Built on Sand

The previous owner left a purple chair. It is a nest of eggplant velvet. The back cushion is missing but Bug’s Eric Carle butterfly pillow has just enough puff and color to belong. It fits as if made for the space.
 
It’s in good company.
 
I am worthy of all I choose to hold. His whisper tucks itself in around my neck. This phrase is where he trains his mind, he tells me.
 
“I’m stealing that,” I say.
 
“It’s yours.”
 
When I stepped in for the first time with my realtor, the click was almost audible as tumblers fell into alignment. The yes took only as long as one turn through the back rooms. Making a dazed rotation in the sunlit center of the space, I let the rightness breach my defenses. “This is my place,” I told her. “This is it.” It was barely a choice. It was a match, plain and simple. The condo was made for me and me for it. My awareness of this was as close to instantaneous as you can get.
 
Seven months. The current was strong yet cut with riptides of doubt. When they gripped me, I flailed before remembering to turn and swim parallel to the shore. Keep land in sight even if from a frightening distance.
 
Now, Legos are strewn like shells across the floor by the sliding glass door. Bug has come and gone, leaving the echo of his stride banging through the narrow hallway. He has already determined the configuration of his room and told me that the spot chosen for my office will also be his spot for playing. He walks over and touches a wall almost the color of oxidized copper. “Here,” he says, “this will be for my toys.”
 
“Okay,” I say. “That place is yours.”
 
The first five homes where Bug lived belonged to someone else. We moved before we could even imagine them as our own and so it never occurred to us to claim a doorjamb for his growth chart. Whether or not a record exists, he has clearly inched his way up and out of infancy. The measure of those years is evident on his frame. His shins and forehead bear scars. Giant’s teeth push out into an elven mouth. Spindle legs straddle a bike and push off with feet that jam up against shoes just purchased but already outgrown. Six years have layered themselves upon him like bands inside a clamshell. Invisible when living but there nonetheless, lines mark age as tides ebb and flow tossing the creature inside from deep to reef as it grows.
 
We have been pulling for so long. Now we run aground and wobble ashore. This blanket, this patch, this beach. Ours. From now and right here, we are fixed (as much as anyone can ever make such a claim). We do not have to wait for a sense of permanence to scratch a furrow and sign our names. When he is next here, we will take a pencil and choose the place. Six-almost-seven will be the hash of our commencement.
 
The dog and I stay alone the first night after closing. In the morning, I bob up into inky half-sleep knowing exactly where I am. None of the disorientation that accompanies travel greets me. These new walls are already mine. The hum of I-66 outside the window is as steady as the surf. Hearing me stir, the pooch tip-taps in from wherever she spent the night. All the rooms are empty. All the floors are hers for the taking. She collapses with a grunt on the carpet near the foot of my pallet of blankets. I have to go to work but cannot make myself get up. Light creeps across the white ceiling. The leftover black curtains will surely need replacing. Muffled footsteps from upstairs hint at the proximity of community. I swim in awakening. This is my home.
 
I am worthy of all I choose to hold.
 
The night before, my Mister came to welcome me. Under the small halo of light from a candle on the mantle, we sat on the bare bamboo floor with our legs in a Celtic knot. He exhaled and traced one arm across the golden dark. “Look at what you did.” Then he framed my face with his hands and a gust of wonder bent his seagrass gaze to me. “This is yours.”
 
Now, I rub sleep from my eyes and pad into the living room, opening curtains along the way. I curl into the embrace of the purple chair. The word finds its way into my belly as if I’m hearing it for the first time. It expands in there, quivering like a muscle bearing unaccustomed weight. Surging like sea against cliff. Warming like light.
 
Yours.
 

Closing Open

Over happy hour wine at the Lebanese restaurant, they tell me the first thing to do is change the locks. One of these men I have known for two decades. The other, barely half a year. Astride stools on either side of me at the bar, they hold me in the safe grip of their mirth. One says that he paid an antiquated locksmith neighbor do a crap job he had to replace as soon as the guy divorced and moved off the street. The other tells of nervously checking and re-checking doors during the early weeks. They are eons ahead of me. They have mice in the compost and weeds overtaking their lawns.
 
Mine is balcony looking west over I-66. Picnic tables, neighbors, noise, light. Plenty of sun for a zinnia. Maybe too much for basil.
 
My phone is on the bar next to a glass of pinot grigio. Every so often, it pings with another text from the realtor. Someone needs a letter signed. Funds must be wired to an address in Falls Church. We close in on a date.
 
