The Battle is Joined
The fact that my first house came with an ax, a stack of firewood, and some prehistoric tools – but lacked a stove, shower or patio – should have warned me of the battle I had entered. Correction, the battle I had gone into serious debt to fund.
But my vision had been blurred by my new Newport Beach address. Months before, when my wife Gayl and I decided to buy our first home, we drew an imaginary line a mile inland from the beach. Of course we could afford a lot more house, in model home condition, in Aliso Viejo, Costa Mesa or Laguna Niguel, but we had spent our entire lives near the ocean between Laguna and Newport Beach; we needed a little salt in our air. So we began looking atNewport and Laguna’s fixer-uppers: Houses which needed new roofs, new kitchens, new paint, new windows, a little TLC. We ran the prices by our loan broker, who promptly laughed. We lowered our standards. More laughing. We lowered our standards some more, moving from fixer-uppers to no-hope-fors.
In this collection we found a half dozen places orbiting our price range. A few had yellow condemned notices on the front door and all screamed code violation. When we did get in, we usually wanted straight back out. Upon opening the door to one crumbling beach cottage, we were greeted by two guys sporting dreadlocks and a bong.
But we persevered and finally, on a gray Sunday morning, our real estate agent, Darlene, showed us what she called “a find.” During the 15-minute ride over to the new prospect, Gayl and I couldn’t help but grow excited as we asked what we thought were the usual first-time buyer questions.
“It’s not condemned, right?”
“No more of those, I promise,” said Darlene.
“Does it have a roof?”
“Of course. Don’t talk crazy.” Darlene forced out a dismissive laugh.
“Did anyone die inside recently?”
“Think location, people, location.”
The little blue 1937 cottage did have location – but not much more. The structure itself was less than 1,000 square feet, occupying a corner lot of over 7,000 square feet, which was covered with a mixture of crabgrass and dirt. There was a porch, but no back patio. A pea gravel driveway led up to a one-car carriage garage with a small shed attached to its rear.
We parked on the street in front. It was a beautiful lane that stretched three blocks to a cliff top that held a view of Newport Bay and the Pacific. A cool sea breeze funneled down this corridor, passing green lawns and large homes of every architectural style, and delivered an intoxicating ocean scent that cast a brighter aspect on the sad little home.
The feeling held as we toured the inside. We saw through the cracked window panes, pooh-poohed the ancient 30-amp bulb electrical, and regarded the 6,000 square feet of dirt as a blank canvas on which to create our own verdant landscape. We’re young and strong, we reasoned, we’ll have this place whipped into shape in three months, spend no more than $6,000. By the new year we’ll be having dinner parties.
The first hint that we were in way over our heads slammed home with our initial project: The painting of the interior. This we saw as a minor, even fun, project, but one that was much needed since the entire interior was an authentic hospital blue.
We bought a primer that claimed to cover anything in one coat. It was called Kills, and the minute we saw the name we new it was for us. But after spending our first Saturday morning coating the living room with the stuff, the sickbay atmosphere still surrounded us.
“I think I still see hospital,” Gayl said, and we pushed our faces close to one wall and squinted. The blue seeped through the Kills like an infection. Apparently, the paint the last owner used to coat the walls was the most ornery of oil-based concoctions.
“Let’s move on,” I said.
We pried open a five gallon drum of Bear premium paint. Gayl had chosen tundra as a color – “sort of a parchment yellow with life,” the bubbly sales clerk had said.
We threw ourselves at the walls with dripping paint rollers, fighting the blue with good American fury. Eight hours later, after slathering on two coats of tundra, we toasted our victory with a bottle of wine and fell exhausted into bed, the strong smell of paint spinning us into unconsciousness.
The next morning, holding our coffees in hand and studying our handiwork, we watched as the blue oozed through. The more we studied it, the bluer it became.
“It’s like a cancer,” I said, my nose six inches from the wall.
We declared all-out war on the hospital blue. Another coat of Kills, two more of tundra. The walls were now caked with half an inch of paint, but we had done it. The blue was eradicated; the walls were in remission.
But as with all great victories, ours had come at a cost. The massive amount of energy it had taken to claim our living room dissuaded us from attacking the rest of the house. The fight was just too tough. Instead, we rationalized that the paint was mere cosmetics, low on our modest home’s priority list. There were still structural battles to be waged: We wanted a patio and lawn by summer, which also meant erecting 200-feet of fence and installing a sprinkler system; we still had no shower – we took baths, surrounded by open walls of two-by-four studs; our washing machine had no plumbing; four windows had top-to-bottom cracks; we brushed our teeth in the kitchen sink. The list went on. And with both of us working full time to pay for this castle, time was not on our side.
Besides, because we felt it would be easier to paint an empty house, most of our furniture was still piled in the small carriage garage, which had been strategically placed in the lot’s lowest part so that with each rain an inch of mud flooded in.
We decided living like this was more depressing than living in a hospital waiting room. So, nearly a month after we became homeowners, the barrels of paint replaced our furniture in the garage and we moved in.
