While I guess I’m a fairly talkative person, I’m not a very loud one. My regular speaking voice hovers, I’ve been told, somewhere around a loud whisper. When I’m angry or flustered, I might achieve something more like a normal “indoor voice,” but anything louder than that is more or less beyond me. Hoots and hollering at concerts or sports games are things that I lip-synch and mime, and an involuntary fear-scream comes out as something disarmingly deep and guttural—neither loud nor shrill. Which is why when I yelled “MAX, TURN OFF THE SHOWER RIGHT NOW!” a few days ago, I couldn’t help but take a split-second amidst the chaos to appreciate just how loud I can be when desperate enough. It wasn’t, evidently, loud enough for Max to hear over the sound of running water and dance music emanating from his iPad, but loud enough for a brief moment of self-congratulatory appreciation. I can scream. I am human.
The trouble was the downstairs toilet. From what I was able to piece together later, what with my limited plumbing knowledge, was that 120-year old clogged cast-iron pipes may not necessarily agree with a shower being run, a toilet being flushed, and a washing machine draining simultaneously.
It was like nothing I’ve ever seen. All at once, a 1920s toilet erupting both from the bowl and flowing from beneath the base, regurgitating what I can only describe as a poop geyser. It stopped as suddenly as it began, but not before relieving itself of somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 gallons of water, which quickly spread to much of the first floor. Soaked in this water was all manner of unspeakable things, chief among them clumps of toilet paper and human shit. After roughly 60 seconds of frenzied mopping with rags and paper towels, I ran to the second floor, where Max was washing his hair. “TURN OFF THE FUCKING SHOWER,” I yelled, drawing back the curtain dramatically. “THE DOWNSTAIRS TOILET EXPLODED.”
He instinctively recoiled in terror, fiddling with the knobs, his eyes stinging from shampoo. “What?! What should I do?”
“I DON’T KNOW. DO YOUR BEST. I HAVE TO GO.”
And that’s when I ran out of the house, leaving my keys behind, and jumped in the car and made a short and frantic trip to the local hardware store to buy a Shop Vac, a purchase I’d previously seen as somewhat unnecessary. I was back in less than 15 minutes, maniacally tearing apart the cardboard box as I approached the front door. Please, I prayed, please don’t let these wood floors buckle and warp. Replacing these floors is not an option.
This—crawling around on your hands and knees in a lake of human shit in what will become your dining room—is, I’m quickly discovering, part of the joy of home ownership.
Rewinding a bit: I’ve been holding out on you, a little bit. Please forgive me. It’s been a little hectic.
Over the past several months, Max and I have been in the process of doing something that started as little more than a pipe dream and some vague flowery fantasies, and ended with us being handed the keys to a house.
We bought a house. We’re officially out of our goddamned minds.
A little practical information:
1. The house is located in Kingston, New York, which is a small city in the Hudson River Valley, about a 2 hour drive upstate from New York City. If you’re the Rain Man of my blog, you might remember that we visited Kingston back in December, where a close friend invited us to stay at a rental house for the holidays. We immediately fell head-over-heels in love with the city. Kingston dates back to 17th century Dutch settlements, was actually the first capital city of New York, and is loaded with beautiful historic architecture and general adorable small-towny-ness. It’s a city of about 25,000 people, with a bourgeoning arts community, thriving small businesses, approximately 3 regular farmer’s markets, close proximity to the water—it’s great, basically. The more time we spend in Kingston, the more we love it.
2. The house is old. The MLS listing said that it was built in 1895, and I haven’t had the time to get myself to the historical archives to try to nail down something more concrete and accurate. I’m thinking that the house was built over time with a couple additions, so it’s sort of a weird mix of styles, including Georgian, Greek Revival, and Victorian. I need to brush up on my turn-of-the-century architectural styles. That said, I don’t think it’s had very many owners. The last owners bought the house from a family member in 1973, and who knows how long they’d owned it before that. What really drew us to the house is probably an effect of that: it’s seen very few major modifications and renovations over the years, meaning that things like moldings, doors, hardware, windows, and flooring are for the most part original and very, very cool. You know I’m a sucker for stuff like that.
3. The house is currently a 2-family, which we’ll be converting back into a single family (which the home was originally). That means there’s an upstairs unit and a downstairs unit—so two kitchens and two bathrooms. We’re keeping the downstairs kitchen, and the plan is to turn the upstairs kitchen into a bedroom, and knock down the walls that separated the two units (this should be fairly simple—they definitely aren’t load-bearing, and look to just be some framing and thin sheets of 70s wood panelling). Obviously we’ll get into much more details about all of our plans and stuff as I post more!