I hug the old friend goodbye. He is heading back north in a day or two. My new fella and I walk to his car holding hands and bubbling with residual laughter. We pass a building that was not there a year ago. It is now a glinting, black-rimmed fixture on the landscape. Under our feet rumble trains on the orange line. New stairwells shoulder their way up from platforms that had no room for such change. Someone writes over the old blueprints in red pencil. The adaptation becomes a concept and eventually, a given.
 
Tonight, the to-do list has not kept pace with the fading light. Thunder bowls in dusk’s outermost lane. A strike, a muffled cheer. The second floor of the house where I live with my parents is just a degree shy of stifling. My bed is scattered with the folded remains of a trip to Florida. A suitcase gapes open, its zippers hanging limp and hungry. A heap of clothes is tossing around in the dryer. I wait for them to be finished before I decide. The choices are paralyzing. Some will be put away but some will go back into the suitcase. We just returned yesterday. Tomorrow, one carload goes to the new place. My son’s swimsuit still smells of salt. I shake sand from the perfect coral whorl of a conch shell.
 
Papers in stacks all around the bedroom floor need staples, folders, labels. I dig up one blank spiral notebook with pockets. It is no match for the task ahead but it will do for tomorrow. I tuck it into a bag with my checkbook and ID.
 
Now, the wine on my bedside table is cut with sparkling juice. I call it sangria and remember the last day in our Clearwater Beach hotel when I drank a better version while parked at a computer digging copies of old cancelled checks from 2012 accounts and squinting at the lines of a HUD-1 approval. My son was teaching himself to swim outside, arms flailing and neck bent too far above the surface as he huffed and puffed the width of the pool. My mother kept an eye on him so I could take care of landing us a home. Our own home.
 
Later, as we ate fried shrimp and grouper at Crabby Bill’s, I picked up a red ping on the phone and grinned quietly to myself. A few covert keystrokes sent first word skimming across miles to the man who had asked me to let him know the second I knew. Then, a slug of ice water. I looked at my mother and son over the ship-deck décor, its fish nets and battered wood. “Final approval just came through. We’re closing Thursday.”
 
Bug considered this news. “What does that mean?”
 
“It means the bank finally said okay. On Thursday, I’ll sign all the papers and buy the house.”
 
His face shined open into a huge grin. “Can I stay there with you?”
 
I laughed. “Of course, Buddy! It’ll be our house. We’ll live there together.”
 
“When can I see?” He asked.
 
“Yeah,” echoed my mother. “When can I see?”
 
“Friday. As soon as I pick Bug up from day camp on Friday, we’ll go straight over.”
 
As for the first day? That one is mine.
 
Now, I roll up a blanket, a candle, a coffee mug, a plate. The dryer downstairs is finishing up with a couple of spare towels. The car is stuffed and Home Depot closes in an hour. I need to buy new locks tonight before I go punch the heavy bag with the man who keeps his porch light on for me.
 
Closing is at 10:00 tomorrow morning. Electricity will be on mid-day. By the time dusk arrives, I’ll be dancing in the lowering western sun behind a door whose keys are in my hands alone.
 

Rough Cut

We stand at the edge of the playground. A throng of racing children and chattering parents presses us to chain link. He asks about the house and I give him the latest update. Good news, for once. When the celebratory chaos has melted away along with the popsicles, Bug and I will head back to my office to print and sign 44 pages of loan documents. The seller’s bank has approved an extension and my sketchy but efficient new loan officer is pushing for the end of the month. Tee listens and asks polite questions. Neither of us ever bought a home before and I am now tackling this with the help of a huge circle of friends and family which does not include him.

He says that he’s heard about the housing market around the place he is considering. Four-bedroom homes there are going for about what I am paying for this cramped condo. He has dreams of a fixer-upper and his father swooping into town in a van packed with a table saw and hydraulic nail gun to help turn the place into a masterpiece.

Continue reading “Rough Cut”

S Avenue Crew

I want to say I’ve never done anything like this before. Trying to buy this home is the toughest undertaking of my life. Or, so it seems when I am in the throes of it. After hustling like a horse trader, I managed to get the loan officer to talk to the realtor to talk to the seller’s agent to start all working with me again. After being sure we were just beyond losing, we turned it all around and were just days away from closing.
 
