Pocket door


“So there’s no door to the master bedroom?” Freddy asks, energetically chewing his gum.

Freddy, who’s inspecting the house we are buying, has had his jaws working overtime for the past few hours. A word of clarification for Europeans — Freddy is not doing a bank appraisal. What he does is much more extensive. During his three-hour walk through, around and even under the house Freddy looks for potential problems. In case he identifies some serious stuff we can take his report to the seller and ask him to have the issues fixed or to lower the sale price. Or — if something really bad is uncovered in this process — we can just walk away from the sale.

Even though I am happy to know that his inspection will guard us from buying a house with major flaws, the process in itself is hardly a positive energy boost.

For one thing, Freddy doesn’t seem to be a big fan of contemporary architecture.
“Oh, they built this like that? Interesting,” seems to be his favorite observation, in between two chews, as he discovers the architectural gimmicks that make our hearts beat faster. To Europeans, ‘interesting’ might sound like a compliment. Everyone who has spent some time in the USA however, knows that it is a term favored by Americans when they don’t share someone’s enthusiasm but are too polite to say so.

On top of all the ‘interesting’ things, there are the — luckily minor — flaws Freddy points out to us.
“There are six steps leading up to the house. Legally, when there are more than four steps, a handrail should be installed,” he informs us. “I’m not saying this is a serious flaw, it’s just not as it should be.” Next he says, “Those gutters are going to need permanent attention. With all those trees surrounding the house, you’ll have to empty them all the time.” Or yet, “The windows in the addition are very high quality, but you might want to replace those in the back. Although that will not be cheap.” Or, more frightening, “See my humidity meter? High humidity in this basement storage room. Of course, that’s a given in this area. Not a lot you can do about it. All houses have it. Just keep that dehumidifier running at all times.”
Looking at the house through Freddy’s eyes does somewhat abate my own enthusiasm. However, he doesn’t seem to stumble upon major issues, which is good.

Until we enter the master bedroom suite, that is. Freddy’s observation about the missing door does slightly alarms me. Call us crazy, but my husband an I enjoy the occasional private bedroom-time. A door would come handy in that process.
The four of us — Hubbie, Melissa (the real estate agent’s assistant) Freddy and myself — set off on a hunt for a door. Hubbie is the one who locates it. It turns out to be a white, sliding affair that is perfectly camouflaged by the white double wall in which it is slid back. Only a tiny metal latch gives away its presence. I congratulate Hubbie on his find, relieved that our bedroom comes with a door after all.
“A pocket door. Interesting,” Freddy chews,”I wonder how one closes it.” His fingers pry at the small metal latch, but the pocket door stubbornly refuses to leave its pocket.
“It looks like it’s been opened too far,” Melissa says, “It’s kind of blocked there.”
As Hubbie lowers himself to the floor to have a closer look at the door mechanics, Freddy shrugs and leaves the scene. I follow him to the bathroom with its modern walk-in shower, which instantly gets labeled ‘interesting’.

“There, I can see the end of the door here, right in front of the window,” I hear Hubbie’s voice, “It’s been shoved back too far indeed. I’ll push it back your way, Melissa. Maybe you can grab it once it moves.”
“Okay,” Melissa says.
Hardly a few minutes later, over the sound of water running from the shower, I hear a loud thud. I wait for Freddy to finish his observation about the water temperature, then walk back to the room which now is closed off by a big, white door.
“Yee-ha!” I call out, “You fixed it!”
Melissa and Hubbie don’t look that happy by their prowess, however.
“It seems to be locked now,” Melissa says, frowning.
So? Many bedroom doors can be locked, can’t they?
“Can you try again to unlock it?” Hubbie asks, to which Melissa starts to fumble a small metal circle in the door.
“It still doesn’t bulge,” she says.
“I’ll try to lift the door, maybe that will help,” Hubbie says. Lowering himself to the floor again, he tries to push up the door, while Melissa fumbles with the lock once more. Some minutes later, Hubbie lets go of the door with a heavy sigh.
“It doesn’t work,” Melissa states the obvious.
“You mean we’re locked in here?” I ask.
Melissa laughs. “It certainly looks like that,” she says, looking around the room. When she notices the big double sliding door leading to the yard, her eyes light up. “You know what? I’ll just slip outside through there, walk into the house again and try to open the door from the other side.”
She uses both hands to slide open the heavy door — ‘That’s a big sliding door they put in here,’ Freddy said just minutes ago, ‘I wonder why they wanted such a large door. Interesting.’ — Black leather ballerinas take Melissa out onto the snow-covered balcony, from where she athletically jumps down to ground level, some six feet below. Barely three minutes later, Melissa’s footsteps sound in the hallway.
“Okay, I’ll try to open it now,” her muffled voice reaches us.
The three of us observe the white door intensely, willing it to slide open. No such luck. The thing doesn’t move an inch.

