Monday, July 11, 2016

Home $weet Home

It all began about a year ago. Yellowstone. An adventure, one I could handle more than 50% of the time. We wanted more of that, but there was one big thing standing in our way. Our house.

Buying this house was easily the biggest financial error of my life thus far. As with all colossal errors, it began with falling in love. I fell in love with this house, its large windows and mass of french doors (6! UPDATE: I miscounted, there's only 5), its bucolic vistas, its ancient age (1901!), its tile work, its light, its location (15 minutes to downtown, on a quiet dead end!)  We had no idea what Huck's first real job after a later-in-life college experience would get us. But I was certain that after living in a garage in a peach orchard, after moving five times in one year, after 7 years on food stamps, we deserved this house and the universe was going to give it to us, dammit.

And yet every month, for seven years, our ability to pay the mortgage has been a question mark. At first it was a question mark with an explanation mark, like so: ?!  Then, as raises were doled out the exclamation mark faded. But still, the question remained: could we amass that kind of money by that date? Vacations were only via family sponsorship to visit family, all else, including camping trips, were forfeit. We never ate out. Our socks were full of holes. Neither adult in the family got new shoes for five years. I thought I could handle it. I was used to being broke; it was the only thing I'd known. We spent every extra penny replacing every single appliance in the house, on an emergency basis: washer, dryer, sump pump, furnace, air conditioning, sump pump again, oven (that was a gift from Huck's mom!), fridge, dishwasher. The only one left is the water heater. Upon purchase, I'd never cared about fancy new appliances. If it did the job, it got the job. I care now. I really really care now.

Housing is my Achilles heel, always. I stopped plans to attend UNC for a house on Orcas Island that looked like a tiny, one-story version of this one. When Huck and I returned from India, me pregnant and in labor, and the Seattle housing market grimly tight, we landed a gorgeous apartment (in an old house) on Alki beach via a family member. It was too expensive for us, but it was what was available immediately. And although I loved it, it tanked us financially.

In middle school, I subscribed not to Seventeen, not to Teen Heart Throb, but to Victoria Magazine and my favorite section was the house plans at the back. My first novel, written in middle school, was based on house plans from that magazine. My second novel was based on an old mansion a friend restored. The House is always the main character. It's my addiction, destructive as any other. It's love and devotion, as destructive as any other.

This is to say that I'm a sucker for beautiful old houses. I let them wreck me again and again.

But last summer I knew I was ready for adventures again and my head injury seemed ready to allow them. I was ready to quit this house. So the obvious solution was to sell.

This idea had been pre-seeded by neighbors recently. They held suspiciously similar conversations with me (never Huck, only me), script like: "Oh wasn't it so hard maintaining 5 acres?!" They'd all said. "Yes," I'd said, but thought What strange commiseration from people who own all of the necessary equipment, hire all help, and obviously have no problems meticulously, obsessively over-maintaining their lots?

They'd said: "Wouldn't your kids prefer living in town? Imagine, they could just WALK to the pool!" I'd said, "Yes, I suppose they'd enjoy that." But I thought Since when do you guys care about my kids and their entertainment? And to have several such stiffly conducted conversations in succession had my spidy senses tingling.

During one of the "friendly" wouldn't-you-be-happier-in-town chats, she looked over at her husband, pruning a tree and barked, "Are done? You're just going to leave that branch sticking out there like that?!" And he says to me, having overheard our conversation, "You know, she doesn't care about people. She just cares how things look." That was my cue to pay more attention to the unfolding scene.

And then, just before the Yellowstone trip, she called to say she'd retired from her wine shop and was going in to real estate and would love to represent us as we sold our house to the other neighbors who'd also been actively letting us know we'd be happier elsewhere and now wanted to own, outright (rather than just in their imaginations) our property. We weren't maintaining our home to standards, so perhaps something in town would be more suitable. Ah, yes, that's the part I was waiting for, the cap stone that made it all make sense.

The country-side I'd grown up in was the "Nobody's business what you do," type of country. This, I discovered too late, was "Display ability to control nature on a large scale" type of country.

Truth be told, five acres is a lot to maintain.  Since my head injury, our property had devolved into obvious disarray. The old garden was overgrown and difficult to work in. Fences had fallen. The front porch was divorcing the house, quickly. The back porch, constituting a full mile of white painted spindles that require scraping and painting on a yearly basis, hadn't been touched in three years. (Curses be upon all idiots who paint -rather than stain- porches and fences!) A pallet-made chicken coop was dissolving in the field. Half of the fruit trees were standing-dead. A pile of un-chopped wood was rotting. Towers of garden debris hadn't been burned, still festooned with a collection of old Christmas trees. The Noxious Weed Board had become our constant pen pal. There was no one here with the time or ability to do this stuff. And even as my stamina and strength was increasing (thanks to high CBD marijuana), the mess before us was emotionally debilitating. I tried to tell myself that it didn't get that way over night and it wasn't going to get fixed over night either. But even a baby-step approach seemed insurmountable.

