My new obsession…

Some people have used the last few months of forced disengagement to learn languages, write their great American novel, or somehow make themselves into more productive human beings. Meanwhile I’ve been over here mostly living the same life I’ve lived for years.. with the exception of developing a new minor obsession. I now find myself spending at least a few minutes every day looking over floorplans of houses I’ll never build.

I’ve spent time looking at floorplans for old houses, new houses, prop houses from TV series and movies, castles, Roman villas, and family compounds. At first blush, it doesn’t make much sense, but hear me out.

Even though the Tennessee house was “new construction,” the only personalization came in picking the finishes. The bones of the house were all pre-determined by others. Every other place I’ve lived was designed and built originally to meet someone else’s expectations and needs. In every one of them, I’ve found myself asking often, “Why the hell did they do it this way” as opposed to in an alternate way that would make more sense to me. Having spent my life living with other’s decisions, the only grand ambition I have left at this point is to build a house from the basement up – Fortress Jeff achieving its final form that puts walls, switches, and doors exactly where I want them and all with a general layout that makes sense for how I intent to live in it.

Even though I’ve spent months looking at floorplans, none of them has been quite right. Most of them have been miles off. Many of them, though, have had distinct elements that are perfect – or that could be perfect with just a bit of architectural rejiggering. I’m keeping an open file (a self-contained Pinterest board?) with screen shots and notes about each of them. That goes a long way towards showing what right looks like from my perspective here and now. We’ll see what right looks like after it’s had a decade and a half to percolate.

So, what does this perfect place look like? Well, my current kitchen layout basically gets transposed into a new setting, the front door doesn’t dump directly into the main living area, there’s a room for dogs – tiled and suitable for hosing down – a pocket office to keep the computer and other bits that keep the household running from dominating whatever other room they’d be in, three garage bays, and some bedrooms, I suppose. Forgive me, please, but I haven’t put much brainpower into the rooms whose purpose is largely to be places to go lay down in the dark with your eyes closed.

I know, describing it doesn’t do justice to what I’m seeing in my head. Sorry about that.

The heart, though, of any house I would ever build is almost certainly a “great hall of books.” You know, something medieval, but with excellent shelving. In fact, if the construction budget looks thin, you should probably just expect a library with a monk’s cell bedroom and kitchen attached… although giving up the garage would be extraordinarily painful.

The real trick, of course, will be figuring out how to cram everything I want into a footprint that doesn’t go sprawling across the countryside and send me into bankruptcy. Those details, though, are far less interesting than where, exactly, to put the inglenook. Hopefully my next obsession will be a self education in creative construction financing.

Doing my bit…

As of a few minutes ago I’ve probably taken my last official action as a property owner in St. Mary’s County in scenic southern Maryland. I’ve added my John Hancock to a few pieces of paper and in about 48 hours they’ll be countersigned and magically turn into a big bag of cash… or, well, whatever the electronic equivilent to a big bag of cash is, anyway.

I really expected signing it all over would leave me feeling some kind of way, but what I seem to be feeling most is a sense of relief… that I’ll never have to worry about finding another tenant, or that someone is going to tear the place up, or that I’ll get a random phone call in the middle of the afternoon that the furnace or air conditioning compressor needs to be replaced. I made some damned good memories in that little condo during the short time I lived there, but its life as an income stream (or suck depending on the year) lasted far longer than did my time really living with it. I’m mostly left feeling that it was an investment that served its purpose and it’s time to cash out.

Maybe the sick dog has just used up all the feels I’ve had allocated for the week before we got to the real estate transaction portion of shit to do. Anyway, I’ve done my bit. All that’s left now is for the seller to do his. And then we can all feel well satisfied and get on with whatever is next.

A happy place to hide…

Last year on this day I wrote that I was amazed a year had gone by and that “feels like there’s been some part of the place under construction for most of that time; not to mention an ever-lengthening list of projects yet to come.” As much as I would love to say that the second anniversary of buying Fortress Jeff finds that to be less true, of course it isn’t. The place is still a near constant construction zone (though fortunately this year’s efforts have been less dramatic) and the project list has only continued to grow.

