A little more than a year ago, after my sons had left home to start their young professional lives in another city, and after my daughter had been accepted into a university in another city, my wife turned to me and asked, “Do we really want to spend the rest of our lives in the middle of nowhere?”
“Nowhere” was the rural County of Sussex, in northwestern New Jersey, where forested hills were interspersed with farms and occasional modern subdivisions. Don’t misunderstand me, we loved it. We had lived in the County for over 25 years and had raised our three children in a very healthy environment . The community was small, friendly and supportive. Our neighbors were all wonderful and caring people. The schools were great. And nature was always at our fingertips. The biggest nuisance were deer denuding our shrubs and black bears getting into our garbage.
However, with the kids gone, there was something missing. Perhaps a little part of it was an empty nest feeling. Another part was the fact that with the kids off to start their own lives, there wasn’t much to do in the County for middle-aged folks like us. And the property taxes were killing us. We owned a 4-bedroom, 2500 square foot modern colonial house that was built in 1999 on a 3.5 acre lot. It was very comfortable and in need of very minimal maintenance. The 300 foot long inclined driveway was a pain, particularly during ice and snow storms. However, the view from the front porch of Kittatinny Mountain was beautiful. The house, the neighborhood and the town served us well over the years. However, the feeling that my wife and I both had was that it was time to move on.
So, where to go? My wife certainly had an idea: wherever we went, it was to be closer to our two sons, who both moved to the Washington, DC area. That meant we would be moving south. This was a bit ironic because my wife and I had spent the past 25 years or so convincing ourselves that we would retire north in upstate New York. That is were we went to college and that is where we met. We loved upstate New York. However, as I suspect is the case with many older parents, your children’s plans will often trump your own long-term plans. Thus, we would move south to be closer to our two sons.
Not too far south, though. After all, I was not ready to retire (not even close) and most of my clients still resided in New Jersey. Thus, we decided to split the distant between our Sussex County home and Washington, DC: Philadelphia (or thereabouts) would be our destination. Conveniently, my company had an office in the Philadelphia metropolitan area, which made the move possible.
So, the next question that needed to be tackled was, in what type of house did we want to live? Conventional wisdom would suggest that we would want to downsize. After all, without children residing in the home, why would we need a four bedroom house? Why not instead consider a two-bedroom condo or a small three-bedroom cape?
Well, that kind of thinking wasn’t going to do. Instead, my wife and I desired something a more interesting and unique. Also, my wife had it in her mind that the new house had to be not just a home, but it also had to be a destination. That is, a destination for yet-to-be born grandchildren. Thus, when we started searching for the “right house” online using several popular real estate web sites, we focused on old homes and even historic homes. It had to be a home with character and personality.
Thus, we ended up finding a very old stone house located in the suburbs west of Philadelphia. That old house had a name. It was locally called the “Neebor Lee House”, which means “friendly meadow” in old English or Scottish according to a local bicentennial publication. The house was constructed in 1785 and it definitely had character.
I was actually was interested in another old home. My wife, however, had taken a liking to this one. In fact, when we finally went to view the house with a Realtor, I felt as if I had been transported to the firehouse scene in the movie Ghostbusters (the original) when Dan Ayckroyd was sliding down the firemen’s pole yelling, “Wow! This place is great! When can we move in? “. Here I am standing with the Realtor with my poker face, with both my wife and daughter running around the house and my daughter yelling, “this is going to be my bedroom!”.
The Realtor knew he had us. I knew he had us. Yet, despite this, I still held off and slyly told the Realtor to call me if any bids were placed on the house. After all, the house had been sitting on the market unsold for over a year and, more importantly, I had yet not even broached the concept of a transfer with my employer. No matter, because two weeks later the Realtor called, on the day of my daughter’s high school graduation, and informed us that a bid was being placed on the house. My wife and I had a decision to make and we needed to make it fast. Thus, in the time it took to complete my daughter’s graduation ceremony, a decision was made to place a bid on the house. Such was my daughter’s graduation present: she was getting her new bedroom.
We bid slightly over the asking price and, then, to seal the deal, sent a letter to the seller informing her of our plans to respect the house’s history and to renovate and restore it to its prior glory. Thus, we had ourselves a new house. A house, mind you, that is 230 years old, has three floors and is 3700 square feet in area. It also came with two relatively significant outbuildings, both of which were in need of significant repairs. One of these outbuildings was a former servants’ house and the other a building formerly used by Masons for their secret meetings. Apparently, I didn’t just buy a house, I bought a compound. I also bought many years of work. What was I thinking?
I intend to use this blog to share my experiences in renovating and restoring various elements of the house and outbuildings. Mind you, I’m no Bob Vila, and I don’t have his easy access to specialty contractors. I’m just an ordinary guy who is perhaps a bit out of his element who will be taking upon himself a monumental task. Mistakes will be made. I have already invested in a subscription Old House Magazine and have purchased several books on restoring old houses. They will be my guide. However, this will not only be about renovation and restoration. I plan on sharing the history of property and its former owners, which have included Revolutionary War rebels and loyalists, Mennonites and Free Quakers, Gentlemen and farmers, and doctors and admirals, each of whom had left their mark on the house. I will also share some of the more interesting elements of the house, of which there are many, from old historic rim locks to a porcelain human skull that is cemented into one of the fireplace mantles.
I hope to share my enjoyments as well as my frustrations as I take on what I am describing as my big middle-aged adventure.