Sippican Cottage

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A Man Who Has Nothing In Particular To Recommend Him Discusses All Sorts of Subjects at Random as Though He Knew Everything

Our $25,000 House

Here she be, just as we found her: Our $25,000 house


noun ˈhə-vəl, ˈhä-
a small, wretched, and often dirty house

OK, OK, we didn’t move to a hovel three years ago. 

Truth be told, it was much worse than a hovel. We aspired to live in a hovel. We thought we might be able to fashion a hovel out of what we’d purchased. We dreamt of wretchedness, and are still doggedly trying to clear away all the debris just to get to the dirty part, so we can live in it and be happy. 

About four years ago, we became Househunters. Unfortunately, the earlier generations of househunters and gatherers, appearing on the far left side of the homeowner’s “walking upright” chart,  had put out a neglect-and-wreck salt lick and jacklighted our house to death long before we could get to it. I’d make a joke about crawling inside the carcass of our dead house to get warm, like a tauntaun, but they’d ruined the heating system and other assorted plumbing by abandoning the house in the winter and letting all the pipes freeze, so it was usually colder inside than outdoors. The weather’s generally balmy two or three days a year here in western Maine, but we are unreasonable, and hell-bent on living in the place for more than one long weekend in late June, so stuff was going to have to get done, and I was going to have to do it myself.  Why would we move to such a place, you ask? We had become instantly broke, and the house was free. That’s a great combination.

OK, not really free, but pretty close. We bought a fairly big, 1901 vintage Queen Anne house for $24,400. I consider any house you can buy for less than a Kia to be “free.” It wasn’t the “Detroit” version of free, either. I know you can buy a crackhouse in the Motor City for a double sawbuck, or trade it for a couple of syphilitic chickens or something, but then you’ve got to try to defend its walls against all comers. And those walls have all their copper pipes ripped out by crackheads to give your new home a proper crackhouse vibe.

No thanks. We moved to what’s considered a nice neighborhood in a quiet little town in western Maine. And in addition to a lack of Mogadishu-level crime, the taxes here are comparatively low, because there’s a huge, stinking paper mill right in the center of town paying half the town’s freight. That means our free house didn’t come with a bent number followed by a vapor trail of zeroes after it for back taxes, or front taxes or sideways taxes. Everyone at the local credit union that was stuck with our White Elephant Victorian, before they stuck us with it, was in their office, more than happy to make a deal, and our new neighbors greeted us like Americans rolling into Paris in 1944. Actually, Paris isn’t too far from here; it’s near Norway, which is just a few miles from Poland. Don’t try liberating Paris by driving there and asking around, though. The Post Office has called the entire town of Paris “South Paris” for so long now that no one in Paris knows exactly where Paris is.

The last time I saw Paris, well, I was buying corrugated cardboard to ship a table, so let’s move on. We got a house for twenty-five large, and no one gives you a house for that kind of money if all it needs is a good dusting and waxing. Generally that $25k sort of house needs an air strike, or if it’s like ours, looks like it’s already had one or two. Our house had a bad roof, where there was a roof instead of informal skylights where the squirrels and rain came and went. It had no heat, and no working plumbing of any kind. Much of the electricity was supplied by the original knob and tube wiring, which was still safer than all the newer stuff that had been installed by a series of inebriated electricians. Why inconvenience any future occupants by requiring them to bring a toaster into the shower just to electrocute themselves, when you can make it possible at most any outlet? The general fabric of the house was sagging and swaying and collapsing like the first twenty people Mike Tyson punched, except where it had already fallen down, of course. And the basement — which is one floor below the other basement, because the place is built on a riverbank and is slanted like a major newspaper — the basement was a horror.

It was boarded up like Hannibal Lecter’s waiting room. It hadn’t had a fire down there. No! Why settle for one fire in your basement when you can have two? The roof above had been neglected so long that you could poke your head right through it (I eventually did, and fixed it) and the rain and snow and rodents had worked their magic throughout the whole back facade, all the way down to the foundation, which wasn’t there anymore.

The former occupants had taken everything with them, including all the light bulbs in the fixtures. They had dragged some sort of corroded and oily apparatus they still coveted up the stairs and through all the rooms, leaving an undulating rusty gulley in the maple floors all the way to the front door, but they couldn’t take the foundation with them, could they?

(to be continued)

[Update: Thanks to the Instapundit, Ace of Spades, American Digest, Maggie’s Farm, Execupundit, and anyone else I’ve overlooked for sending their readers my way this week. Sooper-dooper thanks to everyone that’s hit our assorted tipjars, bought my book, purchased my furniture, supported my children’s musical career, and used my Amazon portal. It’s enormously appreciated. And thanks, period, for reading and commenting. No man writes for no one]

29 Responses

  1. Aside from your other sterling qualities you are a wonderful story teller. You have a good "come-from". In your case, one word can be worth a thousand pictures. Well, mebbe five hundred in today's market.

    I see much but I say little. That's mostly 'cause I don't know how to talk so very good.

  2. I really do love these real-life "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House" stories you tell. Could read them all day long.

  3. This seems not terribly dissimilar, except for scope to the first house I bought in south London. It too was a Victorian, but a four story slate roofed, 9 feet high ceilinged, 10 inch mahogany base-boarded beauty with gas lighting that had been butchered into 4 apartments. It cost me Stg30k
    I spent 2 years (and I was too scared to count the cost) turning it into a house. There was the predictable property bubble so I sold it.
    The buyer turned it into apartments.

  4. Luxury.
    We used to dream of having a hovel.
    There were a hundred and fifty of us living in t' shoebox in t' middle o' road.
    And you try and tell the young people of today that – they won't believe you.
    Another cracking essay, Mr. S.
    Thank you for sharing!