It’s taken a while to get to a place where it feels like I’m not walking into someone else’s house that just happens to have all of my stuff in it… but I’m pretty much there now. Except, of course, for the occasional discoveries of little things that leave me wondering the logic behind why things were done a certain way when they built the place (like mystery light switches) and the perplexing rational behind not putting this place on a full basement.

All things considered I think I can be happy hiding from people here for a good long while.

A year later…

As most of the rest of the Western world is busy celebrating Easter, I’ve mostly spent this Sunday morning trying to wrap my head around the idea that one year ago almost to the hour I was sitting down and signing my name on 37,361 pieces of paper that allowed me to borrow a horrifying sum of cash and move into a far better house than I imagined possible. I won’t say that the year has been all sunshine and roses – it feels like there’s been some part of the place under construction for most of that time; not to mention an ever-lengthening list of projects yet to come.

Now with that being said, and despite the general pain in the ass of being a homeowner, this place ranks among the better decisions I’ve ever made. Good bones, good neighborhood – and neighbors I can’t even see for three seasons of the year – it’s a hard place not to like. The longer I’m here, the more I change to suit me versus suiting the last guy to live here, the more I like it.

I’m already struggling to imagine that a year ago I was standing in the middle of a totally empty house wondering what the hell I’d gotten myself into.

Starting at $500,000…

I’ve had several distinct experiences as a homebuyer. I’ve had the experience of buying into a brand new subdivision with streets still unpaved, a hundred lots still for sale, and the mixture of fear and curiosity in wondering if and when the project would ever be finished… and what kind of wackadoodle neighbors I’d end up with. More recently I bought into an established neighborhood whose tight restrictions and price of admission helped cut down on the wackadoodle, outwardly at least. Here in exurbia we seem to keep our crazy more inside the walls than up on blocks in the front yard.

Having been thoroughly scorched by the bursting bubble of 2008/9, two of my biggest priorities were finding an established neighborhood that would still be sought after when it came time to sell (as opposed to one that was still under construction, and suffering though several iterations of developer-gone-bankrupt) and driving down my offer price low enough to hopefully not lose my ass again. I won’t claim to have timed the market, but I feel good about how closely I was able to meet those goals.

I feel even better about it now that I’ve seen a sign going up just across the hill from my little cul-de-sac. It’s well out of my eye line, separated by a stream and a couple thousand yards of trees, but I heartily welcome any developer in the next neighborhood over who wants to list “3 to 10 Acre Estate Lots Starting at $500,000” in their promotional material. It’s good for property values and mercifully keeps that tract free from higher density projects. Since it’s the last stretch of land available for development in my immediate area, I was ecstatic to see it being chunked out in such big portions. Elitist? Yeah, maybe, but like it or not a house is as much an investment as it is a home and I’m in favor of just about anything that will help drive the value up – despite what it will inevitably do to my next property tax bill.

With the rest of the immediately surrounding land being state managed or otherwise being entangled by woodland protective covenants and restrictions, barring an unforeseen calamity prices only have one way to go… though given my decidedly mixed track record with real estate I could be absolutely and completely off the mark.

Two months in…

For lack of a better update, after making the first two of 360 scheduled payments the whole “new house thing” is coming along nicely (I’ll just set aside the discussion on storm water and runoff management for the moment). The boxes are almost all unpacked, with the empties being passed along for others who had use for them. A few rooms still look awfully sparse – a surprisingly nice side effect of trebling the square footage you occupy. The empty maw of the dining room was filled in with pieces that have been knocking around the family for over 100 years. The 3rd and final bedroom is an ongoing effort that has been part staging area for all the other rooms and part catch all for the things that don’t fit in anywhere else. Under other circumstances that would have been the designated home office, but in this case other more convivial locations were available.

