You have to do things that terrify you.
That’s the deal.
It’s part of being alive.
So, when we were 25, my sweetheart and I moved 1.5 hours north and bought a house in a town we had been to exactly twice. Both of us worked (and work) for ourselves, and knew that making this little dream come true depended entirely on our own labor. When we signed the papers, I was so nervous I thought I was going to throw up.
Then, four years later, deeply in love with our town and with things still going reasonably well (nightmarish president and multiple wars and endgame capitalism not withstanding) we took out some equity and bought The Beauty. To maybe build a wee little house on in the future, who knows. We still had (and have, sigh) student loans and whatnot, but it felt like the thing to do. So we did it, and my hands were again shaking as I signed my name, and we walk the land a few times a month and hold hands and feel perfect happiness. The future.
So. When you start owning things, it becomes really hard to rent.
Especially when what you’re renting—a ramshackle commercial kitchen 15 minutes away from your beloved town on the side of a very busy road in a little good-old-boys strip mall where you can’t get mail or deliveries—is decaying and has no heat in the winter and is making you crazy at an ever-faster rate every day.
So you start nosing around, and quietly asking around.
A few things fall through your fingers.
Then, a few more do.
Until one doesn’t.
An opportunity comes up: an old laundromat with two apartments and an office above it. On a perfect street—quiet but walkable, easily reached by weekend tourists and not too-easily bothered by annoying weekend college partiers. Exactly three minutes by car or 15 by bike from your house.
You can’t technically afford it, not by a long shot.
But things are still going reasonably well, so you work this and calculate that, and take a lot of deep breaths, make a lot of cupcakes to calm your shaking hands, then make some cookies for the same reason, then whine to your BFF about how you wish your parents could help you out, blah blah.
THEN ELEVEN FREAKING MONTHS GO BY.
Months during which things like this are happening (this part is boring unless you care about real estatey things. Otherwise just skip all these bulleted points):
- We put a bid on the building that is $100,000 less than they were asking. Why not, right?
- The bid is laughed at. We put in another bid, slightly higher. But meanwhile…
- We find out that the building can’t be sold because the lawyer to the previous owner has liens on it.
- And, oh yeah, the previous owner is going to jail. I won’t even get into that.
- Meanwhile, the building has a squatter. A very nice guy, hard on his luck. This requires a lot of philosophical talk on our end, but in the end the seller’s agent finds him a better place to say (like, a place with heat and running water) and we realize that…well, to put it delicately, he had done a lot of damage to the place (have I mentioned the lack of running water?) Meanwhile…
- The building is foreclosed on. The bank seems open to us buying it.
- In retrospect, the fact that the building sat vacant for so long caused us massive headaches later on because since it wasn’t continually being used, all new regulations (for things like the size of egress windows, for example, or parking spots) that had gone into effect in the past howevermany years now had to be followed. “Grandfathered in” is an amazing phrase, my friends, one we didn’t get to use even once. Sigh. Meanwhile…
- The building goes to auction.
- We narrowly win the building at the auction, over the phone since I am in Chicago taking a 10-mile walk and Jacob is who-knows-where.
- We begin the process of haggling with the bank, who now owns the building and who now legally have to sell us the building (since we won it at the auction), and who we’re getting the mortgage from, over lowering the price of the building, since it’s such a sad sack of a place. The bank REALLY wants to get rid of the building. This is great. Meanwhile…
- Our lawyer, plumber, the seller’s agent (who is a super lovely dude and, since his client was in jail, I believe secretly wanted to be our agent instead), several friends, and various members of Jacob’s family all tell us the building is in rough shape and we should just move on. Here’s the thing though: we know every single building for sale in New Paltz. We can’t afford any of them. We can afford (just barely) this one. And we know that in time it will be great—maybe it will take a lot of time. But we have time. What we don’t have is the money for a better building. So our mantra becomes: “It’s not a great deal. But it’s a great deal for us.” Sometimes this little lullaby is the only way I can get to sleep, so terrified am I by taking such a big financial risk on such a dump.
- The learning curve for buying a commercial building very often seemed insurmountable. But we kept…mounting. What else was there to do? We didn’t know what the hell we were doing, until, in time, we did. Mostly Jacob. He went to the building department, researched the history of the building (power plant, newspaper office, garage, recording studio, laundromat), he learned everything there was to learn about the building.
- We set up an LLC and named it after our cats.
