I wasn’t looking for a new house. I thought I was perfectly happy in the 800-square-foot “single-family” home I’d occupied for 20 years in Burlington’s Old North End. Working upwards of 60 hours a week for 15 years, I couldn’t realistically maintain much more than a flophouse.
And this one was truly “affordable.” I purchased it in 1992 for $82,000, and the mortgage payments were small and short-lived. That made it easy to overlook the European-sized kitchen appliances and the absence of doors, sunlight and a guest room. All the utilities combined cost me less than 300 bucks a month.
I made improvements over the years — backyard garden, deck, shed, new furnace — but there’s only so much you can do with a one-bedroom, one-bathroom post-grad pad. Any significant change would have triggered a domino effect of expensive upgrades and unpleasant choices: between the wisteria and the would-be woodstove, between the locust tree and the imaginary exercise room.
I couldn’t find the time or energy to think beyond “starter home.”
So I didn’t. Until last summer, when I was biking home from work one Saturday and decided to turn onto Lakeview Terrace. It’s my favorite street in the city — three blocks of dense, mixed housing on a bluff overlooking the lake, behind Burlington College. In the old days, soot from the Moran Plant lowered the rents.
But since the industrial harbor has become the Burlington Waterfront, the neighborhood has morphed into a sweet spot, an eclectic enclave of old-timers, artists and entrepreneurs — the city’s residential sunset strip. A frequent visitor to the street, I imagined someone from the lake side would one day approach me and declare, “It seems like you belong in this neighborhood. Why don’t you take my house?”
It didn’t happen quite like that, but an unexpected for-sale sign did catch my eye. It wasn’t the handwritten one that had been up for years, demanding $499,999 for a scary green house that Magic Hat’s Alan Newman has since bought and rebuilt. This one stood in front of a lovely, respectable, landscaped home with a killer view of Lake Champlain.
I tried to memorize the realtor’s number as I rode past, but knew I’d forget it, so I turned around. At that moment, the front door opened and a couple emerged.
“Do you live here?” I blurted. “Or are you looking to buy the place?”
They were the owners, so I asked for a quick tour. This was totally out of character for me; I was an MLS virgin who had never thought to combine the words “Burlington,” “view” and “real estate” in my mind, let alone in an Internet search.
Still, I admired the front door, with its heavy wood frame, patterned glass and old-fashioned doorbell. On the other side, I could see all the way through the house and out the back to a gorgeous perennial garden, the shimmering lake and the Adirondacks. I felt like I was beholding a spectacular altar from the entrance of a church.
Mentally, I was already moving in. The kitchen was open, with an island and enough glass cabinets to display the family china I’d been storing in a shed for more than a year. The living room’s built-in shelf would hold our still-growing collection of books.
The sunroom? Hadn’t I actually visualized this glassed-in chamber with radiant floor heat? A couple of years ago, in the chaos of running my business, I had consulted a professional — shrink? financial advisor? lawyer? — who asked me a simple but troubling question: “What do you want?” Meaning, if you ever manage to retire from Seven Days, where do you see yourself?
All I could come up with was an image of an older version of myself reading in a comfortable chair with an afghan draped across my legs, looking out at the lake.
This lake. This view, variations of which have been with me since I went to summer camp in the Adirondacks.
It was my dream house. Literally.
I probably shouldn’t have shared that thought with the owners, but I did — a huge negotiating faux pas.
The next day, I brought my boyfriend over to see the place. The day after that, I made an offer. They turned it down.
A “down economy” brings its own special pressures. Everyone thought I should be “getting a deal,” but I thought the asking price was fair. Should I gamble and risk losing the house? Or proceed as if there were no recession, knowing that, in better times, the house would most certainly have sold to a buyer more motivated and moneyed than me?
While I was trapped in the hell of cognitive dissonance, I kept myself mentally prepared to stay where I was. Part of me wanted that to happen, I think, because leaving the old house felt like a betrayal of my history: All my memories were there. Also, this new house might be just too conspicuously fancy for a Saturn driver, and the move promised to be incredibly disruptive. When was I supposed to find the time to sort through, pack up and transport all my things?
I was so ready to regret the outcome, I never considered that this totally spontaneous decision could turn out to be one of the best of my life. When the sellers finally accepted my — third? — offer, I became at 49 years of age the proud owner of my first grown-up house.
Ben Franklin counted a “little house well filled” among the “great riches” of life. But after 20 years, having a bit more space is kinda nice.
The old house, which had no enclosed shelves, was packed to the rafters. The TV was blocking access to the closet that housed the sound system. There was no place to install a cat door, so we kept a window open upstairs — year round — knowing full well that other animals could get in that way, too. My African art had seen better days, but I couldn’t bring myself to relegate it to a moldy basement.
It turned out there was some pretty cool stuff rotting down there already: more antique china, an old sewing machine, a parasol from Thailand I’d forgotten about. There’s room for all of it in the new house — which has twice the square footage. Also, cupboards that close. Closets with doors. A laundry chute! Unpacking was the best therapy I’ve ever had. Remarkably, after all our things had been placed in the bigger digs, you could still hear an echo.
