Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Memento Mori for Theo

Today's sunrise

The sun came up blazing near Mt. Rainier this morning, jack frost shimmered on the neighbor’s lawn, and in our house the smell of death lingers on blankets, clothes, and bodies, as our cat Theo labors to breathe on this, the last day of his life. 

Beauty and loss have been especially twinned in my mind and heart this Fall as the days grew ever shorter, the brief glory of fiery leaves punctuating the leaden sky before their descent to the compost pile, as I received news of the precarious health of those I love.

Theo in our Christmas tree 2014

And yet I know others who carry burdens and sorrows more dire and devastating with an acceptance and strength that towers like a grand mountain over my tiny hill of hope. For though I am a believer now (and for the past 30 years), I was a worrier first, and that deeply grooved record can begin spinning before I’m even aware of it: how will I know when Theo's time has come? How will our wild Bengal Malika get along without her Theo? How will any of us get along without our affable affectionate Theo?

Malika and her Theo before our move to Washington December 2011

Theo and Malika enjoying the view from our Bainbridge Island home Spring 2012
Malika and Theo enjoying the second floor deck at our Gig Harbor home Summer 2015

Last night, I wasn’t sure if he would be with us this morning. After the vet sent him home with some fluids under the skin so that our family had time at home to say goodbye, we set him in his heated cat bed in my lap, underneath a blanket, and he was so still, his breathing so shallow I had to put my finger in front of his nose to feel a faint whiffle of breath. Part of me wanted him to slip from this world while we all slept, sparing us the heartache of the injection that lies ahead of us late this afternoon. Another part of me is grateful for the hard gift of companioning him into death, whether he his aware of our presence or not.

I remember visiting my grandfather in skilled nursing less than two weeks before he died. It was my first encounter with death, and I took my cue from maudlin Hallmark movies, holding his hand, looking deeply into his eyes, and saying, “I love you Grandpa,” my big declaration that would somehow bring him peace. His response, “I know. And I love you, too.”

Of course he knew. We were not estranged. We’d had 35 years of history. I spent holidays and a week at my grandparents’ each summer as a child, and held my grandfather’s large warm hand while he prayed over our meals. He was present at my wedding, the baptism of my children, Thanksgivings and Easters, driving 500 miles two or three times a year to visit my growing family in a VW Vanagon that always broke down. A stroke and immanent death would not erase a lifetime of love demonstrated and uttered so thoroughly that it had lodged in our bones.

Today I held Theo against my chest while the late morning sun streamed in the living room. He raised his weak head to the rays, began to purr and nuzzle my face—his trademark move set aside these past weeks. Then, worn out from the effort, he inched away and I returned him to his own bed. He shifts uncomfortably, and I offer blankets and a heater, small succor as dehydration, kidney disease, and infection slow his heart and temperature, and usher him from my life. Today he suffers. Tomorrow he will be memory. And, oh, how I will remember him.

Cat pile on my husband Winter 2012

I first saw Theo in 2004 in a photo on Project Purr’s website. Our dog and I were mourning the loss of our cat Roscoe, looking for another companion. He was named “Angel” at the time and stared at the camera with his one eye open wide. I knew he was meant to be mine and went to visit his foster home, a small room above a garage secluded from humans and other pets. He was about one-year-old (an estimate our current vet feels is 3-4 years short, given his health crisis), and feral, one of 20 found on a ranch near Santa Cruz, California. A veterinarian who worked with the rescue removed his eye, damaged beyond repair by respiratory disease, and replaced it with a ball (an unusual reconstruction in a cat) before sewing the lid shut. The impression is a permanent cheerful wink.

My family and I picked up Angel and returned home only to find a message from the rescue on our answering machine, saying they’d decided against giving him to us since we lived in Boulder Creek—home to coyotes. In earlier years, we’d had two cats go missing, assumably snatched by coyotes, and my husband erected two acres of deer fencing that kept out all predators except rattlesnakes. I guess Project Purr didn’t have the heart to say no to the four of us when we showed up eager for our new family member, having left our house before they called.

We promptly renamed our adoptee Theo—after my father whose middle name is Theodore, and who lost one eye in his successful battle against sinus cancer. Then we began household desensitization—showing Theo that running taps, flushing toilets, dishwashers, television, and human laps posed no dangers. We succeeded on all those fronts, though we never could convince him about the vacuum.

