It starts with a murder.
The house is small. It’s designated as a “ranch,” because it’s a single story, and built in 1965 . . . but devoid of any kind of stylish pitched ceilings, large windows looking onto a landscaped backyard, or other hallmarks of the genre.
Thick cream-colored shag carpet fills a fairly standard-sized living room furnished with mismatched grandma-style pieces. Past a forgotten front door and down a dark, narrow hallway are three small bedrooms with other variously colored shag carpeting (mustard, green, and mustard again). Horizontal windows set high up on the walls create privacy . . . from the deer that nibble on the bushes below them? Or to hide the crime that has happened behind them. The remaining rooms — a cramped kitchen and a narrow, extraneous sitting room that I don’t understand, and through which I’ve entered to check the place out — sport gray industrial carpet.
Yes, the kitchen is carpeted. It’s all these carpets, I assume, that are giving the house its mildewy fragrance, prompting me to breathe through my mouth as I continue my walk-through. I hate mildew.
Oh, and there’s a bathroom, also off the slim hallway, and entered through a door that smacks into the toilet when you open it. A fiberglass shower made for the elderly (handrails, built-in seat) covers over the small window that mysteriously appears only on the outside of the house. Across from the bathroom is a door to the basement.
We will not talk about the basement. It’s too obvious. Nor do we need to consider the big-windowed “breakfast nook,” added in the 1980s, and clad floor-to-ceiling in knotty pine even though there’s not a stick of knotty pine or other “country” decor anywhere else in the place. We will not talk of it, because the murder of this house started before that, in small measures: Dull-colored photos of family members with awkward adolescent haircuts that are only out-awkwarded by their placement on the walls — way above eye level and/or with no relation to the space or furniture below them. A small, framed piece of Chinoiserie (or maybe it’s Mexican?) hung crookedly between the fireplace and the kitchen. A mail slot outside on the back wall of the house that conducts letters to the floor of a (carpeted) closet inside.
“Isn’t this great?” the seller’s agent asks us. “You don’t have to go outside.”
I pull my own agent aside and ask her what she thinks I’d need to put into this ugly duckling of a house on top of the $385,000 asking price. And no, there are no lovely hardwood floors lurking under the carpets, ready for a swan-like release. Instead there is a “subfloor,” likely made of 60-year-old plywood. There’s no laundry room — the washing machine and dryer have been relocated from the basement to the smallest bedroom on the main floor, squeezed in next to a twin bed.
“Like a hundred thousand?” I ask my agent quietly.
“I’d say more like two, based on what you’d want to do,” my agent answers. That includes knocking down a most certainly load-bearing wall separating the kitchen and living room, and adding a master bath. My own sweat equity is assumed.
This is the process of house hunting in the post-pandemic market in Columbia County, New York. A scenario like the one above, or alternatively, one where the home really just needs cosmetic updates, is priced accordingly, a bidding war ensues the day it’s listed, and a cash offer wins. I’ve been scooped twice by cash offers.
I go home to Google “small ranch home makeovers” and think about whether I should put an offer in.
By the by, this murderous little house is also a reality check on why more homes don’t have energy-efficient systems.
The house is heated during the long Northeast winters using #2 fuel oil, a pricey crude oil that powers a boiler in the basement to generate hot air that it forces out of metal doohickeys hitched onto the baseboards without ceremony (or aesthetics). The house also apparently has central air, which I’m guessing comes out of a few vents I’ve spotted in random places. It’s February now, when the sun’s rays can reach through the empty tree branches and hit the roof, but a friend who drives by to help me make a decision alerts me that, come spring and summer, the big trees surrounding the yard will eliminate the option of solar panels. 😦
That is a bummer. I’m willing to give up the awesome gas range that I have in my current rental and to embrace an induction cooktop (especially given that the stove in the murder house is an electric one anyway, as is the water heater), because I’m willing to cook like the environerd I am — meaning without a fossil-fueled flame. Even though a part of me will die inside.
I’d also really like to be free of the radiator system in the place I’m renting, which costs me thousands of dollars to fuel through the winter months. But . . . I moved to the area too late.
Like half an hour too late. Three years ago January, I’d started my lease on half of a lovely circa-1880s 2-family house in a little village in the Hudson Valley. Friends of mine had purchased and just finished beautifully renovating it. While I commuted back and forth to pack up the apartment I was leaving in the city, I’d casually checked the local real estate listings a few times, and had even emailed an agent selling a house I’d seen online that looked perfect for me, and definitely affordable. She’d replied that it was already in contract, but if it fell through, she’d let me know. It didn’t, and she didn’t, but I knew I’d find something once I got up there.
Over the next two months I gradually moved my stuff up, and on March 13, 2000, I drove my rented VW Beetle with a final load of clothes, houseplants and some kitchen supplies—things I needed before the movers would haul the rest of my stuff up here. About thirty minutes away from pulling up to my sweet little abode, with NPR on the car radio, I heard the breaking news:
“Governor Cuomo has issued an executive order closing ‘non-essential businesses’ in New York City . . . “ The world was on lockdown for the foreseeable future.
The good news was, I could work from my new, now full-time home. The bad news, besides the havoc that COVID-19 was just beginning to wreak, was that I could kiss buying a cute, affordable house buh-bye. (Just like Andrew Cuomo had to kiss goodbye his position a year and a half later, leaving those of us who’d fell hard for his spunky daily pressers blinking in cartoon-like confusion.)
And so I find myself considering the mildewy murder house, and watching online videos of hip young couples who’ve renovated their own crappy little “ranch” homes and made them sooo cute. I know I could make the murder house super adorable, too. But for now it’s just me (I covered my love life in my last post, if you’re interested), plus I also have to work for a living, and keep plugging away on the book, and all that goes along with that. Not to mention getting outside as often as possible, since I do live in the country now, and my current favorite item of clothing is a pair of black fleece-lined hiking pants that I recently ordered from from L.L. Bean. (And I think I rock them. Just sayin’.)
So after a few more hours on Pinterest and Architectural Digest, and chats with a couple of trusted family members and friends (one of whom is an architect) to figure out if I’d EVER recoup my investment on the place, I text my real estate agent and tell her that unless the offer that’s already been made on the house falls through, and she thinks the seller might accept an offer below asking, I’m gonna pass on the carpeted kitchen, and the mail slot in the closet, and the potential Airbnb I could create out of the bleak semi-finished basement with its tucked-away toilet hiding from further crimes in a cinder block “bathroom.”
And I’ll try not to regret my decision when I see the makeover in Dwell magazine. Knowing that I love the place I’ve now “temporarily” lived in for three years, and that sometimes things we want . . . just aren’t quite ready for us.
P.S. UPDATE! We learned of the outcome. The (accepted) offer was for the asking price . . . in cash. Yep.
P.P.S. Follow me for more adventures . . . and feel free to leave a comment if you’d like. I like comments.
8 responses to “The Murder House (Part 1 of 1)”
Wow- would this house be listed as ‘untouched’ in listing? Slanted to seem that you could totally make it ‘yours’? When you find something, have you considered asking your brother to come look, is there home inspection in NY? So much to consider— does changing fuel mean changing plumbing and wiring?? Probably — and in 2020 were you even sure you would stay in that area? Love Mom Gini
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