Real estate wars

“I don’t think I’m ready to give up city living,” Patrick said to me last week, as we were contemplating putting in an offer on a great townhouse in Newton.  This took me by surprise as he never really was a “city person” and I’ve always suspected that he resented the fact that I dragged him here.  But then I thought maybe he’s finally fallen in love with the same part of the city that I have!  Several years ago, when Patrick and I first moved to Allston from our place in West Newton, we set out to explore Coolidge Corner, a Brookline neighborhood just a ten minute walk away.  As we neared the town center, we could see that a crowd was forming on the elementary school lawn.  Then, we heard a familiar female voice.  We looked at each other.  Could that be….Kay Hanley, the lead singer of Letters to Cleo?  It was!  She was performing a free concert as part of Brookline’s 300th anniversary.  And Buffalo Tom was set to take the stage later that day.  All sorts of people, college-age kids, families and young children were there, dancing.  That’s when I first realized what a special place Brookline was.  I started to notice old couples, walking hand in and hand and pictured Patrick and I spending the rest of lives here.

Three kids and almost eight years later, we have built a wonderful community of friends and families through our Coolidge Corner school/daycare many of whom live in the neat brownstones lining the streets.  Attending playdates at our friends homes has allowed us a peek into their lives and how we too could be living.  Popping into Panera on virtually any day at nearly any time means that we’ll bump into at least 2-3 families we know.

North Brookline is truly the best of both worlds; it is urban living in leafy neighborhoods.  You have the T, you have the bus, you have a CVS on every corner. Who needs a yard when you have your choice of a million playgrounds within a short walk? Restaurants, bars and shops?  Got it!  Dunkies or Starbucks?  Yup, and a few other coffee shops too!  In the summer, you have free family concerts and movies in the parks.   Do you have children?  If so, you can’t swing a dead rat without hitting a fantastic school.  What don’t you have in Brookline?  Trash on the streets, for one thing.   Brookline takes pride in its public works and it’s not unusual to see ride-on street sweepers driving up the sidewalks during the morning commute.  I went running one morning and nearly stepped on a (dead) rat, and it was gone by the time I was returning home.  Yes, there is crime.  Read the Brookline police blog sometime and all you’ll hear is shoplifting, shoplifting, not stopping at a stop sign, and more shoplifting.  But you don’t often hear about violent crime or murder in Brookline.  It is city living but with clean streets, excellent schools and relative safety.  We live two streets over from the Brookline/Boston line, and it’s like two different worlds.

However, there couldn’t be a worse time to buy in Brookline.  There is very little inventory on the market, which means there will be multiple bids submitted on the day of the first open house.  It’s not for the wishy-washy.  Like buying soup from a certain vendor on the TV show Seinfeld, you’d better know exactly what you want, quickly place your order, then shuffle down the line to wait.  But if it were only that simple!  People engage all sorts of strategies to get the winning bid – dropping contingencies (including inspection, can you imagine??), offering a 30% down payment or even PAYING CASH.  Seriously, if you have $600k just sitting around in cash, why the hell are you looking at these dinky apartments???  Then, there is always the sympathy vote – people sending letters to the sellers telling them how much they love the property, including pictures of their babies (I’ve even heard of people submitting a picture of their babies taken inside the open house – kind of weird).

Looking for a new place is like having a part-time job – studying the Redfin alerts all week, carefully planning our Open House strategy, researching the schools and before-and-after care, constant calls and emails with our Broker trying to get some inside scoop.  We go through the whole analysis on a weekly basis – do we move to the suburbs to buy something affordable, but then tack on significantly increased commuting time and cost and somehow having to coordinate the kids various drop off and pick up?  By the way, what’s up with school starting at 8:30 or later?  And no, I don’t consider 4-6 hours to be “full day Kindergarten!”  How do people actually work, especially if you work over an hour away?  Assuming we do find a good school solution for Emma, the smart thing to do would be to  wait another year, and save up some more money.  But that also means staying in this neighborhood with the constant parties and vandalism, the guy in the building who can’t seem to stop smoking pot in the common areas during the day, and in this horrible apartment with a kitchen not big enough for two adults to make breakfast in.   There’s the fact that I promised myself that I wouldn’t be here for another September move in, and particularly not with the same futon I’ve had for 20 years.  And the sad fact that I’d just like to live somewhere I wouldn’t be embarrassed to have people visit us.  I’m a 37-year-old mother of three with a successful career living like a poor college student.

Didn’t win Powerball tonight, so I guess it’s onward with the search.

You can pick your friends and your nose, but can you pick your school?

While we are waiting to find out what Emma’s school “choices” are, I’ve been reflecting on what a strange experience it’s been to research and apply to private schools.  We’ve finally completed all of the required tours, prospective student visits and parent interviews.  Well, except those for the Catholic school that I’m ironically praying that we won’t have to apply to.   I’ve been treating the whole thing like a job search/interview process.  Making sure I’m acting engaged during visits, asking thoughtful questions during the tours…and not giving what Patrick lovingly refers to as my “bitchy” face when I hear something I don’t like.

