When Kate and I bought our first house together seven years ago this past May, we bought purely because it was on the water. We knew the house needed a lot of work, and the best that could be said of it aesthetically is that we wouldn’t get rained on. Our bet was that the house itself could be fixed, and that the location – and especially the view – were worthy of the effort.
So we got to work.
We repainted the whole thing. We redid the kitchen, but on a budget. The budget meant that I did the tile work, which was mostly acceptable because I started on the section that would be hidden by the range so my initial mistakes were largely out of sight. At one point the budget also involved me ripping out our kitchen sink and counters so that the stone counter people could measure, then putting them both back in for a week until the counter folks came back to install the counters they’d custom cut. That sounds crazy, even to me right now, but it actually happened.
We did a ton of other work. One year I dug a french drain in the back yard so that the basement stopped flooding. Another year it was installing a new maple fireplace surround and mantle. Whether it was ripping out inconveniently placed closets or patching the holes in the hardwood floors caused by ripping out inconveniently placed closets, or building organizers for the closets we spared, it became a thing over time. The bulk of my summer vacation each year would be spent on home improvement projects.
Many of these projects left me with injuries of varying severity. I got shocked at one point and couldn’t move my arm for an hour. I almost lost the tip of my index finger when a saw horse collapsed and two heavy sections of melamine plywood crushed it. I ended up in the emergency room because an unfortunately springy piece of corner bead sliced open my leg and had me pulsing blood with each beat of my heart.
As an aside, in my defense on that, I wanted to just seal it up with duct tape and the doc who stitched me up agreed that that would in fact have worked. But my efforts to hide the severity of the problem failed when Kate caught me turning large sections of our deck red. After our friend Ryan took her side, it was off to Midcoast in his Jeep with my leg in a trash bag so I didn’t turn his back seat into a scene from CSI.
Point is, the blood, sweat and tears thing is true quite literally true with our old house. We worked hard to make it better.
Which we were happy to do because our plan all along was to be there for a long time. To that end, we engaged a designer to draw up plans to expand the house and give ourselves more breathing room. Three things then happened in succession, each of which changed our calculus with respect to staying.
- First, our designer ghosted us. We liked him and his work very much, and his initial draft plan looked great and we were good to move to phase two where he delivered final construction ready plans. Except that he didn’t. He didn’t return calls, he didn’t return emails. For the better part of a year he was MIA, to the point that I’d started to worry that he’d passed away. At that point, he turned back up, said he’d taken on too much work and was ready to re-engage. The problem was that in the interim, the President of the United States had decided to pick a fight with, well, everyone. Between the trade wars with Canada and China alone, our projected costs for building had spiked dramatically. Building, suddenly, looked a lot less attractive.
- Second, we had a kid. Besides making us really, really tired, our daughter’s arrival changed our calculus considerably. Suddenly school systems mattered, and as she grew so too did her impact on our livable space. What was a livable space for us as a couple was more and more cramped as a family of three. A living room overrun by stuffies and kid’s tea sets makes for some long days.
- Lastly, there was the global pandemic our country is still in the midst of thanks to incompetent leadership. As it has for everyone, COVID-19 has dramatically complicated our lives. Both Kate and I were suddenly at home full time. So was our daughter, who we pulled out of daycare in March.
I remember volunteering to go get takeout in February solely because I wanted to get out of the house after working from home three straight days. If only I’d known.
The first two factors were enough to get us to at least entertain the idea of moving. So I did what I always do when I need help, and I turned to our local tech Slack. One of the folks in there – thanks Dan! – connected us with a local realtor (who was, as an aside, incredible). We met with her for the first time on February 13th. That meeting was encouraging, and she saw more promise and possibility in our little property than the other brokers we’d spoken with, and we decided to move forward.
Then came March, and COVID-19.
All thoughts of moving went right out the window as we struggled, like the rest of the country, to adjust to lockdown conditions and trying to juggle two full time jobs with a third job of being full time preschool teachers. We were doing the best we could to keep our heads above water, and the idea of adding additional burdens to our plate was just unthinkable. And even if we were ready to list, the market cooled considerably in the early stages of the outbreak.
That is where things sat until late July. By that point, we were still out straight but at least we had our routines down. After seeing so many people in our tech Slack refinance at bonkers interest rates, I pinged my ex-CFO little brother and asked for his opinion on re-financing or even, if such a thing could be accomplished, selling. After a few days of watching market numbers, he came back with a bunch of charts that I didn’t understand but a message that I did: that if we wanted to sell anytime soon, we should do it now and do it quickly.
The last time he gave a family member this advice it was to my parents in the run up to 2008.
So it was that we met in proper socially distanced fashion with our realtor out on our back deck the Monday of July 27th. She talked potential numbers, they worked for us and we asked about timing. She said the sooner the better. Kate and I, much to my later regret, agreed to list in just shy of three weeks.
For some homes, and in non-pandemic times, this would be a perfectly reasonable ask. For us, it was insane. The next three weeks were easily my worst in recent memory, as might have been inferred from my tweets at the time.
I spent my two weeks of summer vacation moving half of the items in the house over to storage using my hand truck and my actual truck. We had so much that needed to be moved we outgrew one storage unit and expanded into a second, much larger one, nearly filling that one too. Nor did we have time to pack properly; the night before the photographers arrived, in fact, we were basically pulling things off counters and throwing them into boxes (and when they were unable to shoot due to poor weather, I ran around the house shouting “DEUS EX MACHINA!”).
Some of those boxes even got labeled, if you can call these labels.
I also spent vacation out in the blazing sun sanding our house’s long deck, then staining it twice before giving up and painting it once. I replaced the deck railings, a task which was substantially complicated by the fact that due to the pandemic there were massive shortages of pressure treated lumber, and when I finally found some I spilled it all over the road transporting it home.
