– Do not by a house that’s been empty for more than three months: mice, dried-out pipes, cracked washers, tree roots, maple seedlings, burrowing bugs, and nesting birds. Nature is resilient. It’s the stability of our human society that’s an illusion, human structures that teeter on the edge of decay. Just one season and that lot has been reverting to a more natural state.
– Do ask everything that pops into your head. Writers have ideas, we let our imaginations crawl into corners and peep into dirty human motivations. The ideas and questions might seem bizarre, but ask. Sellers are not obligated to tell you as much as you think. Write down every little question and write every one in both past and present tense. Write them multiple times in multiples ways–you got this skill. Then send that long list of all the questions in all the tenses by email or hard copy to the seller before you pay for a home inspection. If you ask sellers directly, they have a legal obligation to answer. Demand details. Be as picky with these questions and answers as you would if an editor sent you back a short story to check before publication. Line by line, word by word, comma by comma. E.g. Is there asbestos in the house? Was there ever asbestos in the house? Is the sewer main line clear? Has the sewer main line ever been cleared?
– If the house is older or doesn’t contain any serious renovation–but then, hey, there’s one room or one ceiling or one part of the basement with totally new work, be suspicious. You know sloppy writing, when you or another writer slaps some lazy deus ex machina into a story to fix a major problem. Bad writing is bad writing, and only hard work in the structure of the whole piece can fix it. It’s the same with construction. If it’s out of place, ask when, where, why, and for what purpose. What’s it hiding? What really needs to be done?
– Visit the house at various times of the day and night. Where does the light fall, what are the noises. If you like to write at night with the starry sky, make sure neighbors don’t have a couple outdoor spotlights illuminating a two-acre diameter around their garage. If you like to write in the morning sun, make sure the knot of trees and mildewy arbor vitae drooping over the neighbor’s fence doesn’t block your office–no matter how wonderful it looks on the inside.
– Look up the word “efflorescence.” Know it, inspect for it, avoid it. Or you will spend too much time in your basement fiddling with a dehumidifier and online researching drainage ditches rather than writing.
– Junk is surprising. It always masks more junk. A house with a basement, garage, and shed full of old doorknobs, broken shutters, drippy paint cans, moldy boards, scraps of metal screen, rusty grills, styrofoam planks, and musty tins of nails and screws might be a bargain. But it is also an optical illusion. Under all that crap is more crap. And more crap. And more crap. And several writing weekends lost.
– Even if you hike, garden, camp, or compulsively clean, when you move into a new house–buy a respirator mask for scrubbing and moving. We live in an atmosphere of funk and ozone. Don’t inhale it, don’t act tough. Don’t be afraid of looking like a word dweeb in a mask, too frail for the hard hands-on labor of brooms, mops, rags, chemical cleaners, concrete, cobwebs, and sawdust. Or a good chunk of your writing time might slip away as you loll in bed recuperating from all those nasty bits in your lungs. On the other hand, if you want to enrich your next description of a character struggling for breath, feeling the truth of her tiny mortality and absolute alone-ness with each wheeze, don’t get a mask.
– Use the PennySaver, Craigslist, and the free local papers. Search out free or cheap help the same way you search out free or cheap submission opportunities. People will give you estimates on the strangest jobs–filling, sanding, and staining/polyurethaning all those empty cable and phone line holes left throughout the house. People will happily and with gratitude carry sawed-up old floorboards full of nails out of your house and into theirs. People will battle to pay $20 for a twenty-year-old chest freezer. People will give you stories as they help you with all this housework.
– The old saying “Good fences make good neighbors” depends on the ‘hood you live in. And the type of fence. Sometimes a six-foot solid stockade fence is the best plan, sometimes it gets you ostracized from the random street and sidewalk chatter. Explore your setting and the logic of that world before you make the fence call.
– If you want to be a writer, live life and ask for help with your craft. If you want to be a homeowner, live life and ask for help with the chores and repairs. If you want to be a writer who owns a home, those are your life.