Friday, January 31, 2014

House With Stairs: January 2014

The few quiet moments I've had to sit and reflect on the events that gave us this house upon our move to Maryland leave me with such a sense of awe and utter bewilderment.  Words from Pride and Prejudice echo in my head; the place where Elizabeth tells Jane that she is entirely undeserving of (matrimonial) joy because of perceived failures in her personality: "Until I have your... goodness I could never have your happiness." 

I feel just that way, completely overwhelmed with joy at owning a house again, and yet totally undeserving of this particular one.  It makes me wonder what works-based gospel I've been buying all these years. I've been given salvation, new life, the holy spirit, and so many material things despite my inability to do anything to earn them.  Do I really still think, even in the tiniest way, that God only gives us things that we deserve? 

Not a chance.  No way.  Every day I think about it and am in awe all over again.

The first thing God gave us was a new job and a moving contract, complete with a small allowance for a house hunting trip.  We still planned to find a rental and live in the area for a while so we would know where we wanted to live.  That's when a few close family members stepped in and gave us some very good advice.  Craig's sister, especially, encouraged us to be open to looking to buy right away.  Having made a cross-country move with small children, a rental nightmare, and then another move right away, she was in a position to understand just how hard it is to bring kids through all that upheaval.

We decided to start looking, which for us meant evenings after the kids were in bed on searching through listings.  One particular one caught Craig's eye: an empty foreclosure on two acres in the Fair Hill area of Maryland.  What he did see, he liked.  Loved, really.  The large upstairs space.  The simple and stately outdoor landscaping.  It was hard to tell just what it was like.  There were ten pictures, most featuring a white wall and a window.  Nothing of kitchen, bathrooms, or other features usually photographed.  Ever my realistic self, I told Craig that the kitchen was probably a burned-out hole with cement poured in the pipes and to not get his hopes up.

So we did just that, making our top-ten list and writing this listing into the margins as "not enough info".  Our #1 pick was a house in Pennsylvania that looked promising.  It was also on two acres, but the house was smaller and seemed more manageable.  On our first afternoon in the area, we drove past the first few houses on our list and were dismayed that nothing seemed to be a good option.  #1 was on a steep hill with a road at the bottom, making the yard unusable.  #2 was made of stucco, which has problems in the area.  #3 was just plain expensive.

Crestfallen, we were on our way back to the hotel when Craig recognized the turnoff to the foreclosure from his time looking longingly at it on GoogleEarth.  We decided to drive by.  As we entered the secluded little court of twelve houses, we couldn't help but notice that it was flat, peaceful, and so beautiful.  We parked in front and stared at the brick house and the pie-shaped lot.  It looked amazing.

"The kitchen is probably a burned out hole," I reminded Craig.  Then I noticed a neighbor out in his yard.  On a whim, I approached and was given a friendly greeting and a ton of information on the house, the neighborhood, and the situation.  It had been a sore spot in the neighborhood for a while, standing empty after a messy divorce and both spouses moving out of state.  Despite the neglect, it was thought to be in pretty good condition with new paint, new carpet, and a full tank of propane. 
At that point we were really curious, but we had to wait two more days to see it because it wasn't on our original list. 
The kitchen was NOT a burned out hole.  The bathrooms were dated and dirty, but we could both see the potential.  Fixed up, this would be a really cool house.
Getting it "fixed up" would also be a chore.  We'd have to inspect it rigorously and then buy as-is, doing the repairs ourselves after we moved in.  The state of the toilets, clogged and stained with red iron deposits, revealed that the house had been winterized, the water supply needed reconditioning, and there were water leaks to fix.  Taking on the job would be a leap of faith for us.
We finished the day talking over our list at Panera.  Right away, I could tell that Craig was mentally moving in.  He was smitten with the house.  I liked it, too, but I was thinking over all the unknowns and the obvious expenses.  Even with all the work that needed to be done, it seemed like a good financial move.  It also helped that the bank dropped the price 35k right before we came out to look.  That would help us make repairs.  If it wasn't this house, we would have to rent.  There was no obvious second choice that we were optimistic about.  We prayed, slept on it, and decided to make an offer.
We knew we wanted the house, but it was anything but easy at first.  There were multiple offers on the table.  The selling bank was known to be unresponsive.  This was probably not going to work out; or worse, give us hope only to tie us up for a few weeks and then fall through.  We considered raising our offer to above asking price, but felt like we'd need the money to repair the house if we were going to make it work.  Instead of eating my salmon at The Cheesecake Factory that night, I worried the wait staff by pacing outside the restaurant on the phone, hashing out the details of the purchase offer with our realtor.  Back at the hotel, we signed the offer and settled  in for a long wait.
Back home in Florida with no news, the wait was agonizing.  I had to pray every fifteen minutes for the right outcome and strength to focus on my family and not be worried. Most of all, we prayed for the right outcome based on facts we had no way of knowing.  We didn't want the house if it was the wrong thing for us.  If that meant renting a three-story townhouse and starting the house hunt over again in a few months, then we would do that. 
On the morning of Craig's first day back at work, we got the call.  Our offer was accepted! 

