Adding to the two-bedroom property’s allure was its neighbor: The home sat next to a 90-acre nature preserve, a protected swath of land in a pastoral New England town with notoriously restrictive zoning laws that safeguard much of its pristine landscape.
Like many New Yorkers, I was in search of an escape from city life as the coronavirus pandemic took hold in spring and dragged on through summer. Cooped up and concerned about the post-pandemic future, I grew tired of donning a mask each time I stepped outside of my Manhattan home and having to avoid passersby on busy city streets. In the era of social distancing, I needed more space. I was also charmed by Litchfield, an 18th century New England town blessed with rolling hills and serene beauty. The surrounding county of the same name included bucolic towns like Kent, Sharon and Cornwall, escapes filled with antique shops, art galleries and historic homes.
I wasn’t alone. Between March 15 and April 28, the number of New York residents who moved to Connecticut increased 74 percent over the same period last year, according to FlatRate Moving. And more than 16,000 New Yorkers changed their address to Connecticut from March through June, according to U.S. Postal Service data reported in the Hartford Courant.
The migration from urban centers was happening across the country as the virus showed little sign of abating and more working professionals didn’t need to be in an office.
The 1.4-acre property seemed ideal for weekend escapes. And its price tag — $189,000 — was less than half the median price of a Litchfield home, according to Realtor.com, and well within striking distance of my budget.
At just under 600 square feet, the home was modest. (It was listed as the smallest home for sale in the town at the time of my closing.) And a walk-through of its knotty pine wood interiors revealed it needed work. A buckling in the hardwood flooring in the living room would need repairing. The small, antiquated kitchen begged for updating. And the bathroom plumbing was in such disrepair that the home inspector simply labeled it “unprofessional.”
But I was unfazed. The allure of those soaring trees proved unshakable.
By the time I made my second visit a week later, it became clear that I wasn’t just searching for a new home. I was yearning for a new way of life.
A city dweller virtually all of my life, country living had never appealed to me. And as an adult devoid of any home maintenance skills, apartment life suited me. Leaky faucets and broken door handles were problems for the building superintendent. Owning a home in the country meant dealing with rusted septic tanks and contaminated well water.
As a longtime real estate reporter, I was also acutely aware of the pitfalls that can come with owning a vacation home. Endless renovation headaches, unexpected costs and shattered plans of a second home purchase were not uncommon.
But the pandemic unleashed such a powerful craving for more space that I ignored any negative thoughts. In many ways, this was my midlife crisis. But rather than buying a sports car or scaling Mount Everest, I wanted a home in the country. I wanted this home.
The seller and I eventually agreed on a price and closing day had arrived. Aug. 4 was a typically warm day in New York, but I could feel the cooler air as I inched closer to Litchfield, about 90 miles northwest of Manhattan. The forecast called for wind and rain later in the day, but by then I would be tucked away in my new home.
I soon realized, however, that I should have heeded those weather warnings.
That wind and rain were remnants of Tropical Storm Isaias, a weather system that had already battered the southern East Coast. By the time it rolled into New England, Litchfield was in its path. And so too was my new home.
With a freshly signed deed in hand, I watched out my window as the wind and rain thrashed the property so violently that it snapped tree limbs and downed power lines, cutting power to my home.
Tornado sirens blared in the distance as I watched the whipping winds eventually topple the towering maple tree that hung directly beside my home, sending it crashing onto my pitched roof. The thud so loud that I feared — as any city boy would — that the entire roof was in jeopardy of collapsing.
In less than six hours of country living, I was hunkered down in my darkened living room wondering if I was cursed.
The storm eventually passed, but that tree — a maple that held my gaze in July — remained atop my new home for nearly a week. The entire town got walloped by the storm and tree removers — a profession that until now I never knew existed — were up to their ears with work. By the time they got around to my place it would take a large crane and a small team of workers to remove the tree from my rooftop.
The good news is that the tree caused almost no damage to the roof. The bad news arrived with the bill: $3,750.
August turned out to be one of the busiest months for tornadoes in Connecticut in years, with a total of six touching down in the state, including three in Litchfield County. That feeling of being cursed lingered.
My journey to buying the home was a solo effort. My wife, Vanessa, who grew up in rural Kansas, was less impressed with the lush surroundings. She looked past the charm that I saw and offered a blunt assessment: It was small, overpriced and would require too much work to be a viable real estate investment. I was letting emotions lead me into a decision I’d later regret, she worried.
