© 2012 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.
My guess is that most of us probably live in relatively few different places during our lives. In my case, I left home soon after my 16th birthday, by which time I'd lived at five different addresses. Since then, I've lived at 10 more. Overall, I've averaged fewer than four years/house. And, NO, I'm not in the Witness Protection Program!
I started accumulating stuff soon after I left home and as finances allowed. I was 18 years old when I "set up house" with two friends. Seven years later, I traveled more than halfway around the world to take up a job for at least a year. Putting my life into two suitcases was quite a challenge and required ruthlessness. So when the travel plans changed drastically only weeks before departure, and I was limited to only one case, halving my "treasures" turned out to be quite easy. Who needs two sets of socks and underwear anyway? [By the way, regarding socks, you can get five days from a pair: wear them, turn them inside out, swap feet, turn them inside out again, and go without! This is a well-known fact exploited around the world by young men who have left home and who have to do their own laundry.] I should mention that some years later, once it was clear that I was staying abroad, I did ship a container of stuff that had been in storage.
Apart from having a limited baggage allowance, moving abroad requires one to evaluate one's life from a number of perspectives. Can I do without all my favorite things, my familiar environment, and my friends? So much so, that if one stays in the same environment for a long time, beyond a certain point, moving across town—forget about moving to another city, state, or country—can be a very intimidating prospect for all those people who get very settled in their ways. "How will I make friends?" "Will I have good neighbors?" "Will there be room for darling Tricky Woo to run and play?" "I'll have to start from scratch." "I can't bear to think about it." "That settled it; I'm not moving!"
In 1984, I moved to a townhouse. A month later, my son was born and he lived there until he completed his first four years of university. I lived there a total of 28 years. Often when I went down into the basement, I'd look around at all the stuff I had in storage—indeed had around the house in general—just waiting to be used perhaps, maybe, one day! From arriving in the US in 1979 with one suitcase and a briefcase, I'd progressed to a 1-, 2-, then 3-bedroom apartment, and then to a 3-level, 3-bedroom townhouse. Where did need end and want start? Having traveled to the third world and seen whole families living in one or two small rooms, I was pretty sure I could live with less in a smaller space without any unnecessary hardship. I was very interested in downsizing not only my living space, but my life as well.
This essay outlines the process I used to prepare and sell that townhouse, to determine what sort of place I'd like to live in next, and to find and move to that place.
It's All in the Planning
I started out by following my own advice, and making a plan. (See my essay from May 2011, "Planning for Success".) Over several months, it was revised and expanded. One of my golden rules is, "If something is worth doing, it's worth doing right!" Besides, buying and/or selling a house is about the biggest financial transaction most of us will ever carry out.
The goal was to sell my townhouse and, hopefully, to downsize, which meant getting the house ready for sale, selling it, finding a new place to live, and moving. Very quickly, I recognized that selling one place and buying another were both big tasks on their own, and combining them would complicate things especially if I could find a new place, but not sell the old one. After all, there was a big housing slump here in the US, and I wasn't going to sell at a low price. Besides, there was one big question: In what area did I really want to live? In reality, I could live within an hour of any major airport in the world in any place that had a decent internet connection. However, not only doesn't that help narrow the problem it expands it hugely!
Having owned one residence or another pretty much continuously for 36 years, and having lived in societies in which home ownership is the pinnacle of personal financial achievement, I thought only of owning the next place. However, somewhere along the way I had an epiphany. To separate completely the selling and buying stages, why not rent for a year in between, during which time I'd figure out "what next and where next?" And if I didn't have an answer, I could rent for another year! So the plan became to sell my house, to then rent it back from the new owner while I looked for a new place, and then to move. Then a year or so later, I'd look to buy another place. Yes, it would involve moving twice, but that just meant I'd have two chances to get rid of stuff and to re-evaluate my downsizing plan. (Something good really does come from everything.) And most importantly, buying the new place would not be contingent on selling the old place.
To begin, on the selling side, I identified two real estate agents who both came highly recommended. I met with each separately and explained my plan. I asked for their advice on how to prepare my townhouse, and I wanted to know the best times of the year to have a place on the market. In fact, I had a whole list of questions, which I refined as I went. With the advent of the internet and electronic property-access lock-box cards, things had changed quite a lot since I last bought or sold a property. I made no commitment to either of them regarding using them for the sale, and rightly, they considered it an investment in a future possible relationship. We made a thorough inspection of the house and I made notes about all the suggestions they each made regarding renovation, cleaning, and other preparation. Prior to their visits, I'd made a detailed list of all the things I thought might be factors, based simply on common sense (which, unfortunately, doesn't appear to be so common), and I was very happy to find it covered the vast majority of things. I then wrote a detailed renovation plan with a time line.