“Let’s try to pluck out the lock,” Melissa says, now clearly in charge of the situation, “Many of those locks can just be plucked out.”
I glance over at Freddy, still chewing his gum while seated down on the bed. Only ten minutes ago Freddy looked like the God of all handymen, his screwdriver in the attack as he walked from room to room. My trust in him has somewhat faltered now. It is obvious that if anyone is going to get us out of here, it will be Melissa and my husband. Freddy seems to be utterly useless in ‘breaking and entering’ situations.
“Melissa seems to know about those things,” is his sole contribution. “It does make you wonder about her.” He refrains from saying that it’s interesting.
It does make me wonder indeed, especially when Melissa says next, “Freddy, do you have that screwdriver of yours? Now that the lock is out, that could help us forcing it.” Docile, Freddy walks up to Hubbie, who takes the screwdriver from him and tries to pry the lock with it, alas to no avail.
“I’ll run off to the basement and the kitchen,” Melissa chirps through the closed door. “I might find some other tools there.”

I sit down next to Freddy, who seems to chew his gum even more forcefully now. “If only I had my computer here,” he mumbles, “I could get started on my report.” Next he goes on about how houses nowadays are so large and peculiar. Freddy himself lives in a moderate colonial house, he informs me, “with the wife. Before the children left the house, there were five of us in the three bedroom house. We only had two bathrooms, but nobody ever complained.”
“Really? that’s interesting,” I reply. I refrain from saying that I grew up in a house with only one bathroom for five people. There’s no need for me to be more enthusiastic about Freddy’s housing arrangements than he’s about mine, is there?

Some ten minutes later, Melissa’s voice sounds through the closed door again.
“Guys, I don’t know what to tell you. There’s nothing useful in the whole house …”

After a few more fruitless attempts at sliding the pocket door back into its pocket, we decide to follow Melissa’s example and leave the room through the balcony. As I ready myself to jump down into Hubbie’s arms — I admire Melissa all the more for doing this on her own — Freddy says, “Obviously, this balcony could use a railing and even a few steps. It’s interesting how they did this.”

We are gathered in the kitchen when Susan, Melissa’s boss, joins us.
“What about the outside sliding door? Is that unlocked now?” Susan asks. We nod. “That might be a little unsafe, I guess. Then again, nobody’s going to get into the rest of the house, right? Not with that pocket door blocked.”
“Oh,” I say, “You know, I did notice the back door has a lock on the outside. Maybe the key you used to enter the house fits that lock too?” There. I said something useful at last. I look pointedly at Melissa.
“Don’t look at me,” Melissa replies, “I might be good at jumping off balconies, but I’m not too sure about my abilities to climb up again to lock that door.”
Let me tell you, that revelation makes me happy. I was starting to feel a bit like a loser. What with Melissa — looking so normal in her pleated pants and ballerinas, a pair of glasses resting on her nose — suddenly jumping down balconies Lara-Croft-style, then plucking locks and embarking on tool-treasure-hunts while I just sat on a bed listening to Freddy? I am glad to learn that Melissa has got her limitations too. She’s not superwoman in camouflage after all.

