Dreamhouse.com: How I Bought a Summer Home in the Recession
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Dreamhouse.com: How I Bought a Summer Home in the Recession

I couldn't afford it, I'd never seen it (except on a real-estate Web site), and it was 12 hours away. But I was in love -- so I bought my little cottage anyway.

House Hunting

I was hunched over the computer when an image appeared on-screen that made my pulse race. "You have to see this," I said to my husband, who was already in bed for the night.

Dan groaned. "Come to bed. This habit is getting out of hand."

He was right. Every night, after the kids were asleep, I was drawn to the computer like a moth to a flame. An online shopping addict, you ask? Sort of. But I was surfing real estate. More specifically, Canadian real estate. For the past two years I'd been looking at houses on Prince Edward Island, a clump of some 2,200 square miles of land lying in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

PEI has two claims to fame: red-sand beaches and Anne of Green Gables, the plucky orphan in Lucy Maud Montgomery's novels. The books are great reads, but I treasured PEI for its wide skies and pine-studded cliffs, both of which had kept me coming back for 15 summers. Almost from my first visit I'd fantasized about owning a house there.

"It's too far away," my mom said, noting that the drive from my house in Massachusetts takes about 12 hours.

"You can rent a house every summer for less than the cost of owning one," my brother pointed out. "Why hassle with leaky roofs and failing septic tanks?"

Dan noted, correctly, that with three of our five kids now in college we could barely afford movie tickets, let alone a vacation retreat.

And long before the economy took its current nosedive I knew it was dumb even to think about buying a second home. No matter how strong the American dollar grew against the Canadian, could not justify this as a wise investment. But to repeat the mantra I'd used on Dan: It didn't hurt to look.

Besides, all this nay-saying was based on reason, whereas my passion was rooted in something more elusive. I could have listed reasons to love PEI: Celtic music and steamed mussels, lighthouses and Canadian radio, the bike trail that bisects the island end to end. But it was how the place made me feel -- optimistic and energetic, creative and generous -- that kept me stubbornly, guiltily trolling real-estate Web sites the way other women shop eBay for shoes. I wanted a small piece of this place to call my own.

So every night I'd log on to mls.ca with these simple criteria: Prince Edward Island, $25,000 to $75,000 price range, one bedroom or more. Unlike their euphemism-spouting American counterparts, Canadian real-estate agents pull no punches when it comes to property descriptions: "House has been neglected -- needs a strong arm." Or: "Small country home left vacant for five years. Needs major cleanup." Or: "No source of heat. Property had a woodstove that previous owner took." Such phrases scared the bejesus out of Dan, so I stopped showing him the listings. But I had a strong stomach and devoured all of them.

Falling in Love with a Cottage

That's why, on this particular night, I knew I'd hit the jackpot. The photos showed a little red house with a dormer that sat on an acre of land with a "distant water view." That probably meant you could see the bay if you climbed onto the roof, but I was betting you could smell salt water from the porch.

"Honey, you have to look at this one," I pleaded.

"I'm asleep," Dan said.

"You are not. This house is perfect -- we should buy it."

"With what money?" Dan muttered.

"It's just a little house," I said. "It costs less than a lot of new cars."

"That's why we don't own a new car," he said. "The house isn't going anywhere. I'll look at it in the morning."

I clicked on "print." When the pages emerged I carried them to the bed. "God, you're a pest," Dan said, but he sat up and put on his glasses.

"I really need your opinion," I said.

"Yeah, okay," he said after studying the listing sheet. "It's a cute house."

That was all I needed to hear. I picked up the telephone.

"What are you doing?" Dan asked.

"Calling the real-estate agent," I said.

"It's 11 o'clock at night!"

"I'll just leave a message," I said, dialing. "I can't let this one get away."

"You have to -- we can't afford it."

To my shock a man answered.

"It's funny about that little house," he said after I told him what listing I was calling about. "I just posted it yesterday and already I've had three calls."

"I want to make an offer," I blurted.

There was a startled noise from Dan beside me and a long silence on the phone. "Hello?" I said. "Still there?"

"I'm here," the agent said. "I think you just said you want to make an offer."

"That's right." I named a figure 30 percent lower than the listing price -- a little trick I'd picked up from my informal night course in real estate.

