RIGHT now the average price of a house in America is about $50,000. The house described above just sold for less than $30,000. If you want to buy a good house, cheap, the trick is knowing where to look, and where not to look. Stay away from Georgetown or Old Town or any place where the real estate market is hot or heating up or has been hot.
Do not look in great urban neighborhoods like Cleveland Park. Do not look in suburbs like Kenwood. Not in exurbs like Middleburg, where gentlefolk ride to hounds. Not in ocean-front resorts nor fertile farm areas.
What's left? The rest of the country. Look in places where nothing is happening. That's the secret; and it works. I just did it. For years I hoped to buy a house, and I noticed two things. Prices of city houses, even "handyman's specials" (no roof), were climbing the ladder faster than my income or savings.
Second, I noticed that prices were very low, even suspiciously low, in quiet places like Franklin, Pa., that are far from the corridors of power. I would see advertisements for good houses, interesting houses, for $12,500. I know people whose cars are worth more. So I wondered how close these zones of flat, low property values came to the Boston-Washington corridor. The answer is pretty close. I have looked at acceptable sub-$20,000 houses within two hours of midtown Manhattan.
First, you aren't going to find a farmhouse right out of an Andrew Wyeth painting with a terrific barn and 30 wooded acres only an hour from Crystal City. There were only three of those, and they were grabbed 20 years ago.
Second, unless you work peculiar hours or own an airplane, you aren't going to find a cheap place within easy, daily commuting range. Suburbs obliterated that possibility decades ago.
Third, this is not going to be a hot investment. It beggars reason to assume that after all these years of stagnant prices a country house is going to triple in value right after you buy it. Nevertheless, a low-priced house in a slow market is not necessarily a bad refuge for your dollars in these inflationary years.
If you are thinking of buying an affordable house out in the hills, try to know why. Escape from the city? Gardening? Weekend loafing? For me it was nostalgia for an old settled town, space to build picnic tables and boats, storage for too many books and motorcycles, peace for reading and writing, and a sunny yard for roses and touch football. For you it might be space to store your steam engines, fields to cultivate farming fantasies or room to rebuild old Fords. Your reasons why will affect your search.
Before You Start Looking ...
Start with a couple of simple tools: a grade-school compass -- the kind that holds a pencil -- and a decent road map of the Middle Atlantic states. Decide how far you can stand to go from where you have to be -- your apartment or office. That means deciding how long you want to drive on a Friday evening at rush hour. Let's say three hours. At 55 mph that's about 150 miles.
Now decide how many inches 150 miles is on your map, stick the sharp part of the compass into the spot where you make your money, and score a circle with a 150-mile radius.
That process will work for any eastern city. For Washington workers the line is going to pass roughly through Newport News, on the far side of Philadelphia, through the western border of Maryland. The circle will encompass all of the Delmarva peninsula, all of Pennsylvania Dutch country, all of Maryland, the eastern panhandle of West Virginia, most of the Shenandoah Valley and the Blue Ridge, and nearly all of Tidewater Virginia.
Within that circle you can find mountains, valleys, ocean, bays, lakes, rivers and streams, forests and fields, hollows and hamlets. Muggy places, cool places, good places. Start marking your map for places to look. Forget all the known places, the classy resorts, suburbs, genuine farms and any place like Williamsburg. Williamsburg is, in terms of property values, another Georgetown. Focus on the unknown territories.
Before you go out to your car with map and checkbook, make five decisions:
What is the top price you can really afford? Consider the down payment, mortgage payments, taxes, repairs and improvements. Try to be honest about this, and try to stick to your chosen ceiling of $25,000 or whatever it is. But be prepared for some revelations about your capacity for self-deception.
Decide how large a house you want. This is related to decision number one. Just because you find a country house with a full price lower than a city house down payment, try not to go overboard. It's good to have space for all the Mission furniture you plan to acquire and for all the relatives that will show up, but generally one couple does not need a five-bedroom house. Square footage costs money. You will have to heat it, and heating oil costs just as much out there as here.
Decide how much territory you need. Again, this is related to decision number one. Land also costs money. It may also cost energy, worry and work. If you aren't really going to install a golf course or raise thoroughbreds, avoid going after acres of bluegrass. You'll only have to cut it or bale it when you ought to be taking a nap.
