It seems like the classic chicken and egg conundrum. Did my obsession with homes take off when I began working as a contributing reporter for the Journal's Homes section, or did my inborn love of houses lead me to the job?
While seeing kitchen remodels and architecturally significant homes on a weekly basis definitely fed my interest in homes and interiors, I think the love affair goes back to my childhood when my grandfather built me a Victorian replica doll house. Roughly two decades later, when my husband and I were looking for our first house, Oak Park, with its historic housing stock, was a dream come true. We started off in a three bedroom four square and a few years later, with the arrival of our second child, moved into a slightly more spacious Gunderson.
Within a few years of moving to Oak Park, a part time writing gig for the Journal allowed me to explore many of Oak Park and River Forest's historic homes. Much to my husband's chagrin, I've proved to be the type of person who doesn't leave the job at the office. I am always coming up with new ideas for our own home and constantly watching the real estate market. The recent real estate recession kept us in our house for almost nine years, but I was always on the lookout for our next house. In 2013, with the real estate market on the upswing, both sets of grandparents firmly ensconced in the South for retirement and children approaching the teen years, we began to seriously consider buying a place with more space to accommodate our kids and longer visits from family.
The last time we moved, we'd bought and sold without the aid of a Realtor. This time, with our specific budget, size and neighborhood parameters, as well as the need to time the transactions so that we could close on both our sale and our purchase at the same time, it seemed wise to bring in a professional.
I've spent years interviewing local real estate agents about their listings and their jobs for the Wednesday Journal, so there was a large pool of people to choose from. In this case, it helped to have both professional and personal recommendations to fall back on. Not only did I have a long-earned appreciation for Gloor Realty's role in the Oak Park community, but Gloor agent Michael Nowicki had kids in school with our children and came with glowing recommendations from friends. Michael has lived in the community virtually his entire life, and while we thought we knew Oak Park after 11 years, he knew more than we could ever claim. Years of looking at other peoples' homes gave me the ability to quickly judge the superficial, like room size and potential to renovate, but Michael understood things that my husband and I might not have looked for. At the end of the day, crown molding and stained glass windows are lovely, but it's the plumbing, electrical and structural issues that add up to big dollar signs.
The plan seemed simple enough: find a house in our price range and close to the Green Line that had great bones but that would benefit from my desire to put my own stamp on a home. Oh yeah, and the house needed to have central air, more than one full bathroom and space for overnight guests. Not so easy when you consider a fast-moving market that barely allowed for time to tour a house before offers were flying in.
One particular house had been in the back of my mind since it came on the market the summer of 2013. We loved the location and the coach house, but it was out of our price range and looked like it was in need of serious work. With a few price drops by spring of 2014, we were officially interested, but so were several others. Asked to submit our best offer, we did so, but another interested buyer won out. We resigned ourselves to continue the search, but a week later found out the first deal fell apart on inspection. We were back in the running but with serious misgivings about what our inspector would find.
Again, we decided to go local and used Rick Gillis of Home Expert USA for our home inspection. Due to the knowledge of our real estate agent, we were well aware of many of the issues facing the home, which was an estate sale property and sold in "as is" condition. On top of cosmetic issues we'd readily identified, and possible red flags Michael had noted, Rick identified many areas that needed attention, but nothing that was enough to scare us away. The highlight of the inspection may have been the moment he was photographing the roof and got the perfect shot of a squirrel exiting a hole gnawed in the flashing. Not exactly the kind of house guest we were looking for, but in an older, empty house, not exactly a surprise either.
Armed with an inspection report that would guide needed repairs, we were under contract and in fast need of a buyer for our home. While a hot real estate market might be tough on the buying side, on the selling side, it can be beneficial. The first family who saw our house, brought in by their Gloor agent just before our listing hit the MLS, put in an offer. As they waited for the sale of their city condo to go through, we had some anxious moments, but they ended up being the perfect buyers, which made the process of handing over the place we'd called home for nine years very pleasant.
Before we could move in, many projects demanded our attention, but we focused on the two that we didn't want to do after moving in: flooring and painting. We brought in our favorite painter, Oak Parker Michael Hedges and his crew to coat the entire interior, including the Tuscan themed tile in the kitchen, with a fresh coat of paint. Refinished hardwood flooring and a squirrel eradication plan rounded out the first stage of home ownership.
We know from experience that an old house is a demanding mistress, and we've only begun to hit the tip of the iceberg. For the time being, we're happy that the boxes are unpacked, that our first house guest arrives next month, and that the two blocks to Oberweis makes for a great walk on a summer night.