Feeling trapped
Blog, Our Journey

Outside the Box – Part One

It’s been eight months since I spilled my guts all over the page in a post about our experience in the low end of New Hampshire’s housing market (a place that seemed to be the best we could hope for). B’s 1200-mile trip to inspect the firehouse was months before that. The lack of progress was such a sore spot that I was afraid to begin writing about it; when I finally did it was two epic posts.

I’m OK with sharing my failures, but there has to be some takeaway. For a long time it would have been only “Have a lot more money.” Or maybe, “Sucks to be you.” And for some people, I’m sure it’d be “Good. Last thing we need here is more outtastatas.” Fortunately, with a few months’ space we figured some things out about the move in general, and also gained perspective on the firehouse deal.

We’re going to move. It’s going to take a little while longer. And we are not going to do it the “normal” way. I began coming up with crazy schemes out of desperation, but now we are fully embracing this outside-the-box thinking and wouldn’t change our plans even if our circumstances change.

If you feel stuck – whether you’re a fellow Porcupine longing for NH, or you’re stuck in some other way – I hope sharing our journey will encourage you to get creative. Or crazy. Or both (for best results).

Affordable? Or livable?

Lemme make a few obvious statements so we’re all clear on the challenge.

In general, property in New Hampshire is more expensive than in Georgia. If you want to move to a generally more expensive area, then you need to either have more money or find a property that’s cheaper than others in the area.

As for the “have more money” approach, all of our cushion evaporated in the personal and national shitstorm that was 2008/2009. So we were looking at cheap properties. Places in economically depressed areas. Crappy, crappy houses. A few nicer places, but so far out from population centers that we wouldn’t have had enough of a customer base to sustain us.

It looked like we’d have to buy something in serious need of rehab. And we’d have to DIY because money. And if the place was really bad, like the firehouse, we couldn’t even live in it while rehabbing, so mo’ money.

It felt like we were in a round room, trying to find a corner.

Gimme shelter

I often get the most random or creative thoughts in the shower. Maybe it’s that the steam relaxes all the muscles. Maybe it’s because that’s one of the rare times I’m not reading, watching or otherwise actively consuming something.

One day while showering (this was back when I thought I had reason to obsess over the firehouse) it occurred to me that if we’d had an RV we could have pulled it into one of the bays and lived in it while rehabbing the upstairs. We’d almost certainly have had to do that on the down-low, though, because the city of Berlin (where the firehouse was located) is run by code enforcement nazis (no, not that Berlin, and not actual Nazis).

But we had no RV. And ultimately, we wouldn’t have a firehouse, either.

Still, I ventured briefly down the RV rabbit hole and found that, if you didn’t care about style or driving long distances, old RVs could be had for $15-20K. That’s pretty cheap as living quarters go, right? A motorhome would provide us with a place to sleep, shower and cook. Of course, those things would be crammed into a space maybe a sixth the size of an average suburban home.

It wasn’t a bad idea. Except we’d probably need to spend at least as much on property rehab as we would on an RV. Well, assuming we could find a rehabbable property in our price range, within reasonable distance of a population center, in a town without a bunch of zoning rules. A lot of unrealistic assumption there, and that was just for starters.

Anything requiring major rehab was out, because money and weather. No way we’d find another freak property like the firehouse. Something we could park inside of, and whose thick brick walls would have kept us and our nonexistent crappy RV warm all winter.

We still couldn’t seem to crack the nut that would allow us to leave the Atlanta suburbs, but the idea of a smaller, more manageable shelter wouldn’t go away. Working mostly from home, all day every day I saw and felt overwhelmed by undone routine maintenance and half-done housekeeping. I’d bit off more than I could chew, and physically I wasn’t in a place where I could fix it all or work enough to pay someone to help. Brian was maxed out with the shop. We both needed more simplicity than we’d set ourselves up for.

I felt guilty, frustrated, and stuck.

Even if we’re here, we don’t need to be here

We live in a nice house, in a nice neighborhood. Not ritzy. Just nice. Someday I’ll write a memoir about my journey from a childhood growing up in that house (you know – the awful, embarrassing one pretty much every neighborhood has) to my responsible, respectable adult life in suburban America. But not today.