The pallets surrender!
Our last day in Yellowstone, Huck and I excitedly decided that yes, we would sell the house, or at least look again into a refi. My I-Ching reading on the matter said only this: "You are not going to fucking believe all of the crazy stuff that's about to happen. I can't even go into it right now. You have to move forward, but you will be getting spun around so much you won't know which way is forward, just go step by step and you'll get to where you need to be." Well, that sounded like an adventure in itself! Onward Ho!

We knew one thing at this point: the wanna-be neighbor-agent would not be handling any of our real estate business. She'd never shown an interest in my well-being since the beginning (Here's an early blog post about it and although it's not clear in the post, those are quotes) and I could not trust her with such important business. Her loyalties were with the other neighbors, always, even telling me I couldn't put my laundry on the the line when the others were having events at their garden business. Right there, even in such a minor concept, she could have shown an interest in my needs: mom work.  But as is typical in our culture, she worships the business owner, the saints of capitalism, whose needs must always come before any others. She'd expressed much concern over how our place looked, but none over how my recovery was going. My TBI was interfering with her ideal neighborhood and that was her only concern. I needed to get over it STAT, so she could enjoy her view more. There was exactly zero evidence, collected (or not) over the past seven years, that she was capable of even considering, much less representing, our needs.

Upon our return, even as the car was being unpacked, we began. The simplest way to get more cash would be a refi, so we began making calls on that, but the quotes were never within a range that made a significant enough dent. Meanwhile, we called in our local Real Estate expert. She gave us a list of minimum fixes and a price to get us out of the house ASAP, for less than we bought it for yes, but also more than we now owed.  She gave us her handyman too, who worked for four hours, doing a beautiful job on our window frames and disappeared without being paid.

I began on the exterior, forgoing my hobbies of writing and yoga, for the full time job of proper property proprietorship. I cleaned up the garden space, removing my overly complex chicken/garden modular fence "plan". I pulled up the mowed-to-shreds irrigation. While Huck was at work, I reseeded the lawn, painted the trim, all in tiny increments my brain could handle. The timer gave me 20 minutes on, 30 minutes off. Huck devoted every weekend to fixing what I couldn't. It was autumn and the weather would turn soon, forcing my attention indoors. We had a small window of opportunity to get the acreage under control before snow covered it.  Our consulting agent recommended: put the house on the market AFTER it snows; it will show better if no one can see the yard.  But I figured we'd get the bulkier stuff under control first.
The list of work she gave us was huge, depressing, daunting. But I came to realize that this is the definition of life, of karma, of being: cleaning up our own messes, and those of the people who came before us (I'm looking at you, previous owners, who hung a valance over a leaky window!). This is all life is, dealing with the shit that's happening to us, the shit we've done, the shit we failed to do, the shit other people left us. Fair or not fair. Fun or not fun. Just don't keep passing the mess on, generation after generation. When we don't deal with our wounds (and all five acres were looking like a giant wound, a TBI spread out over the land, a TBI made visible), when we don't do our work, we just pass it on. We pass it on to the innocent ones behind us, we leave them our crap, our garbage, our pollution and then they've got their own stuff to deal with and ours as well, and our parents', and our grandparents'. It's a mountain of trash now. And it didn't get that way over night and it's not going to get fixed over night. But we've all got to do our part and at the very least clean up our own stuff. Overwhelming, yes, but what else am I doing with my life but maintaining it, cleaning it all, inside and out? What else are we here to do?
Huck and his dad reapplying the front porch

I want to pick up after myself. It's the right thing to do. It's the only thing. We can't get clear of our past decisions, we can't forget them, we can't ignore them, we can't pretend they never happened. There's no toothbrush for the past, we can't just scrub the past off at the end of the day. We have to say: yes that happened, or yes I did that, but today is new, today is a day for doing what I can, for shouldering my responsibilities in this trash heap. So we set to work; unfun, crappy work that felt, to me, to have cosmic, karmic?, qualities.

Armed with solid real estate estimates, we approached the other neighbors ourselves. They expressed an interest and so our efforts shifted from exterior (which they'd already seen and been disappointed by on the daily and which was sometimes mentally taxing for me to do because I knew she was just sitting at her dining room table, glaring and snarling at our place, at me working on it, likely doing everything wrong, likely being utterly inadequate at home-ownership, as usual.)  So, I left the yard unfinished ("Typical." I could almost hear her say) and turned my attentions to touch up paint, window washing, deep cleaning and re-cleaning, de-cluttering, staging.

