Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Why Down by the River?--Chapter 3

“Buy it!”

What should we do? My wife and I needed to make a decision about the house and property on the Lehigh River. We decided to get a second opinion.

My wife asked her parents, who had emigrated from Great Britain when she was four years old and had worked their way up from renting to home ownership. They were now in their fourth house, which they had a contractor build to their specifications. They knew the value of property. Her folks jumped at the opportunity to check out the property and drove by it the next day. Actually, they drove slowly by it several times, then called my wife as soon as they got back home.

“Is it the old, pale yellow farmhouse with the white fence?” her mother asked.

“Yes,” said my wife.

“Does the property include the open grassy area all the way to the end of the white fence?” her father asked.


“You’re sure it’s all the way to the end.”


“That’s a lot of land.”

“It’s one and a third acres.”

“Buy it,” her parents said in unison.

“But . . .” my wife began.

“Buy it!” they repeated.

“But the house . . .”

“BUY it!”

“But . . .”

“We know. BUY IT!”

We understood their reasoning. The asking price for the property was only about 25 percent more than one-quarter-acre lots were selling for in the area. But these did not have a dilapidated house to deal with. We knew we didn’t want to go through the unknown cost and stress of renovating the house—visions of the movie, “The Money Pit,” kept going through our heads. We could both see a never-ending project, costs we could not really afford and the risk of an unhappy result.

As it happened, my wife’s sister’s father-in-law, bored with retirement, had recently started a business selling modular homes. We had never thought of a modular home, figuring they all look and feel like mobile homes. Not that we have anything against mobile homes. The first home we ever bought was a mobile home, in Anchorage, Alaska, while I was in the Air Force. We preferred it to living in an apartment. We’ve also owned an RV since 2000. So when we learned that today’s modular homes are almost indistinguishable from “stick-built” homes (as the modular-home people call built-on-site homes), that modulars built by reputable companies are well built and reliable, that there are many agreeable styles (including two-story structures) and that they cost a good deal less than stick-built homes, we decided to give them a look.

With a salesman, we visited a modular home factory about two hours away from our home. We were impressed. The advantages of assembling almost anything inside a building at most times of the year are obvious, and as an engineering management major in college, I could appreciate the industrial and economic aspects. We left the factory with a good feeling about the idea. Putting a modular on the property sounded like an affordable, win-win alternative for us.

Meanwhile, we continued to negotiate with the owners, and eventually reached an agreement on price. A flood survey showed that we would not need to buy flood insurance, because the land was above the 100-year flood level—and actually above the 500-year level. Being within the 100-year flood plain would have made flood insurance a requirement of the mortgage lender, not to mention a prudent thing to do, but would have added about a $1,000 a year to the cost of the house. Besides the cost, we didn’t want to ever have to deal with the consequences of a flood. So the property being within the 100-year flood plain of the Lehigh would have been a showstopper for us. (Ironically, the Lehigh flooded just three months after we moved into our new home. This is worth another blog post later.)

A problem with the designated boundaries of the property, as defined in some dozen previous titles over the years, also turned out favorably. The lines describing one corner of the lot did not actually meet. Why this fact had not been discovered for over a century baffled us. We could only guess that no one thought to check the original faulty survey by checking the geographic survey points closely. The title company our mortgage lender used refused to issue a clear title, which is a requirement of title insurance, which the mortgage lender required as prerequisite of issuing the mortgage. Luckily for us, the text of our standard “boilerplate” purchase agreement specified that the seller must provide a clear title. So our sellers had to pay for the survey.

The new boundaries actually showed the lot to be larger than indicated: 1.77 acres versus 1.35. This was good news for us, but not-quite-good-enough news to alleviate another more serious problem with our plan that my wife had in the meantime discovered during one of her many visits to the township’s planning office.

We knew very early in the process of acquiring the property that it was within a designated recreation and conservation district. What’s not to like about this? You can’t get much better protection from future shopping center or other development than this. What my wife had learned recently, however, was that to build a new house on a property in the area, one needs a minimum of 2.0 acres. Whether 1.35 or 1.77 acres, the property we wanted to buy obviously did not fit this criterium. Neither did several other lots around us, but the houses on these lots—like the house we wanted to buy—were built before the two-acre rule, so they were “grandfathered” under a previous rule. We could, without problem, renovate the old house and even tear it down completely. But if we wanted to build a new house on the property, we could only build it on the footprint of the current house’s foundation. The only alternative we had was to apply for a variance from the rule to build the new house elsewhere on the property, which would have to be located within the current setbacks from the boundaries now required by law.

“OK, so let’s get a variance,” we concluded. Here’s where even our enthusiastic daughter said we should give it up. There were a lot of reasons to quit.