“Is it reasonable for us to ask the seller to fix the door?” I ask Susan. She nods vigorously.
“I think asking for a way to get into your bedroom without having to climb up through the outside is a reasonable request,” she says.
Freddy, still chewing his gum, chimes in, “I think so too! It’s a good thing I drew your attention to the missing door, isn’t it?”  I guess it is indeed.

Overall, I do now have a good feeling about Freddy’s inspection. The man might not be superman, but he was extremely useful in a pointing-out-kind-of-way. I’m glad we hired him for the job. Just imagine how nice it will be to have a working bedroom door once we move in!


Helene Toye is the author of ‘Go West, A Belgian Attempts American Motherhood’, available on Amazon : http://amzn.com/1493592548



Happy New … House?


“Are you sure that you want to make an offer so close to the holidays? Aren’t you leaving for a road trip to Florida tomorrow? Maybe you’d like to wait until you get back?”

“Susan’s words,” I will tell Hubbie a few days from now, “really should have warned us.” Only right now, even though her questions slightly surprise us, they do not alarm us in the least. Because, let’s face it. Approaching holiday travels have nothing to do with making an offer on a house, do they? It’s not as if we’re buying the place. Chances are the seller won’t even bother to reply to our offer.

“Well,” Hubbie tells Susan over the speaker phone, “we are indeed leaving tomorrow, but we’d just like to get the whole process started before.”
“Okay,” Susan replies, “There are two ways we can do this; the written way, but that might be hard to follow up on during your trip. Or we can do it electronically.”
What about doing it over the phone? It’s just an offer we’re talking about. Hubbie looks at me. I shrug my shoulders.
“Let’s do it electronically,” he says at last.
“Okay. Just send me an e-mail containing your and your wife’s full names, your current address and the amount you’d like to offer.”
“Will do that in a minute,” my husband replies.
“Oh, also add the date you’d like to settle the sale, will you? And the coordinates of the bank that’s lending you money. And a scan of a check for 5% of the bidding amount. And are you going to take a loan for the full amount minus 10% or minus 20%? Also, please mention the interest rate. And …”
What? Why does she need all that information?
“Wow …,” Hubbie suddenly sounds much less relaxed and cheerful than just five minutes ago, when he lazily suggested the offer-making to me. “You need all that now?”
“I do. Once I have it all, I can prepare the paperwork and send it to you.”
The paperwork? What is she talking about?
“You mean you’re not just going to send an e-mail to the seller to inform him about our offer?” Hubbie asks.
“Oh no, we need official trace of this. Know what? To make it easier on you, you can call the bank and ask them to forward the loan information to me directly.”
“Okay,” Hubbie says, sounding a bit wary, “I’ll do that now. Talk to you later Susan.” He sighs as he hangs up.
I understand why. Just listening to the conversation made me tired.

Where we come from, when you like a house, you just pick up the phone and tell the owner how much you’re willing to pay for it. He thinks it over for a few days, then usually comes back with a counter-offer, which you usually counter-offer again and so on. Sometimes a real estate agent is involved in the game, but only as the oral relayer of all offers. After a week — or maybe even two — everyone agrees on a price. That’s when the potential buyer realizes he’d better start looking for some money to hand over when the ‘compromis’ or the contract is signed. A few days later, in the cosiness of the house that is the object of the buyer’s desire, a certified bank check covering a 10% downpayment gets exchanged. Rather ceremoniously — and often using a nice and heavy pen — each party signs a contract of some three pages, committing the seller not to accept any other offer and the buyer to finding a loan within three months. More often than not a bottle of bubbles is produced and both parties toast to a successful business deal, stoically ignoring the clause that states that should the buyer fail to find a loan, the 10% down payment will be returned to him and the sale will be cancelled.
It is a rather slow process as you can see. Hence why we want to get our offer out  before leaving for Florida.

