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.


17 Responses to “Finding My Place: How We Got Here Part II”

  1. Ann says:

    I can’t figure out how to comment on the science blog, so this is for the farmers article in it:

    Comparing statistics is usually messy. To compare the percentage of farmers in the US with the percent of people in food production elsewhere gives no information. If you compare percentages of people in food production elsewhere to the US, you have to include slaughterhouse workers, food truckers, grocery clerks, burger flippers, Cargill and Monsanto employees, much of Proctor and Gamble, food advertising, food marketing, etc,etc. That’s a lot of Americans. I’d rather muck out a barn than flip burgers and saturate my lungs with mystery grease. I’d rather farm than most of those jobs. The only downside is the insecurity. But that seems to be a big one.

  2. Sharon says:

    Ann, I didn’t, so that’s easy. By “food production” I mean actually producing food as primary producers. Sorry I wasn’t clear – not all of them are full-time farmers, but all of them are growers or husbandmen and women.


  3. dogear6 says:

    Sharon – thanks for sharing your story. The hubby and I have moved ten times. No house is perfect. No mattter what you picked, there would have been shortcomings.

    All in all, you did well and you are having a good life. That is a good accomplishment for your efforts.

  4. I could tell a tale as long as yours about our search for a home. There are things I’d do differently in retrospect too, but like you I have no regrets. The bottom line is that we too got a place that wasn’t perfect, wasn’t everything we wanted. But it was good enough. We love it, and we’re working year by year to get it closer to perfect. I suspect that in ten years’ time we’ll look at what we have then with far more satisfaction than we ever would have done if we’d just plunked down money for “perfect.”

  5. Shira says:

    Back in the nineties, my mother sought my advice about purchasing a rental house. She had a notion of making preparations for our far flung family members to eventually settle in the general vicinity. I was living out of state at the time, and blissfully ignorant about real estate prices, but I gave her some suggestions:

    1) She had the good fortune to live in a residential district that actually has a supermarket. Stick a compass into the location of the supermarket on a street map and search within one mile. I’ve pulled a loaded collapsible shopping cart for a mile, and it’s totally doable, but farther than that gets unwieldy.

    2) Look for a house with a spot for a garden. The neighborhood has a lot of old fruit trees, but if the house didn’t come with fruit trees, it should have a spot to plant a couple.

    3) Check distance to bus line.

    4) Something to look out at, even if it is just a cascade of Easter egg colored little houses spilling down a hill. I spent a big chunk of my youth in a house at the bottom of a hill which was eight feet from the neighbors on both sides. It was like living at the bottom of a funnel.

    5) No fixer ups. Since the house was going to be a rental for years, it had to be in fairly good shape.

    The plan worked well enough, although the house cost more than expected, myriad things didn’t work out, and it was closer to two decades before the family converged in town.

    I ended up buying the place myself.

    Shira in Bellingham, WA

  6. karyn says:

    Sometimes I get so frustrated by things that I dislike about our current house and lot – but then I wonder if any place would really be close to perfect. Would I just be unhappy (or happy) nearly anywhere; is it more of an attitude? My biggest flip-flop is that we’re rural but sometimes I want to move to our little town to avoid commutes and being “trapped” during any bad weather. But then I see my kids running around like wild animals and love that they can do that without worries from me.

  7. Susan says:

    Yes we have been having these thoughts lately too. I have my place almost by accident. I got the house (a little old 2 bed workers cottage) and half acre odd-shaped paddock as the property settlement in the divorce. It had been our rental house (and he got the modern 3 bed matrimonial home – poor him!!!! )

    Then I bought the adjoining 2 acre paddock, also oddly shaped, with an even older dilapidated cottage on it. I could only afford it by pulling down the dump and building a new 3 bedder to be rented out. This gives me 3 acres with 2 houses on a bus route 5 miles from work.

    Here we have heat not snow, and the soil was good but has also been flogged for 40 years. But we’re getting there. Have improved the old sheds and built a couple of new ones in strategic locations. I can see lots of problems and fantasise about finding somewhere ‘better’ but having spent some weeks looking I now know, there is no ‘better’ out there.

