Have I Completely Lost My Mind?

Sharon July 27th, 2010

It might have been Serendipity – we happened to be driving by, just Eric and I on our brief solo trip. Or it might have been the survey ribbons that went up across the road a few weeks ago – the suggestion that our neighbors who have been building a 5000 square foot house with a special dog-washing bathroom (no, I’m not kidding) are going to help finance that by selling off the plot of open land right across the street. Or it might have been the fact that our property tax assessment went up by nearly 2000 dollars this year – to almost 6K! Or it could be the fact that despite the face we’re peripheral to a flood plain that hasn’t flooded in 100 years, when our bank sold our mortgage last time, they forced us to up our flood coverage by another thousand bucks. But me, Miss “Someone has to stay and make right the places that aren’t perfect” is having thoughts about moving.

I don’t move because I do think you actually have to stay in place, and because I love my home, but I also don’t move because Eric would rather chew his own arm off, frankly. But this time, Eric is actually making the call to the realtor to go see the place. I’m not sure whether the increasing bills for house expenses or those survey ribbons drove him over the edge, but something did.

We were meandering through a small town not to far from us – we have friends nearby that we’d stopped to visit. Because we visit friends there regularly, we’ve been watching the local economy in this town evolve for some years – New York has a growing Amish community, and this town now has about 60 Amish families and is still growing. We’ve always driven throught he town and loved it and talked about how much fun it would be to live there. And across from a beautiful farm, was a for sale sign on an old house, one that looks not totally unlike ours, with 11 acres. Unlike our place, though, it has an enormous old dairy barn and the land is flat and fairly fertile.

We stopped, just for a laugh. It wasn’t serious, but we got out and walked around (the house is empty) and looked in the windows and the barn. And we laughed and drove away. And then we came home and a few days later looked again at the survey ribbons and received the flood insurance bill, and we started talking about it.

Today we drove up with the three younger kids to walk around – Simon had overheard us talking about moving, and it was upsetting him to think of a change. We figured that he’d be less upset if he could see the property and imagine what we are talking about, if he knew how far it was from synagogue (actually about the same distance) and most of our friends. And it did – he’s calmed right down. Isaiah and Asher were ready to move in the minute they saw the hayloft of the barn and the climbable maple tree in the front yard. It is Eric and I who are freaking out. It turns out that I like to look at houses, and to speculate with no intention of actually doing things. I don’t, so much, like the actual work of doing all this, of figuring out what the best thing is.

I don’t want to move. I really, really don’t want to move. I don’t want to do the enormous work of sorting out and moving our stuff. I don’t want to give up the fruit trees that are finally producing and the garden beds that we’ve spent all summer building. I don’t want to give up this place we know and the neighbors and community here. I don’t want to spend time on offers and counteroffers, estimates and budgets, insulation and moving vans – I’ve done all that. I bought a house. I built an addition. I did that stuff, and I’m done now.

But – and there’s always a but – I’m also thinking about it seriously. There are those 6K in property taxes – and our worries about New York’s budget and the possibilities of furlough or job loss. That’s a lot of money in taxes every year, and it is likely to get worse as our district struggles to cover things. There’s the flood insurance – we’d be out of the flood plain on this property, even though there is a creek. The cost of living here would be substantively lower.

Then there’s the neighborhood – slowly, gradually, the tight ties our neighborhood had when all the younger mothers in the community were home with their kids have decayed a bit as parents went back to work full time. Our long history of bartering and sharing with our neighbors has fallen apart – not because we don’t want to offer, but because they feel they can’t pay us back anymore. We are still friends, still share things – but we’ve started to feel more scattered, less integrated into each other’s lives – once we might not have been able to leave, now I think we could.

There’s the land across the road – in the nine years we’ve been here, three more houses have gone up on our road, and many more in the development across. They are nice people, but the rural character of our town is changing into something more suburban. We can live with more neighbors – but the privacy that we’ve had here is more a part of what we long for than I knew. That can happen anywhere, of course, but it is happening where we are, and agricultural neighbors, the kind that are building up our neighborhood, are rather different than suburban McMansions with dog-washing bathrooms. Or maybe they aren’t – people are people. But it seems that way sometimes.

