Category Archives: Real Estate

Bri’ishisms and the Housing Market

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One pro that people keep touting in terms of our potentially moving to the UK is that people speak English, so we wouldn’t have to learn a new language. But this is problematic on two counts:

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1. I don’t see not learning a new language as a pro at all, but a flat-out con. Oh, to speak fluent Español, Français! Italiano! I would love for us all to learn to roll our tongues just so or watch a Fellini film sans subtitles.

2. I don’t understand the English of the English. I’m not just talking about the accents in Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. I’m talking vocab. I’ve got boot, lift, and shag down. The rest is a mystery.

To wit, here is a typical property description of a house for sale on a British real estate website:

800px-Buckingham_Palace,_London_-_April_2009

No upward chain! No upward chain!

The details:

Five Bedroom Detached Family Home
Chain Free
Three Receptions
Off Road Parking
Rear Garden

What the heck is an upward chain, why should I be excited not to have one–or any “chains” at all? And why are they going to give me three receptions when I buy their house? My wedding reception was enough reception for a lifetime!

Also, I am so glad this house has a “fridgefreezer,” but why does it not–as none of them seem to–have a dryer? How does one dry one’s clothes in England, when no one owns a dryer, and it rains every day?

In any case, the houses cost too much for us. I’m also skeptical that they’ll give us a mortgage with no UK credit rating. If one needs a “letter of introduction” to open a bank account there, what will they require for a mortgage?? The prices for rentals look, at first glance, quite reasonable. Only £615 for a cute little bungalow? Why, that’s not bad at all–that’s about $930. Even if it’s out in the burbs, and the house is not new or beautiful, still, it has 4 bedrooms and its own personal garage (sheer luxury for us–we have never ever had our own garage). But wait–what is this “pw”? Pretty well £615? Posh washrooms included? Alas, British rentals are listed per week. £615 = closer to $4000/month for a piece of crap. Which is better than any of the listings with prices “pppw.” Don’t you know it–per person per week. At 5 of us x whatever the price is = too much money.

Oh, boy. Housing is going to be fun. I think we’re going to need a translator. IF we go, that is . . .

QEII

Magic Money Part I: City Living

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Whoever said you can’t do it all in the City that Never Sleeps on a salary of $11,000?

At the end of the last century, I lived in a fabulous one-bedroom apartment somewhere between Prince and Spring—in the center of Soho—in the city that’s the center of the universe. It was a real one bedroom, and it didn’t have a shower in the kitchen, it wasn’t secretly somebody’s walk-in closet, and the bed was not above the kitchen. Might I mention it was all my own! After living with a girl who consistently forgot to close (yes, close, forget about lock) the front door to our apartment (in the concrete jungle!), didn’t know that pots had to be cleaned before being returned to the cabinets (I swear!), and, hating me as deeply and as thoroughly as she did, emptied an entire 1-gallon container of milk over and into all the cracks of our parquet floor before moving out (aren’t I lucky to have an extra-strong sense of smell?), the all my own bit was key.

Outside the door of my apartment was everything a Princess on the Town could desire: a view down town of the Twin Towers; a little bar across the street my friend and neighbor, Chanda, and I deemed our “local” bar (à la Cheers, but filled with model-types); beside it, the best sandwich shop in town with a line down the block; and all around, celebrity-inhabitants, like Sandra Bullock and Richard Gere.

OK, so the apartment was not what you would call large. Yes, the whole thing would have fit into Nancy Botwin’s ensuite bathroom, but really, does anyone need a dresser, a sofa, a deep freezer, a desk, and a desktop computer in their bathroom? (I exaggerate a little . . . but only a little). In my sweet bachelorette pad, you shaved by sticking your leg out of the shower and resting it on the sink. It was convenient! Also, mirrors strategically placed throughout the apartment made it feel big and I could always see how my butt looked in my various outfits.

