IF YOU'RE GOING TO LIVE IN THE COUNTRY
IF YOU'RE GOING TO LIVE IN THE COUNTRY
BY THOMAS H. ORMSBEE AND RICHMOND HUNTLEY
DECORATIONS BY FRANK LIEBERMAN
THOMAS Y. CROWELL COMPANY PUBLISHERS NEW YORK
BY THOMAS Y. CROWELL COMPANY
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review to be printed in a magazine or newspaper.
MANUFACTURED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA BY THE VAIL-BALLOU PRESS, INC., BINGHAMTON, N. Y.
To CARROLL and THERESE NICHOLS
No book that covers so many phases of human relationships could be compiled without taking advice from those who are specialists. When we have wanted to know facts, we have freely turned to others whose detailed knowledge represented long experience. For this assistance we are particularly indebted to: M. Shaler Allen, Bruce Millar, Mrs. Herbert Q. Brown, and George S. Platts; also, to House & Garden, in which parts of this book appeared serially; and to Miss Eleanor V. Searing for many hours spent reading manuscript.
New Canaan, Conn. April 1937
I. WHY LIVE IN THE COUNTRY 3
II. SELECTING THE LOCATION 19
III. SHOPPING FOR PROPERTY 35
IV. CALL IN AN ARCHITECT 57
V. BUILDING VERSUS REMODELING 73
VI. LOOKING AN OLD HOUSE IN THE MOUTH 91
VII. NEW SITES FOR OLD HOUSES 105
VIII. THE SMOKE GOES UP THE CHIMNEY 121
IX. THE QUESTION OF WATER SUPPLY 139
X. SEWAGE SAFETY 153
XI. DECORATIONS AND FURNISHINGS 165
XII. THE FACTORY PART OF THE HOUSE 179
XIII. PETS AND LIVESTOCK 191
XIV. TIGHTENING FOR WINTER 203
XV. KEEPING HOME FIRES IN THEIR PLACE 215
XVI. WHEN THINGS GO WRONG 227
XVII. WORKING WITH NATURE 243
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
A riverside home reconstructed from the ruins of an old mill Frontispiece Robertson Ward, architect. Photo by Gottscho
The Ogden house, Fairfield, Conn. Built before 1705, it has been restored to preserve the original details 12 Miss Mary Allis
An old farmhouse in the rough 36 Photo by John Runyon
A really Early American interior. The great fireplace of the Wayside Inn, Sudbury, Mass. 60 Henry Ford
Once half a house and a hen roost 76 Photo by Whitney
What can be done with a barn 76 Robertson Ward, architect. Photo by Gottscho
As they built a chimney in the 18th Century 118 Photo by John Runyon
A place for summer and week-ends 148 Robertson Ward, architect. Photo by La Roche
True 18th Century simplicity. Now the authors' dining room 170 Photo by John Runyon
Entirely new, but with all the charm of an old house 184 Robertson Ward, architect. Photo by Gottscho
Snow has dignity, but is the house snug and warm? 206 Photo by Gottscho
An imposing country home of classic dignity 220 Robertson Ward, architect. Photo by Gottscho
Skillful planting of trees, shrubs, and flowers make the setting 244 Robertson Ward, architect. Photo by Gottscho
There is a beginning with everything. So far as this book is concerned, annual driving trips through Central Vermont are responsible. They were great events, planned months in advance. With a three-seated carriage and a stocky span good for thirty miles a day and only spirited if they met one of those new contraptions aglitter with polished brass gadgets, that fed on gasoline instead of honest cracked corn and oats, we took to the road. A newspaper man, vacation-free from Broadway first nights and operas sung by Melba, Sembrich, and the Brothers de Reszke, was showing his city-bred children his native hills and introducing them to the beauties of a world alien to asphalt pavements and brownstone fronts.
It was leisurely travel. When the road was unusually steep, to spare the horses, we walked. If Mother's eagle eye spotted a four-leaf clover, we stopped and picked it. If a bend in the road brought a pleasing prospect into view, the horses could be certain of ten minutes for cropping roadside grass. Most of all, no farmhouse nestling beneath wide-spread maples or elms went without careful consideration of Father's constant daydream, a home in the country.
These driving trips often included overnight stops with relatives living in villages undisturbed by the screech and thunder of freight and way trains, or with others living on picturesque old farms. Afterward there was always lively conversation concerning the possibilities of Cousin This or That's home as a country place. This reached fever heat after visits to Great Aunt Laura who lived in a roomy old house painted white with green blinds in a town bordering on Lake Champlain. A pair of horse-chestnut trees flanked the walk to the front door,—a portal unopened save for weddings, funerals, and the minister's yearly call.
From here could be seen the sweep of the main range of the Green Mountains. The kitchen doorway afforded a view of Mount Marcy and the Adirondacks never to be forgotten. It was the ancestral home with all the proper attributes, horse barn, woodshed, tool houses, and a large hay barn. Father's dream for forty years was to recapture it and settle down to the cultivation of rustic essays instead of its unyielding clay soil. However, he was first and last a newspaper man and his practical side told him that Shoreham was too far from Broadway. So it remained a dream.
His city-born and bred son inherited the insidious idea. Four years in a country college augmented it and, as time went on, the rumble of trucks and blare of neighboring radios turned a formerly quiet street on Brooklyn Heights into a bedlam and brought matters to a head. Great Aunt Laura's place was still too far away but explorers returning from ventures into the far reaches of Westchester County, and western Connecticut, had brought back tales of pleasantly isolated farmhouses with rolling acres well dotted with trees and stone fences. Here, thanks to the automobile and commuting trains, was the solution. A country place near enough to the city, so that the owner could have his cake and eat it, too.
After some months of searching and several wild goose chases, a modest little place was found. The original plan was to live there just a few weeks in the summer, possibly from June into September, but the period stretched a bit each year. Now it is the year around. We are but one of many families that have traded the noise and congestion of city life for the quiet and isolation of the open country. Nor do all such cling to the commuting fringe of the larger cities. A good proportion have their country homes some hours' distant, and the city is only visited at infrequent intervals.
Wherever his country place is located, however, there are certain problems confronting the city dweller who takes to rural life. They are the more baffling because they are not problems at all to his country-bred neighbors. The latter assume that any adult with a grain of common sense must know all about such trifles as rotten sills, damp cellars, hornets that nest in the attic, frozen pipes in winter, and wells that fail in dry seasons.
Of course, no one treatise can hope to serve as a guide for every problem that comes with life in the open country. This book is no compendium. It concerns itself only with the most obvious pitfalls that lie ahead of one inured to well-serviced city life.
WHY LIVE IN THE COUNTRY?
WHY LIVE IN THE COUNTRY?
The urge to live in the country besets most of us sooner or later. Spring with grass vividly green, buds bursting and every pond a bedlam of the shrill, rhythmic whistle of frogs, is the most dangerous season. Some take a walk in the park. Others write for Strout's farm catalogues, read them hungrily and are well. But there are the incurables. Their fever is fed for months and years by the discomforts and amenities of city life. Eventually they escape and contentedly become box numbers along rural postal routes.
Why do city-bred people betake themselves to the country? The surface reasons are as many as why they are Republicans or Democrats, but the basic one is escape from congestion and confusion. For themselves or their children their goal is the open country beyond the suburban fringe. Here the children, like young colts, can be turned out to run and race, kick up their heels and enjoy life, free of warnings to be quiet lest they annoy the elderly couple in the apartment below or the nervous wreck the other side of that suburban privet hedge.
The day and night rattle and bang of the city may go unnoticed for years but eventually it takes its toll. Then comes a great longing to get away from it all. If family income is independent of salary earned by a city job, there is nothing to the problem. Free from a desk in some skyscraper that father must tend from nine to five, such a family can select its country home hours away from the city. Ideal! But few are so fortunate. Most of us consider ourselves lucky to have that city job. It is to be treated with respect and for us the answer lies in locating just beyond those indefinite boundaries that limit the urban zone. With the larger cities, this may be as much as fifty miles from the business center; with smaller ones the gap can be bridged speedily by automobile.
Going to live in the country, viewed dispassionately as an accountant's balance sheet, has attributes that can be recorded in black ink as well as those that require a robust crimson. If you really want a place where you need not be constantly rubbing elbows with the rest of the world; where you can cultivate something more ambitious than window boxes or an eight by ten pocket-handkerchief garden; where subways and street clatter can be forgotten; your black column will be far longer than the one in red. But if nothing feels so good to your foot as smooth unyielding pavements; if the multicolored electric sign of a moving picture palace is more entrancing than a vivid sunset; you are at heart a city bird, intended by temperament to nest behind walls of brick and steel. There is nothing you can do about it either. In the country the nights are so black; the birds at dawn too noisy; and Nature when she storms and scolds, is a fish-wife. Possibly you can learn to endure it all but will the game be worth the candle? Without true fondness for outdoors and an inner urge for a measure of seclusion, life in the country is drear. Don't attempt it.