The house we own is too big – even with one housemate, it is simply too large for six people, two of whom don’t want to spend any more time cleaning than they have to. It was right when Eric’s grandparents were living with us, but they are gone. We could take in more housemates, but it is difficult enough to live happily with friends – we could do it with strangers, but we’re a little reluctant – we worry about the dynamics in our happy home. Phil has been a delight and a blessing – but it took us nearly two years to find him.

The place isn’t perfect – it would need work – and so does our house if we are going to sell it. I shudder at the thought. All of a sudden, my whole life would be selling and packing and moving and making things pretty – I don’t want to do that, I have other things to do And how can I leave my garden, the trees just starting to fruit, the pets buried in the front yard, the memories of Eric’s grandparents? How can my kids who have known no other place move? The very thought is depressing.

But the thing that draws us most is the fact that because of the large Amish community, there’s an emerging walkability and bikeability that my area lacks – by necessity, the community is being rebuilt to a horse scale. I chatted with a neighbor, out mowing his lawn across the road. He greeted me with a broad smile. I asked about the house – he told me he’d been born there, and that his father had lived there until his death. He told me about sliding down the banister, and about the inside, which we haven’t seen except through windows.

I asked about the community – was it friendly? Oh, yes, he said, and listed off activities and things they did. Were there children? Yes indeed. How are the neighbors – excellent, and his new Amish ones, he said, were the best and kindest neighbors he’d ever had. Everyone knows each other, and they all lend a hand when someone gets sick, as his neighbor down the road did. As I headed back to the car, he waved and said he hoped he’d be seeing me again.

The house is old and underinsulated. The barn needs work, and setting it up for the goats and making it safe for the kids to roam will take more than a little time and money. The place isn’t perfect. And it comes with the painful necessity of moving. But the mortgage would be even smaller than this one, and the property taxes and insurance halved. It is less land but more fertile land, flatter. Less wooded, but older woods, with more hardwood.

I do not want to move. Part of me wants to cry at the thought of devoting so much of my time and energy to that project, and even more of me wants to cry at the thought of leaving our creek, our land, our soil, my lovingly tended gardens – even if there is new soil and gardens and a creek where we go. This has been home, and that place is strange. And yet, there’s a tipping point, a point when new possibilities start to seem possible.

I’ve got shelves now in my kitchen for my jams and jellies and bulk foods – it took six years to get them. I’ve got shelves in my dining room for my enormous collection of gardening and cookbooks – they were a birthday present when I turned 35. I’ve got my garden beds – and they are fertile. We’ve got a fence around the yard so that Eli can run. We have a cistern and a well pump. We have our pastures and our barns. We even have a sign. The sign could go with us, and so could the pump, but it feels like losing ground – we are just, finally making this what we wanted. The only problem is that things we can’t build or repair or mend or improve seem not to be working around us. We’ve got our fingers on everything in our control – but what’s out of it has an increasingly large say. But maybe that’s how it always is, maybe that’s how it would become if we were to move.

Most of all, I want to be home. And I wonder – how much do I believe in staying if I allow the cost of living here and the limitations of a neighborhood I did choose to drive me away? Is this a moment for courage of convictions or to make a change? Is our home, our farm this place, its land and its building or can our home, our farm move with us, and our sense of comfort come too? How do we tell? I have, frankly, no clue.

I really don’t. We’re seeing the inside of the house on Thursday afternoon, and in the meantime, Eric and I have been snapping at each other. We’re both in a panic – because we’re sort of serious. And we both have no idea what that means.

Here’s a picture of the house we’re going to look at, btw – you can’t see the enormous dairy barn:

the house.jpg

Further updates as events warrant.

Sharon

35 Responses to “Have I Completely Lost My Mind?”

  1. e4 says:

    Copycat. :)

  2. Anna says:

    When I read _The Good Life_, the one part that really upset me was their decision to move from their carefully constructed homestead to a new plot of earth. To me, the farm was the end, the goal, the place I saved my pennies for for nearly a decade and am now building in the image of my dream. I can’t imagine leaving.

