Archive for January 5th, 2010

Finding My Place: How We Got Here Part II

Sharon January 5th, 2010

In my previous post on this subject over at science blogs, I detailed how we decided to move and narrowed our range of possibilities down – and how it got narrowed down for us.  At the point I left off, we’ve more or less decided we prefer Washington County NY, so much so that we conceived Simon there ;-) .  Despite some significant objections to the region, we’ve decided to move there.  But the best laid plans of mice and farmgirls gang aft agley…

The Washington County option got pulled out from under our feet.  The small college that expressed an interest in Eric turned out not to be interested in Eric, and the college over the VT border that was hiring decided not to hire.  The commute to Albany would have been prohibitive, so that was that – we were committed to the greater Schoharie County.

In retrospect, I’m grateful. Yes, Washington County would have been closer to family and we liked the landscape more.  But I’ve come to love the landscape here, and the commuter, religious and other issues were probably insurmountable. If I had a major flaw in this it was that I was capable of convincing myself, against my instincts, that something would be ok.  In retrospect, I’m grateful I didn’t get the opportunity.

In March, we went back to Schoharie County.  Eric had the tentative promise of a job from two different places, both within reasonable distance, and we’d settled on the area.  We couldn’t afford much time off, and we were committed to moving that summer, so we needed to find a house.  This was to be our buying trip.  We contacted multiple realtors – our rural area had (and to an extent still has) a completely unconnected real estate system – while some realtors were on the web, others weren’t, and it was damned hard to find them all.  Most houses weren’t on the MLS and you had to find each place’s listings to know what was available.  We were coming to the area for four days, and I had a list of about 40 properties over a broad region that we wanted to consider, through five realtors.  I had them mail us the specs on each property, did a ton more research on the towns involved, and narrowed it down to 11 properties, which we would see over 3 days.  We made the appointments, packed the child and stopped by the side of the road for me to throw up regularly (I was now 6 weeks pregnant and throwing up 20 or so times a day), and planned to pick a house.  Our goal was to decide this weekend.

We saw all 11 properties.  They ranged from FARMS to farms to houses with acreage.  All met our basic parameters.  Acreage ran from 15 to 180.  Most were in our approximate price range.  Several were duplexes or already had a second house on it.  Most were eliminated immediately.

The first house was a dairy farm that literally had a rotting dead cow in the front yard.  The barn was great, the house was ugly, and we weren’t able to see the apartment below.  We passed.  The second one was a possibility - an elderly Polish farmer with 70 flat, beautiful acres and two huge barns.  The price was right, and it had a gorgeous apartment for Eric’s grandparents.  The problem was that the apartment above, where we would live was tiny, dark and cramped and it would have been difficult to add on.  One of the barns was crammed full of old equipment and the farmer announced that he planned to leave it for us to sort through, which seemed cool, but overwhelming.  He didn’t seem interested in negotiating on price.  We held it out as a possibility, but reluctantly.

The third house was a disaster – there was obvious roof and foundation damage, we said no way.  The fourth was an ugly new house on a steep hillside that we learned was being sold because of septic issues, and whose trees had just been logged, giving us a beautiful view of the billboard on the road below - we passed.  The fifth was newly under agreement, although beautiful, and on a fast moving main road.  We were getting depressed. 

On day two, we saw the first house we seriously considered. It was a beautiful 150 year old farmhouse, with multiple barns and miles of fencing.  The young couple of were running it were moving closer to his family.  It was a little isolated, even by our standards, but the neighbors seemed nice.  The real negative was that the owners had designed and built a huge freestall cow barn to go with it – and it was a total eyesore.  It was brand new, so taking it down seemed unfair, but we couldn’t imagine living with that big honking yellow horror in our front yard.  In retrospect, I think we could have dealt with it, and it might have been a good property for us, but every time we tried to love the place, we were confronted with that school-bus yellow monstrosity practically blocking out the house.  We also suspected Eric’s grandparents would never go for it.

The next house was a real possibility as well – a beautiful, huge old farmhouse with gorgeous barns.  It even had a tenant house in the yard. It was on the outer edge of our price range, but a good deal, with 80 acres, mostly level and beautiful, and with good timber.  The major disadvantage was that the son was considering buying out his Dad, and another son wanted to keep a legal right of way through the timber.  We could probably live with the right of way, although we worried about conflicts, but the son didn’t seem to be making up his mind soon, and nothing could be done until he decided.  Also, this house was fairly far from doctors and shopping – Eric’s grandmother was a bad driver who refused to give up her car, we didn’t want her travelling really long distances.  We left it open, but suspected it wouldn’t work out.  In retrospect, this is the house I wanted, though – and it would have been a good choice.

The next house was falling down, and we couldn’t even get to it through the unplowed snow on the seasonal road.  The one after that caused Eric and I our first real fight of the trip.  It was above the Mohawk river in an area populated by Amish folk, and was, in fact, an Amish house.  It was the least expensive house on our list – we might actually have been able to buy it outright with luck, at 20K. It was a five year old Amish house with three small bedrooms and a large public area.  It had a new pole barn, five fenced acres and five acres of woods.  It even had an existing, improved garden spot.  We both thought it was beautiful, and I fell deeply in love.  Eric refused, because it had no electricity or running water. I argued that there was time to add these things, that we could camp over the summer while adding them.  Eric countered with the fact that there was no freakin’ way his grandparents would consider living in a house without electricity and running water.  I argued that if they knew they would be there by the time they got there… Eric argued that he wouldn’t consider living in such a house, and that I’d get lonely without him.  He won. 