But for those who care for the cool damp of evening dew; the first robin of spring hopping pertly across the grass; or a quiet winter evening with a good book or a radio program of their own choosing rather than that of the people living across the hall; country life is worth every cent of its costs and these bear lightly.
Along Fifth avenue, New York, not far from the Metropolitan Museum, is a typical town house. A man of means maintains it for social and business reasons. But he does not live there. His intimates know that only a few minutes after the last dinner guest has departed, his chauffeur will drive him some twenty miles to a much simpler abode on a secluded dirt road. Here, he really lives. Whistling tree toads replace the constant whir of buses and taxicabs.
Most of us cannot be so extravagant. We are fortunate to have one home, either in the city or the country. Renting or buying it entails sacrifices, and maintaining it has its unexpected expenses that always come at the wrong time. What do those who live beyond the limits of cities and sophisticated villages gain by hanging their crane with the rabbits and woodchucks?
First, country living is the answer to congestion. Even the most modest country cottage is more spacious than the average city apartment. Life in such a house may be simple but not cramped. There is light and air on all sides. This may seem unimportant but did you ever occupy an apartment where the windows opened on a court or were but a few feet from the brick wall of another warren for humans? If the sun reached your windows an hour or two a day, you were lucky. In a country house there is sunlight somewhere on pleasant days from morning to night. That difference can only be understood by those who have known both ways of living.
In town, light and air cost money; along the rural postal routes it is as much a part of the scheme of things as summer insects or winter snows. And it may have a very definite bearing on the well being of all members of the family. Some suffer more than they realize from lack of sunlight. Frequently it is the children and, with many families, decision to move countryward is on their account. In fact, there be some, where father and mother, if they consulted their own preferences, would stay in a city apartment convenient to theatres and shops, with friends and acquaintances close at hand. But their small children lack robustness. The parents try everything, careful diet, adequate hours of sleep and all the other recommendations of scientific child rearing. Still the little arms and legs continue to be spindling. Tonics and cod liver oil fail to get rid of that pinched look, the concomitant of too little sunlight and too many hours indoors. In desperation such a family betakes itself to the country. The children weather tan. They respond to the more placid life and gradually gain the much sought after hardiness. Nature has been the physician without monthly bills for house or office treatments.
The children are not the only ones who gain. Healthy adults renew their energy and crave activity. Here opportunity lies close at hand. It may be swinging a golf club or going fishing. It may be such unorganized methods of stretching muscles and increasing breathing as pushing a lawn mower, raking leaves or weeding the delphinium border. All these sports and homely out-of-door duties and pleasures are nearby, many of them just the other side of the front door. Those classed as sports may require a country club membership but even this is on a more modest scale.
In fact, all potent are the economies made possible by leaving city or closely built suburb. House and land, either bought or rented, comes cheaper and is more ample. Along with this basic saving there are a number of others that help to leave something from the family income at the end of the year. Clothes last longer in the country and wardrobe requirements are simpler. Similarly, there is a distinct decrease in the money spent for amusements. When the nearest moving picture house is five miles away it is easy to stay at home. Going to the movies is not a matter of just running around the corner and so done automatically once or twice a week. Then there are such things as doctor's bills. While sickness, like taxes, visits every family no matter where it lives, we have found that we actually have less need of medical care living in the sticks than we did in town. Also the charges for competent care by both doctors and dentists are lower.
For the family inclined to delve in the soil, a definite saving can be accomplished by tending a vegetable garden, raising small fruits and berries, and even maintaining a hen roost. Some people (I would I could honestly include myself) have a gift for making things grow and getting crops that are worth the work that has gone into them. Likewise there is such a thing as possessing a knack with that unresponsive and perverse creature, the hen. Possibly good gardening and an egg-producing hen-yard are the result of willingness to take infinite pains but, out of my disappointments and half successes, I am more inclined to hold that it is luck and predestination. So, I have reduced agricultural activities sharply, but I do know families where each fall finds cellar shelves groaning under cans of fruits and vegetables, products of the garden, and foretelling distinct economies in purchases of canned goods or fresh vegetables.
One of the largest single savings that country life makes possible is elimination of private school tuition. Theoretically city public schools are good enough for anybody's children. Actually most good neighborhoods have an undesirable slum just around the corner and the public school is for the children of both. So, many city-dwelling families, not from snobbishness but because they do not want their young hopefuls to acquire slum manners and traits, dig deep into their bank accounts and send their children to private schools.
Seldom is this necessary in the country, especially if the educational system is investigated beforehand. Instead, the children start in a good consolidated graded school, proceed through the local high school, and are prepared for college with all the cost of tuition included in the tax bill that must be paid anyway. The children are none the worse for this less guarded education. They are, in fact, benefited for they have a democratic background that makes later life easier.
Besides these creature comforts and financial gains, there are the intangibles. Chief of these is that indescribable something, country peace. All the family responds to it. It is impossible to maintain the highly-keyed, nervous tension that characterizes city life when the domestic scene is surrounded by open fields or an occasional bit of woodland. The placid calm soothes frayed nerves and works wonders in restoring balance and perspective toward family and business problems. The harassed come to realize the inner truth of "God's in his heaven, all's right with the world."
Along with this, the family transplanted from the city gradually comes to know the genuine joys of much simpler pleasures. Separated from the professional recreations that beckon so engagingly in cities and the larger towns, adults and children alike develop resources within themselves. They learn that they can be just as contented with homely enjoyments as they ever were when they sat passively and were amused by some one who made it his profession. A tramp through the woods in the fall when there is a tang of frost in the air; the satisfaction of a long-planned flower bed in full bloom; a winter evening with a log fire blazing on the living-room hearth; are simple but as genuine as any of the pleasures known to city folk. Better yet, they are not exhausting. "Few people are strong enough to enjoy their pleasures," a friend once wisely observed. In the main, however, those of the country are less taxing and leave one refreshed which, after all, is the true purpose of recreation.
Against these gains of country living the costs must also be reckoned. These, as stated earlier, will hardly be felt if the individual really likes the country in its smiling moods as well as its frowning ones. One which the family recently separated from city ways may find hardest to accept is a demand for self-reliance. If the furnace will not burn, a water pipe springs a leak, a mid-winter blizzard deposits a snowdrift that all but blocks the front door, father or some one else must rise to the situation.
The country home has no janitor. The nearest plumber is two or five miles away. No gang of snow shovelers knocks at the door with offers to attack the mislocated snow at a price, albeit the highest they think the traffic will bear. Pioneer-like, some or all of the family must turn to and cope with such situations. Doing so, whether temporary like closing a pipe valve to stop the cascading water until the plumber arrives, or permanent like mastering the idiosyncrasies of the furnace, has its reward. From oldest to youngest, after a year or so there comes a sense of ability to cope with the unforeseen rather than to stand meekly by waiting for George to do it.
Again, it is not always smiling June with gentle breezes. There are also January, February and March, the months winter really settles to his task and delivers, as he will, snow storms, or spells of abnormally cold weather that make the house hard to heat and may freeze pipes. There are also rainy spells of two or three days' duration that come any time, spring, summer or fall. It is fun to be in the country when the sun shines. There are so many things to do and see out-of-doors. It is totally different when it rains and rains and still keeps on until everything outside is dripping and sodden. Then comes the testing time. Child or grown-up must accept such bad weather and make light of its restrictions, or country living is hard indeed. But did you ever put on boots and oilskins and go for a long walk in the rain just for the pure joy of it? Try it some time. You will see fields and bushes with different eyes and hear that most musical of all country sounds, the rush of tiny brooks in full flood. Even the birds have their rainy day manners and ways.
The most ardent country advocate, however, cannot deny that in some respects such a life has certain expenses not entered in the budget of families living in town. First and foremost, if father has his city job there is the monthly commutation book as well as the occasional railroad fares when other members of the family go to the city. There is no argument about it. These are added expenses but they are more than offset by reductions in the fixed charges. Also by selecting where you will live, transportation costs can be controlled.
Expenditures incident to entertaining are another matter. One of the pleasantest things about living out-of-town is the week-end. From Friday night or Saturday noon until Monday morning the city is forgotten. Of course, part of the time, you will want to share these days with friends still cooped in apartments. Week-end guests vary the picture and are worth both the effort and money entertaining them involves. But don't think that will be all. No country-living family is safe from either friends or casual acquaintances in these days of motor cars. They will appear most unexpectedly and assume that you are as delighted to see them as they are to have you as an objective for a Sunday afternoon motor trip.
At first it is flattering to have people come so far just to see you. Then the novelty of it wears a little thin and you begin to realize that frequently Monday morning finds the refrigerator swept bare. In time it will dawn on you that part of the up-keep of a country home revolves around feeding your self-invited guests. It would not be so bad if they would telephone ahead so that you could be prepared, but that is not one of the rules of the game. Instead, it is taken for granted that living in the country, you have a never-failing pantry. The solution lies in preparedness. From early spring until about Thanksgiving time, have in reserve some simple supplies for an acceptable afternoon tea or Sunday night supper.
