I'm remodeling a fifty-year old

by francine Hardaway on July 28, 2004

I’m remodeling a fifty-year old house. It was across the street from me, with its brown lawn, three large dead pine trees, cracked window panes and twenty-five year old paint job. The people who lived there didn’t run the air conditioning, and through the open windows I could hear them threatening to kill each other, leave each other, and other things I didn’t want to know.

When I moved into the neighborhood three months ago, after moving out of the priciest high rise condo project in the City, I asked about the couple. I was told they owned the home, having inherited it from one of their parents, and had lived there for twenty-five years. At one time, they had a child who sold drugs, and there was a lot of activity at the house, but the son was now in prison for a very long time — his third strike.

The next time the wife came out the front door, I introduced myself to her. She immediately told me, “I’m about to lose this house which was my grandmother’s, because my husband put a mortgage on it and I can’t make the payments, and he left me for a 23-year-old woman.” I sympathized. He had moved to California. She seemed beside herself.

“That story is more common than you know,” I said. “I can’t help you on the marriage front, but I can bail you out of the house so you don’t lose your credit.” I foresaw an easy win-win, just like when I thought I could turn around the family fortunes of an inner city family whose children I wound up foster parenting for twelve years.

The wife and I agreed on a deal. But as soon as the husband saw money, he left the alleged 23-year-old and showed up in Phoenix at the house, ready to help his wife sell it and share the profits. He questioned the terms, the appraisal, my ability to close. He even walked out of the house one day at nigh noon (temperate about 105) in a muscle shirt, took a chain saw, and cut down one of the dead trees. I was so frightened seeing him with the chain saw that I couldn’t watch him do it. He cut it down right into the middle of the street, too. He left a two foot stump, he never cleaned up the remnants of the tree, and he never came out to do the other two, either. That was his sole gesture in the direction of getting the house ready to sell, despite his promises that he’d have the house empty in no time if I just put a dumpster in the yard.

The sale was complicated; the couple didn’t have clear title to the house, and they also didn’t get up in the morning and apply themselves to straightening out the paperwork. The house was so full of trash that the home inspector couldn’t get through the master bedroom to look at the second bathroom, and the appraiser had to take the size of the home on faith. Every time I had to go over there to tell them something about the transaction, the man yelled at me before he even opened the door, as though I were responsible for his title problems. At times, I feared for my well-being. I asked several male friends of mine to go with me to the house, but they politely declined.

But I forged ahead, confident that if the transaction closed before the guy used an axe on me, I’d be able to handle anything that came up. (Oh, by the way, I’m 5’3″ at best).

A lot came up. When the transaction finally closed, the people didn’t move out. I was out of town. The cleaning crew couldn’t get in, and the occupants hadn’t packed a thing although a U-Haul stood before the house. Three days later, I had a friend call the police, who actually had no jurisdiction and said that I’d have to call the Marshall. The Marshall? I was really in the wild West.

But the police visit impressed the couple, and they finally got into the U-Haul and drove off, leaving three generations and three dumpsters full of broken furniture, old computers, syringes, crack pipes, and dirt. Paid the cleanup crew $1500.

Now I could start. First item of business: replace all the cracked glass to the house could be insured. Fifty-year old casement windows. $1500. Next, check the plumbing, which had never been replaced and needed to be re-piped. No sense fixing the house and risking a flood.

The air conditioning? a fifty-year-old three-phase unit that actually worked

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