The last two houses were serious contenders.  The first was a horse farm with 30 rolling acres, beautiful streams and ponds, the most beautiful barn I’ve ever seen and if it weren’t for the house, I’d be living there now.  But despite the fact that the road was extremely rural, the house itself was bang up against it’s neighbor – you could see in the next-door windows.  I wasn’t moving to the country to live that close to anyone, but I really wanted the place – the house was nice, it needed work but had real potential.  The neighbors were absentee who rarely visited.  The barn..did I mention the barn.  The land was gorgeous.  It was cheap.  It went on the list, and I tried to convince myself that it wasn’t *that* close to the other house.  But it was.

This was the very last house we saw.  We had almost chosen not to see it, because it was one of the few that wasn’t a double or hadn’t been a two family before.  But the realtor convinced us it had everything else we wanted, an the large field was a seperate lot, so we’d have no trouble building a small house there if we wanted.  Our house is in between two steep hills, and as we came over the hill and saw the house through the trees, I remember saying to Eric that if this was it, it was beautiful.

And it was – it had everything we wanted.  125 years old, it had 27.9 acres, most of it wooded, but with 3 open acres around the house and a large 9 acre field. It had a newer stable built for the present owner’s horses, and a creek.  The living room addition had been built a 100 years before with the beams from an old Quaker barn, and those ancient beams held up the ceiling while an enormous stone fireplace divided the room from the dining room.  The public areas were large, the private ones small, which suited us fine.

It had no neighbors in view, but was closer to Eric’s probable job, and to synagogue and shopping than any of the other likely candidates.  The woman who owned it showed us around, and they had made useful improvements.  It needed some work – the upstairs bath was defunct, the roof would eventually need repairs, but they were willing to drop the price accordingly.  The owners were friendly with many neighbors and new a lot about the local food infrastructure and were in fact, moving only up the road to build their own place.  The neighbors we talked to were enthusiastic about the area.

We went back to the hotel and argued for a while.  I tried again at the Amish house, but it was doomed.  We considered several of the other farms, finally, on price grounds dropping it down to three – the house with the wonderful barn and neighbors right there, the yellow monstrosity barn and the white house between the hills.  Ultimately, I wish I could say that reason won out, but I think beauty did – the other two had some great flaw in their beauty.  This house was lovely from every angle. Beauty hadn’t been on our list, but it turned out to be enormously important – it was the one thing we couldn’t talk our way around.

What I didn’t know is that the soil in this place would suck.  The ground was frozen solid and there were three feet of snow on it, so I didn’t take soil samples. I asked about soil at each place, and the owners reassured us that this had been a working dairy farm for many years.  This is true – but we only later learned that it was a sod farm for the last 10 of those years – that is, what fertility and topsoil there was was stripped off to sell sod to people who wanted perfect lawns.  I also didn’t realize that the drainage would be bad.  I knew enough to ask, but they reassured me that everything drained into the creek.  I forgot to ask how long the water stopped before it got around to draining ;-) .

In retrospect, for the kind of farming I wanted to do, it would have been smarter to buy one of the other farms.  The farm with the uncertain son did eventually go on the market, and given what we spent to build the addition onto this place, it would have been in our price range.  If we hadn’t felt we had to buy that weekend, we might have made a better choice.  The small stable was rapidly outgrown, and my desire to do vegetable farming would have worked better on flatter land.  But given someone who had had all her gardens on postage stamp urban backyards and balconies, all this dirt was an embarrassment of riches. 

If we were doing this now, Eric would have lived with the Amish farm, or we would have explained the temperature issues to Eric’s grandparents.  If we were doing it now I’d have gotten soil tests and a bigger barn.  But then again, the reality is that you can only do things when you do them.  The house needed more work than we knew, but that probably would have been true of all the old houses.  In the end, I’m not sure things didn’t work out for the best.

There are things that I would change now, but there are also things we didn’t know to look for that we’ve come to love.  We knew the neighbors seemed like likeable folk, but we didn’t know how lucky we’d be, especially with George and Sandy, with whom we bartered and borrowed and shared everything from childcare to a car, and with Angel up the road who was always so helpful.  We didn’t realize what a vital and wonderful local food infrastructure we were entering into, or how much we’d value the privacy and quiet of our farm.  We also weren’t yet attached to a religious community, and our children were babies or in-utero, so we had no idea how much, when the years of Hebrew school and trying to figure out how to balance our religious culture and the rural one, how much every mile away from a Jewish community would matter – this was closer than most.

There are still things I don’t love about this house – I’m going to write a piece about the addition and improvements we’ve made on the house next week, but one of the things that bothers me most is that it is far too large for us.  We built the addition on for Eric’s grandparents, and while we knew that Cyril was fading, Eric’s grandmother was 12 years younger than he, and her own mother had lived into her 90s.  We’d hoped to be an extended family for 10 years or more.  Instead, they lived here less than 2 years, and we were left in one family with a house meant for two.  I dream of another family of friends or like-minded people to live with – that’s the only thing I can imagine moving me, if I can’t eventually find it here.  But we’re looking.

I can’t regret anything, though. Our story isn’t a story of finding the perfect place, but rather of making it as best we could, out of what we had.  And that’s enough – we’re happy and we love our home.  Every time I walk across my land, I am stunned that this place belongs to me – we are coming up on 9 years here, and for all its flaws and imperfections – and my flaws at seeing how to deal with them – it has become home.