Firehouse Exterior
Blog, Our Journey

The Low End of the Market is an Ugly Place to Be

If you’re reading this post without benefit(?) of some of the older posts on this blog, you might not know that my husband Brian and I plan to move to New Hampshire. The reasons for this are threefold: a better economic climate, a saner political climate, and an actual four-seasons climate. One replete with fresh mountain air, drop-dead gorgeous scenery and loads of things to do, even in the winter.

So what gives, you might be asking. Why am I all talk and no U-Haul? Well, like a bad relationship, it’s complicated. It all boils down to being too independent but (alas) not independently wealthy.

Independence is kind of a big deal

Out of the economic wreckage that was 2009, my husband managed to build a successful business in an inadequately served but highly regulated industry (firearms repair). Before founding the business he worked in a corporate environment, in an industry he came to loathe, because that’s what you do when you have kids and bills.

Unless that industry dies. Then, if you’re like my hubby, you say “F*ck it – I’m going to do what I want.” And since 2009, he has.

Regulation + business ≠ rich

For years Brian’s shop has kept a roof over our heads and paid the bills. But since it has to support the equivalent of two households with its overhead, we can’t get ahead. Unlike Douglas County, Georgia, our current home, in New Hampshire we found many areas where we would be free to combine our residence and the business.

So, yay. We can move to New Hampshire and reopen the business there, and end our eight-year hiatus from 401k contributions. Maybe buy health insurance, even!

Except…

Property in NH is mostly expensive

Not a complete deal-breaker, but we did have an almost impossible budget to work with given what we’d need to both live and work on a property. We regularly looked at property online, a mostly discouraging exercise.

When we visited New Hampshire last June, our friend Eric took us on a tour of Coös County (pronounced KO-us), a mostly beautiful and far more affordable area in the northern part of the state. We stopped in Berlin (pronounced BER-lin since Hitler), a small city that straddles the beautiful Androscoggin River and is severely economically depressed compared to the rest of the state.

Depression has a silver lining

One upside of Berlin’s economic woes is extremely low real estate prices. On our tour we met a man who’d recently purchased a house for a price that was somewhere in the low $20s. It definitely needed work and was a deal even in Berlin, but we were encouraged by what we found when we started looking at Berlin. Well, sort of.

Since the town was wedged into a river valley, the lots were mostly small. We were okay with small, but we had to be able to fit a shop on the property, and that cut out a lot of bargains.

Further limiting was that Berlin is a city – not a town – a fairly significant distinction in New England if you prefer small, neighborly and limited government. We do. That distinction also comes into play if you want to do something that “citified” places like to control with zoning. Yep – that’s us again. But if we could just get to New Hampshire we could probably figure the rest out, and a place in Berlin was certainly more attainable compared to other areas we looked at.

Of course, there was the matter of how we’d attract a reasonable customer base in Berlin, NH…

The coolest live/work space ever

Firehouse ExteriorOne evening, not long after returning from our New Hampshire vacation, I found an oddball property – a 1920s-era firehouse – during one of my way-too-frequent real estate listing searches. I showed the listing to Brian just because it was so cool, but I think we both took about 30 seconds to imagine ourselves in the potentially awesome old firehouse and then moved on.

The building was really pricey for Berlin – about $75K – and the second-floor residence had been renovated by someone that held on to a penchant for ’80s-era decor well into the ’90s. Dark green fake marble laminate countertops, anyone?

But the next morning, Brian woke up with the firehouse on his mind. “You know,” he said, “three-phase power…” (a real estate listing detail I had failed to appreciate) “…would be really nice to have.”

Lower level of the firehouse. Full of junk.The lower level of the firehouse, where fire trucks once parked, had been used as a metal refinishing shop so it could easily be transformed into a shop for Brian. Not that he needed anything fancy, but the more I thought about the firehouse the more ideal the space seemed. And, of course, it had three-phase power!

The price was crazy-high, though – even for an über cool building like a firehouse. And the property taxes in Berlin – a city that had never changed its spending habits despite losing the vast majority of its economy – would be outrageous on a $75K property (actually, it was being taxed at $114K). Further, absolutely nothing in the area had sold for anything approaching the price of the firehouse. Cool or not, it would be foolish to pay the asking price.

