When I knew it was time to move–my grandkids were growing up without me, Squalor on the River was bankrupting me, Lani and Alastair needed a place of their own–I made a list of things I wanted in my next home. Within four hours of the grandkids. Small. On the water. Two bedrooms with room to put a third bed temporarily for three goddesses. Two bathrooms because I’m paranoid about bathrooms. Cheap. Room for the dogs to roam. Then I started looking on the internet.
You can find all of that on the water within four hours of my daughter, but you’re going to pay for it because she lives near NYC. The northern Chesapeake looked wonderful but was pricey. Oceanfront was either out of the question or awful, plus the insurance there is just insane, and that was before Sandy. Then I mentioned to my editor that I wanted to be on a lake or a river close to Mollie. She said, “Lake Hopatcong.”
I couldn’t afford that, either. But that put me in northwestern NJ, someplace I hadn’t looked before. I wanted warmer, not colder, but when I checked the planting zones, this area was the same as southern Ohio. (In practice, it’s been a little colder, but not much.) So I started looking on NJ lakes without knowing anything about them, and I found a picture of a little cottage, built in the 30s. It was so charming it made my heart hurt, it was on half an acre (that’s HUGE for lakefront), it had its own boat house and dock (not that I had a boat), it had three bedrooms and two bathrooms. I called the realtor.
I was heading for NYC shortly anyway for the RWA national conference, so on my way I stopped to look at the place. The first difficulty was finding it; remote doesn’t begin to describe it. I’m very careful about not putting my address on the net, but this place is almost as bad as Krissie’s: I give people directions and they can’t find it. It’s on a one-lane road, which gave me a great deal of pause. There are no street lights, the road signs are all small and confusing because the roads change names. By the time I got there, I was thinking, Uh, no. Then I saw the house.
The yard was full of grass and weeds and overgrown peonies. The front door handle is bent and the door sticks. The inside was full of dark woodwork, some of it painted dried-blood red. Some of the walls were ugly paneling. Some of the floors were hideous pink vinyl sheet. The edge of the fridge stuck out into the hall because the kitchen was so tiny. The appliances were from the 80s, which is not a charming time for vintage appliances. The kitchen was 5’x 6′ (forget “eat-in,” this wasn’t a “cook-in” kitchen). The main floor bathroom was less than 48″ wide. The downstairs bathroom was riddled with mold. In fact all of the very dark, paneled walk-out basement, divided into five rooms including one of the bedrooms, was riddled with mold. The half acre was mostly vertical with a steep drop to the lake. The whole place was uninsulated with single pane windows. The upstairs was a finished attic under the eaves with only a three-foot strip down the middle with six-foot ceilings. And it had been vacant for over two years.
It was a nightmare, it was at the top of my $200K budget, it was inconveniently located, and it was full of mold (I’m asthmatic). But it was also full of light with two bay windows, and the land it was sitting on was wooded and gorgeous, and it was an hour from my grandkids and an hour from NYC, and from the minute I walked in, I knew it was everything I wanted.
“I love it,” I told the realtor.
“Everybody loves it,” she said, “I love it, too, But nobody can figure out how to fix it.”
I could figure out how to fix it, but it was going to take big bucks, it was already at the top of my budget, it was hell-and-gone remote, it really wasn’t feasible.
“I really love it,” I told the realtor. “Let me bring a friend of mine back to see it next week.”
I went to National in NYC where I was rooming with Krissie who was going back to Ohio with me when the conference was over. “There’s this cottage,” I said. “I want you to look at it with me on the way home and tell me not to buy it.”
“Of course,” she said.
When we got to the cottage, Krissie bonded with the realtor while I walked through again, trying to remind myself of what a money pit this was all going to be. It would be a nightmare. My daughter had looked at the listing and told me buying it would be incredibly stupid. My money situation was rapidly getting worse, not better (you don’t write a book, you don’t get paid). I went back to the living room with Krissie and sat down beside her. “What do you think?” I said.
