House hunting stinks

“It smells nice and fresh in here,” I remarked to our long-suffering realtor, who’d ushered my infant son and me down into the tiny house’s semifinished rec room.

In fact, whatever industrial-grade air freshener the sellers were using was so intense my eyes began to itch. The baby’s blanket reeked of it for hours afterward.

“That’s usually a sign they’re trying to cover up some kind of odor,” our realtor noted. And then I remembered that the owners had added an unusual clause to their online listing, requesting extra lead time before a showing.

At best, I figured the disguised smell was what my husband calls “deep dog”—years of ground-in canine funk that nonetheless clocks a far second behind the absolutely intractable stench of cat pee. At worst, it could be resale-inhibiting mold. (Or rotting corpses bricked into the fireplace, I suppose—although the swing set in the back yard and the eyelet curtains covering the kitchen windows didn’t immediately suggest Mafia activity or Jeffrey Dahmer wannabes.)

Partially refinished rec rooms can smell like a lot of things. Mostly, though, they smell like what they are—uppity basements. We wondered why the nice-looking, rehabbed cottage had been on the market so long. It was actually affordable—unusual for the fashionable neighborhood in which it sat. Well, the third “bedroom” was, of course, the finished basement. Nice new carpet, cute little bathroom. But the unfinished portion, lurking just beyond the presentable half like an embarrassing feral child, was not so easily forgotten. From it, the usual basement bouquet—an acrid amalgam of fuel and damp—leaked into the third bedroom. We’d have to keep our clothes upstairs, I decided. But where? I pictured an old-fashioned armoire taking the place of a dining-room table in the eat-in kitchen.

These days, this is what you get around here for under $200,000 if you need more than two bedrooms and 900 square feet. We’ve learned that the “Three C’s”—“cozy,” “cute” and “convenient, one-level living”—all mean claustrophobically tiny. (The fourth “C,” phonetically speaking, is “quaint.”)

One ad claimed that only “cosmetic updating” was needed to restore an arts-and-crafts home to full glory. We did a drive-by and met the sellers’ young daughter (they apparently lived next door). “There’s no walls,” she informed us. “You mean no doors?” we suggested gently. “There aren’t any walls,” she repeated, lest we misunderstand.

Talk about your open floor plan.

Clearly, we waited way too long to do this. Our own odd little family—comprising me, my husband, our baby and my twin sister, whom I’ve lived with for 36 years and couldn’t give up after I married—has been house hunting for only a year-and-a-half. But I’ve been in Asheville since the summer of 1992 and can remember when palatial Montford homes sold for less than Hummers do today. I never felt the itch to buy until I was a Mrs., however.

Idleness became urgency when our son was conceived only 90 days after the ceremony. Now closing in on seven months old, he is officially “off the charts” in weight and head size, a round little snowman of a child who’s getting bigger every minute. While I love co-sleeping—that’s modern parent-speak for keeping the baby in bed with you—we’ve begun to realize that this ever-expanding fellow may need his own room at some point.

Since our search began in earnest, we’ve lost two contracts (I’ll spare you the details) and learned a good bit. We’ve argued about odors (“I can live with the smell of the Canton paper mill for a $150,000 house with 2,000 square feet,” I insisted in a moment of weakness) and have twice been mistaken for crack buyers. I don’t blame the pushers: You’d have to be on crack not to realize in what kind of neighborhood you might find a “gorgeously restored” three-bedroom bungalow in the $120,000 range.

Sometimes you don’t have to even darken the doorstep of an “investor’s dream” to know why the price is so low—it becomes apparent as soon as you’ve closed the car door. One promising farmhouse was sandwiched between a pair of yards respectively featuring a snarling pit bull and a rottweiler that strained at the end of too-short chains, just waiting. At a weekend open house, the broker on duty had worked himself into a froth, talking auctioneer-fast in hopes that the dispirited buyers might not notice that the house sat so close to the highway it probably needed passing-lane stripes painted on its roof to bring it up to code. And although yet another house—a certain darling little rancher whose retro-hip owner had embraced its Brady Bunch era aesthetic—truly captured our hearts despite the mere inches separating it from its neighbors, somehow we couldn’t get past the mysterious, sad moans issuing from the house next door.

At this writing, we’ve scheduled a second showing of a place I feel has real potential. It’s a half-restored old home with a strange layout, bonus rooms scattered about like so many real-estate agents’ business cards, and the only two proper bedrooms leading one into the other like a Manhattan railroad flat. It smells a little catty. There’s a new dishwasher, but I wouldn’t stand in front of the ancient microwave unless I needed my teeth X-rayed.

Still, the house’s spaciousness is inviting—who knows how much bigger the baby may grow?—and there’s a mountain view, the better to impress out-of-town friends. Especially the San Francisco couple we know who are moving here because Asheville real estate is such a bargain. (Naturally, they haven’t found jobs yet.)

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