Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The View From the Sink, Or: An Offer They Can’t Refuse?

My husband, realtor, sister-in-law, and I toured 18 houses one day in July, a personal record for my agent who was duly impressed with my list of homes in geographical order.  House #1 set the standard, with a panoramic ocean vista from the kitchen sink.  The street was overcrowded with cars, our minivan barely fit in the driveway for the single car garage.  The subdivision was built in the 1960’s, the houses ten feet apart, eerily similar to the “ticky tacky boxes on the hillside,” of Daly City that Malvina Reynolds wrote her song about.  This was a blue one.  As soon as we were inside, we could forget the claustrophobic street scene. The bank-owned home on Imperial Avenue had been recently refurbished with new cabinets, wainscoting, paint, fixtures in the downstairs bath, until evidently the owners ran out of money and a job, and the bank foreclosed. 

My husband can remodel and repair anything, given the time and money, so the new cabinets didn’t mean that much to me, but boy, did that view from the sink.  I seem to spend an inordinate amount of time at the kitchen sink, continual nibbler and water drinker that I am.  The view got even better at the rear of the yard, which bordered a tot lot––and, not a small thing, the San Andreas Fault.  Would I risk folly for that view?  If we made sure the foundation was properly bolted, yes.  And while we were at it, we’d have to add a sliding door and balcony to an upstairs bedroom, and make it the master so we could look out on the Pacific while prone.  But truthfully, my husband was more interested in the house next door, one that had been abandoned mid-massive-remodel, Tyvek wrapped walls and in-progress stucco had him squeezing through the fence, peering in windows.  Having just finished building his mother a studio apartment below one of his sister’s houses, the desire to flip a house was overwhelming.  Buy this one, and the one next door, live in one, sell the other, make a livelihood from speculating on remodeling.

“Flipping” was something to consider as we toured houses #2 through #17.  Some took only seconds to cross off our lists.  I cannot wash dishes facing a solid wall.  For the past eleven years the view from both my office and the kitchen sink has been a walnut grove and Betsey the Cow, a fat Hereford and neighborhood attraction who entices stroller pushing moms, pierced teens, and even drivers to stop and call out their moos, petting her if she lumbers to the fence.  For thirteen years before that I looked out into the redwoods, the forested hillside behind our cabin home.  My husband can transform the interior of anything, hovel to mansion, but you can’t pick up a view at Home Depot and install it yourself.

Then came house #18 on Grand Avenue.  It had an old-school lock box, not the modern swipe key.  We didn’t have the combo, couldn’t get in.  But while we waited unsuccessfully for the seller’s agent to respond to our calls and text messages, we took full measure of the view.  The ocean, not flat and infinite, as it had been on Imperial Avenue, but the actual beach, the coast, the surfers in their wetsuits, black blobs in the water.  We could see the open space and subdivisions of Pacifica and the curve of beach, the waves breaking on the shore.  And we could hear those waves break, less than half mile away.  The street was quiet, quieter than the one we live on now in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and it extended only a few houses past the one we were looking at.  And the last shall become first.  We wanted in number #18.  This house had possibility.  Located on Pedro Point, it was built in 1941 as a vacation home on a street where each house is different, in an area where some homes are indeed grand and others are decaying, certainly not a subdivision, and not an area of the city like many we saw where speculators have rushed in to flip foreclosures.  The neighborhood is loaded with trees and borders an open space being restored with native plants after motorcycles and OHV’s have degraded the landscape. 

We weren’t able see the interior of Grand Avenue that day, but we returned two days later, with my husband’s mother and dinner from the Taco Bell located on the nearby surfing beach—it has a walk-up window for the wet-suited.  We ate a picnic on the deck while we again waited for instructions to open the lock box.  We were only able to see part of this house, which has been subdivided into three units, in all its glorious dilapidation.  The two-car carport leans at a precarious angle, the apartment under the house has walls and shower so moldy they should be condemned or used as the set of a movie where the psychotic killer hatches his plot.  The upstairs has punch stained carpets, a patterned-carpeted kitchen with long-dead in-counter appliances, but the most amazing view from the kitchen window, and if the window were a slider, would’ve let in the sound of surf.

