Home, sweet home

We’ve come to think of owning a home as a quintessential part of the American dream. As Asheville Community Development Director Charlotte Caplan explained to a gathering of new homeowners on June 10: “Owning a home is not like owning an object. It makes you part of something. You belong to this place.”

That’s a feeling the Lee family now understands.

“Sometimes, I feel like a slave to our home,” confesses first-time homeowner Tara Lee, laughing. This past November, she and husband Johnny snagged an inexpensive cottage near UNCA — a fixer-upper that’s become a work in progress. As we talk one afternoon, their toddler son’s toys are piled up on the front porch: Johnny’s summer project is refinishing the floor in his son’s bedroom. “We come home, after working all day, and there’s always something to do,” observes Tara.

Is it worth it?

She doesn’t hesitate a moment before exclaiming, with a hearty smile, “Yes!”

“It’s great to have a fixer-upper,” says Johnny, who’s a bit more enthusiastic about the renovation work. “You can definitely find better deals that way, and you can put your own touches on [the house]. But be realistic, especially if you both work full time — and most especially if you have a child.”

Tara took the Afffordable Housing Coalition’s class for prospective homebuyers (see main story) in February of 1999 — inspired, she says, by wanting a home for Keean, who was then a month old. Using a combination of state grants and private funds from such organizations as the Asheville Board of Realtors and the Mortgage Bankers Association, the AHC offers a program to help low- and moderate-income homebuyers save for their down payment: For every dollar you save, the AHC pitches in $2, Tara explains, adding, “You have to take the homebuyer class first, though.” As for the class, she says, “It was great to have someone speaking in layman’s terms and explaining what we’d have to do.”

At home, Johnny reviewed the brochures, manuals and worksheets, figuring out how much they could afford to pay. He stresses the importance of getting copies of your credit report and taking steps to address any problems: Tara’s report, for instance, incorrectly listed a debt that had been paid off six years before. “It takes so long to clear up a mistake, even if it’s not yours,” he notes.

Johnny also observes that being a moderate-income homebuyer takes some extra legwork — plus, perhaps, a little luck. They heard from a friend that a home near Chatham Road was about to go on the market; driving by it after work one night, they decided it was perfect — good location, a quiet street, a big yard. They contacted the owner, an older woman, and struck a deal before the house was even advertised.

Then they discovered that the home needed $7,000 worth of work before city inspectors would let them move in. “Fortunately, we had developed a good relationship with the seller, who had raised a family here for 25 years and was glad to have a new family moving in,” says Johnny. The seller took care of the needed repairs, and they moved in this past November.

He adds another caution for first-time buyers, especially those hoping to find a fixer-upper. “Go with [your home inspector], and have him point everything out to you.” The Lees, for example, discovered lead paint in some parts of the house and in the yard, thanks to free testing available through UNCA. Before they moved in, however, Tara removed much of the paint so it would pose no danger to their young son.

Asheville resident Kyla Palmer (see main story) had the same problem in her new home — and paying a private contractor to do the cleanup would have cost almost $20,000. “I did it myself,” she says, noting that discovering the lead-paint problem early in her negotiations enabled her to get the price of the house reduced.

But Palmer does report some frustration with the overall process of securing a city-sponsored rehab loan For weeks, permits for her home improvements seemed bogged down in the city inspectors’ offices, she complains. And getting a city rehab loan also proved long and tedious. “It wasn’t hard, just slow,” she remarks. As a result, it will probably be the end of the summer before she can move into her house, even though she closed on it back in December.

Showing some of the persistence that makes for a successful first-time homebuyer, however, Palmer comments: “When I was in nursing school, I said to myself, ‘As soon as I get gainful employment, I’m going to get a house.’ I took that class, and I had my little manual, and I did most of the legwork — and I got a house.” Thinking about the four-bedroom residence her family will soon call home, she laughs and says: “My kids have already picked their rooms. Did I get the best room? No, I think I got bumped out of that one.”

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