Sunday, August 30, 2015

How Not to Buy a Cottage

            Several years ago I thought buying a cottage on a lake would be easy, especially since my real goal was not to buy a cottage. No, like many men my age, on the downward slope of 60, I preferred to come home from my part-time retirement job, read the paper, eat, do minimal household chores, watch some television, and count my money. I preferred not to worry about another furnace that might fail, more plumbing I don’t know how to fix, more eaves troughs I don’t want to clean out, more vacuuming I know it is my job to do. I still feel that way.
            And like many men my age, I have a wife who is much more adventurous than I am. You know the old male/hunter and female/gatherer breakdown. Well, I prefer to hunt a cup of coffee and easy chair while my wife prefers to gather new experiences.
            My strategy was simple: While overtly pursuing the purchase of the cottage, I would find ways to subvert the successful deal. This approach works very well when Kim and I go antiquing. I don’t want to be the grump who waits in the car or stands by the door where the old Vargas nudes are displayed. No, I want to be the eager antiquer - the husband the other wives point to when criticizing their less enthusiastic husbands. I’ve learned to enjoy seeing antiques without buying following two simple rules:

1.  Extravagantly praise something there is no way on earth you could buy, e.g., “Gee, I really love that life-sized stuffed elephant. Do you think it would fit in the living room? Or, “What a beautiful diamond tiara! I’d love to buy it for you! Do you think we could get it for $50?”
2.  Don’t be the last one to leave the antique shop. Find something, e.g., the Vargas art, that you just need to consider one more time. See, Kim is making me leave!

            I assumed - incorrectly - that the same approach would work with the cottage.
            Kim and I had spent several summers searching for a cottage in the Irish Hills, an area thirty miles west of our home that features dozens of lakes and, of course, cottages. With a few exceptions the lakes seemed over-settled and crowded (with people like us) and the cottages overly remodeled. Still, driving the scenic twisting roads was a pleasant way to spend an afternoon, and I enjoyed visiting the cottages to see what books the owners were reading. I believe the last few realtors who helped us are now retired.
            Not buying the little cottage on Clear Lake proved more of a challenge. It was small and charming, with pine paneled walls and eighty feet of frontage on a pristine private lake surrounded by state-owned (undevelopable) land. So we made an offer.
            I figured that by offering 20% below the asking price that I was in the clear. Years ago a realtor told me that an offer of less than 10% below asking price was “an insult,” so I figured that would be the end of it.
            I was wrong. The cottage was part of an estate inherited by the previous owner’s mother who lived thousands of miles away, and she just wanted the place sold and so accepted our offer.
            I did not despair, however, because there was always the contractor’s inspection. I knew that anything less than perfection was grounds to cancel the agreement (and get back my ironically named “earnest money”). And the contractor came through splendidly, finding serious problems with the roof, chimney lining, windows, plumbing, electric, well, septic system, cabinets, furnace, water heater, and all appliances. Not to mention the infestation of mold and mice. The contractor seemed surprised that I was not more upset about all the problems he kept finding. I told Kim, “Don’t worry. We’ll find another place. It’s fun looking, isn’t it?”
            Ten days later, the Clear Lake cottage already fading into history, Kim asked me out of the blue, if we could get the cottage at 20% below what we agreed to previously, would I want to do it?
            “Sure.” This was a variation on step #1 of my don’t-buy-antiques strategy. I figured there was no way on earth that the seller would go that low.
            Wrong again. She took our offer. We owned the cottage with all those problems. Problems mean either less time for me to drink coffee and read the paper or less money for me to count - except on its way out the door. I was hopeful that our lowball offer would leave us enough cash to pull off a lowball fix-up. My reasoning was that if the kitchen is really crappy and people react to the mold, then we won’t be spending enough time out there to make it worth fixing the septic tank. I suspect the word “reasoning” in that sentence is not all that accurate.
            Next thing I knew we were planning to tear down the charming old cottage, which meant looking for an architect and a builder, which meant going on Home Tours followed by looking through countless magazines and books of home plans. It’s all very exciting - a creative opportunity (if you count the creative calculator work involved in figuring out how to pay for the cottage). It’s a way to make our dreams come true. It’s not at all what I had planned.
            Of course, the experience is not without its highlights. For one, I enjoy selecting a toilet whose color is called “biscuit,” and I look forward to butt-to-biscuit moments next summer. And Kim gave me full authority to select the sconces (on sale!) for the stairway, and I’m sure I’ll also enjoy selling them on eBay because they “don’t work” with the décor.
            But still, I was not without hope. Months later our builder had told us that the house we so carefully designed would cost roughly twice our absolute maximum budget figure. We agreed that we had “a lot more work to do.” So it seems as if I had backed into Rule 1, but in doing so, we will most likely end up with that diamond tiara - so I might as well enjoy it. I had rapidly dimming hopes that Kim will drop the cottage fantasy as too expensive, so I could reluctantly go along with her in a Rule 2 scenario.

            And in fact, that’s pretty much what happened. We sold the property (at a loss, figuring in expenses for tearing down the cottage and doing extensive landscape work so the yard would not slide into the lake), and we were happy to do so. I suspect that Kim had been wise to my game all along. She knew that old cottage had serious problems and would probably be torn down, but she counted on the creative adventure of designing and building a new one, whether we actually did it or not.

Comment from John Perkins: "I once suggested a boat to Barbara.  She had more sense than I, but her way to my "reasoning" was easy: did I really want to do more housework?  That pretty much did it, but a friend sealed the case by saying, 'If you want to know what sailing in Puget Sound is like, hop in a cold shower with all your clothes on and start ripping up $100 bills.'  I was cured."

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