I alluded to this in my last post, but this is big.
This is really big.
This actually would have been on my bucket list if I had done one in a traditional way — that is, write things down before doing them.
When I lived in Boston, I gained an incredible appreciation for history, and along with that, an appreciation for historical homes. I was fortunate that my job provided me access to some of the most amazing abodes — places that had seen generations of history unfold before them. I particularly loved visiting homes that had previously been gathering spots for community members, speakeasies, one-room schoolhouses, or churches. There’s something about the quirkiness of those homes that appeals to me — it’s the ultimate form of recycling, and it can make for a very magical dwelling.
This may sound über hippie-dippy, but I like buildings that have souls. I can understand the appeal of a newer house, its gorgeous amenities, spacious rooms and well-designed floorplans. But I could never see myself owning a place like that. For me, it’s the difference between walking into Super Walmart and visiting a ma-and-pop shop on Main Street. Walmart may have lower prices, better selection and less dust, but you can tell ma and pop built their store with sweat, tears and love — it feels good to purchase something from a place like that.
For many years, I’ve not-so-secretly wished that we could buy a home that had that kind of magic. When Scott and I had conversations about what we wanted in a dream home, I would eventually bring up my desire to live in a converted church or schoolhouse.
It was never, ever something that I imagined could become a reality. It felt as far away as the idea of winning the lottery or visiting the moon. Mainly because there aren’t a lot of houses like that, and the idea that one would be available in a place we liked and at a time when we were ready for it seemed totally impossible.
I can’t really remember exactly how it all started. I think I may have been poking around a real estate app on my ipad one night. Or maybe a friend mentioned it to me. But regardless, I first saw the house back in early January. I sent the listing to Scott, a few friends, and my parents, all of whom were well-aware of my dream. Scott and I even had a conversation that night about how great it looked — but sadly, it was priced far over our budget. I all but forgot about it.
Five months later, in early May, I got an email from a friend who was spending a month in Europe — she was looking at real estate ads one night.
“Hey – did you see that the price dropped on that church house?”
The price dropped.
The price dropped!
Then another friend told me she saw an open house sign in the yard for the following Sunday.
That Saturday night was our five-year wedding anniversary. Scott and I got dressed up and went downtown for dinner — and over our meal, I asked him if he remembered looking online at the church house in January. He did. I said I planned to drop by the open house the following morning. He had to work, but Claudia (the friend who had seen the open house sign) would meet me there. “I’m sure there’s something wrong with it — but I just want to see the inside.”
The next morning, I met Claudia and we went to the house. I swear, I was trying to find everything wrong with this place. The yard was too small, it was close to the road, the interior was dated, the heating situation (a coal stove) was scary.
But the truth was, it felt right. And none of the things I tried to find wrong really mattered. The yard is the right size for what two people with lives can reasonably handle, and it backs to a state forest – meaning we can take advantage of vast quantities of protected land without needing to care for it. There is literally a hiking trail 25 yards from our front door. The road isn’t that busy, except during commute times. The dated interior was a reason the house was affordable, and I love home improvement projects (cosmetic ones, anyway). I was quite sure we were smart enough to eventually figure out the stove.
And most importantly, it had been a church. A CHURCH! MY DREAM!
At home, I told Scott about it, and suggested we go back to see it together. We had a very relaxed attitude about it — if someone else made an offer before we were convinced we wanted it, then it wasn’t meant to be. We have seen too many friends let emotions drive their home-buying process, leading them to pay too much or compromise on things that had previously been non-negotiable. We didn’t want to start home-ownership filled with resentment or regret.
Over the course of 3 weeks, we went back to the house a few times. We did a ton of research. We did some internet stalking. Eventually, we made an offer.
The entire home-negotiation experience is a stressful, frustrating and anxiety-ridden game. For several days, we went back and forth with the sellers, and we lived and breathed by every email in our inbox, allowing waves of adrenaline to surge through us every time our realtor’s name popped up as the sender of a message. Eventually we hit our magic number — the price we had said at the beginning we wouldn’t go beyond. At that point, we were only a few thousand dollars away from the sellers’ offer. But… we were at the price we promised ourselves we wouldn’t exceed.
We did what we knew we had to do to stay true to ourselves: we walked away. And because we celebrate big moments with cheesecake, we bought a cheesecake.
Although I’m sure others thought we were idiots for getting so close and then letting it go, we were proud of ourselves.
We were also sad. And angry. We went through all the stages of grief. To cope, we tried to focus on all the downsides of the house. Its age. The crazy wallpaper. The coal stove.
A few days passed. Then a week. We let it go.
And that’s when the sellers of the church house decided to come back to us, offering to take us up on our last offer. Even our realtor seemed surprised by the turn of events.
Having emotionally detached ourselves from the house, we returned to see it one last time. We took videos to show our families. We invited my brother and his wife to look at it with us. And then we signed the papers and it was a done deal.
Well, it was not a done deal. Buying a house takes a ridiculous amount of time and energy, and even though millions of people do it, it felt at times like this was the first time anyone had ever gone through the process. The bank did stupid things, the appraiser did stupid things, the sellers ran into unforeseen challenges… and every problem delayed our closing by another week. Our apartment lease ended and it appeared for a while that we might be homeless.
But eventually it all came together.
We own a house. We own a CHURCH HOUSE.
I felt strongly that we needed to think about the very first things to move into the house. I didn’t want our first trip inside to be with a box of socks or a blender. Our first carload was simply ourselves, the two cats, and the love letters we wrote to one another the night before our wedding, locked in a wooden box that we’ll open on our 10th anniversary. These are our most precious belongings, and their arrival at the new house was a symbolic way for us to begin this new chapter.
While that anecdote sounds lovely and romantic and charming, make no mistake about it: the rest of the move was awful and incredibly exhausting. But the worst parts are over, and I will say that though some of the things we have done have not been particularly fun (putting safety cables in the garage door springs comes to mind – a job that should have taken 20 minutes and instead took half a day), it’s been a joy to work side by side with my better half, figuring it all out. We’re definitely in the honeymoon period with this house, and in some ways, we’re in a honeymoon period in our marriage again, too. That’s kind of awesome.
We also bought another celebratory cheesecake, although I didn’t decorate this one because we got it at the end of moving day and we were so hungry we needed to get it into our bellies as quickly as possible.
As for the home itself, we definitely want to spend some time piecing together its history. From what we have researched, we know that it was built in 1836 and was called the Danby Methodist Episcopal Church. Almost 100 years later, the church closed and the building was turned into a community center. Then, in 1958, a 36-year-old named George Peter, who had a fondness for the church because he had attended services and Sunday school there, bought the property and converted it into a home. We’re only the third private homeowners, which is kind of amazing. It’s also kind of a local landmark, at least according to this tourist brochure describing historical sites in Danby.
Apparently, one of the libraries at Cornell has some historical documents related to the church’s construction, as well as former church membership lists. While we may not make it there in the near future, it’s definitely on the list for the long term… on a freezing, snowy January weekend perhaps.
I can’t end this post without thanking the many people who helped make this dream a reality — not least of which are our parents, who have been incredibly supportive throughout this whole process. Our dads are also being put to work, helping us think through our endless DIY projects. Steve and Liz did so much to help us move, from carrying huge boxes to delivering pizza on moving day. I also have to thank my friend Wendy for telling me about the drop in price, and Claudia for accompanying me to the open house. Other friends and colleagues gave us boxes, advice and tools — along with emotional support during this roller coaster of a summer.
It takes a village to buy a church house, I suppose. We’re lucky to have a superb one.