  8. Deb says:

    We did something similiar–make a list of what we wanted and picked a geographical area to find it in. It took 2 years of looking and when we found what we wanted our realtor was aghast…It was so rough that it had been on the market for three years with not even a nibble. And the best part is the elderly couple selling the place were so tickled a young couple with kids were buying they DROPPED the price to so we could pay cash for the place.

    We did all the renovations/repairs ourselves over the course of five years–do a project, save the for the next one, repeat. The kids grew up with a working knowledge of tools, plumbing, roofing, car maintenance, frugal living, cooking from scratch, making do, gardening, canning, etc etc. Plus they got to wander 36 acres of woods and meadow, build forts in the woods, find owl pellets, get poison ivy, watch mama coons move babies, watch a fox family grow up, learn to hunt and field dress rabbits and squirrels and go sledding by moonlight.

    The house isnt perfect and there are lots of things I’d change if I could but overe the years it’s become home for us and now I wouldnt trade the memories for all the modern convienences I dont have.


  9. hughowens says:

    Good story Sharon, good cautionary tale. I think your odyssey illustrates KOHO’s first and second rules. First rule is, always,ALWAYS rent a house when you move to a new area, no matter how much or little money you have. A year or two to look trumps a weekend or two.It is the only way to learn the neighborhood, the prevailing winds, schools, soils etc etc. The second rule is nearly as important especially going forward into the wasteland ahead of scarce and expensive energy. Always build NEW if the house you are looking at will need ANY remodeling or substantive enlargement. No matter how pretty, don’t buy old houses unless they are perfect , heavily insulated and weatherized. Older house may have style and grace but new houses can have style too. It will take twice the time and money to tear down and rebuild as just building properly to begin with. You will be starting with a new and LEVEL and insulated foundation and floor,sited properly to the sun, vertical walls, code electric, and a new roof, windows, plumbing and doors that close and a safe heating system. I know, as I have built for 40 years and have done it both ways. Life is too short to be spending the rest of it repairing and rebuilding a house past its service life.

  10. Claire says:

    I will, respectfully, disagree with hughowens on not buying an old house unless it’s insulated and weatherized. That’s because my DH and I bought an old (built in 1928, added to in the 1940s) house, leaky, no wall insulation, almost no attic insulation, on an acre of some of the best soil in the US, for $60,000. We then spent about $35,000-40,000 for the following: proper air leak sealing and insulation, added a basement drainage system and sump pump, did mold remediation (it had mold too), replaced the plumbing stack, and replaced the furnace, AC, and water heater. The house is level enough and the walls are vertical enough; it was built with a roofed south-facing front porch, so the south windows are shaded in the summer but get some sun in the winter; it got a new roof and siding just before we bought it, courtesy of a hailstorm (on the previous owner’s insurance!). My DH has electrician training and he’s satisfied the electric system is safe, even though it’s not to code. There is no way that we could have bought an acre of land and had a house built for the $100,000 (all cash too!) we spent on this house, and it’s set to go for many more years without major renovations being needed. Plus it has the plaster and woodwork of an old house, and no, I don’t care that a couple of the doors don’t close perfectly. I love this house, and it works as well or better than any house that is currently being built around here (St. Louis, MO).

  11. Deb says:

    I agree with Claire that renovating an old house has benefits over building new. We got ours for a song and then put our extra cash into the improvements needed to make it weatherized, insulated and up to code. There is no way we could have afforded a house with it’s size and acreage had we bought a lot and built new. Most importantly, since we did all the work ourselves with very little help from professionals, the house is truly ours in a way a new house never would be–even if the floors slope in places and not one door is even with another.

    However, to do it, we had to be willing to learn new skills, think creatively about how to do things and scounge materials when we could. I have a beautiful bow window that was a picture window my husband got a thrift sale for $20 dollar because the owner didnt like the color of the sashes. He took it apart, refitted it and made it into a three part window in our living room. We scrounged some amazing walnut lumber from the town dump for cabinets in my sewing room. We took out the old and very tired kitchen cabinets and put them in the basement for storage space. We bought a manually operated cement mixer at an estate sale for $40 and spent a summer mixing cement and repairing our foundation, putting in a new sidewalk and back stoop.

    It’s true that there was a heavy initial investment in time and cash but old houses arent necessarily a money pit. Except for paint and basic maintenance that any house requires, we havent done anything to it for 10 years.