The rescue told us Theo had hip dysplasia, and that combined with the loss of an eye, would relegate him to a quiet sedentary life. The first time he slipped out our backdoor, into our fully fenced yard, he climbed high into an oak tree, and never looked back. Soon he was taking full advantage of the cat door, slipping out to walk the top of our deck rails, 14 feet off the ground, and successfully capturing blue-bellied lizards while they basked on sunny rocks.
Enjoying the fenced at yard on Bainbridge Island
Once, unbeknownst to us, Theo caught a garter snake that slipped into a heater vent and lodged in our ductwork. I will never forget the horrendous odor that greeted me when I switched on the heat, nor my husband’s attempts to locate the source, nor the sight and smell of the maggot infested carcass he finally located. We closed the cat door after that, becoming door monitors who refused to let Theo or our other cats in until they released their prey.

For nearly 12 years, Theo lived the life any two-eyed cat would envy. And his “eye-niqueness” led our youngest daughter to adopt her own one-eyed cat and its sibling five years ago. The “grand-kittens” are frequent visitors at our home, and when two friendly one-eyed cats greet visitors at the door, our guests often do double-takes. Last year, a repairman said, “What’s with the one-eyed cats?”
I muttered something about them both being rescues, while I ushered him to the water heater. My explanation was inadequate, as it always is when we talk about love and how it alone has the power to save us, no matter our fate.
Farewell furry friend

Monday, December 7, 2015

The Accidental Agent

 “You should go to real estate school,” our realtor Jennie told me late last spring as she drove my husband Kevin and me around Gig Harbor looking for our latest live-in fixer upper. And a few months later, after I unpacked most of our boxes in the home we bought from a bank and was looking for something to keep me occupied while Kevin and his crew finished building a home for a client, I clicked on a few web-links, charged my credit card, and began my studies.

I signed up for real estate class without my usual careful research, without investigating the ramifications at all. I enrolled thinking that when I was finished, I’d get my license and then, armed with a lockbox key, I’d be able to scope out houses without having to bother our realtor. I would save her time, and us a little money, and I’d no longer be trespassing when I walked around the yards of vacant for-sale homes peering in windows.

Simple, easy, wrong.

Two-thirds of the way through my coursework when the topic turned to broker regulations, I realized that if I got my license, I’d be in a continual loop of continuing education. But that was nothing compared to the commitment Jennie had made to me: My license would only be good if I was affiliated with a firm—hers—and for the first two years all my activity was required to be closely supervised and approved by the firm’s designated broker—her again.

I passed my licensing exam, got fingerprinted, and went to Jennie’s office to sign an independent contractor agreement. I paid fees to join the Multiple Listing service and obtain my lockbox key, and signed up for classes on navigating databases and real estate forms. And then, I took some time to contemplate my answer to the question Jennie asked the day I joined her small cadre at Infinity Real Estate: “Now that you have your license, what would you like to do with it?”

The obvious answer was simple: Save on costs for YellowRibbon Homes (the company I founded with my husband). If I were the broker that negotiated the sale on homes we bought to renovate, part of the commission would come to me. And, if I listed our completed homes for sale, there’d be no need to pay me commission. But that hardly seemed worth all the time, energy, and money I had and would need to put into being a licensed real estate broker.

And then, while I multi-tasked folding laundry and sorting paperwork with the TV on, ideas formed as I watched HGTV shows like The Property Brothers and Fixer Upper, where the business partners—two brothers; husband and wife—are licensed realtors and licensed general contractors who combine their skills to help clients find and renovate homes to meet their needs.

Why not become “The Property Couple” and use our interests and skills for an identified client, rather than always renovating homes on spec and hoping to find a buyer? I enjoy hunting down properties, researching records, and exploring possibilities. Kevin has a wealth of knowledge and skills to turn ideas into reality, and we have quite a bit of real estate involvement as both buyers and sellers.

I made a mental list of our real estate history: 

-Purchased a vacant single family home with conventional financing, extensively remodeled, and sold that house after 10 years. 

-Bought land with cash, took out a construction loan, installed a manufactured home on a site-built first floor/foundation with all the necessary infrastructure—water, electricity, septic—converted to a conventional loan when finished. Refinanced that home several times before selling. 

-Purchased 2 condos for family members. One was a short sale. Rented out one of the condos for several years before selling. 