  5. Anybody can fix a hole in a roof. Everyone knows that the key to a sound real estate purchase is "location, location, location" or "buy low sell high" or "over insure and under prepare for disaster"… or something like that.

    Vanderluen is blowing smoke up your ass. My sources tell me he lives on one of those floating houses and so has no need of a lawn chair, new or otherwise. And nobody eats popcorn while operating a computer. Other than that all he says and writes is true. Everything.

    Glad to see you're still banging your head on walls Sipp!

  6. Cool!! We bought a house from the city in 1977 for $7000- similar in condition to yours. That was during the times when "Urban Renewal" was replaced by "Community Redevelopment". The neighborhood had been slated for demolition when the city did a 180 and sold the homes instead. Having been empty for years.. well, enough said. The front half of the house had been built in 1854 and the back half in 1879. We spent about 10 years reworking the house into what we wanted, and it's a beautiful place now (if I do say so myself)!! Susan Lee

  7. We have a similar house – it was thrown in for free when we bought our little bungalow on 50 acres in western quebec. A Steel roof and an occupant are the only reason it's still standing. He now rents from us as we prepare to gut and redo everything someday… Can't wait to hear more about your experience…

  8. So I'm guessing they did take the better parts of the foundation, or those with sentimental attachment.

    And clearly they were animal lovers, wanting to provide a minimal modicum of shelter for the wildlife.

    Ah, Mr. Blandings! Do you have rabbited joints, or ribbeted joints?

    My house was built in 1893, but fairly well taken care of. There are still ceramic posts with wires in the basement. Might be elsewhere, but they'd be well covered over.

  9. When all is said and done though, it is a house in western Maine. I suppose it has other virtues.

    Please, by all means, don't stop there. Continue on.

  10. Knob and tube wiring! Last time I saw that was in an attic in Mogadishu… er, I mean Detroit. All Victorian and scary looking, like what the good Dr. Frankenstein used to jump start his monster.

  11. I bought my neighbours old house and knew it was in rough shape. when I went to check the roof I fell through it a couple of times. New roof, insulation, plumbing and for an investment of $870 for the house, $15,000 for repairs I figure I have a house with a new roof, r50 ceilings insulation, r20 walls, and when I get finished a new kitchen, bathroom and flooring will be a cheap retirement home!

  12. I think this is what you used to call a "fixer upper". I'm sure that, once it's done, it will be worth more than you have in it, and much more house than you could get for the money.

  13. After my wife and I bought our first house in Brooklyn, her father (a civil engineering professor) visited and inspected the place. His verdict was that the only thing supporting the floor was the cockroaches holding hands. We put some steel in strategic places to help them out, and it was still standing when we eventually sold it some years later.

    Hope you have strong roaches Down East.

  14. The roof reminds me of my childhood home. My parents bought an old farmhouse in decent condition in the 1950s. My father redid every room in the house. Woodwork- such as floors, panels, and cabinetry- he did himself. Plumbing, roofing, and fireplace building, he paid for.

    After he retired and my father died, the house was sold. My brother went back to town for his 40th high school reunion, and saw a tarp on the roof.

  15. A friend of mine who dabbled in real estate bought a house in Brooklyn for back taxes of $3,000. It had had a fire and there were great gaping holes in the floor.

    He spent all his spare time and most of his money to fix it up. In the end, he spent so much money that he had to move into that house and sell the one he was living in.

    But they lived there very happily for 20 years, and I hope your story has as happy an ending as theirs.

  16. We never knew when our parents house was built, but the concrete blocks the foundation was built of were stamped 1867 and 1868. It was not much of a house by today's standards but it had everything our family wanted (including hard work).

    Granddad was a whee! of a rough carpenter which I suppose he got as a missionary in the old Belgian Congo for 31 years. (1924 to 1955) With a little help he insulated and ply-wooded the attic from nothing to the 4th floor of the house. Both of the chimneys were going bad but I only had to do one, the other we actually paid someone to do.

    Twenty years later at the request of my favorite mom I flew back from Wyoming to fix the foundation. I borrowed several heavy duty jacks and jacked up the rear of the house a quarter inch at a time while checking everything on the inside. Ripped out the part of the foundation that was failing, crossed my fingers and jacked the house back down after only 4 days for the mortar to set.

    There was a second floor bed room all of us boys were hot after. You could climb out the south window onto the three by six foot of roof of a bay window and there was a flower trellis to climb down on.

    Time has passed and its now the home of someone else, which is also fine, but we all did love that old house.

  17. Years ago I bought an blighted and broken 1872 townhouse in Savannah with the hope of restoring and sharing it with the woman I loved. Two years later with the house mostly restored and the woman gone to Colorado, I sold the place at a tidy profit and shed plenty of tears over the pain, the dirt, the uncertainly, the bills, the time wasting. I even thought about what's-her-name. Sure do miss that house.

  18. That Queen Anne floorplan must've been quite popular around the turn of the century. I grew up in one that looked just like it in the Dorchester district of Boston back in the '60s. I had a little bedroom under those dormer windows in the back, but my windows were mullioned. Does yours have the open staircase? My parents walled it in after one of my brothers took a header over the railing into the front hall.

    I don't think it's possible for me to not love this house, and I can't wait to see what you have done/are doing with it.

  19. Feh, Pikers! I got a perfectly weather tight house with a working furnace and a decent kitchen in south western PA for $6000 in 2009. Built in 1918, it also had knob and tube, and the previous owners had cats, so I had to do a bit of floor sanding. And tear out some walls, but I was doing that to pull wire anyway. After another $4000 I moved into the house, and have been living there for the past couple of years. The old mine patch community still has a social club where you can get a beer and a burger, shoot some pool. It's 5 miles to a grocery store. S

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