Friday, March 21, 2014

Home Sweet Home?

When I think of my little condo apartment on Mamaroneck Avenue, I know that however imperfect it is, the place is my home.  The story of our condo is the story of Kevin's and my life together.  We bought the place when we were engaged.  We moved there in July of 2001 - two months before our wedding. Most of our life together has been in those four rooms (when not at Oxbow Stables).

When we first bought it, neither of us had ever owned a home before.  It was exciting just to be a homeowner.  The apartment seemed to have everything we needed.  It has two full bathrooms and a spare room for office space.  It is a short walk to the train station.  It is located in the middle of town so stores and restaurants are easily accessible.  Our balcony overlooks the river giving us excellent nature views.  In the winter we even get a glimpse of the harbor from our bedroom.  

I'm not sure how long we thought we would stay there when we moved in.  As I said, we were happy just to be homeowners.  We talked about having a house someday, but that seemed to be part of a bigger dream of not just moving into a new house, but also of moving our lives elsewhere.  We talked about having a house in the country, but nothing too extreme.  Maybe we would just go two hours north to Orange County so we would be closer to the horses.  Then we talked of doing something very extreme and moving to Chincoteague.  During our tenth anniversary vacation to a horse farm in Italy, Kevin even wistfully mused on what it might take for us to buy an Italian horse farm of our own.  We dreamed simply of getting out of the New York metro area once and for all.  We wanted a change of lifestyle.  

No change of lifestyle ever seemed imminent, so we stayed.  We did what we needed to do to make our little place into the best home it could be.  We tore out the cheap kitchen and put in beautiful custom wood cabinets, granite countertops, and new tile on the floors and walls.  We put hardwood floors in the living room and master bedroom.  We upgraded the tiles and shower in the master bathroom.  We had California Closets design a functional office space for the spare room and upgrade our master bedroom closet.  If we were going to stay in this apartment, then it had to be the best apartment it could be.

But I'm restless now.  I feel as if after all of this I'm ready to move on.  I always felt that it was agreed that the condo was never meant to be permanent.  Now after thirteen years I see my friends and family settled into real standalone houses and I ache for something more.  Is it time to move on?  Should we?  What are our reasons for leaving and what makes them more advantageous than staying?

The main reason for leaving is that the quality of life in our building has decreased since we moved in.  For years we had a dog living above us that howled constantly.  When the dog died and the owner moved, the new neighbors installed hardwood floors and did a bad job so we hear them stomping above us. My next-door-neighbor has a cat that he never bothered to neuter until recently and for months we had to deal with the stench of him spraying in the hallways and seeping into our apartment.  There was an incident where a neighbor's CO alarm went off when he was on vacation and I had to deal with the incessant beeping until he came home five days later.  Walking through the hallways I always have to deal with a variety of less-than-pleasant smells from the stench of fish cooking to pot smoke.  Worst of all is the blight on the neighborhood known as Molly Spillane's - a trashy bar disguised as a family restaurant.  The bar noises echo throughout the neighborhood.  Drunks wander the streets.  The sidewalk in front is clogged with cigarette smoke all night.  Worst of all I have to compete with the patrons for parking even though I pay a hefty annual fee for a municipal parking permit.

The other reason for leaving is that we simply are outgrowing the space.  No matter how many clever storage units we install, we fill them up and our stuff spills everywhere.  I love order and tidiness (although I admit to being lazy and not actually tidying up very often) but it is impossible in our place.  There is no place for everything.  There is no room for our books, our electronics, or our growing art collections.  Obviously it doesn't have to be that way.  We can bite the bullet and get rid of things.  We can rent a storage locker so we can at least move excess possessions out of the house.  Size should not be the determining factor in why we might move, should it?  Material possessions should not be a priority.

The last question to ponder is money.  Can we afford a house when we live in one of the most expensive areas of the country?  I sometimes think we underestimate what we can afford.  We have friends who probably don't make Kevin's salary and have kids to boot and still manage to have a real house.  What are they doing so differently from us?  But then again, Kevin and I might not have kids*, but we have an expensive hobby (horses), we love to travel, and Kevin loves his watches and duck decoys.

