Originally posted March 2007.
Once upon a time there was a small family who lived in Brooklyn, NY. They were very happy in their large, by New York standards, one bedroom apartment with the fabulous uninterrupted view of the harbor. But one day they heard a rumour that their beloved, architectually distinguished, building would one day, in the not too distant future, go co-op.
Knowing that they couldn’t afford the mortgage they decided to explore other places. It was a hard task to find a place just like the Brooklyn they had come to love. Some places were too suburban. Some places were too expensive. Finally, they explored Philadelphia and like the proverbial glass slipper, it fit just right….
Our adventure began last October. I can’t recall how, but somehow I got an 18th century home listing in my email inbox. I was very excited about the prospect of owning a piece of history instead of mearly renting a flat so shortly after Halloween 2006, we decided to visit Philadelphia to see if it was a place we could call home. Another family at Zoë’s daycare had moved six months prior. I contacted them to see what sort of place it was to raise kids. They raved about it so we all went down in my mother’s Subaru.
My first impression was that it was incredibly, and painlessly, close to New York. Barely over two hours from Brooklyn. We drove through the outskirts and my initial impression was a little dismal. We are used to a certain type of neighborhood and were a little worried that we’d be settling. Undaunted, we continued into the city and slowly, we came into the most amazingly historic looking area. We parked and explored for the rest of the evening, finding lots of stores and a neighborhood very similar to our own in Brooklyn.
We saw lots of “for sale” signs and realized that we could very easily call this city home. That was the evening we met our realtor who came from Queens originally. We also discovered a deli that not only smells like Katz deli on 2nd avenue, it also gets all the food from New York. A total taste of home.
We spent the rest of the week wandering around, discovering that Philly is a very walkable city with maps readily available at every corner. I also noticed how clean and uncrowded it was. Frank and I both felt a great feeling of relief and relaxation.
Unexpectedly, we viewed our first homes. The very first was nearly perfect but having set my heart on the neighborhood of Queen Village and a home closer to the 18th century than the 20th century, we keep looking. And thus the adventure began.
We also visited pre-schools for Zoë. She loved one so much we had to drag her out kicking and screaming, literally. Our visit was concluded with a connection being made at the local BMW dealership where Frank made friends with the people there. So much clicked we felt our destiny was heading to Philly.
Upon returning to NY, I buy my first book about buying your first home. It’s called “100 questions every first time home buying should ask.” It’s a fabulous book I recommend highly.
The next time I went down with my sister for a whirlwind tour of five homes. We were so excited about one of them but it faced a wall and got no natural light. It was my first introduction to 18th century city planning which is pretty much put a house where ever one will fit, regardless of proximity to the adjacent dwellings. I was especially sore because it had a lovely kitchen. Through this house I became intimate with 18th century architecture for the normal person. Those rooms at the MET are definitely not for the normal person, even if they say they are. We’re talking stairs no bigger than a NY pizza slice and four flights at that and each floor having a foot print of 12 feet by 12 feet. I doubt anyone over 250 lbs and 6 feet tall could be comfortable in a house like that. And this did not deter us. It was the lack of view and sunlight that ended it for us. I won’t mention the other homes which weren’t quite in the area we were looking at.
The third time, my realtor, a very patient man, got to meet my father-in-law. This time we had a house picked out and miraculously it was still on the market. I couldn’t say that for the eight other homes I picked out which all sold in a flurry of activity that makes my realtor think I must be some sort of good luck charm for real estate. I simply have good taste – meaning that whatever I like other people seem to buy, usually before I can even get to it. This includes shoes, handbags, jackets, etc. Anyway, we view one home – very nice but not quite right. As we approached the second, I was saying how it couldn’t be right, too many stories. We didn’t even go in. On our way to the third house, the one I really liked, we stopped in a coffee house called “Red Hook Coffee.” I felt as if I had been in a similar place in Park Slope and wouldn’t you know? That’s where the proprietor was from. A half a block from the coffee shop, we
approach the house. We didn’t even have to go in. We knew right away. We did go in, of course, and after looking around a bit, Zoë stated, “I want to live here.” And so we made an offer.
The offer was accepted, and the fourth time I go down alone taking the Chinatown bus. I had tried to take the bus several times before but relatives kept wanting to drive us. The Chinatown bus is just fantastic. Maybe not the most luxurious way to travel but it’s very efficient and super cheap. I had time to pick up breakfast, my favorite custard steam buns and bubble tea, before boarding. Then two hours later, voila! I am in Philly. And obscenely early for my interview.
I walk from the office to the house which takes 35 minutes. Then I meet with the realtor to sign official papers. Then I walk back to the office for the interview and I don’t even break a sweat. I make a mental note that even if I have to come up to NY to work, the commute won’t be all that awful.
Next, I go down with my Mom. She is just ecstatic about the little house which we walk by before checking out the preschools I have picked out for Zoë. Then we walk from one end of Center City to the other, stopping at various pre-schools along the way. Jack-pot! I find a preschool that has availablity and is very close to the office and the bus stop. Zoë and I are covered no matter what. Then we go back to the house where we meet the house inspector. He does a thorough walk through and lets us know the place is in decent condition. Even better than what my father-in-law initially said. We will want to get a cap for the chimney to keep little critters out and the gutters need a thorough cleaning.
I’m wondering about the age of the home. We end up our visit with a trip to Elsfreth’s Alley, the oldest residential block in the country. My house looks just like one of those which date to the early 18th century. I research early American architecture and place my house in the Federal period. Again, it’s hard because I’ve only been in large and famous houses and you don’t get a lot of normal people homes in architecture books. I continue to be amazed at the quanity of historic structures in Philly. The entire city is a museum. I don’t think it has really dawned on me that I own a historic house.
This brings us up to date. We’ve started to pack. Our apartment looks like a warehouse. I think, and it’s not too late to go through the boxes and review, that I haven’t purged sufficiently. Mostly I think I have too many clothes. I think we’ll probably get down there and find we did bring too much with us. But I worry about over purging and not being able to replace essentials.
January 2007 – Waiting in Limbo
We are waiting. Frank needs a job offer before we can move. Everything is all in order but we need that offer for the mortgage to go through. So we wait. It’s painful. We wonder if this entire thing isn’t a mistake and yet we can visualize ourselves in the house and in the city. Maybe it’s wishful thinking. So we’re trying to remain positive. Our apartment is a mess but we’re ok just waiting and waiting and waiting. We’re action people who need to be doing. I’m planning my kitchen remodel. I need to think about doing something even if it never happens. We’re also thinking of the pros and cons of this going through or falling through. We’re ok with either but we just want to know one way or the other. Not knowing is exhausting.
We move. The heat doesn’t work. We unpack to stay warm. Our furniture doesn’t fit up the stairs. We buy a lot of IKEA. Frank starts his new job. Frank fixes bad wiring. We unpack more. We get a new heating system installed.
We’re finally settled in. Surprisingly I find Philly a much nicer place to live than New York. The emotional transition for me has been very smooth as I quickly adapt to my new city. A few commutes later and I actually dread going up to NY to work. Working in Philly is hard since the job market is not as available as it is in NY but I find that I really like working from home three days a week and can get as much work done as before.
Frank and I never want to go to IKEA or Home Depot again. We were there so much they know us by name. The house has adjusted to us and we’ve filled it up nicely. We’re going to have a nice stoop sale if the weather ever gets warmer. We’ve started to wonder about the room colors which are very artistic but might not be for us. Our next project is to paint.