Pamela Harris

House Hunting August 7, 2016

We've finally gotten serious with house hunting. It's not that we weren't serious when we started two years ago. I've been holding us up. I have my creative community and work is busy and will I be able to find a greenmarket -- it's the country and there are farms everywhere -- and oh my God it's a big change and my cell service is spotty and I'll have to drive versus walk everywhere and blah blah blah and oh uh er.

But it's also been that nothing has compared to the very first property we saw. The very, very first house we saw wasn't a house but a 10,000 square foot barn on five acres. We don't have a big budget, but we do have big romantic notions of what 'home' might be. Or, I do. (Joe would live in a yurt with a composting toilet and a gray water system.) This barn had a well and a septic already in and we were thinking, as we watched a woodchuck scurry into it, if we got it for $50,000 ... We didn't.

The next home that I got a twang from was an old brick firehouse that was surprisingly affordable. It was near the Hudson River, which you could see from the upstairs bedroom if you craned your neck. The main room had a gorgeous wooden ceiling and you could drive your car right into the living room. It also had a couple of inches of water in the basement, and would always have a couple of inches of water in the basement.

Mold was the issue with the next house I really liked. This house was built in the early 1900's and had high ceilings, wide plank floors, good sized rooms, and was in a beautiful part of Columbia County. It backed up to a small river, which you could see and hear from the deck. Upstairs, original William Morris wallpaper still lined the hallway, yet much of it had gracefully peeled back and hung limply, exposing swaths of dense black dots. Getting rid of mold is a big deal - it's toxic and you need to call in special crews to do this. This house was filled with it, and I didn't want to take it on.

There was a church I fell in love with, but its septic was shot. It was in the Berkshires and a shot septic rarely means taking the old one out and putting a new one in. Because of the land, this one could be complicated and we had already passed on a house because of septic issues.

We kept looking. Some houses looked nothing like the listing pictures. Some had real structural issues - I got nauseous in the upstairs of one house because the floors were so tilted. One house I loved it and Joe didn't. One house he loved and I didn't.

During all this I'd have quiet moments of panic. I've lived in New York forever and it's home. The creative community I have here is tight, especially my bi-weekly studies with Wynn Handman and actors. Work has been really good and I'm in a solid flow with writing. I have drawings in a show opening out of town next month and though I could get the work there from anywhere, living here, the dealer comes in and takes the work. I wave as she drives off.

In New York I walk everywhere, I food shop daily, if there's anything I need it's here. Friends and I get together spur of the moment - in fifteen minutes we can be having coffee. We network, hear of opportunities, share opportunities, make things together. Plus, these friendships are deep.

But. But, but, but. I've written about the noise and the crowds and all the ways the city has changed, and the reality is the city is always changing. I think it's me who's changed. Living in New York City is great when you're young or old, but not somewhere in the middle. I'm tired. The hustle is nonstop.

I knew something was shifting when I got excited about house hunting three weeks ago. A farmhouse on 4 acres with a barn and a pool had been ticking down in price, and though the price was still high I finally saw those magic words: Owners no longer use. All offers considered.

We went and walked the property, stood around the pool, stood in the house. The whole time we could hear farm equipment from the huge farm behind it. Despite how sweet the house was, it was loud. Plus, the barn wouldn't work as a studio.

Two more houses didn't work for us, and then we went to see the fourth house. It was a ranch built in 1960, a bomb shelter of a shape, dropped down at the edge of its ten acre parcel. It had a pristine full basement with a washer and dryer, but to access it you had to go outside. The whole house was recently redone, stripped of any detail, and there was only one bathroom with no room for a second. More importantly, there was no place to work so we'd have to build a studio. But the minute we drove up the steep, winter-challenged driveway I was in love. The setting - I've never seen anything like it. It was right out of a Hudson River Painting, with a wide, long meadow that reached back to perfect woods. Lone birch trees added glimpses of sharp white against all that green and most of the ten acres abutted conservation land. The house was ugly, but the shape was great. Over time we could change it.

