Where to Begin

Dale’s work on our mountain home—where to start—on a place that sat untouched for seven years? Seven seasons of uncontrolled plant growth, seven years of hurricane winds that stripped paint and battered siding, seven years of rodents and spiders who made a home in our home, seven seasons of neglect inside and out made for an extensive list.

Dale first tackled the inside painting. This, and the removal of the red, paisley flocked wallpaper a la 1960s, kept him busy while I prepped our Indian Springs home.  A golden knotty pine framed doors and windows of the entire house and our choice of “Open Arms”—a soft, mellow yellow, almost a butter color, blended deliciously. I was relieved when I received the picture, after the fact, of the finished vaulted ceiling and Dale in complete climbing gear, minus the helmet which he claimed he removed to take the picture.

Dale in climbing gear

Before we could enjoy this house, the basics, e.g. solar panels for electricity required priming. While workers installed a new inverter, Dale focused on the inside of the house. The showers and tubs drained slowly or not at all, so plumbers labored on that—basically, calcium and other mineral deposits clogged the house after years of disuse. A “water softener” guy worked on the water softener. A “propane” guy restored and refueled the gas tank. Our purchase of the deluxe home warranty paid off with the dishwasher and oven, two of the many appliances that hadn’t been tested or used in years, and needed fixing.

Finally, November can be an Indian summer of scorching temperatures and raging wildfires, or as happened last year, an El Nino of rains and floods. A flood, not one or two, more like five floods, soaked the boxes that survived the trek from Indian Springs to our mountain home. Between stripping, nailing, painting, and caulking, Dale “squeegeed” the garage of the torrents of water that flowed down our practically precipitous driveway, and just one more problem we faced.

 

 

Escrow Times Two

Once we decided to move, we packed with a mission—daily Goodwill donations of books we read or never will, “beloved junk” including vases from flowers long gone and Mason jars of assorted sizes delivered to neighbors, texts sold back to CSU Monterey Bay for much less than we paid. My arbitrary goal—packing four boxes/day quickly added to twenty boxes stacked high in the garage—making our house seem spacious and the garage like a hoarder’s.

We worked with two government agencies, Fannie Mae since the house we were buying was a foreclosure, and the Veteran’s Administration for Dale’s V.A . Loan and both followed strict time lines and rules. Of course, the timelines and rules applied only to us, the buyers, since we’d submit immediately then wait days for any response. Buying a foreclosure and pursuing a veterans’ loan are not for the faint of heart.  Piles of documents multiplied over our dining room table; weekly extensions meant the notary became like our extended family.

In the meantime, we listed our Indian Springs home with Kevin and Linda who scheduled a showing day for realtors. The professional photographer made our house look so good. Shoot, why were we moving? After one day on the Multiple Listing Service, a steady parade of “lookee-loos” or “wanna-buys” drove past our home. Exactly what we would have done had we been in Julian, but we were 600 miles away. Open Houses seem passé these days, since serious buyers shop the internet. Five days later, we received a full-price offer and spare back-up offers. A huge relief for us, two retired teachers–not  independently wealthy–but that’s being redundant. No sooner had escrow opened on our Indian Springs home, when a thief took advantage of the listing and stole our new swing from the front yard. We bought that swing three months earlier, with plans for a “little library” and the hope that neighbors would feel welcome to sit and read. I felt sad and the theft left a bitter taste for the broader community, not our neighbors, but for the outsiders who knew we were moving—such a sad, sad way to leave.

Escrow closed on our mountain home mid-November, and twelve hours later, Dale drove ten hours in a truck with tools, his bike, random pieces of furniture, the dog, and towing his car. We were doing this! I remained in Indian Springs to finish packing, while he painted our new/used house. First task was picking the color, which we did simultaneously at two different Ace Hardware Stores, he in Alpine, me in Salinas. “Open Arms”—the easy favorite for the interior walls and he scaled the three stories, wearing climbing gear to reach the vaulted ceiling.

Dale “glamped” at our five star mountain home on an inflatable mattress, with a lamp, a radio, no TV, no computer.  His nightly activity—watching stars or burning of Middle Peak.  The prescribed burn on Middle Peak gave Dale a taste, literally, of what the Cedar Fire must have been like, as our house faced the scorched facade of the mountain. Fire trucks from different agencies—Rancho Cuyamaca State Park, Julian Fire, and Cal Fire monitored what most of California needs, fire. Scrub vegetation thrives on a good burn every few years. The Native Americans knew this, and managed their lands, with burns to clean out underbrush and expose soils. As I told my biology students, California has four seasons: winter, spring, summer, fire.