I installed a new dishwasher, spraying myself with disgusting bilgewater in the process. I replaced parts on the range, it worked for two days, broke again, after which I took everything apart again and found the actual problem. Kate and I painted the sun room in our house, including the cathedral ceiling, in spite of the fact that I couldn’t figure out how to work our borrowed paint sprayer and almost doused a floor and two cabinets with Benjamin Moore Decorator White.
It didn’t help that all of that sanding took place in August, which was the hottest month on record, ever, in Portland. It also didn’t help that I badly tore a muscle in my left rib cage less than a week into prep, and when I Googled how long that recovery would be the answer was 4-6 weeks.
Anyway, I could go on, but you probably get the point: this was not my favorite start to August ever.
The worst part of all of this, however, was the uncertainty. We were fairly confident, based on our understanding of the market, that we’d get offers. We had no idea whether they’d be acceptable offers, however. And even if we were able to successfully sell the place, we had no idea where we were going to be living, first because there were less than ten houses available in the four or five towns we were looking in combined and second because all of the available rentals had been snapped up by out-of-towners fleeing COVID.
The good news was that our effort, and the wise counsel of our broker both in terms of how to prepare and what to list at, paid off. We ended up listing late on a Thursday night, and were under contract by Sunday to a nice couple from Boston. Our broker – bless her – even managed to wrangle a rent-back from our buyers, so that we had up to two months to look before we had to move.
The better news was the miracle that was our purchase.
During one of the showings of the property we were selling, we were casting about for somewhere to be. These days, after all, you can’t just clear out to a restaurant for lunch because COVID, or visit with friends and family, also because COVID. The process of selling violated our respective quarantine protocols, so we were on the outs with our pod for the duration.
On a whim, then, we decided to go look at two properties.
The first was a rabbit warren and felt smaller than our then current house in spite of being almost three times as large. The second, on the other hand, was interesting. Really interesting. It ticked a lot of boxes for us. Right town, gigabit bandwidth, attached garage, and it was much larger than we would have wanted pre-COVID but perfectly sized in a world of pods, lockdowns and quarantine protocols. Even better, it was on a quiet, private street where kids can wander and ride bikes and families can walk out the driveway and make a left into nature or a right onto a rocky beach across the street. And did I mention that it was on an island?
The second property might not have been perfect, but it was as close to it as we were likely to find – certainly in this market.
The problem was that a lot of other people saw the same attributes we did, and we were outbid. Sad news, but expected because we, alas, were not paying in cash and needed to actually have our sale close first. Thanks to our broker’s relationships, however, and some serious coaching on her part regarding our offer, we ended up as the backup offer. Which we originally agreed to not out of any sense of real hope, but more because we had nothing better on tap, and by nothing better I mean nothing else period.
But remember how I said miracle? Late in the afternoon on Sunday, August 30th, we got a call from our realtor. Given that we were still finalizing a bunch of the details with regard to the closing on our old house, this was not unusual. The news was, however. The original buyers for the property we wanted, who were from California, had decided to renege on their offer and stay in California. The exact scenario, in fact, that our friend Corey had mentioned as a possibility of days previously. This left us, as the number one backup, as the prospective owners of the house that would have been – and is, in fact – such a good fit for us across a number of dimensions.
That closing was last Tuesday, and the movers arrived on Wednesday. Almost a week and a half later, we’re still living out of boxes, which is half us being totally depleted from the entire process and half the reality of working from home with no daycare thanks to the pandemic. But we’ll get there. Eventually. I hope.
In the meantime, I need to thank a few people:
- First, a big shout out to our local tech community: we honestly wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the Computers Anonymous Slack crew. They got us curious about selling, found our realtor and our mortgage broker, and took everything from a broken dishwasher to an old electric log splitter off our hands so we didn’t have to move it. They also had to listen to venting about how miserable the prep was, poor things.
- We also owe an enormous debt to our realtor, who was the reason we decided to sell, the reason we sold for what we did and the reason we were in a position to land the house that we did. My experience with realtors has been less than stellar, generally, but she’s outstanding. If you’re in Maine and need a realtor, get in touch: this is who you want to work with.
- My RedMonk colleagues, meanwhile, were incredibly patient with me. Already limited by my part-time childcare responsibilities, I added to that random and unpredictable absences for house prep, moving, closing and other responsibilities. And more specifically, as someone who’s self-employed, the documentation asks for the lender were incredibly broad, and Marcia got everything I needed efficiently and never griped once about my – or more accurately their – repeated demands. Couldn’t have done this without our team.
- My wife’s family was amazing. With my parents out of action temporarily due to a medical issue, Kate’s parents went so far above and beyond the call of duty it can’t be properly conveyed. Kate’s Mom helped us pack, move and watch Eleanor. Kate’s Dad was a machine whether scraping and painting the side of our house or loading and unloading two and a half cords of heavy firewood with me. Kate’s brother-in-law, meanwhile, served as courier for our closing papers sacrificing a Sunday afternoon to get them executed.
- Mom and Dad if you end up reading this, I know you would have been here if you could, so please no apologies. You’ve never shirked a job in your lives and you obviously didn’t here. Also, thanks for the advice that led us to pick the realtor we did, and for your support and guidance along the way.
- To my brother for goading us into doing this.
- Our pod friends Shawn and Ryan for taking time that they didn’t have to come up and help us pack, but more importantly distract our kid so we could pack. Also for keeping us sane along the way.
- To Kate and Eleanor. The past few months have been incredibly stressful mentally and physically debilitating, but we got through it in one piece together.
- Lastly, to our old house: you were good to us, and you will be missed. Here’s to many more fine years with your new family.
And for my part, here’s to never moving again.