California and Connecticut are a world apart. At least a country apart. In Connecticut, every inch of land seems to be in a city or town whereas in California, large areas are unincorporated and controlled by the county. The conflict between the city we lived in and the county of Los Angeles is continual and often antagonistic, especially when the city wants to annex outlying housing developments (at the request of residents in those tracts). Property taxes are determined by the price you paid for the house. So if you bought a house ten years ago, and your neighbor bought a similar house two years ago for twice as much, you pay very different property taxes. Your neighbor will pay twice as much. There the property tax money is paid to the county who pays it to the state who then redistributes it. In Connecticut, each town sets its own mil rate. Houses are assessed every five years. You and your neighbor pay the same rate. The variance is not when you bought the house but how big the house is and how much land surrounds it. Is one way better than the other? I don’t know yet.
What we did learn was that towns often had distinctly different mil rates. The town that I thought we should move to had a much higher rate than the neighboring town. My husband thought that he would rather commute another ten minutes than pay the higher property tax. We had done some scouting while we were there for the interview. We continued to peruse realty websites, noting what really appealed to us online. You really can’t tell anything about a neighborhood from a listing. Every online listing is in the best neighborhood and has the best upgrades. How good is the realtor’s camera? Do they know how to use Photoshop? Google earth became an interesting resource since we could see busy streets and rusty junk in neighbor’s yards.
December is not the best time to shop for a home. Many of the houses we had scouted in October were sold. Some seemed to have disappeared from the market. A few new ones had been added. So in addition to grading essays, marking tests and otherwise keeping up with my students, I found myself writing extensive sub plans, arranging for a friend who subbed in the district to take my classes and packing for a trip. Maybe we should have waited for January. Yet once we were set up with a relocation company and had found a realtor, we were too eager to wait and flew to Connecticut to find our new home.
We had given our realtor some criteria. We needed room for our youngest daughter and new grandchild. We wanted a neighborhood that I could safely run in. We wanted to be fairly close to shopping yet close to recreation. Oh, and an acre for the dogs would be good. We like high ceilings. We like wood floors. The kitchen needed to be large with good counter space and room for entertaining. The house had to have character, some intangible quality that I could not describe that made the house unique. I suspect that he thought we were crazy. He was helpful in that he eliminated some of our online choices. One of our favorites had a structural flaw. Another was on a busy street. Still another had just gone under contract. “Don’t worry,” he told us. “You will have choices.” But will I like the choices?
Our realtor thought we shouldn’t see more than seven or eight houses a day. We started in community #1, saw three houses, and drove to community # 2 saw four more houses the first day. The first house was in an intriguing location, next to an old cemetery, but was dark and musty. The second house had the most beautiful kitchen of everything that we would see but had no yard and backed on a busy street. We had looked at the third house online and felt that it may be perfect for us.
Online the house was large and open with wood floors, a sunroom, high ceilings, a large kitchen. The square footage was daunting, maybe too much, but it also had an in-law apartment in the basement, a place for our daughter to be independent. As the realtor drove us to the house, I saw charming, small cottages along a quiet street. Mothers were outside with their children. A women was jogging alongside the road. The neighborhood was inviting, but the house we were to see was grand in size. My anticipation began to wane. My mother-in-law, an astute realtor, once told me to never buy the largest house in the neighborhood. As we parked on the driveway, I asked the realtor why the house had been on the market so long. “Too modern. People out here like traditional homes.” The house would have been perfect at Lake Tahoe. The living room ceilings were high and beamed. The fireplace was stone and elegant. The kitchen was perfect for entertaining. Upstairs, however, the rooms were a maze of cubicles over which a single high roof with skylights loomed–bright, airy and not private. The upstairs laundry room had three washing dryers. It would be my own personal Laundromat. There was another laundry room in the basement, but the in-law apartment was one great room. My husband still liked the house, but I wasn’t so sure.
The drive to community #2 was 30 minutes during which we reviewed what we had seen. Only house # 3 remained a possibility. While I really liked community #1, community number 2 began to look like a better possibility. We actually knew people near community #2. While the first community was wooded and felt secluded, Community # 2 had large areas of empty rolling hills, farmland and tracts of newer developments. House number four actually looked out on a small farm. It was pleasant but seemed overpriced. House number five was over decorated but the kitchen had the same cabinets and appliances that I had at home (such good taste), making the house familiar and homey. The basement was a walkout and contained a mother in law apartment with a full kitchen. Fatal flaw on house number five: the driveway was too steep. The flow of the downstairs on number six was awkward. Number seven seemed to be a flip. It had no yard. Number eight was a possibility. The house was a bit too ornate — decorative columns framed the dining room. The basement wasn’t furnished. The house was surrounded by a golf course and the neighborhood had several sales recently that gave us an idea of how the house would appraise. By then our heads were swimming. Would we want to live on a golf course? Would backing up on the farm be pleasant? Or would the farm smell of fertilizer? Did we see children in the neighborhood?
