Merry … Easter?
Ya. I know its more traditional to send out these sort of greetings at Christmas time and this is certainly not Christmas time, but my letter carrier (and I suspect yours) looked awfully busy and definitely overloaded back then and, well I admit it, I was sort of busy too as you will learn if you take on the challenge to read my much longer than usual story of the Anderson family in 2004.
Then there was the modest health event that lead to a seeming endless series of uncomfortable medical tests, all showing nothing of concern but suggesting, for some reason, to my doctors that even more tests should be performed. After about two months and many awkward positions and diets, they now seem satisfied that in fact, I am in great health.
Then there was the health problem for my laptop. It began to take increasingly long to boot (is it really supposed to take over 30 minutes to display my background image?). When it finally displayed only strange characters on the screen and promptly froze, I realized that my early draft of the Anderson letter was trapped in my crashed hard drive. Since this had occurred about every 7 months for the last two years I choose not to replace the drive on the Toshiba one more time and so was temporarily computer challenged until I acquired the new Dell on which this is being written.
I apologize for the length of this year’s letter. I guess once I got going I just couldn’t lay down my pen – well actually step back from the keyboard. I got started and the weight (well mass for us physicists) of the story contributed so much momentum, I just couldn’t get it stopped until it was much too long. Don’t feel obligated to read it, but you should remember that I paid 37˘ to send it to you.
-- The Anderson Scribe
24 Hill St
Bernardsville, NJ 07924
The Anderson’s Take a House
The title should really be, The Anderson’s Take a Vacation, or A Travelogue of Whidbey Island, but somehow, unexpected, coincidental events intervened and their magnitude make the substitute title seem more appropriate.
I think it was early in September, that Jan and I began to think about definite plans for our annual vacation. Oh, there had been a few previous trips that had stolen most of Terry’s “vacation” days, little things like five days of hiking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, a very brief trip to Jan’s sister’s place in Tennessee, 5 days visiting Katherine in Aspen where she was working for the winter (along with a little skiing and hiking), but these did not really count as our Vacation. We’d put off our vacation this year until fall for a couple of reasons: partly because we could, Jan now being retired and so teaching schedules no longer template our year, and partly because of Katherine. She was home for the summer, after a winter in Aspen and a spring spent partly traveling and partly looking for a fall teaching position. Actually she spent the first half of the summer continuing to look for “the perfect” teaching position and then the last half trying to decide exactly when to move. We curtailed our own travel plans in order to enjoy her being home and anticipating the possibility of our moving services being in demand.
After looking for teaching opportunities in Chicago (to be near friends there and it being an interesting city), Katherine accepted an offer from the middle school in Hanover, NH, just a half mile from Dartmouth. I guess she didn’t mind the snow and cold winters up there as much as she once claimed (actually after taking up skiing and stuff she got to liking it). The offer was only for one year and for only one section of English but combing periods of teacher support to make a full-time job. But it’s a wonderful school and will be a very good learning experience. The teacher support sections also give her the opportunity to explore her interest in special education to see if she really wants to develop in that direction.
So by early September, Jan had offered all the moving assistance required and were back to our former, empty-nest condition and it was time for our Vacation. Now with the postponement, we should have been able to use the extra time to make wonderfully detailed plans for how to spend this precious vacation commodity, but in fact we hadn’t quite gotten to the point of deciding between England, Italy, Greece, or Nova Scotia. Somehow, going north seemed somewhat less attractive for a late September/early October sort of trip and it seemed that trips to Europe should be planned a little more in advance, and so we settled on a return to one of our favorite locations, the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington State. Many of our closest friends from our Walla Walla days have settled there on Whidbey Island: Dickson’s have had a second house there for a number of years, and Barnetts and McNiels both purchased retirement homes there earlier this year. So we could combine our favorite location with some of our closest friends – what more could one ask for in exchange for that precious vacation commodity?
So in late September we flew to Seattle and drove up to Whidbey, borrowing bedrooms from our friends. We spent the first few days renewing the old friendships, filling in the gaps in biographies, recovering from the jet lag, and then Jan began to reveal the real reason she’d pushed for this destination. Ever since we moved from the area, we’d been returning every couple of years to vacation on one of the San Juan Islands, do a little kayaking or biking, watch the whales and generally release the tensions built up living in New Jersey. Sometimes we’d time it to get in on one of the local festivals such as the San Juan Island Jazz Festival. We’d always have at least one meal at The Lighthouse in La Conner where they barbecue fresh salmon on an outdoor grill over alder wood, and browse through the wonderful gift shops while waiting for our reservation.