It was a good excuse to acquire some furniture. My first purchase was the big square chair and ottoman of my retirement fantasy, which I placed strategically in a corner of the sunroom with a northwest view. A donated couch came next, with a daybed section that faces southwest. From either spot, I can keep a watchful eye on my new best friend: Lake Champlain.
I now realize I wasn’t a very keen observer of Burlington’s signature natural attraction, despite cavorting in and on it for years. Like the majority of Burlingtonians, I’d seen many more sunsets than sunrises, mostly in the summer. My exposure to the lake was almost always curtailed by wind, cold, darkness or fatigue. Mine was a Boathouse kayaker’s view.
What do you notice when you can comfortably observe Champlain at all hours of day and night? Sunsets last forever — like, an hour. Where the sun goes down changes dramatically in the course of a month. The morning light on the Adirondacks makes them look close enough to touch, especially in the winter. You know the lake is in the process of freezing when a pattern of cotton balls of vapor rises over the water. “Moon sets” get a lot less press than do sunsets, but they’re just as awesome.
For years, I never really saw the lake. Now I can’t stop looking at it. Surveying it every morning puts things in perspective — historically, geographically, evolutionarily. And it’s entertaining. Like a fire, it’s constantly changing, and I don’t want to miss a single stray ray or cool cloud formation. If I happen to notice the sunset from my office window, from which I can see a wedge of sky, I wish I were seeing the whole show from home.
This same yearning goes for the house itself, which occupies that crazy place in the brain reserved for new lovers. When I’m at work, I think about the place with a combination of longing and excitement. I can’t wait to see it again, and imagine what I’m going to do once I get there. Dishes. Laundry. Reading. Hot tub. Soaking under a night sky in winter is like a massage — something you don’t think you need until you’ve had one.
My friends and relatives are convinced this is a positive development — they lobbied hard to make this house thing happen. But I wonder if they’ve noticed I’m not calling as much, not going out, and not really having people over. It’s because I can’t get enough of the house, which still feels like a really nice hotel from which I never want to check out.
Either I’m going nuts, or I really needed this.
I’ve had to make a couple of business trips since we moved. Both times the plane was angled so I could see the house from the air. I used to worry about crashing, but my prayers to the JetBlue gods have simplified: Just deliver me back to my house so I can spend a bit more time there. After all the sunsets I’ve missed, I’m finally seeing the light.
As Seven Days was planning this issue, a relic from the boom times turned up in our office — the real estate issue of the Sunday New York Times Magazine from March 6, 2006. One of our editors found it in a folder of story ideas. Its 200 colorful pages include numerous ads for luxury homes and condos, and even a full-page spread offering “discount mortgages.” How times have changed. Flipping through it four years later — in the wake of the mortgage-default crisis and recession — we can’t help wondering which of the developments noted in the Times has gone belly up; the billionaire real estate tycoon it profiled is currently in bankruptcy court and might go to jail.
Vermont hasn’t escaped this catastrophe unscathed, but the state hasn’t been hit as hard as most. Vermont has the lowest rate of past-due mortgages in New England, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association’s National Delinquency Survey for the fourth quarter of 2009; the state ranks 46th nationwide. In fact, it turns out the recession might have a silver lining for some area homebuyers. Economist Art Woolf reported last week that, according to his calculations, housing in Vermont was more affordable last year than at any time since 2003. “This is good news,” he says, “for households with good credit who have saved up for a down payment.”
Many of those households seem to be getting the message — the starter-home market is pretty tight, especially in Chittenden County. Lauren Ober reports that the first-time homebuyer tax credit may be spurring sales in that category. On the other hand, Vermont’s luxury market isn’t moving very quickly, as Andy Bromage notes in his story about a $7.9 million island for sale off the coast of Charlotte.
Buying or selling a house might be easier if you work with a spirited real estate agent/bar owner/tattoo biz proprietor like Jessica Bridge. Lauren Ober describes why the 33-year-old Burlington agent has been so busy lately.
But real estate isn’t just about the bucks — Paula Routly contributes an essay about the emotional appeal of her new house . And Ken Picard talks with a real estate lawyer who explains what you can learn about people from the deeds to their houses. Of course, no real estate issue would be complete without tantalizing photos of houses — see the food section for for Suzanne Podhaizer’s tour of some of Vermont’s most decadent private kitchens.
Downsizing has its appeal, too, as Eva Sollberger’s new “Stuck in Vermont” video illustrates. She re-interviews Peter King, the “Tiny House” builder she first profiled in November 2008. That video has been viewed more than 73,000 times on YouTube, and sparked a flurry of interest in King’s gospel of simplicity and freedom from mortgage debt. Since then, he’s built 11 tiny houses, nine of them in Vermont. In this week’s video, King introduces a Monkton couple who are selling their 2400-square-foot home and moving into a 400-square-foot structure.
— Cathy Resmer