By Mary Lowengard
AS I PREPARED to pack up my quirky little mansard-roofed cottage two years ago—yes, the die was cast, it would go on the market that fall—I made a mental list of all the improvements and upgrades I had implemented during my tenure. These, I believed, had added untold thousands of dollars of value to the modest abode I’d purchased six years earlier. Enhancements had started even before I moved in, with the installation of a sleek new gas furnace, part and parcel of an inspection-report-inspired negotiation with the sellers.
I had two reports in hand, but only one noted the cracked heat thingamabob. That report was the one I’d ordered, thus the one that really counted. This set off a whole rigmarole to get the yucky oil tank and Frankensteinian furnace out of the basement and install a sexy, high-efficiency gas system in its place, wedding me forever—or at least until sale did I (de)part—to the futures and options market for propane. There was no natural gas available in the Bucknoll neck of the woods at that time. And never would be, I was led to believe.
When Two Inspection Reports Are Better Than One
I got a sneak peek at the “other” inspection report thanks to a couple who had been in contract on my cottage but were spooked by a greater number of issues than they wanted to handle. Fortuitously, the cottage right next door then popped on the market and they snapped it up.
Putting my investigative journalism skills to good use, I tracked down my about-to-be-next-door neighbors, and reached out to ask if there was anything they could share. They generously offered me a look at the report that had broken the camel’s back for them.
Many of the myriad “issues” had been remedied in the interim—the asbestos, the electrical wiring, the mold—but still, this gave me a huge competitive advantage in determining what to offer for the cottage. Of untold value to me was that now I knew my about-to-be neighbors were nice people. Nice neighbors tops my punch list of must-haves when buying a new house, right up there with the ability to walk to the tennis courts. And this family was the best of the best.
The Value-Add of the Wi-Fi Thermostat
Among the improvements I added (and paid for) were my beautiful refinished floors. On pulling up the yucky orange carpeting I had discovered the reason for the yucky orange carpeting. And, of course, there were my shiny new kitchen appliances. I wasn’t sure if installing R-10 foam insulation board over the garage doors to hermetically seal whatever was being generated by my new furnace would be viewed as a plus or minus, so I left it off my list of improvements. But for sure, the Honeywell Wi-Fi thermostat should count. And simple as it is, the retractable clothesline I installed once I found out I wouldn’t be tarred and feathered for hanging my wash was a thing of wonder.
But each time I started to focus on my cottage upgrade list, my mind was pulled away by a giant Home-Improvement Wish-List Guilt Magnet. There were so, so many projects left undone. Here are a few fixups I had long longed to do but just never did.
Classic Vinyl, Re-Roofing and Other External Projects
Forgive me, but when I bought my cottage, I was totally oblivious to the sad truth that it was clad in vinyl. In fact, this only was revealed to me a year or two into ownership, when a large piece of siding blew off the house in a nasty storm and my pal Gene volunteered to bravely mount a rickety wood ladder to shove it back in place. There’s no two ways about it: My cottage was encased in plastic. I yearned to rip it down, reinsulate and install wood atop it, and toward this end bought many a Mega Millions ticket.
On the bright side, I never had to paint it and when it started to look a little grimy, I’d haul out the ol’ power washer and fire away. I just had to make sure I wasn’t power-washing during the sacrosanct Bucknoll Quiet Time, though I had a workaround for that if need be.
While we’re talking exteriors, from the start the roof was at the end of its chronological, biological and teleological life. Another project that needed that Mega Millions win. I dithered for years over replacing the pricey copper flashing and whether to just go with aluminum, the functional equivalent of . . . vinyl siding. The debate continued.
My Break-in Window With the Inexplicable Balconette
I had moved in with all sorts of plans in my head to rebuild the porch in front, and reconfigure the deck in back, adding a screened-in section. Someone once mentioned that new houses are life-changing experiences akin to the death of a loved one, and to wait a year before making any drastic changes. Six years later, there everything was, exactly as it had been when I first walked in. I did discover, however, that a $30 stand fan was just as effective for keeping bugs away as a $30,000 screened-in deck. Bam!
