“You have got to be kidding me. What were you thinking, Libs?”
Oliver prods with his toe at an oak panel in the empty, echoing living room. The panel cracks; a large piece of wood falls backwards into the abyss behind, and a suspicious scurrying tells us we have disturbed someone’s living quarters.
“Christ in a bucket,” Oliver mutters, as I try to keep an optimistic smile on my face to balance out his own expression, which is grumpier by the second.
It’s his first visit to see the house I found for us and, so far, things are not going well. Although the house boasts new electric wiring and plumbing, as our realtor Donna proudly pointed out last week, it does not boast a new furnace, a new roof, solid floorboards, or any air conditioning.
Or even wooden wall panels that stay intact when you kick them.
But you know what? I don’t care. I want this house. It’s old, it has character, it is full of quirky little corners and unexpected alcoves. I want it. Don’t ask me why.
I just know I want it.
“But it’s so cheap!” I say to Oliver, who is now looking critically at the door frame between living room and dining room. The builder of that part of the house apparently was not familiar with set squares or right angles two centuries ago, because the door shape is an interesting variation on a trapezoid.
“It would need to be,” he says. “Even if it’s free, it’s too much.”
Donna watches us, her eyes swivelling left, right, and back again. She doesn’t like the way this conversation is going, I think. She can see her commission flying out of the dusty windows.
I have an ally.
“An antique house is an investment,” she squeaks in her Minnie Mouse voice. “People like the knowledge that no one is going to build an identical house on the next lot. They like the original features. They like not living in a cookie cutter. They like owning a piece of history.”
“And they like repaying a very, very large home improvement loan and spending all their Saturdays in Home Depot,” Oliver says. “Because if you didn’t like those two things, you’d need to be bloody barking mad before you bought a crumbling money pit like this.”
He turns to me.
“Nope, I’m sorry, Libs. No can do. We’ll keep on looking until we find something more our style and less work. I’m sure Donna can show us some new construction in another town, can’t you?”
I stare at Donna, silently pleading with her to say “Absolutely not. The state has issued a moratorium on the building of new houses. If you don’t buy this house, you’ll be homeless in two months.”
But she doesn’t, of course. Instead, she takes an exaggerated breath, closes her eyes, and breathes out again. As if she thought of saying something but then thought better of it.
“Of course I can,” she says, “if you really want me to. But — could I just say something?”
Oliver looks up at the ceiling, as if asking a deity to give him strength. A dead spider is dangling from the light fitting just above his head, and he steps to one side.
“Be my guest,” he says.
“Woodhaven is a desirable town. We have an excellent school system, yet disproportionately low taxes. If you go to one of the neighbouring towns, you could end up spending on school fees and property taxes what you save on buying a house. Woodhaven is a little oasis of value-for-money town taxes. You might find what you’re looking for in Banbury, two towns away, but believe me, the twenty thousand you save on a house purchase there will be spent in eighteen months in extra taxes and school fees. I wouldn’t put my own children in Banbury schools,” she adds. “Their standardised test results last year were appalling.”
“Huh.” Oliver is scornful. “Jack’s a bright child. He’ll do fine wherever he goes to school.”
“And believe me, I admire that attitude,” Donna says, leaning towards him and patting his arm.
Actually, I don’t believe her. Nor, I can tell, does Oliver. He doesn’t like being patted by realtors with high-pitched voices, either.
“The problem is,” she continues, “most homebuyers don’t have that attitude, and you’ll find that out when you come to sell. You could be stuck with a new house that’s exactly like every other house for sale, in a school district that’s less than stellar. Whereas this house–” she makes a sweeping gesture around the living room, her arm cutting through a swathe of dust motes “– with a little love and attention from you beforehand, it would be snapped up in an instant. Like that,” she adds, snapping her fingers in case we hadn’t understood.
Her cell phone chirps. She pulls it out of her pocket, looks at the screen, and frowns.
She trots out into the hallway where we can hear her murmuring a few seconds later.
I turn to Oliver and open my eyes very wide.