But sometime on every trip we’d drive around Whidbey and Fidalgo Islands looking for real estate signs: drooling over the views we could never afford, looking a little more seriously at the pitiful views and rundown houses more in our price range. We’d always said that this would be the perfect place to retire in that far distant time when we could afford to quit working and we’d begun to reluctantly notice that out bodies were nearing that time much faster than was our retirement account. But as we watched the prices go higher each time we looked at the real estate ads, our great fear was that we would not be able afford even the pitiful views with rundown houses by the time that nearingly-distant time occurred. And so in our more optimistic phases we’d dreamed of someway getting our “foot in the door”, buying some empty lot with a view that would in some magic way be better by the time we retired (maybe our failing eyesight wouldn’t notice oil refinery on the left or blur out that tree or house blocking the view of the water). Despite the high prices of view lots or the water rights and drainage issues that might mean we’d not be allowed to build on the lot we’d invested in, we kept dreaming. Or, we’d considered strategies like buying an old house on a wonderful view lot, one that had water and septic systems and then rebuilding at retirement time. But we never understood why there were no cheap old houses sited on wonderful view lots and priced cheaply. Anyway, we managed to entertain ourselves for a few hours on each trip with these pipe dreams.
What I discovered on our vacation trip this year was that Jan was getting more serious and intended that we spend more than a few hours looking this time. Those days of strolling sandy beaches, looking for star fish and jelly fish in the tidal basins, trying to guess where the whales would be this time and generally dissipating tensions, were going to be replaced by driving back roads of Whidbey, surfing real estate sites on the internet (it’s too cold to surf the waves in the San Juans anyway), and making appointments to meet real estate agents and walk through yet another house we were sure not to be able to afford. We soon had two agents that new our first names and bank balances and were sure that they knew the exact rundown shack with no view that we’d be willing to settle for. The first agent we spent time with basically supported my pessimism. It was hopeless on our resources. Didn’t we have a rich uncle with a bad heart that we could be very kind to? Fortunately the second agent was hungrier for a sale and managed to find a few more interesting possibilities.
There was the lot very near the shore on Penn Cove where the builder was just waiting for our down payment before assembling our dream home – as long as our bank account was as high as our dreams. The views across Penn Cove toward the village of Coupeville were indeed wonderful. There was a beach at least a mile long that had public access just across the road. It would be easy to launch my kayak from that beach and paddle across the cove to lunch at Captain Whidbey’s Inn or dine at The Oystercatcher in Coupeville. The only problem was that all the lots in the first row were taken and the maximum height permitted in the development meant that all the houses on lots that were available had more than half the cove hidden behind the roof of other houses and a narrow view between them.
Then there was the lot on Strawberry Point. Wonderful view of the Skagit Bay. Views of Mount Baker and other peaks in the northern Cascades on those too rare clear days. The bank was high but it was waterfront. There was a trail down to a very small beach that would be shared by the 6 lots in the development. A couple of tall evergreens intruded into the view but mostly one looked under them. They could not be cut since they’d been designated as eagle habitat but if we could see eagles occasionally it would go a long way in making up for any loss in water view. But, why is there always a but, the one remaining lot was oddly shaped. The required setbacks from the road, the drainage ditch, the sides of the wedge shaped lot meant that the allowed footprint was small. A two story house could still have the square feet we thought we could afford, but the real problem was that the price of the lot was about what we’d been setting as our upper limit for a lot and house. We’d have to build a zero square foot house and that was not allowed by the Covenants and Restrictions.
Then there was the older house on the ocean side of the island. Pretty good view and control of all the land that could block views in the future. The house had character, needed a little work but could be made into something quite interesting. Even a subdividable lot so we could sell part of it to help with costs of remodeling the house. The problem was that it was priced at about what it should be after fixing it up. Even with selling the extra lot it would be hard for us to put much into improvements. And we could not see any way to put a house on the extra lot that would have any view itself without taking a lot of ours. Ok, on to the next hopeless case.