All of this could change next year. We should be in a position to pay off our mortgage.  Then we would be able to sell our condo purely for profit and that would make a generous down payment on something bigger and better.  Knowing that day could come soon, I have found myself on real estate websites, looking for a place that would be suitable for us.  It has become a bit of an obsession for me.

What would my idea house look like?  What would it contain?  I have a very long set of criteria.
  • Three bedrooms, or two and decent den/study.
  • Two full bathrooms (completely non-negotiable)
  • Close to the train station for an easy commute
  • A big kitchen that is decently upgraded and has lots of counter space
  • A dining room that can seat 10
  • Hardwood floors
  • A front porch
  • Attractive inside and out
  • A basement that I could convert to a decent workout room**
  • A fireplace
  • Needs a minimum of work (Kevin and I aren't handy people so we don't need to fuss with contractors and dipping into our home equity line of credit right after making a major home purchase)
  • A yard big enough for some flowerbeds and a vegetable garden and maybe a nice stone patio, but not more property than we would have time to maintain.
Some of these are negotiable and some aren't, but part of the research we are doing is trying to figure out what we are and are not willing to live with.

Location is the other piece of the puzzle.  Moving to the country and closer to the horses is not going to happen any time soon.  We are going to be stuck in our jobs for a while and we need the accessibility to the city.  For the most part we like living in Mamaroneck, but lately I'm kind of over this town.  I don't like the way it is becoming less mom-and-pop and more commercial in terms of the businesses coming in.  I can't stand the mayor Norm Rosenbarf Rosenblum.  We certainly would consider the neighboring towns (Harrison, Larchmont, Rye) although I don't know what the advantages and disadvantages of each would be.

I have lived on the Sound Shore side of Westchester my entire life, but I am beginning to think we should cross to the other side of the county and consider the river towns (Tarrytown, Irvington, Hastings, Dobbs Ferry, Sleepy Hollow, Croton, Ossining).  Being on the Hudson side of the county would mean we would be closer to the Tappan Zee Bridge, making our commute to New Jersey for the horses a bit faster on the weekends. These towns have the same accessibility to New York City.  Granted, staying anywhere in Westchester means that if we get away from Mamaroneck and Rosenbarf Rosenblum, we would still be dealing with county executive Rob Bastardino Astorino.

Last night we began our research officially.  We went and looked at this house.  The house is gorgeous.  It is beautifully remodeled to the point where it looks like a brand new house.  It has all the space we need and a small, but workable yard.  It doesn't have a fireplace, but I can live with that.  Kevin wasn't crazy about the neighborhood because he felt the houses are too close together, but after being in the house in the evening, we see the neighborhood is nice and calm and quiet and the neighbors invisible.  When we were in it, we could really envision what we wanted to do with it.

It's far too early to consider buying it, but it was tempting.  Still we really do have to wait another year to make buying something like this a reality.

Our other option is to pay off our mortgage and stay right where we are.  Our living expenses would be low (although we would be walloped at tax time).  We could simply throw our extra stuff in a storage locker and use our remaining discretionary cash to travel the world and pamper the horses even more.  It wouldn't be such a bad life.  This has been our home for 13 years and we know how to be comfortable here.

For now, I'll keep doing my research.  We have to see what is out there, what we like, what we don't like but can live with, what we can't live without, and what we can afford.  A lot can happen in a year.

Remember, home may be where the heart is, but it's pretty useless if your lungs, liver, digestive tract, and brain aren't there too.

*For the record, I was never keen on having kids.  The fact that we stayed in the apartment helped keep me from changing my mind since the apartment isn't big enough for a third person.

**I'm talking about getting things like a squat cage, a pullup bar, a bench and some barbells and possibly a treadmill.  We already have a decent set of dumbbells and some videos.  The initial investment would be pricey, but it would save on a gym membership in the long run.

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