well. My guess is that they use low bidder contractors to eke out more profit on their projects, and they do the stuff that pays better first, so what slips must be our schedule.

Our new neighbors already know us by name. We attend their clubs, dinners and wine tasting events. Apparently our experience is common in this development, as most of their delivery schedules slipped too. So we are stuck in a tiny apartment in Easthampton with 80% of our stuff in storage. All we can do is cool our heels because getting angry doesn’t change the dynamics.

I guess this is the price you pay when a having a house built. The upside is that you can have the house built your way. The kitchen will be just the way my wife wants it because she designed it. The walls will have the uniform color of the walls in our last house: peach. And everything will be new and unlikely to need repair or replacement for many years. We just got to hang in there about two more months.

Meanwhile, there is all this free time. Much of it is spent sliding past each other in the hallway. In our tiny kitchen, it’s best for only one person to be standing at a time. Sound from the television can’t help but leak into my little study, because it is only a few feet away. So I keep the headphones on and hope to drown out the drone of my wife’s eclectic taste in TV shows. She watches stuff I would never watch in a million years, like pretty much anything on truTV, an absolute nadir of television “entertainment”.

Outside the kitchen window, the next-door neighbors offer something that is best considered entertainment. The guy works on his car endlessly, and has been tinkering with loud bass speakers in them since we got here. He does stupid and dangerous stuff. The other day I observed him trying to prime a small motorcyle engine by pouring gasoline into its carburetor then turning on the ignition switch. Some of the gasoline spilled onto the concrete and caught fire. Mental note: call the Easthampton Fire Department next time I observe this behavior. They shuffle off to work early. Around four a.m. they are outside our window conversing, car engines revving loudly. Once around two a.m. the husband and wife were on their back porch arguing loudly, presumably so they aren’t arguing in front of their kid. The neighbor above us got sick of it before us, opened his window and yelled at them to shut the fuck up.

At least I have time to thoroughly examine Easthampton. At one time I wanted to live here. Now that I am here: well, not so much. Florence (when we actually take up residence) will be a much better choice for us. In general roads are bad in western Massachusetts, but in Easthampton they are bad even by the standards of this part of the state. Only a major road will get an occasional resurfacing. Some of these other thoroughfares like Parsons Street and Ferry Street are full of potholes that have been filled in numerous times, making driving down the street teeth rattling. There are also lots of potholes the city can’t be bothered to fill in, and blocks where traffic cones block the axle-crushing ones. Months later they are still not filled in. I guess the residents like to keep property taxes down. In part to handle all the bumpy roads, I had my struts replaced.

Still, there is Mount Tom nearby. It’s not too hard to ascend the mountain in part because it’s not too high. The views of the Pioneer Valley up there are worth the climb. I’ve done it many times on my bike, with the best part the brisk ride downhill. There is plenty of time for biking in general, mostly to and from Florence where our house is. My excuse for biking there is to get the mail, but it’s also good exercise and gives me an opportunity to verify that little is being done on our house.

And there is my consulting, which amounts to about twenty hours a week. It ebbs and flows but keeps me connected to my profession. I take plenty of walks around the nearby Lower Mill Pond and amble through Easthampton’s modest downtown. Easthampton is a faint shadow of the showier and more successful nearby city of Northampton. The curious thing is that despite all the ruin porn, it’s definitely on the upswing. Businesses are moving back into some of it, principally to the old buildings along Pleasant Street. Others of these old brick buildings are scheduled for redevelopment. What you can’t find here in Easthampton is a really good restaurant, or a salad bar except in the Big E, its sole supermarket (and it’s a tiny but nice one). Except for downtown, most of the sidewalks and curbs are crumbling or have crumbled. If real prosperity is to happen here again, they might start by fixing these, but no one seems to want to pay for it.

Surely though we will move into our house one of these days and bid adieu to Easthampton. We have learned it’s best not to get our expectations up. So I expect a lot more bumping into my wife in this tiny little apartment in the months ahead.

Settlement shenanigans

The Thinker by Rodin

Having recently completed a half-million dollar transaction (the sale of our house) I have been pondering the HUD-1 form we got at settlement. This is a standard form issued by the settlement agency that indicates all the costs of the buying and selling transaction. If a form could stink, this one would stink, at least a little.

Clearly commissions cost money, and the seller typically pays the commissions, both for the listing agent and the buyer’s agent. Traditionally this was six percent of the sale, split equally between agents. In recent years most realtors seems ready to bargain with sellers, perhaps because home prices are so inflated now. 5% is probably typical these days. Some sellers bargain for 4% and probably wonder if they get the same quality of service for this price. Some may get less than that. Our listing agent said she would take 2% in commission, so we agreed to pay 5%, with the buyer’s agent getting 3%. More than once I raised the fairness issue with our agent. She did most of the work and got 2% while the buyer’s agent earned more. She shrugged. That’s the way it goes. She often acts as a buyer’s agent and comes out ahead in those transactions.