I admit there were other issues. Despite five windows, there wasn’t a whole lot of difference between day and night in there. Perhaps it was because the apartment was on the first floor and overlooked the courtyard (a word I thought adequately described the concrete rectangle below that housed the garbage and the entrance to the laundry room—until The Dentist and Nancy Botwin came to visit and told me they had envisioned a lush quad with sunlight filtering through elm trees) (have I mentioned they don’t leave Agrestic often?). Also, at the beginning of the current century, the apartment received unwanted visitors—as so many Gotham apartments do—but at that point, I was packing up to move on to my next adventure.

In any case, size or varmint or size of varmint hardly mattered in a place where that age-old real estate adage could not be more true—

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION

SoHo, in the day, was that perfect combination of quaintness and chicness, full of buildings that did not overpower you with their size even as they overwhelmed you with the style of their wares. It was not the poor bohemian artist’s home in the 1990s. It was trendy and touristy, sumptuous and luxurious, even as mom and pop shops abounded, and deals could be easily found. Videos, at the local rental place, cost $2.75. The guy pulled out your card—a piece of paper on which he put his rubber stamp with your due date—and then he put a matching stamp on your video, just as the old-school libraries did.  If we didn’t want to wait in line at Tomo sushi, another Japanese restaurant up the street offered 2 pieces for a dollar. Many places were cash-only. There was little of that jostle and frenzy that dominated midtown, and a genuine friendliness extended from Mary, the elderly woman who lived with her elbows in her windowsill in the front unit of my building, to the workers who always paused to say hello, to the well-dressed poodles that politely shared the sidewalk. Despite the area’s popularity, Sunday mornings offered the meditative calm of a vinyasa yoga class. SoHo was on the rise—Prada opened its flagship store, as did Apple; The SoHo Grand had just been built, and an old Astor building was converted into the The Mercer (Hotel and Kitchen); reservations for Blue Ribbon Sushi had to be made long in advance—but it was not quite as big-boxed out as it is today, complete with Old Navy, Crate and Barrel, and Bloomingdales. In short, it was perfect. And I was a part of it.

Ah, Gotham living below 14th. Dinner at Nobu, Cristal at Cipriani, an endless book supply from the Strand, food delivered from Gourmet Garage. There was no place like home.

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1001 Snow Days

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On the second of 1001 snow days, I tried to convince my children to watch TV or do something to keep out of my hair, but they are everywhere like Hashem (Hashem is here, Hashem is there, Hashem is truly everywhere! Up up! Down down! Right, left, and all around) (Have you ever noticed how Hashem is depicted, in this Jewish-nursery-school favorite, as a terrifying panopticon?).

Again, I want to be this kind of mom:

(You might think she’s a little kooky, but seriously, try her out on your kids. You’ll wish she was their mom. You’ll wish she was your mom. My kids danced their little tushies off watching this video until skulls collided–at which point, they bawled their little eggies out).

In any case, I’m more like this kind of mom:

(I also look and dress just like Betty Draper, by the bye)

I have managed to unpack about 2 dozen boxes, which is not terrible considering my constraints, but unfortunately it means there is a pile of boxes that is about my height ready to topple over onto Baby MoFo. In my search for a place for these boxes, I remember the string that dangled in my face the day before. What would the attic be filled with? Insulation? Mice? A West-Indies born spurned wife with wild hair and thick lips who likes to start fires? Fair-haired children committing incest and being poisoned, starved, drugged, and neglected because their recently-widowed mother, the half-niece (and secretly half-sister) of her dead husband is trying to get her father to leave her his money?

So this is how I discover Noëlle’s fairyland, pulling down the cord, climbing up the creaky ladder, and wandering into the dusty attic that Noëlle had transformed. The walls on either side are painted pinks and turquoises, violets and periwinkles; the window, on the other hand, is like the centerpiece of a fruit basket, surrounded by citrusy lemon and bright persimmon. On the blue-hued walls, a castle appears. Bands of metal form the golden outline of turrets and towers; and the castle walls are bejeweled, and as intricately decorated as a Turkish tile. Moroccan lanterns light the way, and ruby muslin gathers and hangs from the rafters. In one corner sit two dressers in royal purple and shades of gold, and in the other, a fierce, scowling, ceramic tiger with only one foot intact.

