I cup my hands around my eyes to block out the sun's glare and lean in close to look through the window.
"The kitchen looks new! I think I see a little room beyond the family room that we could use as an office!" I report this to my husband who is looking in the very same window standing next to me.
Joining in my enthusiasm, he responds, "The whole thing looks like it's been re-done inside. The yard needs work, but this place is full of potential!"
It's Christmas Eve, 1996, and we're out riding our bikes around different neighborhoods looking at real estate. We've been married for two years and my parents have convinced us that we should start looking for a house while interest rates are low. Home prices in our area are creeping up and my mom and dad are firm believers in the value of owning property.
Our infinitely patient realtor spends the fall chauffeuring us to countless houses in neighborhoods in three different towns. He laughs at how decisive we are, at how quickly we know that a house "isn't right." We definitely know what we DON'T want. Finding a house we can make our home seems to be more of a challenge. It probably doesn't help that I've grown up in one of the towns where we're looking. For me, most of the neighborhoods have pre-conceived reputations left over from earlier days.
So it's actually ironic that the house we're looking at is one that has us excited. It's for sale by owner and we've stumbled on it by chance since the Internet isn't widely used yet. Our realtor has been working on getting access to the house but is out of town for the holidays, which is why we end up riding our bikes over to scrutinize the property for ourselves. We find it easy enough to snoop around since the home is vacant and the yard has no fences. It's a neighborhood that I had not initially considered as being worthwhile. The post-World War II 1950s homes are tiny. Growing up we always considered it to be a "rental house" neighborhood.
As a teenager attending a notoriously wealthy public high school, my impression of the neighborhood had always been that it was "low class." I pictured tiny unkempt homes with cars up on blocks on patchy front lawns and RV's peeking over fences in side yards and overgrown juniper hedges hiding the shabby houses behind them.
Now, as a young adult, I see that growing up around incredible wealth displayed in large, beautiful homes has heavily influenced my snobby view of the neighborhood. My parents never bought into the whole "status" game and taught me to value humility, substance and character. I guess I must be growing up since I'm starting to see the merit in looking beyond my preconceived notions.
The little 1950s neighborhood is still scruffy, to be sure, but it is also undergoing a slow but steady transformation. My adult eyes can see the potential in the huge yard, the wide streets, the close proximity to downtown. It is not far from the freeway, but feels rural and quiet. Now, as I peer in the window of this house, I can feel my heart pounding with excitement. We agree this is "the one." Without having set food inside, we are ready to make an offer.
By mid-February, we close escrow and enlist the help of friends and family to move our meager possessions from our rented, dingy condo near the freeway to the new house. I love how much natural light comes into every room and how clean and bright the home feels.
Having been a rental for the previous 20 years, the house has been completely overhauled inside before being put on the market. The "re-do" is simple and cheap. All bottom of the line stock from a local home center: laminate counter tops, linoleum floors and the most basic appliances, but it's clean and new.
We have grand plans to make changes in the kitchen eventually, but are in no rush. The three bedroom one bathhouse with a one-car garage feels enormous for just the two of us. Several rooms are completely devoid of furniture for quite a while.
That February rain drenches the Bay Area for most of the month. A few weeks after moving in we arrive home one evening to find the first glitch with our new house. Inadequate drainage means that all overflow water from the yard ends up on the floor of our garage. We open the door to discover all of our belongings being stored there submerged in several inches of water. Hastily, we lay down an assortment of towels and drop cloths on our new carpet and begin transferring the soggy items into the empty living room.
As winter gives way to spring, we focus our attention on the yards and spend months with different piles on our driveway and in the backyard: wood from dead trees, dirt and then rocks for a French drain we're constructing to deal with the drainage problem.
We appeal to our friends' sense of adventure by inviting them to a "Chainsaw Party." Four guys wielding dangerous and noisy moving blades spend a day tearing out junipers and attempting to cut down trees as tall as our yard is wide. As the only female present, I split my time between gathering debris and keeping everyone well hydrated and fed. They quit when one tree falls the wrong direction through the fence into our neighbor's yard. Apparently trees that tall aren't supposed to be cut from the bottom of the trunk. Thankfully, no one is hurt, but we decide it might be time to call in some professionals. It's a good days' work for a group of friends looking for some sweat-inducing fun and a few stories to tell.
Over the months, we discover many small annoyances in the house. Most notable for me is the kitchen sink that faces a wall. Every night I wonder why someone would design a kitchen without having a sink look out a window. It is top-mounted, which means I can't wipe crumbs directly into it. For some reason, this drives me crazy. We dream of changing it one day, but feel wasteful and frivolous to consider tearing out a brand new kitchen (not to mention we have plenty of other expenses to consider). We're thrilled to be in the house at all and concentrate on the good aspects of it instead of the annoying ones.
We'll change it someday when the timing is right or our circumstances require it. At this point, we have no idea of the many adventures that lie ahead.