The stacks of cardboard have even disappeared from the garage. I’ve resisted the temptation thus far to organize that space on the fly so it’s still basically controlled chaos. With the rest of the house whipped into livable shape, though, it should be long before I jump in to get tool racks hung and bring my own brand of order to everything piled onto shelves and ever available flat surface. One temperate weekend afternoon should suffice to get that effort out of the way. Like the back bedroom it’s not one of those tasks I’m chomping at the bit to dive into. Since both require some serious organizational planning, I’d like to give it some time to ferment and then do it right so I only have to do it once.

I find myself still finding out the quirks and oddities of the house. There’s nothing earth shattering, but odds and ends I wish I’d have known about when I was writing up the pre-closing “owner will repair” list. All things considered though, the place is starting to feel like a home – or my home at any rate. I look forward to being there at the end of a long day not just because it’s where my stuff is or because it’s where other people aren’t, but for reasons far more intangible.

To be honest for the first few weeks I was confronted by “oh God what did I do” more often than I thought possible. The house and its nuances were all strange to me. Everything felt not-quite-right. It’s safe to say I’m well past that initial break in period. Sure, I still want to gut the master bathroom down to the studs and replace the tragically white composite kitchen countertops with something more substantial, but I won’t feel at all strange about doing it now. It’s taken a couple of whole-house cleanings, a few weeks of cutting the grass, and a whole bunch of rearranging furniture, but it feels indisputably mine now… and that’s not bad for being just a couple of months in.

The hood…

I’ve been so busy talking about the house and the move that I feel that I’ve neglected talking about the neighborhood. The new place, as much as I might want it to, does not exist in a vacuum. That being said, this is about as decent a subdivision as I’ve really ever come across. Acre lots are the minimum, with most being a little closer to two. No more than 40% of any lot can be cleared. Translation: Even in areas where the neighbors are closer than you’d like them to be, there are still plenty of trees between you and the next guy so if nothing else you have the illusion of space.

It’s the kind of neighborhood where everyone (except me) is out jogging on Saturday morning. It’s the kind of subdivision where everyone’s trash cans hit the curb at 6AM on the dot. Except mine, of course. I’m the redneck neighbor who throws it all in the back of the truck and hauls it away myself. Everyone has a fire pit instead of a burn barrel. I wonder if I cut a 55 gallon drum in half if it’ll look enough like a “fire pit” to get away with it.

Since the weather was nice and I wanted a chance to eyeball the people living on my left and right, I took a bit of a walkabout this afternoon. In order proceeding from my left it’s mom, dad, and two kids; ditto; mom, dad, three kids; mom, dad, two kids; mom, dad, four kids. That’s where I stopped. I know this because house-for-house ever single homeowner was out doing yard work this afternoon and I tamped down my inner hermit enough to make introductions. It’s almost a company town, with at least one half of most of those couples working for the government in some capacity. The rest are commuting to Baltimore, Philly, or Wilmington. I’m apparently a rare an exotic species in my hood – single without dependent children. Other than that, I’m living the stereotype of exurban bliss.

My friends living in DC or Baltimore would probably find this place as deeply unnerving as I find those cities… but now that I’ve had a weekend of “living” here rather than just spending time taking things out of boxes it feels more and more like the only right choice. I’m over the natural uncertainty of transition and find that I really do like it here.

And I’m not just saying that because the HOA Architectural Control Committee approved my plan to put up a fence in 36 hours. Over a weekend. Clearly these are my kind of people.

Entrenched and natural…

I’m glad to say I had the wherewithal this afternoon to make it back to the new house instead of following the well-worn path to the old. Given my tendency towards routine and habits, I’m calling it an accomplishment. While we’re on the topic of habits, I hadn’t quite realized how much being in a new place would though my week-day schedule totally out of whack. I hit all the marks on time (even a few minutes ahead of normal), but couldn’t shake the feeling of being off. I wonder how long it takes for new habits to feel entrenched and natural. By the time they do, it’s probably not something you even notice.