"You do know," he said, not unkindly, "that most people actually look at a house before buying it?"

"I'll see it during the inspection."

"It's the middle of January," he warned. "There could be snow."

"You plow the roads up there, right?" I asked, suddenly uncertain.

"Oh yes, we plow," the man said. "Just mind the drifts. Sometimes the road disappears."

Two weeks later Dan and I were driving north. In Maine the big, lazy snowflakes of New Hampshire turned small and mean. I reduced our speed to 10 miles an hour on Skyline Drive, the two-lane road that serves as a shortcut to Canada from Bangor, if you don't fly off the road.

"Whose idea was this?" Dan asked.

"Maybe we should turn around," I said as we passed a third ditched car.

My husband, however, had learned to drive in Wisconsin, where real men wear T-shirts in winter. He took the wheel and we soldiered on. We were head to PEI for the home inspection -- $275 thrown away if the house turned out to be a dud, Dan reminded me.

Finding Our Place

But the snow eased up as we crossed the bridge that connects PEI to the Canadian mainland. Beneath us Northumberland Strait gave new meaning to "cold": The churning water was pewter gray, with bluish ice floes bouncing around on its surface.

We spent the night in Charlottetown, PEI's capital. The next morning proved clear but frigid, with winds so strong they blew over my full cup of tea when I set it on the car roof to look for my keys. The cottage was about 40 minutes away over roads that were just as the agent had warned -- clear and then gone, buried beneath high drifts. But our car tunneled through.

We arrived before the inspector did. The little dormer was there, and the steps to the front door. But so much snow had drifted through the cracks beneath the door that, once inside, we were almost skating. Cheap pine paneling covered the walls and dead flies embedded in the cracks speckled the boards. The house's history -- the seller's statement said it was built in the late 1800s and moved to its current location from a nearby fishing village -- was palpable in its uneven floorboards and narrow wooden staircase.

"Well," Dan said, rubbing his hands together over the electric stove, which we'd turned on to thaw our fingers and toes, "here we are in paradise."

"At least it comes with furniture," I said, looking around at a smattering of oddball couches and platform beds.

"You getting cold feet?" Dan asked. "Now's the time to back out."

"My feet are cold," I said. "And my hands. But I love it." I led Dan to the porch. We couldn't see the bay but I could just make out a row of colorful ice-fishing shacks along the shore. "This is our house," I said.

We didn't see our cottage again for nearly five months. When we drove back, over Memorial Day weekend (this time with three of our kids in tow), the terrain was transformed, the hills green and peaceful through Maine. Even Northumberland Strait was calm, like a blue satin sheet being smoothed by invisible hands against the red shore. As we turned onto the road leading to the house I was nearly sick with anxiety. I'd seen the house only once, in the dead of winter. Would I even recognize it? And assuming I did, would I still like it?

Just as these dire thoughts were surfacing our tiny red cottage came into view, nestled against a row of pines and with cows grazing in the pasture next door. We pulled up and worked our key into the door, which was so warped we had to yank it free.

It took us two days to scrub the floors and pluck every last dead fly off the walls. Dan fixed doors and I scoured junk shops for stuff we still needed, from salt and pepper shakers to a round oak table that fit neatly in one corner of the kitchen. All three kids were surprisingly eager to help paint and pick up sticks in the yard. I hummed as I fluffed the simple slipcovered furniture and hung our clothes on the antique pegs in the bedrooms. Even the kitchen pleased me, with its doll-size refrigerator and freezer.

On our third night we built a campfire in a circle of stones and roasted hot dogs for dinner. Dan uncorked a bottle of Canadian wine and perched unsteadily on a concrete block we'd found under the house. "Add lawn chairs to our list," he said. I put my arm around our youngest son, who was trying to set a marshmallow on fire, and smiled at Dan, warmed, quite literally, by the idea of our family spending summer after summer here, gathered around this circle of stones.

After dinner we washed the dishes in the chipped enamel sink, then the five of us drifted onto the porch. But instead of reading or playing a board game, we simply watched the sunset. The sky was a panorama of oranges and reds and purples. It was as if all the colors had come together to show us exactly what a sky could do, now that we'd found our place on the island.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, July 2009.