We’ve had an odd experience with one particular school.  As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m a big fan of alternative education styles and think that Emma would do really well in that type of  environment.  The school itself is just beautiful.  And so clean that I wouldn’t have to spend nights and weekends there with my Clorox wipes and steam mop.  But there’s an odd undercurrent/vibe that I’ve been feeling there.  And it’s not just because I found out that the fourth graders watch and analyze Hitchcock’s “Rear Window.”  First, there was the prospective student visit day.  They whisked Emma off to a classroom to let her experience the teachers and materials while I sat with 15 other parents in the library.  Really, the 16 of us were sizing each other up.  I counted about 4 or 5 Louis Vuittons (I’m more of a Marc by Marc Jacobs on Clearance at Nordstrom kinda gal), and one woman’s nametag read “Chessy.”  Seriously.  I don’t mean to offend any ancient prepster families, but that alone made it clear that I was out of my league.   The Assistant Director kept stressing to us that this “was not an interview” and that our children “were not being interviewed” but also seemed a little put off by the fact that we weren’t asking enough questions.  One parent leaned forward and asked, “so what is your acceptance rate into Harvard?”  We all laughed nervously.  “No, seriously,” he continued “what is your acceptance rate into the exam schools?”  Of course he was referring to Boston Latin.  Somehow over the past few months I’ve gleaned that the “other” exam school, Latin Academy, doesn’t have the same level of perceived prestige as Boston Latin.  Please note that I have no data to back that up…and also?  Am I supposed to be thinking about junior high already?  I just want to find a good, safe Kindergarten for my child.  During our discussion, the head of admissions came in, asking for Jose’s “grandmother.”  Apparently, Jose was struggling with his visit.  Jose’s mother stood up in a grumpy manner, saying, “I didn’t realize I looked like a grandmother!”  The rest of us felt awkward for her, but secretly  happy that our own children were faring better.

I recently attended a parent visit there, during which I got to observe the Kindergarten class in action.  My first observation was that the class was stunningly, and almost eerily, quiet.  The children were sitting cross-legged on a circle mat, quietly eating homemade, all-natural, milk and nut free cookies, listening to the teacher read from a chapter book.  During pauses in the reading, one little boy made comments about the story.  At one point, the teacher said to him, “Joe, I will ask you to keep all your comments to the end.”  It felt a little firmer than I would expect of the situation, but I didn’t think about it too much of it at the time.  Later, the teacher was explaining a game the class would play and asked if anyone had any questions.  Joe said, “so, if you get all the spaces marked off and say Bingo, it means that you win.”  To which the teacher replied, rather curtly, “That’s not a question, Joe.”  My very first thought was:  there is no joy here.  Worse, it was a situation I could see Emma getting into.  While Emma could use a bit of self-regulation, given all of her recent antics at school, I don’t want her to become a Stepford Child!

Later, the Director met with the parents for a short interview. I was expecting this to be a private experience, but we were joined by another mother…funnily enough, it was Jose’s (grand)mother, who seemed completely disengaged and annoyed throughout the visit.  The Director asked us both to tell our family’s “story.”  I made the mistake of letting the other mom go first…it turns out that she had a complicated and very sad tale about her struggle through childhood (including immigrating to the US, growing up as a non-English speaking illegal immigrant who was forced to work in a factory from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day in order to pay for her mother’s medical bills, and being responsible for bringing each of her 8 siblings over to the US).  Then it was my turn – what could I possibly say after that?  Ummmm…..my husband and I grew up in comfortable, middle-class surburbia and went to good schools?  I did take a minute to talk about how I feel that Allston is at a disadvantage as most of our neighborhood schools are considered to be poorly performing, and that I feel it’s overlooked because people forget that it’s not just BU students who live there…to which Jose’s mother replied, “Oh yes, the schools in your neighborhood are bad.  And I know because I work for the school system.”  Now if that woman with everything she had to deal with growing up thinks our schools are bad , they must be really bad!  Not to mention the small detail that all families are expected to contribute to the school’s annual fund and other fundraising efforts.  I was so grateful that Patrick refrained from asking out loud, “do you mean ON TOP OF the $30k tuition????”

Contrast this with our another private school we applied to – there is so much life and energy and light at the other school.  The academics are stellar, they have very small class sizes, and a low teacher turnover rate.  They offer reasonable tuition rates  good school hours.  The school is housed in a cute brownstone in Back Bay.  Even Patrick liked it.  It is quirky, of course, but quirky in a very charming way.  The environment is so impressive that families have actually taken their kids out of Boston’s most coveted public schools when they got into this school.  Unfortunately,  the unusual admissions process and waitlist procedures are keeping this school out of our reach.  They fill their Kindergarten class 18 months in advance, so I needed to apply this time last year.  The director of admissions confirmed at the end of our parent interview/tour that there are no spots for Emma and that we will get a letter saying we are on the waitlist.  And to make matters worse, even my Holy Cross alumni connection with him wouldn’t help us get off the waitlist –  they select families off the waitlist not by number, but by how a certain child would “fit” into the current class.  So, if another caucasian girl from Allston happens to drop out WE ARE IN!!!

So we will wait, checking our mailbox every day, to see what our “choices” will ultimately be.