THE BEGINNING OF THE RED HOUSE

A LAND OF FORECLOSURES

This story actually starts with me cleaning out the basement in our Long Island house nearly a year ago.  I came across our closing papers from ten years prior and started  looking at a copy of the refinance paperwork coupled with the documents for the second mortgage.  Granted we had borrowed a lot of money and basically replaced or fixed everything in the house that needed to be updated (except the roof) but when I looked at the numbers, I mean really looked at the numbers, my head started to spin.  We would be a whopping 75 YEARS OLD before we had paid off the mortgage.  And I’m not even going to mention what that final number would have cost us.

It was a casual comment I made one night as we were waiting at the bar at Del Posto that changed our life together.  I didn’t mean for it to be flippant and hoped it hadn’t come out of my mouth as such but the fact is I blurted out, “You know there’s no reason for us to live on Long Island once Rachel graduates from high school.”

I have a good job on Long Island but Lynn works in the city and has been commuting for nearly twenty years.  I could live someplace else and commute, right?  Most importantly, even with all the renovations we’ve done on the aforementioned house, our Long Island abode is very small. We have three small bedrooms, 1.5 baths, a tiny kitchen, an average sized living room and dining room and NO family room.  That means other than the living room there is never any place to “hang out.”  We do in fact have a decent sized backyard but one set of neighbors has young children so you always hear them “playing” and the people across the street have troubled teenagers.  Consequently, we are often bombarded with yelling or screaming from both sides of the street. 

We also have neighbors who work the early shift (5 a.m. to 2 p.m.). This means while everyone else takes out their recycling at night, they take theirs out before they go to work.  Look at the clock. That means it is 4:30 in the morning.  And since their recycling bin is right underneath our bedroom window, we, too, are usually woken up by the clatter of bottles at 4:30 in the morning.

The houses are also simply too close together for anyone to have any privacy or any semblance of peace and quiet. Dare I mention I felt we lived in just another ugly Long Island suburb surrounded by shopping centers and diners that served bad food? Should I confess that we also have no friends? Given those issues, what could possibly be an incentive to stay there any longer?  Plus now that the housing market had collapsed, the value of our house kept dropping. If nothing else, we would have to find a buyer who was willing to pay at least what we owed on the mortgage.  Could we ever sell it? If we did, could we rent an apartment in the city for less than what we were paying for our mortgage and possibly buy a house upstate?

Well, we still have about two or three years before we are at the selling stage but  perusing ads for New York City apartments, it appears that with a glut of available rentals, prices in fact have dropped.  Even a decent two bedroom would run us considerably less than our monthly mortgage.  My problem though was that I was biased against people who had “country” homes.  In my mind these were people who were on the boards of numerous charitable organizations, had personal investment bankers to keep their money flowing smoothly, live-in help and really big apartments (that they owned).  We were not those people.

What did happen though when the market fell is that many country or “second” house people started defaulting on their mortgages.  I started seeing ads on Craigslist for below market homes and suddenly discovered a whole world of foreclosures out there.   I studied realtor’s websites for properties they were offering as if I were studying for an exam.  I even went to bank REO websites looking at pictures of falling down houses, burnt out houses and generally houses that had simply been neglected. Even with all the “scary” factors that were involved in many of these houses, I was hooked.

We started out doing drive-by’s on Sundays.  If there was a place we saw that we thought we might like, we would put in a call to a realtor. Often these houses were duds.  Not private enough, not big enough or at the other end of the spectrum – too remote, too big.   Then there was the money factor.  Some of these houses were listed as “condition unknown.”  Many had no bathrooms or kitchens or any sort of heating unit whatsoever.  While I wasn’t thinking of living in any one of these houses right away, I also didn’t want to blow what little cash I had to get electric into the house or running water.

Then there was the septic and well issue.  Lynn and I being city people never dealt with the fact that your water doesn’t come from a city water line.  I listened but in reality was perplexed when people starting talking to me about “shocking” the well, testing the soil for e-coli in rural farm areas and the mechanics of dealing with a septic tank.  While rural living might have been romantic and part of the charm was not having any neighbors, in reality, I was kind of scared of being so isolated.  What if something happened and someone needed medical care?  What if there were animals, I mean large ones on the property?  What if there were scary monsters at night?  (Just kidding.) 

We spent many weekends driving all around New York State – looking for the perfect house at a foreclosure price.  At one point we thought we had found an old farm in Schoharie County with a magnificent view.  It had about one acre of land, a really old farm house and numerous outbuildings.  It also had a beaten up kitchen, a barely functional bathroom and if you stood in any of the rooms you could feel a draft in the house even with the doors and windows shut.  Even so, there was just something about that house that I couldn’t get out of my mind.  We went back to see it three times.  And when we didn’t stop by to “visit,” we would point to it from the road on our way to someplace else.  It was the last visit though that made me finally say “no.”

It was a dreary January day and the wind was howling a bit when we drove up.  We got out of the car and I walked around the property like I always did.  I stopped and listened to the wind and tried to listen to my heart and my head at the same time.  Suddenly, I thought I saw something in one of the upstairs bedrooms. A figure?  A girl?  An old woman?  A ghost?  It spooked me enough to realize I couldn’t see myself living in that house and I simply got in the car and drove away.

But I kept looking.  Shortly thereafter I found an ad on Craigslist for a house that was for sale in a town with city water and sewer hook-up.  I was curious.  It was an old house with nearly 4.2 acres to boot.  It had more than enough space (6 bedrooms!) plus a family room and numerous ancillary spaces that could be many things – a library, a music room, and an office. 

Thus began my fight with the bank who owned the property about what they thought was a fair offer for a house in a town where many many houses were for sale and/or had been foreclosed on and what I thought was a fair offer for a house that was nearly 160 years old and needed a quick infusion of cash to bring it back to its former glory.  I didn’t know if it had running water, heat or electricity.  All I could see was the tremendous space in the house coupled with the property in the back.  I didn’t back down until the bank finally gave in.  And that’s how The Red House project started.

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