At Home

Setting Roots

A figure ground diagram of my Eagle Rock neighborhood.
A figure ground diagram of my Eagle Rock neighborhood.

In honor of the five year anniversary of buying my house …

Excerpt from Making Home: from the Sticks to LaLa-Land

Once the wake of my divorce began smoothing out around me, I felt the need to anchor myself. I wanted to settle down. I wanted a home of my own. It had been five years since I had owned a home. When my ex-husband and I moved to Los Angeles in 2003, home prices were just out of reach of our budget. The next five years more than doubled the cost of most homes, making owning a home so unattainable that I schooled myself on the benefits of renting. But, in 2008 that series of unjust banking decisions that compounded to drop mortgage-holders by the hundreds of thousands had plummeted both housing prices and interest rates to the advantage for some of us. I finally qualified to own a home in Los Angeles.

Despite, or perhaps because of, my uncertain employment prospects, I felt owning a home would give me some stability. As it was, if I lost my job I would be dependent on my mom or my sister to house me until I found another job. Rental rates were increasing as quickly as people lost their homes. If I owned a home, I could always rent out all or a portion of it. I would have land to inhabit and a means of making income. I had been in Eagle Rock for three years and I wanted to stay. My boyfriend at the time (R) and I had been living together for almost a year. As much as I wanted to believe our relationship would last, we were anything but certain of our future. So my house search focused on my needs for me and the children, my style … my dreams. Unlike the three places I had owned with my ex, this home would feel like me.

I contacted Chris Furstenberg, the real estate agent who helped Julia and James find their home. Blond-haired and blue-eyed, Chris’s prep school formality was off-set by an occasional sarcastic comment. He helped Julia and James sell their downtown bar retrofit. They, like so many others between 2002 when they bought the place and 2005 when they sold it, doubled their investment. They had spent nearly fifteen years converting raw industrial spaces into habitable live-work studios when they decided to move to a house in Highland Park.

“You want to live in a house?” I had asked, the image of my sculptor sister and her anti-establishment husband striving for the American dream didn’t add up in my mind.

“James wants central heat,” Julia replied, guiltily adding, “and a lawn.”

I raised my eyebrows. “What about your studio space?”

“We’re looking for a house big enough for each of us to have a studio,” she said. I tried to conjure up what that might be, and the resulting image of a 3-bedroom house with a 2-car garage did not match any of the expectations I had for where they might live. Industrial, yes … urban, yes … converted restaurant/bar, yes … single family home with detached garage, not in a million years.

Chris helped them sell their bar-home and take the return to buy their first actual house. At the time, downtown Los Angeles was booming, and home prices everywhere were still rising. Renters in older rent-controlled homes were being displaced by landlords eager to cash in on the ballooning home values, and affordable places to rent were hard to find.

The home Julia and James bought was home to a woman in her 50s and her five children and their two very large dogs. She had lived there for 18 years, despite half the house having no electricity. She had no means to go anywhere else. The closing date came and went, but the renter didn’t move. The seller, seeing housing prices continue to rise, figured if he waited long enough, Julia and James would back out of the contract and he could sell it for more.

After five weeks of living in hotels and taking a national tour of their friends’ guest rooms, Julia and James and Chris knocked on the woman’s door. When she opened the door, Julia showed her a check for $5000.

“Can you be out in a week?” Julia asked.

“Yes,” the woman replied. She was out the next day.

During that long and complicated selling and buying process Chris earned a place on Julia’s “People Worth Recommending” list – a difficult honor to achieve.

I narrowed my search area to the northeast quadrant of Eagle Rock, which was closest to my work and was served by Dahlia Heights Elementary School. Dahlia Heights was a small K-6 school built in the 40s and named after the Dahlia fields that grew at the time. If Levi could go to Dahlia Heights for third grade, he would have only 300 students in his entire school, and likely get more personal attention than he received amid the 1,000 students at Eagle Rock Elementary. Being the highly creative and easily distracted kid that he was, I figured the more help he could get to focus in school, the better. With the kids alternating living with me one week and their dad the next, I had plenty of time to look for houses without getting their hopes up. Chris set up several home visits the next Saturday I had without the kids.