Anyhow, the HUD-1 lays it all out. Since we sold the house for $505,000, our agent got $10,100 and the buyer’s agent got $15,150. Nice money if you can get it. But the buyer’s agent didn’t get $15,150. Unknown to us until settlement was the figure in the buyer’s column on Line 205. It’s called “Realtor credit” and it showed $7,000. This is money that the buyer’s agent will give back to the buyer for the privilege of being their agent. So she really got $8,150 from us for the sale of our house, and gave $7,000 of her $15,150 to the seller.

This means in effect that the buyer bought our house for $505,000 but really paid only $498,000 for the property. And this was because we were not savvy enough in the real estate trade to know we should try to discount the commission because the buyer would get a kickback, sorry a credit from his agent.

I am at once upset about this and wanting to shake our buyer’s hand. He’s one crafty dude. It’s not just us whose pocket he picked without us even knowing. He also got a kickback, sorry a credit from his lender (line 204), for $1000. Yes, for the privilege of taking out a loan with PrimeLending of Dallas, Texas, they gave him $1000 at settlement, which means in effect he paid only $497,000 for our $505,000 house. To the buyer’s credit, he did put 22% down in cash and financed the rest. Perhaps that had something to do with the credit.

Of course neither my wife nor I at any time knew we were effectively giving $7000 to the buyer. There was no piece of paper with the offer that said anything about this at all. Maybe there should be. We had two competing offers on the table, both for full price. Maybe we would have accepted the other one had we known. Or maybe we would have countered and asked for a credit from the buyer too. We could have asked for a higher asking price, of course, I just didn’t know these details.

What’s missing is transparency. These credits/kickbacks really affected the entire real estate purchase. Without them the buyer might not have made us an offer, or perhaps he would have raised his offer. We were just in ignorance.

The buyer’s agent just happens to be the top selling agent at our agent’s office. She has found a profitable niche. You see she is Indian and caters to the Indian community. Asians including many Indians are rapidly moving into our former zip code. I looked up the census data, and Asians went from 15% to 30% of our population between the 2000 and 2010 census, so it’s a growing market. There’s nothing wrong with this of course. Indians are likely to ask around mostly inside of their community when looking for an agent. Most likely they heard about her and heard that she offered generous credits on her commissions. In this case, it was a very generous credit, as $7000 is 46% of the money she could have gotten from us if she hadn’t kicked it back.

What she does get to do is to count the $505,000 sales price of our former house to her yearly sales total. It helps make her the #1 agent in that office. Doubtless nowhere in her marketing material is she calling attention to the fact that while she was one of two agents in the sale, she effectively earned a commission of 1.6%. So our agent really made more from the deal. The effect of our sale was that 3.6% was paid in commissions, but we were charged a 5% commission. We apparently gave the buyer a 1.4% rebate, but it’s not listed anywhere. The HUD-1 form at least provides this transparency; it just came too late to be useful.

I’m unlikely to do many more house sales in my lifetime. But if there is a next time I will be more wary. I will relate my experience to my new agent and suggest because we were effectively discounted, maybe 2% for each agent is appropriate. At least that way the buyer pays a higher percentage of the actual house sale, which will end up in our bank account. What I really want is all these details in the offer up front. I know I’m probably Don Quixote pointing my lance at a windmill on this issue.

So it’s too late for me, but not for you:

  • Sellers: if you are planning to sell your home you can at least be wise to what’s going on behind the scenes. Perhaps say you don’t want to pay more than 4% in commissions because you know it is likely that the buyer’s agent will give the buyer a credit.
  • Buyers: find an agent with both a good record of finding people the homes they want at a good price and who is willing to give you a substantial credit on their commission. Apparently 40 or 50 percent is not an unreasonable credit.

If this information is valuable to you, please send me 1.4% of the sale price. Thanks.

There’s no place like house

The Thinker by Rodin

Our six-month home improvement adventure is finally nearing a close. Our punch list: it’s nearly punched out. There are no large and annoying tasks to put our house on the market remaining. Some of those that do remain simply cannot be done right now. Most likely though the five inches of snow on the ground will melt and temperatures will stay reliably above freezing before our house lists in two weeks. When it does then I will pound those stakes into the ground to make the edging along our garden look right again. And we will pull the wild onion shoots from the garden as well. Right now though these imperfections are covered, quite literally! Two weeks from tomorrow, our house will get listed and a new set of hassles will start.

