Get Me Bob Vila! A Dream House Becomes a Money Pit

I think what pushed me over the edge was the rainy night I circled the block for an hour and 20 minutes looking for a parking space. Like Buddha under the bodhi tree, I learned something. I learned that time spent looking for a parking space is time taken away from your life, time that you’ll never get back again-even if you do get to listen to NPR reports on the swallows returning to Capistrano and cowboy poets.

In fact, as we steeled ourselves for the move, we realized there were many good reasons for us to finally leave the city. For one, our children were afraid of grass: They seemed to find it too long and too squishy. I remember our first visit to a friend’s house, trying to coax Zach out on the lawn. He stood on the cement patio shrieking.

The following Saturday, we saw nine houses. I wanted to buy each and every one. Sure, some were missing a bathroom or a bedroom, or a lawn large enough to put a picnic table on. But other than that, they were perfect. Why? They all had driveways, nice, big, smooth, drive-right-up driveways. But my wife was looking for more than a $700,000 driveway with an attached house.

Over the next seven weekends, we looked at dozens of houses, with the same dismal results. Then, on Week 8, just as we were about to pack up and call it a weekend, an undiscovered gem landed in our laps.

“Something very special just came in,” our broker said. “It’s having an open house tomorrow, but if we hurry over, we can get a sneak peek.” She slammed on the brakes, pulled a “U” through four lanes of traffic and headed toward the property.

The house was charm incarnate: white wood siding with a red door, a glorious porch anchored by Disneyesque columns, and the most majestically peaked green roof touching the sky. A lone cloud cleared it, and the sun illuminated the house in a blaze.

I felt the home’s warm, comforting arms wrap us up. By the time we got back to the city, we had put in an offer at just above asking price. Two hours later, we had the most beautiful e-mail from the owner: He was honored to be passing his house along to us. That night, we dreamed golden dreams.

After much paperwork, only one hurdle separated us from the house: the home inspection. We turned to an old friend who was, without question, the most anal person I have ever known.

“Have I got a guy for you!” she exclaimed.

On the fateful day, I drove out and found a short, stocky man in a flannel shirt with a tool belt waiting for me in front of a minivan with Harvard, Brown and M.I.T. stickers nearly obliterating the back window. This was Tom, the feared inspector. He shook my hand with clinical precision.

“I’m going to do the outside first. If you have any questions, speak up”-at which point, he pulled a handheld recording device out of his holster, walked up to the house and let rip.

“House approximately 1920’s Colonial, exterior shows normal signs of wear, condition is to be expected for a home of this age, adequate upon visual inspection.” Click. Then with short, brisk steps he moved a few feet back, pulled a pair of binoculars from his belt and started scanning the roof. “Roof is shingle variety, less than adequate, showing seven layers, drainage situation is”- click, then, off-mike to me: “See how the drains don’t abut in a square fashion?”

I nodded, although I had no idea what he was talking about. He hit the recorder again: “Recessed drainage for water field shows possible water damage; less than adequate.”

And so on. Sometimes he’d pull out an awl and poke through wood which, to my eyes, looked like it could last another thousand years. Sometimes he’d tap on a surface with his knuckle. At one point, he pulled out a doctor’s stethoscope and actually started listening to a wall-for a pulse? A steady stream of technical information flowed into the recorder-and, to my ears, not very much of it sounded good. He’d raise the specter of asbestos poisoning, sewage spills, roof collapses, flaming infernos, electrical maelstroms-I felt like I was getting pummeled in the stomach over and over again.

“Don’t worry,” said the broker. “I’ve seen worse.”

“Have you seen worse?” I asked the inspector, making sure the broker was out of earshot.

After a pause, he said yes, he had, but I didn’t believe him. He was already hard at it into the recorder: “The condition of the attic-what limited access we have-below adequate, substandard and below par.”

***

My attorney was laying it out for me: “I can’t tell you whether or not to get it, but if you feel like being handy and you’ve got a lot of time and money on your hands, it might be for you, you know?”

Handy? Does being able to change almost any kind of light bulb (except halogen bulbs) count as handy?

“How much do I lose if I back out?” I asked, the 19-page fax of the inspection report sitting in front of me, covered with stripes of highlighter pens of three different hues (green for “below adequate,” blue for “substantially below adequate” and pink-the most prevalent color-for “severely below adequate.”)

And that was that. We bagged it.

Over the next few weeks, we all tried to convince ourselves that our apartment was perfect. I let the kids roller-blade and play basketball in it to their hearts’ content.

But it’s amazing how things can change. Only six short weeks after the debacle, my wife and I were having this conversation about another house:

Me: “How’s the roof? Be sure to check the roof.”

She: “The roof, it looks fine.”

Me: “Not how it looks-get up there and check it out. Up close.”

She: “It looks great.”

Me: “And the floors-that top one needs carpet.”

She: “I’ll get carpet. I’ll fix it.”

Me: “The windows look good.”

She: “I love the design. Look how cute it is.”

Me: “And it’s got real tiles in the kitchen-a couple are coming up, but you can fix them.”

She: “I’ll go to a store and fix them.”

Me: “It’s really nice. How’s the price?”

She: “I think it’s good.”

Me: “You sure?”

She: “I love it.”

Me: “O.K., we’ll take it then. I’ll just carry it over to the car-unless we can fit it on top of the stroller, that is.”

She: “I’ll write a check for it.”

And we finally did it: We bought a house, a big dollhouse, at a flea market in Wellfleet, Mass. A side-hall Colonial. It passed our inspection, and I think our daughter is really going to love it. She’s not crazy about it just yet, but once my wife and I get through fixing it up, a little paint, you’ll see. She’ll love it. I just hope we can fit it through the door of our apartment. I really do.