Pamela Harris

House Hunting 2 August 25, 2016

We went house hunting again last week. The plan was to take a quick look at four houses across the Hudson, near Woodstock. Then we'd take a second, longer look at the artists house I fell in love with.

A major rain storm started the day and we slogged our way up the Taconic and over the Rhinecliff Bridge. Woodstock is more expensive, more populated and has higher taxes than the east side of the Hudson, but it has great infrastructure and internet. The four houses were near each other and though each had something we liked, two got offers before we even walked up the driveway, and a third house got an offer right after we saw it. The fourth we didn't like enough to pursue.

It was still raining when we came back across the Hudson, but we were early so we went to a little lunch spot and sat in the car with Ginger to eat. Then the sun came out, and we went back to the artists house for a second look.

We had gotten a great lead for a contractor, and he was waiting when we pulled in. We were all early, as was the sellers broker. The driveway was muddy from the rains and while waiting for our broker to arrive the sellers broker and I began strolling the property. We walked past the garage, then walked out around the studio.

A quick layout of the house, left to right: studio, a double garage, an entry door to a mud room, then the main house. Inside the garage a half wall divides the space, with room for a car on the right and a small lawnmower storage area on the left. Here, two steps lead up to the studio. Once you enter through a door you come out onto a platform (I learned the family used it to put on plays) that's maybe a ten or twelve foot square, then across the platform, down a few steps, you're in the first of two main rooms of the studio. I don't know the history of the house except it was built in the 60s, but the architect and Waldorf School founder Rudolph Steiner had to be a major influence in the construction of the studio. It's very organic in how one room flows into the next, and many elements in it, such as window shape and even room shape, are all designed to integrate the structure seamlessly into nature.

In this first main room of the studio, there's a back door off to the right and big sliders to the left. It's very bright with lots of windows, maybe twelve by fourteen in size, maybe bigger. It takes a few minutes to realize the space isn't square, that the back door is somehow on its own wall. Imagine four and a third walls, the third wall being home to the door. This room then jogs a little to the left and connects to the larger room of the studio, which is maybe fifteen by eighteen. It could be bigger, it's hard to tell. Nothing is square once you cross into this room with its five walls and odd-shaped windows. The double front doors are large, heavy, handmade, and look like something that Fred and Wilma Flintstone might put on their house. The whole studio looks like something out of the stone age, but with a clapboard exterior and a concrete floor. It's funky and kind of amazing when you're standing in the middle of it. All you see is nature.

Outside, everything was wildly overgrown. The sellers broker and I started walking the property and the first thing I see is a giant black and yellow spider. It was drying on a web that was strung up between two large bushy flowers near the studio. I get the strongest pang when I see it - I haven't seen this kind of spider since I was six. Back then I watched a spider just like it guard an egg sack it had sewn onto a chain link fence. Floating up out of the sack were hundreds of tiny baby spiders, each attached to a single strand of silk. They drifted into the air and seemed to hover there, no rush to leave. Remembering them I can smell cattails and the stream that used to be there. For a second I'm home again, really home.

We walk two more feet and a garter snake whips past us and disappears into the garden the spider has also taken for home. I get another pang, this one as strong as the spider. The second house I grew up was surrounded by woods and when things got crazy in the house I'd run through the trees looking for garter snakes.

At this point I'm near tears, in love with this crazy artists house.

Our broker pulled in and we all entered the mud room and then the house. Straight ahead were basement stairs, but a quick left up two steps took us into the kitchen.

The kitchen was open to the living dining, there were three bedrooms and a bath, and a staircase that led upstairs (it was an attic that had been finished, sort of). Joe began walking the house with the contractor and I roamed room to room, getting a feel for the place. Then I went into the studio and stood there. It took four minutes to realize I wanted this house.

I went back inside and our broker was sitting at the kitchen table talking with the seller's broker. "Those specimens!" our broker kept saying. It was true; if you could untangle the landscape there were roses and lilies and big pink things and every other kind of flower. "You could put an island here," she said, gesturing the length of the kitchen. Though the kitchen is nice size, it feels small for an island.