Notes from the (cold) front
Looking back, I can only hope that I added a bit of yuletide ambiance to our neighbors’ Christmas parties. I’m speaking, of course, of those evenings when I, clad in lumberjack shirt, jeans and wool cap, marched into our would-be backyard and chopped firewood by the light of a camping lantern. The pleasant ocean breeze that had seduced us in early October turned, in the dead of winter, to an arctic wind. This, along with our beautiful wood floors and authentic 1937 wood windows, insured a thorough, deep freeze. So while other Newporters checked their thermostats and shopped online, I practiced my Jack Nicholson impression and scared the hell out of the neighbors.
But by then the neighbors were most likely used to the eccentricities – or sympathetic to the plight – of the Looses. Most projects were not too kind on their eyes. When, for instance, in November I retiled the bathroom floor, I had to remove our only toilet daily, reinstalling it when the work day was done. Since it always dripped a bit of water and the front door, leading to the front porch, was the closest exit point, that’s where it went. For the five days leading to Thanksgiving, the neighbors got a view of our toilet, resting next to our “Welcome” mat in lieu of a potted plant.
Then there were those awkward early morning meetings on my neighbors lawn after a night of blustery Santa Ana winds: Jim sleepily gathering his Register from the curb, me stealthily gathering battered pieces of my roof from his front yard.
One day, while standing in the second bedroom, which was to be my home study, but now more closely resembled the Tool Barn at Home Depot, Gayl said, “It’s February, and we still have sheets on the windows.”
“Right, but look at the bright side,” I said. “Our credit cards are almost maxed-out. Eventually, they’ll have to stop us.”
The Longest Yard
Again we decided a graceful defeat was better than an escalated and prolonged assault on the interior. Besides, summer was for outdoors; it was time to turn our attention to creating a backyard.
First, we had to establish a perimeter, so I spent a few weekends researching how-to books on building cinderblock walls, then decided writing a check required much less heavy lifting. I’d make up the money by erecting the rear fence and gate myself. This I did, building 50 feet of fence in dubious record time.
Next, we turned our attention to sod. Surely we could lay that ourselves. Turns out we could – in one excruciatingly painful 14-hour work day. After paying professionals to install a web-like sprinkler system, we took delivery of four towering pallets of sod. From dawn until dusk Gayl and I pushed and pulled 252 30-pound paddies ofMarathon’s best into place to cover almost 2,000-square-feet of dirt.
“I want a condo with a roof deck,” Gayl said that night while straining to lift a slice of pizza to her lips.
But the next day, as the new sprinkler system misted the green expanse, making every blade glisten with pride, we felt we had reached a milestone: Growth, progress, suburbia.
Two months later, when I had to rent a trench digger from Red-E Rentals (every employee of which knew me by name) to tear a hole the length of the backyard because of a faulty gas line, the feelings were just as poignant: Death, recession, forced labor. But after a few days of hacking away at petrified eucalyptus tree roots and almost missing sprinkler lines, we had gas again. Which is nice for cooking and hot showers.
July Fourth came and went and I truly believe that if we had had a patio on which to place the barbeque, we would have had a party. But come Labor Day, the very impressive 15-by-30-foot patio, complete with fire pit, accent lighting and stone walkway, still existed only on paper. So after spending yet another four weekends immersed in do-it-yourself patio books and laying down a highly suspect grid of concrete forms, I called in professionals.
In three days, we had what I had been craving for almost a year: a way to walk from my back door to my car without sloshing through mud. And all it took was 20 seconds of filling out a small piece of paper with some bank information on it. This novel idea of small promissory notes to escape back-twisting jobs quickly became the new rage in the Loose household. When those failed, we pulled out the plastic.
Over the next nine months we used this tactic for a new roof (during the worst El Niño year in a decade, ensuring a 30% increase in price); new exterior paint (but not before painting the entire house ourselves, ensuring a 30% increase in price); and central heating. We still worked hard on weekends, finishing the planting, installing gates and planning out the yet un-tamed front and side yards, and equally hard during the week to placate our cavalry of creditors.
There was no denying that progress was being made on our home, but it came with hidden costs: Gayl and I now regarded Home Depot trips as opportunities for quality time.
Flash forward to three years from our move-in date. Like most dysfunctional, obsessive people, we decided to change directions just as the first flash of light flickered at the end of the tunnel. The domestic life proved too challenging; instead we’d buy a 25-year-old boat and sail to the south seas. The new plan demanded cash; which meant we’d need to sell our home; which meant we’d need to finish our home.
We consulted a friend and real estate agent, asking what we needed to do for a painless sale. The blue walls had to go, of course, the kitchen counters needed to be tiled and the floors needed a touch-up stain. So, three years after we moved in, we did what we should have done the first month: hired professional painters.
We tiled the kitchen ourselves, replacing the sink for good measure, and had the wood floors professionally cleaned and waxed. Small, unfinished projects occupied another few weeks and then we put the home on the market. We were worried it would take months to sell a 990-square-foot 1937 cottage in mansion-giddy Newport Beach but surprisingly it sold in one day, for more than we asked. It felt like we had won the lottery.
The day after we signed the papers, I woke up early, made coffee, and stood watching the first rays of sun light up our tundra walls. Gayl came up behind me with a hug.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“I’m not really sure,” I said. “But I think I’m…relaxed.”