Up and Coming

by Emily Colin

Eliza McFadden, 1982

Recently I came to a decision that has invited an onslaught of adjectives, chief among them masochistic, foolish, rash, and hasty. I’ve also been told that I am visionary, prudent, and a savvy investor. Twenty-four, unmarried, and largely unskilled in manual labor, I’ve decided to buy an old house that needs a lot of work in a neighborhood best referred to, in real estate parlance, as “Up and Coming.”

“Up and Coming” is a scary sort of phrase, when you stop and think about it—particularly if you do so often, as I did when I’d lie in bed at night, envisioning the entire neighborhood levitating and rushing towards me, the houses breaking loose of their shackling foundations, the whole caboodle on an elevated conveyor belt whizzing by me like the F train.

This was not a good thing.

Part of the problem was that I had determined to buy an investment property, after the house of my dreams was dangled, renovated and ready, within my grasp only to be snatched away, at the last moment, by the owner’s mother, who believed that a twenty-four-year-old person could not possibly be serious about committing to anything more lasting than nail polish. The day before I was to sign the offer to purchase, Mom convinced her daughter to sell my dream house to a “real investor,” who was married and drove a Mercedes and had probably been alive when Lincoln was president.

That experience had a profound effect upon my faith in human nature. I indulged my bitterness at Chick-Fil-A, wolfing down heavily salted waffle fries between rants on the declining nature of sisterhood and feminine solidarity, and feeling as betrayed as when I discovered that grandpa Ben was the Tooth Fairy. I had done everything right: I loved the house; we had been brought together by fate; I knew it had been the one for me. Maybe I should abandon this whole house-buying idea altogether, I lamented. After all, I reminded myself, I was only twenty-four, unmarried, and largely unskilled in manual labor.

Then, being the headstrong girl that I am, I got mad. I resolved to find a bigger house, one of the same vintage, with just as much character—one I could make my own. I’d look at my now-unreachable dream house as a mere lesson in decorating. I comforted myself with thoughts of the profit I’d make by buying something in need of a little lovin’ and fixing it up. Never mind that I come from a family where replacing a fuse is viewed as serious electrical work, successfully assembling a bookshelf is a major mechanical triumph, and painting the kitchen is seen as a mysterious job best left to the capable hands of an overpaid contractor. I knew I could do this.

And so, with visions of myself in goggles, gloves, and hard hat, cheerfully ripping out plaster walls to create that spacious feeling, I set out on my search for The Would-be-Perfect-If-Only House. I won’t bore you with tales of the monsters I looked at. After a while I started naming these unfortunates, just to amuse myself: The Brady Bunch House; Pure Gold (a local club offering gentleman’s entertainment—more on this later); The Twilight Zone; and, my personal favorite, Shag Central. It was enough to give a girl neuralgia.

I was on a mission, though, and would not be dissuaded. After work and on the weekends, I’d drive around, seeking out new neighborhoods, wondering if I really needed to live in the city limits after all. My car was filled with scraps of paper, For-Sale-By-Owner addresses and phone numbers, illegible MLS numbers, coffee stained classified sections and real estate guides. Armed with information, I felt more confused now than when I’d begun.

Something good was happening to me, though, in the midst of all this chaos: I was learning. Where once I would have driven by a yellow bungalow for sale and thought, “Oh, how pretty,” now I looked to the state of the roof, the condition of the siding, whether the house had central air. I could estimate square footage at a glance, and relate the history of many neighborhoods; I could tell you about FHA loan programs to rehabilitate properties; I knew about mortgage rates and financing and appraisals. Slowly but surely, I was becoming a knowledgeable consumer.

There was one house I’d gone through months before, in the very beginning of my search. In fact, I’d gone so far as to have it inspected before finding—and losing—the infamous dream house. The two of them were in the same neighborhood, about three blocks apart. The difference was this: Dream House #1, like most of the houses on its block, had already been renovated. House #2 was, um, in an up-and-coming part of the area. Relete with potential, it had hardwood floors, high ceilings, a front porch with a cool purple swing, privacy-fenced yard, clawfoot tub, French doors, and an artist’s loft. It also had roof damage, no insulation, no storm windows, rotting porch boards, green-and-white pinstriped asbestos siding, lead paint, a water heater encased in a floor-to-ceiling blue box that was ensconced in the kitchen, and neighbors who viewed their porch as either an extra room or additional storage. Oh, and the stairs top the artist’s loft in the attic were hazardous to tall people and those with poor balance. A peculiar metal pipe ran from floor to ceiling, and the first time through, a supportive friend of mine favored both the real estate agent and myself with an elaborate pole dance, thus earning the house its nickname—you guessed it, Pure Gold.

I’d loved the house at the time, peculiarities and all. Better judgment prevailed, though—taking into account the fact that I suffer from severe mechanical malaise, I decided to keep looking. In the wake of Brady Bunch and Shag Central, I decided to reconsider. My beleaguered real estate agent, my said supportive friend, and I went back through the house again. And again. Each time, I found something else that needed to be fixed. And each time, the house took a greater hold on my heart.

My parents came to visit. They saw the house. With alarm on their faces, they assured me that they respected my opinion. And the house was charming. Adorable. Had a lot of potential. But...

I took another friend for a ride-by, at night. The neighborhood was quiet, no one outside. Just as I was feeling proud and certain that she would understand why I loved it so, she turned to me and said, “Should I lock my doors?”

I told my long-distance college buddies that I might buy a house. Most of them were aghast at the thought.

I made an offer.

So here I am now, an almost-homeowner. I don’t close on the house until next month, which gives me plenty of time to doubt my decision. Between panic attacks, I’ve been going to paint stores and selecting color schemes, getting names of good contractors. I even bought a book called The Renovating Woman, complete with pictures of tools and instructions on developing the right attitude. All things considered, I think I’m doing pretty well at building my confidence.

But I guess the real test will come when, hammer in hand, I confront my demons. Stubborn as I am, I’m determined to create a dream house of my own—even if I have to chip my new fingernail polish in the process. Besides, it’ll give me an excuse to use that Passionfruit Purple everyone’s been talking about.

* * *

For readers who may be house-hunting, let me share what I learned about the true meaning of oft-used terms in the real estate lexicon.

Cozy = Small.

Adorable = Really small.

Cute = Fit for munchkins.

Dollhouse = Like it sounds, complete with pastel paint job.

Quaint = Raggedy.

Charming = Quaint.

In need of a little TLC = Plumbing and/or wiring last updated in 1941.

As-Is = Professional contractors and suckers only.

Handyman’s Special = Oy vey.

Lots of potential = Lime-green shag carpet and faux-wood paneling.

Up-and-Coming neighborhood = Ghetto with lots of potential.

Investor’s Delight = Woe betide you.

Creative Financing Available = They’ll do anything to unload this beast.

Motivated sellers = Creative financing available.

Convenient = On heavily trafficked road with no stoplights.

Ocean view = Technically, maybe, but only while peering out the window above the toilet.

Ocean-front = Buy lots of hurricane insurance.

Short commute = Boonies, baby!

Picturesque setting = Boonies with a view.

Economical and spacious = Doublewide.

Will move fast = They don’t believe this, and neither should you.

Fabulous = You probably can’t afford it.

This article and others in Real Life are sponsored by Julia
Wilkinson, author of Moxie's "Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire" and the book "My Life at AOL" which is available at http://www.amazon.com or

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