With our six months in England sorted out, we just needed to find somewhere to go between September, when we finish housesitting for our own pets in Erin's parents' house in New Jersey, and January, when Oliver would start the school term in England.
That started to get more complicated, and a lot more expensive.
PART 5: THE CONFLICT
Erin has a bad habit. She looks at real estate listings the way some people look at Twitter.
This was the genesis of what motivated our trip in the first place. Before Erin conceived of traveling for a year, she had been watching the spring housing market in Somerville going parabolic. We got a real estate appraisal for our house and started looking for what might be our next house.
We realized that we couldn't decide where we wanted to live. Our next house would likely become our long-term home where our kids would grow up. We liked Somerville, but weren't sure we wanted to raise our kids there, and we couldn't afford a larger house in that market. Affordability and school quality pushed us out to the suburbs, but that screwed up our commutes. Nothing we saw was inspiring us.
What we really wanted - something we've always wanted - was to buy a piece of land to design and build a house.
We looked but did not find much land on the market. It would also be a challenge to afford to build a house while paying to live in our current house. The fact that we wanted to keep our Somerville house as a rental property created problems for refinancing to tap into our equity. We couldn't see a way of turning our dream of building a home into reality.
Our failed search for a new home suddenly made us feel trapped in our current home, wondering if we would ever move out of it.
Then Erin realized that we didn't need a new home, we needed fifteen new homes, and off we went on our travels.
But bad habits, and dreams, die hard.
So, while we were in Puerto Rico in April, we
had an offer accepted on a 50'x100' plot of land in Wells, Maine.
Erin found the listing online at a price we could afford. Wells is the beach town where my parents live, so we knew it well. It has excellent schools, is next to picturesque Ogunquit with its strollable shops and restaurants, and is accessible to Boston via the Amtrak Downeaster train, or by bus from nearby Portsmouth, NH.
The lot is walkable to some shops and restaurants and has good access to the seasonal trolley that goes down to the beaches a mile away. We could build a two- or three-bedroom house with a separate office for Erin that could double as a room to rent on AirBNB. In the summer we could rent the whole house out while traveling or visiting Erin's family in New Jersey. After a few years we could move on to another house, keeping it as a profitable vacation rental property.
It is at the end of a small private lane with a neighboring house on one side and a 12 acre wooded lot at the other side and rear. It is unlikely that the wooded lot will ever be developed because its only access from our narrow lane does not allow it to be subdivided.
Before making the offer we had laid out a test-fit floor plan to make sure we could fit the house we wanted. There was a 25 foot front zoning setback, and a required septic system at the back would reduce the buildable footprint to about 25' x 25'. This could give us a 1,200 SF house on two floors, a bit larger than our house in Somerville and the most we could afford to build.
We sent my sister and a friend to take pictures for us, mailed our $5,000 deposit, talked to the town about permitting and a zoning variance, talked to lenders about construction loans, and talked to contractors about costs and a construction schedule that would allow us to move into the house when we return from England in June 2017.
Our offer was contingent on an acceptable septic design, so we sent a septic engineer to the site to layout the septic system.
He sent me an email from the site saying the neighboring homeowner had staked his property line, and it didn't seem to match the rudimentary site plan from the realtor. He suggested we get the site professionally surveyed before doing a septic layout. He happened to find a marking pin on the site and gave me the name of the surveyor on the pin.
I called the surveyor and left a message asking if he had a survey drawing he could send us. He emailed me saying the seller's ex-wife had hired him to survey the lot in 1999, but he couldn't send it to us without her authorization.
Ominously, the surveyor said he recalled a "serious issue" with the site.
What could this be? Wetlands? An easement? A fuel tank? Contamination? A Pet Sematary?
The realtor dug up a copy of the survey drawing and sent it to us. Sure enough, the parallelogram site was skewed more than shown on the original site plan. The neighboring homeowner's stakes were probably correct.
But that wasn't the serious issue. There was a boundary line drawn diagonally across the site from one corner to the other, bisecting it in two. One half noted the seller's name, but the other half noted a different name - the owner of the adjacent 12 acre wooded lot.
"Unfortunately you have found the right tree," the surveyor responded when I asked if I was barking up it. It was a boundary conflict that cut the site in half.
From our house in the Dominican Republic, I started researching the deed history on the Registry of Deeds website. Sure enough, the seller's deed was written as a warranty deed for half of the site (meaning he could guarantee no one else owned it) and only a quitclaim deed for the conflicted half (meaning he could only relinquish his ownership claim, but could not guarantee that no one else had an ownership claim). This quitclaim had been written into the deed after the 1999 survey discovered the conflict. Before that there had been a warranty deed for the whole lot.
I'd like to think that I would have discovered the boundary conflict when I reviewed the deed, but the reality is that if our septic guy hadn't found that marking pin on the site, we might have purchased a very expensive piece of worthless, unbuildable land.
But we still wanted it.
The conflict could be resolved if the seller got quitclaim deeds from his neighbor relinquishing their claim to the conflicted portion of the lot. He would have to pay them for this, unless their deed was somehow invalidated, but with our offer on the table he had money to offer them.
I traced the deed history for both lots back to 1946, when the lots were subdivided from a larger parcel. Both deeds were written within six months of each other, so there shouldn't have been a conflict.
I compared the written 1946 deed descriptions (i.e. northeasterly 60 feet to the old hickory tree) with a recorded 1976 survey for the 12 acre lot. It appeared that the intent was to create the seller's 50'x100' lot as it existed, but the neighbor's deed description mistakenly omitted one of the boundary lines, so that it didn't return to the starting point. The 1976 surveyor resolved this by simply drawing a diagonal line across the seller's property.
"That's Maine for yah."
The seller's realtor had forwarded my findings to another local surveyor, whom I met with as soon as we got back to Maine in June.
"But isn't there a problem with the neighbor's deed description? Couldn't that invalidate their claim?"
"Senior rights," he responded. "That deed was recorded first. Those boundaries get drawn before any later deeds. It's never perfect. Yah do your best to lay it out with watcha got."
"Is there any chance the Registry would have a recorded survey drawing of the 1946 subdivision that was used to generate the deed descriptions?"
"Nah," he answered with a grin, "yah won't find nothin' theyah. That's Maine for yah."
But that might not have mattered. The seller's realtor had talked with the neighbor and said they were amenable to resolving it. It was complicated by the fact that the neighbor's property was in an estate with five separate family members having interest. This would take more than a handshake, but there was a good amount of money on the table for a small slice of their large lot that was useless to either of them without a resolution.
So we waited. Two weeks. Four weeks. Six.
The week before our scheduled closing date of Friday July 15, we sent a note saying that we were still very interested in the property. However, without some indication of progress by that Friday we would withdraw our offer and submit a new offer for less money.
Friday came and went.
"I don't know what they're thinking," the seller's realtor said to me on Monday when I stopped in to pick up our refunded $5,000 deposit check. "Why not just cut a deal for that little corner?"
"I guess they don't like money," I said.
"Well," he said, "That's Maine for yah."
To be continued...