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I was looking through the real estate section of the local paper the other day and had the feeling I was on another planet, or at least in Massachusetts, which is about the same thing. I was nearly struck dumb by the astronomical numbers pasted underneath pictures of very modest looking Maine houses. It's not that I'm unaware of what's been happening to the price of real estate in Maine, it's just that when you see those numbers right there in the newspaper as bold as brass, it drives the message home quite forcefully.
It got me to thinking about the first house my wife and I bought in the summer of 1971. When we started looking we gave up on the Midcoast right off because those prices were way beyond our budget. So we headed up beyond Belfast and Bucksport to Hancock and Washington counties to look around.
In Jonesboro we came upon a small, unassuming real estate office right there by the side of the road. We went in and met the agent, a pleasant country gentleman named Alva Look, who began showing us pictures of houses in the area. One of those first pictures showed an eight-room house that sat on 12 acres of land in the town of Cherryfield, about 15 miles south of Jonesport on U.S. Route 1. The asking price for the house and 12 acres was $5,500. (That's not a misprint, the price was fifty-five hundred dollars.)
We told Mr. Look that we'd certainly like to see the Cherryfield property, and so we followed him to the place, a sturdy country house with picturesque gables and a wrap-around porch and big shade trees in front. It didn't take long before we decided we wanted it and asked Mr. Look what we should do next. Later we would learn that you shouldn't look to buy old Maine houses on beautiful, sunny August afternoons when everything in Maine looks magnificent.
We dismissed as irrelevant the fact that it didn't have indoor plumbing or central heat. It had a kitchen sink and sink-drain and a beautifully built privy. Again, in Maine in August everything looks fabulous.
Since no bank would consider financing on the modest domicile, we asked the owner if he'd take $2,000 down and finance the rest. He agreed and a few weeks later we owned the place.
I won't go through all the gory details of our first winter with our woodstoves and our beautifully built privy, but when the spring rains came we decided maybe we should sell and look for another place.
One night in late March it rained so hard I thought we'd be swept away. The next morning I opened the cellar door and there were winter squashes and pumpkins bobbing around near the top of the cellar stairs.
My neighbor, Mr. Flaherty, said the problem was the culvert that ran under the road.
“Your cellar drains into that low spot beside your house and then through the culvert and down the other side. People in your house always made sure that culvert didn't get clogged with ice,” he said.
I told him that no one had mentioned the culvert when I bought the place.
“Well, they should have,” he said.
One ad in the old Maine Times in Topsham and we were getting calls from all over the place. A woman visiting from California came to look at it, liked it and agreed to our asking price of $12,000. By early September we were gone.
I bet you couldn't touch that place for less than $20,000 today. Just don't go look at it in August.
John McDonald is a humorist and storyteller who performs regularly
throughout New England. John’s e-mail address is mainestoryteller@yahoo.com.
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