Berlin Firehouse Office
Blog, Our Journey

What Lies at the Low End

This is part 2 of my previous post, “The Low End of the Market is an Ugly Place to Be.” If you haven’t already read that post you might want to head there first.

“After 44 miles and $9.00 in tolls, I have reached the promised land.”

I felt a little giddy reading Brian’s text. I was only in New Hampshire by proxy, but it was close enough for me.

In addition to the firehouse, Brian had arranged to look at a couple of other properties while he was in New Hampshire. We didn’t want everything to hinge on being able to work out a deal for the firehouse, nor waste a 1,200 mile journey and two lost days of business. But honestly, neither of the other two properties on the agenda looked promising.

A hard-knock life

Brian looked around Berlin the evening he arrived. When we talked later he described a run down town with too many worn out people. Not his words, but my impression.

The city’s former major employer and benefactor, a pulp and paper company, was long gone and in decline years before its departure. It seemed (from an outsider’s perspective, anyway) that too many of Berlin’s people simply gave up. In recent years, a prison and hospital built nearby replaced some of the jobs.

If a city’s industry drives its culture, Berlin’s shift from relying on growing and harvesting timber to depending on illness, death and imprisonment served up a somber backdrop for daily life.

Cold & unloved

In the morning, Brian headed to the firehouse for a preliminary look before meeting with the real estate agent. A derelict facade greeted him, suggesting the building’s recent history had taken more of a toll than the 75 previous years.

Boarding over the lower level windows was apparently an easier solution than repairing them. They may have been boarded because there wasn’t any heat in the shop area – the space that once held fire trucks.

Imagine that cavernous, unheated space in the middle of a New Hampshire winter – cold and dark save for the odd ray of sun that might make it in through an only partially covered window.

Government intervention FTW

Berlin’s fire marshal forced the building’s owners to add a rear egress from the upper level, despite the fact that the existing interior stairs were separated from the main building by thick brick walls. There was no space to speak of at the rear of the building – five feet, maybe.

Constrained by space, doing the job right would have entailed installing something like a wrought iron fire escape or spiral staircase. Instead, a weathered, shoddily constructed set of steep wooden stairs hung off the rear of the building, barely wide enough for a single person.

The boiler that provided heat to the lower level had been too close to the mandated rear stairs, so the fire marshal ordered that to go, too. How productive could they have been in a shop with no heat during a long, northern New Hampshire winter?

Though the business had been closed some five or six years, the firehouse was still full of metal refinishing supplies and related junk. Maybe they just gave up and left when the fire marshal demanded they move the boiler.

Reality bites

The lower level heating was the one problem we had been advised of and were prepared to deal with, at least mentally. But as Brian walked through the firehouse, it began to sink in that the slipshod way the boiler and rear egress were dealt with was emblematic of the whole renovation. The listing photos, as mediocre as they were, depicted a palace compared to reality.

Brian shot some cameraphone video of his walk-through, so you can have a look for yourself.

Note that there are a couple of instances of profanity, so if there are little ones around you might want to mute the sound.

The agent knew the property well, and its current state, yet had no problem telling a prospective buyer he knew to be 1,200 miles away that it was livable. Brian could only trust what he saw, and it didn’t look good.

Norm’s polar opposite

Not Norm AbramThe property owner had done everything himself, lacking the care or expertise (maybe both) to do the renovation right.

Windows along the firehouse’s upper level walls originally offered expansive views and brought in warmth and sunshine. At renovation time, however, they were in the way. Several windows hid behind walls, including a window that would have overlooked river, mountains and sky.

What were they thinking?

In this instance, at least, choosing quick and dirty over craftsmanship was a blessing. Sheetrock would be a helluva lot easier to undo than brick.

The owner created his own heating system for the upper level, running it under a built-up OSB subfloor. The same workmanship that had created the rickety rear egress and sheetrocked over river view windows had also designed and assembled the heating system.

Brian didn’t trust the system – or anything else that might lurk beneath the homemade subfloor. The real estate agent’s “livable” pronouncement was complete bullshit unless you didn’t care about cleaning the place up. Or having heat.

The building’s untrustworthy systems, decrepit, unheated downstairs and crumbling upstairs floors meant that there was no part of it we could live in while renovating. The amount of work it needed made paying even the newly reduced asking price an insane proposition. At most we’d pay $35 – $40K, but we’d still have to scramble to figure out how to make it all work given the rest of the equation.

“I’m authorized to accept an offer of $50,000,” the agent said. Brian laughed and said, “You know as well as I do that this property, in this condition, in this town, is worth about $35 – $40K tops.”

I don’t recall the agent’s exact reply, but it was along the lines of “Aw, shucks. Golly gee.” Brian told the guy to call him when the owners were serious about selling.

A month later, the firehouse sold for $45,000.

I’ve let it go. For real this time.

I don’t know who bought it, or what their plans are. I do hope they’ll devote the time, money and expertise the building’s previous owners withheld for some two decades. If so, I’d love to see what they do with the place. But I’m mostly grateful it didn’t work out for us.

So you didn’t get the property…cry me a river

Having your own business brings special challenges to a relocation, whether we want to remain self-employed or we’re willing to go to work for someone else (we’re open to both, actually). And we’re willing to be less comfortable than we are now, so it’s not an issue of waiting for perfect or easy.

After the firehouse saga ended, we got real about our challenges. We weren’t financially prepared to move to more costly housing, and shopping at the very low end of the market seemed to multiply rather than eliminate the challenges.

Discouraged, the pace at which I’d been Craigslisting and eBaying our household contents slowed to a near halt. Brian and I stopped talking about the move, and I quit looking at real estate listings. There didn’t seem to be a point.

And actually, that was the one smart thing I did during this down period. I’ve always been a dreamer, but too often it gets in the way of actual progress toward the dream.

I could easily waste a couple of hours looking at listings, drilling down into their minutia, expanding on them by Googling ancillary information, looking at the photos, imagining actually being in the space.

It was a happier place for my mind to be than looking around my house at the things I needed to sell or donate, the yard work that needed doing or the bank account that could not actually get us to the dream.

We’ve seen the light

Lucille Ball & Desi Arnaz in The Long, Long TrailerOut of that melancholy came a solution to our dilemma, almost effortlessly. Just letting my mind be and not constantly filling it with stuff (which is my default state), I had an idea that should allow us to move sometime in the fall of this year.

Soon after that, another idea came that we hope will help sustain us financially when we leave Georgia. If idea #2 takes a while, idea #1 gives us the flexibility to do something else.

Like Ricky with Lucy, Brian often shoots down my “crazy” ideas. This time, he ran with it.

Details next time, but for now — we’re on our way 🙂

2 thoughts on “What Lies at the Low End”

  1. We (particularly my darling husband) often get caught up in all the what-ifs and neglect the actual steps we can take toward achieving our goals. Spending hours online looking for the next trailer or mods to make instead of tackling the existing to-do- list which would make our current situation more liveable. Looking forward to see how your journey develops!

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