One household of my acquaintance always has large pitchers of milk, a supply of crackers, two or three kinds of cheese, a platter of sandwiches, home-made cake and a hot drink. As many as wish are welcome to come at the last moment for this standard Sunday night supper. Its simplicity has earned this repast a wide reputation and it is considered a great lark to go there. Incidentally, this truly rural supper is so inexpensive that it matters little how many are on hand Sunday evenings. Also the chore of washing dishes after the last guests have gone is reduced to lowest terms, likewise an item not to be overlooked.
This trend toward country living, now so far flung as to be a characteristic of American life, is not just a fad. It has been a slow steady growth and has behind it a tradition of a century and more. When our larger commercial centers first began to change from villages to compact urban communities, there were those who found even these miniature cities far too congested. It was incomprehensible to them that a family should exist without land enough for such prime requisites as a cow, a hen-yard, and a vegetable garden. No family that really lived and properly enjoyed the pleasures of the table could be without them. Besides, epidemics of yellow fever came with summer as naturally as sleighing with winter.
So for health and good living they began to move far into the country,—that is, three or four miles out of town,—and stage coach routes were established to transport the heads of such families to and from business either the year around or for the summer months. These stages or the private carriages of the more ostentatious were, of course, horse-drawn which limited the distance which could be traveled.
The next step was the railroads. Hardly were they practical means of transportation that could be relied on day in and day out, before commutation tickets were offered for those hardy enough to endure daily trips of a dozen miles or more between home and office. Gradually the peaceful farming villages surrounding cities were transformed into something new to the American scene, the suburban town, but it remained impractical for most people to live farther from the station than a convenient walk. When electric car lines were added, the distance was extended materially and the farm lands just outside these suburban towns took on new value. Near car lines, they could be sold to those not primarily concerned with agriculture. The interurban electric roads also made many so-called abandoned farms in various parts of the country practical for families who wished to live farther from commercial centers either throughout the year or for the summer months, since they provided that great essential, a quick means of getting to shopping towns. Still great sections of back country, too far from railroads and electric car lines, remained strictly rural.
Finally the automobile, made inexpensive enough for families of average income and provided with that great innovation, the self-starter, changed it all. This was not so very long ago. Approximately with the World War came the moderate-priced car that need not be cranked by hand. Driving it was no longer a sporting male occupation too often marred by broken arms and sprained wrists, the painful outcome of hand-cranking when the motor "back-fired." With the self-starter car driving went feminine. Mother, as well as father, could and did drive. It was now practical for automobile owning families to live farther from railroad stations and villages.
Unnoticed at the time, a new sort of pioneering began. City-dwelling people turned hungry eyes toward the cheap country farmhouses located beyond limits of horse and carriage travel. By 1920, this trend was in full swing and greatly expedited by the program of highway improvement and rebuilding that spread across the country.
With a quick and easy means of travel, good roads, telephone and electric service, farmhouses which but a few years before had been as isolated as when Horace Greeley was thundering, "Go West, young man, go West," were isolated no more. Prices rose but not beyond the purchasing power of those who sought escape from city congestion or the restrictions of fifty-foot suburban lots. The gasoline age had done it. It had married rural peace to rapid transportation. If you had to earn your living in the city, it was no longer required that you and your family live in its midst. A tranquil country home was yours if you would reach for it.
SELECTING THE LOCATION
SELECTING THE LOCATION
It is to be questioned whether any city dwelling family suddenly determines to move to the country. Such changes in one's way of life are not decided as casually as trading in the old car for a model of the current year. Usually the decision to pioneer backward is reached so gradually that those who take the step can hardly tell in retrospect just when the die was cast. A vacation or summer in the country may have put it in mind. Then a period of vague indecision follows when city and country appear about equally attractive. Suddenly some chance happening turns the scale.
A week-end invitation for cider making in the Hoosatonic Valley in early November would seem harmless enough, but from it dated our own determination to cease to be city dwellers. It must be admitted that the stage-setting was perfect. A twenty-mile ride on the evening of our arrival through the sharp clear air with a full harvest moon hanging high in the heavens, while along the way lights twinkled hospitably from the farmhouses that dotted the countryside. A bright crisp morning and a breakfast of sausages, griddle cakes and syrup. This would have been viewed with lack-luster eye in our overheated city apartment but was somehow just right in this fireplace heated country room with a tang of chill in the far corners.
Later we were to find that plenty of November nights could be raw and stormy; that fireplaces could sulk and give out such grudging heat as to make the room wholly chill. But none of this appeared on that memorable week-end. It waxed warm enough at midday for all of the outdoor pleasures that the country affords. We were in congenial company and evening found us with a sense of peace and well-being that more than balanced the loss of a theatre or dinner party in town. We were guilty of the usual platitudes about "God's country and the normal way to live" and knew they were that but didn't care.
However, there was no rushing around to get a place right across the way. A whole winter went by, pleasantly spent doing the usual things. Then came spring, a season that not even the city can wholly neutralize. There were a number of seemingly aimless Sunday trips beyond the urban fringe. There was considerable casual comment on various houses in attractive settings. One charming old place ideally located on a back road proved to be part of a water-shed reservation. Another equally charming plaster house was "too far out." As we admitted that, we realized that we had joined that not inconsiderable group who "want to have their cake and eat it too." That is, we really wanted a place in the country but we wanted it near enough so that the desk of the very necessary and important job could be reached without too much effort. Also the idea of an occasional evening in town was not to be dismissed lightly.
Such humdrum items as railroad time tables were consulted. Having decided that the ideal location would be one in which the time required for train trip and motoring from house to station would come within an hour, we limited our search to that section just beyond the suburban fringe in Connecticut and Westchester County, New York. We had no clear idea of the type of house we wanted, save that it be old and of good lines. We looked with and without the aid of real estate dealers. We deluged our friends already living in the country with queries.
We found a disheartening number of fine old houses, located just wrong. There was a splendid, two-story brick house with hall running through the middle. But it stood in the commercial section of a village, its door steps flush with the sidewalk, and was hemmed in on one side by a gas station. There was a neat little story-and-a-half stone house with picket fence, old-fashioned rose bushes, and beautiful shade trees. It had once been the parsonage of the neighboring church. Unhappily the old churchyard lay between.
Now, we are not people who whistle determinedly when passing a marble orchard at midnight nor do we see white luminous shapes flitting among the tombstones. But daily gazing upon one's final resting place, we felt might, in time, prove depressing. Besides, we were by no means certain that our friends had developed the callous indifference of a young couple we heard of years later. Curiously free of inhibitions, these two people bought an attractive old farmhouse with a family burying lot located a fair distance from the house. The little plot with its eight or ten simple headstones was unobtrusive and rather gave an air of family roots deep in the soil, a quality all too rare in America. These young vandals could not let well enough alone. They uprooted the headstones and laid them end to end for a walk to their front door! They were considering the plot itself as a possible tennis court when outraged public opinion forced them to put the stones back. In fact, the general hostility was so marked that they finally abandoned the place and it was later sold at a distinct loss.
But back to the little gray parsonage; its location and the fact that train service in its vicinity was poor, were the two deciding votes against it. Another attractive house in a good location was ruled out because our car got stuck in a spring hole practically in sight of it. A mile or so of dirt road to the station is no drawback, provided it is passable at all times of the year. This one was obviously poor, even in summer. Finally a real estate broker showed us a picture of a modest 18th century farm cottage. We visited the place one dreary sunless day in late March, investigated the neighborhood, determined the time required to drive to the nearest railroad station, and bought it, all in one week.
In general, we are not sure that such haste is advisable. There were certain disadvantages that we did not observe; there were others where we turned a blind eye because we were infatuated with the place and determined to have it. Fortunately time has taken care of practically all of these. In short, we have come to believe that a place in the country is, like marriage, just what you make it. In both cases, though, one's emotions should be under control, so here are a few salient points for the searcher after a suitable location.
First and foremost, decide on the sort of life you wish to lead. Then pick your location to fit it. If you are not chained to a city desk five days a week but at best make only one or two weekly trips there, a railroad journey of two or three hours is endurable especially when a highly attractive place lies at the end. For such a person, the radius in which to look for likely places is much extended and the farther out, the more advantageous the prices. But for one individual so fortunately situated, there are more than a hundred who must choose a place near enough for daily trips to the city.
For the latter the ideal situation is, as stated before, an hour from house to office. That is the ideal but, in all honesty, we must admit that few attain it. The average country commuter is a born optimist on this point and will unblushingly distort facts in a manner to put the most ardent fisherman to shame. But figures don't lie. If the time table, say between Stamford, Connecticut, and the Grand Central, New York, gives its fastest running time as fifty minutes, it means exactly that. You may plan to hurtle through the air at sixty miles an hour to the station but traffic and road conditions will not always let you. Besides, what is the hurry? Allow twenty or thirty minutes instead of fifteen for a normal run of twelve miles and have peace of mind. That gives you an hour and ten or fifteen minutes between your house and the city. Add the time needed to get from the train to your office and you know what is before you. We mention this station trip of twelve miles as about the maximum for the hardy commuter although there are a few who take more punishment than that. Of course if the perfect place can be found only four to six miles from the station that is all the better.