- We have meetings with the bank about the mortgage, setting up an account with them, all that.
- We keep pressing on. We get all the inspections done: the oil tank, the laundromat, the apartments, the propane tank. The inspections reveal that there is an insane amount of work to be done. Deep breaths.
- We get a new survey of the place done.
- We set up insurance.
- The bank cleans the place out—no more dead deer heads (there were 6, the old owner was a hunter. We had decided if the bank left them we were going to sell them to an antiques dealer we knew wanted them and donate the money to an animal rights group), washers and dryers, and trash trash trash.
- We line up financing for the renovations and down payment.
- A big chunk of that financing falls through.
- We decide, over several nervous hail-Mary-pass talks, to still go through with the deal, scraping up renovation funds somehow.
- We have endless meetings with contractors, the Building Department, the Health Department, and representatives of the Planning Board (not the one I’m sort of an alternate for, the one in the village, because even though New Paltz is a town of 6,000 people, it has a town and a village, both named New Paltz, one nestled inside the other, and yes, it’s ludicrous and makes no sense.) to see about opening up a tiny chocolate shop + fabrication kitchen there. I worked on getting special use permits to change the usage from laundromat to choco shop.
- Everyone is really nice to us—I think everyone knew we are just two kids without a lot of funding, trying to carve out a little piece of the pie in a climate where there wasn’t much pie to go around. Before we knew it, word had gotten around town. I’d run into someone at the health food store, and they’d say “I heard you’re buying the laundromat on North Front Street to open a chocolate shop in! Good job! Can’t wait!” and even though it seemed like there were still hundreds of hoops to jump through and I didn’t want to talk about it because it always seemed on the brink of falling through, it was nice.
- We wrangle with the Planning Board and Building Department about parking spaces. Funsies. The photo below is part of that mishegoss—Jacob is standing on the exact corner of our property-to-be (yeah, the corner is right in the middle of the parking lot. Don’t ask why, there is no answer.).
- We realize that we’ve done so much, we’re almost done.
- A closing date is set, a real one this time. We had one in November and one in December, but then one of the above calamities happened and it had to be pushed back.
And one day (March 28th, 2011 at 1:30 PM, to be exact) you go to the bank.
You sign some papers and again feel like you’re going to throw up. And then someone hands you:
And a deed, with your very own name on it.
And suddenly, yet so not suddenly, you are the owner of a small building in the Village, the very beating heart, of New Paltz, New York.
Lagusta’s Luscious World Headquarters
Twenty Five North Front Street
New Paltz, New York 12561
Write me a letter, will you? Say hello.
We’ve been visiting the building for almost a year now, bringing it little offerings of our hopes and dreams and credit reports. Very, very slowly we’re going to redo the entire place. Carpet to ceiling. Everything needs to be replaced, fixed, upgraded. To tamp down the excitement when I’m talking about it to friends, I call it “a shithole.”
But it’s ours. Our shithole! And it has good bones. It’s an old, old building (though the laundromat is an add-on from the 1960s), and it needs a back-breaking amount of TLC. We’re going to do what we always do: move along slowly, sustainably, planning and plotting the whole time. I’ll move the biz in as soon as I can, even though I know it won’t look like I envision it for a few years, most likely. But that’s OK. (That vinyl siding is like a knife to my gut every time I see it, but the siding will be last thing we replace, since it’s in good shape. How prosaic renovations are: beauty always comes last.)
I don’t think I’ll be signing any more papers with shaky hands for many, many years. And you can’t know how wonderful that is.
I woke up this morning and thought:
I have everything I’ve ever wanted.
* * * * * * *
I suggest you stop reading here. It’s a pretty little story, and it should end here.
But the truth is, it took a lot of internal and external work to get to that happy little ending. The part mentioned above was hard enough, but the problem wasn’t exactly that the financial aspect of it scared me (though it did) or that the immensity of the project overwhelmed me (I can barely hammer a nail, and here I was optimistically agreeing that Jacob and I could totally take off all that horrible vinyl siding ourselves.), though it did, but some sort of existential hell I have to undergo a few times a year where I lose entire days to some sort of horrid white middle class guilt that consumes me.
How dare I embark on such a selfish project, when the world is literally being swallowed up by blackness all around me? One day we were sitting with a real estate agent and he mentioned something about how “this whole thing in Greece” (see how long this whole thing stretched on? No one’s even talking about Greece’s economy collapsing anymore. What happened with that, anyway? Oh, media.) might help us get a tenth of a percent of something or other that, over time, might make a financial difference. That was the day I cried.
