September 15, 2007

"Old Ch. Home with Est. Rasp. Patch"

As of today, Kevin and I are the proud tenants of our first house. It’s a very little house – only about 1,000 square feet – and we won’t even step foot in it until January, but as of today, it’s ours. It’s kinda crazy when you think about it: We’ve just signed a lease and started paying rent on a house that we’ve never seen before and that’s half-way across the world, but at the risk of sounding mystical: When you find the right house, you just know it, and you’ll do whatever it takes to get it.

By way of explanation: When you see the wrong house, you will also do whatever it takes to avoid it, too. All summer, Kevin and I had been scanning the Edmonton rental market, and what we saw was frightening. Edmonton is a very young city. Most of its housing was built after 1950 but before 1990, which means there’s a lot of carpeting, picture windows, and wood-paneled kitchen islands that cut through to a “TV room.” It makes my skin crawl. Call me a snob, but I’ve never lived someplace that was built after 1920, and I’d like to keep it that way. I love hardwood floors, crown molding and tall ceilings and windows – in other words, a place with “character.” And I’m willing to put up with mice, cockroaches, flaking plaster, unreliable plumbing and insufficient closet space in order to get it. Unfortunately, in Edmonton, this didn’t even seem to be an option.

To further complicate matters, Edmonton is a big oil town, “the Texas of the North” they call it, and with the recent oil boom, rental housing there has become a scarce commodity. Much to my surprise those ghastly duplexs and high-rises at which I’d been turning up my nose were just flying right off the market. A few homeowners have capitalized on the crunch by finishing out their basements and renting them for exorbitant sums. If I saw another ad for a “Sunny Basement Apartment w/ New Carpets, $1,000!!!” I thought I would scream. On top of that, roughly 90 percent of all apartments stipulate “no pets, no smokers, no children,” and though we are not smokers nor do we currently have any pets or children, we don’t want to rule all those things out of our lives. Except the smoking part.

Then one day about two weeks ago a different sort of ad caught my eye. “Older Character Home with Established Raspberry Patch,” read the headline on Craigslist. I appreciated the elaborate title in a genre that prides itself on brevity. “Old Ch. Home w/Rasp. Patch” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

The further I read, the more I was taken with the house and with the landlord: “Do you have a love of antiques but still enjoy a modern touch? Then check out this special beauty.” It went on to list two bedrooms, a full basement, a formal dinning room, original hardwood floors, new porcelain tiles in the kitchen and bathroom, an enclosed veranda, and “a fenced in backyard with established raspberry patch and room for flowerbeds” – and all for less than we’d paid for our Boston apartment. There were a few fuzzy pictures, but despite the bad lighting it was easy to see that the home was well-cared for and brimming with “character.” In fact, the house was the spitting image of my former neighbor’s house in Warren, Arkansas. It was probably some Sears & Roebuck special from the '30s. I bet they sold thousands of them. I spent so many childhood afternoons in that little house that I could draw its layout blindfolded. However, what really excited my imagination was the garden.

I guess you could call me an armchair gardener: a gardener without a garden. I’ve never had my own garden before, but I’ve planted dozens of imaginary ones over the years. I love visiting nurseries and botanical gardens, scouting out new plant species and color combinations. And over the years, I’ve acquired a small library of gardening books, which I love pouring over – especially in winter. I’ve even been known to create elaborate garden designs and occasionally garden re-designs of other people’s gardens. A few years ago I actually gave my own mother one of these full-color, indexed designs: a plan for how she should completely redesign her entire garden after acquiring the empty lot next door. I even offered myself as free labor. (Can you believe she turned me down?)

Needless to say, the possibility of my very own garden was too much to ignore – even if Edmonton only has a four-month growing season – and I decided this was the place for me. Kevin was not so easily convinced that it was the place for him, but after he saw the pictures, the price, and the proximity to downtown, and after he mulled over the difficulties of finding housing in a tight market in the dead of the Canadian winter, he started to come around. Unfortunately, by then, the house was off the market. I made him e-mail the owner anyway. "Maybe it hadn’t been rented," I said, against all hope.

Sure enough, the house had not been rented. The owner had just taken down the ad because she and her husband had decided to do a little more remodeling first. She had another house available right now, she said, and a few more available in a few months that she could show us. (They own a dozen or so properties in the neighborhood, and we’d seen several of them go on the market recently. They were easily identifiable by their antique-blue exteriors and the signature line in every ad which read, “Note: If you are a party person, this home is not for you!”) No, we said, we want this one, the “older character home with the established raspberry patch.”

She was initially put off by the fact that we were thousands of miles away and that we wouldn’t even come to Edmonton to look at the place, but our insistence that this one little house was the only house for us had convinced her that we were the right tenants for her. After the deal was signed and the money transferred, she said: “You know, I’ve renovated and rented a lot of houses in my life, and sometimes, you make some changes, and then you think, ‘Eh, that didn’t work out so well.’ But with this house, everything is just perfect, and I wouldn’t rent it to someone who I felt wouldn’t appreciate it.”

Even now, I can’t really believe that something I wanted so much, which seemed so impossible, is really coming true. Is it maybe too good to be true? Eh, I know I’ve taken a big leap of faith here. After all I’ve never even been inside the house, and surely, much of what I’ve imagined will be different in reality: maybe the dining room won’t be a sunny as it looked in the pictures, or the veranda as large. Maybe the yard won’t drain well or the shower won’t have enough water pressure. But so what? I’m just so happy that we have our own house. That we won’t be homeless with a truckload of furniture come January. That I’ll finally have my own plot of earth to muck around in. There’s even the possibility of a dog. And having the next four months to imagine and plan out my first house and garden: That’s just priceless.

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