Transportation is an all important consideration both as regards time and expense. There are beautiful countrysides fairly near large centers that are so hampered by poor train service as to be almost out of the question for the everyday commuter. Of course, there may be an adequate service or it may be practical to drive to and from business. The latter is not at all uncommon with the country areas near the smaller industrial centers. Here the fortunate commuter is free from exacting train schedules; a five or ten minutes' drive sees him outside the city limits, and another twenty or thirty may find him rolling into his own driveway. Smooth sailing between office and home depend only on a reliable car and good roads.
One should make sure the latter are passable in the winter at all times. For instance, are the Town Fathers liberal with the snow plow? Can its cheery hum be heard even at midnight if a heavy fall of snow makes it necessary? Does it come down the little dirt road where your modest acres are located? These are questions all commuters should ask whether their journey cityward is made entirely by automobile or partly by train. Further, whatever means of transportation are used, the monthly cost should be reckoned carefully. It is one of the largest single items involved in this scheme of living in the country and working in the city.
There is also the question of food and other household supplies. Granted one no longer expects to run around the corner for a loaf of bread or a dozen eggs that may have been left off the morning shopping lists, just how far away is the nearest grocer? Is he at all receptive to the idea of making an occasional delivery in the outlying districts? How about the rubbish collector, if any; the milkman; the purveyors of ice, coal and wood? Are there a lighting system in the vicinity, telephone facilities, and so forth? These last need not be deciding factors, all other things being equal. They are simply matters to investigate. It is then for the family to decide whether to do without any or all of them if necessary.
Besides in a wisely chosen location, these, though lacking at first, are soon added as the demand grows. When we began our own experiment in country living, it was with difficulty that we got even a telephone installed. Instead of electricity, our evenings were lighted by candles or kerosene lamps and our meals were cooked on an oil stove. Grocers and other tradesmen didn't even know how to get to the little area. Yet within three years enough other people like us had moved into the vicinity to warrant extension of electric service through the neighborhood, and a milk route, rubbish service, deliveries of laundry, food, ice, and other household needs were soon added. The Fuller brush man has for years known the way to our door and now even our Sunday newspapers are delivered, although we are six miles from the nearest news stand.
This brings us to the question of neighborhood, which is important. Beware of a place too near a small factory settlement. The latter is apt to grow and destroy the peace you have come so far to get. Besides, your property value will decline in direct ratio. We once knew a charming place set high on a hill with neat hedges, shrubs, and arbors reminiscent of England, birthplace of the man who built and developed it. The family that bought the property forgot to look down at the foot of the hill. If they had, they would have seen a large and efficient looking factory and could have read the signs accordingly.
The disadvantages of a country home located close to a hamlet inhabited by old native stock families that have degenerated should be weighed carefully. Such people resent what they consider unwarranted intrusion by newcomers and have many underhanded ways of expressing their antagonism. Of course, if these settlers are merely tenants and the region shows distinct signs that a number of city pioneers are about to buy property there, it may be a gamble worth taking, since one can always buy property cheaper before a boom than after it has set in. Also, these settlements are frequently located in the most beautiful sections of the country. Some of the houses are quaint farm cottages that only need a thorough cleaning and a little intelligent restoration to make them attractive homes for any one.
Again, some of the most picturesque and desirable locations are off on by-roads. They are much to be preferred to property directly on the main highway since they are well away from the roar of traffic; and if there are children or pets, one need not be constantly on the alert to keep them from straying off the premises. However, half a mile off the main highway answers the purpose as well as a longer distance and one must be sure that half mile is passable at all times of the year.
We have in mind one young couple who bought a place in Vermont. It stands well up on a hill and the view is worth going many miles to see. A picturesque dirt road winds a crooked mile up to it. Very attractive for summer but these two live there the year around. The snow drifts deep in winter, and early spring and late fall find the mud so deep that the average car bogs down hopelessly. Thus, they are virtual prisoners during these seasons. Of course that is an extreme case and even here the road can be made passable but only at heavy expense which must be borne principally by the householder.
Lastly, in selecting the locality for your experiment in country living, if there are children consideration of schools is essential. The ratings and relative standings of graded and high schools in various localities, may be easily obtained through state educational authorities, college entrance boards, and similar organizations. But even where the rating report is good, personal investigation is advisable. Certain social elements enter in, despite the sound and democratic principles underlying the American public school system.
For example, a would-be country dweller leased a house, with option to buy, in a very good neighborhood. House, location, and surroundings exactly pleased and it was a scant ten minutes from the station on a good road. The school system was well rated but the graded school for this section drew a majority of its pupils from a textile mill settlement two or three miles away. The children of the English spinners and weavers were decent, well-behaved youngsters but their speech was distinctly along cockney lines. Within a few months the three small sons of the new country dweller had developed habits of speech native to the English textile towns. Stern correction at home availed little and their parents abandoned the idea of buying in that locality. Instead, another was selected after personal inspection of the school to which the three boys would go. The new home is not, in some respects, as attractive as the other nor is it as convenient for commuting, but one cannot have everything. They are content and the small boys are once more expressing themselves with a New England accent.
In inspecting both the graded and high schools of a neighborhood that pleases you, the obvious things are the buildings, school bus service, play space, provisions for school lunches and so forth. These are tangible and can be readily observed. Much more important are the intangibles. These include the scholastic standing of the particular school; the pedagogical ability and personality of the individual teachers; and, finally, whether those who manage village, borough, or town governments, provide adequate school appropriations.
Schools that really educate children can be operated on starvation budgets but, more often than not, the quality of teaching suffers. Likewise the schools of a town reflect the capacity and ability of those in charge. To judge this, make it a point to meet the local school superintendent. If there is a parent-teachers association, a frank discussion with its leader is an excellent idea. From talks like these you can sometimes gather cogent information that neither superintendent nor member of the school association would or could put in writing. If possible observe the school while it is in session. The attitude of teachers and children should enable you to form an estimate of it as a whole.
In determining the scholastic standing of a high school, its rating by college entrance boards, the success in college of recent graduates, and kindred data can be readily obtained and will tell a complete story. However, under present conditions, there are some excellent high schools which pay little or no attention to college preparation because relatively few pupils intend to enter college. If this condition prevails at the high school your children would normally attend and your plans for them include college or technical school, recognition of it is important. A year or two in a good private school that makes a specialty of college preparation is probably the answer. But don't wait until a son or daughter is nearly through the local high school to discover this lack of specific preparation.
If, on the other hand, you do not intend to send your children to the schools where tuition is included in the tax bill, be just as careful in judging the private school. The term private means just what it says, it is open to children whose parents make private or separate payment for their education. This condition, however, is no guarantee that the quality of teaching will excel or even equal that of the free or public institution.
The private ventures are not under as rigid supervision as those supported by tax revenues and we have known of instances where the former were distinctly below standard. With a private day school having relatively few pupils and a tuition revenue only slightly above the cost of operation, it requires considerable strength of character for its owner not to gloss over a pupil's shortcomings. If dealt with impartially, these might mean that darling Willie would be withdrawn and sent elsewhere. Loss of tuition is the nightmare of the head of such a school. Hence, fear of financial loss, dread of disagreeable interviews with parents, or misguided leniency can have a very bad effect on the education and training of the pupils.
Yet there are small day schools and larger institutions with both day and resident pupils that give superior training. It is largely a matter of the attitude and capacity of the principal or head. If he or she is a real teacher and has good assistants, the children will be well taught, regardless of the physical plant. So, in choosing a private school, make sure the education it affords is worth the tuition father pays.
Putting the children in a private school necessitates one thing more. That is transportation. Sometimes a private bus takes care of this matter. If not, mother must be tied to a daily schedule of driving the youngsters to and from school. This usually entails a second car. Here, as with other matters, the initial cost is by no means all; there is the up-keep. This should not be overlooked, for in the twelve years between the first grade and the last high school year, it becomes an increasing burden as school hours lengthen and athletic activities become, to the children at least, supremely important.
SHOPPING FOR PROPERTY
SHOPPING FOR PROPERTY
The early American pioneer pushed into the wilderness looking for a likely spot to settle. When he had either found it or had traveled as far as he could, he staked out land and built a rude shelter for his family until such time as he could afford better. Today's pioneer decides whether he will have a house and five or more acres in commuting distance of the city, a farm several hours away from it, or a sporting estate. Then, still seated in an easy chair, he reaches for real estate advertising as found in newspaper, magazine or folder.
For the first, nothing is better than newspaper classified advertising, particularly that found in the Sunday paper. If he would have a farm far from the madding crowd, there are the farm catalogues issued by a variety of real estate organizations. These can be most helpful if intelligently read. And the prospective buyer of a fancy farm or sporting estate will do best to turn to the advertising columns of those magazines where the editorial scope deals with that type of country life.
Consulting such advertising for whatever kind of country home is wanted will give the prospective buyer some definite impressions. Of course he won't know what any of the places actually look like, though reading between the lines may give him some idea; but he will at least have gleaned a little information as to prices in a given locality and have the names of brokers with offerings that might be of interest. A decade ago, if one really wanted a country place one began looking at actual pieces of property at this point, either with or without a broker. During the past two or three years, however, a novel source of information regarding such property has come into being.