Then wham. Today, my bank slammed the book shut for the last time. Not (just) because they’re scoundrels who serve The Man but also because central stairs in the condo complex are under repair. Without a property manager forthcoming enough to provide documentation of the extent of the damage, my bank couldn’t approve the loan. It’s sensible. It’s cautious.
 
It sucks.
 
So here I am six (SIX!) months into this short sale, thinking to myself, “This is the hardest *&$% thing I’ve ever done. Harder than parenting. Harder than the divorce! I’m not up to the task!” Etc. and all that jazz.
 
All of that internal chatter? Total B.S.
 
At 22 years old, about a century ago, I lived in a housing cooperative in Vermont. Just about the time I moved in, the 5-year deadline on the financial support from the local land trust came screaming in at us. We had two dozen residents in two buildings about to be hit with an interest rate hike of several percentage points. We were all living on a shoestring. The cost of home ownership, food, utilities, maintenance, insurance, and every other little thing was shared among a band of bohemians and revolutionaries. Without the gap support from the land trust, that house would have been back on the market and in the hands of yet another city landlord.
 
Not a chance. We were a posse and this was our block. We went to work. Buckling ourselves in, we powered through days-long meetings with federations and experts, poring over legal documents and funding application guidelines. We dug and dug deeper still to find pockets of money or ideas. We tried allying ourselves with the Canadian co-op associations, the local credit union, members of the Progressive party, Congressman Bernie Sanders. Anything and everything. Giant three-ring binders littered our floors and we flipped through them in twos, threes, until the wee hours.
 
We went to the state capitol building. We lobbied, we bent and twisted. We re-wrote our bylaws and changed our mission.
 
And we swaggered home with our suitcase of money.
 
It required significant adaptation. Our co-op residency requirements had to change to designate a certain percentage of the units as low-income housing. We alienated some of our more off-the-grid members (who am I kidding? That was everyone) by kicking ourselves up to a professionally run property with an application process involving tax documentation and pay stubs. Everyone grumbled. We pushed through agonizing consensus-based meetings to ensure that the whole of the community could live with the concessions.
 
We saved our home.
 
Somehow in all of that, we also scored a major grant to make massive structural repairs. New roof, new porch, new beginning.
 
Maybe the only difference now is that I’m putting all of that grit into a place for my very own self. It is weirdly disorienting. All this effort, not for any identifiable community good but just for my son and dog and me to have a place to shake off? If it’s only for us, can I command the determination? The resources? The support? Gerry Connolly ain’t taking a meeting with yours truly. This is my game now. My block.
 
And where’s my posse now?
 
It turns out it is right here. My realtor and I have become thick as thieves in the last six months. As soon as I got the bad word, she was back in the driver’s seat with her foot to the floor and zeroing in on other banks with more flexible standards for collateral soundness. My erstwhile lender has answered half a dozen calls from me today even though she’s not making anything off of me anymore. She just keeps sending on over the documentation and details I will need for working with someone else.
 
And this is just the beginning.
 
There’s the firecracker of a guy I’m seeing who’s not only helped me think through every step of this latest kerfuffle but is also just waiting for me to say “go” so he can take his circular saw and hard hat over to the site and get this damned thing fixed.
 
There’s the assortment of friends strewn from Mexico to Toronto sending me links to housing sites, mortgage brokers, credit unions. They also pile oh encouragement and perspective.
 
There’s my boss who has given me the freedom to take off on a moment’s notice, as well as all the assembled co-workers who have picked up the slack whenever I’ve disappeared to douse another real estate fire.
 
There are my folks. Willing to work it, work it, work it in whatever way it has to be worked. Do I need cash? A co-signer? More time? An ear? Granted, they have a dog in this fight. If fish and houseguests start to smell after three days, what happens when you approach three years? In any event, their support is beyond generous.
 
There are all the new friends in my community who tell me their stories, listen to mine, ferry me around to shop for knock-off furniture, offer to come help paint and move, offer me names and ideas, and just provide the much-needed release from the intensity of it all.
 
And there’s my son. “Mommy, you can have the $44 in my bank account to help you buy your house.”
 
This posse is tight and tough. Because of it, I can’t wallow in my dank alley of defeat for more than one hiccup before someone shoves me back out onto street. That suitcase of money is sitting right there in plain sight. “Get on out there, girl! Do what you gotta do. Tell me where you need me, and let’s get to work.”
 
