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Dream House Awakenings

Dazzled Buyers Can Be Stunned by Problems They Missed

By Stephanie Cavanaugh
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, April 9, 2005; Page F01

Ken Jarboe thought the big old black walnut tree hovering over the sweet, if barren, back yard of his newly purchased Capitol Hill home was just splendid. It would beautifully complement the Japanese garden he envisioned, complete with a few cherry trees, a dogwood and a meandering white stone path, "for a river effect," he said.

"I didn't have a clue."

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Who would think to ask the sellers why the back yard was so bare? The logical assumption would be that they weren't much for gardening.

Wouldn't it?

"The problem is it's a black walnut," Jarboe said. "And black walnuts have a tendency to do two things, both having to do with tannic acids. They stain -- you know black walnut stain? And they kill everything underneath."

Including, in his case, all three cherry trees and the dogwood.

The black walnut also attracted squirrels, which would sit chittering on the fence, cracking nuts and spewing shells into the path "where they became embedded," Jarboe said. "The white gravel looked like a smoker's teeth. Instead of a nice river effect, it's the Anacostia on a bad day."

It's curious what excites people about the houses they buy, what they notice and what they choose to overlook -- or neglect to thoroughly investigate in the emotional crescendo of the moment.

Sometimes buyers don't even know the right questions to ask -- until it's too late. Elinor and Harry Sachse would confirm that. Their story dates back to 1976, but still gets them heated up.

When Harry Sachse first saw the big Cleveland Park Victorian with its wraparound porches, the Louisiana native was reminded of a riverboat. "What he forgot to take into account was that you have to take the boat out of the water every year and scrape the bottom," his wife said dryly. "Old houses are expensive."

But she was taken with it, too. There were the leaded glass windows, particularly the oval one in the stairwell, the three fireplaces, the nicely scaled rooms. On the downside was the tired kitchen with its elderly appliances and hideously patterned paper, the basement with its dirt floor, and a front yard that resembled "Tobacco Road," she said. Those they could change easily, she figured.

It didn't have central heating. That had been ripped out by the owners once removed: They were a pair of maiden sisters who, preferring to heat just the few rooms in use, installed individual electric room heaters.

"It was an unusual system, to say the least," Elinor Sachse said.

The Sachses thought they knew what they were getting into, however. They checked the electric bills and found that the current owners, an English couple with several children, were paying Pepco $99 a month on an installment plan that averaged the usage over a year's time. Steep for 1976, but doable.

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