It is somewhat of a cross between a news reel moving picture theatre and a real estate broker's office. There is a projection room, a small moving picture machine, and an extensive file of films of various properties that are on the market. Here the prospective buyer is shown shorts of all those listed with that particular clearing house. After the showing, if one or more places appeal sufficiently so that the prospect wants to visit them, he is given the broker's name and address. This saves much time and hours of travel for all concerned.
In an hour or two spent so shopping, you can get first impressions of more places than you could possibly visit in a month of week-ends. Thus you can limit your selection of places to be visited. The cost of this novel method of showing property is met by an arrangement whereby seller and broker reward the picture house if the sale is consummated.
When you actually begin to look at property, a few don'ts are in order if you would steer a fair course to the country home you have in mind.
Don't expect any place to have all the requirements included in your mental picture.
Don't buy a place that does not appeal to you. Each year you will like it less.
Don't buy a bargain without finding out why it is below the prevailing price. Only too often it proves extremely expensive.
Don't disparage a piece of property with the naive idea that by so doing the price will be lowered. You only arouse resentment on the part of the owner.
Don't make a pest of yourself by too frequent visits to a place that attracts you.
Don't try to eliminate the real estate broker. If he really knows his territory, his services are worth far more than his fee which is paid by the seller anyway.
Don't lose your temper during the negotiations that must precede the terms of sale. You may lose the place that just suits you.
Don't expect to buy property with wooden money. That custom went out shortly after 1929.
If you can subscribe to these points, you are one of those who really want a country home and will eventually find one. Those who only think they do will stumble over some detail and then settle back with a plaintive, "We would love to move to the country if we could only find a place like yours." Castles in the air have everything, for imagination builds them; but those planted four square upon the earth always have certain "outs," even though you buy a perfect building site and put the house you have dreamed of thereon.
Personally, we have always wanted a little gray house mellowed by the summers and winters of at least a century. What we bought was a small story-and-a-half farm cottage with outer walls of weathered shingles, painted red. It is old. During the Revolution, a British soldier was slain in the very doorway as he came out with loot from the upper rooms. It would undoubtedly be a haunted house in England but here our eyes are holden and we have never seen him, nor have any of our guests.
We still admire gray stone houses of which there are plenty down in the Pennsylvania Dutch country but we are honestly suited with what we have. Its general outline is akin to the house we envisioned and the mellow tone of its red-shingled exterior has a charm of its own. True, the grounds are lacking in those little irregularities that enable one to develop secluded spots and charming rock gardens. No brook runs through them and there is no high point of land where one looks off to a brilliant summer sunset or hills blue with haze. It is just a pleasing peaceful spot and we like it.
In short, have all the preconceived notions you want but keep an open mind as well as an open eye. We know of two or three families that are absolutely satisfied with their country homes, yet are perfectly frank in admitting that they are in no way the type of house or setting indicated by their preliminary specifications. They saw them in the course of their search and, despite the divergence, recognized that they met their demands.
One of our friends had steadfastly insisted that his country house must sit on a hilltop where he could have a view, see the sun rise and set, and be cooled by a fine breeze on the most torrid day. He bought an entire farm just to get an upland pasture with the required hilltop. Luckily he called in an architect and was mercifully prevented from getting what he wanted. His house was finally built on a sightly but sheltered spot about halfway below the high point of his land. He has since learned that during the winter months the prevailing westerly winds so sweep that hilltop that heating a house placed there would be expensive and difficult. Also, these same winds would be apt to work havoc with his shrubbery and flower garden.
On the contrary, don't let yourself be stampeded into buying something that definitely does not appeal, just because you are a little tired of looking but are bound to live in the country anyway. Real estate dealers and would-be helpful friends may have rallied around and, after showing you a score or more parcels of land, begin hinting that you are hard to please. Possibly, but just remember that your money purchases the place and that you, not they, will have to live there. Two people once spent years looking for a place within easy commuting distance of Philadelphia. Friends and brokers became exhausted and fell by the way. Word was passed around among the latter that these people were "just lookers and there was no use bothering with them." One day a broker, hoping to be rid of them, showed a piece of property so unsightly and generally run down that he thought no one could possibly want it. To his amazement, they liked it, saw its possibilities and, after proper investigation, bought for cash with never a quibble over the price. They showed rare intelligence in restoring both house and grounds and are living contentedly there today.
Most of us, though, who really want a country home are of no mind to spend years looking for one. It may be that the lease on the city apartment is due to expire in a few months and one must decide whether it is to be renewed or not. There may be children in the family who are in urgent need of the fresh air and outdoor life of the country. Under such circumstances, it is often a real advantage to rent a place for a year with option to buy. One learns both the good and bad qualities of a house in that time at probably no greater cost than continued rental for a city establishment. Further, if you decide to buy it at the end of the year, the rental paid may apply on the purchase price.
You can thus have plenty of time to look over other property in the vicinity. Perhaps it may be impossible to find a house that really pleases, but you do discover an ideal site. It may be a fine old orchard. It may be a tree-shaded spot with an old cellar marking the place where a house once stood. It may be an undeveloped hillside. In such an event, you have the advantage of either building a house to your liking, or finding an old one and moving it there.
Be very sceptical about "bargains" in your search. Relatively few people underestimate the value of their possessions. Perhaps they are really willing to sell at a sacrifice "because father can't stand the cold winters any more" or "because we like to feel the place is in good hands." But it would seem more reasonable that father's declining years in Florida or California would be sweetened in direct ratio to the amount realized on his property. So look well for the real reason. The house may be unduly expensive to maintain. It may be so badly built that bigger and better repairs become a constant drain on the family purse. There may be something so wrong with the adjoining property that one must either buy that, too, or give up any idea of living on the spot with any comfort or pleasure.
Back in 1928, a man bought a comparatively new house and eight acres of land for a sum far below the prevailing prices in the vicinity. The grounds were attractive and the lawn well shaded with fine old maples. He acquired this "bargain" in the late fall without benefit of real estate dealer. In fact, he boasted of his acumen to a broker who had originally shown him several other pieces of property in the section.
"I told you there were cheaper places," he chortled, "and the owner gave me the advantage of the broker's commission, too. Come out next spring and see what a bargain I found." In late May there came a wail for help from the cocksure buyer. A few days of unseasonably warm weather and a strong east wind had revealed the reason for the bargain. Back of a wooded area to the rear of his holding, was a combination hog farm and refuse dump. The owner of it got little or no rental from the tenant farmer who carried on his noisome business but he was well aware of its nuisance value to his new neighbor. Here indeed was a situation requiring the services of that middle man, the real estate broker. The latter was a good business man and by using all his guile, he eventually acquired the hog farm for his client at a fair price. But even at that, the man now had ten additional acres that he didn't want and couldn't use. When the cost of the added land and clearing it of refuse had been met, his place was not the bargain it had seemed originally.
This does not mean that there are never any country places to be had at real bargains. It is a case of being keen enough or lucky enough to locate one. There can be a number of legitimate reasons why a piece of property is on the market at a price below its general worth. There may be urgent financial reasons why the owner must sell. In this unhappy situation he cannot be too firm as to price and will usually accept a sum actually below the market value in order to salvage a fair proportion of what he may have invested.
Another type of bargain is that of property that has only recently become available for country homes through the construction of a new motor highway or some other major development. For example, the electrification of the Pennsylvania Railroad and a concrete automobile road from Trenton, New Jersey, into Bucks County, Pennsylvania, have brought old farms in and around Doylestown, Pennsylvania, within an hour and a half of New York City. This condition has not existed long and Bucks County farms on an acreage basis may still be bought distinctly cheaper than in practically any other section equi-distant in travel time from New York.
Again, some particular place may be owned by an estate with a number of heirs who want their money. None of them feels inclined to take over the property and pay off the others. All are in a hurry to get their share of what Uncle Henry left. Eventually the property goes at a partition sale which is the bargain basement of real estate. Partition sales and heirs hungry for ready money are keenly watched by those who buy purely for investment and with the expectation of resale to some one wanting a country home. Hence the ultimate consumer rarely benefits. But occasionally the regular investor finds the matter of resale neither as simple nor as rapid as he had expected.
For some years we watched a charming little place that a real estate investor had acquired at such a partition sale. It was first offered "in the rough." Then the abandoned household gear and accumulated trash were removed. With growing nervousness the investor applied a coat of paint to the house and hung neat painted shutters at the windows. He tore down dilapidated outbuildings and converted the barn into a garage. The place still hung unplucked on his commercial tree. After three dismal years he parted with it at a price but little above that paid at the partition sale.
It was a desirable property but the investor had been over greedy and had put his original asking price far too high. By the time he was chastened enough to listen to reasonable offers, most of the prospective buyers had crossed that place off their list. The ultimate purchaser acquired a real bargain by happening along at the psychological moment when the investor was sick of his deal and ready to part with it at little or no profit.
