Monday, January 24, 2005

The Hunt

Living in San Francisco is amazing and at the same time it can feel unsustainable. After having our first child, dealing with an extensive daily work commute and being far from our families, we decided to make a change. My family is in Portland, Oregon, a very close friend from San Francisco had moved to Seattle just before we got married, and my employer has an office in Seattle so the move to the Northwest seemed like a good fit. It took a bit of wrangling (or begging) but in 2004 I finally got the OK from my employer to work from the Seattle office.

In October of 2004, we started our house hunt. Our friend, Auntie Chihuahua, put us in contact with her real estate agent Charlotte, a wonderfully patient woman who specializes in relocations and we prepared ourselves to find our new home. We made a list of our wants, must haves and must not haves for both the house and our new neighborhood. We got preapproved for a mortgage and we planned a visit to Seattle to start scouting. We were excited, we were about to buy our very first house!

As many handy, antique loving and idealistic couples do, we wanted to find a fixer upper. We had dreams of finding a down on her luck old home and restoring her grace and dignity. We were addicted to HGTV and imagined ourselves as the right kind of people to bring authenticity into a home remodel, or really a home restoration. In fact, on our list, a fixer upper was pretty much right at the top.

On the first trip Charlotte took us on a full day tour of Seattle. She showed us homes, but more than that focused on giving us the flavor of each potential neighborhood. That first trip was exhausting. Houses blurred together and nothing seemed to match the potential it appeared to have on the real estate website. Square footage was misrepresented, fisheye lenses made closet sized rooms look spacious and the heat of the 2004 market meant many houses were sold within days of being listed. At the end of the visit, I was disheartened. The older homes we looked at were either already gutted and badly remodeled losing all of the charm of their era or they were so depressing that even a thoroughly loving restoration wouldn't save them from their innate drabness.

Our search continued for the next few months. I cruised the MLS listings mercilessly, expanding my searches to allow things that previously wouldn't have been considered. I emailed Charlotte almost daily asking her to zip past this address or find out if this listing was worth considering. She took every email in stride and provided detailed feedback for each request. Occasionally, when a listing looked especially promising, we had Mr. Dog fly up to check it out in person. He came home with tales of failing foundations and toilets located in the living room, but no potential homes. By February I was beginning to lose hope. The weekend of Valentine's day 2005, Charlotte hosted an event for her clients. We decided to fly up and check out any interesting listings then attend the social in the evening. My parents agreed to come up and watch our son while we did the work, then did some drinking with friends.

Saturday we ran around doing quick peeks at properties, nothing really standing out as a possibility, but being used to that by now, we kept at it. The last listing we went to see was a two story farm house in a neighborhood Charlotte had been gently advising us against. At this point, the neighborhood was being considered. In fact, most neighborhoods were being considered, we were looking at anything that looked like it might work. This particular listing was a duplex with a wide double story porch and a corner lot. A large yard wrapped around the house. It had been listed on Thursday and offers were to be in by Tuesday. Not at all unusual in that heated time in the market. Unfortunately the exterior was in a state of significant disrepair. The siding was peeling badly, probably not painted since the 30s. It looked sad and worn. Then when we tried to enter the lower unit, the key didn't work. The listing had generated a lot of interest and Charlotte speculated that an agent with an interested client may have done something to the lock to keep the competition down. Frustrated and tired I was ready to give up, but Mr. Dog was not. We rescheduled with Charlotte to come take a look on Sunday before our flight home.
That night we drank too much, talked with others who had recently found homes in Seattle and I all but forgot about the house. In my mind it was already lumped together with the other disappointments we'd toured and was just one more thing to do before we left for home the next day.

Sunday morning we had breakfast with my parents then met up with Charlotte to tour the house. And I fell in love. When we entered the house, it felt like home. The rooms were large with high ceilings. While the lower unit had been reworked and most of the trim removed over time the feel was right. It could be brought back with a little work and a lot of attention to detail. I think the thing that sold me was the doors on the second bedroom, they were sliding doors, likely pocket doors at one point, hung in front of the door openings with the antique pocket door hardware visible and beautiful in it's industrial perfection. The upstairs unit was bright and airy, and though you could feel a definite tilt to the floor, I knew I could be at home in this house.

There were issues to be considered. In order to get our offer on top of the heap we knew we were going to waive an inspection, but that doesn't mean we weren't going to have the house inspected, we were just going to do it before we'd placed the offer. Charlotte contacted her go to inspector and then a back up so we could get the skinny on the house. There were issues with the foundation, but the inspector thought the house was a sound and with some work, would be well worth buying. To verify the foundation work was within reason, Charlotte called in a contractor to give an estimate on the extent of the work that needed to be done. He looked it over and said the work was doable, and even if we hired it out, it would not be beyond our means. I left them in the basement crawl space to talk further. I mention this now because things were said then that have altered our history in this house. I'll write about them later.
We decided to make an offer. The next hour was spent in the deli at the nearby Safeway with Charlotte guiding us through the necessary paperwork. After 6 months of hunting, we were making our first offer, and the idea of it made my stomach lurch. We were really doing this. It felt like jumping off a cliff. Our offer was delivered on Valentine's Day.

Back in California we sat and waited to hear if we were accepted. We knew there were multiple offers and I was worried we'd be outbid. I was also worried we would get the house. Such is the nature of house hunting I guess. I worried about the commitment to this house, but I also worried that if we didn't get it, it would forever be the one that got away.

On Wednesday, after a day of nerves and anxiety Dave called. He'd talked to Charlotte and the house was ours. I later found out that we were not the highest bid, but Charlotte sweet talked the seller's agent, talking up our dreams of restoring the property to the single family home that it was when it was built. She described us as a young couple with a toddler looking for a house to make a home, a place to raise our children and grow old together. And apparently, the sellers at one point had a similar dream. They accepted our offer over another higher offer that would have kept the property as a duplex rental.

Paperwork was signed, money changed hands and in March, we closed making us the proud owners of a dilapidated duplex in need of much love and many repairs. Once the renters moved out, we moved in and in April 2005 our adventure in remodeling began. We're not even near done, and it already has been quite a ride.


  1. James and I had a similar dream when we were looking for a bigger house. I was pregnant with Sadie at the time and we put bids on 7 different houses. We didn't get the fixer we put a bid on (luckily for us, I think) and we ended up in our current house about 3 weeks before Sadie was born. I'm really looking forward to following your adventure.

  2. Ah memories!!! I remember all of this like it was yesterday :) And I am so so happy that you, Mr. Dog, Big Dog and Little Dog made the move up here.

  3. I'm so excited to follow this! It sounds like your remodelling is quite a bit more extensive than ours-- I'll learn alot from you!