In America however, things seem to be done differently. Luckily my husband already contacted the bank last week, just to get an idea of our purchasing capacity. He promptly calls Sandra at the bank, who works Saturdays and Sundays, as if that is the most natural thing in the world. No single Belgian bank would even think of assigning an employee for weekend loan negotiations. Sandra kindly agrees to send all necessary information to Susan within the next hour. We look into our finances to find ways to get enough money in our checking account for the 5% down payment, knowing that writing an uncovered check is a big felony in the US. Then we prepare a mail for Susan containing our offer amount and preferred closing date, four months from now. As I am putting on my coat to leave for some last-minute errands with Eloise, the phone rings.
“About that settlement date,” Susan says, “April is really far away. There’s no way the seller will accept that.”
“Oh, so you think we’d better propose the end of March?” I hear Hubbie ask.
Susan chuckles, as if in response to a joke. “I’d rather go for mid-February,” she says, “at the latest.”
Wow, that’s less than two months from now!

When I get back home two hours later, I find Hubbie concentrated on his computer screen.
“I just got the offer documents from Susan,” he says, turning the laptop to me. “We need to initialize each page electronically and then sign the whole thing.”
I look over his shoulder and scroll down the first page of the document, then wait for the second page to materialize — which takes forever — then slowly move on to the third, then to the … Wait a minute;
“How many pages are there exactly?” I ask.
“Fifty-four,” Hubbie sighs.
Oh dear, this is going to take forever…
An hour and a half later we submit our signed offer to Susan who promises to get in touch with us as soon as she gets feedback from the seller.
“Merry Christmas in the meantime,” Hubbie says.
“Yes, well, I suppose we’ll talk before that,” she replies.
That soon? Christmas is only three days away. Surely the seller will need more time to think this over?

On Sunday, our car packed to the brim for our 2,000 mile trip, we hit the road. Traffic is smooth. We’re almost in North Carolina when my phone rings.
“Hi Helene, Susan here. I just heard back from the seller’s agent. He’s making a counter-offer.”
Wow, that’s quick! I write down the seller’s price and promise Susan to get back to her.

Hubbie seems as surprised as me with the quick reaction. While his gaze fixes on the road, we discuss the counter-offer, quickly agreeing it’s too high. Fifteen-year-old Eloise, whose focus on the tablet does not seem to impact her capabilities to listen in on our conversation, quickly interjects,
“You’re not going to let the house get away, are you? I really like it. I can see us living there.”
Seven-year-old Thibaut, his eyes trained on his swaying tablet, immediately chimes in,
“Me too, I love the house.”
An hour later I return Susan’s call. “We’ll meet the seller halfway, but that is our final offer,” I announce.
“Okay,” Susan says, “I’ll get you the new paperwork. Do you have internet access?”
New paperwork? Not again!
“We’re in the car right now. I’m not sure when we’ll stop for the night. Given that signing the paperwork on my computer took ages, I’m not sure how it’s going to work on the I-phone.” With this reply, I hope Susan will offer to just orally relay our new offer. No such luck.
“Let’s just give it a try,” she says, “You won’t have to sign as many pages now. Only about, let’s see, fourteen.” Fourteen?

“What if he doesn’t accept our final offer?” Eloise asks, looking up from her tablet for a few seconds.
“Then the house was not meant to be for us,” I reply.
“You don’t even sound as if you’d care.” She sounds shocked.
“We do, but not desperately. We’re pretty sure there are other good houses,” Hubbie replies while I slowly upload and sign one page after another on the I-phone.

Monday morning we wake up to a bright blue Savannah sky. I check my e-mail before hitting the road for the second stretch that will take us to an Orlando hotel close to Hubbie’s grandparents. A message from Susan awaits me.
‘The seller says that at that ridiculous price, he’d rather take the house off the market,’ it reads.
‘Too bad,’ I reply, relieved that I didn’t get myself too emotionally involved in all this. It’s sad we put all this time and effort in it, but at least we now know what to expect if we bid for another house. If anything, we have learned that it’s better not to ‘just start the process’ right before leaving on a trip.