For years we looked for “For Sale” signs on both Fidalgo and Whidbey Islands, but since Fidalgo had a bridge to the mainland, better shopping in Anacortes, and the ferry to the other San Juan Islands and Victoria, prices on Fidalgo increased more rapidly. Microsoft millionaires grabbed all the desirable and even interesting properties. Several years ago we quit even bothering to look on Fidalgo.
The southern end of Whidbey also had the Mukilteo Ferry to Everett and so quicker access to Seattle. It’s even possible to live on south Whidbey and commute to jobs in Everett or north Seattle and so prices at the south end of Whidbey also went up. So we concentrated our interest on view property in the north half of Whidbey. Land inland, with no water view, is available at very reasonable prices, but who wants to live on an island and not have a water view – all the disadvantages with no advantages. Waterfront would be nice, with the advantages of launching ones kayak at anytime without transporting it by car or asking anyone’s permission or deciding to go for a walk along the shore at a moment’s whim, but storms that send water crashing into the side of your house is a definite wet blanket. And those Tsunami warning signs along the road cast an ominous mood over ones peace of mind. High bank waterfront property avoids the waves, but when the high bank is 50 feet or so, you have to ask how owning that shore you can see but can’t get to without driving a mile or so and walking back along the beach, is any real advantage. And there are all those concerns about bank erosion. Having a high bank house abruptly become a sea level house due to bank erosion would be a real downer. Owning a house on a view lot higher on a hill, back from the shore, but with a steep enough slope that no other houses or trees on other people’s property could block your view sounded like better sleep on stormy nights.
Then there was the choice between ocean-side and sound-side. The sound was the narrow channel between Whidbey and the mainland, rarely more than a mile or two wide, variously referred to as Puget Sound, Saratoga Passage or Skagit Bay depending on the part of the island, Skagit at the north end of the island. The ocean side looked into the Strait of San Juan de Fuca, saw most of the big ships going north out of Seattle, saw the occasional whale, got the distant views including the Olympic Mountains on a clear day or the glow of Victoria, got the big waves coming in out of the Pacific but also got the big winds and storms face on. The sound side got quieter water, saw smaller boats going by, got great views of sparkling lights across the water from opposing shores, got views of Mt Baker and the northern Cascade range, if lucky enough to have a northeast view, got milder winds and less affect from storms, and generally had less expensive view properties. We figured that sound-side properties had the greater chance of matching our budget or at least exceeding it by less.
Oak Harbor has all the services one needs, even Walmart, Kmart, Safeway and soon Home Depot and a nice little marina. A little south of Oak Harbor is the more interesting village of Coupeville with great restaurants and little shops and great views into Penn Cove. But we were not interested in property in town. We kept looking for those more rural properties that we could someway afford.
While driving to see one property on Admiralty Bay that our helpful agent had told us about, we happened to see a “For Sale” sign for a house she hadn’t told us about. Thinking that perhaps it had just gone on the market and we could get a great deal before they found out it was worth more, we stopped to look. Right on the beach, you walked out of the house and right onto the pebbly beach not 30 feet from the high tide line, with only a few driftwood logs separating you from the water. Surely they’d stop any ole tsunami. The house wasn’t much. Looked like it was made of plywood set on 2x4 skids setting on pebbles. Maybe we could just tow it away when we heard a tsunami warning. It would be perfect. We should be able to get it cheap, use it for vacations and then tear it down (or tow it out into the water and sink it) and build a real house when we were ready to retire. Should be able to get it for $100,000 or so. We called the agent to ask why she’d not mentioned it. It had to be below our stretch-price limit. Wrong! $450,000! Evidently the lot was worth $425,000, because the house couldn’t be worth more than $25,000.
By half-way through our week of vacation, we’d about given up. Wasn’t going to work this trip. Maybe I’d get in some of that beach strolling and general tension dissipation after all. Then we noticed two houses on the list in an area we’d not driven through yet. We drove by. Both were on a hillside overlooking Dugualla Bay, a sound-side inlet near the north end of the island. One house was ok, but the view of the water was somewhat cut-off by the house below it. But the other house looked great. Wonderful, unobstructed 180-degree views of the bay. Hillside steep enough that no trees or other houses could ever block the view. A quarter of a mile back from the water but up 200 feet. No tsunamis could make it this high and they never threatened the sound side anyway. And the asking price was well below our stretch-limit, in fact a nearly comfortable price. Yes, the agent could meet us in a couple of hours to show it to us. The house was wonderful too. Only about 15 years old, recently repainted, a little over 2000 square feet – plenty for us and significantly larger than our New Jersey home. Before we walked out of the house we’d told the agent that we wanted to make an offer.
