Let the butterfly bush and tomatoes push out of the ground. Watch the grass grow, then see a carpet of pine needles cover it over. Bring a Christmas tree through the front door, and look from outside the house to judge its position. Let a year and a half go by in this house, and then let a piece of bad news bring it to an end.
Just as quickly as we had made the house our home -- where our son took his first wavering steps, where all his grandparents gathered one day around the table wearing birthday hats, where we watched in awe a summer's electrical storms and huddled against a hurricane's fury -- we would have to give it up.
The house was empty and had been for months. I had driven down to North Carolina to inspect it, but really, there was nothing to inspect: empty rooms still shiny from our last cleaning, a faint trace of cleaning agent still lingering in the air. I walked once through all the rooms, then pulled the front door behind, testing the worn handle. Out front a car was creeping along, as if passing through the scene of an accident. When the driver saw me taking notice of him, he sped on down the street.
I walked the length of the front porch a few times, my legs still stiff from the drive, then got in my car. I pulled to the end of the long driveway, and stopped. When I looked back, I could see, now, what anyone else who drove by could see: an empty house for sale that looked forlorn and unwanted. It was caved in with gloom. The cheerful yellow of the wood trim now seemed to me to have the hue of an Easter egg left over from the previous year. The roof's errant dark patches were getting darker, like a furrowed brow. The house next door had recently been painted, and that didn't help matters any. It was suddenly the knockout on the dance floor, the house that prospective buyers craned their necks to admire. Ours was the sad wallflower in an ill-suited dress. When people did look, they didn't linger.
When we had bought the house two years prior, we were ready to sign the papers before we had even stepped through the front door -- our instincts being that strong. The front yard was a vast, even field of thick golf-style grass: a child's version of the perfect football field. There was a wraparound front porch, with a swing, and a red-brick chimney. It seemed incredible to us that this house had been available all these months, and we squirmed like children as the real estate agent knocked on the door, waiting to take us in.
While we lived in the house, we had made changes, inside and out, that only added to its appeal. The economy was soaring when we put it up for sale -- a seller's market if ever there was one. How, in such a short time, had our beloved house become a place -- at a bargain, at a steal! -- that no one wanted?
I lingered in the driveway awhile longer, and then I couldn't look anymore. I had a new house -- which meant we had the burden of two mortgages -- to get back to, a couple hundred miles away. When I drove away, I felt the same parental anguish I had been experiencing each day when I dropped my son off at his new preschool, as he cried and begged me not to leave him.
We had loved this house so completely. Now it had been six months since we moved out. We had to wonder: Were we the ones who had not seen this house for what it was, or was it everyone else?
Before we moved to North Carolina, we lived in Boston. As we prepared to move south, we understood that we were selling at an extremely advantageous time: This was in the late 1990s, and in Boston the housing market had skyrocketed. We sold our condominium -- part of a larger townhouse -- in a matter of hours, just as we had been assured we would, and made a sizable profit. We knew that in North Carolina we could spend considerably less and get considerably more.
Once we settled into a temporary apartment and set about finding a house, though, the process didn't go quite the way we had imagined. Construction was everywhere by the time we returned to the state (both my wife and I are from North Carolina), and new houses were fueling the market. But we had an attachment to houses with a history to them; in Boston, our townhouse dated back to the late 1800s. We could see the appeal of these new houses, but at the same time they left us a little cold. As a child, I had spent ample time in my grandparents' and great aunts' houses, and in my mind I couldn't erase images of wraparound porches with swings and broad oak trees that hovered like watchful parents.
The older houses in town that resembled this vision were either not for sale or out of our price range. What we were mostly seeing, as buyers, were brand-new houses crammed together, with yellow tape strung from posts, with electricians buzzing around, finishing up the last of their work. They sat on newly cleared lots, lined with stubbly grass and trees that looked like props in a school play.
We found ourselves depressed at the prospects.
"Now this one we're about to see definitely comes with a bonus room," our agent would say as we pulled up to another available home. That term kept popping up wherever we went. It smacked of the kind of blaring messages that cover junk-mail envelopes: YOU'VE JUST WON! URGENT! RESPOND IN 5 DAYS! But the bonus room was simply another empty room, and the trickery of making you think you were getting something for nothing did little to curb our despondency.