  12. Michelle P says:

    All of the stories about how you got where you are unique & interesting. The Amish house is intriguing, I could see why you’d argue in favor of it!

    We think about moving from our big, old, drafty house in a few years. It is not in great cosmetic shape to re sell & would be difficult to find a comparable home in the same price range.

    We are deeply rooted here with parents next door so that keeps us from thinking too much from leaving here. Not having to walk up stairs when I’m older & not having to heat a big place keep us thinking about a smaller home. Wanting goats keeps me thinking about more property.

  13. Lora says:

    I can see hughowens’ point. I really can.

    My house is a 300 year old farmhouse. It had exactly one rotten sill beam, but otherwise structurally sound. Modern plumbing, new electrical box, new wiring (although seemingly installed by crazed monkeys), new septic in good working order. Roof would last perhaps another five years before requiring repair or replacement. Inspector said the sill was not all that difficult to replace, and we negotiated the price down accordingly.

    We called something like 25 contractors who advertised that they worked with old buildings. Many refused to return our phone calls after we explained how old the house was and that we wanted a sill replaced with a historical variance, others came by once to reckon an estimate but never returned. Exactly three deigned to take the job, and out of those three, only one gave us an estimate: the other two said that the project would start out requiring a $15k initial payment, and they would just keep asking for more money until it was done–with no upper limit. “Projects like this, you can’t estimate, because you always find something else that you have to fix, and you won’t know what it is till you get the house ripped up,” they explained.

    We went with the guy who gave an actual estimate. It turns out you can indeed estimate these projects, if you spend a lot of time inspecting the timbers in many places with a borescope and measuring the relative sinkage of the frame to guess how bad the damage might be. And if you personally know a wholesale custom sawmill with good turnaround times. Total cost about $12k, but took about seven times longer than expected and material costs were 2X more than initially planned. We did indeed find some unexpected horrors (old termite damage poorly repaired, not rot, was the cause of the sill’s demise), but jacking the house was not the nightmare many proposed.

    In comparison, cost of sill replacement on a modern, stick-built house: $1000. In my defense, the house is drop-dead gorgeous and makes visitors go “aaaaawwwwwww”.

    Next house is going to be earth-sheltered passive-solar with a geothermal pump and a cutesy facade to make it look homey. Between the heating bills and the structural thing, I’m just DONE with it.

  14. GeekyGardener says:

    Not to add too much more fuel to the fire of “old vs. new” debate. But .. we’ve lived in houses that were 150+ yrs old, 40+ yrs old, and 2 yrs old. My favorite so far is the 40-50 yr old homes. They are old enough to have good bones (and if the structure was wobbly, you’d see it by now as opposed to buying new & not knowing the foundation has issues until it’s past the builder warranty). The wood was still good quality wood, the oak floors are solid and beautifully grained. And yet, if you need a new window or door you aren’t dealing with the challenge of “Your walls were built with sizes of lumber they don’t make today, we’ll have to custom mill everything.”

    It’s cheap enough to add some more insulation & replace a roof. Plus, with a 40-50 yr old house you are bound to have had someone live there who was a gardner at some point. The hydrangeas or azaleas might be overgrown, but they are there & they’re beautiful. Personally I don’t have enough sun in my backyard to grow many veggies right now … but I love the giant oak trees that let me play hide-and-seek with our dog. If a tree is so large that my (oversized) butt can hide behind it, it deserves to stay.

    And yes, ideally we’d all rent for a couple years before living somewhere. But if you have pets, livestock, or kids who NEED outside playspace sometimes that isn’t possible. If you’re in that situation, know that you are making a choice that could cost you $10k – $20k down the line. For me, I’d take that financial risk over euthanizing old animals and rehoming younger ones.

  15. Sharon says:

    Re: HughOwens, honestly, I live on planet earth, not planet “platonia” ;-) . Do you know anyone who wants to rent to someone with kids, dogs, cats, etc…? And I love old houses. And the world does not need more new houses on good land – that’s exactly what’s wrong with our world.


  16. Bill Harshaw says:

    Anyone reading this for tips for their own purchase should consider checking in with the county extension office and/or the Natural Resource Conservation Service office–either could provide input on the soils and probably the history of the farm.

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