 It is also interesting to note that by this point Craig was already supposed to have lost his job at USDA.  Due to a paperwork mixup, he was not informed of this for another month, until we were well into escrow and the decision had already been made.  I think this, too, is so cool: if we had known that there would be a between-job hiatus, we probably would've been scared off any house purchase whatsoever.  Thank you, God, for the federal government!!!

The loan process was, unfortunately, very long and hard.  The lending climate has changed a lot since the last time we waved our W2's in the general direction of the bank and got our last mortgage.  Renting for a few years and being debt free moved us into the murky realm of "insufficient credit history", meaning they needed miles of paper trail to establish our identities as people who pay bills. 
The house gets rave reviews for everyone seeing it for the first time.  Ally kitty has a convenient closet in the mudroom for her nights, and lots of places to hide from the kids during the day.  The kids love the stairs and are doing very well learning routines of going up and down.  We were unsure whether to gate, but so far it's going well.  We were so relieved to finally move in and get to work. We got a lot done in the first two weeks, but the list of repairs is still long and seems overwhelming at times.
We're enjoying our brand new washer and dryer, but not so much the fact that it vents into the garage.  My handy father-in-law rigged the vent to at least go out the doggie door instead of spew hot steam into a freezing cold garage every time we dry a load.  The peeling paint proves just what a bad idea that was in the first place.  We're getting an estimate and hopefully a game plan for that this afternoon.  Once the vent goes through the crawl space and to the exterior like it's supposed to, we can replace the rusted and permanently locked exterior garage door with its rotted casing.  Right now, if it's eleven degrees outside it's eleven degrees in the garage, and tiny sparrows use the doggie door to go in and out.
Window coverings are also on our immediate list.  Right now we're coping by changing in the master closet.  So many of these things need to be done soon, but time and money are limited commodities right now.  We don't want to make any of these decisions too fast and create bad fixes that will just have to be redone later. 
Finally this week every piece of furniture is placed and we don't have any stray pieces hanging out in the empty parlor.  It's always such fun to see where your old stuff fits in a new house, even if it's just your too-small kitchen table becoming your laundry sorting table in the mudroom.
The best part of the house for me is that it's big enough for a few rooms to just stand fixed and clean while the kids and I run through the rest making messes.  In the Florida house where we used and abused all two thousand square feet on a regular basis I never realized how starved for peace and beauty I felt at home sometimes.  Right now I just step into my pristine dining room with Grandma's table that no longer has applesauce smeared on it and I can feel better. 
We are also proud owners of a couch!  We've never bought one before, getting by with hand-me-downs for the last eleven years.  We let go of our last one before leaving Kentucky, keeping only our love seat to make do in Florida.  It's amazing how much the couch and chair made us feel moved in. 
 The gas fireplace is finally up and running, or at least one of them is.  The one in the sunroom was pronounced DOA, having a laundry list of code violations that would make it impossible to resucitate.  We're making do with the one in the living room.
It's a luxury we enjoy after the kids go to bed, as the glass gets really hot.
 For the past two months I've been carrying our perishables from the mudroom through the living room to the kitchen several times a day.  The only fridge on purchase was in there, and we thought it too old and dirty to move into the kitchen.  Our empty fridge area is currently known as "the trash hole", because it houses our broom, garbage can, and recycling.  All that changes on Tuesday, though.
Come to Momma, you beautiful thing.  I'm soooo ready for you!!!
We've weathered a few days already where it was too cold to go out, and sometimes for a moment the house feels like a very beautiful prison.  I wish we had neighbors with kids our ages, but at least we have plenty of room to start inviting guests!
That's the story of the house with stairs.  We have our list of repairs to be done asap regardless of cost, our list of repairs to do as soon as our budget allows, and a wish list that will likely last us till the kids are well into school.  We know, however, what a blessing this house is for us and are so thankful every single moment.
Absolutely every step of this process was fine-tuned by God and we're so grateful.  Even now with interest rates going up and babysitting starting at ten dollars an hour, we are so glad to have the house hunt behind us.  Fixing up a house is so much more fun than looking!
Craig says he feels incredible coming home every night and walking around with the kids.  Even with a snow shovel in his hand. 

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Life in Maryland: January 2014

Here is the crew enjoying a rare moment of peace and cooperation in the room they've dubbed "the third floor". House With Stairs boasts a finished attic that is every kid's dream of space to run and spread toys and every mother's dream of play space that doesn't need to be picked up at night. For now, it's gated in the middle to give Devon some security about keeping his cars and trains up there, but he's been asking to open the gate and "let my precious girlies come to my side and play".
Everyone is asking how the kids who say they're freezing in seventy degree weather are processing a move to a colder place.  Thankfully, we feel it's going pretty well, although this setup that Devon rigged with a space heater was not a good idea.  Right now Devon's big thing is the adoption of a current favorite word: NEVER.  I think it's helping him adjust to the complete newness of life and the very legitimate question of why absolutely nothing is as it was before.