This was, of course, very much a matter of luck. It is also a matter of luck when buyer and seller deal directly with each other to mutual advantage. For that reason it is poor economy to try dispensing with the services of a real estate broker. A reliable one is an invaluable guide, mentor, and friend to the lamb fresh from the city. Let him know what you want and what you are willing to pay and he will do his best to find it. If a place interests you, look it over well but don't insist on so many showings that you wear out the patience of its occupants. Never, never belittle any property in the hearing of its owner. There are all too many people, cocksure but ignorant of human nature, who believe this helps to get a bargain. It works just the opposite. One would not expect to please a man by telling him that his son was wall-eyed and therefore no asset. The same man is no better pleased at hearing that his house is ugly or that the interior is something to shudder at. The prospective buyer who admits he covets the house but cannot quite meet the purchase price is much more apt to get the benefit of easier terms.
Real estate buying is still a dicker business. Get your own idea of values and then make an offer—to the broker. It is part of his job to negotiate this difference between asking and actual purchasing price. Theoretically buyer and seller should be able to meet and discuss the little matter of price in sensible and friendly fashion. Actually, there is usually as much need of a diplomat here as between two nations. One very successful broker recently admitted that he tries to keep buyer and seller apart as much as possible when negotiating the details of price, terms, concessions and the like. He stated that it is amazing how ordinarily sensible people, in the heat of a dicker over a piece of property, can get at a practical deadlock over the disposal of a cord of wood or whether a cupboard, worth possibly five dollars, is to be left with the house or removed.
So keep your temper, especially when it is a question of property you really want. We have known people who were turned aside from an ideal place for which they had hunted months, because the seller failed to fall in with some totally unimportant detail or because they didn't like something his lawyer said or the way he said it. Sellers may be cantankerous and their lawyers exasperating, but remember, you do not inherit them along with the property. Once the latter has been acquired, which is your real objective, they pass out of the picture along with your irritation at them.
In buying any property, however, make sure that the title is clear. The author of the old hymn, "When I can read my title clear to mansions in the skies," must have been familiar with the complications attendant on acquiring earthly domiciles. In other words, if the place on which you have set your heart is suffering from that obscure complaint known as a "cloudy title," it is something to be let alone unless the seller can clear it. By this term is meant that somewhere in the chain of ownership from the original land grant, some seller could not give a clear, warranted title.
There are many contributing causes for such a condition, particularly with country property in the older sections where wills and deeds were not always drawn with clarity and skill. Old second or third mortgages, presumably paid, for which satisfactions were never recorded; tax liens that have not been cleared; or possible interests of minority heirs under a will dating back a generation or more; are some of the most common causes for imperfect titles. But if one is patient and the seller is willing to cooperate, such clouds can usually be removed.
Sometimes one discovers a desirable piece of property with a cloudy title due to a family feud or the stubbornness of the present owner. Here it may be to the buyer's advantage to obtain an option on it and engage a local lawyer experienced in real estate matters to perfect the title. For example, two spinster sisters lived in their father's old farmhouse. They were not at all averse to selling, but under the terms of their father's will, a niece in a state institution for the feeble minded held a life interest in the place. Her aunts grimly refused to sell and hand over the sum representing her interest to her guardian. "Alice has cost us plenty and never been anything but a source of worry. Not a dollar more of our money goes to her as long as we live. She is in an institution where she belongs. Besides, her father was a rascal."
They were willing to sell at a price several thousand dollars less than like places in the neighborhood were bringing. So a prospective buyer negotiated an arrangement whereby he acquired an option to buy the property at this low price, provided he could make a settlement for the niece's contingent interest at his own expense. It took about six months but at last a settlement was reached through the courts. For about five hundred dollars paid to the guardian of the incompetent woman and an equal amount in court and lawyer's fees, he obtained a quit claim deed of her interest that satisfied the requirements of the corporation that was to insure the validity of the title. The day after the purchase was consummated, the new owner was offered a price for the property that would have given him a substantial profit above his investment and expenses, had he cared to sell.
Under such circumstances, however, the buyer should be sure the property is a good enough investment to be worth so much time and trouble and he should never embark on such an undertaking without the best possible legal advice. Most important of all, his contract to buy should be so drawn that ample time is allowed for the work of perfecting the title. There should also be a provision allowing him to withdraw from the contract and to regain his option money, if clearing the title proves impossible or there is too great expense.
Another detail that should be taken into account, especially with land once used for farming, is the possibility of old, half forgotten rights of way. In the legal argot, a right of way is a permission to cross property that has road frontage to reach fields, pasturage, wood lots, or the like which are otherwise without means of access. To be binding, of course, such agreements must have been recorded. Where they date back half a century and have been forgotten and unused for many years, lawyers are sometimes careless in their title search and overlook them. This is a serious omission since they can suddenly be revived to the discomfort of a totally innocent buyer.
Some years ago a man bought a simple farmhouse as a summer home. One spring he discovered that a neighbor had acquired a cow and, night and morning, was driving it across his lawn and flower garden. At his indignant protests, the neighbor sarcastically pointed out an old gateway in the stone wall dividing their property and cited an agreement almost a century old that provided for a right of way for cattle across what was now lawn and flower garden. Of course reviving this right was a case of pure spite and eventually there was a law suit. The man with the cow came to terms, his own of course, and for a cash consideration relinquished his cow driving rights. Meanwhile the owner of the property had been put to some expense and plenty of annoyance.
With the final decision to buy a piece of property financial details come to the fore. An "all cash basis" is not uncommon these days and often brings a sizable reduction in the asking price. Where a mortgage is desired, fifty per cent of the purchase price must be cash for house and land, or the entire amount on unimproved land. With the latter, the mortgage lender will expect you to provide at least half of the total cost of the land and the proposed house. Gone are the days when country homes could be bought with first and second mortgages and very little cash. This type of financing was tried and found wanting during the late depression, since it led many people to commit themselves to payments they could not continue if reverses were experienced.
There are various kinds of first mortgages now being used to assist in financing the purchase of a country home. One of the oldest is the purchase money type. This is given the seller as part of the total price paid by the buyer. Formerly such mortgages were for a short term, three or five years, and payable in full at the end of that period. Now some of them are for longer periods and provide for monthly amortization charges by which the mortgage is paid in full by the end of the time specified.
The Federal Housing Administration mortgages, which are a recent New Deal endeavor to make funds for home buying or building safe and stable, are issued by local banks with the payment of interest and principle guaranteed to the bank through the operation of this government controlled agency. These mortgages are amortized over periods of ten, fifteen, and twenty years and the borrower must make specified monthly payments that include taxes, interest charges, and amortization. They are not available in all sections because some local banks hold that they conflict in details with other banking regulations. So far as the borrower is concerned, these mortgages are no different from any other similar method of financing. If payments are not made regularly and promptly, foreclosure proceedings will be started.
Large insurance companies or savings and loan associations also issue fifteen to twenty year first mortgages, amortized over the period by monthly, quarterly, or semi-annual payments. The interest rate varies from five to five and a half per cent. If such a mortgage is arranged for a new house, architect's plans and specifications must be submitted with the application for loan. The site must be free and clear of all mortgages or other obligations. Your own financial rating is looked up by the lender and, if satisfactory, the company issues a commitment that you can take to your local bank where definite amounts are paid as the work progresses; so much when exterior walls are complete; such a proportion when rough piping for plumbing has been installed; another amount when all lath and plaster has been finished; and so on until the final payment when the house is finished. Then the formal mortgage is executed and recorded. There are brokers who specialize in negotiating such mortgages. Their fee is about two per cent.
So much for the usual channels of financing. In addition, the buyer can still make his own mortgage arrangements with some investor who has money to loan if he knows such a person. Further, although second mortgages should be avoided if possible, they are sometimes issued where a buyer is considered a good risk but lacks sufficient capital to meet the fifty per cent cash requirement that prevails today. Such loans are not usually made for over twenty per cent of the appraised value and generally call for a higher rate of interest, six per cent. They are also apt to be for a short term, two or three years, when they must be paid in full.
With both first and second mortgages, the lenders will inquire carefully into the financial responsibility of the would-be borrower. They will want to know exactly how much of his own ready money he plans to use in the transaction. This is to be sure that he has a substantial equity in the property and will not be struggling under too great a financial burden.
Having perfected the method for financing your purchase, now comes the formal contract to buy. This is an agreement whereby you undertake to consummate the purchase at a future date, generally thirty to sixty days, at the agreed price. On executing such a contract, which should be reviewed by your lawyer before you, as buyer, sign it, expect to pay the seller through the broker ten per cent of the total purchase price. This is done on signing the contract. The time between signing this contract and the date set for the title closing is employed for title search and insurance, land survey and similar details. If the title proves imperfect so that you cannot complete the purchase, your check is returned to you. As for the cost of title insurance, the corporations issuing such policies have an established scale of prices. These vary slightly in different parts of the country. Title policies have generally replaced the old independent title search by lawyers that had no elements of insurance. Where a company has already searched and insured the title, reissue of the policy is made to you at about half the original fee.