In parallel, on the renting/moving side, I started to make notes about my requirements. There was just me, I wanted to rent for at least a year, and I was happy to get rid of a lot of stuff. Besides, I was going to repaint the inside of my old house and replace the carpet before the house went on the market, so why move everything out temporarily only to move it back again, and then move it permanently when I leave? Better just to get rid of stuff during the renovation stage. [Many people I know can't bear to think about being separated from their stuff. "I can't decide what to get rid of, so I'll just pack it and take it to my new place. I can sort through it there. Sure!" I can say with absolute certainty that that is not a plan for success! By the way, I highly recommend listening to George Carlin's take on stuff.]
Regarding my next, or at least a future, style of living, I explored the idea of having a really small, permanent home base and traveling in a camper van, a travel trailer (called a caravan by some), or a Motor Home/Recreational Vehicle (RV). I also considered buying land and buying a prefabricated, transportable home, or building a log cabin from a kit.
Finally, I "bit the bullet" and decided I'd buy a mobile phone to help me in locating the rental property. Now don't fall out of your chair just yet. Rex with a mobile? Yes! However, as you'll read later, I still haven't violated my principles from my November 2010 essay, "Technology, Unplugged – Part 1".
The Renovations and Preparation
The main renovation tasks were as follows:
- Replace the vanity cabinets, sinks, faucets, towel rails, and lighting in two full bathrooms, a half bathroom, and a vanity area in the master bedroom. [The bathrooms themselves had been renovated some years earlier.]
- Remove all window treatments and brackets from all walls and ceilings, repair the drywall, remove all wallpaper, and paint all inside walls and ceilings.
- Repair and paint all exposed wood outdoors.
- Replace all carpet.
Minor tasks included pressure washing the deck, landscaping both front and rear yards, trimming ivy growing up the front walls, and cleaning.
On the purging and preparation-to-move front, I dealt with the following:
- Disposed of most of my professional library. (I retained "visiting" rights, however!)
- Donated bookcases, loads of office supplies and equipment, and many personal things to thrift shops and Non-Profit organizations.
- Gave away tools and personal stuff to friends and acquaintances. [In the end, anyone who came to visit had to take something home with them when they left!]
- Made numerous runs to the recycling center, disposing of many hundreds of books and the shredded remains of 25 years of personal records (after I'd scanned copies to my computer).
- Recycled or donated 20 years-worth of old personal computers and equipment.
- Disposed of all hazardous waste (e.g., paint and chemicals)
This all took place over an 8-month period, at my own (controlled) pace. By the time it was all done, the place looked so good I thought perhaps that I should stay in it. And, in fact, if I didn't get a decent offer, that's exactly what I planned to do!
On the Market We Go
I decided to have the house ready for sale by mid-January, and although mid-winter might seem a bad time to sell, I was assured that it was one of the three best times. While there might not be many buyers, neither are there many properties. Besides, when it comes down to it, you only need one, the right one.
When the first open house was held, I had my feet up on a Caribbean island where it was 80 degrees F with wind chill! After that, I was in-town for subsequent open houses, but was asked to "vacate the premises". Each time I came home, I had to locate certain things that I'd left out, but which the selling agent had hidden from public view "lest they upset the karma of a possible sale". How dare I leave a clean skillet on the stovetop? Oh, and thou shalt not put any blue tablets in the toilet water tank while the house is on the market. Apparently, although prospective buyers may well have blue water in their toilets, they are not allowed to see it in a house that's for sale. Say what?
Apart from open houses, buyer agents came by during the week to look. All of them actually called ahead and made an appointment, but just in case they didn't I had to actually keep the place in tip-top condition all the time, as in make the bed every morning and do the dishes after every meal. Oh, the games people play!
During open house, every light in the place had to be on and all the blinds had to be open. But with its being winter, that was hardly energy-efficient, but, hey, it's not the agent's money!