There are mature plantings on this half-acre lot.  Against the entryway window is a small Cecile Brunner rose ready to climb.  Amid the choking non-native ivy in the steep hillside bordering the adjacent street are hydrangeas and succulents.  There are miniature pale-pink Fuchsias near the carport, and bottlebrush trees that a hummingbird was frequenting.  There were banana slugs galore, and no sign of hoses or sprinklers anywhere, evidence that the pervasive fog provides sufficient water.  In every home that Kevin and I have lived, we have landscaped from scratch, and I have dreamed of living in a house with an established garden.  This isn’t quite the vision, but close.  The plantings however haphazard are firmly rooted. 

We wanted this house.  This house that wasn’t in a box in a subdivision, that had breathing room from the neighbors and an ocean view that might not rate as spectacular as Imperial Drive, but was audible and intimate, even if glimpsed over the neighbor’s roof.  Plus, my husband, who had pulled back a corner of the filthy carpet in the living room to reveal oak flooring, could exercise his formidable remodeling skills.  Better yet, after tenting for wood-boring beetles, we could live there while he worked his magic.  The bathroom is serviceable, the plywood kitchen cabinets, although dull and boring, are level and clean.  We could be in this project, this next part of our life, fully together.

There’s much more to say about why I wanted this house, bigger and worse off than I thought I’d choose and the vision that came to me about how to offer hospitality out of it, and why we chose the city of Pacifica.  You’ll read about those in future entries.

For now, though, know that in late July we made an offer on Grand Avenue, contingent upon the sale of our home and were rejected.  Today, hearing there might another offer in the wings, we have drafted an offer for a lease with an option to buy, not knowing if my husband will procure a job in nearby San Francisco or not.  Not knowing if we will find a buyer or a renter for our house in order to make our offer financially feasible.  Suffice it to say that my husband and I both feel destined to live in this crumbling home on Grand Avenue.  Anxious to be good stewards of that land and house, wanting to give it the fullness of life and appreciation it deserves. I have been combing the multiple listings daily.  My husband drove by five more houses on Monday, saying no to them all, and here we sit, whether or not it is wise, whether or not we are ready, but feeling led, feeling it in our guts and souls, waiting and praying that these sellers, who we have never met and never will (they are absentee landlords), will say yes to our longing, to our vision. 

p.s. The photo of the coast at the top of this blog is the view of Pacifica from the deck of Grand Avenue.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Hurry Up and Wait

Once my husband accepted his “retirement” package, we needed to make decisions, and fast.  He had two weeks of employment and I didn’t want to squander a day.

I thought we should list our house right away.  We live in the Santa Cruz Mountains and summer––with its long days and tourist traffic––is the prime season for real estate transactions.  We’d seen our first house in this town on an August afternoon and the hundred redwood trees we could count from the front porch provided welcome shade from the heat.  We moved in on an October day, and those same towering trees blocked the sun until mid-March and dripped water for hours after rainstorms blew through.  Damp doesn’t sell houses.

We spoke to my sister––who lives with us––first, and then called our daughters who are college students.  We told them we didn’t know what was coming, but we believed it would all work out.  And it seemed to me we were being divinely guided.  The rumblings at my husband’s work proved true––the program he managed was being drastically cut.  The package he took was more generous than a layoff package, and his leaving would allow some (not all) of his coworkers to stay. 

We reassured my sister that we were not abandoning her, but that our help would look different than it had in the past.  Our oldest daughter is happily ensconced in a condo we were fortunate to buy a year ago as a way to cut our rental costs.  She offered to come home and finish cleaning out her old bedroom and help me sort through games and children’s books.  Our youngest, on her way to Europe for a month of study was concerned we’d be moved into another house before she returned to California.  She needn’t have worried.