To pre-empt some obvious questions:
1. How the hell are you affording this, you psycho??
It feels a little weird to come out and say the exact purchase price of the house, but I’ll do my best to put this in some perspective while maintaining a baseline level of privacy for the two of us. The house had been on the market for roughly two years, during which the asking price (which was already pretty low, but well out of our nearly non-existent range) had dropped significantly. When we first discovered the house back in December (while innocently trolling real estate listings in the comfort of our rental house, just because we were curious about the lay of the land), the price was over 41% higher than what we ended up buying for, and a couple months later it dropped another 15%. We offered about 25% below the reduced asking price, and after some back and forth with the estate, our offer was accepted. So we ended up buying for half the original list price, and far, far below market, even for our neighborhood, which would probably be classified as what they call “up and coming.” We were also able to fold some of our initial renovation costs into our mortgage loan, so we don’t exactly have to be flush with up-front cash in order to get the house into workable condition and make some immediate improvements on the side. Even so, our monthly mortgage payment is still about the same as a standard trip to the grocery store. So between some savings, some assets we were able to liquidate, a loan, and many long, long hours crunching numbers and doing the math, we eventually decided we were willing to pull the trigger and see where this crazy notion of ours takes us. Even though we’re young and neither of us exactly makes oodles of money right now, we’re still confident we can squeeze the added expense of owning a house into our lives.
That said, we’ve accepted that we could definitely spend the foreseeable future of our lives being pretty house-poor. I’m under no illusions that this decision won’t come with plenty of sacrifices and compromises. But if saying no to certain luxuries means we get to travel this road, I’m OK with that.
2. Wait, so you’re moving to Kingston?
Only kind of. Kingston will be our primary residence, and at least for now, we’re maintaining our Brooklyn apartment. Max and I both work in the city, and while we both have somewhat flexible schedules, we can’t commit to living full-time upstate right now. Because we have an uncharacteristically good rent in a great neighborhood and we love our apartment (and have put so much work into it!), we’re not looking to move right now, but I suppose it’s within the realm of possibility that we may move down the line to someplace even smaller and with a lower rent. Not really something we’re considering seriously right now, but I guess it could happen.
3. Then why? I mean, WTF.
Well, there are a few answers to that. For a while now, Max and I have both been feeling the itch to dedicate more time to being creative, making things, and having the space to do it—which is nearly impossible in our apartment. We’ve tossed around the idea of renting some kind of studio space, but the idea of throwing more money at rentals (which, obviously, is money you never see again) wasn’t a super exciting or feasible option. The house is big enough to allow us this space, while also allowing us to put that money into a real estate investment rather than paying some landlord’s mortgage.
That’s where the investment side of things come in. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about this house as an investment, and in a couple of ways. Because Max and I both, in large part, professionally try to help people get the most out of their home life, I think we both look at the house as an investment in our professional development. The learning curve of owning a house is enormous, and has already helped us understand some of the challenges that our readers and clients face when they embark to solve their own home design issues, whatever they may be. Working on this house will be an incredible exercise in creativity and stretching a dollar, and I’m really excited to be able to share those skills and decisions here and when working with clients alike.
There’s also the more obvious investment, which is purely monetary. We bought this house for a truly rock-bottom price, and unless the economy completely falls to pieces or Kingston turns into a post-apocalyptic wasteland, it’s a bit hard to imagine losing money on it if and when we go to sell it. The house needs a ton of elbow grease, restoration, and general beautification, but the foundation is solid and the bones are great. I’m not approaching the house as a flip, but I do think we stand a very good chance of seeing a good return on our investment and a decent profit if, down the line, we do decide to sell.
Obviously, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that this decision came first as a passion project and labor of love. This is something that I absolutely love to do, and find intensely, perversely satisfying. It’s always been a total fantasy of mine to buy an old house and fix it up, but I had no inkling I’d be in any position to do so at this point in my life. But then this house came along, and it seemed like opportunity was knocking, and it was worthwhile to explore it. What we found is that we’re really excited to have a place that we can bring our friends and loved ones to, where life is a little simpler and less stressful, and where we can explore doing what we love. We’re also incredibly excited to give Mekko a backyard to run around in—that’s honestly one of the best parts of all of this. That crazy lady has so much energy.
4. What does this mean for this blog?
Exciting things, I hope! It’s probably not too hard to figure out that after two years, our little apartment is reaching a state I could call “done,” and while there are still some projects I want to tackle, for the most part there isn’t that much left to do. I’ll still be posting about the apartment from time to time, when it makes sense. But! There is not an inch of this house that doesn’t need to be touched, and this renovation/restoration/
So…that’s that. Welcome to what we’re lovingly calling Gay Gardens. This should be fun.
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