"Are we really so unusual for not wanting to buy a new house?" I asked my wife, Katherine, one night after another fruitless day of searching. "So we like older houses. We've never had someone suggest that we had unusual or peculiar tastes before. I just never imagined it could drag out like this."
We were living in an apartment building, and our neighbors upstairs were tuned in to a basketball game. They didn't like how it was going, and they stomped every time the other team scored, which was often.
"All I know is I'm about to go crazy," Katherine said. We were living among stacks of boxes, which wobbled dangerously in their undistributed weight over our son, Griffin, as he was learning to crawl. We had had to extend the lease, with no relief in sight.
The red light of a police cruiser -- there were always lights and sirens on our street -- came in through the glass porch door and fluttered against our walls like a frightened bird.
"I know," I said. "Who knew coming back home would be this hard?"
Six months into looking, our agent had learned to temper any optimism she might have about a property. One Saturday, in the spring, she quietly drove us out to a place on the fringe of town. She didn't tell us much about the house, and we didn't ask.
Countless people have professed their recognition of soul mates across the length of a bar, in crowded stadiums or even over the TV airwaves. Now, here it was for us: an instant love of beams and brick and wood, of angles and planes. The rightness of this house felt almost chemical.
What we connected to immediately was the porch, with its white posts and a picket-style railing. There was a porch swing that hung from the wooden planks of the ceiling, and a ceiling fan. There were hanging baskets and a long, saloon-style glass oval cut into the front door, which was oddly appealing. If the yard was plainly adorned -- tall, unsturdy pine trees tucked into their own pine straw-laden corners -- the sheer space of it seemed unreal to us. The lot was an acre, but after years of living in a big city, and then a cramped apartment, it felt like we had arrived on a ranch. The layout of the house was simple but logical, traditional without being dull. The house, our agent told us, was relatively new -- not yet 15 years old at the time -- but it felt older somehow. Not because it wasn't in good shape, but because it felt familiar to me, as if I had been here as a child.
Inside: three bedrooms, two of them modest in size, the master bedroom spacious, outfitted with a porthole window that looked out onto the front yard. The main room, or den, had a vaulted ceiling and a brick fireplace. It was separated from the kitchen, a few steps up, by a waist-high wooden railing, so that you could be on one side of the den and see all the way through
to the kitchen and the room that adjoined, then out the window to the neighbors' trees.
There was a small dining room with two walls of windows, which let in sheets of sunlight, and a glass door that fed into the end of the porch. We were ushered through the bathrooms, the large utility room, the walk-in attic that just needed finishing. The empty two-car garage.
The driveway ended at a large, flat area with a broken-down basketball goal, and to the side of it was a considerable plot for the garden Katherine was eager to start. The backyard deck looked out to an uninspiring tangle of poorly aligned pine trees, a kind of mini-woods that all but obscured the distant farmhouse behind. But who needed a back yard when you had that front yard?
Within a few hours, we had the paperwork filled out on our offer, and there was no other interested party in sight.
We moved in in the spring and set about the business of making this place our home. We painted walls, recarpeted some floors, but there was nothing overwhelming about what needed to be done. The house was in good condition. Katherine began preparing her garden, and as she and Griffin toiled around out there, I worked on getting my jump shot back in form on the new goal I had put up.
The house was on a cul-de-sac, so the evenings were particularly quiet. The neighbors had a little pond, and bullfrogs chorused there at night. After dark, I liked to recline in the porch swing to listen and peer up at the sky. After so many years in the city, where the light below generally erased the stars from the sky, I had the sensation of being a kid at a planetarium, and having it all to myself.
Let the butterfly bush and tomatoes push out of the ground. Watch the grass grow, then see a carpet of pine needles cover it over. Bring a Christmas tree through the front door, and look from outside the house to judge its position. When the warmth of spring breaks through again, till the garden and fertilize. Tag the dead trees out back, and watch a trail of water slither down the driveway from a day's use of the sprinkler.
Let a year and a half go by in this house, and then let a piece of bad news bring it to an end.
The job that had brought us down here had suddenly dried up, and the opportunities for me in town would be few. We had this house -- and new friends and our parents nearby -- but that alone wouldn't be enough. Just as quickly as we had made the house our home -- where our son took his first wavering steps, where all his grandparents gathered one day around the table wearing birthday hats, where we watched in awe a summer's electrical storms and huddled against a hurricane's fury -- we would have to give it up.