Decide what features are essential. This is the fulfillment part, the fun. Make a list. Can you settle for a house that lacks a fireplace, a dock, an ivied porch, a sunset view or a big kitchen? Distinguish between what you might add later, such as a sundeck, and what you can do nothing about, such as the view.
Town or country? That is the fundamental decision. Ideal rural houses with enough acreage to surround them with bucolic privacy are, all other things being equal, tougher to find and more expensive than houses in small towns. There are clear pros and cons.
With that isolated cottage on the mountaintop, you will get privacy, silence and a sense of your own domain. You may also get:
1. A chancy water supply and even chancier sewer arrangement. A well may be pure, but an electric pump means that when (not if) there's a power failure, you can neither shower nor flush the toilet. Or you may discover as I did on one occasion that the seller is lying about the septic tank: the sewage was debouching into the sparkling brook in the side yard.
2. Difficult access. Relatives of mine own a picture-book small farm in Pennsylvania that is so remote that at white Christmas or puddle-wonderful springtime they can reach it only in a serious four-wheel drive vehicle.
3. Broken into. Rural crime is booming and the last time I checked the conviction rate was less than 10 percent. That means rural crime pays. If you are a worrier or plan to leave anything of value in the house, consider that no lock or alarm is effective where a country felon has unobserved days to work his will. And no, it is not legal to leave a loaded shotgun pointed at and a trigger string tied to the kitchen door.
A house located in a small town may have better water and sewer arrangements, better fire protection, a better price, and the security of neighbors' eyes on your property while you are back here earning money. But there are drawbacks and chances.
There will be less privacy and more peer pressure. If you want to grow dope and go naked, or do something wacky like paint your house purple, first re-read Main Street. Things have loosened up since then, but Bluemont is not yet Berkeley. You may not get good vistas, and there will be more noise -- dogs (everyone in a small town keeps at least two vocal hounds), kids, ducks, trucks, chain saws and guinea hens. Your new neighbors may be terrific and bring you fresh tomatoes and directions to the nearest trout stream (as mine have) or they may be the originals for Harvest Home. It's impossible to tell much before you move. They may not like you, and you may not like them.
Being a worrier and tight with a dollar, I came down on the small-town side. I'm not actively anti-social, and I rejected houses with high-noise potential, insufficient space and no view. I hoped for neighbors who'd keep an eye on the place. I located several such houses and bought one. I've not been sorry.
Now Go Look ...
Take your circled map and any other good ones you can find. Take a notebook, a flashlight for peering into crawl spaces, a pocketknife for jabbing joists that seem dry-rotted and change for telephone calls.
Don't expect much help from real estate agents. Most will insist there's no such thing as a $25,000 house (or if there is, you wouldn't want to live there). Remember they work for a percentage of the take; they're trying to move the $100,000 houses.When you say you won't spend more than $30,000, they may become fey and diffident or ignore your limit and try to show you $60,000 houses. They too know something about self-deception. They will show you what they have, which is not the same as showing you what you want.
If you do work with real estate agents, mind your dress. Appearances mean a lot.When I arrived in jeans on my Honda, few real estate agents bothered to mask their contempt. When I arrived in a friend's Mercedes, they grew unctuous and showed me $100,000 retreats. Do not assume that because they are out in the sticks that they aren't as sharp or as hungry as the dealers on Capitol Hill.
It is possible to get a house at auction (estate settlement or delinquent tax sale) but it isn't easy. Friends bought a remarkable old brick country house at a Pennsylvania auction, but they were practically native to the area, knew when and where auctions were held, knew the auctioneer's style, etc. Your lines of communication have to be good for that method.
Strout Realty and United Farm Agency publish comprehensive catalogues of rural property for sale in all parts of the United States. These are fun to leaf through. But the good stuff was long gone by the time I got the catalogue. Or the advertised property had characteristics that the catalogues neglected to mention. The upwind hog farm didn't show in the photograph. Neither did the roadhouse across the driveway. However, real estate agents representing those two organizations are among the most helpful I have met.