The cost of surveying property is based on the amount of work involved. For surveying five acres of what was formerly farm land and that has never had its borders so measured and defined, the average charge today is from one hundred to one hundred and twenty-five dollars. Special conditions may raise or lower this. An established surveyor who knows the locality is, of course, the best person to undertake such work. His previous surveys of other adjacent properties can often enable him to locate and identify old boundary marks that some one not conversant with the locality might find baffling. Much country property is very vaguely described by old deeds. "Fifty acres more or less bounded on the east by the highway, northerly by land owned by Jones, westerly to that of or recently owned by Smith, and southerly by that of Brown," illustrates roughly an old title description. You may get forty-five or fifty-five acres, and it is up to you to establish just what fences and so forth are your actual boundaries.
A surveyor reduces all this to exact measurements and puts definite markers at the corners and wherever else the party lines change direction. When finished, he provides you with a certified copy of his survey in map form, giving distances and indicating location of his monuments. These are usually either iron stakes driven two or three feet into the ground or concrete posts about two inches square set in the ground and plainly visible. It is illegal to move such marks.
With title clear and the survey completed, everything is ready for the title closing, as lawyers call the time when title to the property passes from seller to buyer. The latter's lawyer should have investigated and passed on all steps prior to this and adjusted any minor details with the seller's lawyer. The buyer and his lawyer and the seller and his lawyer should all be present at a title closing. The paid tax bills for the current year are first presented and any minor adjustments made. Then the buyer presents a certified check or actual cash for the amount he has agreed to pay. He also has a small amount of money on hand to meet any adjustments such as taxes, insurance, and the like. Lastly, the deed, which has been carefully reviewed by the buyer's lawyer, is signed by the seller and, for better or worse, you have become a country property owner.
CALL IN AN ARCHITECT
CALL IN AN ARCHITECT
The prospective country dweller is now owner of a piece of property and his ideas are probably fairly definite as to how his home is going to look when his family is actually living there. But seldom is it a simple matter of gathering the household goods into a moving van, having them set down in the new place, and then going out on the terrace to watch the sunset while deft workers within set things to rights.
There may be no house at all on his new holding, much less a terrace. At the time of purchase, an old mill, barn or other combination of walls and roof may stand in place of his imaginary home. Even a house in good condition usually needs a little renovation. During the negotiations for purchase, his lawyer kept him from legal pitfalls. Just as important now in bridging the gap between what he has and what he wants is an architect.
If he has been consulted before purchase, so much the better. If not, it is high time to seek him out unless one happens to be a genius like Thomas Jefferson who could draft a Declaration of Independence with one hand and design a serpentine wall with the other. Such a person has no need of this book anyway and will long since have cast it aside. Most of us are just average citizens with some ideas which we want to put into concrete form but find difficult because we are either inarticulate or untrained.
That is what various specialists are for, and it is a wise man who realizes his own limitations. A sugar broker may have ideas about a portrait but he won't try to paint it himself. He will commission a portrait painter, in whom he has confidence, to make a likeness of his wife or child as the case may be. Even more necessary are the services of an architect when building or remodeling a house. Trying to be your own architect is as foolish as drawing a sketch of little Jerry on canvas and then calling in a house painter to smear on a daub of blue for his coat, a bit of yellow for his hair, white for his collar, and just anything for the background. At worst, though, this futuristic result can be taken to the attic, turned face to the wall and forgotten; but a botched house won't let you forget. You have to live in it along with your mistakes, day after day and, possibly, year after year. When and if you finally call in an architect and have them remedied or obviated, the cost will be considerably in excess of what his total fee would have been in the beginning.
So, find the best man practicing in the vicinity where your future home is to be located and cast your burdens on his drafting board. Give him ample information as to what suits your fancy and conforms to your family needs. Then he can proceed with the preliminary sketches. From these eventually will come the plan of action to be followed by the various artisans who will do the work. But house plans, whether for new construction, remodeling or renovating, do not spring from the drafting board complete and final overnight. They are based on more preliminary effort than most people without building experience realize.
This is particularly true of the country home. In cities and suburbs, building plots are more or less standardized units in a checker-board with two controlling factors, so many feet of street frontage and such and such depth. Local building ordinances sharply limit the type and size of structure. The country offers much greater latitude. Such matters as topography, location of existing trees, and points of the compass with relation to the main rooms of the house play important roles.
We well remember a dismal example of what can happen when these controlling factors are ignored. The owner was an opinionated man with a passion for economy. House building was to him no mystery. It was just foundations, side walls, roof, stairways, interior partitions and, of course, plumbing, heating and so forth. His house was "going to cost just so much and people who paid architects' fees for plans had more money than brains." Besides, he had seen a sketch and floor plans of a house in a magazine that were good enough for him. He knew a builder who could follow them and what more did one need?
The little matter of relating the structure to the site concerned him not at all, nor did it enter his head that a house could face anywhere except towards the road. As for the contractor, it was not for him to reason why, but to build. So they went to work and a house entirely made up of good things done in the wrong way was the result. An outcropping of rock meant expensive blasting, so the magazine-pictured house was set firmly down almost on the roots of a fine row of old pine trees by the roadside. Through these the wind howled mournfully at night and by day their shade made the main rooms of the ground floor distinctly gloomy.
It was an ambitious house and the leaded glass windows of the living room faced north. So keeping its temperature at a comfortable point in winter was an added difficulty. The sunny southwestern exposure, being at the back, was given over to kitchen and servants' quarters. Lastly, the one pleasing prospect, a friendly little valley with a meandering brook, could only be seen to advantage from the garage. The architect's fee had been saved but when, a little later, the owner wanted to sell, it took several years to find a buyer and then only at a price of half the money invested. The new owner consulted an architect with a gift for rearranging and so succeeded in mitigating the worst features and in taking advantage of the cheerful aspects inherent with the site. Like a good doctor or lawyer, an able architect can usually get you out of trouble; but the ancient slogan, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," fits admirably here.
Do not, however, engage an architect as lightly as you would select a cravat. To him you are intrusting the task of putting your chaotic and half-expressed thoughts and desires into a set of plans that will guide and control masons, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, and painters in their work. As your professional adviser, it will be his job to bridge the gap between the date of purchase and the happy occasion when your household goods are deposited in a home embodying your ideas and wishes.
Obviously he must be in sympathy with those ideas. If you are building a new house on old lines or remodeling an existing structure with a century or more to its credit, don't select a man to advise you who can see nothing but the newest and most modernistic types of architecture. Don't be afraid to ask for evidences of past performances. Since no architect discards his plans and renderings, he will be glad to show you a few of them. Also in this initial conference, names of clients for whom he has executed commissions within the fairly recent past may be mentioned. It is sensible to consult two or three of these. If he has pleased them, he is probably fitted to undertake your problems. For solving them and knowing how to get desired results, you will pay him a fee that ranges from six to ten per cent of the total cost of the work undertaken. For special cases that involve unusual work, it may be slightly higher. The amount of the fee, as well as the dates at which portions of it become payable, will be settled in your initial interview.
There are occasional men, however, calling themselves architects who are not qualified. They have no degree from a recognized school; cannot qualify for registration in states where architects, like doctors, lawyers, teachers and other professional people, must have a state license to practice. Like other charlatans, such men are glib talkers but it takes real ability and thorough training to prepare practical plans and specifications. Here is where the dabster betrays himself. A little independent investigation may prevent you from putting your building problems into the hands of such an incompetent man.
The need of an architect where a new house is to be built or an old one completely remodeled is obvious. We are convinced that the same holds true where only minor changes, replacements and the introduction of modern conveniences are the program. Our own little country home is an example. The necessary alterations were so simple that it seemed ridiculous to ask architectural advice. There was nothing to the job but to install plumbing, move one partition, patch the plastering, and close chimney and other pipe openings cut in the days when stoves, rather than fireplaces, furnished heat.
We engaged a good local man who, with his crew of four or five helpers, was accustomed to doing everything from carpentry to plumbing. His labor charges were on a per diem basis and considerably under the union scale that then prevailed. Nothing was left indefinite. We understood exactly how the work was to be done and what materials we were to supply. In due time it was finished and we moved in. Two or three years later, we discovered some serious shortcomings. For instance, the kitchen sink was hung in the wrong place and, because it was easier, all of the water pipes were placed on outside walls. This made no difference when the house was occupied only during the summer months but during the first winter we became experts in thawing pipes that "caught" whenever the temperature dropped to zero.
There was another economy that proved quite the opposite even before the work was finished. We had agreed that wherever the old lath and plaster were in bad condition, they were to be removed and replaced with a paper wall board then being widely advertised as an inexpensive substitute. But we had reckoned without the idiosyncrasies of an 18th century house. When the old lath and plaster had been cleared away, our handyman contractor discovered that the old beams and uprights were spaced at eighteen-inch intervals, while our new wall board came in widths conforming to the sixteen-inch spacing that has been standard with American house construction for a century. It was too late to return the wall board so new nailing strips, sixteen inches apart, had to be installed. This took time and when the so-called inexpensive substitute was finally in place, the total cost actually exceeded that of the more satisfactory lath and plaster.