“Please?” I say. “Pretty please? With sugar on the top?”
“No.” He folds his arms, tapping one foot.
“We won’t have anywhere to live if we don’t buy it.” I stick my lower lip out. “And then we’ll have to live in the apartments near the mall again, next to that crazy man who likes using the azaleas for target practice. Remember him?”
Oliver stops tapping his foot and winces. He remembers our old neighbour, all right. The one with the pickup truck with the NRA sticker on the bumper. Oliver was convinced the man was harmless until we ran into him at a Fourth of July celebration, when he rambled on about how he hated all effing Limey effers, and we had to pretend for the next three weeks that we were Australian. Oliver avoided him as much as possible after that. One day he was late home from work, and it turned out he’d been sitting in the car for over an hour, waiting for the crazy man to finish playing poker on the front porch with his equally crazy friends, before he dared to venture into our own apartment.
Considering how he’d told me off for being silly and paranoid, you’d think he would have been less of a wuss.
Donna returns from the hallway, cell phone in hand.
“Another couple is on the way to see this house, so we should leave very soon,” she says. “The office tells me it’s the second time they’ve viewed it. That tells me they’re keen. If I were in your shoes, I’d be making an offer this afternoon. But if you’re sure you want to look at some new houses in Banbury…”
She shrugs. It’s your funeral.
I look up at Oliver, pouting a little again, and make puppy-whimper noises. “I really don’t want to live next door to that man with the BB gun again.”
“Oh, for God’s sake.” Oliver snatches the sheet of property details from me. “Offer them a hundred and forty, and not a cent more.”
Donna beams, and I try not to do a happy dance.
“You’ve got a really good chance of getting it at that price after so long on the market,” Donna says. “I don’t want to raise your hopes or anything, but if I were the seller, I’d jump at that offer. Let’s head back to my office and complete the paperwork.”
She walks back into the kitchen to collect her briefcase.
I hug Oliver, and after a split second while he tries to pretend he’s not in the least excited about buying a two-hundred-year-old American house, he hugs me back.
* * *
Four hours later, our mood is very different.
“I don’t understand it,” Donna says. She’s come round to our house to give us the bad news in person. “If it had been me, I’d have accepted that offer. I know the seller doesn’t live round here, but surely they must realise that in this economic climate you sometimes have to take what you’re offered, especially with the house needing so much renovation. I am just so sorry.”
I can’t speak. I am, as they say back home, absolutely gutted.
“They didn’t make a counter offer?” Oliver asks.
Donna shakes her head.
“Is it the other couple who saw it today? Did they make a higher offer?”
“Not that I know of.”
“Who was their realtor?” I ask. “Could you find out?”
“It was the seller’s realtor. Melissa Harvey Connor. If they want to buy it, she will probably pass them onto another realtor so there isn’t a conflict of interest.”
I manage to turn a splutter of disbelief into a cough. Conflicts of interest have never bothered Melissa in the past.
“Do you want to make a higher offer?” Donna asks.
I look at Oliver and we both shake our heads. If we pay anything more, I’ll never hear the last of it from him.
“I’m sure I can find you something nice in another town. It might mean moving away, and Oliver having a longer commute, but don’t worry. We’ll find something.” Donna gathers up her briefcase and jacket, and leaves.
Oliver and I sit on the sofa in silence.
“The idea of making that house a project was starting to grow on me,” he says. “I’m kind of surprised at how disappointed I am now.”
We sit some more, considering our options.
“So,” Oliver says at last. “We’ve got Melissa Harvey Connor representing the seller and a potential buyer, and she just happens to be our landlady. Is it just me,” he asks, “or can you also smell a rat?”
I’m so glad I’m not the only one with paranoia.
“Oh yes,” I say. “A big rat.”
A great, big, fat rat called Melissa.”
The thing is — how on earth do we prove it?
Next post: LIBBY’S LIFE #78
Previous post: LIBBY’S LIFE #76 – This old house
Read Libby’s Life from the first episode.
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