The house hunt. For some, it’s a time of anticipation and excitement. For others, it’s a source of dread. I’m not sure what I think of it.
For one thing, our budget is still downsized, so we’re looking at houses that have “issues” of one kind or another. Often, they’ve been the centerpiece to a foreclosure, for one reason or another. Sometimes, it’s quite obvious the last occupants were not happy when they left, and vented much of their anger on the house itself.
We have seen some doozies too. Some have obviously housed vagrants on a temporary basis, or been the location of some other less-than-legal activity. Some have had animals make them their homes for a while. Others, well, I guess the house just gave up, because it seemed to be literally falling down. We’ve seen houses that were far beyond habitable, and we’ve seen houses that just needed a spark to bring them back to life.
We’ve also encountered something that has finally provided us with the incentive to leave the Gulf Coast too. It’s called “FEMA” and what it means is there is a list of properties essentially condemned in the initial post-Katrina surveys of communities and rural property. The real problem is that this list is NOT available to the public, and as a result, enforcement seems to occur somewhat randomly. Real estate agents, loan officers, banks, insurance companies, and even building departments also don’t seem to have access to this list. In fact, we were told the only one with access was the mayor of one small town (for that town.)
I don’t like secret lists. I don’t like the idea that we could buy a piece of property, repair and renovate it, and then…at some future date, have some one come along and tell us that we had to move out because we couldn’t live in it and have utilities anymore. What is even more unsettling is that we could buy insurance on this property, and when the unthinkable happens (which is why you own insurance) the insurance company could say, oh, gee that’s too bad, but your house was condemned in 2005, and we aren’t going to cover your fire/flood/storm damage. (Yes, I know that flood insurance is separate, essentially underwritten by FEMA, but I do know of a case where flood insurance was obtained, and then the city refused the “certificate of occupancy” based on that 2005 survey.)
We had a narrow miss on just such a scenario with less than 48 hours to closing. I kept thinking about it, as well as the family that bought a house, closed, and then were told that it was a condemned structure and had to be raised or razed. Random and arbitrary enforcement of this secret list put me off on buying anything in the coastal counties, as there is no way we could know for certain that our new home wasn’t included. For that matter, there isn’t any way of knowing whether or not anyone hasn’t had that sentence of doom delivered when in fact their home isn’t on the list at all–no one has access to the list!
As far as I was concerned, my coastal living days were numbered, and it was a low number. I wanted inland, where we wouldn’t be facing evacuation for storms nor worrying about storm surge and flood from one. It’s one thing to have it occur as a surprise, when rains come to hard or a dam fails…it’s another to know it’s going to happen if a tropical storm or hurricane makes land fall too close. We just don’t have enough financial or emotional investment in coastal life, I guess. I don’t see any reason to make it either, it’s too transitory.
Crossing Harrison, Hancock, and Jackson counties off of our list of potential home counties in Mississippi seemed to take stress off. We had made part of our decision, and we were free of the evacuation scenario now. No more wondering where we would go and where we would stay when it happens next time, because it was not ever a case of an “if”…it’s inevitable, and with global warming, we’re told it will happen more often than in the past. Typically, it seems that about every 20 years, the region sees a “major event” such as Katrina or Camille. That would mean that when the next one came, I’d be approaching the “elderly” stage of life, hardly a good time to deal with all of those issues. The elderly evacuees I had known during the first days after Katrina were the ones that were hardest hit emotionally and financially–it’s not a good time in one’s life to start all over again.
That still gives us a vast area to search for our new home. We’ve started the search, looked at some more houses, and while I was still thinking small and compact, I was learning something too.
Small houses are often newer houses, supposedly “energy efficient” or “more energy efficient” than the older, more spacious homes of days gone by. Still, we ended up looking at some older homes, and that’s when I discovered something new to me.
These older homes, even without air conditioning or electricity to operate them, were usually cool, fresher smelling, and well lit. The smaller homes of more modern construction (post 1940) were usually hot, stuffy, and often smelled musty, as well as being dark and more than a little creepy. Maybe I’m wrong, but my thinking indicates that if a home is cool and comfortable inside when it is 90 degrees or hotter outside in the summer, it’s likely to be equally comfortable in winter when it is 30 degrees outside. Even if it isn’t very warm inside, I know I cope a lot better with cool than I do heat anyhow! (For one thing, warm clothes goes a long ways to having a warm body, but being a nudist isn’t my idea of fun post-50!)
Maybe small and newer isn’t necessarily better? Maybe “recycling” one of these older homes is more environmentally friendly than it is to consider building new or retrofitting a newer house?
