An important thing to know about me is that I did not choose our house. Our house chose us. One could say that the Universe is our real estate agent. Said Universe also has quite the sense of humor.
My husband Paul and I are city kids. Ours is an outer-borough love story; in our courtship, we’d face two-hour journeys by subway and a ferry boat to see each other on opposite ends of NYC (true love by urban standards). I grew up in Staten Island, which held the record for the world’s largest garbage dump during my childhood – visible, in fact, from outer space! I moved from my parents’ uninspiring 1980’s split ranch to a series of 3 small, over-priced New York rentals with Paul over the course of a dozen or so years. Our jobs pitted us in epic battles with world-renowned traffic and never-on-time express buses. I dreamed of Victorian homes and crown molding but buying any house – especially one I’d want to live in – was completely financially out of reach. Everything was hard, and by early 2016, we were way over it. But what to do?
Ohio. Northeast Ohio, to be precise. Fly-over country to some. Just a hair off the edge of the planet according to most New Yorkers. It is Paul’s ancestral home – a place his parents ran screaming from as soon as adulthood permitted them to do so. A place where Paul, however, spent idyllic childhood summers exploring his grandparents’ sprawling backyard and swimming at the country club pool.
Sure, I’d visited. His Grandma, who still runs her home in Canton solo at 94-years-old, would point out the too-cheap-to-believe real estate when we’d visit. But we couldn’t really live in Ohio – could we?
The answer – maybe. We were becoming just about desperate enough to make a change of this size. In the early spring of 2016, I started sending out a few test resumes and peeking at Ohio houses online, just for fun. There was one on Craigslist that really caught my eye – a dreamy Italianate Victorian resplendent with original trim and stained glass chandeliers. I had certainly never heard of the town it was situated in, but it looked cute, was palatial at over 3,200 square feet, and the price was remarkable. I didn’t give it too much thought though – we weren’t even sure if we were going to move.
By early summer, with our pricey Staten Island rental steadily chipping away at our not-enough-for-New York-paychecks, our resolve stiffened. We had job interest out west, but no offers yet. Our boys’ schools in New York ended in late June, but school started in Ohio in mid-August. We had a six-week window to move without disrupting the kids’ education. And we could live with Grandma till we figured it all out. We quit our jobs, gave our landlord notice, and started packing.
Then – the bomb shell. Grandma gave us a 2-week limit to find a place and move on. Ouch. The moving van had already been scheduled, the jobs had already been quit, and our townhouse had already been re-rented. No going back.
On the drive out west on a beautiful July evening, with U-Haul in tow, we stopped to feed the kids pizza at a picnic table outside a rest stop in Dubois, PA. I turned to Paul and went over the facts. “We are homeless, jobless, travelling west in a caravan with all of our worldly possessions, and feeding our kids on the side of the road. We are officially hobos. I am a hobo!”
For a planner like me, it was a bit of a leap, to put it mildly.
The first order of business for our vagabond family once we were on the ground in Ohio was to find a rental that would take us despite the fact that neither of us had an actual job. Piece of cake!
After a few days in Canton, a once-thriving bedroom community that is now just plain run-down, we realized that we did not want to live there. We set our sights on the eastern ‘burbs of Cleveland.
But here’s what we learned about rentals in this part of Ohio; they stink. Anyone with any sense buys a house, because you can do that for under $100k. When we moved, we envisioned the full Lifestyle Upgrade. Lots of space. A backyard. The works. The duplexes we toured were woefully lacking.
After touring the 5th bad Cleveland apartment of the day one afternoon- no less than 10 days from Grandma’s firm eviction date -, Paul said, “Check Craigslist one more time – there must be something else.”
Don’t ya know – the first thing that popped up was The House. The one I excitedly ogled back in the spring. Still available but now on a rent-to-own basis. Amazingly, in our budget! I called the owner, who told us to come on out to Burton – the house is always unlocked. Wow.
I turned to Paul and said, “Where is Burton?”
Northeast Ohio is absurdly charming in the summer. Enough to make you forget about the endless gray skies and constant snow that defines October through till May. We took the long, beautiful drive out of Cleveland on that sunny summer Saturday to the winding countryside beyond, past farms and horses and cows. We were already romanced.
45 minutes later, we pulled into town. Burton is like something from a Hallmark Movie. There is a maple syrup log cabin in the middle of town, and a cute row of downtown shops, and beautifully preserved old houses everywhere you look. My eyes popped out of my head. Then we pulled up to The House. Gingerbread for miles. It was really all over from there.
Three steps in from the front door, staring at the biggest, fanciest dining room I’d ever seen, I looked and Paul and proclaimed, “No matter what else happens – I. Must. Live. Here.” You know – in a totally rational, collected, kind of way. I pranced through this great big house in a dream. I saw no flaws. I was In Love. We both were, in fact.
A few weeks later, our home inspector tried desperately to talk us out of it. It needs a roof! There’s a place in the basement with a hole so big, you can see sunlight! It has terrible gutters! All I heard was the clip-clop of Amish horse-drawn buggies trotting past the pretty, pretty house (we live a town over from one of the largest Amish settlements in the US). It will be fine. Just a few little fixes. Think of the price! And the size! And the charm! By December, this hulking house was all ours.
And that, dear readers, is where my sanity ended and all the fun begins.
If you were my neighbor, you may have witnessed me stabbing the ground in my front garden, digging up stubborn, 20-year-old weeds, whilst shouting things like “Damn it house. It’s like you DON’T. WANT.TO BE. PRETTY! But you will be pretty!”.
You see, ardor like mine for a house, combined with “vision” and a borderline compulsive need to fulfill this vision on a nearly non-existent budget and with almost no technical skills, leads to all sorts of creative reno solutions and an unyielding, unending project list.
This dogged pursuit of pretty is what this blog is all about. I’m thrilled to share my crazy. Get excited, people!