Then there was the front door. The paint was cracked, and I really wanted something with windows to let the sun shine in. Also, if I (or some well-meaning guest or worker) twisted the doorknob lock the wrong way, I got locked out. In I would climb, through the window. The one with the balconette in front that I always meant to remove. I mean, what exactly is the point of a balconette? I should throw open the window and pine, “Wherefore art thou, deer?” Actually, its best use was as a cool Scrabble word, an add-on to the word “con,” which I once did, allowing me to clinch the game at the last minute.
My tri-tiered backyard was the stuff of landscape renovation fantasies. Ever since visiting my neighbor’s groovy under-deck grotto, I had harbored a bad case of Perugian Patio envy. I’d install string lights, wicker chairs and sofas, Mexican tile, hanging plants and maybe, just to spend the last of my lottery winnings, set up a Nuova Simonelli Aurelia Semi-Automatic Espresso Machine ($13,500). Alas, my would-be grotto remained a place for piling my firewood and stacking stuff to be hauled away on Clean-Up Day.
One level down from my would-be grotto, there was the pond that leaks (requiring constant replenishment via garden hose) and featuring a waterfall that defied gravity by tilting irrationally backward. I considered installing a hot tub in its place, but then remembered, oh yes, I hate hot tubs.
Three levels down was a terrace area perfect for an Adirondack-chair-surrounded firepit. Sadly, you can’t get thar from heah. The treacherously steep, handrail-free stone steps require a full complement of rappelling gear: carabiners, harnesses, belays, helmets and liability waivers. Remember the Free Solo dude Alex Honnold? Yes, he’d have to sign one too.
Moving indoors, about those “shiny new appliances.”
The Verona stove, replacing the one the gas guy disconnected on first sight calling it a “suicide stove,” is un bel forno but it takes per sempre to heat up and then, like una bellissima donna italiana, has a mind of its own. The Samsung French-door fridge’s bottom freezer door often appears closed when it isn’t, resulting in a winter wonderland of snowbound food. And my dishwasher—also Samsung—had long been a topic of philosophical discussion between myself and another cottager. We discovered we both had the same model and, along with it, the same tsouris.
Together at social events we would huddle in a corner commiserating over such deep rhetorical questions as, Why must it take three hours for our dishwashers to complete the cycle? Why are the dishes still wet after that? Why can’t it work half as well as my home dishwasher, a $299 Frigidaire from Home Depot? Next time, I’ll diversify with a Kenmore.
Additional Interior Ambitions
Let us now consider the ceiling in the living room, which ran the full length of the cottage. Whose bright idea was it to paint it high-gloss white? It was practically like having a mirrored ceiling. After five years of thinking about repainting, it fell off my list.
The second-floor landing was always darker than the Black Hole of Calcutta. I had planned to punch a hole through the wall to install a window or two. Easier said than done. Then I learned about the Velux Tubular Skylight, essentially a tunnel transporting sunlight from the roof through the attic to the second-floor ceiling. Never happened.
And then there was the basement. As a house gift, my friends Gene and Dani had presented me with a set of meticulous, professionally crafted architectural drawings, reimagining the garage as a playroom, a studio or a (wo)man cave. Had I had world enough and time, I would also have busted through the wall in the lower-level (i.e., basement) bedroom creating a door out onto . . . my fantasy Perugian Patio.
Evergreens on my list: Upgrading the light pulls in the closets. Painting the Laundry Room. Making a real Laundry Room out of the space that I called the Laundry Room. Tiling behind the stove, “a fun project for a Saturday afternoon,” as a houseguest pointed out the first year I owned the cottage. Refinishing the picnic table. Installing handrails along the stairs from my driveway to the front-door level of the cottage. The heating-system ductwork, the knob-and-tube wiring, seeking yet another system for diverting the water that accumulated in the garage after a storm . . .
Sagrada Familia, Pocono Style
My beloved cottage, it seemed, was a regular Pocono incarnation of the Sagrada Familia, which is allegedly finally within mere months of completion after 14 decades of construction. That’s nothing, of course, compared with the Cologne Cathedral, 635 years in the making. You can’t rush art. Or cottages.
Mary Lowengard really did own a country cottage once upon a time somewhere in Pennsylvania. She changed names to protect the innocent, and thanks KW, JM, JAR and Woody, who made these stories possible. For the full story, click here.