Further, because nobody was at hand to prevent it, we lost a good partition of feather-edge boarding. It was between two of the bedrooms, concealed beneath several layers of wallpaper. When stripped, two or three cracks were found through which one could look from one room to the other. These could have been filled with wooden shims but the workmen did not stop to think of that. They ripped it out and put in a tight and modest partition of that ultra-modern wall board. It was well done mechanically and is still in place, but we mourn that original paneling of native white wood and continually keep an eye out for some like it.
Eventually, when all the mistakes of ignorance and lack of supervision have been corrected, we will have spent several times the total of the architect's fee. So we are out of pocket and, except for relocating the water piping, we are still looking at and repenting most of the results of our false economy.
Thus, an architect is all-important with a house problem whether it involves a minor or major undertaking and it is logical to ask exactly what he does for his fee. Consider, for instance, his functions and services when a new house is to be built. As a beginning, owner and architect meet, inspect the site, while the architect, like any good diagnostician, asks questions. These deal with the type of house the owner thinks he wants, the number of rooms, baths, and so forth and, finally, the amount of money he is prepared to spend. He offers few opinions of his own at this interview but rather tries to read his client's mind so that preliminary sketches and plans will approximate that mental picture.
A few days later, tentative sketches of a house designed to suit the location are submitted. Out of them grow the revised ones. It is highly improbable that his initial suggestions will suit you in every detail. It takes time and interchange of ideas before this can be accomplished. When they reach the stage where they represent the house you want, the architect prepares a complete set of working drawings, including floor plans and side wall elevations. These are drawn on a scale of one quarter of an inch to the foot. As soon as the drawings are finished, he drafts the specifications or bill of particulars as to materials to be used in the construction of the house. These with the plans form the basis on which contractors may submit bids for the work.
First, however, owner and architect should go over this material together. Making changes after the contracts are let and the work begun is both expensive and foolish. If you find it difficult to visualize an actual house from the drawings, a model made from wall board or similar material is a wise precaution. Fashioned on the same scale of one quarter of an inch to the foot, it is your proposed house in the little, and on seeing it no doubts are left. Windows and doors are all in their proper places. The exterior is painted to match the color and simulate the material that is to be used. Finally, the model can be taken apart so that you can study the interior of bedroom and living room floors. Such models, of course, are not included in the architect's fee but the cost of one for an average house is under $100. If you can visualize your proposed home thoroughly by it, the expense is well warranted.
The architect can be of great service in the matter of contractor's bids. He knows the past performances of those operating in the vicinity where you propose building and can suggest the men or firms whose work is most satisfactory. From four to eight general contractors, that is, individuals or firms competent to undertake the complete building operation, ought to be invited to submit sealed bids. Each is supplied with a complete set of plans and specifications by the architect and given from ten days to two weeks in which to submit their bids. In addition to the total price for the work, these bids, by common custom, give the names of the chief sub-contractors such as plumber, electrician and the like, with the amount of money allocated for the work of each.
On a set day, usually a Saturday afternoon, owner and architect meet, open the bids, and compare the offers made by the various contractors. Most of them include alternate provisions on condition that they be allowed to substitute materials or methods of construction not according to the specifications. The contractor who submits the lowest bid would logically be the one selected but here again the architect's judgment is valuable. First, he can rapidly determine whether the provisional saving suggested by substitution of unspecified materials is a wise change. Second, he knows whether the bidder under consideration is dependable or inclined to skimp in hidden but essential points.
There is, also, the possible chance that none of the bids submitted come within the sum the owner is prepared to spend. Then comes the task of revising plans and specifications and eliminating non-essentials to bring costs within the set figure. From practical experience, however, architects have found that, if the proposed house is just what the owner wants, he will somehow find the additional money rather than have plans or details changed.
After a contractor whose bid and quality of work are satisfactory has been selected, the architect, acting for the owner, lets the contract to him. This includes provisions for partial payments at stated periods as the work progresses; so much when the masonry is completed; another amount when the exterior walls are finished; and so on, including plumbing, heating, plastering and electrical wiring. With each payment, fifteen per cent of the total is held back and does not become due until the entire work has been finished. This is a standard practice and is intended to insure completion of the contract to the satisfaction of both owner and architect. Under this provision, the architect certifies to the owner each month that certain work has been done and that the contractor is entitled to so much money for it.
From the day that construction starts, the architect begins his work of supervision. At least twice a week he goes to the site and observes the progress of the work and how it is being done. Special conditions may arise where the contractor or his foreman call hurriedly for the architect, such as uncovering a large boulder at one corner of the excavation for the cellar. There may be a fine point to be decided regarding the location of piping or some detailed instruction concerning the installation of the interior woodwork. On these occasions it saves time for everybody if the architect or one of his associates is readily available. Watching the cellar excavation for unexpected subsurface water is also an item that no experienced architect neglects. He sees to it that concrete for foundations is mixed properly and has the specified percentage of cement. The installation of piping for plumbing and heating is supervised carefully, as is the work of plastering.
As the house nears completion, his supervision increases in direct ratio. In fact, during the last two or three weeks, the architect is not infrequently there most of the time. The last details of the interior trim are being completed, decorating is under way, and lighting fixtures are being installed. All of these require direct supervision and the architect expects to be on hand. These final details can make or mar the general effect more than is realized.
When your house is finished to the architect's satisfaction, he gives his final approval and thirty days thereafter the final bill of the contractor is payable. This period is to allow for minor adjustments, such as windows that stick, doors that will not latch and the like, the small things that always need to be done with any new house and are generally attended to after the owner and his family have taken possession.
Just as the general contractor is paid in installments, the architect's fee is likewise liquidated. There is a standard schedule which provides that one-fifth of the estimated fee shall be paid on completion of satisfactory preliminary sketches; two-fifths when the plans and specifications are finished or on letting the contract for actual building. The balance is paid monthly in proportion to the amounts paid the contractor.
When a house is to be remodeled, the architect proceeds in much the same way. He presents suggested sketches of the ways in which the desired changes can be accomplished. When these are satisfactory, working drawings are prepared that show what is to be removed and what new construction undertaken. The working drawings are, of course, accompanied by a set of specifications, and contractors are invited to submit bids for doing the work. On letting the contract, work proceeds about as with that of building a new house. There are, however, more opportunities for unforeseen contingencies and so the architect often has to devote more of his time to supervision. Sometimes, if the particular remodeling project is one requiring unusual care, the percentage of his fee is a little higher by special arrangement.
Where a house requires minor changes that qualify merely as renovation, the architect's work is, of course, much simpler. Extensive preliminary sketches are unnecessary, and complete floor and elevation plans not required. But architectural investigation, planning and supervision, as stated before, are highly desirable if not essential. His fee is usually the same ten per cent as applies for new construction. There is less actual plan drafting but the amount of supervision is so much in excess of that required for new construction that such a charge is by no means unreasonable. Besides, the owner has the assurance that all changes and new installations will be done properly with no glaring errors of judgment to mock him as he settles down to life in his country home.
BUILDING VERSUS REMODELING
BUILDING VERSUS REMODELING
"Shall I build or remodel?" is a question with so many facets that it would be foolhardy to try to answer it categorically. Circumstances alter cases in all phases of life and particularly so when one is endeavoring to decide whether the country home is to be a new structure, or an old one remodeled to make the best use of its desirable features and suit the requirements of its new owner.
One of our acquaintances was hung on the horns of this dilemma for several months while he and his wife spent most of their waking hours arguing it pro and con. They had selected the vicinity in which they wanted to live, had the requisite cash in the bank to finance either undertaking, and there were two properties that pleased them. The latter constituted the snag. On the one hand, there was a sightly piece of land with some nice old shade trees but no existing structure; about a mile farther along the same road, lay another holding of about the same size with a house in fair condition. The price for this was naturally higher than for the undeveloped land, on the theory that it would not cost half as much to remodel the house as to build.
"I don't know what to do," this perplexed man remarked. "On one side I hear and read that new building is much the best investment. That it costs so much less to maintain a new house and if you want to sell, you can find a purchaser quicker and at a better price. But no sooner do I begin to believe that building is the only wise course, than I run smack into an article on remodeling or meet some one I know whose experience in remodeling shows by actual figures a big saving compared with a new house of the same kind and size. In my own case, though, the more I study what estimates I can get, the more I am convinced that in the end I'll spend just about as much whether I build or remodel."
These two people finally built a new house. There were good reasons for their decision. First, they could buy the land for so much money, and a general contractor of excellent reputation was ready to build just the house they wanted for so much more. The two figures, plus the architect's fee, added up to a definite amount. Having an accounting mind, the knowledge that there would be no unforeseen contingencies and that, ready for occupancy, the cost of the house would be so much, was the deciding factor. In addition, he and his wife both inclined towards something new. A house that had not been lived in by other people, had no scars and marks of age and use, that embodied all the newest materials and construction methods, was really what they wanted. Had remodeling offered them an assured saving of several thousand dollars, this couple would probably have suppressed their subconscious leanings to be builders, proceeded to remodel, and been only moderately pleased with the result.