 

Inheritance–Part I

For my Grandmother Alice’s 40th wedding anniversary, my grandfather gifted her with a dazzling crystal chandelier. It hung above their small kitchen table, beside their galley kitchen in their tiny apartment–an exquisite touch of elegance in their modest home. Six strands of crystal necklaces linked six crystal sconces. From each sconce, dripped crystal tear drops, with a large crystal pendant in the center. When sun shone through their apartment windows, masses of crystals scattered prisms, rainbows of varying sizes on the ceiling, walls, and floor. Meals at my grandparents seemed like dining in a fancy restaurant beneath a chandelier and with her amazing recipes. Her legendary chef skills, such as curried chicken with apples, raisins and chutney, kept her family alive during the Great Depression, and every holiday after, family relished her specialties of apple pie, mince-pie, and pumpkin pie.

Years later, I was a harried mom of three young kids and working full-time, when my grandmother died. Her funeral was a family reunion of sorts, with my aunt and cousins flying in from Seattle, and we celebrated my Grandmother’s life over pasta and fine wine at her favorite restaurant. Everyone had a favorite Nana story and recipe to share, like comfort food for the whole family. The thing I missed most was our Sunday afternoon phone calls. Those weekly phone calls usually happened while I stirred a pot of stew or spaghetti and Nana dispelled cooking advice, among other things. That Christmas, a few weeks after her death, we received boxes of her belongings—a golden tea-pot (a gift from her wealthy friend), paintings of birds, bird statues, jackets, dresses, and pieces of costume jewelry. The massive cardboard boxes that held my inheritance provided hours of entertainment for our kids, who found an empty wardrobe box could be used in many ways. So much for Christmas gifts. Why did we spend so much, when empty boxes worked?

Fast forward, twenty years later. My parents passed and I received more inheritance boxes. This time, our adult children were gone, but our garage could hold only so much stuff. Time to purge—my first retirement task. I poured through boxes upon boxes stacked high in the garage. Most were toys and dolls, athletic trophies from swimming, volleyball, gymnastics, and their recent college texts. “Hey, Mom, I don’t need this right now, but might use it later. Can you hold on to it for a while?” So, we had boxes marked with Meghan, Sam, and Allie. I made four piles earmarked for trash, Goodwill, eBay, or for Kristy who wanted discards for her art classes.

After a solid week of purging, Kristy and I reached the far corner of the garage. A heavy unmarked box, tucked at an angle, rested precariously atop smaller boxes. Spider webs, by either black widow or brown recluse spiders (no doubt—did I mention I used to teach biology?) encased the entire box, so we stepped back as it crashed to the floor. Kristy watched as I carefully peeled back the top—ready to stomp on any arachnid. This job was not for the weak. Inside was a rolled carpet that I didn’t recognize, but beneath that was the chandelier. The sun shown in the garage and scattered the prisms everywhere—floor, ceiling, walls. I sat down and cried. I had no idea. For 20 years, I assumed this cherished heirloom went to my aunt or cousins.

 

Hiking the Paper Trail

The ten-hour drive back to Monterey-Salinas provided ample time to talk and plan. If Dale and I were buying, we needed to act quickly. Julian Realtor Dennis F. explained we had 24 hours to decide on the house or risk losing it. The window of opportunity, per Fanny Mae rules on foreclosures, stipulated first bids went to buyers who would reside in the house, followed by bids of investors, who could use the property in other ways. Monday at noon was our deadline. The list price of $440,000 was tenable for us, and a perfect retirement place, i.e. no mortgage, but contingent on proceeds from the sale of our other home. We discussed this with Dennis. Thank goodness realtors work on weekends.
Us—“Do you know how many offers are in place?”
Dennis—“There is only one I know of.”
Us—“Should we bid over the list price?”
Dennis—“Depends on how much you want this place.”
Then Dennis recommended “bidding a little over,” yet in line with the price per square foot of homes in the area. I saw the look on Dale’s face and knew he was mentally calculating the cost. Neither of us are gamblers, but this time we would be. I proposed $10,000 over, Dale pushed for $20,000, we settled in the middle. We figured we had little to lose in this “bidding war.” No, actually, worst case would be we get the Julian house, don’t sell our other home, and have to carry two mortgages. That would suck. Did I mention we are retired high school teachers and not millionaires?
Next phone call en route to Salinas was to our friend and Coldwell Banker Realtor, Linda M. Linda and I shared pregnancies and babies 31 years earlier. Back then (and sadly, even now), there was no pregnancy leave, we accrued “sick leave.” So, while we strolled with our new babies, we explored options as new moms who needed additional income. Linda left banking to pursue real estate; I stayed in teaching. I knew Linda was successful; her smiling face appeared in papers and on grocery shopping carts. We agreed to meet at our house on Tues. In the meantime, I posted a picture of our house for sale by owner, and asked friends to share on Facebook and other social media. Since we bought and sold our last homes by ourselves, we figured we could do it again, and maybe, just maybe, we’d get an offer before we signed a contract with Linda.
Arriving home, we faced the daunting task of dismantling 26 years of living in the same house. I looked around—so many memories and started to cry.
Tell me again, why were we moving?