I stood outside the house and imagined walking up that meadow and into the woods every morning. A quarter mile away was an Olympic-sized pool, which means I could start swimming. The house was close enough to a train, close enough to the Taconic, and when I had to come back to the city it'd be effortless. That setting! I was hooked.

There was one more house to look at, one Joe really wanted to see and I didn't. It looked like an extended cape, but it was so hidden behind wild overgrowth it was tough to see in the pictures. It had a funky studio attached to it that looked hand built, odd-shaped. The house came with an acre and a half and at the edge of the property was a small outbuilding that looked like it was falling down. All of it photographed poorly and looked like a wreck.

We pulled in to see it and I stayed outside with Ginger while Joe went in. There were a few sculptures in the grass near the trees. The driveway was busted up and had grass growing through it. A huge tree had two swings hanging from a limb, and the side of the house had a big hairy stretch of knee-high grass that extended past the outbuilding. The white paint on the house was cracked and chipped and the windows looked thin and shaky.

Joe was in the house longer than usual and when he came out I could tell he was excited. I was ready to move to the bomb shelter, but I walked the property, then went in. And for the first time ever, with all the houses we've seen, I stood in a dump of a living room and felt like I was home.

I can't say what it was about this house. It had an artist's hand everywhere. The kitchen was raw, but there was an odd functionality to it, a mish mash where you could see every stroke this artist made creating it. One of the bedrooms had very old grasscloth on the walls - I love grasscloth - and though it would most likely have to come down because of its condition, you could see it was put up with love. What I thought would be my least favorite thing about this house - the studio - became my favorite, despite its misshapen walls and what I thought were haphazardly placed windows. The studio is really three rooms, well integrated into the house and perfectly balanced in terms of work areas. And I realized that the way those windows were placed probably let in maximum light and decreased shadows, perfect for making sculpture.

The kitchen needs a reno, probably to the studs. The upstairs is one big open room and hasn't been touched since the 60's. The house is oddly turned around, i.e the front of the house is in the back, another artistic surprise. There's only one bathroom and it's rough, and all the windows need to be replaced. The ten acre ranch we could go in at asking and be done with, and this house is near the high of our budget. Despite this, I was confused when we drove away.

We made a plan to go see both houses again. Two days before we were to do this I came home and Joe was standing in the kitchen, waiting for me. "I have bad news," he said. "The artist's house got an offer," I said, fearing that was it. That was the moment I knew I wanted that house over the ranch. He shook his head. "No," he said, "There's no internet."

And that was it. We need a certain speed to be able to work from home. The bomb shelter had zero internet, and the artists house had a little faster than dial-up. Data caps with satellite won't work for us, even if we do a blend of satellite and DSL. Here, in the most modern of worlds, we were foiled by something I didn't see coming.

It took me a week to delete the photos of both houses from my phone. A few days ago I was looking at the MLS and saw the ten acres got an offer. I felt a pang, but also felt relief that the artist's house was still sitting there. I told myself that this is going to go the way it's supposed to go, and our house is out there somewhere. What really mattered was just for today, I was finally ready to move.

Two days ago I went down the rabbit hole reading a local upstate blog. I caught a headline about Cuomo pledging broadband for all by the year 2018. Maybe even by next summer. Suddenly, the artists house became a possibility again. We'd have to suffer for a year.

We had already made plans to go see new houses in another county that has great internet, but we're going to look at that house again this week. I've already packed a tape measure and a drawing pad. We're looking into every internet option that might get us through until the new lines are in, and we're checking the details of broadband coming. Moving out of the city, I'll have to learn patience. Waiting for internet might be a good place to start.

What made you buy your house? Have you ever fixed up a wreck? BTW, did you use a kitchen designer, or do it yourself?


Paul, your house sounds amazing. Love the comments.

Evelyn, I didn't know that's how you got your beautiful house!

