THE QUEST FOR A BUNGALOW BEGINS
We purchased the house for $200,000.00, a sum that shocked most of the older neighbors. They knew, however, that the neighborhood was turning upward and a new generation of younger professionals were seeking simple starter homes. For decades, the North Portland area had been an overlooked working-class corner of Portland. In the recession of the 1980s, it slipped into disrepair, neglect, and increased crime.
In October of 1989, after a prolonged economic recession of the 1980s, the home sold for a mere $17,000. A year later, the property was flipped for nearly twice that at $33,000. In five years, as the economy began to boom in the mid-90s, the value more than doubled, and sold for $70,000. It wouldn’t change hands again for another decade, but by 2004, the little house on the plain street sold for $165,000. A young entrepreneurial couple bought it as a rental and finished the basement for a second bedroom and added a second bathroom. As soon as the improvements had been completed, they hoped to unload the house for a tidy net gain. They asked $215,00 and my father, a good negotiator, talked them into 200,000 eventually.
We’d spent the winter hunting for potentials. Expectations dropped, and dropped against the reality of our budget. I thought I’d lived poor through my 20s in rented rooms of old shabby houses filled with shifting roommates, two or three fridges of frozen pizzas and beers, and hodge-podge thrift store furniture that had accumulated not because someone wanted to keep them, but because the last roommate didn’t like them enough to pack off. When I started searching for a place to call my own, I wasn’t expecting anything fancy—woodfloors, lots of windows, built-ins, a porch for sitting, a garage to tinker. Something not under the airport flight pattern, or wedged between a McDonalds and a Taco Bell.
Turns out, that small list alone translated in Portland’s housing popularity to price tags double what we could afford. More shocking: what we could afford. I’d lived simply before: age 17, in a forest service cabin. Through college on Western ranches. Often the bunk rooms were nothing more than a cot and some hooks on the wall to hang your hat. Though Spartan, there was always something comfortable in these accommodations. Something warm, and comfortable. The houses we saw for sale had none of these qualities; they were dark, damp, and dingy. Anything that has been done seemed to have not only been done cheaply, but with total disregard. Walls of vinyl wood panels, cracked, peeling, and duct taped. Layer on layer of linoleum flooring. Shag carpet with cigarette burns. They smelled of mildew, rotten cabbage, cat urine. One home we searched by flashlight, because they power had been shut off. Rooms were crammed with paper bags of newspapers, greasy rags, plates with crumbs. As we explored deeper into the inner rooms, it got the creepy feeling that maybe we’d find a body.
After dismissing dozens of houses, we found two candidates. One a 1909 home that had been some historic charm left in it: tall ceilings, wood floors, wooden windows. The drawbacks, no garage (and no potential space even to build one), a steeply sloped backyard, a kitchen small enough to touch two walls at teh same time if you stretched out your arms. No fireplace, or even room to add a woodstove. A basement that would require digging to convert to living space. Otherwise, a charming home that had a dusty warm glow, like libraries or old school houses.
The 1926 home had been stripped of its charm--one of its drawbacks, and also challenges. The original wooden-framed windows had made way for aluminum, the leaded glass fixtures had been replaced by garish brass globes. They’d even built a particleboard surround around the fireplace and faced it with stick on linoleum squares. Yet under the blue shag carpet, I knew there must be wood. The backyard was a blank patch of weeds, but potential for a yard, garden. There was a carport that could become a garage. A decent front yard. And at least enough space to cook a meal.
I debated for a week: take the home with the desired historic features, or the one with the history needing to be built back piece by piece.
Perhaps it was the challenge. Perhaps it was youth’s inevitable combination of ignorance and confidence.
So, by the end of summer, 2005, at the age of 32, I took the keys of my first house, and took on the project of restoring a 1926 bungalow to its original quality, comfort, and character.