Real estate through the eyes of an ‘observer nonpareil’

#419 in a series of true experiences in real estate
February 2003, Hills Newspapers

The writer of today’s column is my good friend Gretchen White, observer nonpareil. We started talking — very fast — about life, houses and gardens when we met over 30 years ago, and we’re still at it. (She’s a forensic psychologist, not a real estate agent.)

I love going to open houses. It’s an avocation that is so easy. Don’t have to have a reservation. Don’t have to invite someone. Don’t have to go over the bridge. Don’t have to dress up. (You can drop your garden trowel, jump in the car, walk through the house in your schmate and be back in your garden in twenty minutes).

Now, just so you know, I am not looking to buy a house. Which is what I think now. But I happen to live in a house that I bought in exactly this state of mind when I casually walked into a house and knew I had to live there forever no matter what.

My husband came home from the beach with the kids and asked what I did that day. I said we were moving. He said he wasn’t going and would buy our (old) house for himself.

We’ve lived in the house I found that day for twelve years now. Today he says it could have been worse: I could have met another man. So here I am to testify that my marriage survived and that I still go to open houses. I have credentials.

But the thing is, you want to talk to someone about it afterwards. So, after going to see another house not long ago, I got to thinking that for people like me, and maybe like you, occasional open house reviews along the lines of a movie review would be interesting. So here goes.

I knew this house well from the outside, having driven up and down its small arterial street for the last twelve years. It looks inviting — light gray stucco, old enough, and neither obviously one or two story. The front garden must originally have been planned, and it was kept up, although the current owners clearly aren’t gardeners. I always thought it was too bad the roof wasn’t of better material — wood shingles or thatch or slate — because it is a prominent feature of the cottage-like house.

I walked into the entry and noticed that the hardwood floors were very worn; the coarse grain indicated that they probably hadn’t been refinished for fifty or so years. To the left of a very small foyer is the living room which is on the long and narrow scale, and is not large, but with a nice feel and nice light. The wall on the street side has lovely wood framed windows that open sideways with latches. Also, a cozy bay view is opposite the boring (but could be dealt with) fireplace. Placed at the far end of the room was a long rustic dining table. I found it interesting and pleasant to think of eating in this room where you could see the fire.

Behind the living room is what was meant to be the dining room, but is set up now as a family room. It isn’t very big, but it opens onto a deck through French doors, and adjoins the kitchen, separated by a counter. I liked that, too. It fills my requirements for a place to sit and talk to the cook.

Unfortunately, the French doors have a piece of wood missing from the bottom and some plywood was hastily patched in. The kitchen still has 1970s-type tile (dark burnt orange with that pockmarked complexion they used to do and dark around the edges so the grout looks very chunky).

The cabinets in the kitchen are some sort of laminate stuff, the color of a powder puff too long used. On one wall a lower, vertical cabinet door is completely off-center with the cabinet over it. I don’t know why, but that really bothered me. In fact, that one oddity has flickered through my mind several times since I saw it, which I guess is a sign that my life is going pretty well if I don’t have anything more pressing than that to fret about.

On the right hand side of the living room, on the other side of the foyer, is the master bedroom with adjoining closet, dressing room and bath. It is pretty small, but bedrooms from that vintage are small and that doesn’t bother me much. What did bother me was that in preparation for selling the place, the old wall to wall carpet had been torn up and the battered floors had gotten paint-splattered. The paint was now visible as ghostly blobs all over the wood. One viewer commented to her friend that the painter ought to be shot, and I had to agree.

There are four other bedrooms in this house, all small, too many all huddled together, which you got to through the back of the kitchen and around some corners, and by the time I arrived, I was feeling pretty disoriented. At the junction of the cluster is a teeny bathroom, just big enough to hold a sink, toilet and corner shower. The toilet seat is that old painted wood and badly chipped, bolstering my feeling of the house being shopworn.

I went down to the garage. Actually, it’s more like a real basement, and boy, did it have a surprise. Room after room after room — maybe four or five of them in all different sizes and shapes — have new sheetrock walls, new rough, unfinished floors, and built in wood bookshelves. Not just bookshelves around the sides of the walls, but bookshelf aisles like in a library or bookstore. I couldn’t believe it. You could store thousands, maybe millions of books there, not to mention all your extra pots and pans, old clothes, and mementoes. And it was dry — really, really dry.

I was overwhelmed with a vision of what my life here could be. Ordered. Accessible. Organized. Tidy.

So bottom line, here’s what I think about this house. It wouldn’t be hard to get rid of the dowdy parts, refinish the floors, deal with the fireplace, do some new tiling in the kitchen and bathrooms, fix that French door.

The hard thing with this house is those bedrooms and baths. The obvious solution is to combine a couple of the bedrooms, making a decent size master bedroom and bath. But bingo, you just lost a bedroom.

This is the part of trying to make a house work that’s like working on a tough crossword puzzle. I love that part. In fact, one of the ways that I put myself to sleep at night is to try to fix a bad floor plan of a house I’ve recently seen.

I’m still losing sleep over this one. But when I can’t stand thinking anymore about where the extra bathroom can go, I just imagine myself arranging my books on those bookshelves, very slowly, in alphabetical order.

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