Enter Alan Trammel, agent. Driving through town, one saw Alan's boyish face planted in front yards all over.
It was a university town, and people were constantly selling and buying, renting and subletting their houses. If you weren't paying attention, you would have thought Alan was running for mayor.
Walking through, Alan said he thought the house would sell easily, and agreed that we were right to ask for the price we had in mind -- a relatively modest bump over what we had paid plus the improvements we'd made. He might repaint the den -- the pesto green walls seemed to worry him a bit -- but we liked them and were sure someone else would, too. He offered a few other minor suggestions to get the house ready, and we put those into place.
We began to pack, which brought on a considerable ache. And then on an afternoon in August, we sat on our front porch together for the last time and watched a moving truck push through the early morning haze, the brakes letting out an elephantine squeal when the driver caught sight of us. Among the movers there was a kind of punchy banter, but when they saw how sharply the staircase turned, and how difficult it would be to bring furniture down from upstairs, their broad shoulders collapsed.
"That's a tough one," I offered, but I was surely thinking more about us.
For one month the three of us had the use of an apartment in Arlington, and we were determined to buy a house in that time. We weren't going to panic. Katherine quickly found an agent to show us around, and during the day she and Griffin began to scope out the neighborhoods.
They spent the first week getting familiar with the area, and when the weekend came, we mapped out our first tour of open houses. The agent drove us, and when we pulled up to the first open house in Bethesda, there was a blurry rush of activity outside the front door, the kind of scene one sees on the nightly news when a throng of reporters are jostling one another on a well-manicured lawn waiting for the subject of some scandal to emerge. It took me a moment to understand what I was seeing: These were interested home buyers who simply wanted in. But the image didn't quite register for me, not yet -- not on the site of this otherwise tranquil-looking property. We wearily assumed our place in the melee, and I lifted Griffin into my arms so he wouldn't get trampled.
Once we worked ourselves inside, sharply dressed young men and women were tramping up and down the wooden stairs, pushing through the rooms, talking in quick, excited bursts.
"You see the bathroom?"
"Yeah yeah yeah, it's good. It's good."
"I haven't seen the back yard yet.
Is it -- "
"Good yard, great yard. We're all set there."
"Okay, then, let's move on it. Let's do it."
In every corner there were agents huddled intensely with their buyers, like coaches going over a playbook. The buyers would nod quickly, and when the conference was over, the agent would stride across to the open house host, but then would have to wait. There were already three or four agents talking in the host's ear.
When we squeezed ourselves out of the house, I said to our agent, "It's nice, but I wouldn't mind seeing what it's like at night, just to get a feel for it."
"It will be gone by then," she said.
I still didn't get it. "Didn't it just become available today?" I asked.
"Yes, but it's almost 11:30," she
said. "I'm sure they already have a slew of offers."
And so it went: houses we liked but couldn't afford, houses we didn't like and couldn't afford anyway, and open houses like mosh pits.
Back in North Carolina, the action was decidedly slower. There had been one interested buyer early on, but she withdrew her offer pretty quickly, and it didn't seem like she was ever very serious. But we knew another offer would come in any day now.
When I called Alan to see how the traffic had been, though, the answer was always the same: Only a few people had seen it. Sometimes they seemed interested, but there was often some caveat that Alan had discerned in the brief visit.
"Their mother lives with them, and she has a bad hip," he might report. "They're worried about the stairs." Sometimes a family would come back for a second look, but only rarely. No one was questioning the asking price -- at least, not with Alan. The issue seemed larger, and more mysterious: No one was falling in love with it.
Meanwhile, our housing situation in Arlington was about to come to an end. We had to buy a house and sell a house in the time it takes to find a birthday present.
Enter Chuck Klein, agent. We weren't feeling in sync with our first agent here -- at the very least, we hadn't gotten anywhere, and we needed to act fast -- so I called another office. Chuck answered and exuded a kind of downbeat cool. In that first conversation, Chuck was content just to listen, and by the end of it I felt strangely relaxed, given the pressures we were under. We agreed to meet.
