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.

Home-ish

The Thinker by Rodin

Another quick four hundred mile commute between states. The path varies a bit each time we go. Lately I have been trading money for time. The New Jersey Turnpike is no guarantee of a quick commute but when it works it’s worth the tolls. When you travel this path frequently you look for the optimal path.

There are two major obstacles between Easthampton, Massachusetts and Herndon, Virginia. One major obstacle is New York City, where the choice is either to drive through it or drive around it. If you drive through it, you should drive through it from east to west because the pricey George Washington Bridge is free in that direction. The cost of congestion sitting on I-95 in the Bronx is borne pretty much any day and at any time. Which leaves your options either avoiding the city and New Jersey altogether or driving around it. Around it means either I-287 or our more recent discovery: the Garden State Parkway that conveniently connects to the New Jersey turnpike west of Staten Island.

Obstacle two is Washington, D.C. itself, with arguably worse traffic than New York City. If you have to arrive there at evening rush hour it is better to go from east to west too because more people live in Maryland and work in Northern Virginia than the other way around. There are still inevitable slowdowns but it is less hellish.

This trip to our house settlement that spanned much of our week and that kept me from blogging was at least our last one, at least for the foreseeable future. Which is why I was glad to trade money for time. We have driven this route many times now and it is getting old. When the traffic is with you it is not too bad: six and a half hours without potty breaks with NPR stations along the whole route. But traffic can easily make it eight or ten hours or more, and there is no way to know; it’s a crapshoot. I don’t feel too bad doing 80 mph on the turnpike because plenty of others are going 85. Also, much of the turnpike is eight lanes in each direction, with four inner lanes reserved for cars-only. It’s so hard to police that the New Jersey cops have pretty much given up trying.

Still, it’s a sedentary trip and all the gear shifting (we were driving my wife’s manual car) and micro changes in speed to accommodate traffic dynamics hurt my feet. From bucolic Mount Tom in the morning to traffic soaked Reston, Virginia in the afternoon, but not to end up at our house in Herndon of 21 years. We ended up instead in a friend’s spare bedroom. Outside a Virginia spring told us we were going to miss the area. Dogwoods and ornamental cherry trees were in full bloom. The grass was a green as an Irish spring. And the temperature, at least this week, was ideal.

Also ideal were those last hours at our house before we said goodbye. Both our front trees were flowering, as were the flowers along the porch and in the main garden. The house was largely clean when the movers left. All that was left was some final sweeping and mopping of floors. Our buyers paid top dollar for our house. They deserved to walk into a house that sparkled. With almost everything outside blossoming, moving in should be a joy for them.

Last moments at our house
Last moments at our house

But for us this was an ending, not a beginning. Empty of our belongings our house looked surprisingly small, but it also felt lonely. Its future inhabitants will include a man named Rajkumar, his pregnant wife beginning her third semester and shortly after the baby arrives, her mother from India. Raj probably targeted our house for the mother in law suite in the basement, but also for its proximity to Washington Dulles airport. Years of working with Indians made me realize that they see themselves as part time inhabitants. At least once a year, sometimes more often, they jet half a world away to be with their real family, always very extended. Our modest house with the one car garage will doubtless seem palatial by Indian standards. In short, while we have departed, Raj has arrived, both figuratively and literally.

We arrived at the settlement a few minutes early to discover that they had beer in the fridge and plentiful snacks in the waiting room. I guess the writer’s cramp goes easier when you are mildly intoxicated and as long as it is just one beer, you are less likely to dispute items on the HUD-1 form. The settlement experience is much different when you are the seller. Within thirty minutes we had signed all our forms, turned over our keys and the remote controls to the garage door and a stack of manuals and had left, while an impressive stack of forms remained for Raj to sign. While settlement turned out to be the event that drew us back to Virginia, my wife had two medical appointments to keep. And there were family obligations too: a drive to Silver Spring to see my aging father and his wife, one final visit to Lake Anne in Reston to take a friend out to dinner and a six a.m. wakeup call on Wednesday to rendezvous with our daughter for breakfast. She works nights and goes to bed around 8 a.m. The trip back from breakfast had us sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic along traffic clogged Route 28 in a 75-minute trip that should take twenty minutes.

Yes, Virginia traffic taxed us to the very end. It was literally taxing, as we were forced to pay $768 for a “congestion relief tax” as part of the house settlement. Doubtless the money would only cause more congestion, as 35 years had taught me that in Northern Virginia developer money talks and politicians will figure out how to accommodate all the extra traffic and people when hell freezes over. Speaking of traffic, it was stop and go much of the way from Sterling, Virginia (where my wife had an appointment with an eye doctor) to Columbia, Maryland where we spent our final night with my sister Mary.

Yesterday we did the trip all in reverse, but at least we started near Baltimore, which kept us from more hellish commuter traffic, easy to see from the solid mass of cars and trucks going south on I-95 toward Washington. The New Jersey Turnpike did not disappoint us. While we were making our journey home, $415K in settlement funds was making its way electronically into our bank account. We gave up a beautiful house with a gorgeous lawn with trees and flowers in bloom for a tiny two-bedroom apartment in Easthampton. But at least we were debt free for the first time in more than thirty years.

Back in Easthampton four days later, our apartment did not feel like home to me, but home it will be for a few more months. Our real home is under construction in nearby Florence. It will be built almost entirely from cash from our settlement. While we have yet to actually purchase and occupy the property, in a way we are already part of our neighborhood to be. Sunday we attended services at the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence, and we almost immediately introduced to three people from our new neighborhood. We’re already booked to attend a party there later this month, and my wife has been invited to join their book club. Nearly everyday we pick up our mail from their mail kiosk, and our days are often spent with vendors nailing down the details of this new home to be.

So we are home-ish. I am wrung out from the last eight months, but with most of the hassle and work of relocation behind us I now have an opportunity to begin to recharge now and ponder what new adventures await us.