Friday, May 19, 2006

House Tip #1: Everything Costs More Than You Think It Will

Now that I've chosen a house, the hard work begins: paying for it.

When I first considered looking, I read three books. All discussed the importance of staying organized--keeping your financial house in order, logging your expenses, maintaining records to help keep emotions in check once you found that dream home. I figured house-hunting represented the perfect project for my anal-retentive nature.

But being a rabid organizer can have its drawbacks. Organized people tend to think they have their world under control. We carry around the false belief that we can predict where life will lead us, that we've anticipated the next step. Not so with most important things in life: falling in love, loving family, managing your health, adopting a pet...and buying a home.

For example, when it comes to the "good faith estimate" of the costs to purchase your home, it's just as important to focus on the "estimate" part as the "good faith" part. Because, believe me, you're going to need some great faith to believe you're going to live through the 60 days until you reach settlement.

Right after the sellers accepted my offer, I began the race for the home inspection, termite inspection, homeowners insurance and mortgage approval. My blood pressure rose with every phone call, since the person on the other end of the line would quote me a number several times higher than the estimate. I've looked through the estimate line by line, trying to see where I can save a few dollars here and there. Usually, I can find something. But saving a few bucks doesn't subtract my insecurity over the following unlikely scenarios that have gone through my mind over the past days:
  • The house is appraised too low, our agreement falls through and I end up homeless and on the streets.
  • A worldwide computer virus destroys my bank records, preventing me from getting my mortgage.
  • The president calls a state of emergency and stops all mail, delaying checks by weeks and leaving me unable to settle.
  • My real estate agent and loan officer talk and decide I'm too nuts to own a house. (OK. I know this won't happen. Jane, my realtor, and Phil, my loan officer, think I'm just another funny and frantic first-time home buyer.)

The take-away message: Be organized. Stay calm. And plan to spend a whole lot more than you estimate.

Friday, May 12, 2006

I Got the House!

When I started thinking about buying a house last fall, I decided to tour the South Philly neighborhoods. I loved the quaint streets of Whitman, and I liked the convenience of Pennsport. I could sense the heartbeat of the city in the areas near the sports stadiums. But my favorite neighborhood, by far, was the Girard Estates.

I'd heard the area was "hot," that developers were snapping up old homes, flipping them and selling them for 200% of the purchase price. What I liked were the beautiful, tree-lined streets, the historic old homes and the park at the center of the neighborhood where French merchant Stephen Girard had lived in the early 19th century. I especially liked a little street called Lambert, where residents kept Christmas lights strung between their homes throughout the year.

I knew my chances of living in the neighborhood were slim, let alone living on that particular street. But believe it or not, on Tuesday I signed the agreement for my dream home on my dream street.

I got lucky. The sellers are a lovely young couple with two small children, six cats and a dog. They're moving their brood to South Jersey, and they had a deadline. I was the first person to see the house.

The past month has been a roller-coaster ride. I bid on another home near the stadiums and lost out. The house needed thousands of dollars of repairs, but I was in love. No house would be as wonderful as that house; none would be as affordable. My friends told me the deal fell through for a reason. I believe them now.

I haven't had the inspection yet, but I have a good feeling about this house. The sellers took excellent care of it. They renovated the kitchen and the bathroom. The animals and children filled the home with life, whereas the first house felt motionless, stale.

I'll share more of the story over the next few weeks, but in the meantime I hope you will enjoy this tour of the house.

The Kitchen

I took these photos during my second visit to the house. Amy came with me for moral support. Perhaps the sellers knew something about my psychology: that cute animals would work just as well as fresh-baked bread or fragrant pouppouri to convince me I should buy their home. Amy was very helpful in keeping me focused on the task at hand. "Don't you look at that dog!" she'd warn.

The owner and my realtor were in the living/dining room combo, so I didn't take photographs there. Like the rest of the house, though, the main room has the original hardwood floors.

The kitchen has pergo floors and two windows, one facing the opposite house and one above the sink. I'm hoping the one above the sink will inspire me, for the first time in my life, to do dishes immediately after eating.

I'm very excited about the gas stove and the new counters. The kitchen has a dishwasher, disposal and microwave, which will be a great place to hide food from Nanuq.

You can see the tile backsplash and the back door, which leads to a roomy yard. By the way, Amy is playing with Caspar, the resident white cat. Unlike Nanuq, Caspar can hear. Apparently he also is better behaved, since the owner was able to leave food and valuables on the counter in the presence of the cat.

The Half-Bath and Upstairs Hallway

I know this sounds ridiculous, but the half-bath on the main floor may be my favorite room in the house. As many of you know, I have a propensity for tiny things: tiny boxes, tiny juice glasses, tiny bowls. Well, this bathroom has a tiny window and the smallest sink I've ever seen. If I gained a few pounds I might not even fit in the room! The owners did such an amazing job with the stenciling that I'm tempted to keep it, although painting the walls a lighter color might make the room look bigger.

Like most South Philly homes, the staircase has a steel railing. The sellers have been working upstairs, so the walls need a paint job. They laid down plywood so the bathroom and hallway would be the same height and recommended I put down carpeting. As you can see, the stairs are the original hardwood.

The Bedrooms & Upstairs Bath

Sigh. The bedrooms. Bedrooms! It feels so luxurious after years of having my kitchen and living room in my bedroom. I can't wait to shut the door on Nanuq. I know it's rude, but I can't wait!