Vanessa was speaking from experience honed from growing up in a family of homeowners.
Her parents, German immigrants, bought and sold five homes before she entered middle school. Work opportunities took the family from Connecticut to Nebraska to Kansas in a span of a decade.
(By contrast, my parents raised my three brothers and me in the same Brooklyn rowhouse.)
Vanessa’s younger brother and sister have owned six homes in six states between them. Vanessa herself has signed deeds on three homes in her lifetime, including sharing the mortgage on the two-bedroom apartment we own on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
With every real estate transaction in Vanessa’s family came important stories of do’s and don’ts, lessons learned, and cautionary tales to live and learn by.
Her parents instilled in the family that German sense of frugality. The kind of thriftiness that recognized the value of a dollar and that a penny saved wasn’t just a penny earned, but money invested in the future.
For Vanessa, a journalist who covered economic calamities in Europe and the United States, a home purchase wasn’t meant to be driven by whimsy. It required the scrutiny of a major investment. To her, the new home simply didn’t pass muster. At least not at $189,000.
A health scare
Coloring Vanessa’s clear-eyed views was her own sobering health news. In March, doctors discovered a small lump on her right breast. It was cancer and required a single mastectomy.
Despite reassurances from our doctors, we were floored by the news. The next few months were racked with worry and emotional strain for both of us.
I viewed the Connecticut home as an ideal location to recuperate. For Vanessa, the thought of spending weekends in a cramped country home in need of repairs had little appeal.
Thankfully, doctors removed all of the cancer during surgery. And her recovery treatment wouldn’t require chemotherapy or radiation.
We were relieved, of course, but the episode left us both feeling emotionally vulnerable. For Vanessa, who endured a wide range of emotions throughout the journey, it would take months to tame feelings of uncertainty and insecurity.
I decided to purchase the home on my own — a cash buy created by selling off several long-held stocks and mutual funds that had performed well over the past decade.
Being a cash buyer would give me leverage with a motivated seller, I thought.
After pointing out some needed repairs, I managed to whittle the price down to $175,000.
The home inspector highlighted a few other defaults — small bows in the foundation that would eventually need shoring up, chimney flashing repairs, and of course, that “unprofessional” bathroom. Another round of negotiations pushed the price down to $150,000.
After a structural engineer I hired pointed out a few other areas that would eventually need tending to on the land, I took my biggest gamble in the negotiation and offered $100,000 in an all-cash deal.
To my surprise, the seller didn’t balk. Instead he countered with $125,000. I asked for $110,000. We agreed to $115,000 — 40 percent off its original asking price.
Vanessa suddenly began warming to Connecticut living.
“If the price had gone any lower, the seller would be owing you money,” joked John Sniffen, the home’s listing agent. A veteran Litchfield County broker for William Pitt Sotheby’s Realty, John’s listings typically hover above the million-dollar mark, selling everything from estates to equestrian properties. So I was heartened to see him treat a sale on the lower rung of the pricing scale with the same enthusiasm.
But my euphoria at negotiating a lower price soon dissipated. I was about to take ownership of a 100-year-old property that sold for almost half its asking price. I couldn’t shake fears that I was inheriting a money pit.
But the home was move-in ready. Running well water and electric heat. A working kitchen and septic tank. I spent the first week cleaning and added furnishings by the end of the month. A contractor renovated that “unprofessional” bathroom with a new toilet and flooring at a cost of $850 for parts and labor.
Suddenly, amazingly, the place started to feel like home.
By Labor Day weekend, Vanessa paid her first visit since the closing. With our Border Collie-mix, Ivy, in tow she walked the grounds like a veteran homeowner. I added an outdoor grill a few days before her trip and introduced her to my daily walks around the nature preserve. For the first time since this process began, I felt in her that rare German sense of approval.
By the time we settled into the white picnic table out back for a dinner of burgers and grilled corn on the cob, the realization that we now owned a small slice of country living began setting in.
It was a warm, clear evening and the table sat atop that gentle slope with views of Litchfield Hills, including a soaring, 18th-century church steeple in the distance. I felt for the first time — surrounded by those hickory, maple and evergreens — that this tranquil setting held promise for weekends to come.