The dogs survived their first day alone at the new place, so that’s something. It’s going to take a while before I’m managing everything quite so well. I’m ready to have a deep, passionate love affair with this house, but it’s going to take some time before I start thinking of it as “home.” I have a funny feeling that getting the last bedroom/current storage area sorted out, unpacking the garage so I can do more than squeeze the truck in, and getting the giant stack of flattened cardboard out of the dining room will go along way towards making that happen.

In the meantime I’ll be trying not to let my OCD take over and remember that sleep is actually a good thing.

A week later…

image2So I’ve been scarce for a while and I feel badly about that. A week after moving I’d like to report that everything is up and running and normal life has resumed without much of a hitch. As long as you don’t look too closely the house might even give that impression. For the most part flat surfaces are clear(ish), closets aren’t straining their doors, and all the lights and appliances work.

It’s a start. I say start because I still can’t seem to figure out where anything is. I find myself wandering around from room to room alternately forgetting what I was originally looking for and then finding something that I want to put somewhere else. Then, of course, there’s also the “catch all” room that still has boxes stacked around every wall and the dining room that was pressed into service as a temporary cardboard recycling center. The house is clearly reminding me that moving isn’t an event so much as it’s a process – a time consuming, exhausting, madding process.

Aside from the obvious items I knew I wanted to address coming in – reworking the master bathroom, installing a fence, and a few others – the house is busy informing me about other projects that will image1need my attention sooner rather than later. There are grading and drainage issues in the back yard and landscaping that will take a season or two to beat into shape. There is carpet that needs stretched and cleaned. There are approximately 1,372,261 nail holes that need filled and painted. It’s a well put together house, but despite being easily rated move in condition it’s going to be a work in progress for quite some time.

The dogs are slowly setting in to their new routine as well. They’ve adjusted to being lead around on a leash temporarily better than I have to be honest. They’re still barking at every bump and thump when the washing machine runs or the furnace kicks on, but other than that there the move hasn’t caused them any apparent trauma.

I could use another week or two to really get things settled here, but work beckons… which I suppose is a good thing as in a few weeks I’ve got to start paying for this mess.

Feeling settled…

And here’s the moment we’ve all been waiting for – or at least the moment I’ve been waiting for – the last post (probably) from the house I’ve been renting for the last four years. I moved in basically sigh unseen. My furniture was about 24 hours behind me and it met all the major criteria. Basically it was available immediately and it had a fence. If I had to describe it in a word, I’d say the house as been “serviceable.” I’ve had my troubles with the place, but it’s been a good enough roof over my head and I’m sure next week when I drive past it I’ll look at it a little more fondly that it probably deserves. Sitting here now with boxes piled on every flat surface is not exactly bittersweet – I’m enormously pleased to be leaving – but there have definitely been a few moments of nostalgia this morning. There won’t be time for that tomorrow.

If I’m honest I’m still finding it a little hard to believe I’m a homeowner again. The reality hasn’t quite sunk in yet, although it got a little more real yesterday when two trucks and a trailer’s worth of “stuff” were deposited. George the Russian Tortoise has even taken up residence already so I’ll make at least one trip down this afternoon there to see how he made it through the night. I know it will feel a lot more like mine tomorrow evening when the furniture is basically in place and the dogs are threatening to trip me at every turn. At the moment, even with a few of my odds and ends there, it still feels like a big empty house – someone else’s big empty house. I keep expecting the old owner to wander down the hall and ask what the hell I’m doing in his house.

It feels a little like I’ve been in some stage of moving since I pulled up stakes in Memphis. In fact there are still boxes taped shut from that move that will get loaded on the truck tomorrow. That probably explains a bit about why I’ve never felt entirely settled here. We’re about to resolve that issue… and I can’t wait to get this all behind me so I can get out of a “moving” mode and into a “living” mode.