Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The Two-House Problem

Supposedly one of the ten annoying things rich people say (there are only ten?) is "Oh, bother! My favorite Asser & Turnbull shirt is in the Hamptons house!"

Well, in our case (this would Hub 1.0 and me, circa 2000-2005), it was more likely to be a jacket or book left in the wrong house, but I can still sympathize. And, as I've discovered, the two-house problem runs deeper than you realize.

We bought Harmony because both us grew up with two houses. In my case, my parents lived in Schenectady and then Albany (a geographical region in upstate New York known on the radio as "the Capillaria") but had a beach house in Maine. The distance, and financial circumstances meant they used it three or four times a year, and rented it out the rest of the summer, but when they rebuilt it as a year-round house and retired there, I would think nothing of getting in the car on Friday night and heading out for the 210-mile trip just to spend the weekend there. (Yes, I was younger then. Thinking about that drive now makes me want to take a nap...) In Hub 1.0's case, his parents lived in London but had six acres in Sussex, which they visited every other weekend from the time Hub was about ten.

So when we married, we instinctively thought about a weekend place. I'd been inspired by a former colleague who had a watercolor of a charming yellow house on her office wall. I asked about it one day, and Kathy told me that it was their place "up in the mountains." They'd found it by drawing a circle representing the distance they reasonably felt they could drive away from Philadelphia, contacted a realtor, and bought the house. It just seemed idyllic. We tried the realtor approach, but it didn't work for us. The woman we tried assumed (in a big way) that we wanted waterfront property. Around here, that means lakefront. I'll swim in salt water, and I'll do a swimming pool any day of the week, but fresh water? All murky and who knows what's down there? Not so much. After the third lake house she showed us -- and they were tiny and very very close to their neighbors, which was off-putting -- she was driving us back to town when we yelled at her to stop the car! The land had dropped away across a valley toward a distant line of hills. "That!" we told her. "We want that! A view..." She understood immediately precisely what we wanted, and we never heard from her again.

I found Harmony by doing a google search for "Endless Mountains" and "view." It was listed as being sold by the owner, but when I called the guy, he said they'd had to list it with a realtor. His partner (gay couple, who had run it as a B&B for the five years they got under the tax code to depreciate their improvements, like a barn for the horses) had been relocated, so the employer got a relocation company to handle the sale. They promise the home owner a guaranteed price; if they get more, that's fine, if they get less, the difference is paid by the employer in whose interest it is to have the home owner out of the house pronto. The relo company has a strong incentive to accept any reasonable offer, particularly if the house hasn't sold for a while. That meant that if no one bought it in six months, we'd have a steal on our hands.

We didn't really want to wait six months, and we had some inside knowledge. The owners had been asking more money for the house (the classic $50 less than a really round number), but the relo company took a much more pragmatic approach and had it relisted for about $35,000 less. I worked for a big firm, and a colleague told me that one of the paralegals in the real estate department used to work for the very same national relo company; she told me that the company routinely priced houses at 3% over what they actually hope to get. So we made an offer at the price point we calculated they wanted. They accepted.

Suddenly we owned 24 acres 160 miles away from where we owned a townhouse that needed work. It's not entirely true that any work we did, we did to Harmony, but I'll acknowledge that Hub 1.0's house did not get its fair share of attention. It didn't help that we did no entertaining there. It was always easier and nicer to invite people to Harmony.

Thus, one of the most significant aspects of the Two-House Problem is that both houses suffer in some way. Harmony was neglected during the week. There was that horrid mid-winter night when we arrived to the sound of running water and discovered 200-year-old wood floors needing refinishing and a basement ceiling in pieces on the floor. And Hub 1.0's house just never got the attention it deserved.

I'd bought it from a law firm colleague for $92,000. By the time we split up, it was worth more than Harmony, solely on the basis of its location in a classic South Philly neighborhood on the cusp of yuppification. Hub 1.0 has taken on the challenge, though, and with gratifying thoroughness.

For example, he's installed a new gas fireplace with the intention that it look like it's always been there. Let's start with the before picture -- you should be noticing the blank chimney wall on the right with a gold-framed mirror leaning against it.

Here's what's in the blank space now:

And a wider view:

Pretty awesome, hunh? Now that it's the single house of a single man, it's looking a lot better than it did as one of a two-house-couple.

I'll try to show you some of the improvements here as a result of full-time ownership, but it will have to wait. I've gone on way too long as it is.

1 comment:

  1. Hub 1.0 is doing a great job on the Philly house, Magdalen! Let's see some inside pictures of the Harmony house.

    And, ummm, try having THREE houses! We listed the Wayne one and got one offer, so pitiful that we didn't even respond. Have instead taken it off the market and are renting it to a very nice gay real estate salesman we know and he's spiffing it up for us...having the whole thing re-painted "realtor beige," the carpets pulled up and the wood floors re-done, filling it with his furniture and "staging" it. We'll re-list it with him in the spring, and hope to get somewhere near the asking price.

    My mom now lives in the second house, which is the first house we bought when we came down here, when we thought we were only living in it part-time. Once the dh decided not to go back to Philly -- ever -- it was much too small for the two of us 24/7/365.

    So now we have our dream house. I've sent you a link to the pictures. The house is gorgeous and we love it, and the upkeep is a full-time job. Just walking around the property to make sure this pump is working properly and that sprinkler nozzle is working properly and there's nothing dead in the pool (favorites are raccoons and rats, the snakes are always live)...oh, and now we have a resident armadillo (or two), killing the hav-a-heart trap we put out for the squirrels who were eating our mangoes right off the tree and digging huge holes in the orchard lawn. And maybe they're the ones who ate the heads off two of our black snakes (one 5' and one 2') and left the bodies in the driveway (the 5') and on the front porch (the 2').

    I know, makes you *really* want to come visit, doesn't it?::big grin:: But I promise you it's a lovely place to visit, and we'd love to have you and Starman come!

    Sharyn & the Vinster