This fight ain’t over. My little dream has just taken a hit and is coughing in the dust, but we’re all closing in. Minutes ago, a text arrived from the realtor. We’ve got a backup bank willing to overlook a few questionable details and move with utmost haste to close the deal. Now, on to the seller’s gal who is also in this crew, trying to squeeze out a couple of extra weeks. All of us, defending the block. My block.
 
Consensus and compromise and hustle as we close in on high noon.
 

Ready, Go, Set

The paperwork is not hard. Neither is combing through the matted threads of text filling 72 pages of contract. The paying is not hard, though willing the fingers to let go of the cash takes a little prompting. The saving is not hard. That is simply a daily commitment to a higher degree of deprivation, and in any event, not doing is always easier than becoming or achieving. The moving itself isn’t even hard. It’s just sort, pack, schlep, unpack, sort.
 
This is the secret that mountain climbers keep. Those who don’t hike marvel at the fortitude required to summit Pike’s Peak. Of course it takes strength, training, and determination. But it is not hard. In fact, it is the simplest thing in the world. Zen simple. You go forward. You go up. You put one foot down and then lift the other.
 
The steps are not the challenge.
 
The decisions? Now those are hard.
 
To scale that peak on that date, to re-organize commitments, to gear up and pack right and make time every day to train, these choices require a trickier sort of grit. Every assessment is complex. Someone always throws a monkey wrench in the plan. The weather forecast looks grim or an Achilles is torn or a hiking partner starts to hem and haw. It’s time to calculate risks and weigh options. To re-draw the map.
 
It’s the decisions that take grit.
 
This week, a co-worker mentioned that she and her husband are looking to buy a home for the first time. “We’re still shoe-shopping,” she said. “It’s kind of fun.” The beginning is just browsing. Try it on, imagine life in those four walls, stash the picture, let go. Then the just-looking begins to draw ever tightening circles around the realm of the possible. The window shopper returns to this place or that and walks the neighborhood. A call goes in to the agent, “Just to get a little more info.”
 
Now things get serious. The would-be buyer is suddenly You.
 
Cue the decisions.
 
How much can you afford? Between commute, schools, size, price, amenities, noise, layout, storage, neighbors, construction, and condition, what are your priorities? What is the relative value of feature, and what combinations are acceptable? Does dream trump reality or the other way around?
 
You see a place you really like but low ceilings or high taxes give you pause. Do you make the offer? Do you sign the dotted line? You take a few days to cogitate. Now it’s under contract with someone else. You missed your chance. You keep looking.
 
The pace picks up. The decisions get harder.
 
Are you really ready to buy? What’s the right thing for now and for the maybe-future? You see another place. Walking through the door makes you swoon. It’s more money for less space in the right place, or less money for more space in the wrong place. The agent takes your offer and your check for earnest money. Waiting, still looking elsewhere. Counter offer. Higher, no contingencies, three days to decide.
 
Hold or fold?
 
If you’re in, brace yourself. The inspection, negotiations, loan application, and HOA documents fly at you like a freak hailstorm, bam bam bam. Every time you turn around, a decision blindsides you. People you’ve never met call you up and demand your life savings. The clock won’t wait and the storm won’t relent. In a process like this in a market like this, people who need quiet time to think are out of luck. Adapt or die.
 
Lisa Sturtevant stopped me in the hall at work the other day. Chatting about my condo search, she said, “This area is weird. Nowhere else in the country is experiencing a feeding frenzy like this.” The inventory at the more affordable end is at a record low while demand is at a record high. This sends prices to the top of Mt. McKinley and shrinks time frames to barely a blink. As a part of the Center for Regional Analysis, she knows her stuff. A few of Lisa’s articles on the DC area housing market are here and here.
 
Home buying in the greater Washington region means making momentous decisions very quickly with little information against cutthroat competition. Forget climbing Mt. Shasta. This is landing behind the wheel of an F1 McLaren on the final lap of the Grand Prix the day after you’ve gotten your license.
All those mountains don’t prepare you for this kind of hard. It’s everything at stake and right now. Think fast and keep those reflexes honed to a fine point.
 
Terrifying? Absolutely. Too much? Probably.
 
But, oh, my. The rush!
 

Happy 100 Days: 37

Happy News of the Day: The Powers that Be approved the promotion! This was my official first day as Director of PhD Student Services. The real fun begins tomorrow when I cruise the main campus schmoozing with folks in the know about future projects. Onward and upward!
 
