Outta My Yard

By Elizabeth Peavey
By Elizabeth Peavey

No place like home

Call me naïve, but until John and I started this house-hunting business, I had no idea just how little a quarter-million dollars could buy.

Let’s pause and say it aloud together for good measure: A quarter-million dollars.

Now, I know in today’s Trumped-up world, that kind of money is considered chump change, especially in terms of real estate. But for someone who, pre-marriage, thought the only way she’d ever get a house was if one dropped out of the sky and landed on her and her stripedy stockings, a quarter-million dollars sounded like it had some heft. Yet, I was realistic. I wasn’t asking for marble floors and antechambers, sweeping staircases and hedgerows, fountains and butlers (which I felt I deserved). I only wanted to stay on the peninsula and not see Congress Street through the laths in my walls. That wasn’t so much to ask, right?

Yet, once our search began in earnest, I discovered just what our money wasn’t going to buy. Yes, we could have plaster with our laths, but it would have to be in Westbrook. And, yes, we could stay on the peninsula, but it would mean parking our camper at East End Beach.

These prospects didn’t bother me so much when we were looking at open houses, because that was fake house shopping. It didn’t really count. But once we started working with Rita, I figured the secret stash of good houses would be opened up to us, the ones only real homebuyers got to see, people with a quarter-mill of pre-approval burning a hole in their imaginary pockets. 

No matter how promising the listings looked on my computer screen, however, it took a month of drive-bys before I actually found any houses I wanted to set foot inside. When I did, what I saw took my breath away. I mean, literally. I mean I couldn’t breathe for fear of contracting some airborne pathogen. I mean these houses were gross.

Now, before I continue, and before I get my fellow proles up in arms, my judgments about other people’s homes have nothing to do with money. I’ve been on a 100-plus-foot power yacht that was so hideous with its mirrored ceilings and gold-leaf everything that I’m still reeling from mal du mer. I’m a simple girl with simples tastes that run more toward genteel poverty (known to the wealthy as “shabby chic”) than anything else.

Plus, I grew up in Bath in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and most of my friends’ houses were remarkably the same: sturdy, century-old classics that were nice, not grand. Sure, there were manses — historic ship captain’s homes — but they were largely inhabited by old people. The only time you got near these places was on Halloween to see if some dead guy would answer the door (as your brothers said would happen). What little new construction there was in my hometown was for people “from away.” And, despite the fact I lived in my share of dumps after leaving my parents’ home, I didn’t think I would ever actually end up owning one. The places I was looking at were like no homes I had ever been in before. My version of genteel poverty did not include nicotine stains you could practically see dripping down the walls, old food and garbage just barely concealed under the bed (couldn’t they have raked before we got there?), exposed pipes, holes in the floors and carpet that could have walked out of the room on its own — had I not beaten it to the door. This is what a quarter-million was worth? I was just a bit horrified.

But Rita always saved the day. On those first few outings, I had houses on my list that turned out to be so repugnant we never even crossed the threshold. If the owner was there and the house was icky, Rita would play the heavy. “John won’t like this,” she’d say, just as I was about to compliment the linoleum on the walls (“So unusual. Don’t see that every day.”), and she’d get us out of there without the slightest offense. It is what I would call the Magic Rita Touch.

See, in case you haven’t already figured it out, I don’t have a very pleasant personality. I offend even when I’m trying to be nice (which is rare). I have to do everything short of using punctuation smiley/winky faces in my e-mails to soften the edge of my words. So, I am entranced by people like Rita who just spread goodness and light wherever they go. Think of her as a Glinda in pointy, black Italian pumps and bright pink lipstick. 

This was still early on, before I fully realized what was available in our price range — and, to be frank, I wanted to keep it under $200,000, just like every other first-time buyer out there we were vying with. It was also before we saw any — what Rita would call — “real” houses. I’m not sure I can explain what a real house is, except that it’s one you could imagine yourself living in without the aid of a wrecking ball and a makeover-show crew. It’s not necessarily a size or condition issue. We viewed perfectly respectable-looking Capes and Colonials that once you got inside felt as though you were in a doll’s house. This is not to be confused with a “dollhouse” — real-estate talk for an absolutely adorable, and not necessarily teeny-as-it-sounds, house that has tons of character without the disrepair. (“Character” usually means decrepitude.) No, I mean a doll’s house, like one in which a Munchkin would get claustrophobic. Further, we saw staircases that cut houses in half, rooms off rooms, dens off dens, hallways to nowhere — spaces that had been so chopped up you felt like a trapped Skinner rat jonesing for a couple leverfuls of food pellets. 

I learned these were not real houses by watching Rita’s face. It would have “uh-uh” written all over it, which would usually be followed by a bewildered, rhetorical, “What were they thinking?”, as she’d ponder an ancient shag carpet in a bathroom or black paint in a kitchen. But she never did this in a nasty way. She has one of those rare, delightful personalities, so that she can say exactly what’s on her mind – even if it isn’t favorable – and it still ends up sounding nice, as though that poor house couldn’t help itself for falling apart or the people who perpetrated the crime against architecture and design were just doing the best they knew how. 

Still, there was plenty of hand-washing and hand-wringing in those early trips out – but nothing to compare with what happened when we finally saw our first real house.

Nothing like when we saw Walnut.

Elizabeth Peavey will read from her new book, Outta My Way, at Books Etc., Portland, on Thurs., Jan. 26, at 7 p.m. 

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