I fell in love with the first home I saw. It was a two-bedroom one-bath bungalow one block south of Colorado Boulevard. Dahlia Heights Elementary was at the other end of the block, separated by a steep two-story tall bump in the road. Trader Joe’s Market was a block away, and at least a dozen restaurants, the public library, and Tritch Hardware – purveyors of traditional home necessities from canning jars to fasteners to step ladders – were all within walking distance. The bus stop on the corner connected to bus stops in Glendale, downtown Los Angeles, and my work in Pasadena.

The house was cute enough. It was a 1923 neo-colonial style bungalow still bearing the original wood clapboards painted white, spared from the common indignity of being smothered in stucco. Two pergolas were tacked onto either side of the tiny front porch to hold vines, giving it a heaviness that didn’t quite fit the house’s dainty footprint. The bottom half of the front façade was unpainted, the clapboards aged as if they had been replaced years ago and then forgotten. It was rough but enough bone structure was there to restore the house’s original charm. The 750-square foot home had a large living room and a kitchen big enough to eat in. In addition to the main house were an open carport, a separate 16-foot by 16-foot playroom, and a long and narrow “hothouse” behind that.

“The deed shows both enclosed structures,” Chris said. “That’s rare. You’ll be in good shape if you ever want to rent one out.” In Los Angeles people often built additions without going through the City’s tiresome and expensive permitting process.

“I might need to,” I said.

The lot was 6800 square feet, sloped from east to west, and was twice as long as it was wide. Four mature trees set the character of the landscape. An enormous Crepe Myrtle in the front yard provided a barrier at the northeast corner where the lot was slightly lower than the street. A Coast Live Oak sat on the southwest corner at the back of the lot, providing shade and beauty though it was not as broad or gnarled as Live Oaks can get. A Navel Orange Tree that must have been as old as the house bore a canopy that was 20 feet tall and nearly as wide, stretching from the house to the playroom 15 feet away. A tall pecan tree, which I couldn’t identify at the time, reached up between the playroom and hothouse. In addition, a scraggly acacia shaded the hothouse’s east side.

A concrete patio created a cozy place between the house and playroom, despite a pretty awful outdoor kitchen backing up to the Orange tree. Otherwise, the landscape was mostly grass with a few concrete pathways running through and some ornamental roses up front.

“The family is here,” Chris told me as we prepared to go inside. “The realtor usually asks them to leave, but they have an event to get to this afternoon and needed to get ready.”

“That’s okay,” I said, though I felt a bit guilty. The house was a short sale, being done by the bank in a last ditch attempt to gain some funds for the property before foreclosing. This family was losing their home.

They were a young couple with two children, and a live-in grandmother. As I toured the house, the mother sat at her vanity in the back bedroom curling her small daughter’s hair. The little girl wore a white satin dress, white tights and white patent leather shoes. The mother was creating a clutch of perfectly formed curls that fell down the girl’s back in a row of ringlets. Her own hair had already been arranged the same way. They were preparing for a Quinceañera.

“Good morning,” I said as I peeked into the master bedroom to get a look. One of the two windows was covered by a large wardrobe, and one wall was painted mustard yellow, the other three maroon. It was dark except the bright glow of a floor lamp surrounding the mother and child.

“Good morning,” the mother replied. “So sorry we are in your way.”

“It’s no problem,” I said, and really it wasn’t.

“This is a nice neighborhood,” she went on. “The people here are very friendly.”

“That’s good to hear,” I said. “Are there lots of children?”

“Not many small children,” she replied. “There are mostly older families whose children have grown and left the house.  There are some teenagers … like next door … not really small children on this block. But everyone is very nice.”

“Thank you,” I said, turning to go tour the rest of the house. “Enjoy the party.”  The two children shared the front bedroom and the grandmother lived in the playroom out back. The house was neat and clean, but had some obvious structural issues. When I first walked in, I felt dizzy. There was a pretty severe slant from the front door in the center to the back door at the southwest corner of the house. Badly installed windows invited moisture to collect in the front room’s walls, leaving water stains under the sills. The kitchen cabinets had strange 50s style doors on them, with rounded corner cutouts that I thought were kind of cute.  Many of the original plastered walls were badly cracked from the house’s uneven settling. And the bathroom had a rotten place in one wall and a dysfunctional layout—when you opened the door to go in, the door covered the toilet and hit the sink.

Walking out the back door and down five crooked concrete steps, Chris glanced along the ground and pointed to a crumbling spot in the foundation.

“Looks like it needs a new foundation,” he said. “It’s the original concrete.” He bent down and poked it with his finger, sending loose a mini avalanche of decaying sandy concrete.

