Tuesday, January 6, 2015

When One Door Closes, Another 30 Doors Open

In the Summer of 2014, my husband and I were under contract on a property that we thought would be our dream home.  It was a historic farmhouse from 1780 situated on 2 beautiful acres in central New Jersey.  The house had a newly remodeled high-end kitchen, 4 spacious bedrooms, and was plumbed for 2.5 baths.  The original 18th-century structure had been expanded over the years, but in a manner that was tasteful and in keeping with the original house's character.  Most of the home's historic features were intact, including exposed beams, plaster walls, wrought iron hardware, and pumpkin pine wide plank floorboards.  The lot had a small babbling brook, an apple tree, and a red barn.  The house needed a lot of work, but we could see the potential.  We made an offer, retained a real estate attorney, and went into contract on the house.  We were excited and ecstatic.

That's when everything started to go downhill.  We already knew that the house had a non-compliant sewage system and that there were abandoned underground oil tanks.  Even before we made an offer on the house, the seller had agreed to install a new septic system and properly decommission the oil tanks.  We explicitly included these repair requirements in our offer.  However, we discovered several serious concerns during the inspection process: the roof and siding had deteriorated in multiple places, allowing water intrusion into the home.  Nearly every window would require extensive repair or replacement.  The chimney showed evidence of spalling.  The furnace had not been used in nearly two years and the 2,500 sq. foot home was being heated with space heaters.  The seller never performed the well inspection, which is their responsibility as per state law.  The municipality did not have any record of the property's existing sewage system (a cesspool -- ick!), leading us to believe that it had been installed without a permit.  Worst of all: we paid a hefty sum for a separate mold inspection, which revealed toxic mold at 600 times the "normal" amount (again, ick!).  When we received the mold test results, we asked the sellers to retain a mold remediation company to remove the mold.  Under state law, we were required to give them the opportunity to correct any inspection issues before terminating the contract.  We were willing to take on the other unanticipated items, but the mold was a dealbreaker for us.  They refused.  They also wanted to change the terms of the original offer.  It became increasingly clear that this was not our dream home.  In fact, the entire process was a complete nightmare.  Whereas the sellers previously agreed to install a new septic system and decommission the oil tanks, they now wanted to offer us an $8,000 credit instead of installing a new septic or decommissioning the tanks.  We estimated that the work could easily cost $50,000-$75,000, so the proposed credit wouldn't begin to cover the expense.  We terminated the contract, and the sellers waited six weeks to return our earnest money deposit.  Good riddance.

My husband and I were disheartened to walk away from our dream farmhouse, but we started house-hunting again.  Just a week later, we stumbled across The Papered House: a late 19th-century Victorian house in Hunterdon County, New Jersey.  Nearly every room in the home had been covered in antique wallpaper, and we started referring to it as "wallpaper house."  In many ways, the house was already perfect.  There were solid-oak hardwood floors and custom baseboards throughout much of the home.  Ornate woodwork surrounded most of the windows and doors.  The house had a total of 30 doors, many of which were glass-paned French doors (not to mention the pocket doors separating the living and dining rooms).  Those 30 doors had brass and copper hardware, often with intricate details.  There were soaring ceilings throughout, making the house feel larger than its 2,200 square feet.  Eight-foot double doors in the foyer opened to a gracious front porch, perfect for rocking chairs and hanging plants.  The house was located in a quaint, charming historic town, equidistant to Manhattan and Philadelphia.  The backyard was large and private, particularly for an in-town location.  Of course, in other ways, the house was certainly not perfect: there was only one bathroom, the house was heated with oil rather than natural gas, the kitchen didn't have a dishwasher, and the roof and chimneys needed some work.  But the house was brimming with potential, and it didn't seem to suffer the same severe problems as the farmhouse had.  We submitted another offer and held our breaths.  We were almost scared to get our hopes up.  After the first deal had gone so terribly wrong, we didn't want to set ourselves up for another disappointment.

Thankfully, we needn't have worried.  This time, the negotiations were fairly straightforward and uneventful.  We purchased the home in Fall 2014 and started the long process of restoring our home to its former glory.

Our goal is to maintain the historical integrity of the house, while also creating a home that is livable and comfortable for a modern family.  When possible and practical, we plan to do the work ourselves (e.g., removing wallpaper, repairing plaster, painting, laying tile, refinishing floors, etc.).  We enjoy the satisfaction we feel after completing a well-done DIY project, as well as the cost savings.  In other instances, and especially where safety is concerned, we've decided to hire professionals with the historic expertise necessary.  This blog is intended to chronicle the process of revitalizing our home, both for our own purposes as well as for other old home/DIY enthusiasts.  In other words, we'd like this blog to be our house's diary.

The former owner left us this welcoming note as we moved into the house: " 'There are people who take the heart out of you, and there are people who put it back.'  If you have any questions, any time, please call.  It's a great house".

As he said, it truly is a great house.  Thanks for following along as we make it our own.

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