First, we learned it takes a lot of work to get a variance, including notifying all of one’s neighbors to give them an opportunity to comment, for good or ill. Second, getting time to meet with the planning committee is subject to its schedule and the other business it has to deal with. Typically, it met only once a month. Third, our seller wanted to close the deal as quickly as possible because he had a job to go to in Turkey. We also found out he had received another offer for the property, higher than ours, and was looking for any excuse to get out of our agreement. And finally, we also learned that it is only the property owner—not a prospective buyer of a property—who may apply for a variance. Until we actually owned the property we could not apply for a variance to build a new house on the property.

So if we bought the property, we would have to buy it with no guarantee that we could build a new house on it, except over the footprint of the old house, which was close to the road and the neighbor’s house on that side—not an ideal location.

Talk about a showstopper!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Why Down by the River?--Chapter 2

The Search

My wife and I had looked at houses for sale along a road on the Lehigh River for about a decade before we bought the land our house is on now. A couple of years before we bought it, we actually had a contract on another property on the same road, but the sale was contingent upon the owner, a postal worker, getting a transfer to Phoenix, Arizona. This explained the Western d├ęcor in their house. The transfer didn’t happen and after six months we let the contract expire. Then in 1999, we learned that the township had changed the zoning of the farmer’s fields behind our previous home so that a large shopping center could be built there. Though we really liked that house, my wife and I decided to start looking again in earnest for another home. We decided, however, that we would only move if we found something we really liked that was in a location that would not likely have a shopping center built nearby anytime soon, if not ever.

We had one other requirement. My wife and I are members of the Baha’i Faith. Baha’is do not have paid clergy—or any clergy for that matter—so the way we take care of the administrative functions of the Faith is through spiritual assemblies. On the local level, whenever there are nine or more adult Baha’is (age 21 or older) living in a municipality, a Local Spiritual Assembly is formed, with new elections held each year. My wife and I were, and still are, on the Local Spiritual Assembly in our community, which at the time did not have a whole lot of Baha’is. So we felt we needed to stay in our community so that we could continue to serve on the assembly.

Our realtor took us to a lot of houses in the area and my wife searched the Internet. We found a few places near open fields, but we were wary about the township changing the zoning rules elsewhere. For a short time we placed a preliminary contract on an undeveloped lot with a local contractor, but this fell through, too. Then my wife saw that another house down by the river was for sale at an unbelievably low price. She called our realtor to set up an appointment for us to see it.

Our realtor told us later she thought we’d never buy the property, the house on it was so bad. Built in the late 1800s, the only thing good about the house was the location, as was pointed out several times by the man who later did the house inspection for us. It might have been a farmhouse at one time, but a quintessential “Pennsylvania farmhouse” it clearly was not. Frankly, it was a mess. From the damaged chimney on the roof to asbestos insulation on the leaky oil furnace in the basement to a septic system that had to be replaced, the house was beyond repair by anyone on a budget. On every page of his report, the house inspector pointed out and had us initial a note at the bottom that stated in effect, “We understand that the inspector can only indicate problems that he can see and has access to. Additional problems may be hidden from view.” We were surprised that people were actually living in the house after learning all that was wrong with it.

Of course, when one considers buying any house, an early question is why are the people selling. It turned out that the owners, a couple who had bought the house from the wife’s mother, were planning to move to Turkey. The husband, who was Turkish, was in his homeland when we first saw the house, and we did not actually meet him until the closing. The wife was an American, local to the area, and a cartoonist by trade. She worked in a small room on the second floor, which was perhaps the nicest in the whole house. Placed next to the house was a new, well-built, sturdy shed the size of a single-car garage, which the couple had planned to turn into an office/studio for the wife.

The husband was an electrician and had obtained a teaching position in Turkey. He had done some work in the house, we were told. However, the house inspector rated much of the electrical system in the house as “amateur,” though someone else might have done this work. The husband did have a workshop of sorts in a separate garage, which had its own structural problems. Behind the garage stood—barely—a rotting shipping container, with a tree growing through one side. At the back of the property were an old goat shed, chicken coop and tool shed, all of which were overgrown with weeds. Farther back, was a drop off to the former railroad track bed, which previous owners found useful as a private garbage dump.

Before having the house inspected, my wife and I were considering renovating it. Estimating what we’d get for the sale of our present house, the equity we had built up, the lower price of this house and what we felt we could conservatively borrow, we figured we could make it work. But after the inspection, we changed our minds. The cost of redoing this house into what my wife envisioned it could be was simply beyond our means, or at least beyond what we considered to be a prudent amount we could borrow.

“So do we do now?” we asked each other.