I’m not sure, we’re still “hunting” for that place that says “this is home” to us. But…I keep thinking about where our daughter lives, in a modern, energy efficient home. Once the temperature outside hits about 75 degrees, their house is a stuffy oven to me, with poor air flow. It also seems dark, unless electric lights are used, and most rooms don’t have enough natural daylight to allow me to even read easily. I don’t find that cave-like feeling “homey”–I’m not an animal seeking a den, but a middle aged woman seeking a home.
One home in our price range and regarded as “move in ready” was viewed by us with one of our favorite real estate agents (ever looking in Lucedale, MS area–give Russell Evans a call–he’s great!) The house wasn’t listed by him, but we prefer dealing with him, so we had given him a call. When he unlocked the house and the door was opened, I was immediately aware of a musty, empty house smell. I didn’t like that–it makes me worry about mold. Inside, the tiny three bedroom house was cramped, with the most impossible looking kitchen I had ever seen. While GM had ideas on renovating the kitchen to make it workable, and we could cope with the three tiny bedrooms (none of which were big enough to allow walking space and a king size bed), the yard was really the negative despite being fenced with chain link (great for our dogs.) It was tiny, and the backyard, while it faced a small neighborhood park, was incredibly sloped. Large trees overshadowed everything, making gardening a near impossibility. I just couldn’t see the yard working for us–there was no way to garden, no garage, no space for a work shop…and not even any place to store a lawn mower.
I have found several homes with great kitchens, but bad kitchens are much more common. So what makes a bad kitchen? First, it’s tiny space and poorly designed work areas. Sinks crammed into corners or beside doors are a huge “yuck”, and I’m equally un-thrilled with stove locations that appear to be an afterthought. Plenty of counter space, a dishwasher (or a place where one could be installed) are huge pluses. Pantries are actually rare in this part of the country, even in older homes. I happen to be one of the few people that actually LIKES a well designed narrow galley kitchen, especially with doors at either end. I really like it when they open to the outside on one end (great for carrying in groceries) and to the dining area/room on the other (great for serving). I also like, probably because of childhood experiences, a country kitchen that features a “kitchen table” in the center, as part of the working triangle. Essentially, in that design, the table becomes a work island during meal preparation, in addition to serving as space for casual meals or snacks, as well as having a cup of coffee while baking.
Living spaces for us are flexible. We know we need office space, and ideally, we’d not have that in our public living room or “front room” as it was called in my childhood. Back in those days, the front room was a more user friendly version of the old fashioned parlor. A den was even less formal, often the preferred location of men, and usually the location of the lone family television set too. (Yes, they were often black and white and in a huge console when I was a kid!) The den would also often have the book shelves and desk that served as the home office.
Few families have formal dining rooms today. Our houses aren’t big enough often, and the dining room doesn’t seem to feature strongly in family culture either. When I was a kid, the dining room was where most family meals were held, especially when they included the head of the family (i.e. the man!). Informal meals for the kids happened in the kitchen, along with snacks. The dining room held the china cabinet, buffet, the large table, and typically was set up to seat eight people. Holiday or special occasions when more were seated usually meant that the children (or the youngest children) were banished to the kitchen table or a card table. These tables often had table cloths, featured the “good” china, and also featured food served in serving dishes rather than directly from the pot or pan in which is was prepared. It also meant plenty of dish washing, as we always had not only our dinner plates, but also separate dishes for our salad, our vegetables, and our dessert. I also never remember a big family meal that didn’t feature my mother preparing an elaborate “relish tray” with everything from carrot curls to exotic pickles that she made herself all summer long, from pickled green beans to watermelon pickles. We adored these tiny bite-sized treats, and were threatened with bodily harm if we dared touch the trays before the arrival of our dinner guests too.
I’m not planning on trying to return to days-gone-by. We don’t have the large extended family living nearby, and we certainly don’t entertain in the same way. Our lives have changed immensely from when my great grandmother arrived to join in on a summer croquet game to shock us all with her appearance in a pair of our great grandfather’s pants (that was the ONLY time I ever saw her wearing anything but a dress!) Today, we’re more likely to entertain with a casual gathering around a barbecue grill or over a rustic pot of stew than we are with a formal dinner. Besides, I lack my mother’s grace and skill at being able to prepare the elaborate meal and then serve it with everything at the right temperature, in the right dishes, at the right time, while making it all look easy. (Never mind that it often included a week or more of preparation beforehand.) I’m also older than she was when she indulged in that–today, she’s just as apt as anyone to have entertaining include the guests help cook AND serve the food.
We don’t know what house we’ll end up buying. We don’t know exactly where either. We do know that we want it to be a place we can call home. We would like it to have a big yard, spacious kitchen, and a home office. We’d love it if it was fenced and included a garage. We don’t have a very stringent “must have” list, actually. I hope that when we do find the perfect place, it also comes with the perfect price tag, because ultimately, that’s our bottom line for the perfect home. It has to come with the right price.