    On the other hand, the one thing that could make me move would be changes in neighboring properties. We own 58 acres, and our trailer is well buffered in the center of the land, but if our closest neighbor clearcut his property, that might push us over the edge. To me, the solution is to save more pennies and buy up any surrounding land that becomes available. In your shoes, I might try to buy the plot of land across the road.

    But it would feel completely different if we were paying the kind of property taxes you’re paying. Our taxes are oh, maybe 5% of yours. :-) I can’t imagine living somewhere where the property taxes would eat up a third of our annual income. I chose Appalachia in part because land is so cheap here that I could buy a farm without going into debt and could pay next to nothing annually to keep it in my name.

    Hmm, I seem to have no point with this comment. I’m sure you’ll make the right decision!

  3. owlfan says:

    Wow. Big decision and it seems like there are good arguments to be had for either way. What would it mean for Eli’s schooling?

    I guess I’d have to pull out the paper and make a pros/cons list, both for now and for further into the future – 5-10 years as well as further on out.

    Good luck!

  4. Lynne says:

    Oh wow, Sharon, I can feel my own heart ache at making that choice. Your reasoning seems really sound, though, and the house in the pic is just beautiful.

  5. Cindy says:

    That’s the kind of decision where you can make pro and con lists and agonize for hours without a clear yes or no. You’ll probably have to go with your gut, make the decision and not second guess yourself. And as a fellow NYer, I really empathize with the property tax burden!
    BTW–the concept of the chatelaine is brilliant–makes me imagine myself in a flowing medieval dress with golden keys at my waist (instead of very dirty jeans and a ripped tshirt!).

  6. NM says:

    Oh, that house is beautiful.
    I sympathize. 16 years ago, when we bought our little house in the suburbs, I was depressed for two weeks, having never, ever, imagined life in the suburbs. Felt like a sellout. And the house is so poorly built, and the neighbors so Right There.
    And yet, now that, after 20 years of dreaming, we are finally looking for the land we’ve longed for, I am sad, too. For many of the same reasons. There are pets buried in this ground; there are birds who expect us to feed them, there are trees and shrubs I have planted and tended, and will whomever buys this place love them properly? In a way, I feel as if I am betraying this place we’ve called home.
    At the same time, the long search is driving me crazy. I hate living in limbo, I fear we’ll never find the right place, or that the long emergency will hit before we can, I fear we’ll fail at the complex business of creating a new way of life, but I want to start, instead of thinking about it. And I could really live without the sorting, the fixing, the worrying about mortgage arrangements and the logistics of how to buy one property and sell another. This is not fun. But, ah well. We have to do something to change our lives; we’re too burned out not to, in addition to job security worries. So we will struggle through, somehow. I keep reminding myself to use the time well.
    Best wishes to you.

  7. Sharon says:

    Anna, if we could afford the land across the street and the property taxes, I wouldn’t have written this post ;-) .

    Sharon

  8. Jen says:

    Wow…thinking similar thoughts but not sure yet…
    Good luck !

  9. Chile says:

    There’s no point in sticking to the principle of staying in place if it’s the wrong place. And it sounds like your current place is increasingly becoming the wrong place. You’ve written about the issues of being far out many times and it sounds like the advantages to that are decreasing.

    Yes, moving is a BITCH. It is horrible, stressful, and will strain your mental resources and your marriage. But, if the end result is a better home situation for the long term – and that’s what you need to be thinking about – then short-term pain is worth it.

    One more thing to consider is zoning. Would there be more restrictions (and enforcement) in the new house? If so, that could add considerable cost and frustration to trying to live the way you want. Ask me how I know…

  10. knutty knitter says:

    I learned long ago not to be sentimental about property simply because you may have to leave.

    9 years back we moved from the most beautiful spot imaginable to a very ordinary place in the town. We left behind a beautiful new workshop, a garage and a good garden complete with a tidal creek which at high tide could access the harbour in our canoes. I still regret that move but it was necessary. We simply couldn’t afford to live out there with kids and no good neighbours.