-Assumed title and mortgage payments on a family member’s home for a number of years, went off title when the member was eligible to finance with a reverse mortgage. 

-Purchased a manufactured home on site-built foundation from a family member’s special needs trust, making private mortgage payments, rented out that property for a number of years before selling. 

-Purchased a vacant fixer upper for cash. Renovated and sold that house. 

-Purchased a project house with a hard money loan, converted to self-financing. Sold the renovated project house. 

-Rented a home for a year that required a number of repairs, many at our own expense, and became familiar with tenants rights. 

-Made offers on 2 homes that weren’t accepted. 

-Cash purchase of a bank-owned fixer-upper without “marketable title” (the garage was built over the property line) and proceeded with a boundary line adjustment to fix that issue. Renovation to begin in 2016.

-Current purchase contract on an occupied short sale property that also has boundary issues.

Additionally, the church I served in California had several rental cabins, and we dealt with landlord responsibilities of improvements, repairs, evictions, etc. And finally, I have been searching real estate and community data websites nearly nonstop since mid-2011.  

When I framed my experience this way, it helped me view my decision to become a realtor not as a whim, but as a natural progression of my skills and interests. And it helped me to see that although I’m newly licensed and have a lot to learn, I have a good amount of first-hand knowledge (and of some unusual issues) to draw on.

Though I wandered into a real estate career as an accidental agent, I’m now an intentional agent looking to make my vision a reality, aiding others in the important decision of where to live. The best way to find clients is word of mouth, and I’d appreciate your help. Please keep me in mind if anyone you know is looking to buy, sell, or renovate a home in the Kitsap Peninsula area of Washington—that’s the west side of Puget Sound. My email is

The Property Couple

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Praying with Mr. Clean

I kneel atop a riser and pray, but I'm not in a church at the Communion rail; I’m in a stairwell scrubbing scuffs and dog slobber from once white walls with a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser. The house is not mine and I do not know the owners, their circumstances, or their names. And, truth be told, I’m not in the habit of praying for strangers.

When I lived in California and attended the same church in the same town for twenty-five years, my prayers revolved around the lives of the parishioners, my friends, and my family. When I became involved in region-wide ministry and began writing prayers for various occasions, I had names and faces to imagine while I carefully crafted thanksgiving and supplications on paper. 

And in my seven years as a pastor, I held my arms out wide during the “Joys and Concerns” portion of our Sunday morning worship, listening deeply, then repeating the words of individuals, summarizing, clarifying, and amplifying for the congregation, and for God, as I lifted my hands, as if releasing balloons heavenward into a silent embrace.

I was thoughtful, earnest, sincere, and eloquent—or at least I tried to be, the writer in me choosing her words with care and precision.

In the Pacific Northwest where I’ve made my home (three homes to be exact) for nearing on four years, I have necessarily found myself outside the comfort and tradition of my former church, unfamiliar with the needs of those around me as I sample new churches and communities.

I find myself a stranger, or an acquaintance, not in a position to know the deep longing of others' hearts, or to infer how to pray for them without a shared history and experience. Without a platform from which to pray, and a position in which others listen to the prayers I might offer, I find little use for words.

Instead, my work is my prayer. Painting and pulling weeds in a home I own and am resurrecting from neglect, becomes prayers for the health of the home, the garden, and for the successful sale to a buyer who will love and care for the spirit of the place as my husband and I have.

Today, though, is different. I don’t own or rent this home; I have no attachment to it. I am here with my husband and our small crew to paint and clean, to help our realtor (who has helped us both buy and sell our homes in Puget Sound) make this new listing of hers as appealing as possible, enabling her to get the best possible sale price for her clients, aiding them as they make a new life in a new place.

These clients have already left this home for Spokane, children and dog in tow, and I do not ask for details in order to know more about them. Instead, I scrub sticky handprints from stair rails and cabinet pulls, and think back on my life with young children and too many pets.

I craved order in that chaotic life and my husband’s comfortable income allowed us to hire a housecleaning service (weekly before the recession, monthly afterward) when we moved into our newly built home. Clearly this family has not had that luxury. It would be easy, too easy, for me to judge the owners by their housekeeping, to form an opinion of their character—less than stellar—based on the bathtub rings.

But now that my husband and I have lived in a series dilapidated homes filled with dry-wall dust, rotating stacks of tools and paperwork from our renovations, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future, my perspective has shifted. 