While proximity to a job (one I haven’t held since 2009) was half the driving force behind buying the house, the other half was that I could finally have a home I didn’t feel embarrassed by. I didn’t set out to buy a large home, but I got 3 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms and a half acre on a cul-de-sac. The American dream, right? It was grossly oversized for a single (at the time) woman, though it was one of the smallest houses in the neighborhood. That’s suburbia for ya.

When Brian and I married, the house provided space for my newly-acquired kids. We could entertain out-of-town guests and family without feeling too crowded, and made our “party house” even better by spending money on a huge deck and a kitchen remodel. But with the loss of steady employment and subsequent self-employment, time and money for upgrading and even upkeep became scarce.

With the last of the kids gone in 2014, we no longer needed or wanted as much house. In fact, it got to the point where we couldn’t handle as much house as we had. Yet we couldn’t seem to find a way out. We thought about selling and renting something smaller, but area rents were higher than our mortgage so we wouldn’t be getting much of anywhere financially. Buying something smaller was perhaps more doable, but we didn’t want to be here and couldn’t see buying again in Georgia as anything more than resignation.

On top of feeling like we were in over our heads with the mortgage and maintenance, the county had a growing wish list of projects it wanted to fund with property tax increases. They’d had to reign in spending (definitely a relative description there) during the economic downturn, but as soon as things were looking up, so was everyone’s tax bill. I appealed, and the motherf*ckers actually increased it from the increase.

Say all you want about California, but they got it right in the ’70s with Proposition 13, which essentially declared that you couldn’t be taxed based on a valuation you hadn’t realized.

Whether we were ever going to get to New Hampshire or not, it was clear to me that we needed to get out of this house. Brian hadn’t yet arrived at that conclusion. Probably because he was too busy working his ass off to keep us afloat while my business trended steadily downward.

It all comes to a head

Somehow my brain came back around to the RV idea. I’m sure it was an attempt to escape a problem I couldn’t seem to solve, but nonetheless – down the RV research rabbit hole I went. The ones I was looking at were dated, cramped, and filled with the same ugly gold hardware we were trying to rid our sticks & bricks house of. But they were cheap. I thought, why not downsize to an RV now? If we did that, we could save a lot on living expenses and build up our move fund instead of maintaining an all-or-nothing approach that was getting us nowhere.

I didn’t immediately share this idea with Brian because, like Lucille Ball’s I Love Lucy character, I had a history of coming up with what he probably thought were crazy schemes in an effort to get us moved.

Many times I suggested that we ought to just sell it all and move, and figure it out when we got there. This almost never went over well with Brian. He’s not completely unadventurous, but he looks at data. Evidence. Facts. Actions. Things besides hopes, feelings and words. Usually we balance one another out, but sometimes I feel like he leaves no room for possibility and he thinks I’m a dreamer.

One Sunday morning the discussion grew heated, with my frustration over being stuck where we were and his with me and my unrealistic dreams.

Brian was singlehandedly keeping us afloat while I tried alternately to heal from overworking or guilt-driven overworking in an attempt to fix our situation. But we weren’t getting any closer to moving. We still didn’t have health insurance. We had nothing more saved for retirement than the 401k from my job. And the honey-dos were piling up.

In the nearly 10 years we’ve known each other, this was as close to an out-and-out argument as we’d come. We’ve always respected what we each think or contribute to the situation even if we have a different viewpoint. But this argument and our lives were getting nowhere. So I threw out my crazy RV scheme and as I recall he just stopped.

“You know – that’s actually not a bad idea,” he said.

Well, sweet baby Jesus – he actually doesn’t think I’m a complete idiot. (Note: He never did. That’s just where my brain tends to go because #badchildhood)

Half a Plan

For sure there was more to figure out, but I felt like Brian and I were finally on the same page.  We lost that feeling of futility as finally we saw something doable on the agenda.

There’s a lot more to the story (regular readers will be 100% unsurprised by this), but as you might have expected from the title of this post, the rest of this chapter in our “leaving Georgia” saga will come in Part Two. I’ll link that up here when I finish that post, which hopefully will be within a week of you reading this one. Sorry not sorry. Feel free to complain in the comments.


UPDATE: If you’re reading this after 7:55 AM Eastern on Sunday, 19 Feb 2017, you can click here to read Part Two.

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