We learned a few weeks before that the owner of the building that housed the biker bar, whom we knew was very ill, had finally died (and I say finally with all the respect owed a man who made our lives a living hell for his continued and obscene profit). We also learned that his out-of-town sons were planning on selling the place. The guy who managed the bar for years—a retired NYC cop—did not want to pay good money for the decrepit building, so it was up to us to decide if we wanted it. After Dean took a tour through the structure, he was frightened off, but the good news was that the price the father wanted for it was almost halved by the sons. We were biding our time, attempting to wait out a better deal when we left for California for the Thanksgiving holiday. I was unable to reach my broker, Lisa L., for an update before I left.
I finally reached her minutes after our plane landed. She told me the owners had accepted an offer from a plumber who planned to make the bar bigger and better. ("C'mon, God, haven't you toyed with us enough?)
I stiffened my resolve. “Listen, Lisa, you have to be our advocate here. If this plumber gets the place, our property value becomes friends with zero. Make a higher offer and an entreaty to the owners to do the right thing. No one needs a busy bar on a residential road, one that is impossible to get to without driving to and from it. That place dumps a lot of drunk drivers on the road (not to mention the drive-by shooters).
And it did. One time I stood in my driveway with a deputy sheriff who was there at my request to see how fast people drove on my road. He wore a hat that was about four feet tall and the idiot drivers easily spotted him and were flashing lights to warn each other. The result was that all of a sudden, everyone was driving 30 mph, the speed limit. This officer was either incredibly dense, in denial, or liked to speed himself. He dismissed the notion that they were onto him, insisting since his car was parked well down my driveway, no one could see him. Uh, and your four-foot hat is invisible, I suppose, officer?
During my uncomfortable few minutes with this guy, I casually mentioned all the drunk drivers on the road because of the bar next door. He said, "Oh, I don't think that's true." I looked at him incredulously, searching his face for a hint of humor. None was to be found. Either he liked to drink at the bar himself or he was covering for his retired police buddy who ran the joint. Whatever. If the cops refuse to see the people staggering to their cars, then who will ever do anything? The answer, of course, is no one. My kids' bus drivers would often complain but their efforts would fall on deaf ears 'cause the cops didn't give a shit.
We bought the bar. The owners did the right thing and made a cool five thou extra in the process. The building was one of the most disgusting places I’ve ever been unfortunate enough to see. I seriously had to take a shower after every time I stepped foot into it. It was about a hundred years old and no one had spent a nickel on it since, it seemed. Part of the agreement for purchase at a reduced price was that we could not have an inspection. Normally, we would never buy real estate without an inspection but in this case we had no choice. It was either buy the bar or chuck everything and move back to California or Santa Fe. Why oh why didn’t we move back to California or Santa Fe? What is it about us that insists upon torture? Perversity is a family trait, I fear.
A few months before the sale went through, the manager had rented the apartment above the bar to a single woman with a beautiful Siberian husky. The older woman who moved in after the very boisterous family of six (in a junior 2-bedroom!!) and was delightfully quiet, had fled after the drive-by shooting. Because I am an animal lover and I know how hard it is to find an apartment that takes dogs, I told my broker to allow the tenant with husky to stay. She thought it was a bad idea but it became moot anyway since the woman moved out before the closing date. I've always felt badly about that especially after I heard she was pregnant—the woman—and the dog was really cute.
Since the building was delivered to us vacant, we planned to gut and renovate the apartment first and get it rented to secure some income, warding off the money hemorrhage—or at least bandaging it. So in February '04 we headed up there to do just that.
It was a decent layout, and it was sunny and warm. The attic door that had been nailed shut to ensure that we had no access to it during the walk-through, was filled with the noisy family's garbage and family memorabilia. (Why they bothered to move it all from the trailer to the apartment only to leave it all behind I'll never know. Apparently they absconded in the wee hours of the morning so as to avoid paying any rent.) The bathroom was one notch above gas station restroom. We did see the attempts, however feeble, of the genteel older woman, to try to make the place habitable. There was fresh paint on the walls and carpet nails along the edges where she ripped out her carpet when she moved.
One of the first problems we noticed was the uneven floor when you first walked in. You kind of lost your balance right inside the front door. The bathroom floor was also lopsided. When we ripped up the multiple layers of linoleum flooring we had a surprise: apparently there was a major fire in the building at one time and rather than replacing the charred joists, they had just installed new ones atop the others, hence the uneven floors.
It gets better. The bathroom floor was uneven 'cause they didn't feel like carving a slight notch in the floor joists to lay the pipe. They just plopped it right on top and covered it with vinyl flooring so there was a huge lump where the pipe lay. We ripped out all the flooring and put down tile in the bath and faux wood laminate in the rest. The bathroom was completely redone, all in white. When I went in to paint the walls red, I felt almost like a criminal, doing away with fresh white walls by smearing some obnoxious bloody red all over it. After about six coats, though, it finally stopped looking like a gory murder scene and actually looked good.
With the bathroom looking really fab, sporting an all new white tub, toilet, vanity, mirror trim, and floor, and Pottery Barn polished nickel hardware, we moved on to the kitchen and living room. All that winter, while keeping company with Air America, I painted and fixed things. Little did I know that while Rachel Maddoe would end up having her own television show (without Liz and Chuck D.) Al Franken would go on to become the U.S. senator of the great state of Minnesota. You go, Al. When I was pulling off the acoustic ceiling tiles in the living room, skeletons of mice and others began raining down. I quickly made the executive decision that the tiles would stay in the rest of the apartment. After all, it was a rental so it's not smart to renovate to one's taste anyway—and I just don't handle skeletons of any size very well. Some people find treasures in the walls or in the attic—maybe an original copy of the Constitution? I only find vermin skeletons and old negatives of a little boy in knickers on the running board of an old truck. Creepy, and not exactly like winning the lottery, is it?
We put beadboard on the living room ceiling, and fresh paint on the acoustic tiles in the other rooms (much easier said than done, by the way. Acoustic tiles do not take paint easily; rather they absorb it). Since the apartment had no architectural flair whatsoever, I tried to make it interesting with paint colors. I bought four of the five shades on a Martha Stewart color swatch in soft sage greens. I put the lightest one in the kitchen—it was almost white with just a titch of green. The darkest one, a deep sage, I put in the hallway for a bit of drama. The medium color I used in the small bedroom.
The master bedroom gave me copious amounts of grief. The pretty green/taupe cottage-y color (a shade lighter than in the smaller bedroom) went up on the walls like a shocking lime-ish pastel. I had to repaint the entire room in ivory (meanwhile, the room was getting smaller with all the paint on the walls). When I used the same green on the window frames, it came out exactly right. Go figure. It was just the way the light hit the walls that made the color funky.
In the kitchen, we reconfigured the room. We installed pretty maple flat panel cabinetry and a green laminate countertop to pick up the green in the wall color. I found a maple pot rack at Crate and Barrel that matched the cabinets perfectly, which we put above the range. I bought new white midrange appliances and a white fan/light fixture. Satin nickel hardware was installed on the cabinetry, and a stainless sink finished the renovation. Voila. The kitchen was now done.
Dean enlarged the entrance into the living room and fixed or replaced all the window frames and sills. We installed white plantation wood blinds in all the front windows, and put miniature blinds in the rest (I had dreamed of doing that for all those years that I stared at the decrepit mismatched curtains hanging in the windows that none of the tenants ever thought to change). We installed all new light fixtures, some acquired on ebay.
Finally, finally in mid-August it was ready to rent. We managed to find a great tenant through a friend of a friend. Now it was time to turn to the first floor.