I have come to an acceptance of dirt and disarray that evokes my compassion, rather than equating to moral failing (even as an agnostic child I knew that "cleanliness is next to Godliness"), for which I am thankful.

It occurs to me to pray for these strangers, to wish them Godspeed though I know not their names or circumstances. But I have no words. 

It is enough, I hope, to think of them as I sink to my knees on their carpet, to hold the Mr. Clean Magic Eraser in my hand, to streak it across the white walls, feeling the pad crumble beneath the friction as smudges, crayon marks, and other signs of the messiness of life disappear, leaving a clean blank surface upon which another family will soon make its mark.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Got To Keep On Moving

 Transitions abound for my husband and me. We rent a moving truck tomorrow.

After 15 months of renting a house with an amazing view of the Seattle skyline and Puget Sound (and fireworks displays lasting two hours on July 4th), we are homeowners (home borrowers) once again.

Fireworks from the deck of our rental

Little did we know when me moved into our rental that the freshly shampooed carpets were a bandaid  for a home that reeked of pet urine and was unlivable. We begged, wheedled and played let's make a deal with our landlords to replace the carpets--ripping them out and doing all the odor sealing work ourselves. We leave behind a near complete flip, a house painted inside and out, the vast majority of improvements done at our own expense, having paid for the "privilege" of doing so.

Although we have done what's right for the house, it's not the right thing for our pocketbooks. This is why we are terrible renters. Lesson learned.

One of Seattle's many moods, seen from the deck of our rental

We have already begun fixing our new fixer-upper, painting the inside and ripping out those urine soaked carpets (what's the story pet owners? I've had animals all my life, and know they are precious members of the family, yet I never allowed them to ruin my home) and painting the bedroom floors for our temporary fix before we begin remodeling and permanent renovations over the next year or so.

At our new house the deck is sanded and ready for relaxing!

Look closely and you can see Mt. Rainier from my new house!

Our gorgeous waterfront project house is under contract, and received kudos from the County inspector who issued our final permit and certificate of occupancy. Yesterday, the buyer's agent informed us the house also received the best inspection report ever issued from the region's most notoriously harsh home inspector; a dubious honor, but an honor nonetheless.

The realtors who toured the home were universally impressed with our design and material choices—all done by our youngest daughter who is entering her last year of architecture school. A bright future awaits!

We're just waiting for the buyers to obtain their financing and then our dream home will become theirs.

The end of our dream, the beginning of someone else's

As if there's not enough moving and packing and painting and mental gymnastics going on in our heads trying to keep all the activities ordered and executed, we have an offer in on another project house to renovate and sell (without living in it). We spotted the house a few months back; the price dropped and now there are multiple offers. We'll see what unfolds.

A man prays inside St. James Cathedral

In the midst of all this, I spent a day in Seattle a few weeks ago, and wrote an essay about my experience at the Cathedral there and my own attempts to live faithfully outside of a faith community.
You can read that story here.

Nobody's gonna break our to keep on moving!

The winding road to the future!

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Live-In Renovating, or Why It's a Project House

My husband and I are in negotiations to buy our next live-in renovation. When I shared the news on Facebook my friend Laura asked, “Curious why it’s a project house, it looks great as is.”

She’s right: the house has character and curb appeal, and the photo I shared captures those aspects and not the peeling paint or broken doors.

The photo I posted on Facebook

Curb appeal photo

living room with hardwood floor and view of Henderson Bay

I can answer Laura’s question by saying what needs to be fixed: exterior paint, garage door and roof, the 1970’s green pet-ruined carpets, weather-beaten and dog scratched deck; but that list, isn’t a renovation.
Weatherbeaten exterior paint and deck

Beat up deck but great landscaping

To say why this is a project house, I want to explain what I’ve learned about the difference between buying a home with the idea of living in it long term and buying it with the idea of resale in a few years.

My husband and I have owned three homes in our 32 years of marriage. The first was constructed as a vacation cabin in the 1930s, and added on to once or twice before it became ours. We moved into an 800 square-foot home with 3 small bedrooms and 1 bath, without a garage or carport or landscaping, and a woodstove as the only heat source.

