June 26, 2005

house hunt

I write this sitting cross legged on a double bed in a tiny bedroom in a vacation apartment. Dan and Damian are playing table hockey in the living room, various relatives are watching something funny on TV in the adjoining apartment's living room, the remnants of birthday cake are tucked away in one of the two fridges, it's very late and nobody cares. We're in a seaside town (Seaside Heights, to be exact) on the Jersey Shore, or, as Damian likes to say, we're at the NJS (New Jersey Shore, you see). The very traditional arcade-games-and-pizza-and-bathing-suits style boardwalk is a few blocks from here, along narrow streets lined with tiny beach cottages that smell like sunlight and ocean. The vacation rental has wifi and a pool and life is good.

We got to New York -- should I say New Jersey? This will take some getting used to, this shift in focus – we got to this side of the country on Monday night. Sans cats but with a mission. To find a place to live, that was the agenda, the plan, and the hope and fear. When we got back from our last trip in April, I stayed up far into the night every night for a week, thinking and worrying about all the unknowns involved in uprooting our lives and replanting ourselves so far away. But one of the main thoughts cycling through my head, one of the main frets my brain kept chewing on and refused to spit out, was this. Where will we live? What will it be like? Can we find a house? Will we end up somewhere dank and dark, with constant footsteps overhead and never ending loud television sets? Will we have to squeeze our lives into a narrow, dark shoebox in a dicey neighborhood? Why are we doing this again?

As Dan and I started looking around, started reading Craigslist rental postings and MLS rental listings and New Jersey newspaper classified sections online, the fear didn't subside. A scant few houses, not just in our price range but in any price range. And the vast majority of the apartments were on the main drag (noise, oh my) or were in multifamily houses (homes split into two or three or four), and if someone's upstairs and the house wasn't originally built for this kind of separation, you hear footsteps and TV and coughing fits and loud sighs. You hear everything.

We wanted a house but would settle for a duplex, a side by side deal with more insulation between units and even maybe a basement. We wanted three bedrooms but would settle for two. We wanted a place with peace, quiet, and light but would settle for… well, we'd settle for a place we could settle into and call home base for a year or two. Renting after owning is hard to fathom, downsizing on purpose is harder in some ways. It's all doable, just odd. But if the place itself is depressing? Not good.

Tuesday June 21st, 1:30 pm. Time to find out. Time to see. We met with the realtor who showed us houses to buy last time. Nice woman. Down to earth.

Place #1. A house. We had high hopes. We were and weren't disappointed. Really nice dead end street, lots of kids. Clean back yard. Pleasant house, though a bit dark (Dan disagrees with my memory of this) and a bit small (I could get past that) and a lousy kitchen and lots of fairly awful wallpaper. But the bedrooms were nice sizes and there were three of them and the house had that old house charm in the details and it could feel like home and could we have it, please? But no, we couldn't. Even though two small dogs live there now and even though the landlady is apparently fine with these scrappy little guys, she has had bad luck with previous large, destructive canines and now says no means no. No dogs, no cats, no goldfish. No pets. No house for us.

Place #2. An apartment, ground floor in a multifamily. No yard. Kitchen the size of a closet – albeit complete with granite countertops and new tile floor. Kind of like gilding a mouse, y'know? And when we looked out of the windows, all we saw were other windows. Depressing.

I know that when you live in Manhattan, this happens. You live in a small apartment, you see other apartment buildings out your window. But it's different. Better insulation, for one thing. And fire escapes and city skylines and rooftops and such often combine to create a kind of alternate peace. But 40 minutes outside the city? Doesn't feel right. Suburbs are supposed to have benefits like grass and sky, aren't they? Isn't that the point? Isn't that the plus to balance out the away-from-the-action minus?

Place #3. So bad I didn't get past the front door. It happens. Amusingly, the apartment was painted in lovely shades of orange and yellow. Pretty paint doth not make a hovel less hovel-like. Dan went upstairs, came down to report that one of the two bedrooms had an unusual convenience: a washer and a dryer. Yes, right in the bedroom. Mmm. Moving right along.