Inside our house though we are getting down to things that probably don’t matter. My touch up painting in the laundry room is pretty obvious. I’d like to repaint the walls, but not sure I want to buy yet another gallon of paint to make it look seamless. I am thoroughly sick of painting. I am sick of painting and all the crap that goes with it: caulking, patching, priming, masking, sanding, positioning drop clothes, taking knobs out of doors, and switch plates off the walls and putting them back in again. I am sick of cleaning up afterward and trying to get my paintbrushes clean yet again. It is more than painting, of course. To name just a few, I am also sick of constantly vacuuming, dusting, cleaning, trashing and rushing to and from the local Lowes.

There is still stuff that needs to be moved around or put away to make our stager happy, but for the most part that work is done. We are also loath to remove some stuff until the last possible moment, such as most of the items on our kitchen counter. If you encounter a kitchen counter minus most appliances, it’s a good sign that the house is about to go on the market. The assumed buyer wants to imagine her stuff on those counters, which is not your ugly toaster or your very used electric can opener. So we must make it look like no one actually uses our kitchen instead.

All this is really for the photographer. Twenty-one years ago when we bought this house, there was no World Wide Web. If you were lucky you had a brochure of the house to look at first that you got at your broker’s office. Instead, you generally depended on cryptic house descriptions that realtors gave you. They came from printouts off dot-matrix printers in the realty office. You plotted the actual locations of these houses using a local atlas so you could get some idea if the house was in a neighborhood that would work for you. Now your house is mostly sold online, thanks to your stager who makes each room unrecognizable to you but mostly thanks to the photographer, who has a unique assortment of extremely wide angle lenses that can make a bungalow look like a mansion. It will all be brightly lit, using Photoshop if necessary. The fancier photographers might use panoramic cameras with high-resolution detail so strangers can get 360-degree sweeps of your bedroom. That’s when you’ll be glad the stager noticed the bottle of lube on the bedstead and had you put it away in that special drawer with your many whips, frottages, restraints and adult DVDs.

Our house has been ruthlessly decluttered. We’ve given away literally thousands of dollars of stuff, mostly to Goodwill, mainly because we don’t want to invest the energy to sell it. Freecycle has been another godsend. It’s amazing what people will take when you advertise it for free. My wife posted on Freecycle four bottles of a sports drink she’ll never finish. Some slinky Asian American woman stopped by a few hours later in her gym clothes to pick them up; I guess she needed some electrolytes for her workout. My wife can give away practically anything, no matter how trashy I think it is, with a creative posting on Freecycle. A lot of stuff gets claimed in minutes. An occasional item will languish, but a reposting will usually get rid of it. Some stuff though is not even fit to give away. One (an outdoor table) literally fell apart as I helped to put it in a guy’s truck. He was nice enough about it and helped me haul it to the curb.

It took us twenty-one years but finally our house is clean and fit for human habitation. It’s just too bad that actual human beings don’t live in houses like ours. That’s because you have to be retired for six months with little else to do but fetishly turn the real into the surreal using lots of disposable cash to reach this level of crazy perfection. Real people fill their house with stuff (most of it junk, actually). Real people don’t vacuum daily, and they leave dishes in the sink, sometimes for days at a time. Real people (and we are guilty here) leave baskets of clean laundry lying around until some amorphous day in the future when we decide to fold them, by which time half of it has been picked out, worn and is back in the dirty clothes basket. Real people don’t scrub their sinks after each use, so it will look shiny and unused if some potential buyer comes by. I leave out rich people because they aren’t real IMHO. If you want to get some sense of what it takes to live 24/7 in a clean and well-ordered house, watch the staff in Downton Abbey. No one else has the time, except when buyers are house hunting. Then they expect to see a surreal HGTV-like house; a house that will never again appear once the first moving box is plopped down on the living room floor.

What the next owner of our house won’t notice or give any thought to is how much time, money, fretting and brute labor went into our house while we owned it. Developments like ours were sprouting like weeds in the mid 1980s, and construction standards were somewhat sloppy. Our house had many defects, stuff you wonder how any county home inspector could approve. Among the ones we encountered were drywall ceilings on our porch and the deck literally nailed into our sliding. We fixed these and many other defects, not to mention did a lot of remodeling, painting and repainting, replacing appliances, and fussing about dandelions and drainage in the backyard. We spent huge amounts of money, well over $100,000 according to my records, just to keep our house functional.

For the new buyer it all that comes free. Once they own it and entropy reasserts itself they will discover the real cost of home ownership. It’s something that we will escape, at least for a time, when we move into our newly constructed house in Massachusetts this summer. Moreover, the condo association will have to fix problems with the exterior of our house.

Still, despite the hassle and expense of being homeowers, with a mortgage that is still not completely paid off, I’m going to miss this home of ours, which BTW is now mostly just a house. I know that even after the messiness of this gargantuan change in our lives that I will often feel nostalgic for this place I still call home.

Retirement journal: Part 3

The Thinker by Rodin

It took about five and a half months of retirement but this morning when I woke up I realized had nothing pressing to do.