We listed our home on July 4th, at the end of a long weekend recycling broken lounge chairs, taking down thousands of Christmas lights and repairing broken household items that add to the clutter, if not the character, of one’s home.  Items you plan to attend to someday, things you cease to notice, but know that strangers touring your home will not gloss over them with benevolent eye, but will instead label them junk and enter your home thinking dilapidation not opportunity.  In our frenzied preparations, we missed for the first time both our Fire Department’s pancake breakfast, town parade, and fireworks in nearby Scotts Valley. 

We met with our realtor, an associate of my husband’s sister, who is also a real estate agent (they’re working together on this listing), who toured our house and property, suggested a price, and wrote up a contract, all within two hours.  That Thursday local brokers toured our home.  On Friday, an interested buyer.  The following Thursday, a few more brokers.  That same Friday, the same interested buyer.  No one else has set foot in the house since.  The potential buyer lives in Los Angeles and needs to sell her house first.  She hasn’t put her house on the multiple listing, or made an offer on ours. 

In the meantime, my sister packs and looks (with no luck so far) for another place to live in her price range, choosing to remain in Santa Cruz County.  My husband creates order in the chaos of our garage, sorting e-waste from recycling and donations.  I pare down household belongings, driving a minivan load of donations to the thrift store each week, while I search websites for real estate listings in another city I hope to call home.  

Friday, August 26, 2011

On the Path Just Ahead of Me

The annual meeting of the religious denomination I am a member of falls in June each year, always coinciding with the birthday of a dear friend and mentor.  For ten years we were roommates at the gathering and carved time from the schedule packed with meetings and worship services for dinner, or dessert to celebrate her birthday.   Each year our celebration has included mutual church friends and a recounting of the ways our lives have been enriched by one another, even when we have lived miles apart and seen each other only once or twice a year.

This year neither my friend nor I held positions requiring us to attend the conference, and so I travelled to her house to spend an entire weekend.  The two of us, free from other obligations, walked and hiked with her dogs.  I read her stories from my creative thesis.  We talked and talked, talked.  We laughed at how a year or so after I met her and shared a room for the first time at a conference for spiritual leaders, my shyness cracked and I kept her up until two a.m., “talking her hind legs off,” as visions for the future of our church, and my life as a writer and the ministry I could craft took form and danced in my imagination.

This woman is bold and outspoken, vital and visionary, and for years I have felt that she has been walking the spiritual path a few steps ahead of me, modeling the challenges of risk-taking and out-of-the-box thinking.  Our walks haven’t been the same, but our commitments to growth and healing and moving forward allow us to celebrate rather than be threatened by our differences.

My dear friend has also been out of work this entire calendar year.  I know other people who are struggling with unemployment, with mortgage payments they can’t meet, who fret, and rail, whose faith seems to have evaporated just when it is needed most.  So I was a little concerned to step into my friend’s condo to find that she’d been selling her furniture, books, clothes, thinking it was a sign of discouragement, a nod to desperation.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Her downsizing was in fact detachment.  A surrendering of her will and desires to a wide-open future that hadn’t (and still hasn’t) been revealed yet.  She was letting go of things she didn’t need, of possessions that might encumber her, and expanding her job search from the San Francisco Bay area to encompass the entire country.  She was prepared to let go of her condo, knowing she’d never be able to sell it for what she’d paid.  And she was okay. 

In fact, she was more than okay, she was beloved and she knew it.  Months of unemployment had given her spaciousness for tending to important relationships and healing them, for self-care, and for committing to the spiritual practice of yoga, which in turn primed and prepared her for one of those rare liminal moments.  She knew she was loved and precious, held and cared for by our creator, a feeling that flooded her with tears of joy and unbounded gratitude.  This love and gratitude was unconditional and completely unrelated to her career path or credit score.  This assurance would conquer her self-doubt, would sustain her when she struggled to pay bills, would remind her of her inherent worth, no matter where she lived, no matter how long it took to find another job.