    We have moved again since then to an even smaller and more inconvenient house but it has a view, the opportunity for a shop and is near to most of what we need. It also has great neighbours :) This time I think we have got it right and should be able to stay permanently. I no longer have the good health to set up the garden the way I’d like but some progress has been made. The hens and cats are happy. The kids miss the creek but there is a really good one just down the road.

    You do what you have to do and I must say I love the picture of that house :)

    viv in nz

  11. Brad K. says:

    I just finished watching “Evan Almighty”. As a theological work, it leaves much to be desired. But I do like the part about answering prayers with “opportunities”.

    The point in moving should not be to recreate what you have today, or what you cherish today. The choice to move must consider whether you will be more secure, with at least as good a chance that next year and the year after you will be happy, and healthy, and a blessing to yourself and others.

    Besides, it is already kind of too late. You are already pondering the intangibles about what you would miss, if you pass up the new house.

    A hint, about preparing to move. Call United or U-Haul and get an estimate for having a turn-key, whole-house, packing and move. Say it comes to 35 cents a pound, or 85 cents, or whatever. Then yardsale everything that weighs more than it’s value. It will be cheaper to replace heavy, low value things later, than to move them. You have lived in your current house too long to not have a bunch more stuff than when you moved in!

    Blessed be!

  12. Devin says:

    Sharon,
    While not a new area, we are moving back to Colorado in late Sept/Oct and are dreading the sorting, packing, and other things associated with it so we can understand.
    In Frith,
    Devin

  13. Joanne says:

    I was reading your entry as though it was happening to me! Just the other night I remember reading how you loved your crappy soil! I loved that. But…I think I feel in your tone your intuitive decision of ‘yes’ and that urge has moved quickly ahead of your brain’s ability to think through it.

    Of course you have to think through it, but…if the thinking through it results in the new house being a viable option, then you might be on your way to a move.

    To me, the effort of the move is a one time thing. You’ll get through that. Maybe some of the Amish people can help you repair the barn.

    The positives that really struck me as I read your post were (1)the Amish community moving up there (2) the reduced taxes (3) no flood (what a horror if you really did have a flood on your present property! (4) not needing to take your precious energy to accommodate McMansion type of mind set living so close, not that you couldn’t/would’t do that. (5) your synagogue is still nearby.

    See how it flows, Sharon. Ask above for the best outcome and see where it leads. Maybe it will just be a good learning experience and you’ll stay where you are, who knows?

    So here’s what you can do. Just figure out the next step. You don’t have to have the whole scenario figured out. Just ask youself, “what is the next step I want to take”.

    I know you and Eric will end up knowing what to do.

  14. Noreen says:

    I found both of your blogs several months ago and enjoy them a great deal. Whatever your decision is I’m sure it will be well thought out.:-)

  15. Eva says:

    What a tough decision to make, I really feel for you because I know that in 5 or 6 years time we will be moving back to the States and all the love and care I’m pouring into my house will be passed on to other people. Thing is I can’t bear just to live in a place and not make it the best that I can, I try to imagine the next family loving our garden beds as much as I do and perhaps even passing on the chickens to them (which we don’t actually own yet, but we will). In your situation, I think the exorbitant property taxes and insurance would be the clincher, imagine not being able to pay those, would they be able to foreclose on your home? The new place sounds like a good one, moving is a temporary inconvenience that could be turned into an opportunity to sort through your stuff and get rid of all the detritus that inevitably accumulates. Good luck in your decision.

  16. Jean says:

    Allow yourself to feel the relief at not having the tax & insurance burden that you are facing now and not having the constant underlying sense that your neighborhood is changing, not for the better. You will still have all the good memories of the home where you are now but it does seem that the benefits of moving outweigh staying put. The place you are looking at sounds very nice and suitable for your needs. Good luck!

  17. Barbara says:

    You should move Sharon. The new house and town sound like a better longterm place to live. Eventually the $6,000 in taxes will be $12,000 as new people move in and want more suburban-style govt amenities. Flood insurance will go up in order to cover the losses. And the type of land sounds like it will be easier to farm.