The Serious Offer and Negotiations
A couple of weeks after the house had gone on the market, I received an offer that was so low, I considered it an insult, and to the buyer's dismay, I completely disregarded it. Then came that one buyer I wanted. She and her agent spent no more than 10 minutes looking through, and a few days later submitted an offer, which was low, but not insultingly so. I countered by dropping my price just a few thousand and I re-presented the long list of renovation and replacement work. Her next offer went up almost all the difference, and we soon made a deal. That was five weeks after the place had gone on the market.
As it happens, having a signed contract at a given price is just the start, as that was subject to several inspections. One inspector found a faulty power outlet and broken seals on two windows, one large one small. So I repaired/replaced those. He claimed the chimney needed to be cleaned, but as it had never ever been used, I refused. He claimed that the roof needed replacing, to which I countered that it was done 10 years before and had a life of at least 25 years. He tried to save face by insisting it be cleaned. I refused, but my wimpy agent offered the buyer money from his commission towards that. The house failed the radon test. $1,000 later, that problem was fixed (although it resulted in the installation of an exhaust fan that would run 24-hours a day forever).
Finally, we agreed we were done, but as neither party was in a hurry, we delayed settlement for several months. During that time, I had the buyer over several times for afternoon tea, so she could measure things and plan her own move. I also prepared a detailed list of things regarding maintenance as well as a list of local businesses she might care to know about, as she was moving from out-of-state.
The buyer and her agent, and my agent and I met in a conference room at a title company. After signing lots of sheets of papers, we shook hands and went our separate ways. There were no last-minute snags and the proceeds were transferred to my bank within 24 hours. The sales contract gave me a 5-week rent-back during which time I had to keep the place "in good repair".
The Search for a Place to Rent
Over a number of months, I'd been driving around several neighboring, rural counties getting a feel for the geography and kinds of places available. Along the way, I was refining my criteria. Then, as soon as the settlement check cleared, I started my search in earnest.
- Using an online search facility, I identified 12 potential places and spent a weekend planning an efficient order in which to view each from the outside and without an agent. (I discovered that nowadays, a buyer also needs an agent, unless it's a private sale.)
- I bought a prepaid-card mobile phone, so I could interact with renting agents as I was driving around reading their advertising signs.
- I set my alarm for quite early on a Monday morning. The weather out was miserable, I hadn't slept well, and I had a raging headache. Then as I pumped gas in my car, I locked the keys inside. Things went downhill from there!
- The first house was very nice, in a quiet neighborhood, in the largest town of the neighboring county, but it had three levels, which meant stairs. It, or something like it, would be my safe option if I failed to find "the right thing" in my rent-back period.
- Then came some truly forgettable places, some truly awful locations, sometimes along bad or unfinished local roads.
- Then I found a split-level house on an acre of land with many large, evergreen trees. It looked very good and it came with great neighbors. I called the agent listed on the sign to find that someone had submitted an application the previous day. Bugger!
- After more bad weather, more crappy places, crappy locations, and bad roads, I followed a sealed road along the tallest hill in the area in heavy fog. Forget getting in and out on the steep roads in that area.
- I eventually found a very nice, small stone cottage way out in the country, but it had stairs, and I probably couldn't get large furniture up the narrow staircase.
- By 7 pm, I was back home, dejected. But, of course, it was only Day 1 and the 5-week countdown clock had hardly moved.
- At 7:30 pm, I phoned the agent I'd spoken to earlier that day and suggested we submit a second offer. She said that wasn't worth the effort; however, a new place had just gone on the market that afternoon and she suggested I look at it online. I did, and despite the outrageously high monthly rental, I fell in love with it. After looking at all the photos, reading the detailed description, finding the location on a map, and considering the cost, I called her back that evening and asked her to set up a viewing the next day. (Instead of thinking about how much money it cost, I thought in terms of how many days a month I'd have to bill clients to pay the rent. When that came up to a very low number, it was a no-brainer decision. Besides, the place was on five acres with a 4-acre forest. In fact, it really was a botanic garden with a house in it!)
- On the Tuesday, I inspected the place and filled out an application.
- I was approved on the Wednesday.
- On Friday, I signed a 1-year lease and got the keys.
- On Saturday, I started moving in.
So, one day after I started looking, I found my dream house, and I made only one call on my mobile.
I had negotiated five weeks rent back, which I figured was sufficient time to find a place to rent. I moved all my stuff out in a week, so the only thing I needed to do in the remaining four weeks was to clean a place that had been painted and had new carpet. It was not a difficult task. On one of the final visits I made to it I thought, "I lived here for 28 years, but I am so much in love with my new place and the whole idea of moving to a new life that I have absolutely no separation anxiety whatsoever. After all, it was just a house! Home is where I currently live."