Though we had different reasons, on one thing we had no doubt: Despite the house, the garage, the shipping container, the goat and chicken sheds (the “office” shed was clearly a keeper—I saw it as a place to store my canoe and the lawn tractor we would need), we really, really loved the property. And as I’ve heard many times, if you really want something, you just need to be prepared to make the sacrifices to get it.

For my wife, the property brought back memories of her grandparent’s former home in Scotland, particularly the position of the house by the road, the steps going up from the road to it and the hedges on both sides. The house itself wasn’t nearly as nice as her grandparent’s, but that didn’t matter. It also had a white fence, which was similar to their house. (Unbeknownst to us at the time, most of the fence posts were rotten below ground level.) After her grandfather died, her grandmother moved to the States to live with her only child, my wife’s father, and his family. She shared a bedroom with my wife until she died a few years later, and she and my wife were very close

The property reminded me of summer camp, for which I have lot of happy memories. I attended three YMCA summer camps as a kid, one in Pennsylvania and two in the Ozarks in Missouri, and worked one summer as a counselor at a Boy Scout camp on the Delaware River in New Jersey as a canoeing, rowing and archery instructor. I got the job even though I had never been a Scout. The property wasn’t like any one of the camps I attended in particular, but rather like all of them in various ways.

A beloved grandmother and summer camp. How could we ignore childhood memories like that?

We both also liked the big trees on the borders of the property, its mature deciduous trees and the wooded area behind it, with remains of an old railroad bed (though not the garbage) and a standing, unused telephone pole, one of formerly many that ran along the railroad lined. We liked the evidence of wild life in the area, deer, raccoons, squirrels, foxes, groundhogs, wild turkeys, sea gulls, turkey vultures, hawks, blue herons, cormorants and many varieties of other birds.

We liked the idea of living in a river valley. For much of my life, particularly after going to college in Colorado, my wish was to live on the side or top of a mountain. We have friends who live on ridges or high hills and have magnificent views, which I envy. But living near water, in an area that by evidence of flint arrowheads and other relics was clearly a place where Native Americans had lived long before, has a real appeal. It’s a place that attracts human habitation.

So this above all else was why we wanted the property: We wanted to live down by the river.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Why Down by the River?--Chapter 1

Living on the Lehigh

If you are wondering why I named this blog “Down by the River,” the simple answer is that's where my wife and I live, in a house down by the Lehigh River. The complete answer is a lot more involved, so I'll stick with the simple one for now. The Lehigh begins amid some bogs and streams in the Pocono Mountains of eastern Pennsylvania. It flows south until it widens and slows upon reaching the relatively flat land of the Lehigh Valley. After flowing through Allentown, the largest city in the valley, it swings eastward through the neighboring next largest city of Bethlehem, eventually meeting the Delaware River in Easton. On the other side of the Delaware is New Jersey.

When large deposits of anthracite coal were discovered in the upper Lehigh Valley in the early 1800s, mining company owners knew the fastest way to get the coal the cities, their biggest markets, was via river. Because the Lehigh was not navigable by boats big enough to carry large quantities of coal economically, they decided to construct a canal that would connect to the Pennsylvania Canal in Easton. From here, the boats carried the coal south to Philadelphia.

The Lehigh Canal was constructed during the 1820s and -30s. It was largely hand-dug by local farmers and Irish immigrants using picks, shovels, and wheelbarrows. The canal ran from White Haven to Easton, a distance of 72 miles. A connection across the Delaware River to the Morris Canal through New Jersey allowed the coal from the Lehigh Canal to be shipped more directly to New York City.

Though it reached its peak in 1855 (carrying one million tons of coal), the canal was used until the 1942, making it the last fully functioning towpath canal in North America. In 1962, most of the canal was sold to private and public organizations for recreational use. From Allentown to Easton the canal towpath was converted to a 20-mile multi-use trail.

Our home is between Lock #44 and Lock #45, which are between Freemansburg and Easton. A section of road about a mile long runs between the canal, now overgrown, and the old railroad bed. The railroad tracks were moved across the river some time after the canal closed. About a dozen houses stand along this road, all of them facing the the canal and the river. Ours is one of them.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Good Moring, Sunshine!

Everything must begin somewhere, so here is my first blog entry. My goal with this blog is to experiment, with the objective of ushering in some more blogs related to the company I work for, its publications and its Web sites. I won't name them yet, because this is still in the prototype stage. So if nobody reads this, that's OK. If somebody does, that's OK, too.

I'm reading "Blogging for Dummies," which seems to be quite helpful. It's got me started, anyway. We'll just have to see how it goes from here.

This isn't much of first post, but it's a start. Onward and upward!

Enjoy the sun!