Like a true friend, she listed all the things that were wrong with it, how it was too expensive, how the mold was devastating, how it would be a money pit, a nightmare, how some things weren’t fixable.
“I know,” I said.
“But I love it,” Krissie said. “I think you should buy it. You’ll figure out a way to fix it and be happy here.”
“Let’s talk about it on the way to Ohio,” I said and then we had to leave because this young couple had come in to go through the house while I was there, and they’d just come in to talk to the realtor. The wife had stars in her eyes and I knew how she felt. Sometimes you just fall in love with a place. “They’re going to buy it,” I told Krissie when we were back in the car, and I felt both relieved and sad. But it really wasn’t feasible for me to buy that house.
The couple put in an offer on the house and it was accepted. But seeing the house had been a great introduction to the area, and I loved the realtor, so I e-mailed her and said, “I know the cottage is gone, but keep an eye out for me, please.” She e-mailed back and said, “The cottage is not gone, that sale is never going to go through.” The couple wanted a guarantee that the house wouldn’t need more than $10,000 in repair, which was ludicrous. It was going to need insulated, a new roof, a new paint job (paint peeling down to naked wood), all new appliances, a new furnace, new windows, a new septic system, the plumbing redone (galvanized is not good after forty years and this stuff had been around for eighty), the driveway repaved, the steps to the lake redone, and the basement completely gutted and de-molded. “Are they nuts?” I said. “Evidently,” the realtor said, and sure enough the deal fell through.
By then I was beyond broke, but I wanted the cottage. So I cashed in my state teacher’s retirement pension over the screams of anybody who knew anything about money, and bought the place for two-thirds of the asking price because it was a cash deal. No mortgage, I love that. Then I wiped out most of what was left of my meager investments and got the place painted to stabilize the outside, put on the new roof, and gutted the basement to clear out the mold. Then I came to stay for a couple of days, peeled the wallpaper off the main floor walls and found mold there, too. The whole main floor was going to have to be gutted. So much for painting the walls and moving in.
I took the last of my money and gutted the main floor.
Shortly after that I hit a deer, found out I had diabetes and AMD, had the book I was writing fail miserably with every beta reader including my editor, watched my three-year-old puppy die, and bottomed out on my savings. I was in crisis, my old way of life wasn’t working any more, Squalor on the River was going to end up back in the bank’s hands, and my dream cottage was a shell. I came a little unglued and then I called my daughter, the one who told me I was stupid to buy the place, the one who’s my business manager and who had watched me run through my savings while she gritted her teeth and said nothing beyond, “This isn’t the best thing to do with your money.”
“So you were right,” I said, “but I love that place and I want to live there and I’m out of money.” Then I braced myself for the “I told you so.”
“Okay,” she said. “We’ll make it happen.” She went to my last remaining pension, talked the guys who run it (and who are fabulous, by the way) into prying out enough money to put in insulation, walls, plumbing for the kitchen and one bathroom, and electricity, and got me into the cottage as of Feb. 1. The contractor and his guys are still here working, I’m not going to have a real kitchen for another year probably and possibly two (as in counters and cabinets), the floors look like hell because they’re covered with evil black mastic from the old vinyl, and there’s still a slight mold problem in the basement (working on it), but I’m in here to stay and it’s perfect.
I’m in the front bedroom right now. It’s tiny–9’x 9′–which turns out is the perfect size. There’s a twin bed next to the big bay window–Veronica is in there now, bitching at the landscape for moving in the wind–the walls are blue, there’s a crystal hanging from the light pull in the center of the room, and Mona is resting her head on my hip as I type this. The room is full of light and dogs, and I’m happy. Squalor on the River is still dragging me down, and I have to write a book, and I’m behind on the McD stuff still, but if I stay in the moment, in this bedroom, in this cottage, I’m incredibly content. This is where I’m supposed to be. Krissie was right. Squalor on the Lake is the perfect place for me to live.
Nothing but good times ahead.