I moved a lot of stuff by myself in a minivan from which I had removed the seats. On several days, I had an assistant who helped with some of the mid-size stuff. I unpacked boxes as I moved, so I could reuse them and to see the progress I'd made.
For the last two days, my son came to visit and we moved all the big/heavy stuff using a pickup truck. There was only one door into the new house that could accommodate large things, and even that had to be removed to get the sofa through. Although it rained a little that week, it didn't while we were driving between houses.
After a number of sports injuries and subsequent knee surgeries, I pretty much avoid certain physical activities. However, I'm a 110%-effort guy, so I pushed hard, which resulted in my left knee swelling considerably. Fortunately, that was temporary, but it took 10 days to recover fully.
Life in Paradise
I'd abandoned pay-TV several years earlier, and I very quickly found I had no real TV reception via an antenna. Thirty seconds after discovering that, I viewed that as a positive thing. After all, I wanted to spend more time reading, writing, entertaining, and watching videos. Also, the internet service was slow, but it was adequate. I really didn't need much speed for email and casual internet browsing.
The kitchen was a delight, and as I like cooking and entertaining, I set about making full use of that. The property came with a John Deere tractor with which I had to cut the grass. That brought out the farmer in me (as you can see from the accompanying photo). The outdoor deck and entertaining area were wonderful, and I ate outdoors as often as possible. I also sat there late at night and watched the stars. And the forest was complete with deer, rabbits, and lots of birds. Even a large turtle came to visit one day. There were no streetlights glaring in my windows and the constant noise of a city was a fading memory.
There were a few adjustments, but nothing major: no pizza delivery; I couldn't just walk to the store; there was no town trash/recycling pickup; I had a 150-foot drive to shovel if there was snow; I had a well (no power=no water) and a septic tank. I did, however, have no stairs (YES!) and a window over the kitchen sink (and YES! again). I had a great landlord and some nice neighbors. And I had a 2-car garage, my first ever cover for a car.
The Post Mortem Results
Despite the national downturn in home sales, I got a good price for my house. It helped that my city, Reston, is always in demand and that a subway line is coming to the area in the next year. The fact that I didn't have to sell by any given date made it is a calmer process. My detailed plans all held up and there were no unpleasant surprises.
Regarding downsizing, my new place is slightly smaller including a 2-car garage, but not that much so. However, by downsizing all my stuff, I'm well positioned for the next move at which time I expect I'll get rid of quite a few more things. Along the way, I reinforced my dislike for the real estate business.
I used the move as an opportunity to change all sorts of things; basically, it allowed a complete attitude change in many respects.
Since my move, I constantly notice which of my things I'm actually using. Of all the things I kept during the big purge, I still don't use 90% of them on any regular basis or at all!
Having scouted out the area to which I moved, I've decided to buy something small, and I've refined my selection criteria and figured an upper price limit. My plan is to buy 2–3 months before my rental agreement expires, so I'll have plenty of time to do renovations and repairs. I'm quite prepared to redo completely a kitchen and bathroom, to paint inside and out, and to replace all the floor coverings. All those things are cosmetic and can easily be changed. All that said, if I don't find the right place, I'm quite willing to rent again, but definitely something smaller and much cheaper.
I firmly believe that one can and should plan for success, but one should leave room for the nice, fortuitous surprises that can come along. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. I've also reconfirmed that it's good practice to re-evaluate one's lifestyle occasionally and to expand one's horizons. I consider the whole move to be an adventure with a safety net.
If I hadn't called back that rental agent, I never would have found my dream rental house! Our lives are defined by the actions we take and, just as importantly, by the ones we don't take.
Now I mentioned earlier that I'd finally bought a mobile phone. It's a nifty Samsung unit that cost only $10, and I subscribed to the Tracfone pay-as-you-go plan. The phone came with double-minutes and after I had it for a couple of months, I bought a 2-year card that gave me 1,000 minutes. The total cost is slightly less than $8/month. The thing is I don't use it unless it's absolutely necessary or very convenient, and only a couple of people have my number. I am so disciplined that in six months, I've used it to make fewer than a dozen calls. Besides, I have unlimited calling on my home phone, so why pay for calls that I can make at home for free? I haven't even activated the message-answering option, and I don't do texting or email on it. Unlike many people, I have a very full life without having to play with my phone every spare moment.