The house was being sold by a navy pilot who was being transferred to Texas, in fact already on his way driving to Texas and anxious to sell quickly. Oh did I forget to mention that Whidbey Island is also home to the Whidbey Island Naval Air Station – a training facility for electronic surveillance planes. The one drawback to the Dugualla Bay area was that it is in the flight path for the Air Station’s air field. Not a lot of traffic but when they do fly it is low over the bay. That was probably one reason the house was priced so reasonably. But the house was also less than half a mile from the Barnett’s house. We’d spent lots of time at their house this trip including a couple of nights, heard the planes and thought we could live with the occasional noise for a view we could afford. We talked to others living in the area including the neighbors of the house and they all said, “what planes? Oh, you don’t even notice them after a few months.” We were still happy with making an offer on the house.
The agent suggested that since the owner was anxious to sell and his asking price was quite a bit more than he’d bought it for only 15 months earlier (Oh, the resources these agents have) that we should offer a little less and see if he’d take it. He didn’t but countered with a new offer closer to ours than to his original asking price. We accepted.
Oh dear, what had we done? All these years looking, and this trip we’d only been on the island four days and we’d bought a house. How were we going to do everything necessary and fly home in only 4 more days? Again, wonderful agent to the rescue. We needed a mortgage. We planned to reduce the mortgage, by converting a 401K account into a down payment – real estate appreciation here was certain to out pace the mutual funds and bonds in the 401K, but we still needed some mortgage. She got us an appointment at a local bank and we had a mortgage approved at a very attractive interest rate before the end of the day. She told us that everything else could be done from New Jersey. With friends living nearby and such a helpful agent, we believed her, met the neighbors, made a few other arrangements and flew home. So much for dissipating tension – we’d just added a whole new source of tension.
Jan already had tickets to visit her sister and parents in Tennessee just about the time we’d need to sign papers. How could we pull off a closing, on a house and title company in Washington, a seller in Texas, and buyers in New Jersey and Tennessee?
We did exchange quite a few other phone calls and emails with our real estate agent, the home inspector, insurance agents, etc. but less than three weeks later we closed on the house. It would have been even faster, but the house inspector uncovered a few little items like that fact that the roof was within a year of the end of its life. Having the seller fix these, delayed things about a week. A power of attorney let me do all the signing to reduce the number of states involved, but signing my name, her name and adding all that notation about signing under a power of attorney made me write about four times as much as usual on at least 100 pages!
And so to make a long story short – well I guess it is much too late for that, so just to summarize: We are now the proud owners of a wonderful vacation and eventual retirement home, with a fantastic view, including, we discovered after we’d made an offer, of Mt Baker and other peaks in the northern Cascades. In the exact area we wanted it in, near several of our closest friends, easy access to the water to launch Terry’s kayak (well he still has to buy one to keep on the west coast but that won’t be long). The only problems are that 3000 mile plane ride to get between our two houses and figuring out how many weeks of the year we can really spend there. And retirement, did we forget that Terry will probably not retire for another 8-10 years? Maybe we should have thought of that before we bought a house so early and so far away. Maybe he can find the perfect job that will let him work from Whidbey by Internet.
We started out by Jan flying back in November to buy a few things like beds and haunting thrift shops to find enough kitchen stuff and inexpensive furniture to make the place livable. Then we flew back for Christmas. We managed 10 days to initiate the house. Katherine was able to join us for part of the time. We were also able to spend more time with our dear friends here and thank them for all the have done to help us pull this off: accepting boxes we shipped out, keeping an eye on the empty house and generally providing support while we learn to be bicoastal.
Over all, quite a year, but a great one.
Next year I’ll tell you about our endless period of cohabitation with two Italian remodelers (one plumber and one tiler) who claim that they are remodeling our bathroom but seem rather to be slowly destroying other parts of our house.