Meanwhile, we also began looking at houses for sale. What if we did sell? What would be a good price range for us, what would work for the budget we have now, today, not five years from now? And could we find something we like within that margin? Months went by and the answer to that question was clearly: NO.  There would be too many multiple, crushing compromises. Pick three: 0 lot line, half the square footage, high crime neighborhood, longer commutes than what we currently have, on a busy thoroughfare, no garage at all, plywood kitchen, former meth lab. But we could rally, I knew, we could do it, we could. We'd been happy living in worse.

Everyone's favorite sun room, that time it was clean
The neighbors soon toured our house, liking the new appliances, everyone's favorite sun room and the "layout", which made me suspicious: can anyone honestly really love a bathroom/hallway combo, even with a clawfoot bathtub?  Then she lectured me on the yearly nature of porch paint maintenance, a sore spot. When I responded that when you are relearning how to read and how to walk without falling over, when a position change like getting out of bed makes you vomit, when you can't talk without stuttering endlessly, all of that healing work takes precedence over a little porch paint, her jaw dropped. I'm not sure she even knew I had a head injury. Or perhaps she thought I was speaking out of turn. But what did she think my little, slow, cane-assisted walks along our road were all about anyway?

In the meantime, we received a letter from another agent about a couple of doctors who wanted in to our neighborhood. Their range was our-house-price to our-house-pricex2. They had some sob story about deals falling through on land and other houses and I felt it wouldn't hurt to throw our hat in to the ring, to have a buyer option other than our crappy neighbors. My father-in-law's common-law wife, a real estate agent herself, had been advising us periodically and she was stunned by the astronomically wide price range this couple was looking at and cautioned us to proceed carefully. We left the house tidy for them but when they called back, they were laughing and the agent snobbishly said, 'Haha, not really what they were looking for. Haha." Was the lower end of the range just there for amusement? If you NEED a foyer and attached garage on acreage why would you ever include our price range? Their previous deals had fallen through not because of some unfair bad luck, as they imagined, but because they were Grade A Douchebags.

We proceeded with our neighbors, giving a price below what the agent said we could get as the house still needed help and FSBO would save us money.  They took their time responding, telling us they'd be over this Friday, and then I'd scrub it all over again, but half an hour before the appointed hour, they'd have something come up. Something came up so many times that I knew our neighbor/buyers (a lumber company executive and I don't trust corporate executives or people who chop down trees) were pulling some kind of power play. Eventually they counter-offered a full 10% lower. Fine, we wanted out, we'd play, even though we knew they intended to pay with cash and had the money, we had to do what was best for us, even if it felt a bit icky. We gamely countered half way between. They took their sweet time getting back to us, stretching this process out now from August to December. They claimed that things had come up, like Thanksgiving and family. We said: okay. I thought: Yes, that sneaky sneaky Thanksgiving, always springing itself on you at the worst times! This gave us another opportunity to talk to yet another real estate agent. And since the repairs, they thought our house was worth even more! And we felt a little foolish with the lower price we'd started at. But we wanted out.

The neighbors would not come up, not by a penny. They were firmly insisting that we donate our home to them. We came down in price even more. And when they wouldn't even come up a few thousand, we walked away, politely. But what I wanted to say was: Fuck you. Fuck you and your scabbish, scavanger predation. Don't you ever set a fucking foot on MY property again.  A case could have been made for taking their price, for just leaving with the shirts on our backs and calling it good. For not throwing good money after bad. For walking away from a bad financial decision. But I just couldn't.

Christmas Eve. Huck and I were in the ER overnight thanks to a restaurant feeding me wheat.  His phone rings: an employee of the rose garden neighbors. She was renting her house to "Kenyan Missionaries" and wanted to downsize to a cheaper, smaller home and thought ours would do the trick. (What Kenyan Missionaries can afford a bigger, better house in our neighborhood? Who downsizes to 3000 square feet?) And if we weren't going to sell it to her, would we ever sell? She needed to know! Had the neighbors just sent a spy to see if they'd blown their chances of getting us out of the neighborhood?!

We decided to refi as rates were even lower now than before. Our first attempt was promising; for only $4000 we could get all of our debts rolled in to one! Reduce our bills substantially, better than moving!  My delight and glee was telling and I felt like mythological Abraham with his dagger over his son and the angel swooping in at the last minute to say he didn't actually have to kill his son, god just wanted to see if he would. I could no longer pretend that I wanted to move. What we wanted was better finances, a smarter, more livable budget, but my heart still belonged to this house.  In that moment, we saw what I really wanted. To stay.  My nightmares, when they come, are always about not living in this house and not knowing why, missing it, grief. These dreams are both a grieving for my old life, my old self, mixed with fear about losing my favorite earthly object on top of it all. My desire to move was partly an attempt to meet my fears half way. To say, yes, that could happen, and I could be fine, I could even want it to happen. I could even make it happen and I would live, thrive.  But the truth was undeniable now. I'd never wanted to move from this house. Perhaps from some neighbors, perhaps from the work and the mess yes, but not this home. When I first stepped over the threshold, I felt I was coming home. I felt I belonged here. I felt that this was the nest for my eggs. A wanderer, an adventurer, and perpetual mover, I'd stepped into a place where I finally felt utterly home. I could not deny it now.

