24 December, 2007

The Contenders

The Bird House

We looked at A LOT of houses before finally deciding on one. The task was tougher than we anticipated, as our requirements were very specific. The building had to have two apartments or it had to be a large single family home that could be easily divided into two separate dwelling spaces. It needed a garage, and it needed a yard big enough for my mom's dog, a one-year-old Beagle/German Shepherd mix named Maggie. It couldn't be more than a 15 or 20 minute walk to the train and, of course, it had to fall within our price range. This left a very short list of suitable properties.

We saw some very scary properties: multi-units that had long been student rental properties, stripped of all vintage detail, or houses with extremely narrow stairs leading to dank basements with 6 1/2-foot ceilings--no way I wanted to navigate down there to do laundry. And then there was the Mouse House and the Bird House.

On paper, they had everything going for them: two units, full basements, backyards, vintage built-ins, and, best of all, they were just steps away from shopping and the train. They were even next door to each other, making them easy to visit with our agent.

The Mouse House was just that--completely infested. The evidence was plain: each room had two or more mousetraps or bait traps with poison scattered along the baseboards for good measure. I have no idea how the basement fared, as we didn't get to see it. The couple showing it to us--parents of the owner--were shocked that we even wanted to see it. Scratch that one off the list.

The Bird House was no better. Right away we knew we'd have to rip off the front and back porches, an expense we didn't want to take on immediately. There was no seller's agent to meet us, so our agent knocked on the door and then got the keys from the lock box. We must have been in the downstairs unit for a full five minutes before walking into one of the bedrooms to see a kid sprawled across the bed, sound asleep. He didn't budge the entire time we were there! As we made our way to the basement, we could hear birds chirping. "Is there a window open?" I asked our agent, thinking that maybe some birds had flown in. As we opened the door, the chirping stopped, and we fumbled around for the light switch as it was pitch black down there. What I had mistaken for wild birds were parakeets. Hundreds of them. There were--and I'm not kidding--20 or so very large cages, each filled with up to two dozen birds. Smaller cages, covered with dark cloth, held pairs of birds, which I assumed were being used for breeding. The entire place was dark, grim, and smelled strongly of bird droppings. I can't imagine this was a legal breeding operation.

That was the day we started naming houses to help us keep them straight in our heads. There was the Sherman House, a beautiful old home we actually put an offer on--less than a week before it went to a foreclosure auction, much to our surprise. (After that, the bank that held the title rejected our offer, although now, four months later, they have relisted the house for less than our offer was for. Grrrr.)

There was the Chocolate House, a cute brown stucco 3-flat that we had an offer accepted on, but which failed to go through after our inspector revealed some very disturbing faults with the property. What do you mean the garage doesn't have a roof? Before you think we're complete idiots, I have to tell you that when we visited the property, we couldn't see the top of the roof from the outside. It was only after we climbed the ladder with our inspector that we could see it was nothing but a nailed-down black tarp over the wood. That, combined with the fact that it had a fairly new Sentricon system hidden in the garden and lawn to combat termites, that the third unit in the basement would never pass code (although it was currently being rented out), that the covered portion of the porch was covered in asbestos tiles, and that the uncovered part of the porch would have to be torn down and rebuilt to make it safer for my mom and her dog, it was pretty clear that the inspection was a train wreck.

That's also when we decided we had to let our buyer's agent go. When he said things like "you probably won't use the back porch for egress anyway" before leaving partway through the inspection, we began to have our doubts about him. But when he called back later to tell us he didn't think he could work with us again if we used the same inspector on the next property, we knew it was time to part ways. I mean, seriously, whose side was the guy on? (Luckily, the next agent turned out to be great, and with his background in both construction and law, he was a real asset.)

So it went on like that, with our less-than-inspired naming process: The Log Cabin House (a.k.a. The Washington House), The Twin Houses, The Green House, The Coach House House. And finally, the one that was destined to be ours: The Box House, named for its, um, boxy shape.

It wasn't love at first site. In fact, we had seen it in the MLS months before, but eliminated it from our search because of its boxy nature and that it was further from the center of town than we hoped to be. But when we realized that some of our favorite houses on our short list were that far out and farther, we decided to take a look anyway.

The woman who owned it had passed away the previous year, and she had lived there for forty years. Her granddaughter, acting as seller's agent for the heirs, believes she was only the second owner since 1928, when the two-flat was built. It had a lot of what we were looking for: two separate units, each with three bedrooms, a decent-sized yard, and a brick garage big enough for two cars. It also had features we weren't looking for, but considered a bonus, including a partially finished basement, stained glass piano windows in both units, original deco light fixtures in the stairwell, and its location on a corner lot. Lots of sun.

Still, it was a bit rough. The kitchens and bathrooms were severely outdated and the electrical system would need some major updates (luckily, my brother is an electrician). But there was something about the property that spoke to us. It felt like it could be home--more so than the ones we had previously made offers on.

Just to be sure, we looked at several more two-flats, but even though some were better situated or would need less work, there was just something about The Box House that felt right. And so we put our offer in, and after a ton of negotiating, settled on a fair price. Our inspector couldn't find anything seriously wrong; he more or less made a list of things to keep an eye on in the future, but he said it had "good bones" and that it was a quality construction that didn't get messed up by past renovations. All in all, a good property that with a lot of elbow grease would yield something beautiful.

I'll have to keep reminding myself of that as we dig in, because there is a lot of work ahead of us.

The Washington House. We really, really liked this one but couldn't quite make the configuration work as two separate units without some major work.

Nothing like house hunting during the worst freakin' weather in the Chicago area. This tree blew over in an August storm about 50 feet from where we were sitting in our agent's car. The rain and wind were so loud that we never even heard it fall.

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