I guess that’s good. For much of these last months the pressing things were related to our pending relocation and mostly they involved fixing up our house. That work is mostly done. We got something of a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval last week when our house stager came by to tour our house. It’s her job to make it attractive enough to draw a seller willing to pay top dollar. I was worried she’d want to bring in rented Ethan Allen furniture and make us move much of our furniture into storage, but there was none of that. She approved or at least could work with the furniture we have.

Her suggestions were for the most part easy to deal with: silver knobs and handles for the kitchen cabinets and lots of fluffy white towels for our bathrooms, which either she or our realtor will supply from their inventory. Our beds will need skirts around them. Perhaps the most onerous task is to get rid of the green trim in the living room, dining room and hallway. The green trim will become bright white, and that includes two doors painted green. Mostly she was positive. Our months of work have paid off. We’ll find out how well it worked around March 1, when our house will go on the market. If we get and accept an offer then a whole other process will start.

Already our home is becoming a house. Most of the personal items hanging from the wall have been put away. Possessions are moving into boxes that are getting stuffed into closets, probably not to be seen again until they are reopened in our new home. Furniture is getting moved around. Open space is what buyers want. So off went the valences that obscured the view of our deck, which makes our main floor now appear much larger than it is. Clutter like our coat tree is bad and we were instructed to hide it. Buyers must get the illusion of large and uncluttered open spaces, including kitchen countertops. Our many upgrades over the years are marketable. These include hardwood floors on the main level and granite countertops in the kitchen. The stager complemented us on our curb appeal and smiled when she saw our large backyard. It should appeal to someone or someones probably like us, just twenty or so years younger than us: someones with the time and money to tackle the endless tasks of keeping a house in good repair while actually living in it. I assume it would be a family with small children, but for some reason I imagine some gay or lesbian with lots of stuff buying the house instead.

Meanwhile our new home awaits construction. Nearly a month has passed since our last visit to Northampton Massachusetts where we will move but there has not been much progression on our attempt to get a house actually constructed. Both the builder and the architect inconveniently took two-week vacations during the holidays. The ground froze over while they went to warmer climates. The foundation is the first part of our house to go in. It doesn’t sound like frozen ground will keep us from having the foundation put in, but completion a P&S (purchase and sale) agreement has. We had to find a lawyer up there to represent us, and the owner of the plot is supposed to forward an agreement to our lawyer. It’s no big deal and it hasn’t happened yet, but maybe it doesn’t matter since we need to go up there again to have a meeting with the architect (now back in the snowbelt), and our amenities will certainly affect the price. In any event, we will need to find 5% of the assumed price when they start digging the basement, and any old check won’t do. It has to come from our credit union directly, because Massachusetts’s privacy laws prohibit the builder from seeing our account number.

There is a high probability that we will settle on the sale of our existing house long before the new house will be ready. This means we’ll have to live somewhere, so we’ll probably have to find temporary digs. We’ll likely move to some apartment or house near our new home, leaving much of our stuff in storage up there but unpacking quite a bit of it while we wait. The other possibility is that our house won’t sell for whatever reason. We will take all steps to prevent this of course, but it really has to sell if we are to pay for the bulk of the new house. Renting out the old house while buying the new is possible, but we’d need some sort of bridge loan. And it would raise the complexity of the whole relocation thing another notch.

All these things are in motion but at the moment not much of it requires our immediate attention. So today is something like a slack day, and it’s not the first. Last week we took in a Wednesday matinee. Apparently some theaters try to attract us people of leisure with discount Wednesdays tickets. That’s how we got to see The Imitation Game for $5.75 a ticket. It’s amazing how much less complicated living in Northern Virginia is when you can routinely get around outside of rush hour. It makes living around here almost pleasant.

I put out new versions of two open source programs that I have written. My consulting business continues to do well but at the moment there is not much in my work queue requiring immediate attention. When the weather cooperates I can get my daily walks in rather easily. I’m hitting the gym more often because most days are below freezing, but some days I take long walks in the cold air anyhow, bundled in my warmest coat, hat, scarf and gloves and with a podcast in my ears. I am contemplating starting a port of my two open source programs to a new platform, but finding the time to write my first app still is on the back burner, but something I want to do. It’s how I have fun, apparently. The idea is to sell an app or two, although most apps tend to languish, but hopefully it will generate some significant income worth the time invested.

In general, I am finding that retirement is good. I am still somewhat skeptical I can actually afford it, but a year or two of experience will prove it one way or the other. It’s not bad to bring in some income, but I do it mostly because I enjoy it, not because I have to do it. I want to stay busy and do stuff I enjoy but without feeling the pressure to make another mortgage or tuition payment. To find out if I succeed, keep reading these occasional retirement journal posts.