That particular refi deal turned out to be a scam (don't let the high rankings fool you) and hours before we were to sign the papers, the price went for $4000 to $8000 and we walked away, again, which was hard because at this point I just wanted off the crazy train, off of the housing roller-coaster, to make the drama stop! Part of the problem was an internet appraisal company where the appraisal came in shockingly low because they compared our house to things like a two bedroom shack behind the prison 15 miles away.

The next company assured us we were qualified for the super rare, super cheap, super fast federal refi! Weeee! But the next day we found out that due to Huck's raise a few weeks earlier, we were no longer qualified. But in the end, it worked out and the appraisal was reasonable, and retroactively justified our asking price. There was more drama at the signing but it all is almost worked out, lo these four months later. I can only conclude that this entire year of house drama was born under one hell of an unlucky star.

I still feel sometimes that we shouldn't be living here. But we've turned the property into what works for us today. We moved the garden from the field to the old weedy dog run. We put in raised beds and new soil (I could not devote myself to seven more years of soil improvements before we got decent yields). We've contracted the yard into a small city-size lot, manageable. The field is loaned out to six adorable sheep whose owner maintains the fences.  We've simplified and simplified and the property now works for us.

I also now know that we've got some wonderful neighbors too. Here's how one addressed our predicament:
Old guy: I've noticed your lawnmower sitting out, do you need some help fixing it? I've got a big shop with every possible tool. I've love to help.
Me: Aw shucks, I know our yard looks like shit. I do need help.
Him: NO NO NO! Your yard looks whatever way you want it to. That doesn't bother me.  I just want to know if you want my help with your lawn mower.
Me: hell yeah!
Him: tows my mower to his shop. We talk about his Navy years and my TBI.

A good neighbor tow
Later he says: Are you feeling better? You look like you're feeling better. I see you working outside more these days.
Me: (self-consiously) Yes! My yard is looking so much better, isn't it?
Him: I don't care about what your yard looks like. I'm just glad to see you feeling better.
THAT, my friends, is how it's done. THAT is what being a good neighbor, a good person is.

And that's why I buy him fancy dark chocolate from time to time.

I finally tell our other neighbor friends what's going on. And she says to me, "I would have been so hurt. You must have been so hurt by that! I can't imagine! We are not fancy people, you and I. And I know fancy people and I can get along with them. Fancy people are fine. But these people, these neighbors are super super fancy, sick fancy."

building a new garden
And she's right. I've come to see these neighbors as mentally ill. It must be an unfathomable, unquenchable need for control that makes your own private five acres not enough, that makes your need to control spill out onto another's five acres. I can't imagine spending 65 years on this planet and never learning how to care more for others than for how things look. In their world, I am the bad neighbor, the inadequate one, the lazy one. But that's not true at all. It is me that endures the bad neighbors, the emotionally crippled neighbors, the psychologically lazy ones, the ones who won't do their internal work. I'm not a perfect neighbor/person myself but I try to care about people despite what I perceive as their shortcomings and in this case I think it's sad that they've never figured it out, they never grew past "middle school girl bully". Whatever is causing them distress about my property is not located on my property, it's inside them. Similarly, whatever is causing me continued stress about this situation isn't on them, it's within me. It's my need for approval, my insecurity. My work today isn't just cleaning up the property it is also not letting their mess spill over in to mine, not letting their mess stir up my anger, my resentment.  I find it difficult, but my intention is good mental hygiene.

Even if my yard was kept up to my own ideal (an overgrown wabi-sabi garden rather than hyper-controlled edges and exact pruning) it will never be in the range of what they want. We continue on here, doing what we will with our property as life, time, energy and funds allow. I can't let their interior messes mess with me. But it's hard. It hits me where I'm most vulnerable. I want to be liked by my neighbors. I want to be good enough, by all measures.

My new happy place!
In the end, I feel fortunate. I do have some great neighbors. I get to keep on here, in this soul-mate home. We get to live in a house fixed up to sell and a little closer to our price range. It took a year and there's still more to do, but bit by bit, our life feels like ours, our home feels like ours, our budget feels like ours. And we've done our duty, we're cleaning up our messes and then some.


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