Love Thy Neighbor or Get the Hell Out
How Not to Buy Real Estate in Any Market
“I WANT TO FUCK YOUR DOG!”
The shout came from a group of teenagerish looking males hanging about the yard of the ugly townhouses behind my rear yard. Gosh, but isn’t this why everyone leaves what is arguably the best city in the world, arguably the best neighborhood in said city, to move to the country? Who doesn’t love having obscenities shouted at her as she is walking her dog in her ostensibly private backyard? Yes, my family and I have moved 60 miles north of the city to get a piece of land and some privacy and nature—the perfect environment to raise our two boys. Right?
NOT. Oh, the house was great, a true diamond in the rough which we were ever so slowly polishing (too bad the dogs were peeing on the polish). The land was lush and large, over half an acre. The fact that it was situated on a busy road wasn’t great but it was one of the reasons why the house was so affordable. Tradeoffs. Herein lies the rub: we didn’t know about half of the tradeoffs we eventually realized we had to make to continue living here.
Tradeoff numero uno: We found ourselves living next to a biker bar. Oh yes. The sleepy little pub within spitting distance of our home would transform into a happening honky tonk every night, with 90 percent of the patrons arriving on very noisy motorcycles. Why didn’t we come around at night before we bought the house? By dusk we were happily home in downtown Manhattan, dreaming our dreams of living in the country while the bar served drinks to raucous lowlife patrons till the wee hours of the morning. We found out about the bar our first night here but I get ahead of the story.
Tradeoff numero dos: The ugly townhouses immediately behind our home, practically in our backyard really, housed a rehab facility for young adults with either substance abuse problems and/or severe behavioral issues. Either way, can anyone ask for better neighbors?
Tradeoff numero tres: No sooner did we drag the cement bench to place perfectly in the yard to frame a lovely view of the reservoir did our next door neighbor Steve decide the view we should have instead was of his decrepit Honda and catamaran, which he hauled into his yard less than a week after our bench was strategically positioned. He was a nice guy; I don’t think it occurred to him that we might actually like to use our yard for something other than storing junk vehicles.
Tradeoff numero quattro: Finally, there is that busy road with the double yellow lines. It wasn’t too bad when first we bought but in the ensuing years, as rapacious developers continually throw up houses, it has become damn near a highway. Unfortunately for me, I make friends with stray cats, chipmunks, skunks, possums, et al. so finding them in pieces on the road is not something I ever get used to, especially when I spend hundreds spaying and neutering the cats, and having them immunized. But those speeding drivers do not care and they are equal opportunity killers; hell, they’ll run over your toddler just as quickly as your Labrador and sometimes they’ll make a beeline straight for the Canada geese or the squirrels desperately gunning for the other side. I swear I’m not lying.
I guess I’m saying that before buying a house, one should complete due diligence to ensure that serious mistakes are not made. I only wish I had read a cautionary tale before I headed to that closing in 1998.
Tribeca, November, 1997
Sharp pellets of frozen rain pelted our faces as we struggled across the two-block esplanade to our car. It was one of those shitty New York City days: grey, dank, windy and depressing. Shoulders hunched against the ferocious wind—a common foe in the concrete and steel canyons of Lower Manhattan—we slowly made our way to the Subaru. My brother-in-law claims that long-term denizens of Tribeca like us will eventually grow hair on our backs from the posture we must assume to head into the winds. There’s a trick to it—you have to put your head down and sort of dive into it.
We were all cranky. My husband, Dean, was pissed off because he was tired of spending yet another weekend making the tedious drive north out of the city to the suburbs of Westchester to go house hunting. Too bad—he was the one who dragged us back from L.A.
Jackson, my three-year-old son, was testy because he was used to the sunny warm clime of L.A., where in 90-degree weather he’d sit by the heating grate in his bedroom hoping for warm air to emerge. He really did not care for NYC in winter—to put it mildly.
Poor Jack, he had a rough time of it—leaving everything and everyone he knew in California, coming back east to a small apartment in rotten cold weather and having to stay home all day since I couldn’t get him into a preschool class in the middle of the school year. Making things still worse was the fact that he was soon to have a little brother and would lose solo-star status in the family. It was all too much for a little guy to bear. One dreary afternoon he came out of our shared bedroom and announced that Cartoon Network was his only friend. Sniff.
Rounding out this happy little trio is me, ornery because I’m four months pregnant with my second child and living in a one-bedroom apartment—albeit large for NYC—with an entire wall devoted to a mountain of moving boxes, unpacked because we totally ran out of space and our loco neighbors with the three-bedroom apartment wouldn’t share the storage room with us. The fact that they were profoundly unstable and had three giant Rottweilers made arguing over it a risky proposition. Time to go.
After three months we’ve seen about twenty houses, none having passed muster. It was now February and we had an appointment to see a house in Garrison, NY, about 60 miles north of Manhattan. When Dean was trying to convince me to leave the city, and L.A., for that matter, he took me on tours of the quaint river towns along the Hudson. There they were, darling little hamlets ripped right out of It’s a Wonderful Life, tricked out in finery of red velvet and evergreen for the holidays. Church steeples rose high out of the snow, rosy and smiling faces hurried home to a warm hearth—wood smoke was in the air— and always prominent was my close friend, the river. I had lived next to the Hudson for so many years that it felt comforting to think of moving to a town away from the city yet still on the banks of the same water. Even though it loses its shimmer in the winter and adopts that forbidding iron hue, the river still beckons to me in some visceral way. Alas, none of the river towns, many so close to Manhattan, worked out for us. High property taxes drove us continually north, farther and farther away from the city and we were now on the outer fringes of “commutable distance.” Still, once the Garrison house came into view, the far remove seemed worth it.