As a workspace the kitchen is basically L-shaped. You enter the kitchen at the elbow of the L and there's a counter immediately to your left. Because of the entrance you're locked in to counter depth here, which houses the sink and dishwasher. A stove or refrigerator will be too deep and will block the entrance. These appliances are on a wall in the center of the house, which is kind of lousy. The other wall is floor to ceiling windows, so anything here means reconstruction. It's a tough space but I know I could make it work.

Joe had finished walking the house with the contractor and the three of us went into the studio. The contractor pointed out an interior wall that was damp to the touch and said the best way to fix it was to excavate the exterior garden and put down a moisture barrier. The roof of the studio had been slathered in tar many times, and it needed to be fixed for real. There were a few code violations in the house, and though most were straightforward fixes one called the wiring into question. The basement was wet, not just from the rain, the water heater needed to be replaced, the furnace was old and rusted, and twenty-six windows needed to be replaced. The contractor figured it'd be about $50,000-$65,000 to do a basic kitchen and make the house livable.

In this walk through you could see all the ways this house had been loved, but not maintained. A deep look into the corners showed that the major systems were nearing their end. We hadn't even gotten to the biggest concern, which was a cracked bathroom floor. It was a kind of crack that suggested the foundation was moving, or something worse. Plus, it looked like beadboard had been put up on the bathroom walls recently, as if to cover something. This unknown hadn't yet factored into the reno budget.

We came home and crunched numbers. There were things we could wait and do over time, like reno the upstairs, add a second bath, get rid of the woodstove in the living room and open the fireplace for an insert, etc. When you start to look at a reno, though, there are certain things not worth putting off. If we need to fix the plumbing in the kitchen we might as well put in plumbing for the upstairs bath since we'll already have the ceiling open. The house had oil and propane and was a mishmash of steam and propane heat, so if we wanted to get rid of the steam radiators and put in radiant heat or something energy efficient, we 'd want to do it now if walls and floors are opened. We'd get rid of the propane completely, but it meant the studio would need a new heating system. But wait - the heating system in the studio was shot, so we need to figure out how to heat it.

Will we run into asbestos? Lead paint? Probably. We need a contingency in our budget since this takes special tradespeople to remove. Going into an older house means dealing with older house problems. The more work we do, the more issues we'll find.

We did comps for the area, which were suprisingly low. Shockingly low. Not much has been selling, high or low. We worked out our numbers again, made an offer, they countered, we countered. We were still too far apart on the price.

I had a nagging feeling that the $10,000 fix for the wet studio wall and new studio roof was really a band-aid, since the whole structure's handmade quality was showing its age. I gave it a decade at most before it needed to be taken down to the studs and rebuilt. Given everything about it is custom, it would cost the equivalent of what it would cost to build a studio from scratch. A dream studio.

Joe had real concerns, too. We did one more round of offers and they met our price with a big contingency: the house would be sold as is, regardless of what a house and septic inspection might reveal. It meant no further negotiations, no matter what. This felt too risky, so we walked away given the condition of the house.

The artists house will now be someone else's house. It hurts, but onward we go.


Rudolf Steiner. Interesting Philosopher. Anthroposophy. He did his best to blend science and spirituality. Your beautiful descriptions of the inside and outside of the house, echoing Steiner's synthesis of Art and Nature, were striking. Loved reading your entire piece. Thank you

Paul Murphy | August 28, 2016 at 02:02 pm

Get the Artist's House. Go back and get them to agree to your inspections, and based on the inspector's report, give them a Final Offer. They'll take it. Give them a Contract with a 5% Escrow Deposit with your Attorney and/or Escrow Agent with a 30 day Due Diligence Clause. On the 25th day, show them the results of the inspection, and make a Final Counteroffer, ready to close in 45 additional days. You will get the house. What's better than a house you love?? What would a similar vacant lot in the area cost?? What would the basic shell plus exterior cost?? Give me those numbers and I'll help you figure the finishes inside to see if the final price is worth what it will cost to fix it up. Be creative. If you have to, figure on "roughing it" for a few years. You'll be surprised what you can do if you want to. Plan long term.

Paul Murphy | August 28, 2016 at 01:52 pm

I'm sorry to hear this one didn't work out, but I know the right one is out there just waiting to be discovered <3

Cynthia | August 25, 2016 at 01:34 pm

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