Wherever you look, buy the local newspapers. Dozens of small dailies and weeklies are published everywhere. That's how the word gets around about property for sale. The type of place you are seeking may not be advertised in the Washington papers or the classified section of New York magazine. It may be in the East Penn Valley Gazette. If you find an area you like, subscribe to the newspaper. I still receive some local weeklies. They are fun to read, cheap and tell where to find cut-rate paint and chimney sweeps.
Most rural house-hunting is just prolonged cruising through selected areas. Use the maps and cover as much territory as you can. Stay off the highways unless you want to buy property overlooking a highway. After a while you will instinctively brake at each for-sale sign. I still do. People put for-sale signs on surprisingly slow-traffic country roads, even on dirt roads. Some weekends you won't see a thing you like. The first weekend I looked, I saw three houses I loked.
Don't reject a prospect on appearances from the road.Remember that if you owned it, you'd spend most of your time on the inside looking out.
Last year an agent showed me a little house that was going for $11,900. Inferior to its substantial red-brick neighbors, it was a nondescript frame house with that phony-brick asphalt siding. It was so close to its neighbor houses that at first I was not going to get out of the car.
Surprisingly, it was private and quiet inside. One adjacent house had no windows on that side and the other was effectively screened by shrubs and an outbuilding. The interior had a certain simple charm and everything worked. Outside I found a garage, a summer kitchen, a large yard and a breathtaking mountain view.
In the end, though, I didn't buy it. An architect warned of its flimsy construction and the bank's appraiser was worried about problems with the septic tank drain field.
When you find a house you like, look at it more than once, at different times of day, night and week. I felt lucky to find a cozy limestone cottage in the shadow of a forested mountain. Then I returned on a Sunday to discover a moto-cross track was just over the hill. The weekend air was full of Suzuki snarls and Yamaha yammer. It's okay to look in winter. Prices may be lower because hardy buyers are few. And you will learn about the heating and tightness of the houses.
If you have bought other houses, you know the rules: check everything. Get it in writing. Haggle. Move fast. In a country house look carefully at the utilities. Flush the toilet, run the hot water, turn on the heat. See that everything works and nothing leaks.
Once I examined an old house with a hostile owner. It was charming on the outside and a wreck on the inside. Apparently his son's hobby had been kicking holes in the walls, and apparently no one in the family bathed. The owner became annoyed at my wanting to turn on the water and see for myself whether the pump worked. His behavior set off my alarm bell. When he refused to put in writing that anything worked, the deal was off.
If you are checking a house in the company of a chattery real estate agent, pay more attention to what your own eyes, ears, hands and nose tell you than to what his patter tells you. An agent who looked like Santa Claus in a leisure suit heartily assured me that the old farmhouse "just needed a few boards replaced here and there." It was so dry-rotted that when my daughter stepped into the dining room, she nearly landed in the cellar.
Ask questions. Why is the owner selling? Is that a dog-food factory being built just up the valley? Whose goats are those? Think. If it's on a river, remember Hurricane Agnes and find out about flooding.
Take notes. After you have looked at many places, the details blur and the features run together. I sketched floor plans and took photographs of many houses. Later the photographs always revealed things I had not noticed.
Eventually you will have to deal with a local bank or savings and loan association, just as in the city. If the house you want doesn't fit their stereotyped notion of a weekend retreat, they may not understand why you're interested. Give them a reassuring motive and don't worry. If the house is sound, you can afford it, have decent credit and money isn't too tight, they'll give you the mortgage. That's one way they make money.
Be patient and philosophical.I looked for more than a year and found that real estate deals can go dead at many points along the way. I was eager to buy one special house last fall and had begun visualizing a jolly Thanksgiving there. Then the banks said no dice. I was disappointed, but I have to believe their negative judgment saved me some grief.
Looking for a country house is fun. Rove the back roads in a good car or on a good bike and enjoy the excuse to see the countryside and talk to people. It's an opportunity to examine your life, to visualize yourself in new settings.
A last caveat: get a place that needs no immediate work. At these prices, no house will be perfect. But it is too easy to underestimate the agony of a rotten roof. It is too easy to say, "Well, I can nail on some shingles the first Saturday." Don't let yourself do it. It is much nicer to move in your hammock and novels and spend your first weekend lying about. Later you'll find plenty to fix.
This process works. The house described in the advertisement is the one I bought. I love it, but... I kind of miss the search.