Chuck zeroed in on the kind of houses we could easily see calling home. We began to put offers down; some houses we were excited about, and others we would've been relieved to settle for. But time and again, we lost out because buyers were offering more than 100 percent of the asking price right off the bat, on the first day of sale. As desperate as we were, we still had a mortgage to cover. At every open house we were getting beat, so Chuck formed a plan. He knew of a house in Maryland that was going on the market the next day, and maybe we could see it before, just to have the jump. It was in our price range, and the location was good. Lovely neighborhood. Chuck drove us over, and when we pulled up to the curb we had reason to believe.
If our initial response to the house in North Carolina had been more emotional, the response this time was more practical. It didn't yet have an offer -- but would -- and it had all the room we could ever need. Inside and out it was in excellent shape. Towering oak trees in the front and back, afire in crimson and burnt orange. In fact, this house had more space than our other house, and while nothing could make us forget our front yard and front porch, the back yard was a pleasant, sloping stretch of green perched on a hill, sizable enough for everyone to follow their own pursuits at once. It was even outfitted with a hot tub, which stuck out like a Playboy in a stack of House & Gardens.
We understood that there was no time to come back for a second look, no time to see it at night or to check out the local scene, or to be still long enough to discern the low drone of Beltway traffic. We rushed over to Chuck's office and filled out the paperwork. The owners would have our offer first. But we had lost other houses already, so we put two more offers on other houses that we liked well enough. Three bids on three houses, and we would take any one we could get.
As it turned out, we got our top pick. Other bids came in the day of the open house, but they weren't higher than ours, and we had had the chance to meet the owners the day before. Our son was the same age as their daughter, and maybe the brief small talk between us made them feel comfortable about letting us call their home our own. We soon moved in, but it was hard to have a full-scale celebration: We were now the proud owners of two houses.
The reports from North Carolina, when they came, were not encouraging. North Carolinians quickly take to the indoors when the air turns sharper, and by November our house already felt like a pumpkin still left on the vine. It had been several months now, and we were on the verge of the holidays, the winter season.
Go ahead and lower the price, we told Alan. It was a painful decision, but there was also some relief in it, since we knew that would make the difference. This would be the end of it.
In Maryland, we put up our first Christmas tree and lined our new mantel with stockings. We willed ourselves to spend less on gifts as we waited for that holiday miracle. What we got was a miracle of another kind.
Katherine became pregnant, and for a time we could take leave of our focus on the old house. But whereas her first pregnancy had been marked by robust energy, now she had morning sickness in the worst way. And then she got vertigo. Our anxieties had shifted, but they were no less acute.
Back in North Carolina, after a period of winter hibernation, buyers began making their way out again. We allowed ourselves some hope, but we also knew we had to shake things up. So we parted ways with Alan and got in touch with another agent, who said he'd have no problems selling the house.
Summer. The calls were even less frequent from the new agent, and he didn't always return the messages I left him. I tried not to think about the house, but when I was stopped at a traffic light, it would suddenly appear, hovering for a moment, and then disappear. I saw it on the way to work and in wide-open fields. I saw it when I looked out our kitchen window while washing the dishes.
Sometimes I saw it as if I were standing once again on its roof, which I used to climb to clean the gutters. On those trips atop the roof, with my feet at the edge, I somehow assumed the confidence of a child, free of the adult fear of injury.
On one of those afternoons, Griffin had been playing out in the front yard when I climbed out a second-floor window and emerged onto the roof, which caused him to shriek in amazement. "Look at me," I called. "I can see for miles. I can see New York City."
"I want to see!" he yelled back. "Can I get up there?"
This was the first place I had ever lived in which I could climb the roof, and I understood his excitement seeing me up there like that.
"When you're a little older you can," I said to him. "You'll get to. You'll be amazed."
On one level, we understood our situation in North Carolina. Families were just now starting to move to the northern part of town, and if they were going to move that far out -- a 15-minute drive from downtown -- they wanted the new houses in the new neighborhoods going up all around our house. The new houses were usually priced just a little under ours, but seemingly enough to make the difference. The kinds of houses that we had shunned two years before were having the last laugh.
