Penniless and Hopeless

The Old House Web
By Nancy Platteborze

Editor's Note: Nancy Platteborze is sharing her story of searching for, buying and beginning to restore a 1700s New England Colonial. To see other parts of the story, click on the "A Sense of History" link, above.

"...a tall, skinny, crooked house weighed down by asbestos siding, braced up by concrete all around, strung up by a spider's web of wires."

Let the Search Begin!

Being a student, I suspected I didn't have a chance of getting a loan. So I went to one of these mortgage companies that advertises in the newspaper with blurbs like:

"Indigent? No problem! Penniless? No problem!"

They put me through the wringer, built my hopes up -- and then turned me down.

Now penniless AND hopeless, I started looking for a house.

First I drew a circle around Cambridge to limit my scope to an hour's drive to work. I called a Realtor in each direction and either got a laugh or a cool breeze when I told them my price range -- which I made up since I didn't qualify for anything.

They showed me studio and one-bedroom basement condos. The last one I saw was in Newburyport, and it was so depressing. The Realtor took me across a trash heap out back to a few little scraggly trees and said, as if to entice me,

"Oh, too bad the turkeys aren't here!"

I cried all the way home.

Then I got mad. I knew my handyman's special was out there and Realtors weren't showing it to me. So I dropped them and started driving up the coast, with the intention of stopping at every little stand that had real estate flyers.

Paradise found, sort of

"You don't want to see that ..."

Antique lilacs and rose bushes among weeds. A long time ago, somebody had loved this yard.

A rusty sewer pipe stuck out from beneath rotted sills.

The brochure I picked up outside a CVS in Gloucester, had a glossy picture of my white house against a bright blue Newburyport sky.

"Needs TLC."

The price was way up there -- $149,900 -- but that couldn't matter. It might as well have had another zero on the end. And, on the other hand, that price was unheard of for a single home in this historic coastal town.

I called the Realtor's number and said, "I think I found my house."

He said, "No, you didn't. You don't want to see that."

"Oh yes I do. I want to see it now."

He made arrangements for me to see it the next day.

I couldn't believe its location. Right off Water Street. Right in the funky South End. Right between town and Plum Island.

What could possibly be wrong with this house that somebody hasn't snatched it?

Gravity hit all of a sudden.

I asked the Realtor to be honest and tell me if there was ANY wiggle room in the price -- and not to take me in if there wasn't. He said he couldn't say, but thought I should go in. This meant wiggle room.

Everything was horrible. You can see from the pictures that it's a tall, skinny, crooked house weighed down by asbestos siding, braced up by concrete all around, strung up by a spider's web of wires, rusty smelly sewer pipe sticking out near the front corner.

And the outside was the good part.

I loved it.

A perfectly awful little house

My house, wearing its rotten door hood like a favorite old hat.

The summer kitchen went down like a seesaw.

The selling points were all new windows and "improvements" such as this new metal door roughed into a 250-year-old doorway.

The house wore its rotten door hood like a favorite old hat -- a lucky hat that it couldn't take off without a good dose of therapy.

The whole house just kind of loomed. White and ghostly, it sat amid a small but lush yard, green as Ireland. The surrounding chain link fence was all but overcome by antique lilac bushes, rose bushes, a bright red azalea, a tree of heaven, big old maple, and whole bunches of flowers.

Somebody a long, long time ago, loved that yard. It was a tiny paradise amid cigarette butts, a child's dilapidated swimming pool, and great big deck.

An instant headache

We were hit with the smell of oil the minute we opened the door. It gave me an instant headache.

The Realtor said something about the tiny doorways being the reason nobody wanted the house.

We walked into the summer kitchen and the whole thing went down like a seesaw.

The Realtor said something about needing new linoleum.

The windows in the front parlor were blocked off. The room contained a a bed; a partition separated it from a toilet.

Upstairs, one bedroom was renovated. The bathroom was so small that my son couldn't use the facilities.

Down in the basement, the oil tank had been leaking onto the dirt floor.

It was sickening. There was no mention of the house's age or of its history. All new windows and two renovated rooms were its selling points.

The Realtor told me the house was not architecturally significant; that an unsuccessful sea captain must have built it. He said it would never be worth the money I put into it.

Of course, I became more challenged by every negative word he spoke. By the time he was finished, I realized that this house had suffered mostly from a gross lack of appreciation.

And that's what I would tell the bank.

On to the bank...

I made an appointment with the vice president of a local bank who was gracious enough to hear me out. I told him that this house was part of his town's history that would be gone forever, soon, if somebody who loved it didn't start caring for it. I told him I was writing my dissertation on this period in New England.

I made a passionate plea to allow me to try and save this little gem.

After looking over my paperwork and delivering my request to the committee, he called and said they approved me for $124,000 plus $5,000 for renovations.

He also told me that I was very lucky to find this house, because contractors were gobbling similar houses up, tearing them down, and building new houses that sold for $400-900,000 in that neighborhood.

When the owners of the house finally realized I wasn't kidding about having zero bargaining room, they accepted my offer.

That was late August, 1999.

Before that, I had a thorough house inspection that revealed:

  • Serious damage due to powder post beetles
  • Badly bowed walls from structural problems
  • Rotted sills
  • A six-year-old roof
  • Prehistoric plumbing
  • New electrical service, but old wires
  • A 10-year-old, pretty good oil burner with corroded parts, and
  • ALL NEW WINDOWS (none of which fit the style of the house).

Fight or flight

This is me, last November, sharing a snack with my carpentry crew. I hired them to replace rotted sills and to tear off and replace the kitchen addition. Now, it's mostly me working alone on the house. I expect it will take years to finish!

It was clear that the $5,000 the bank would loan me for renovations was a joke. I thought the inspector was going to tell me to run, but he didn't.

He said, "I can see you've made up your mind; I just want you to go into this with your eyes wide open and your feet on the ground. I think you're going to be all right, because you've got a great location."

So this old New Englander is now our family home. I plan on staying forever - and there's so much of me in it at this point, I can't imagine selling it.

Since I'm working on it mostly by myself now, it's going to take years. When I can afford to hire tradesmen, I work along side them, learning as much as I can. I put what I've learned into practice after they're gone.

It's a challenge to say the least.


Index to all stories in this series

Next: Needs TLC...just a bit ->

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