Devon: (grabbing a toy from the girls) Hah!  Now you'll never get to do that again!
Mommy:  Devon, give it back and apologize.
Devon: I'll never do that!
Mommy: Okay, well then time out (getting up).
Devon: (handing back the toy) Now you'll never have to see me have time out!  Never, ever, ever!
The best part of Maryland for all three is, I am sure, the snow!  It was such a blessing when the first snow gave the kids something to look out at in the first few cold days in the new house.
Devon got to build his first Maryland snowman, make his first snow angel, and develop a serious attachment to shoveling snow.  When Daddy shovels off our long driveway, a huge chore that we might just have to give up and do this winter because we're too overwhelmed to add a snowblower to our long list of household things to research and buy, Devon goes out too and gleefully makes circles around Daddy, pushing a huge pile of snow before him all across the yard in crazy patterns.

Devon's love of things is often measured by the length of his meltdown when they are over.  His tantrum coming in from the snow for the first time will hold the record for a long, long time.

Forty.  Five.  Minutes.

Devon: I'll never get to play in the snow again, Mommy.  Never, never, never, never, never!
 Yep, he loves the snow!  Even a trip to the car from the store can be an opportunity to sneak in some snow time if he bolts at the right moment.
 I've been as creative as possible to try and fill the cold days with new experiences.  90% off cookie decorating kits are nice, but so messy.  I know nobody likes to hear a mommy complain about cleaning up the kid mess, but I struggle with what to do with the kids while I clean up.

Devon: You're never going to see this cookie again, Mommy!  Never, never, never!  It's going to be IN MY STOMACH!  If you want to see it again, too bad!  Never going to happen!
 We've been trying to rotate activities, from play dough to paper dolls to coloring and back again.
Mealtimes in the new place are awesome!!!  The girls outgrew their high chairs as the move unfolded, and were able to transition easily into sitting at the table and feeding themselves exclusively from day one in the new house.  It's a transition I was putting off selfishly because of the food mess, but it was time.  Our first weekend as a family of five included a fool's errand drive to Dover, DE to pick up a used table and six chairs advertised on Craigslist.  The table has been such a blessing, being exactly big enough to seat the five of us without too much grabby hand interference and exactly small enough that I can reach all three kids across the table if I need to.  At $180 it's been by far our cheapest house purchase and it's not so special that I cringe at the yogurt handprints and crumbs that mar the surface.

We topped off the day with lunch at Chick-fil-A and the coldest beach trip ever!
As we stepped out of the car at Woodland Beach, I marveled at the cold and decided to keep the girls in the car.  As Daddy and Devon went out onto a tiny sandbar, I checked my weather app and it was 21 degrees!  On the way home, father and son told me all about it.  As they walked, ice and sand crunched around their shoes.  Devon has been asking to go back to the crunchy beach ever since.
This is what play group looks like!  A Methodist church in Delaware hosts every Thursday, snow or no.  It is so, so nice.  It's also interesting that I feel much less housebound here than in Florida already.  This playgroup would probably be at the beach in Florida and I couldn't join in.  There are so many places to play with four walls and a door.  We've joined MOPS, the closest thing to The Buggy Bunch around here, and are hopeful to make inroads into friendships very soon. 
Speaking of getting out more, this is a picture that wouldn't have been possible in Florida.  My three kids enjoying the sunshine after lunch while I calmly stand outside in one place and hold the camera.  


It's a new experience for me to say "let's go outside" and have three kids run to the mudroom, put on their shoes and coats, and just go outside.  We're so grateful to have two acres here to give us a safety buffer against wandering.  So far, the kids instinctively stay close to the house and as long as I can keep all three in sight it's actually relaxing for me.  I can't describe how it felt the first time we did this.  It was sort of euphoric, like the top of my head was going to lift off.  It was also terrifying, because I had no idea what all three would do when I said it was time to come in.  Run in different directions?  Head for the road?  

When I yelled "Okay, time for hot chocolate!"  all three drove their scooters back into the garage and filed into the mudroom like they did it every day.  Unbelievable. 
We even go enjoy the snow while Daddy's at work.  The space makes all the difference.  I can't help but think that this will be a great place for them to grow up.
I'm such a sucker for little winter clothes.  These are from Auntie Amy and made the girls super happy.
I feel like I've missed out on two years of dressing the girls in fleeces and footie jammies and have lots of catching up to do.  Yes, the girls have been persuaded to wear jammies to bed, although I usually have to sneak back upstairs to zip Carrie's back up because she zips them down to stick a finger in her bellybutton as she sucks her thumb to sleep.
The kids were so disappointed by the first snow melt that we were actually grateful when twelve more inches arrived last week.  We watched the snowfall from the huge den windows.
Then we set to work.
Saturday morning mommy and Devon made pancakes to fortify us for a long day of snow play.
Yes, those are our repurposed sand rakes and shovels.  Hahahaha!!
Then we solved a pressing problem: what to do about a sledding hill on our very flat land.
Turns out, our back steps make a perfect toddler sized hill.  So cool, and so nice of Daddy to keep replenishing it as every run eroded it.  So much fun!

Devon:  You'll never get to do that again, my precious girlies.  All the turns will be MINE!
Mommy: Devon.......