As I mentioned in my last post, 2020 is shaping up to be a year of setting big goals and going after them. But first, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a big event from 2019 that will be enabling a hopefully stellar 2020 and beyond.
We sold the house!
Actually, we sold the house three times. Let me back up. In August 2018, I started a new job that involved commuting to a different building “just” three additional miles above my current commute, which wound up putting the total commute to nearly two hours a day. Within a week, I told Elliott that this wouldn’t work. Either I needed a new job, or we needed to move. I realize that some people deal with longer commutes than this, but that’s not me. I value the environment and efficiency and spending time outdoors, and the thought of spending so much time in a car was too much cognitive dissonance. (And yes, I looked into public transportation or biking, but it would have been 3-4 hours of commuting a day, including some dodgy roads and/or buses that only run twice an hour.)
Being a good innovator, I laid out the hypothesis (shorter commute = happier KT) and brainstormed the different ways to test it. We skipped the most minimal test (living at a hotel or house sitting) since we have cats (and bikes!), and opted instead for renting an apartment in Arlington and renting out our house via AirBnB. This way, if the apartment life seemed too small or it really was the job that was causing unhappiness and not the commute, we could fairly easily revert back to the status quo.
Fast forward to nine months later. We love our apartment in Arlington, which is close to a grocery store, pool, bike path, both of our jobs, library, and friends. Living in a smaller space has proven to be less stressful (less to clean!) and seeing each other more often has been good for the relationship (phew). All good there. Renting out the house, however, was a mixed bag at best. To save money, we first tried managing the rental ourselves, but quickly realized that driving across town to do several loads of laundry and wash bathrooms several times a week defeated the purpose of moving away. We then hired cleaners but tried managing the rental ourselves. Yikes. While some guests were easy to work with, others didn’t leave until well after check-out time (we almost had to call the police to cite them for trespassing), called us at all hours of the night because they couldn’t figure out how to use an appliance, or set the heat to 90 degrees and opened windows in the winter. We wound up hiring a property manager to handle all of this, which means the income just broke even with the mortgage, utilities, etc. As the final straw, DC passed restrictions on using AirBnB, so in the summer, we decided to put the house on the market.
I need to take a quick detour here. Remember January 2017? It was a time of great uncertainty, to say the least. Adding to that stress, we received a phone call from a neighbor, informing us that the properties behind our houses (containing old growth forest, thus giving our neighborhood an amazing character and degree of privacy) actually had been mislabeled all these years. They were not part of the National Park Service property; they were private property–zoned as commercial–that was in tax arrears and about to go up for auction. In other words, a developer could buy the land behind our houses, take down all the trees, and put up a gas station, dry cleaner, etc. Bye bye, secluded residential area! This was quite upsetting, so we did some research. Sure enough, the property was set to go on sale through the city in March. So two months later, Elliott and I went to the discount tax auction, held up the paddle, and walked away with the $250,000 property for just $10,000.
Asterisk. The property was valued at over $200k, but also owed about the same amount in taxes. The city was so eager to clean the title, they started the bidding at $10k and said the winner would not have to pay the back taxes. However. Think for a moment. Why would a property be so far behind on taxes? Could it be because no one had owned it for quite some time? Because the zoning was faulty? Indeed! Indeed it was! Long story short, it took over two years to finally clean the title. We were assigned to a judge who insisted that we track down any potential heirs to the property dating back to the Civil War and prove that they didn’t want it. Seriously. By the time the lawyers had finished serving all the papers and proving that absolutely no one wanted the property (as they would also have to pay the taxes), the original judge had retired and the new judge said, “Wow, that was way too much work; you didn’t have to do all that.” Sigh. In July 2019, the new judge ruled in our favor, and the land would be ours–to sell along with the house.
Ok, back to the house sale. Still with me? We put the house on the market in early August, and got an offer right away. Fantastic! Phew, that was easy! Except then he pulled out a few days later. He had been concerned that the hill would erode, so brought in a structural engineer, who said he couldn’t guarantee the hill wouldn’t erode (in the 80 years the house has been on the hill without issues, but hey maybe?). So back on the market it went. It sold again a few weeks later, but then this person pulled out because he didn’t like the deck. The deck was ~10 square feet and easily replaceable, mind you. Ok, fine. Back on the market. Thankfully, the third time was the charm. This woman loved the house and even asked to keep some of the furniture Elliott had built for it, as well as the historic neighborhood map we had framed for the library. We were thrilled the house would be going to someone who would love it as much as we had.
But the DC government had other plans. Even though the judge had ruled in our favor in July, we still didn’t have the deed to the property. That took until December. First, I had to pay all the back taxes and penalties that had accrued between January 2017 and December 2019 (even though I didn’t actually own the property at that time and had not received a bill, sigh). Then I had to wait another few weeks because the office issuing the deeds was short staffed. We missed one closing date, then two. It was nearly Christmas, and the buyer was getting nervous. We were getting nervous. Our lawyers threatened to sue the city for damages. Suddenly, the deed appeared. A Christmas miracle! We rushed it over to the title company, who set the closing date for 9 AM on Christmas Eve.
There was only one problem with that: we would be out of the country. We had told the title company this information several times and had asked to sign the paperwork early. No reply. Then they set the closing date with the buyer without first checking with us. Lovely. Luckily, we had an amazing realtor in our corner. She got the title company to send in a lawyer over the weekend to prepare the paperwork. Elliott and I were driving to Canada when the papers arrived via email. We then had to find a notary in rural Pennsylvania who was open the Saturday afternoon before Christmas. Good times. And we did–it was a notary + gun registration + fishing license shop in Altoona. It took about two hours, but we signed and notarized all the documents, scanned them, emailed them to the realtor and title company, then hustled over to the Staples in town to get it into the UPS bin before the last pickup of the day. (Side note, they actually didn’t pick up until Monday but luckily the scanned copy was sufficient.)
We continued on our way to Canada, bracing ourselves for something else to go wrong, until we got a text from the realtor on Christmas Eve that the buyer had signed her part and the house had officially closed. What a relief! We were driving between Toronto and Ottawa at the time, so used the AllTrails app to find a nice place to go for a celebratory hike. Part two of the celebration came a few days later, when the money was deposited in the bank account.
Which takes me to the original purpose of this blog post. Why is 2020 the year of big goals? For the first time in years, there are no more lawyer bills for $20,000 arriving at surprise intervals, or paying mortgage + rent, or having to replace a dishwasher, or generally worrying about when this uncertainty would end. Answer: December 2019. We’re done. So now if there’s an amazing deal on a flight to somewhere I’ve always wanted to go, or I get offered an incredible job that doesn’t come with government stability, or we decide to just pick up and start somewhere new–that’s all possible. And that’s a wonderful feeling.
What would you do if you had a safety net?