Over the course of 13 years, we built a backyard deck and a studio/playhouse, installed central heat, remodeled to add a master bedroom and bath in a daylight basement, knocked out walls to make a dining room upstairs, replaced the kitchen cabinets with maple ones my stepfather built, installed new flooring in every room, and put a new tub and toilet in the existing bathroom, in addition to septic repairs and regular maintenance.

We did all this a little at a time to accommodate our growing family, and financed the improvements with bonuses, stock options, and salary increases my husband received in the corporate world.

We sold the house for significantly more than we paid, and even including the costs of materials and labor over the years, came out ahead. That experience mirrored what I’d heard growing up as part of the American dream: owning a home is always a good investment.

We built our next house, buying a 7 acre parcel of unimproved land and literally sinking thousands of dollars into the ground as we built a non-standard septic system to work in sandy soil, ran water, natural gas, and electricity, graded for a driveway and foundation, and installed an engineered fence to hold back a rock terraced hillside built in the 1880s (you can read my essay about the stone walls here).

The stock market was booming then, so we loaded our home with all the modern conveniences—stereo speakers in every room, custom closets and dressers, roll-out desks, bookcases, china cabinets, window seats, and a Murphy bed.

We built our dream home on a dream lot, following the advice of the property’s listing broker to build a house worthy of the property.

The trouble was, unlike places such as Saratoga and Los Gatos in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Boulder Creek is not an area associated with luxury, and when it came time to sell after my husband was laid off, we found ourselves, like so many others, parting with our house for much less than we paid for it.

Paying cash for the land and many of the improvements so that our mortgage was manageable saved us from a “short sale” and bank involvement.

We bought our Bainbridge Island house just as we signed a sale contract for our Boulder Creek dream home. Without a job to qualify for a mortgage, we were cash buyers looking for a low-priced house that also had amenities important to us: space for an apartment retreat I could rent out, nice yard, and water view if possible.

I’ve written in detail about that journey on this blog before, and the condensed story, is that when we sold our home after two-and-a-half years, we’d renovated it from studs to ceiling.

We came out ahead on the sale for two important reasons: First, we did almost all the work ourselves, only hiring help in the very last months. Second, the home was our primary residence for longer than two years, allowing us to avoid capital gains taxes.

Now that renovating homes is our livelihood, resale potential becomes a primary factor. Buying a house already in great shape isn’t a wise choice, since there’s no real value we can add.

Buying a dilapidated home doesn’t work either; not only can’t we live in the home while working on it, but it’s a bad investment. When there’s too much work to be done, there’s no way to make a profit. This is why you see derelict homes with “For Sale” signs for years, until finally, the building is razed for new development or burned as practice by firefighters. There’s just no way to make the needed repairs pay for themselves.

Real estate investors who do traditional “flips” typically fix and update: replacing broken windows, musty carpets, appliances, toilets, and vanities, but they avoid upgrading plumbing or electrical, remodeling, or re-roofing.

Any work that requires a permit costs rehabbers valuable time and money, so “the numbers” have to work, meaning a formula that weighs purchase price, “holding” and improvement costs, and future selling costs, against future sales price must yield a profit, typically 20-30%.

That’s where people like my husband and I come in, taking risks on major repairs because we envision potential in the property, the view, the neighborhood, community, or something else that spurs us to sink (hundreds of) thousands of dollars into a house that can only be recouped by the financial benefits of living in it for at least two years.

The home we’re planning to buy has a ground floor apartment, great landscaping, views of Henderson Bay and Mount Rainier, and sits on a picturesque street that will soon be widened, connected to another road, and utilities placed underground. All of those are great assets we want to capitalize on.

Ground floor apartment, main level living, upper level bedrooms

Rhododendrons & Japanese maple, part of the lovely landscaping

Henderson Bay from deck

Mt Rainier behind the treetops

Besides the obvious repairs mentioned earlier, drawbacks include a mid-house staircase that negatively impacts the apartment kitchen, the main floor living area, kitchen, and bath. And the master bedroom ceiling slopes quite low at the windows, blocking the views.

We envision eliminating the interior stairs and moving some walls, and raising the roof in the master bedroom with the possible addition of a rooftop deck for unobstructed views of Mt. Rainier and Henderson Bay if the costs are reasonable. We believe the transformation will be worth our time and money. And, that’s why it’s a project house.

In the meantime, we've discovered the garage was built partially on neighboring property, which means lots of research now to determine if we want to go through with the purchase and future legal costs.

The cute but problematic garage