So-So News of the Day: For all his sweet talk, the sexy condo is out of my league. The seller’s broker came back today with word that a $6000 special assessment for new staircases has to be included in the purchase price. The gal who owns it was supposed to have been making monthly payments but has not paid a single penny. The bank will not approve the short sale without the buyer taking on the assessment. That would be me, except that it won’t be me. Also? The condo fees were listed incorrectly. They are actually $117 higher per month than advertised. A chunk of change that size can choke you in a year or three, never mind a few decades.
 
I would have to live on credit cards and ramen for the next 10 years to afford it. So, today, I bid this dream a sad farewell. Goodbye, bamboo floors! Au revoir, living room dance space! So long, staggering mortgage and second job!
 
It’s not quite a heartbreak. A little heart-squeeze, perhaps? The regret is mixed with a dollop of sweet relief. It’s nice to be able to imagine a Christmas with gifts again.
 
I met my agent at another cute little place this afternoon. The price is right and it’s a decent location but the traffic NOISE NOISE NOISE is unbearable. Tomorrow, we head out west again to another property which would require a commute. It is not quite as burdensome as many of the places in my price range, though, and the neighborhood is close to several of Bug’s and my favorite parks, shopping, and rec centers. Also, it is 1140 square feet with fireplace and a fenced back patio. We’re still talking condo-ville in a car-clogged area, so I’ll have to see if the property itself is enough of an oasis to make up for the shark-infested surroundings.
 
Rain and snow are churning just beyond tonight’s clouds. Once the slop starts to fall tomorrow afternoon, I will have the perfect opportunity to see just how much road-time those two hundred square feet are worth.
 

Happy 100 Days: 42

People kept telling me I would walk into a place and say, “Yes. This is it. This is where I live.” They told me to envision it, to let myself want it. It sounded like a bunch of mystical hoo-hah to me. I’m a practical girl, and my job was to weigh the various pros and cons of each property. This was not supposed to be a gut-level decision. It was rational. I was to consider commute time, neighborhood safety, condo involvement, how much rehab I could manage, and what I could make work on my meager budget.
 
Today, I saw the light. I stepped over the threshold and felt my knees go weak.
 
After a couple of months and a couple dozen places, I know now what they meant. I have never before had such a rush of rightness. Even the townhouse in faraway land whose sweet opportunity I chose to pull a few weeks back because of the distance was still just a shrug-your-shoulders “Nice.” I kinda liked it. I could have made it a homey place. I had a warm feeling about it, sort of like having a pleasant conversation with a stranger at a bar and maybe being happy to see him there again next time, but never really wanting to give him your number.
 
This? Oh, man. This is love.
 
This condo complex less than a quarter mile from Tee’s house. Bug and I could walk over to his daddy’s on any given day. It is in his current school district, only 2 miles walking/biking/busing distance from the metro, a hop over to I-66, and a block away from a park. The front door entry is on the first floor but because of the construction on a slight hill, the balcony is up a level. I won’t have to schlep groceries up stairs yet my deck stuff is also safe.
 
Inside, is everything and more. Spacious kitchen with new appliances and cabinets, bamboo floors, huge dining area, nooks for an office and a den, a fireplace, two bedrooms, a view of the complex’s picnic area. . .
 
All of this is at a price I can just about afford.
 
My realtor and I jumped on the freeway and roared back to her office to subject ourselves to the torture of contract writing. We decided that getting in the night before Thanksgiving would give me a leg up on the competition (those slackers, all so busy stuffing turkeys and missing their chance!) The property is a short sale requiring twice as many documents and three times as many decisions, so we were working well past closing time. After several liters of ink, all the papers were printed and signed, and I had made my offer!
 
We headed out into the dark evening, both of us a little dizzy from the afternoon’s turn of events.
 
Events could go any number of ways, of course. The seller could reject the offer, her bank could require more for the short sale, my bank could appraise lower, the inspection could reveal martians living in the ductwork. I know all of the maybes here.
 
What I also know is that it is possible to find exactly what I want.
 
All my friends said it might exist. I thought they were Pollyannas. I am so glad they encouraged me to let go of my scarcity mindset and hold out for abundance. I don’t have to go home with the fella just because he’s nice enough. I can keep my heart open for the real deal.
 
What a joyous Thanksgiving. I hope the seller (a mom-to-be, I hear) is as thankful to discover this offer in her inbox in the morning as I am to send it her way.
 
Maybe next year, I’ll be stuffing a turkey my own self in my very own home.
 
Imagine that!