The master bedroom has two windows facing the east side of the city. For the first time in more than three years, I will have a closet taller than myself. Of course, I won't be able to afford to buy clothes, but at least I'll be able to dream about filling the closet.

The middle bedroom is the little girl's room and has a Winnie the Pooh theme. There's a terrific little window looking out into the yard, and a closet without a door. The children have drawn on the walls with crayons; I look forward to living with their messages for a while.

The back room, which is painted green, is the boy's room. This room probably needs the most work, since it has the plywood floor.

Both both the middle and back rooms are pretty big, especially when your only roommate is a cat. I imagine myself roaming from room to room, trying each one on for size. Nanuq can have the middle room, and maybe I'll get him a friend for the back room.

Sometimes, when I really imagine myself in this house, I feel like a little piglet. Four people and half a dozen animals live there now, and after I move in it will be just me and Devil Cat. Dear friends, I'm going to need visitors!

Anyway, here comes the good part: the bathroom. It actually has a window, not a skylight. This may be the only house I saw that had a window. The owners put in new tile, all neutral colors, which I love.

I tested the toilet and it appeared to be industrial strength. So Dad, come on over!

The Basement

When I first starting looking online at real estate listings, I'd laugh and laugh at people who posted pictures of their finished basements and new hot water heaters. Now that I may get a house, I can understand why these folks felt so proud. Everything costs a bundle.

The owners told me someone lived in the basement before they moved in. You can see the original floors, which could be very cool if restored. The little window up front has bars, and the washer and dryer are 10 years old. No more hoarding quarters to do laundry. Yay! The basement has a shower, a sink, new electric, and a newer sewer line and hot water heater. To think, only four short weeks ago I didn't even know the definition of a sewer line. Now I can identify cracks and estimate the age.

The Back Yard & The Neighborhood

This photo doesn't do the backyard justice; however, if you look closely you can see Jake, the family lab, in the left corner. I tried to get him included in the house price, but the buyers wouldn't bite.

The backyard has a concrete patio with a little brick garden around the border. Since bulbs aren't that expensive, I may plant some flowers in the spring. The traditional South Philly green awning protects the doorway from rainwater. Once I get back on my feet financially, I hope to put some container plants and lawn furniture back there.

Girard Park is about a block from my house. When Stephen Girard owned the land, he called it Gentillhommiere. The land surrounding the estate, shown here, looks run down, but the park still has many beautiful, mature trees, a statue of Girard and benches around the perimeter of the square.

Now that I'm a homeowner(!), I might be able to influence others in the community to restore the park. I've rarely seen people there, although I have noticed folks walking dogs on sunny weekends. I would love to plant trees, pull weeds and renovate the building. The park should be a source of pride for neighborhood residents, and I'd love to be a part of it.

The Beginning, Not the End, of the Road

Now the adventure begins. The house inspectors. The mortgage approval. The packing. The scramble for money. The closing.

The last three days have been a flurry of telephone calls and paperwork. Never in my life have I managed such large sums of money in connection with myself. It's all a little overwhelming and unreal.

I feel lucky, not just because of the house but because of the emotional support I have received from my friends and family. Even on my worst days, I feel very rich for what you bring to my life. Thank you for coming down this road with me.

Friday, May 05, 2006

I'm Not Laughing

Last Thursday night, Nanuq broke my television set.

You're probably thinking, How is that possible? How could a 10-pound cat knock a 30-pound TV off a stable surface, smashing its internal parts to pieces?

My friends have offered a variety of theories. Erika thinks Nanuq got trapped in the cords and dragged the TV down. Mom suggested he hopped onto the top of the set and pushed it over. Jessie believes he pushed over my Japanese screen divider, applying just enough pressure to push the TV over the edge. Amy suggested he jumped from the window and landed on top of the TV, thrusting it to the floor.

My theory is that when I turn off the lights at night, Nanuq turns green and transforms himself into the Incredible Hulk Cat.

Here's the evidence. I went to bed at 11:00 p.m. Thursday with a 17-inch television in place. At 3:30 a.m. Friday, I was awoken by a short, flat-sounding crash. Thinking Nanuq had knocked over a pot, I crawled out of bed in the dark and walked barefoot into the kitchen. I saw nothing but felt something sharp scrape my foot. I turned on the light to see my television face down on the floor. I observed large pieces of plastic jutting into the air, as well as green and gray computer parts attached to many wires, all spilled onto the carpet like a dropped bowl of spaghetti. About three feet away, I found Nanuq. He looked at me, rolled onto his back and meowed.

I stood in front of the fallen TV for at least three minutes, blinking. Was this really my TV set? Was Nanuq really strong enough to break it?

I surveyed the devastation, collecting the sharpest pieces of plastic. Then I picked up the TV and actually attempted to turn it on. Clearly, I was in a state of shock. How could Nanuq do this to me? And why the night before the Daytime Emmy Awards, when I was to see my idol, Rick Springfield, perform for the first time in a decade? Truly tragic.

I was so devastated I decided to shower and get ready for work. I was ready to leave at 4:30 but couldn't bring myself to do it. Instead, I crawled into bed fully clothed and fell asleep. When I woke up several hours later, I thought the whole night had been a dream. But when I looked around the corner, there was my TV, still flat on the ground.

Nevertheless, I have begun the process of forgiving Nanuq. Maybe he did it because he doesn't like watching baseball games with me. Maybe he wanted a larger TV set. I'll never know.