We got rid of the new agent and brought Alan back -- out of guilt, perhaps, or some superstitious feeling that only he could undo the curse. Inside, the house remained empty but for a little device Alan championed called the Talking House. It broadcast a brief, recorded message extolling the virtues of the house for anyone driving past -- there was a sign out front designating a number on your AM dial. The way the antenna wire snaked up the bare wall conjured up an IV tube, and whenever I tested it, Alan's voice came in and out of a sea of static.
More months went by, and it was time to lower the price once again. By now, we were selling it for well under what we had paid.
At night, I would pull up the Web site that showed our once-regal house. On the computer screen, it was just a little yellow square, a series of colored dots that couldn't convey much of anything besides its availability. Studying the computer image in our new house, which I was enjoying more than I let on -- out of loyalty, maybe -- felt somehow illicit, akin to a newlywed whispering into the phone to his ex-wife. An ex-wife who was still receiving monthly alimony checks.
For my first 18 years, I lived in one house. During my college years, I lived in two dorm rooms, and a rented room in a house one summer. Since then, I've lived in five apartments, one condominium, and two houses. I understood that my parents' house was smaller than some of my friends' houses, that we lived on a busy road, but that didn't make me love it any less. When friends walked into my second dorm room, which was a single, their jaws went slack over how small it was. I loved my first apartment because it was mine, and downstairs was a fashionable street lined with restaurant courtyards that blinked with little white lights, where on a warm summer evening just watching all the people pass by with their ice cream cones was as good as going to the movies. But the bathroom was no bigger than you'd find on an Amtrak train, and the kitchen was dark and disintegrating. People might have said they liked it, for my benefit, but no one ever said it was nice.
I've enjoyed every place I've ever called home. I've formed my own connections and sense of comfort in each of these places. And while I don't lose sight of some unpleasant features each had -- a bathtub that we were forever having to drain by bucket, for example, or a neighbor's habit of blaring NASCAR radio broadcasts every Saturday while he worked in the yard -- they don't color the fondness I have for them. I've never depended on someone else's approval of where I lived.
When you are selling your house, however, you are entirely dependent on someone else's judgment. You can tell yourself that everyone who comes to look at your house and chooses to look elsewhere is misguided, but the mounting rejections provoke a constant assessing and reassessing of your own values. In 12 months, plenty of people had seen our house -- in every season, in every shade of light and darkness, in every type of weather -- and no one could imagine living there.
Had we been wrong about the house all along? Had our friends who said they loved the house, our parents and relatives who stayed comfortably on the occasional weekend, somehow managed to keep it to themselves what they really thought? And had we made the same mistake again, buying another house that no one else would want?
Maybe our tastes were unusual -- or uninteresting or simplistic or strait-laced -- and now they were catching up to us. I convinced myself to think that there was some lesson in all of this. But we had bought a house we loved and put considerable care into, and for the life of me I couldn't see what that lesson might be.
Summer ended, and we marked the one-year anniversary of our departure from North Carolina by observing a monthly ritual: mailing two mortgage checks. The baby's due date was near the end of October. Secretly and aloud, we had been totaling up the first months' worth of baby expenses. We felt guilty for feeling so bleak on the verge of something so wonderful.
Just as we were starting to pack a hospital suitcase to have ready, a couple showed up on our front porch in North Carolina. They stepped inside with their agent and had a look around. They liked what they saw. They came back another day and took the tour again. They walked along the wooden floorboards of the porch and rested their hands on the railing, looked out at the yard. Okay, they said. Yes.
There were no fond farewells with the house we had loved -- and had come to resent, and even question. I had thought I would drive down for the closing with the buyers and the lawyers, but Katherine was due to deliver any day.
Selling the house brought a kind of joyless relief. What we felt now was the full impact of what the experience had cost us.
We don't get back to that town much, but we talk a lot about our time in that house because we were happy there, and we want Griffin, who is 6, to be able to hold on to those memories. Sometimes we think about driving down as a family, looking at the house from the curb, and saying to Anderson, our younger son, "Look, this is the house we've been talking about." And sometimes I think that when he's older, I'll tell him the story of that house and all that went on with it -- or didn't -- when he was inside his mother's womb. I could tell him, "I used to stand on the very edge of the roof, and I could see so far."
But I don't guess I will. His life began here. There will be enough stories to tell him about this house.
David Rowell is an articles editor for the Magazine.