Once I heard a This American Life that mentioned some financial guy on September 11, 2001 whose mind, to his later horror and dismay, automatically thought “Hmm, I wonder what this will do to the markets” the minute he heard about planes and buildings.
What so horrified me was this: I’m fumbling along, putting together cute outfits and dreaming of new chocolates, living my beautiful beautiful live that I’ve worked so hard for and care about so much. I don’t make much money, but I don’t care. I don’t want to work in a factory, even if it means exponentially raising my paycheck. I want to go deeper, not wider. I’m fine with it.
But when you dip a toe into the shark-infested waters of the financial world, you realize that even with the lovely nice people with whom we were dealing* are on a whole different level. Once you start looking at the world through money-colored glasses…
Meh. This is such a obvious point. You get me.
So I was spending some time around money-type people, and, as the mainstream world tends to do, it was radicalizing me and making me all lash-out-y. That day I went into some whole long rant to Jacob all about how we didn’t have the right, really, when you start thinking about it, to do anything but eat beans and rice and give all the extra money and time we save to trying to stop the myriad crises happening everywhere. There is a simple equation, I said, that every dinner out, every NYC trip, every Hawaii vacation, means children stave to death and homeless people remain homeless and animals continue to be tortured in labs and factory farms, because we didn’t use our money and time to help stop it.
This is all obvious stuff that all of us first world people have had to make our peace with, and it’s perfectly normal to struggle with it now and then, especially around big projects like this. I could see that, but that didn’t change that thoughts like these were pretty much literally making me crazy.
So for a few days I was burning in the fires of how-dare-I-ness.
I calmed down, and thought I was getting over it, then I read this Talk of the Town piece in the New Yorker (NOTE HOW FREAKING OLD THIS IS) about this family that sold their house and donated half the money to a village in Ghana. And though I don’t believe in fate, it seemed like fate: how dare you buy this building. (Not to mention, though, that it’s not like we were buying the building with cash–if we didn’t buy it it wasn’t like I’d have anything much to donate except a mortgage, not particularly useful to Ghanians.)
Then I kept reading and saw that half of the money for this house they sold came to $800,000. Um.
Their house was worth $1,600,000? [Thanks to Randy for correcting my previous typo. As you can see, I can't even conceive of so many zeros being paid for a house.]
“There are some things that I miss,” Hannah said. “We had an elevator that led up to my room, and it was really cool, because nobody else had an elevator in their room. My friends would say, ‘Let’s ride in the elevator!’ But it really doesn’t matter.”
WHAT THE FUCK?
Fuck those people and their fucking one point six million dollar mansion! Instead of being lauded for their generosity, they should be spit upon for being so money-grubbing and nasty as to buy such a motherfucking monstrosity in the FUCKING FIRST PLACE.
MY GOD! I want to buy a teeny falling apart building for a SLIVER of that amount, and I’m putting myself through hell? Every second of every day my life has value. I spend exactly 0% of my days riding an ELEVATOR!!!!!! TO MY!!!!!! FUCKING!!!! BEDROOM!!!!!!!!11!!!111!!111!1!
And, just like that, I snapped out of it.
All of it.
The guilt, being torn in half, all of it.
I reverted back to the original impulse to buy the building: wanting to own my life, just like a good anarchist.
Wanting to make my own decisions. No masters, no bosses. From then on, I fought hard for the building. I smiled in meetings and nodded politely. I brought chocolate boxes to site visits to bribe everyone. I was polite and bright and optimistic and winning.
Because you know why?
I will never be like those dudes. I will never be the person agonizing over my $16,000,00 house. I am just fine. Stable and strong and all those walks and tears and cupcakes and all that agony proved it, because: it’s normal to worry.
In a horribly fucked-up world, it’s normal to question everything. When I realized this, I relaxed.
And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going shopping for chocolate display cases.
*Really, for being white dudes wearing ties, they were amazingly nice to us. I fully recognize that this is most likely in part because Jacob and I, before I open my fucking mouth, have the ability to look like adorable, hardworking, middle class white people. I mean, we are fucking Kevin and Winnie, after all. And…we are those people. I just have, you know, this mouth. These beliefs. This political baggage.