A Story of House Hunting and the Urban Pioneer

Home Sweet Home
Home Sweet Home

When we moved to Virginia, we knew we’d need some time to settle in and learn the area. So we opted for renting a small apartment and “camping out” here in the bedroom community of Dale City. I thought we could spend at least six months in the apartment before venturing back into the house buying mode. In reality, after three long months we’re ready to get back into our own home.

And during these months we’ve thoroughly explored the lifestyle of the Urban Pioneer.

Shortly after we settled here, Winnie suggested we look for a house in the Washington, D.C. “Metro” area. Her thinking was that living there would put me closer to my job with a shorter commute time. I believe she was also looking to be close to the Chinatown district where she could make friends easier.

I was agreeable as I liked the thought of living in The Big City where we could be closer to museums, historic centers, lots of quirky shops and vibrant social organizations. Become an Urban Pioneer and buck the Moving Out to the ‘Burbs trend. Experience the communal city way of life that all human beings secretly wish for.

So, we started looking for a house in D.C. And reality quickly set in.

Picture yourself looking at a 100 year-old sliver of vertical living space sandwiched between multiple other vertical slivers of space euphemistically called a townhouse. You have access to the outside world on the front and back of this sandwich with 12 inch brick walls on either side. The interior space is about 20 feet wide, 60 feet deep, and three levels high.

The first level is a windowless basement with an outside door and interior stairs 30 inches wide. The second level has a front room with outside door and large bay window, a windowless middle room, and a back kitchen with an outside door and tiny window. There is a set of connecting stairs, 30 inches wide, going up to the top level. On the top level you have a front bedroom, a bathroom in the middle, and a back bedroom. The connecting hallway is another 30 inches wide. The bedrooms have windows.

The floors are chipped linoleum-covered wood complete with squeaks, sags, and buckles. The walls are peeling, interior doors are warped, windows jammed and cracked. The flat roof is leaking, the kitchen is sporting 50 year-old appliances that don’t appear to have been cleaned for at least the past ten. The vintage heating system may work, but then again, it may not. The plumbing is another set of vintage hardware that oozes black stuff from various orifices. The electrical wiring – well, never mind. But the power meter mounted on the inside wall of the front room is a great conversation piece.

There actually is a small backyard. It’s large enough to stand in the middle, stretch out your arms straight and spin around – carefully – without hitting anything.

This venerable old house occupies a busy street that serenades you with the pleasant sounds of police sirens and honking car horns. It’s about one mile to the nearest grocery store, about two miles to the nearest subway station that you were planning on using for commuting to work. “No off-street parking” means you get to fight the neighbors for a patch of curb to store your expensive car during the times you don’t actually need to drive it.

And how much might you expect to pay for this small piece of heaven on earth? “Well,” the Real Estate Person showing you around proudly tells you “this is a great buy, just a bit of sweat equity and elbow grease and the place will shine. Why, it’s in a prime location!

How, much, you ask again? “Well,” the Real Estate Person says, “prices are always negotiable. This really is a nice-sized home, lots of sunlight and very well-built.

How much, you ask again?

Well,” the Real Estate Person says, “the owners are only asking […insert price that keeps you mortgaged for all eternity with payments equaling 5/4ths your monthly pay…], but you can probably talk them down a bit as they’re really motivated to sell! And Washington, D.C. gives some really good tax breaks to first-time home buyers. The city wants to encourage people to live here.

To be fair, not all the homes we looked at in metro D.C. were in this condition. The ones that had been renovated and well-maintained over the years looked cute. But the homes in livable condition were all way above what I was comfortable spending, and they were all really far away from the subway connections I wanted to use for commuting. In fact, after spending several weekends house hunting, I realized that any house we might buy in livable condition would be so far from the subway I’d end up spending almost as much time and money commuting as if we stayed in Dale City.

Meanwhile, Winnie found a job at a local mall with the help of my Aunt. She was making friends here and beginning to feel settled. I was getting used to taking the commuter bus to work, actually enjoying it. It was really nice to be close to family, and we started to realize the homes here really looked good!

So, we gave up on the Urban Pioneer lifestyle in favor of the American Bedroom Community Suburban lifestyle. Today we’ll be putting in a offer on a nice little house here in Dale City. Don’t know if we’ll get it, but the price is good (for here), and the house really is cute. Winnie has already decided how she wants to rebuild it (We can put a wall here and tear this wall out) but I’m hoping she settles for just painting the place. If we get it.

I’ll be sure to let you’all know what happens next.

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