The kids look disappointed as they climb into the backseat.
Once we’re on the road, Hubbie and I briefly discuss the fallen-through deal and jointly decide that we’re not sad it didn’t work out. We really liked the house, but it was all getting too serious too fast. Besides, we’re still contractually bound for eight more months to the rental house we live in now. It’s all for the best. We switch our focus on the holidays ahead and on the quality time we will enjoy with Grandma and Grandpa.

After checking into our hotel, Hubbie and I get installed on loungers while the kids jump into the pool. I fire up my laptop and check my email, only to find another mail from Susan.
‘The seller wonders why you omitted initializing page 13,‘ it reads. ‘Since he’s a lawyer, that makes him very suspicious. I will forward that page right away so you can sign it.’
What? Why would the guy read through a boring 54-page contract if he thinks our offer is ridiculous? Looks like he still does consider it!

That evening, while we seemingly leisurely stroll through the Downtown Disney area — home to our hotel — I hyperventilate at the thought of our pending purchase. What happened to our stance of ‘just making an offer and see where things lead’? Somewhere along the past two days things got pretty serious.
Trying to relax me, Eloise sums up the positives about the house and Hubbie reassures me that we are financially all set to take the plunge. I try to convince myself that I am totally okay with buying a house in the US; that I am ready to take this step that brings us closer to permanent US residency. Meanwhile, Thibaut is blissfully ignorant of my little panic attack. He’s just happy; to be at the Downtown Disney Lego store, to be close to Grandma and Grandpa, to be part of this family that might soon move into a new house where he just knows he will be happy too. Oh, the bliss of a confident and stress-free childhood!

By the time we get to the hotel room I am relaxed enough to fall asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow — or maybe I am just too exhausted by the long drive.

I awake at nine, brew a cup of coffee and settle with my laptop in the sunshine on our deck. Another mail from Susan awaits me.
‘Good news,’ it reads. ‘Your offer has been accepted. We have a ratified contract.’
Wow … That means I’ll soon be an American homeowner. Contrary to my state of mind yesterday, this information instantly relaxes me. My new home is in America and that feels just fine. I owe myself a few more minutes of solitude to fully absorb this new feeling, then walk into the hotel room where I find my awakening family members.
“We’ve got the house,” I announce.
“Wow! I’m so happy!” Eloise jumps up to hug me. Thibaut follows her cue. Hubbie seems to need a few seconds to fully register the news. Then he walks up to us to complete the group hug.
“Susan needs a scan of the new check we will use to pay the deposit. She also needs us to fill out ….” While I sum up everything we need to do, Hubbie gets dressed, ready to take over the hotel business center for a few hours.

Only later that afternoon, as we are seated on Grandma and Grandpa’s couch, toasting to our new home with beer and Pepsi, do I realize what an extraordinary thing just happened. We bought a house on Christmas Eve’s day, while on the road, using a smartphone! What happened to heavy, luxury-brand pens that trace elegant signatures on the bottom of important documents? Or to champagne toasts on a new milestone?

What ensues are hectic days, shaping our vacation in quite a different way than planned.  Every morning we wake up to a new mail from the bank or from Susan — God bless her for guiding us through this — containing a new mission for the day. Can we please send proof of where those funds we wired from Belgium came from? Did we think about scheduling a visit with a home inspector before January 5? Can we please send our three last tax return sheets? Haven’t we forgotten to send a registered mail containing a notarized letter to our current landlord to end the lease, four days before the end of the month?

How often during those days do I think back about Susan’s words, the day before we left. “Are you sure you want to do this now, so close to the holidays?” Now I understand what holiday travels – or any other travels for that matter –  have to do with making an offer. Nothing! The two just don’t go together!

Then again, a new house for Christmas is a gift you can’t beat, can you?

Happy New Year!
Hélène Toye is the author of Go West, available on : http://amzn.com/1493592548