We had a plan. A good, responsible plan. A plan for the realistic future. My husband and I are both 55-year-old college professors who have started thinking about “life after work.” A lot of professors retire feet first, but we’ve been modestly lucky just following our instincts, especially in home/land buying. So, we go with what appears to be our strength—looking for a home that can be used as a vacation rental for the next 10+ years, with a practical checklist in hand: a cottage with at least one ground floor bedroom, a walk-in shower, and outbuildings for workshops, studios, etc. We’ve always been attracted to the notion of a compound, but not the culty-kind with a gun shed. The artist-enclave kind with a greenhouse.
Specifically, we’re looking in Chincoteague, because we’ve always wanted to live in on an island, but we’re not ex-pat material. Chincoteague is an old eastern shore community—yes, the one with the wild ponies. Because there are no homes or businesses on the beach itself, it’s a lot quieter and less cheesy than nearby Ocean City, and Chincoteague prides itself on historic charm and local entrepreneurship. There’s a McDonald’s, a Valero, a Subway, a KOA, and a few hotels with names you’d recognize, but beyond that, very few franchise operations. Think food trucks, coffee shops, ice cream, craft beer, a handful of kids’ attractions, bait and t-shirt shops, fishing charters, and miles of kayak trails. Ducks and cats rule the streets.
But back to our plan.
We started the search in late August. Here are a few things we learned while looking for our dream home:
Compounds are not built, they accrue their forms gradually over time, and each new room or shed is an organic expression of the “handy” person of the house. This person thinks putting a hot tub and large screen tv in a windowless, concrete floored garage is cool. This person has a blind rescue dog that has to wear a thundershirt at all times. This person has replaced every cell of their own body with compressed cigarette smoke. This person won’t tell you why they are leaving their home after all these years, but it sure seems like some kind of molting situation.
Related to the above—if your agent says, “the tenant has opted to stay on the premises while I show you the property,” just run away. People’s homes are creepy. People in their homes, while you are looking at their bathrooms are even creepier. Oh, and beware. Your agent may not know 100% of the time if there are people inside. (We actually surprised a couple having an impromptu anniversary weekend.) How’s that make you feel? Like building your own house from scratch, right?
Your buyer’s agent isn’t joking when she says, “Now, just so you know, there’s a cat urine situation at this home.”
The reason those 100+ year old homes on the coast are still standing is because they’re pretty much solid blocks of asbestos and plaster with “rooms” that are just tiny holes carved out where the residents can go curl up and wait to die from asphyxiation. Plus, no dishwasher.
If you are being shown a house that is strewn with toys and school crafts, you’re looking at an eviction that will only happen when someone makes an offer on the joint. Try not to worry about framed school pics of children with eyes that follow you like the extra background ghosts from Hill House.
If you are staying in a rental cottage while looking for a cottage to buy, every single utensil and dish in the kitchen will taste/smell faintly of Old Bay Seasoning, no matter how much you scrub. Enjoy your cereal. Also, it’s a damned shame that paper coffee filters can’t be used for currency, because there’s thousands of them. Behind the Old Bay. The coffee’s going to taste a little funny.
Somehow, the stranger hanging her hammock chair on her balcony and popping the tab on a beer at 5pm knows more about what you really want than you do yourself:
“I saw you here yesterday,” she says. “You looking to buy the unit?”
Nine weeks and dozens of properties later, we find ourselves nowhere near a cottage with a ground floor bathroom or outbuildings or anything that’s on our list. We are —please mom don’t read this—at a townhousebuilt in 1992. Townhouses with HOAs are awesome, especially if you can’t be there all the time, but if you come from a family of stubborn bastard carpenters, attached housing is scandalous.
But this is not just any townhouse. This one has three balconies and a pier. The lighthouse is across the marsh crisscrossed with navigable waterways that lead to the national refuge, the ocean, and ponies. And off to the right: Wallops Island, where the rockets go off. The vista strikes a perfect balance between serenity and action.
Our agent has gone home for the day. My husband and I have snuck out onto the pier for another look. I say to the woman on her balcony, “We’re falling in love with this view.”
She says, “Yeah, I did just what you’re doing. I wasn’t sure, and then a Clapper Rale and her chicks scooted by. And I said, ‘Well, that’s it for me.’”
My husband’s eyes go all weird. “Clapper Rails are hard to spot.”
The Lady of The Hammock Swing: “Not here.”
And boom. You don’t always see love creeping up on you, but you know when it hits.
So now we’re in the zone, smack dab between having our offer accepted and coping with the inspection report. The insurance is lining up, and it’s looking like an end of November closing. We’ve done all the things and are rattling around until there are more things to do. In the meantime, I’m trying to stay sane by counting forks. Do I already own enough forks to supply another household? I hope so, because to be honest, I never want to procure another fork in my lifetime. I know that kind of mindset is all about the stress—not a legit stress, like what you feel during your annual review or when you drive over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in a windy storm—but the stress of expecting delivery of something great that you don’t need or deserve. (In our house we call it the “Christmas Badness.”) Exactly NO ONE is going to feel sorry for you, except maybe your agent. Last night our agent called to update us on a few crucial things, and I made a crack about being worried about sofa slipcovers. She then advised me about sofa slipcovers for about twenty minutes. I’m pretty sure that was a therapy move.
Wow this thing’s gotten long. I’ll be back after the deal is done. And if you have any tips on how to transform a peach and avocado household into something blue and breezy without spending any money, let me know. Also, we need ideas for rental names. The leading, but too weird contender is “Moonish Buoy.”