    Yes, it’s a big pain, but sometimes it’s more important to think 20 years down the road. Will the new house be easier for you and Eric 20 years from now? I think the answer is a definite yes. Move while you’re all still young enough to have it not be a huge ordeal.

    We’re planning a big move ourselves and three major concerns are taxes, not being in a floodzone and a small enough house to afford on very little income which we know is somewhere down the line. The rest can be negotiable.

    Good luck whatever you decide.

  18. Barry Brown says:

    I was sorry to read that your neighborhood may to transitioning to a McMansion cluster. Here we just defeated a package of county ordinances that would have straight-jacketed most agricultural, market garden and small business enterprises – a draconian code written by a university professor consultant. The county spent several hundred thousand on this future plan (nightmare). Switzerland County has a good number of Amish and Mennonites, and they helped defeat the zoning and planning ordinance – so you would have good allies in the town you are considering as a new home.
    All the best to you and your family

  19. Chile says:

    I need to second what Barbara said: move while you’re young enough to do it and get the new place set up. In terms of looking at things like solar panels, my sweetie surprised me by noting that anything like that will have to be mounted on the ground as he doubts he will be able to get on the roof safely 10-15 years hence.

    If we had found our place even ten years ago, it would have made a huge difference in the ease of settling in, digging gardens, building sheds, etc. As it is, we’re both headed to physical therapy to deal with the results of moving and working so hard; and mentally, well, you really don’t want to go there.

  20. Mark N. says:

    I like the area around Stone Arabia myself. Bought my garden shed from one of the Amish farmers there who also made sheds, gazebos, etc. Excellent community of hard-working, sincere and friendly people. The Amish always find a way.

  21. Caroline says:

    I would move. I hate moving, but I would move. I would break my heart to see all the work I’ve done on this home gone and having to do it again on the new place, but I would still move. The cost of good neighbor is priceless and where your are it seem to decay and where you would go seem to get better each year. That count for a lot. In 20 year or so if you live among McMansion, who would help and be there? FOr you, for the farm, for Eli? The ties may be more close in the new place meaning a better safety net in the long run.

    Better move now before you invest more in your house, in your yard.

    Good luck

    Caroline

  22. Heather G says:

    Lots of excellent thoughts and advice above. I’d like to add a couple of things — if/when you put the house up for sale, you’ll need to pack most of your stuff up. Most personal stuff (pictures, etc) will need to be packed, people need to be able to imagine their stuff being in your house.

    You’d be set back a few years, but if they aren’t too large, consider digging up and moving at least some of the fruit trees. Needs to happen either before your home goes on the market, or has to be stipulated clearly that they aren’t part of the sale.

    We didn’t move our trees, but they were very well established and only three of them (I do miss my non-useful Japanese Maple, which I’d brought from my childhood home). I moved a lot of my smaller stuff, but sadly had to leave some herbs behind. OTOH, the garden beds were a favorable selling factor for us (we used to live in a city). In the long view, I’m glad I chose to leave some things with the new family, as it is spreading the amount of food plants further. In the short view, I’m not looking forward to possibly doing that yet again, if L and I decide to seriously find a place of our own. Most likely, we’d end up just across the street, but life is very much in flux for us in that respect. Right now, living on my MIL’s farm is just fine, and at least I could visit my fruit trees if we moved…

  23. Lorna says:

    The farmhouse looks lovely and I would love the community. One note of caution though, enormous old dairy barns can have enormous repair and maintenance bills.

  24. Mulberry Hill says:

    Sharon,

    I haven’t read the comments so maybe someone said this already. Old barns are enormously expensive to keep up. Simply replacing the roof can run 30-40K and if the roof isn’t in good shape the barn is doomed. (It has been said the easiest way to take down an old barn is to cut a 12″ square hole in the roof and stand back).