“The house was built circa 1850,” the realtor began, as we pulled up to an old white farmhouse. She was a middle-aged woman (and by middle-aged I mean, you know, considerably older than me), pleasant and unaggressive. I definitely liked this latter quality, having been paired with some rather abrasive agents. “It has 2.8 acres of property and there is a brand new post-and-beam barn where an old garage had once stood.”
I could see Dean’s eyes light up as we walked over to the barn and peered in. He is a painter and has been pining for a decent studio for years. His expression told me he may have found it. “The house has been on the market for some time, and has actually received an offer recently, but the seller wants us to keep showing it,” she continued. Dean and I shared a quick glance, realizing that this house would normally be out of our price range, considering the size of the property, the area in which it’s located, and the fact that it is an antique farmhouse, a type of home in high demand.
“Why hasn’t it sold more quickly?” I asked the agent.
She shrugged. “I’m not sure. Some people don’t like the aluminum siding. Some don’t like the low ceilings—which aren’t dropped, they were built that way. If you’re really tall, this wouldn’t be a comfortable house for you.”
Not an issue for us diminutive folks. Could my long-hated petite status finally be paying off? And the aluminum siding is not a deterrent either, as I planned to tear it off the first chance I got, even if I had to use my teeth. Dean walked the land and returned with a glint in his eye. “This is the type of place that will spark our children’s imagination,” he said to me softly. “I want it.” I nodded. We both recognized that it was a great deal, even before stepping foot inside the house. The asking price had been reduced by twenty thousand to $219,000. (STOP LAUGHING: remember that this was early 1998, before the world went crazy. I mean, I could have bought a detached house in Park Slope for around that price, too. Seriously.)
We entered through the rear door. One of the owners, an older woman, was at home, sitting in the large living room. Jackson was misbehaving and I feared this may prove to be a mark against us. Since hearing Dean say those words, I wanted desperately to acquire this place. Briefly, I considered grabbing her gnarled hand and begging her, on bended knee, to sell us the house at a good price. I dismissed the notion, though. She’d think I’m a lunatic, and besides, I was really too pregnant to grovel at this point. Last month would have been better. I tightened my death grip on my errant child’s chubby hand encouraging him to understand that I just might break a few digits if he kept up the rotten behavior, as we proceeded upstairs to see the rest of the house.
Although the house needed a lot of cosmetic work, the potential was obvious. There was room to grow, for one thing. One of the bedrooms had an attached sitting room—a perfect playroom for Jack! The attic could be easily converted into living space. The master bedroom had a Juliet balcony that could be enhanced with a French door. My mind raced with all the possibilities. A few minutes later, we thanked the owner, as we took our leave. Outside, I turned to the agent. “I’ll be contacting you later today with an offer. We’re very interested in this property.”
“Oh great,” she said, her dull tone belying her words. “I’ll be at the office until around four.” It was now noon and we parted company. My little family piled into the car and I climbed in last, my ever-widening girth making it tough going. I told Dean to drive around the neighborhood so I can look at the area. What I saw pleased me enormously. Beautiful old houses dotted the landscape, their owners appreciating the architecture rather than trying to obliterate it with modern flourishes. The neighborhood appeared to be perfect and I already knew, from my Internet research, that the schools were good. Everything pointed to an ideal match. My one and only concern was how far it was from the city, where Dean worked and where our lives were centered.
Immediately upon arriving home, we called the agent and made an offer. She told us she would contact the owner and phone us with his reply. While we were waiting, my husband told our giant dog, Egg, how he was about to deliver on a promise he made to him eight years before, when they shared a big, raw Tribeca loft together, just the two of them. (Ah, those were the days when you could still find a real working loft in Tribeca.) He’s going to give him his own backyard! And a magnificent yard at that. Then the phone rang.
“Hi Lisa.” It was the agent. “I have a counter offer for you,” she said, and told me the amount. At $190,000, it’s ten thousand more than we had offered. “The owner said it’s his final offer.” Bummer.
We had agreed beforehand to go only five thousand dollars higher than our initial offer of $180,000. We felt that we were stretching ourselves too thin to go beyond that. I gave the agent my final offer and again we waited. After tense moments the call finally came. The owner had turned it down.
Crestfallen. I knew in my gut that we should go for the higher amount—you’re all screaming right now that it’s a paltry five thousand that stood between us and the great farmhouse—but we were running scared. Dean was working for a start-up magazine and its future was dicey—the parent company was not enthusiastic about it. I was extremely pregnant, so not likely to be able to work anytime soon. The credit card debt was obscene after all of our moves around the country, despite the fact that employers paid for most of the moves. Go figure. And there was another mortgage to pay: a log home in Pennsylvania that we co-owned with my sister—an idea that sounded good ten years before when I was single, permanently ensconced in the city and in desperate need of a weekend retreat. With heavy hearts we decided to let the house go. It was a decision we would thoroughly rue for years to come—one of those gut-twisting, why-can’t-I-set-the-clock-back stupid, idiotic decisions.
So dejected are we to lose this house, we ceased our house hunting for two months. We spent our weekends doing city things: shopping for baby items in the East Village, trying out new restaurants, browsing bookstores, haunting farmer’s and flea markets. Then the apartment walls started closing in again as baby paraphernalia started its sprawl, and we resumed our search halfheartedly. It was April and my baby was due in early May.