 

 

Like on “House Hunters”

On a whim (like how our youngest daughter came to be), my husband Dale and I drove to Julian. We were visiting from the Monterey-Salinas area, and spending time with our new grand baby in San Diego. That Thursday in September, we drove to the mountains, an hour drive from the city. Fall was in the air (which in San Diego means air temp was low 70s, water temp low 60s), it was apple season, and the mountains were calling.

I hadn’t seen the town of Julian since the 1970s, when as a break from studies at U.C. San Diego, I traveled with friends. During summer vacations in college, I also lifeguarded at the Girl Scout camp in the mountains, but four decades passed since I’d visited. We strolled the half-mile block of the downtown area, perused the antique shops, sampled spicy snacks at the local cider shop, read listings of houses for sale posted on the window of Julian Realty. That did it. The prices in the mountains spanned the spectrum from million dollar homes to cheap lots (under 30 G). Our dream of buying a place in the mountains could happen here, yet until that point, moving was not on our radar.

We lived in a suburban home of 4 bedrooms, 2 1/2 baths, in the central coast of California, perfect for our family of 5, but now we were 2 (not counting the furry children). We hoped the rooms would refill with children and grandchildren, but that happened only once or twice/year at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Most of the family was in San Diego and when they visited places, it wasn’t to the Central Coast; they expected us to come there.

Dennis F., owner of Julian Realty, provided us a list of homes. While I read the summaries and checked out the stats for the homes in our price range, Dale checked Zillow. There it was–our future home.

“Can we see this one?”

Dennis checked the Zillow listing and we agreed to rendezvous at the Lake Restaurant. The house listed in foreclosure, with 24 hours left before Fanny May released the home to investors. Dennis drove the steep–very steep–road, with a steep–very, very steep driveway that led to the house, followed by a steep stairway to the front door. The realtor lock-box wouldn’t open with the code, so Dale walked around looking for another way in and found the side door unlocked.

A quirky, but stunning floor-plan, with large picture windows facing the right directions to capture Lake Cuyamaca to the beaches–we entered the first floor of sleeping quarters. Up stairs (yes, more stairs) led to the living room, kitchen, dining room, sun room, with views that spanned from Catalina Island to the San Diego Harbor and downtown. Warm wood floors, black granite counters, stainless steel appliances in place, but missing vanities and some light fixtures–all cosmetic work that we could do. The interior paint, a faded camouflage color, covered the walls, and the master included flocked paisley wallpaper I hadn’t seen since childhood. The exterior paint mirrored the interior, a light gray-green, sort of faded avocado from the 1960s–who chose these colors, anyway? I could see why this listing “sat” on the market for a few years.

We left the foreclosure, contemplating the views, as Dennis showed us two other homes in different parts of Julian. One house in Harrison Park, at the end of a meandering one lane road that stretched for miles, had an even “quirkier” floor plan, as though designed like the Winchester House with rooms randomly added here and there. The other, a desperate fixer-upper in Pine Hills necessitated major remodeling, and I felt tired just thinking about how much. Both homes required more work than the foreclosure.

We left Dennis and went for pie–that’s what people do in Julian. So, over pie and coffee, albeit on the show it’s wine and appetizers, we discussed the three houses. Selling our home in Monterey-Salinas would enable us buy outright in Julian. No mortgage, such a sweet idea. Listing the pros and cons of each house, and minutes later, the pie wasn’t finished, but we knew. Even if we have a few years in that crazy view house, that was the one for us.

 

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The Journey Begins

What a wild journey this has been. We are fortunate retirees, decidedly middle class (no Kardasians) who sold our suburban home to move to a rural community of 160 (counting us) to a house that was in foreclosure with few custom features and many missing parts.

We chose not to follow the usual path of retirement. We chose a house that needs work–lots and lots of work–and a land that is raw. We guess that we have 10 years to “tame the land” and finish the house, so this is a blog about our great adventure.

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