Other real estate shoppers must have had the same realizations, because the property had been on the market some five or six years before we stumbled across it. But since we were bringing in a business rather than having to find work around Berlin, maybe it could work for us if the sellers got serious about unloading it and dropped the price. I saved the listing so that I’d get alerts if that happened.

Reality check

So, this whole time we’re (okay, mostly me) obsessing over how to get to New Hampshire and how to live/work in the coolest space ever, we mostly were spinning our wheels when it came to doing things that would actually move us toward our goal.

We weren’t putting more than a token amount in our savings account. Granted, there wasn’t much left over to put in, but I think since our cause seemed a long shot on a good day (and futile, some days), we weren’t very motivated. We had too much overhead, and getting out from under it was going to be a challenge that required sacrifice.

Even before finding the firehouse property, we knew we wanted a smaller house than what we have now, so we also knew we’d need to get rid of some furniture. We knew too that it would be wise to unload things that weren’t worth moving 1,200 miles. And we knew that we had accumulated things over the years that we could do without and that might bring in some cash if posted to Craigslist, eBay, etc. But since we didn’t have a clearly-defined goal we mostly just talked about unloading our unneeded items.

And then, there was a price drop on the firehouse property.

Time to stop dreaming

The price of the firehouse dropped significantly enough – I believe it was to just under $70K – that I felt it would finally attract a buyer. Brian disagreed with me on this, saying that it fit the needs of almost no one and reminding me that had it not been for his business we too would have passed it by. He thought the firehouse would likely still be there when we were ready.

I was discouraged by the futility of the situation. We weren’t making much progress at all toward making the move a reality. Everything Brian made went toward supporting the shop and maintaining the house. My earnings should have been gravy, but I wasn’t making enough that when I landed a new project the money wasn’t used for something or another besides our move fund. While we weren’t spendthrifts, we hadn’t been actively cutting corners, either.

Something had to give. I kept looking at the firehouse listing…still there, just waiting for us to figure it all out…until one day, the listing was marked Sale Pending.

I finally let go

It was a dumb plan anyway. We didn’t even have our home on the market, yet most of the money to buy the firehouse would have to come from the sale of our house. We hadn’t even looked at the property. Not in real life, anyway. Our friend Eric drove by it for us, but seriously – I was completely obsessing over a property that was stupidly expensive for its market, that was 1,200+ miles away, and that I hadn’t even seen in person.

I came crashing back down to earth, where I should have been all along. It never pays to become emotionally attached to real estate outcomes, nor does it make sense to profess such a lofty goal without both the ability and willingness to make actual progress toward it.

I took a big step back from not only the firehouse, but the New Hampshire move in general. We were not on the right track, and I couldn’t figure out how to change that.

But wait –

SkitchA month or so after accepting that we had lost out on the firehouse, the property came back on the market with another big price drop. “Call the agent!” I urged Brian. “If what you hear still sounds good, go look at it. It’s in the realm of the doable now. Go see it in real life so you can judge for yourself whether it’s worth going for. We’ll figure out the rest.”

He agreed and called the listing agent, who couldn’t have responded with any less energy. You wouldn’t think the place had been on the market for over five years. But anyway…

According to the agent the only issue with the place was that, by order of Berlin’s fire marshall, the downstairs heating system had been disconnected. The agent said it had something to do with a rear staircase that fire inspectors required the owners to put on the building, and the proximity of fuel tanks to that egress. Nothing at the rear of the building was shown in the listing photos, so we weren’t sure what could be done with the existing system. But worst case scenario it’d need an all-new system downstairs.

Something of this order was about what we expected in the way of defects. If the owners would come down a little more on the price – a sensible move given Berlin’s real estate market – we might be able to make it all work.

Up to Berlin Brian went, on a 1,200-mile journey that would bring either life or death to our firehouse dream.

I’ve saved the rest of this epic saga (it really was epic…and a saga…really) for my next post, since it’s  already so long. If it’s been published you’ll find it here.

If you’re reading this and I haven’t yet published it, it’ll be up within the next couple of days – promise. You can follow the blog to be notified when it’s published. Just look near the top right of the page for the blue “Follow Porcupine Dreams” button and click it.

In the meantime, here’s a photo gallery with the preview that lured us in. Lovely, yah?

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