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My Old House

How an inveterate world traveler found satisfaction in buying a 19th century house and putting down roots in a small town

By Elana Rabinowitz

When I turned 50 I did it right. I ticked off a major item on my bucket list and went on a luxurious safari in South Africa. I was riding high.

But deep inside myself I knew I wanted something more — a place I could call my own.

An old house glowing in the sunset. Next Avenue, old house
The author's house in Germantown, New York  |  Credit: Elana Rabinowitz

I had already spent over three years searching for a second home in the lower Hudson River Valley north of New York City. I pursued my search on weekends, summers and any other time I could get away, but kept coming up empty-handed.

The few places available in my price range never felt livable. Some of the creaky farmhouses and lopsided homes I walked through were barely habitable. I even started looking at bungalows, but I wanted more privacy.

In between viewings, I would work second jobs to supplement my income from being an English as a Second Language teacher and help finance the move. I worked in real estate, showing apartments for rent in the city, and on Saturdays I helped students prepare for a state test of their proficiency in English. In the evenings I did freelance writing. I even began to save money by traveling less.

Househunting as a Job

None of it allowed me to afford the kind of house I dreamed of. I was getting discouraged. Would I ever find a home?

I was getting discouraged. Would I ever find a home?

Rather than give up, I decided to double down. I rented a place to stay in the area through Airbnb for one full month to make it easier to see places. I worked with rotations of Realtors, and all tried tirelessly to help me, but still, nothing seemed right.

Most of my friends were long since married and shared a home or apartment with their partners. Some even had decks and pools and other amenities I hadn't seen since I left my own childhood home. I began to miss them more and more. Could I ever get these things too?

While in the area, I met a friend for dinner in the village of Rhinebeck. She was a Realtor now and had a small albeit quirky house she was showing.

"You should see it; I think you'd like it," she said.

She piqued my interest but once I found out the price I said no.

I continued to contact Realtors and sellers directly but either they canceled or found homes that were completely out of my price range. Time was running out. I would only be upstate a few more days and wanted to see more houses so I agreed to see the quirky house.

I drove up past the blue Catskill mountains and farms and slowly began to exhale. "This is beautiful," I thought. I finally got to the house; it was directly across the street from an orchard bursting with ripe fruit. And the house was set back from the street, hidden behind a row of pine trees, unlike many other nearby houses that crowd the busy road.

Love at First Sight

There was a large double swing, flowers blooming, and even a separate shed. It was love at first site. The house itself was indeed unique. An old saltbox home from the 1800s, it had a combination of charm and linoleum.

I couldn't believe it. I was going to be a homeowner!

I left thinking it had exciting potential, but the mortgage would force me to live paycheck to paycheck. I could no longer travel freely. Was it worth it? I decided I would keep looking for a bargain. But I couldn't get this little white house out of my mind. A new crush.

After much deliberation and careful calculations, I realized with some lifestyle modifications I could do it. It would be tight, but what was I really waiting for?

Sealing the Deal

I put in an offer. The seller rejected it. Finally, I put in another, close to asking, and then my Realtor sent me the message: "Your offer was accepted. Welcome to your new home."

I couldn't believe it. I was going to be a homeowner!

It took months to get everything in order. I was able to secure a mortgage rate of 2.75% but it took months to gather the piles of paperwork required, including such ephemera as old pay stubs and bank records. Just when I would get everything in, there would be a delay and then I'd have to get everything all over again.

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Then I needed to find an inspector, just when everyone needed to find one. I made an appointment and waited. When the day arrived, I discovered that buying a co-op in the city was one thing, but buying a house is terrifying.

For four hours I learned everything about my dream home, especially what could go wrong: everything that could break and anything that would need to be replaced — all of which I would be responsible for.

Having Second Thoughts

I began to get cold feet. Could I really do this all by myself? I talked to other women who had successfully navigated this process and they renewed my confidence. Just because I wasn't taking a traditional path of marriage and children did not mean that I didn't want traditional things.

A few days later, the heating system failed.

Even after reaching a deal with the seller, obstacles remained. My Realtor emailed me almost daily with updates. The signing was postponed. Then postponed again. First, my mortgage did not go through in time. Then something was flagged in my homeowner's insurance that delayed the process. I thought I might scream. Eventually, it all worked out, about five months after I put in my offer.

That winter, I met with the lawyers in a Victorian home converted into law offices. There, in tightly fitted light blue COVID masks, I signed the deed. Everyone was astonished that I locked in such a low mortgage rate. I was astonished that signing my name with the black pen in my hand meant that I now owned a home.

Homeowners' Headaches

Next came the chore of moving in. I had for months been stocking up on supplies and even ordered a bed because supply-chain interruptions often meant lengthy delays in deliveries. I arranged movers, cable and utilities and had the basics to move in.

A few days later, the heating system failed. Then there was a blizzard. I was alone and began to feel overwhelmed. What had I done?

Stores were closed. Help was hard to come by, but the local folks are the friendliest I've found. The propane company fixed my stove. I learned to shovel snow and months later I had all my deliveries intact. A friend came and painted, and I was able to rid the house of the old smoke-filled carpet for a plush new one.

My little white house in Germantown, New York, was finally looking like a real home.

Paying the Bills

The other renovations would have to wait. When money got tight, I sold the carport and tilled my own land to create a DIY outdoor space. I became handy. Building furniture, changing toilet seats, hanging pictures. My little white house in Germantown, New York, was finally looking like a real home.

I decided I loved it so much I wanted to share it. Plus, I also needed a way to help pay for renovations, so I fixed it up and rent it out occasionally on Airbnb. It seems to be the perfect fit for this time in my life. A former traveler, I know what I want when I visit a new place and now I am the one helping travelers explore new lands. There is surprising gratification in that.

I often email my guests after they leave to see how their trip went. My most recent renters wrote back to tell me how they loved the visit so much they even fantasized about living there. "That was me once, too," I thought. But it is no longer a fantasy.

Elana Rabinowitz is an ESL teacher and freelance writer. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, and Good Housekeeping. She divides her time between Brooklyn and Germantown, New York, and is an Airbnb Superhost. Read More
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