Monday, July 17, 2006


The extended deadline for our offer on the aforementioned house has come and gone. O! To be retired and mortgage-free! (I envy them) So the owners are requiring "more time to evaluate our offer", which to us sounds like "we are waiting for a better offer, and can wait indefinitely...but don't go yet, we might use you to start a bidding war". I still remain blindly optimistic while R takes the pragmatic approach, so we keep the meantime. This is good, as the more we look, the more refined our tastes become. This isn't such a qualitative statement of our "posh" standards [insert laugh] as is it an observation that we more quickly rule out/in the houses that we run across. Drivebys, indeed.

Friday, July 14, 2006


It’s funny how the process of courting a house is so dissimilar to the process of courting a mate… especially when both relationships hold the potential for “sharing life everlasting”. R & I find ourselves looking for charming but problematic houses, signs of serious neglect, for the purpose of ‘talking down’ the owners from their inflated expectations in this slowing market. This would be an atypical approach in the dating scene. We see a failing foundation and the little cockles in our hearts start to flutter, as ill sounding as that may be. We shy away from that “pretty as a picture” cottage, with fresh paint still agleam, bursting green sod/lawn and floozy-like flowers abloom (and more often than not, vinyl window replacements). We suffer from that fool-hearty notion that “we can do it…yes, we can!”, when it would be imminently better if we didn’t.

PWN your home!

I mean that I cannot imagine approaching the parents of my then-wife-to-be, proclaiming that their daughter was indeed “cute”, but in need of some “serious and expensive work…unstable and broken foundations, neglected siding, sagging plaster, leaky plumbing”. I would have been (rightfully) kicked to the curb. But yet, we seek out houses in terms of their potential…SPECIFICALLY in terms of that potentiality. We suffer from Pygmalion’s Syndrome and seek our own Eliza Doolittle. Part of the reason is indeed the aforementioned ego issue, but another issue for that is a sense of ownership. To know one’s house inside and out, having coursed through every joist and stud, plumbed every pipe and wire, and grouted all the little hex tiles in the bathroom seem to espouse the sense of ownership seen in Melville-ian ship captains and computer gamers of their rigs. If building completely new were feasible for us, we would opt for that, but paying both rent AND a massive mortgage is just not going to happen right now. Purchasing a so-called "blank canvas" seems to be the second-tier option for us first-time buyers, and an older home (read as pre-1945) has a more desirable starting point (forgive us our naïveté).

So we still await the results of our bid, which happened to be significantly lower than asking price. We weren’t outright turned down and our deadline has a day left, and I take that as a good sign that they hope for a better offer that won't come before accepting ours (I can hope too, can’t I?). The market seems glut with houses for sale, many we have been watching this whole year (“Price Reduced!”). And still we find ourselves amidst the hunt, until we hear from this one. But somehow the din of “top of hill”, “historic district”, and “original hardware” sound well above the shouts of “FAILING FOUNDATION”, “LONG NEGLECTED SIDING”, “BATHROOM….bathroom?”. Oddly the inherent charms of so many other houses seem to pale. It's the essence of this house [see below] that has grabbed us, and not in the particulars. I may be projecting, but this house deserves an "extreme makeover" much in the same way that homely friend of Marsha Brady did [name: Molly, was escorted to the banquet by an astronaut in the end]. The potential is so already there! (I must be sick).

Friday, July 07, 2006

The Contender

I guess it all started a few years ago, when we found a Craftsman house in Berkeley listed at a price we could afford on our single income. Sure, it could use some love (well, ALOT of love by the looks from the pictures) as it had been uninhabited for the past 10 years. Sure, the diseased/dead 80’ conifer in the front had completely split and lifted the front foundation about 2’ involving ~ 20% of the house (note: trees have as many rights in Berkeley as do people). But peering through the only non-boarded-up window (in the front door) we could see fine built-ins, original hardware and tons of woodwork. We fantasized for days about what we would do with it and how.

When we finally got a walkthrough, we almost literally did…through the floor. The holes in the floor were huge, gaping, and plentiful in every room, and ready for more with every step. But that wasn’t what daunted us. We caved with that heavy sigh when we saw the east and south exterior walls were left with only the stucco (no lath/plaster, no studs, no floor/joists. All of it had completely rotted away, and still I marvel at how this curtain of stucco could support its own weight, not to mention the roof too. It looked so solid from the outside. It was $260K and well beyond our scope. ‘Fixer-upper’ indeed! Anyways, all the dreaming we had done had accomplished one thing: we were hooked. We just HAD to find another old house, one that we could rescue.