Place #4. Carpeted condo backing onto the main drag. Not terrible if you like that sort of thing. I don’t. Also, small.

If there was a Place #5 I don't remember it.

Tuesday night was not a good night. My mind spun out. We were going to look at a carriage house and a duplex the next day, both via Craigslist (and both sans realtor fee). But a carriage house is usually a tiny place behind a mansion, and I imagined a Beverly Hills rich vibe all around me as I lived in someone else's back yard, and it felt squicky. And the duplex, well, we'd driven past it and it was in an area I would call urban, ie: heavily trafficked, dense housing, no yards. Interesting shops and the main drag in walking distance, but not what we thought we wanted.

I finally calmed myself down with a plan of sorts: I could come back in a month with Damian to check out new listings, we could ask the realtor to send us houses as soon as they popped on the MLS, we could even rent one sight unseen, couldn't we? It's not like a lifetime commitment, not like buying a place. And if we didn't find one by the time we moved, well, we could put our stuff in storage and stay with family until something came along. And something would surely come along, wouldn't it?

I was up till 4 am.

Wednesday morning. I was nearly half an hour late for a school tour, I met with the assistant principal and then met Dan and Damian at a local playground. I called the carriage house landlady. Sure, come on over. So we came on over.

Yup, it's on Mansion Row. Yup, it's a little house behind a big house. Yup, it's essentially in someone's back yard. But it doesn't feel like that. It's perched up on a hill, the lawn between the two buildings is large enough you don’t feel like you're on top of them at all. And the main view out the windows is of trees. Green all around. Peace all around. The main floor is wide open, living area, dining area, kitchen area all divided by space rather than by walls. Great light. Wood floors. Modern kitchen including dishwasher. Washer and dryer in the basement. Upstairs, two tiny bedrooms. The master bedroom has a slanted attic-room-like wall, making it feel even smaller, but oddly has a walk-in closet. The space between rooms is less hallway than alcove, big enough for an office or for a drum set.

And we liked the landlady a/k/a the woman who lives in the big house. Jewish intellectual, gray streaks in her decidedly uncoiffed kinky hair, around our age, warm and unpretentious. We said we were interested. We filled out the application, wrote a check for the credit report. Said we'd let her know for sure by Friday and drove off feeling ever so much better.

The duplex turned out to be nice but not nice enough. Depressing living room, basement which floods and won't work as a laundry room, no yard, not a very warm place. But a nice neighbor. Whose sons go to the school Damian will probably attend and who both play musical instruments (one is in fact a drummer!). We were almost kind of tempted, but not.

We went to my friend Cathy's for dinner (and a dip in their pool) and I called the carriage house owner to tell her we want the place. She ran the credit check. We went back over to the house after dinner, met her husband and kids. I was worried about this part. Would the husband be stuffy? Would Damian like the kids, his neighbors? Was this workable, would personalities mesh? They did. The girls took Damian down to their playroom, I heard giggles floating up. His giggles. And we liked the husband and I think he liked us.

We have a place to live in our new town. We signed a year's lease. They know our situation, know we plan to buy again sooner or later. Hell, I wouldn't be surprised if they end up helping us look! Nice people. My kind of people. Feels like coming home.

It'll be tricky fitting our furniture into a space smaller than we're used to but we can discard some and store some if need be. It may feel strange at first, two very small bedrooms instead of three-smallish-plus-office. But the open main space feels so good, so welcoming, and we got what we wanted above all else. Peace and light and a lease that starts in September.

Posted by Tamar at June 26, 2005 08:10 PM | TrackBack

Yay! Congrats!

Posted by: Allison at June 28, 2005 03:08 PM

Congratulations on your "find"! It sounds great.

Posted by: Betty Lou at July 2, 2005 04:37 PM

Congratulations Tamar, it sounds lovely.

Posted by: Kay at July 2, 2005 04:44 PM

Woo! Woo! Sounds really nice.

Posted by: Laura at July 5, 2005 05:35 PM
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