A tacked-on laundry room between the back stoop and the orange tree bore a shed roof slanting toward the house. During rains, all the water that landed on that roof would drain against the house and then onto the ground against the foundation. The saturated soil had sucked in the foundation, and the concrete steps sunk lopsidedly towards it. The back door was cut at the top to fit the warping frame, so that it was over an inch shorter on the side that opened. In the front yard, decades of sediment had washed down the hill to the northeast corner of the house, burying the entire foundation and six inches of the house and clapboards. That corner was sinking too, leaving the whole house bowing from the center outwards.

“Okay,” I said to Chris. “What do you think?” Chris thought for a moment.

“A new foundation … new plumbing … probably new wiring,” said Chris. He looked up at the roof, where asphalt shingles were stacked on top of each other. At least five layers were visible from our vantage point. The shingles formed a wavy looking layer leading up to a roof line with a distinct sag. “And definitely a new roof,” he added. “That thing will pull the house over in the first earthquake that hits.”

Still, I was in love. I loved the location so conveniently placed between Trader Joe’s, the donut shop and a better school for Levi. I loved the large lot and large trees and extra buildings promising options for added living space or rental income. I loved the placement of the house on the west side of the Eagle Rock Valley where it caught ocean breezes making their way from Santa Monica to the San Gabriel Mountains. I loved the kitchen sink facing a window into the back yard where I could watch the kids play past the orange tree. I loved the eclectic homes and gardens all around – many original to the neighborhood, some added on to, and one perfect looking home from the 80s with a manicured lawn that looked as if it forgot it was in Eagle Rock.

And I loved that Orange tree. Its blossoms filled the air with a heavy sweet scent and the promise of fruit. This home had all I could hope for. Everything else was change-able. R could do a lot of the work himself, giving him something concrete to sink his teeth into and saving me money on the construction. Besides, this family was living in it as it was. How bad could it really be?

I made an offer in July. Apparently so did a lot of other people. I didn’t hear back. Weeks went by. I lost hope and kept looking.

Over the next eight months, looked at almost every house I could afford in Eagle Rock. I saw potential in at least a dozen that Chris showed me. The experience was exhausting and emotional. I got an inside look at the devastation the mortgage crisis had on families in our own neighborhood.

A few homes were immaculately kept and fastidiously emptied of all personal belongings, but most were worth an anthropological study of life’s traumas. People took the things that were most important to them and left everything else where it was: faux-wood bookcases from Wal-Mart or Ikea, filing cabinets full of old papers, trash bags full of stuffed animals and clothes and shoes. Many houses went on in a jumble of impromptu additions for tenants or extended family. Too often the entire landscape was covered in concrete, assuring that nothing would grow that might result in maintenance … or shade or sustenance.

One house, tidy but worn on the outside, had discarded furniture strewn about and personal mementos swept into a huge pile in the kitchen. As I stepped over the pile to get to the back door, I looked down to see a photograph of one of Jacob’s classmates and his father – a soft-spoken freelance poet I met while picking up the kids from summer camp. We had talked about letting the children play someday, and he handed me his card, which read Poems4Hire. I hadn’t seen him for a while. The house was in foreclosure. This intimate glimpse of loss was heartbreaking. I felt conflicted by guilt at reaping benefit from others’ misfortunes and fortune that the popped housing bubble had brought prices to just within my reach.

I made serious offers on five more homes. It seemed every house with an ounce of charm was snatched up by someone with a lot of cash or a big enough budget to offer over the asking price. Eagle Rock, with its high quality schools, independently owned businesses and eclectic architecture was sought-after by young families and creative people. I was looking for a deal. I needed to find a home that was either in bad enough shape to dissuade would-be do-it-yourselfers or in some other way undesirable. It wasn’t hard. Many homes we looked at had no obvious potential, or were in terrible locations.

“This is classic dead-end syndrome,” Chris said as R and I stood on the front porch of a vacant house and looked down an alley toward oncoming traffic. This was the third ‘dead-end’ house we had seen in a week. Another house was such a strange maze of additions with no rhyme or reason to any room or interior space.  The families most affected by the mortgage crisis were those who probably never should have qualified for a loan in the first place. They, like me, could barely afford to live in Eagle Rock and had landed the problem homes: those at the butt of a dead-end street, or squeezed onto a teeny property, or built into the bottom of a steep and unusable lot. I made an offer on that cute house with no trees that faced directly down the alley –thinking of several ways to fix the bad energy. Someone else got that one too.