Enter the present…

A few blocks north of where we are renting, in the Nationally Registered historic neighborhood of St. Vincent’s Hill, there sits a deteriorating 1905 quasi-Victorian (no particular style), 2-bed/1-bath + basement. The owner is now 80+ and lives in LA. This was her mother’s home purchased some 90 years ago. Very little has been done to this house, as even the toilet is a mere shed added onto the house. In short, we are privy (pun, there) to ALL the work that is going to be needed. But here are the bits:
  • 1100 sq.ft. living plus full basement @ 7’ height & windows along N & E
  • 6500 sq.ft. hilly lot with alley access (& new detached garage)
  • 10’ ceilings
  • 2 bedrooms, living room, dining room, kitchen (all of ample size)
  • near-fullsized basement (currently 7' headroom)
  • original doors, windows, lights & hardware
  • built-ins & woodwork
  • 2 blocks from waterfront & city restoration projects
  • 6 blocks from center of downtown
  • views over the bay and city

Overall, it possesses all the primary criteria and 6/10 of the secondary with the potential to gain 3 more. The caveat is that it needs a new foundation to replace the original non-mortared bricks, bulging out in places. This aspect alone has frightened away all other buyers, but oddly it has actually exited us! Sure, let’s lift the house! I know the guy to do it (even drew up some plans for a home of his he was moving). [The mind reels…increase basement headroom to 8’, finish out space with another bedroom, bath and studio, nearly doubling the living space]

And since it seems to hold no sway to any particular style and the fact that it is a rather ripe canvas, we are discussing the, SHOVE, toward the Arts & Crafts which we so desire. Among the many assets it may hold, roof overhangs are not one of them, sadly. Nor are mullioned sashes, though, if I am going to restore the (original) windows, I just as well could build them in myself. I am planning to work on some rough sketches this weekend, in which case I will post them here.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Begging for Bungalows

Being my first post, in my first 'blog, on my first webpage, I'd like to welcome you all! Thus shall I begin my/our documentation of building a "home" for our little family, most hopefully of the bungalow variety, while being un-shy of restoration/repair/rebuild needs. My wife, Roxana, and I, Michael, are both trained in architecture, San Francisco Bay Area natives, and as-yet not homeowners. Because we are now fully committed to changing that last aspect about ourselves, I figure that now is a good time to start this little journal... for those yet to embark on this precarious journey, for those waxing nostalgic about their past forays into homeownership, and for us to laugh at (or cry) in a scant few years from now. Today marks the day of our bid submittal!

If you are not familiar with Bay Area living, lets get one thing clear...housing is freakin' expensive, and that encompasses an area larger than many states. What one would pay for a 2-bed/1-bath house anywhere around here would buy a mansion in most parts of this country. But still we chose to stay here, and have narrowed our search to Vallejo, CA. This city is located on the NE of said bay, Marin to our West, Oakland/Berkeley to the South, and SF to the SW. San Jose and the Silicon Valley are 'way down South' at the bottom of the bay.

Vallejo was the first capital of California (for less than 1 year), and then became the first Naval Shipyard for the Pacific Fleet. Since the closure of the military base on Mare Island in the early 1990's, the city had acchieved it's slow decay. Evidence of this 'patina' can be seen everywhere, yet today, there are massive plans/strategies to revitalize the city proper, the waterfront, and the island. The promise of potential!

Here is what we need for our fulfillment of "home":
  • minimum 2 bedrooms with the ability to expand to 3 in the future
  • a sizable enough yard for our girls to safely play in
    (we have a 2 yr old and another due in September, 2006)
  • SF Bay Area
  • 'safe' neighborhood
  • workshop (detached space for eventual home-business)
  • painting studio
  • under $400k

Bonus points for the following:

  • Arts & Crafts bungalow
  • an 'old' home (+/- 100 years)
  • original doors/windows and hardware
  • near downtown living
  • solid/cohesive neighbors & 'hood
  • 9'+ ceilings
  • 'corner market' nearby
  • park nearby
  • historic significance
  • water views

Fairly tall order, we know, but we can dream. Tomorrow, I will describe our current prospect and object of the forementioned bid.