    Good Luck,

    Brad

  25. Shamba says:

    Interesting dilemma! You like looking at houses, your neighborhood is changing and voila! there it is your answer or choice seems to be put there in front of you! I hate it when the universe does that, then you have to decide! ;)

    I was surprised to read about the 5000 square ft house! They’re still building those??
    Actually, I can understand the dod washing bathroom better than I can the 5,000 sq ft house! I wonder if they raise dogs or something??

    the new community sounds great and you’d fit right in., I’d think.

    an opportunity as well as a dilemma, I guess.

    Good luck with your decision

    peace to you and family, shamba

  26. Wendy says:

    That’s tough. We go through the same sort of thought-exercise every couple of months -even going so far as to look at properties. In the many years we’ve been in our house, we’ve even gone so far as to put offers on, at least, three other properties. In the end, for us, it didn’t feel right and the longer we stay here, the more difficult it gets to leave (my daughter was born in the bathtub, for heaven’s sake!).

    It’s tough, but if I were paying as much as you are in taxes, and I had the chance to move into a comparable house in a better community at a lower, overall, cost that was still close enough to the activities that we participate in regularly, I’d go. We’ve never found those of factors in the homes we’ve looked at buying, and so we’ve stayed here.

  27. Glenn says:

    Go for it. You’re paying an obcenely high property tax for what is essentially, Ag. land. Good luck.

    Glenn

  28. Carrie says:

    What a decision to make! At times like this I like to sleep on it and notice what my first thoughts are on the subject in the morning. I do agree that making a move now when you and your kids are young enough to make the transition and set roots on your new land is an important consideration. From reading your books it seems like the future cost savings make the decision to move much more sustainable.

    I’m writing this while my neighbor is installing a very suburban landscape, complete with large granite stones, in our historic neighborhood. Frustrating!

  29. Amy P. says:

    Sharon,

    I am excited for you guys to take on a new project (maybe).

    How would things work with Eli? Would he have to go to a new school?

    I get the panic and the conflicting emotions.

    Maybe I would see more of you guys if you moved further away ;-)

    Amy in Westerlo

  30. tim-10-ber says:

    Sounds like “the dye is cast” so to speak. Best of luck!

    Elizabeth

  31. MassLibertarian says:

    If I were searching for ways to become more self-sufficient I certainly wouldn’t be following the blogs of leftist progressives like Sharon Astyk (google her). After all, progressives believe in the collective not the individual. I would look to sources like Mother Earth News, Joel Salatin, Eliot Coleman, John Seymour, John and Martha Storey, Barbara Kingsolver – true Americans not Socialists.

  32. ChristineH says:

    The possible new place sounds great to me, I would be sold on the community and friendly people alone but the farm house is lovely and has lots of character. It looks like its waiting for some kids in the yard. :)

    What I keep coming back to, however, is your neighbor’s need for a dog washing bathroom. Like, what the hell is wrong with that dog???

  33. Lynne says:

    MassLibertarian – I have been reading Sharon’s stuff for quite some time, but I haven’t googled her. Now I’m curious. Will I get to know her better by googling her, than I did by reading her blog for 2 years?

    I think Sharon was once suspected by someone of being a cult leader, which is kind of like collective action. I can’t remember exactly what kind of uniform her readers eventually decided her cult members should wear, but it was a really funny comment thread.

    I never understood why it would be a bad thing to be “progressive”. I like progress. Is my alternative to be regressive?

    I do like Mother Earth News, Joel Salatin, Barbara Kingsolver and Eliot Coleman, though, don’t know the others. Maybe I’ll google them.

  34. Vegan says:

    Best wishes to you and your family, Sharon. I know it is a very, very difficult decision. I’d say that the fact that your property taxes will be halved is something to consider very seriously in light of the evolving difficult times.

  35. Sharon Astyk says:

    MassLibertarian, actually, I certainly make no bones about being a leftist. I’m, however, a traditional progressive – if google told you I was, you’ve missed it. I believe in both individual and collective action, and am not a socialist -of course, that’s because I actually know what socialism is and don’t use it as name calling.

    You do realize, btw, that Kingsolver is a leftist and a progressive, Mother Earth News isn’t a person, and that John Seymour is British leftist, right ;-) ?

    Sharon

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