Sunday, April 11, 2010

House-hunting on Beacon Hill

Hunting for a new home has begun in earnest. We are completing mortgage pre-approval forms and I'm scrutinizing new listings in our chosen neighborhoods. (We're still avoiding the scary issue of putting our place on the market.)

Yesterday we saw a little single-family house on a narrow Beacon Hill lane. Just beyond our price range, it had a small, sunny brick "garden" outside its basement dining room. The back garden wall abuts the courtyard of the Hungry I restaurant. Whenever the weather is fine, we'd hear the diners at six tiny outdoor tables. I'm not sure if the sounds of clinking dinnerware and conversation over frogs legs and steak au poivre would be pleasant or annoying, but it would be fairly constant every night in the summer, just when we'd want to be enjoying our quiet garden.... The house also needs a new kitchen and bathrooms, which has kept the price low.

It is charming, however, with very low ceilings and federal-style details. Most rooms are lined with built-in cupboards, cabinets, closets, bookshelves, window-seats, and desks, all painted creamy white. As compact and cozy as a boat cabin, and not an inch of wasted space. The master bedroom has three walls of clever built-ins, so the bed can only fit under the sharply sloping roof. I can't imagine not bumping my head on the ceiling, constantly. I'm not even sure I could sit up to read on anything higher than a mattress on the floor.

The house was so loaded with cabinetry that we realized that there were no places for our favorite furniture: an antique Japanese tansu (a tall, wide chest of drawers and cabinets, where I store most of my clothes) and our trio of Arts and Crafts–style, glass-fronted bookcases from Restoration Hardware.

But imagine the privacy of a single-family house! No worries about neighbors above or below! (Just next door....) Freedom to fix, change, and decorate as we please. Wow.

Today, we went back to Beacon Hill to visit open houses. We began with a grand, high-ceilinged condo high up on Beacon Street, overlooking the Frog Pond. There were long walls for bookshelves and a perfect office off the living room. The kitchen sported bright orange cabinets with black and stainless appliances. You can't have everything. It had a great deck. But it isn't deeded to the condo. Currently, it can only be entered from this unit, so it "belongs" to it by default.

And.... the owner of the upstairs unit just got approval to expand his balcony, which overhangs part of the deck. When he does, he could easily add a ladder or staircase down to "our" deck. We can imagine an uncomfortable situation developing, where we'd be sharing this "private" deck with a perfectly legal interloper. Plus, the supermarket is all the way across the Hill on Cambridge Street. Might as well be in Siberia. No way.

We checked out two condos on Hancock Street. The first one had handsome rooms and features, but only a sad little balcony advertised as a "deck." Standing on it, we admired a much nicer deck across the way. We soon discovered that the nice deck was attached to the next condo we visited. The deck was its best feature, and it is under agreement. So much for Hancock Street.

Next we visited a tiny single-family on a rather run-down, dead-end lane off Cambridge Street. Two astonishing aspects of this house are its private parking space and low price — well under a million. It was cleverly laid out, with a brick courtyard the size of a closet and a small, sunny deck off the bedroom. But it was truly miniature, despite having three floors, three bedrooms, and two baths. Imagine each room as dollhouse-sized and very low-ceilinged, and you'll begin to understand how cramped an "inexpensive" Beacon Hill house can be.

It had an unfinished basement with a laundry area, so I'd be hauling wash up and down three winding, narrow flights of stairs — versus my current set-up, with the washer next to our bedroom. There is also no space for a formal dining table and chairs — just a small table in the kitchen. No room for our tansu or bookcases. No room, in fact, for my husband to stand up straight while shaving at the bathroom sink! Rats.

The house is a few blocks from my favorite branch of Anna's Taqueria. Today's burrito was a revelation: occasionally, over the years, I've asked and been told that they put cilantro in their guacamole. Even one speck of cilantro overwhelms my mouth with a strong flavor of soapsuds. But I asked today, and they said, "No cilantro." My burrito was superb! We'd need a home-equity loan to cover the extra charges we'd rack up for adding guacamole to our daily burritos if we bought that house.

We saw a penthouse duplex on Revere Street, beyond our budget but so pretty in photos that I was curious. It is unusually sunny, with many windows on three sides, spacious and luxuriously renovated. It had windowsills deep enough for oversized cats. A large roof deck with river views. To get up there, I had to climb a skinny metal spiral staircase, suspended right over the staircase to the top floor. By not looking down, I made it up the spiral, but my fear of heights stopped me before I could climb out of the skylight (no railing, ugh) and onto the roof. Assuming I could someday overcome shaky legs, heart palpitations, and faintness, it would still be a chore to carry any sort of meal up those two steep staircases. So long, fancy penthouse.

We walked home, realizing that, while nothing was right for us, most of these properties had plenty of positive features. Something will come along and win both our hearts. And then, as always happens when people fall in love, all hell will break loose.

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