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In My Place

2002: Searching for a house to call a home

Alex Fine

By Anna Ditkoff | Posted 12/23/2009

I'm not sure what inspired me to buy a house. I wasn't married and I didn't have kids. Maybe it was because by 2002 so many people I knew had scored $40,000 rowhouses. Maybe it was a desire to invest in my adopted hometown, a declaration of my adulthood, or a feminist act--a single woman buying a house all on her own.

Honestly, I think I was just tired of moving. I was 26-years-old and I had moved at least once a year for eight years. I had lived in dorms, sublets in Baltimore and Boston, a flat in London, a one-bedroom across from a crack house, a rented house I loved with a boyfriend I stopped loving, a house with friends that was so cheap we were willing to overlook the landlord's threats to blow it up, and finally a rental house that was fine, but wasn't mine. I wanted to paint. I wanted to stop dealing with ineffectual landlords. If my sink was broken, I wanted to fix it instead of begging someone else to. I wanted to stop buying furniture based on its portability. Plastic bins do not qualify as home d?cor.

So, I started the hunt. I wasn't sure how to choose a house; I figured I would know the right one when I saw it, a gut feeling. I was set on a few things. I had spent most of my Baltimore time moving between Charles Village and Hampden, and I wanted to settle in Hampden. Charles Village felt like college to me, and I was done living among puking and pontificating students. Also, it felt like everyone lived in Charles Village, and I was tired of seeing some guy I had flirted with at the Club Charles the night before when I was hung over at the laundromat.

Hampden was a different place back then. A few of the old restaurants--Caf? Hon, the original Holy Frijoles, the Golden West--and stores were there, but it was more dollar stores than boutiques. Mamie's old-school fare resided where Dogwood's upscale cuisine is now, Rocket to Venus was a wood-paneled dive called Showalter's. No one made a special trip to Hampden to party or shop. What people now call "old Hampden"--working-class families, teenagers with babies, drug addicts, drunks, prostitutes, and, yes, racists--was still just Hampden.

But there were things I really liked about the neighborhood. I liked that you could go to a drug store, grocery store, or even a movie without getting in your car. I could get home basics at G.C. Murphy's in my pajamas and not bump into anyone I knew. And I felt safe. Almost everyone I knew had been mugged at gun point in Charles Village. I didn't feel really comfortable walking from my rental on Guilford to the Saint Paul strip by myself at night. I knew a few people who had gotten into fights with drunks at Hampden bars, but that was about it. I could walk the Avenue at midnight without a care, confident that I could probably out run the 70-year-old junky sitting in front of the pizza shop, not that he even looked up when I walked by. And I loved the small-town feel of this city nook, a mere five-minute drive from downtown.

Besides location, I wanted at least one and a half baths--I'd held it through one too many roommate showers--and I wanted a porch. What is the point of living in Baltimore without a porch to sit on in those few months of perfect weather in fall and spring?

Early in my search it became clear that the $40,000 rowhouse no longer existed in Hampden, and even $60,000-$80,000 properties tended to fixer uppers with furnaces so old they took up the entire basement. I was willing to put up with some idiosyncrasies--the random basement toilet and or a caged-off pile of dirt in a basement, but I wasn't handy in any way, so I wasn't going to be fixing up anything.

Over the months I searched, I had a few near misses, and my price range kept creeping up--as housing prices did all over the city. Atomic Books had moved to Hampden a year earlier, a harbinger of the retail to come. The neighborhood was becoming desirable, and houses sold as soon as they hit the market, often with multiple bids.

Then, I checked out a house with floor to ceiling bookcases in the front room--a swoon worthy desirable. The kitchen was big and bright. The ceilings were high. And the windows lining the front bedroom let in a beautiful warm light. It also had enough bathrooms and a porch with a bench overlooking a Japanese maple. It immediately felt like home. I wanted it to be my home.

It was about three times more expensive than I had planned on spending. And there were competing bids. This was certainly more money that I had ever spent--or promised to spend--but I knew if I waited six months for the next perfect house to come along I would be paying a lot more for a lot less. So I opened up my check book and became a homeowner.

I spent a few weeks painting before I moved in. I remember painting the middle bedroom while watching the first season of American Idol on a portable TV. My roommate fell asleep while we were painting the living room a gray shade, which came out an unfortunate powder blue, so I was up on a ladder at 2 a.m. trying to finish while he snored in the kitchen. The result was some bluish ceiling smudges owing to my fear of heights and sleep deprivation.

In the years since, my life, my neighborhood, and my house have changed a lot. I learned that owning a house is not like owning a doll house. There's more to it than decoration. When something breaks, I did indeed have to fix it, and while it was nice not having to deal with a landlord, I sure missed not having to pay for it myself. I now live with a dog, two cats, and the man I'm going to spend my life with. Hampden now has an antique mall where the general store was, along with boutiques, salons, spas, and a wine bar. And I can't take two steps out of my house without seeing someone I know--though I am much less frequently hung over.

Hampden has become gentrified, but its problems haven't disappeared. There are still plenty of drunks and junkies wandering the avenue. Babies still have their own babies, and the student drop-out rate is one of the worst in the city. A man and pregnant woman were shot on the Avenue this year. I still love the small-town feel, but I'm tired of seeing drugs, used condoms, and empty vodka bottles on the street where I walk my dog. I'm starting to dream of a house with a real yard instead of the postage stamp one, where my dog can run and, eventually, my kids can play. And while I have great neighbors, it might be nice someday to not share walls with anyone.

At the height of the housing bubble, people left notes in my mail box with offers of triple what I paid, sight unseen. Now, houses languish on the market for months, prices dropping again and again. So my dreams of a yard will have to wait. For now, I find joy in the fact that my walls are painted, my furniture is solid and heavy, and my bedroom is filled every morning with warm, beautiful light.

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