Day number two began with a trip back to community #1. The house was a charming ranch with a trio of graceful trees at the top of the driveway. The lot was beautiful, the house had many of the elements that we wanted but the house seemed overprice, especially since they asking price was $100,000 more than the owners had paid just before the market burst. The listing agent said that the owners had put that much work into the house but the house had maybe $15,000 of noticeable upgrades. The house was overpriced. House number two, a charming colonial, was in community number three. I liked the entrance. I liked the downstairs. I wished the basement had a bathroom but could see possibilities. The street was quiet. This house went on the short list. The next house was beautiful inside but had no yard and sat on a hill above a busy street. My realtor said the third house was a bargain—the asking price was a $100,000 less than a house a few doors up the street. This was because the house sat on a busy corner, had a small yard and a warren of rooms upstairs. The downstairs was nice as long as you didn’t open a window. House number four looked promising online because I’m a sucker for spiral staircases. While the house was large, the rooms were small. The basement was advertised as a mother-in-law unit. The in-law kitchen consisted of a microwave and mini-fridge in the bathroom. Didn’t they care about the bacteria released when the toilet is flushed? House number five was beautiful and had a master bedroom downstairs and one upstairs. When I looked out the window of the downstairs master, the neighbor and his son were perhaps five feet away. My current house had a larger yard. House number six made no impression other than dog pee on the carpets. House number seven was in a well laid out development in yet another community. What was once a small ranch had been remodeled into a lovely craftsman bungalow. Everything was exquisite: stained glass door, tile mural in kitchen, inlaid floors. Our furniture was a perfect fit. The house had character. But this was a house for a quiet couple. We could not see our dogs running down the halls. We could not see our grandchild crawling on the floors. This was our retirement home. This was not the house we needed now. We decided to make an offer on the second house of the day, a white colonial, which had a small kitchen and no character.
We were like Goldilocks but nothing was just right. We were finally going to buy our dream house, but we just couldn’t find it. Every house we saw had some flaw, something that kept it from being exactly what we were looking for. The white colonial had possibilities, but would need some remodeling to make it work. We were slightly discouraged. We felt like we were settling again. We had settled when we bought our California house, a cookie cutter tract house that looked exactly like the neighbors. Only the 1994 earthquake did such extensive damage that I was able to redo part of the interior, making it different. Later I upgraded the kitchen. But if you drove down our street, you would see that our house looks like five others. People come up to the wrong door.
My sister-in-law found the house, thanks to the wonders of modern day communication technology. While we were on our grand second day tour, sis in law and I were texting each other. I would let her know which house we had seen and she looked at it on realtor.com. When I told her which house we were going to make an offer on, she texted back with another address: “Did you see this one?” I texted back: “I don’t remember what’s wrong with it.” When I got back to the hotel room, I pulled up the house, a gray-green colonial. We had missed this house. Our realtor put it on the tour for the next day.
The third day tour consisted of the craftsman bungalow, the white colonial, the colonial sis in law found online and a fourth house. A second look at the craftsman confirmed our feeling it was too small. We walked through the white colonial, arranging the rooms. We could live here. The third house, the gray-green colonial, had character. In California, the type of lot this house was on is called a flag lot. The house has a narrow drive between two other lots so that it sat behind those houses. We couldn’t see the house from the street. We thought this was a plus; I’m not sure our realtor agreed. It would be a long drive to clear on snow days. From the front, the house looked like the white one, but additions pushed out the back. This house had character: crown moldings, built in bookcases, a wet bar, four fireplaces. The basement was not only finished, but paneled, reminding us of some of our favorite ski lodges. We could put a library down there, a huge entertainment center and an exercise area. My husband was adding a second bar. This would be his man cave, a retreat for him and the dogs. I was in love with the master bedroom suite which included a walk-in closet, a large bathroom, a cedar closet and a beautiful office with mahogany bookcases. Our daughter and grandchild could occupy two of the upstairs bedrooms. I could hide in the master suite. Dream house. We barely looked at the fourth house (which had a spectacular view of the valley). “We could buy a house like this at home” was my husband’s analysis. The gray green colonial was New England.
Our realtor told us that we needed to be able to close in thirty days because most owners wanted to close quickly. We were preapproved for a loan, but really needed sixty days in order to prove that my husband was making enough money at his new job. We had the realtor write up the contract, closing in 60 days. The owners wanted over 90!
We offered; they countered; we offered; they countered. They came up a week. We wanted another week. They would not budge on the closing date.
We liked the house. We wanted that house. We could make this work. For various reasons we needed to be in Connecticut in February. So we found a dog kennel for the dogs to stay in and a small apartment at the Marriot Residence Inn for us, our daughter, and the cats.