I didn’t take the kids to these homes. I wanted to protect them from the ups and downs of having high hopes dashed by a rejected offer. I looked at houses with R or Julia or Tori. They all had different perspectives and favorite styles. Julia coveted a 50s ranch home with aluminum windows, a stone fireplace and a yard that was 90% concrete. It was angular and spare and bold. R liked the boxy Spanish style homes with red tile roofs and white stucco walls. Tori had an eye for the details that made a house charming – curved ceilings, original wood windows and doors, built-in cabinetry. I was drawn to the little farmhouses, neocolonial bungalows with wood siding, front porches and a casual air about them.

Finally a house came up that held a bit of a challenge – a probate sale. It was a home that belonged to an elderly person who died and left a contested will. The family wasn’t in agreement over who should get the proceeds from the house. The house was cute and towards the end of a dead-end street. It had clapboard siding, a small front porch, a beautiful little back house with its own garden and nearly everything on the house was original. Solid foundation, very flat lot, fruit trees, same neighborhood as the first house, and my friends Jim and Phaedra lived on the same street.

“You should write a letter telling the family why you want the house,” Katie said over the fence when I told her about the situation. “That’s what we did to get this house … most families want to know something about who will live in their parents’ or grandparents’ home.”

“Good idea,” I said.

I wrote a letter telling why I wanted to live in Eagle Rock and what I loved about the house. I described my children and their love of playing outdoors, the school I wanted Levi to attend, the gardens I dreamed of growing around the little house. I wrote this with an offer that was low but reasonable. They countered with something just within my reach, and stood firm. It was the first response I had gotten.

I figured if I could rent that back room I could make it work, and accepted. But I was nervous. The house didn’t flow quite like I wanted it to, and I couldn’t figure out how we were going to create enough sleeping room for Grace, Jacob, Levi and my boyfriend’s son when he visited. I wanted each of our children to have at least a little nook they could call their own. The price we had settled on left me no budget to renovate. If I lost my job or got another pay-cut (both getting more likely as the construction industry continued to tank), the only way I could make my mortgage payment would be to move in with my sister and rent out the house. I backed out before I sent the escrow check.

In March, I wondered whether Chris had forgiven me yet, and thought, Whatever happened to that first little house? In the months since I made my first offer, I had driven by a few times and noticed the For Sale sign still standing, though being slowly overtaken by weeds. I checked the listings, and it was still there.

I called Chris. Sure enough, the house was still for sale. Apparently five people had gone into escrow on the house, and then backed out when their inspections revealed how much work had to be done. The bank had dropped the short sale price by $50,000 and was going to consider only one more offer before foreclosing. 

I took Grace, Jacob, Levi and Julia to see the house. It was the beginning of March. The Orange tree was full of big ripe oranges and the heavenly scent of orange blossoms preparing next year’s harvest. The boys ran right past the house to the back yard, marveling at the big oak – a perfect climbing tree, and a platform with a plastic corrugated roof that was attached to the pecan tree. It stood 8’ above the ground on four stilts and had no railings. A tree house? Jacob and Levi were sold.

Grace and Julia and I studied the house and playroom for livability and sleeping options. The family had moved out, giving us a better look at the structure. Chris took a marble out of his pocket and placed it in the middle of the house. It rolled into the kitchen, gaining speed as it headed for the back door. The front bedroom was definitely slanting too, and the wall and floor were rotting where they were buried on the outside. One window had a pane broken out and was replaced with plywood. The back bedroom was dark. The dark walls and wardrobe blocking one window made the room feel much smaller without furniture. The kitchen wasn’t as cute as I remembered it. The white tile counters were cracked and chipped. The cabinets were warped and wonky. The living room paint was peeling, revealing gold-flowered wallpaper underneath.

“What do you think?” I asked everyone as we stood in the front yard ready to go.

Grace was doubtful, mostly because she really wanted her own room. Julia, who can pretty much build anything given the right power tools, looked at it and shook her head.

“I think it’s okay Mom,” Jacob said, knowing that’s what I wanted to hear.

“Can we paint it pink?” asked Levi, aiming a stick that he found in the back yard as if it was a rifle and siting one eye down the barrel towards the house. “It would be perfect if it was pink.”

I made my offer. Two weeks later the bank accepted, and I had my very first home of my own.