Pamela | August 8, 2016 at 09:36 pm

Boy !! I haven't been very helpful, have I? I feel guilty, so I'm going to write a happy, helpful comment this time, especially since I've been a builder my entire life.
About 40 years ago, I wanted to have a country home west of Washington D C in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I was primarily looking for an amazing view, but needed a workable house during the interim while I built a new house. I talked to several Realtors in the Leesburg, Middleburg, Warrenton areas, and based on my criteria, looked at about 20 places. We finally found 10 acres near Middleburg, VA that had a small partially restored 150 year old stone house, with a huge oak and stone, dilapidated stable for about 20 horses. The house had actually been the stable master's house for a large plantation, and the house and stable were used by the Confederates during the Civil War. The house was on a ridge with a 40 mile view looking east. Absolutely beautiful. Every day I was there I used to sit in a chair and stare at the horizon. Breathtaking. We renovated the old house into a small comfortable weekend retreat, and then started building a new house on the highest point on the parcel. We had all of the oak in the stable refinished, and we used it for wide plank floors, and well as a oakwood pitched, open ceiling above the second floor. The two story house wrapped around a huge stone fireplace, the stone being the stone from the stable. The outside was all glass with cedar posts and beams, and all of the walkways and ground floor was the stable fieldstone. It took about 5 years to finish the final house, but it was such a joyous place, and it gave my family and I many happy moments. What always stands out the most was the view. It was unforgettable, so if I could make one simple recommendation, get a view that you can breath into your soul, a view where you feel like picking up the surrounding grass, and slip into the warm, warm ground and be mesmerized by the star show above. I promise you'll never regret it.

Paul Murphy | August 8, 2016 at 11:57 am

Suggestion. Get the bomb shelter. You already love the view, which for me, is a priority. As for the internet, we have a place in the middle of nowhere, and satellite internet works just fine. Sounds like a beautiful setting, and every morning you wake up you'll be thrilled.You won't be disappointed.

Paul Murphy | August 8, 2016 at 08:07 am

Househunting?? This sounds more like the Medieval Crusades, a series of Holy House Wars rather than looking for the ideal Home Sweet Home. You're probably better off renting a horse drawn Conestoga wagon, and head blindly into the hills, and buy whichever house next to where the horse decides to stop. This is like the "Great Perhaps" in Looking for Alaska: Perhaps this one is good; Perhaps this one is better: Perhaps none of them are good; Perhaps I really don't want to move at all. One noticeable characteristic: there is no common ground, and Im not referring to the land around the house,
I'm referring to some common, underlying thread that unites your search for a house with certain basic requirements. This is more like a shotgun approach. Maybe if you define the parameters of what you minimally require in a house, you could narrow your search, and make it more effective, rather than taking the shotgun approach. When I bought a country house, what I wanted most was a spectacular view, one that when you wake up every day, it makes you say My God I love this view. I could live here forever.Before you fix a wreck, first define what "wreck" means. Sometimes it costs so much to fix the house it simply isn't worth it. As for kitchen designer, virtually all cabinet suppliers will give you a free layout, which will include a work triangle between the frig and the stove and the sink. Hope my snide remarks help in some small way. As always, I love your stories.

Paul Murphy | August 7, 2016 at 07:38 pm

I was looking for 3 years when I found my home on Craig's list. It was valentine's day 2004 and Steph and I spent the day in open houses. There was a house on 14th Street between 3rd and 4th Avenue. A 2 family, already renovated. I just couldn't afford it.

Then we came here, still on 14th street but between 4th and 5th avenue. A better block. They had a dog in a cage, because of a surgery, on top of wall-to-wall carpet. So the finished basement smelled of dog. The backyard had a dog house filled with tires. Yes, that kind of a house.

But I could afford it, it was a two family so I could get that extra income, and I loved it. It had some salvage tin ceilings and it was home. None of my friends liked it. They were all telling me not to get it.

The owners had a higher offer from architects who wanted to gut the house. But the owners were building in the Poconos area and needed to stay in the house for a month after they sold. I was able to accommodate their request.

The owners moved to the rental apartment and I was in the duplex. And construction started the next day after moving in. From walls to a new roof, new boiler, new hot water heater, that was just in the first six months. This year it will be all new windows.

12 years later I still love my home, and so do my friends. And it has been perfect as an Airbnb home so now my guests love it as well.

Go and get that artists house.

Evelyn | August 7, 2016 at 07:00 pm

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