This post is the 5th in a series of posts I have dubbed “The Firehouse Chronicles.” See all episodes.
Flung into needing a fast decision about buying this firehouse, we discuss our future commitment in a way that feels like a spur-of-the-moment Vegas wedding. I am both giddy and terrified. It feels impulsive and dangerous and financially risky and exciting to be buying a house with Jim.
That night, we discuss issues that most married couples take years to figure out: what happens to the house if one of us dies, each of our responsibilities toward the house, what happens if he is unable to repay me for his half, what happens if we break up. I become aware through this conversation that Jim has already proven his commitment to me in so many ways – his determination to make my house his own, as flawed a situation as that was for him; the care he took to fold himself into the complex and intertwined relationship I have with my kids in his quiet and unobtrusive way; his unflinching support of me and his acceptance of the ever-present ghost in the room. It was my turn to show my commitment to him. By stepping fully into this endeavor, I would be showing him my intention of spending my life with him.
Still, it’s scary given our angsty adjustment moving Jim into my house. Are we ready to make this leap together?
Yet it does feel right to be buying a house that so ideally represents the two of us. If there’s anything I’ve learned in the past 15 years, when things happen quickly and easily, it’s usually the right path.
But still. I am terrified. Will this new house resolve his home needs? Will it suit mine? I have spent 15 years making all the decisions in my world. Will I have trouble accepting the fact that I will now have to share these decisions and, heaven forbid, make compromises? Will I have to sell my dream house? The thought still causes me to swallow back tears. I love the house so much. Everyone who walks in the door loves it too. I bought the house 4 years after Arron’s death when the kids were 6 and 10. For both of them, this house is the only one they know. I wanted a home that would console us while at the same time offer us a new life, one without Arron. The house became all that and more.
Which is why I know the kids will be devastated at the idea of selling our home. But the truth is, financially I am barely holding on. Property taxes are rising substantially every year and I don’t have a reliable income. From a financial perspective, selling my house is the only option if we buy the firehouse, but I still hope, in the back of my mind, that perhaps I’ll be able to rent it, hold onto it as an investment.
The other issue is that the firehouse has no real bedrooms. Given that the sellers owned the house since 1974, and there is no obvious bedroom, it’s a mystery to us where they actually slept. We grapple with how to create bedrooms from the partially renovated rooms: A hayloft with a stair to the attic plunked in its center; a horse’s feed room and stables with grooved cement floors and giant barn doors that open directly to the backyard; an attic space that will require a new stairway to provide access. Persuading the kids to move to an incomplete house will be a challenge without the carrot of beautiful/cool bedrooms.
The neighborhood is also a mental hurdle. Am I willing to give up my proximity to friends, shops, downtown by moving a 20-minute drive further south? Is the neighborhood as scary as it purported to be? Will I miss the tree-lined streets, beautiful houses, winding streets of my neighborhood and move to an area that has fewer of these aesthetic qualities?
I expected the process of melding all our lives to be gradual, allowing me and Jim and my kids to adjust to the new situation over time. Making the decision to combine our lives in a 24-hour period is daunting. Of the questions that swirl in my head all night, the one I return to is: Am I ready to take this leap with Jim?
The next morning, still trying to overcome our misgivings about the neighborhood, we stop in at the local funky coffee shop where I ask a man in line buying a coffee if he lives in the neighborhood and what he thinks of it.
“I love the neighborhood,” he says. “I’ve lived here for 8 years now, and it’s been great. There are tons of artists, musicians, and creative types here, because of the lower home prices.” Other people in line chime in with similar sentiments.
We hustle off to do the home inspection. The inspector tells us he grew up in the neighborhood and that he loved it. Everything about the house is sound, despite the incomplete renovations and the lack of bedrooms.
After the inspection, we spend time kicking around the neighborhood, trying to get our bearings. The views of Lake Washington are spectacular, and although from the firehouse, the views of it are peek-a-boo, it’s beautiful from almost any vista around the neighborhood. Our optimism grows as we traverse the streets, take a walk in the local ravine. We already love the oven-fired pizza place. People at the local Safeway seem friendlier than at my local one. Through our tour, I can see Jim’s excitement grow and the feeling is contagious. I too am getting excited. We end back at the house and stand in the driveway looking up at the house as if trying to see our future selves in the windows.
“Should we do this?” Jim asks.
“I need to call the kids,” I say, pulling out my phone. He wanders away to stomp down overflowing blackberry bushes to determine the property’s boundaries.
“But what about my room!?” my daughter laments, bursting into tears. I hate making the kids sad, rip them away from their comfort zone. I try to explain my dwindling finances to my daughter, why the firehouse is a good investment with its double lot and renovation potential.
“And with us doing a lot of the renovations ourselves…”
“It’s all about you and Jim now. You’re just doing this for him. You’re buying him a house.” I realize the crux of her statement. There will be a shift of power in this house. Rather than Jim being a guest in their house, they will be a guest in his.
“I’m not buying Jim a home. He’ll be paying for half. It will be half his house. But it will be your house too. You’ll always have a place wherever I live. I want you to know that.”
“I know,” she sniffs.
“And besides, you’re talking about moving away.” She couldn’t argue, having recently told me of her plan to move in with her boyfriend next summer.
Next, I call my son.
“I’m not moving my senior year of high school,” he says, defiant. I can’t argue. I had been forced to do just that in high school, and it changed the course of my life.
“Ok,” I say. “I promise that we won’t move until you leave for college.”
This means we won’t be able to move into the firehouse for a year. In truth, I am relieved. I too need time to say goodbye to my house and neighborhood. It’s a compromise I’m willing to make. I hope Jim will understand and see that my investment is now both with him and my kids.
Our decision has to be quick in Seattle’s hot real estate market. If we’re going to avoid the bidding war and offer cash, then we need to put in our offer by the end of the day.
I find Jim hacking at a thicket of blackberries.
“If you’re OK with not moving for a year,” I say, “then I think we should make an offer.”