I thought of how bold and brave my friend was, and how if I were in her place, I’d want to embody those qualities, too, but wasn’t sure I’d have it in me to be as secure and confident.  I was blessed to hear her story, to know that she spoke with truth and wisdom, not only about herself, but a universal truth.  We are loved.  We are valued, even when we don’t see it, even when we don’t measure up according to the culture’s standards. 

I knew I was being offered a gift that weekend, a glimpse of my dear friend always a few steps ahead of me on the path, shining a flashlight, inviting me to join her.  I had no idea as I left her house that the very next day my husband and I would decide to take the next necessary steps into the unknown alongside her. 

Monday, August 22, 2011

Embracing Change

"Don't even consider it," were the first words out of my mouth when my husband mentioned he was offered a buy out package from his company.  Because his length of service and age combined to equal 60, he was eligible to receive one year of salary for quitting. 

It was May and I couldn't even think about him quitting.  I was in graduate school.  Both our daughters were juniors in college.  He was building a granny cottage for his mother, who would be leaving our property after two years, and my sister lived with us.  There were too many people depending on the status quo.  We couldn’t afford for him to be without a job, even with a financial cushion.

My husband was passionate about his work and was blessed by a new boss who supported him fully.  The two of us had moved past the conversations we'd had more than a year before when everything about our lives was overwhelming and we'd fantasized about selling our house and moving out-of-state into a tiny cottage with a large garden and an oversized tool shed where my husband would leave corporate management for an orange apron at Home Depot and I would teach memoir writing at a senior center.  

During the past year, we examined the stresses that had piled into our laps over the three decades we’d been together.  We worked hard to understand ourselves and change the way we communicated and interacted so that we viewed each other as allies and partners and not as persons who were piling burdens on one another.  With the shift in our outlooks and strengthening of our marriage, the external changes we’d dreamed up no longer seemed necessary.

We were content.  I thought I wanted to keep it that way.  But something nagged at me about the instantaneous and vigorous "No" I'd issued.  I had reasons, plenty of them.  If my husband left his job, even for another one, we'd need to leave our house.  We couldn't make the payment on a smaller salary and still meet our other obligations.  We'd need to sell our house, if anyone would buy it in this market.  My husband would have to finish building his mother's cottage right away.  My sister, who has no income, would need to find another place to live.  Our daughters wouldn't have their childhood home to come home to anymore.  We’d lived in our community for twenty-three years.  It was overwhelming to think of finding a new doctor, dentist, veterinarian.  My list went on––a list of fear, of worries, of things that might get worse.

The thing about fear is that it squeezes out everything else.  When fear tops the list, there isn't room for hope, for optimism, for faith, for anticipation, for belief in something better.  My life was chaotic growing up––and I was always worried, chronically vigilant even in the lulls.  I never knew what was coming and I lived in fear, trying to prevent anything bad from happening.  It took me years to realize how much fear impacted my adult life and marriage, muddying my perceptions and skewing my vision.  

I thought about my “No” for a few days after my husband mentioned the buyout package, and decided that I didn't want to continue to let fear rule my life.  "If you want to take this package, we can make it work,” I told him.  He thanked me and said he was going to decline.  There was a lot he wanted to accomplish in his position.

Then, in late June, just days before the deadline to accept the package, news of budget cuts, management changes and possible layoffs began to circulate.  People my husband trusts encouraged him to take the package.  If he didn't, he might be redeployed within the company, or he might be laid off with a less generous package.  The future was uncertain.  

He signed the buyout papers.  I sent them via Fed-Ex, and sealing the envelope my hands were a little shaky.  The end to so many aspects of our life rested on his signatures scrawled over a few sheets of photocopied office paper.  I took a deep breath, stepped onto the sidewalk, and began to walk home. 

Our future was blank, fresh, crisp, waiting to be written.