Oh, little house in this princely town of endless cultivated gardens and vast country estates, I knocked you for your damp basement (the kind House, MD would send his crew to investigate), your drafty walls, and your pinkish bathroom–


But THIS–

This is one pretty neat attic.

For a future snow day, with a nice scrubdown, this free and very local fairytale village will beat a day at Sesame Place ($56/person), CoCo Key Water Resort (about $32), the Lego store (infinity dollars) or even a local place that offers kids’ cooking classes and charges $30 to teach a kid to cook oatmeal.

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Day 1: Snow Day

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We know “our” house as soon as we see it: the monthly rent is actually less than The Scientist’s monthly paycheck. A steal! It is old, though it is not one of the magnificent 18th century estates with a manicured lawn and a noble fir Christmas wreath four or five feet high hanging from the hand-carved wood doors.

This is a typical single-family home around here:

Here’s another variety:

Insides are, you know, not bad, if you’re into that whole Gone with the Wind thing with the dual staircase:

Or if you really need to look at the world on your ceiling because you are too lazy to pick up an atlas or even open google maps

Or if you feel cramped without a 2000 square foot bathroom–

This town is for you!

Not to feel left out, we actually did go, when we were house-hunting, to look at a place that was almost estate-like . . . And it was grand–in its own special, mouse-droppings-laden, chinks-in-the-mortar way (free pets! our own American Kotel)! Each room featured a magnificent walk-in fireplace in lieu of a walk-in closet, and there was a 4-acre forest out back to chop down for firewood. And if we were so inclined, we could hire a woodcutter-guy to go live in the quaint servant cottage in the back (The Scientist is multi-talented, but he’s also Jewish. His idea of doing any kind of work for the house is picking up the phone and calling the handyman):

The servants’ quarters. Do you think they rent it separately? It’s probably more in our budget than the main house.

In the end . . . we decided to get something a bit cozier. So here we are in a little house probably meant for 2 or 3, with our close-knit family of 5 (in this space, how could we be anything else?) gathered round. The big boys share a bunk bed, and Baby MoFo’s room doubles as the guest bedroom. There are two cracked window panes that seem to draw out all the hot air I can’t imagine how much I am paying for, a basement that floods, and one tiny pinkish bathroom. For the moment, each of the 900 or so square feet of the house is pretty well covered in boxes. To be honest, the house could not feel smaller, as I look at my children, all of whom are home. And on me.

Welcome to the first of the many Snow Days of  2011.


The Scientist digging out our car (“See,” he will say when he reads this post. “I do housework all the time!”)

I try to convince the kids to go outside and build a snowman. But mostly, they want to stay in the house and trip over boxes. Apparently Jewish boys are as big on playing in the snow as Jewish men are on doing house repairs. Or so it would seem–we were chastised by LL’s teachers for sending him to school with snowpants (“If it’s so cold or snowy that we would need snowpants–we would stay inside!”). Of course, usually when it snows, the school just closes, as we soon discovered.

Unluckily for LL, Cool J, and Baby MoFo, this is not me:

But wouldn’t it be cool if I were? Because if you like Take 5, you might also like Take 12:

I wonder how many other takes there might be . . .


It is late in the day before everyone is occupied—the baby sleeping and the big boys playing with their Lego. I am walking into my bedroom, a knife in hand, ready to start cutting open the boxes, when a string hits me right in the eye. I look up. Above me is a door, an attic door. I wonder if the attic is stuffed with insulation or has room for me to put my boxes in. The job is not only not lucrative, it is also short-term. Sadly, I have to save my boxes for the not-so-distant future.

Little did I know what I would find there. A world. A fairy tale world. A place created by a woman who once lived as I do now, in this old house, with her small children, her greatest resource her imagination. This woman I immediately name Noëlle, after the many French Christmas stories left behind in the treasure trove that would be waiting for me, waiting until our next snow day (which was not too far off).


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