Thursday, July 01, 1999

house shopping

There are times in life when madness overtakes the best of us.

The first time I had a brush with insanity was when I decided between my junior and senior years of college to write an honor’s thesis on the religious themes of classic Star Trek. It cost me the respect of all three of my friends, but fortunately Mr. Spock appeared to me in a vision and showed me the Vulcan way to peace.

Then there was the time I asked Natasha to marry me, even though I knew there was a risk that she might squeeze her toothpaste in the middle of the tube. (Actually, I’m so in love with her that I still pop the Question on a regular basis, especially since she uses her own toothpaste, but she tells me she's already married me once, and that was enough.)

The most recent dance around the fringes has been with buying a house. I’m not sure why we thought we needed to buy a house, but we closed recently, and so we are now the proud owners of a 30-year adjustable-rate mortgage.

The first step we had to go through was deciding whether we really wanted to buy one. Conventional wisdom has it that buying a houses is better than renting an apartment.

When you rent, you pay large sums of money on a monthly basis to some megarich cementhead with no idea what life is like for ordinary people on a tight budget. With a house, you have to pay money on a monthly basis to some megarich lending institution with no idea what life is like for ordinary people on a tight budget.

It’s a remarkable improvement.

Additionally, houses come with a lot of extra responsibility. As a new homeowner, it is my responsibility to procrastinate fixing the basement stairs and cutting the grass. When I rented an apartment, it was always the landlord’s job to put off that sort of maintenance.

Once we decided to buy a house, we had to find a good Realtor. A Realtor’s job as a superfluous middleman is to complicate unnecessarily what might otherwise be the rather simple task of finding and buying an affordable house.

Our Realtor took us on a wild searching spree all over Middlesex and Somerset counties at breakneck speeds to look at houses that cost $20,000 more than we could afford.

"You need to tighten your belt a little to get a good place," April told me when I objected to the cost of some of the houses she wanted to show us.

"I don’t mind tightening my belt a little," I said. "I just want to have a waist after it’s all over."

(I’m willing to bet April does squeeze her toothpaste in the middle.)

I soon learned that finding the right house is more difficult even than finding the right spouse. Before I met Natasha, I dated at most a half-dozen women, and went steady with none of them. During the week April was running us ragged, we must have looked at close to 20 houses. We saw townhouses, condos, tool sheds, caves with doors on them -- you name it, we saw it.

Some of the houses were downright frightening. One in North Brunswick was a two-story house selling for something like $120,000. That’s not so bad, but the second floor was really a converted attic, and every room was built on an angle -- a different angle. Oddest of all, the only way to the second floor was the staircase that was built in the bathroom.

"What were they thinking?" I asked once we made that discovery. I pictured our child bursting through the bathroom door to go upstairs or down while I sat there reading a magazine.

"They’d have to lower the price to $60,000 first, and I still wouldn’t take it," Natasha said, after we finished touring the place.

Fortunately, Mr. Spock appeared to me in a second vision, and showed us the only logical course of action. We settled on a two-story Colonial less than a mile from the apartment we had been renting.

The next step was easily the hardest. In a civilized arrangement, we would have called the sellers, dickered over the price and some minor repairs, settled everything, and then been able to close after a few weeks.

But I live in New Jersey, and civilized arrangements are usually against the law. Both the sellers and we had to hire attorneys to represent us during the discussions over how to handle minor repairs -- there was no railing on the stairs -- and major ones -- the roof wasn’t capped correctly.

Imagine coordinating a discussion with one middle party. Now picture two. Now picture four -- two attorneys and two Realtors. Then for good measure toss in a home insurance company, a mortgage lender, an entire religious order, a woman named Edith, and 27 gallons of tapioca pudding. That should give you a rough idea what we endured.

Somehow -- I still don’t understand how -- Natasha and I managed to close. Most frightening of all, we’ll probably have to do this again in the next five years as our family grows.

I’ve stopped flirting with madness. Mr. Spock is here to stay. But at least he assures me that Vulcans squeeze their toothpaste at the end of their tubes.

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