When Becky and I decided to build a house, it did seem a bit impulsive. We had just met. When Covid hit a few months later, the idea seemed suddenly improbable. Then impossible. Then, positively insane.
Our original plan was to do what most people do and just buy a pre-existing place—a used house, as it were. So, one very hot Sunday in July 2019, we decided to scope out neighborhoods just north of downtown Carrboro, North Carolina, where I lived.
Becky Broun and I had been dating for less than a year. Indeed, less than two months. Seven weeks earlier we’d met at Caffe Driade, a local institution whose name translates from ancient Greek to “place for online coffee dates.” It’s rather popular with the Match.com crowd.
I had an iced herbal tea, having given up caffeine some months before when I realized it was giving me weird bouts of vertigo. Unfortunately, what I’ve just explained here in 24 words I took several hundred to explain to Becky that day, just as we sat down, prattling on as if defending a research thesis. Another woman might have excused herself and raced off in her car. But Becky stuck around until at last I gave her a chance to speak, and by the end of our date we had each pretty much decided our online dating days were over. How we could be so sure, so quickly, is a story for another time.
Now we were highlighting streets on a paper map so we’d know when to pounce if any of those houses went up for sale. The real estate market had cooled some as summer heated up, but only a little. It was still the kind of market where if you wanted a nice house you had to be there on the day it hit the market with a fat wad of money in each hand.
“Wouldn’t it be great to find a house in walking distance to Weaver Street? Or even better, to build one?” I said to Becky as I lurched my car through tree-lined streets, with one eye in the rearview for cars that might want to get by.
I was referring not to actual Weaver Street but to Weaver Street Market, the cultural centerpiece of Carrboro where people gathered to shop for groceries or fill plates at the food bar for dining under the giant oak trees out front. On Sunday mornings bands play live music there, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that more Carrboro residents go to Weaver Street on Sunday mornings than to church. I had worshipped there countless times over pancakes and Mexican scrambled eggs.
Becky agreed. “It’d be amazing to live so close to Benj and Rachel” she added, referring to her brother and sister-in-law who lived on a street just behind Armadillo Grill, another downtown Carrboro fixture. Becky and Benjamin are close. She’s the only person on earth allowed to call him “Benj” and I’m pretty sure they talk on the phone every day.
We’d arrived at Weaver Street and decided to hit the adjacent neighborhoods, slowing to take in the quant mill houses the town is known for: impossibly small structures—tiny houses way before tiny houses were a thing—built for Carrboro’s cotton mill workers at the at the start of the 1900s. Houses are packed tight around here, on some streets like cereal boxes on a store shelf, and the odds of finding a vacant lot are impossibly long. But this was our impossibly lucky day.
Someone else had managed to build a house on an empty lot in this neighborhood—I had watched it go up with envy. We were driving by it now. What I hadn’t noticed before is that the house took up only half of a double lot. But Becky noticed it right away. “There’s a For Sale By Owner sign!”
I slowed to the car to a stop and we both jumped out. The grass was nearly as tall as we were, so we couldn’t see the entire lot and hesitated to go romping through it just yet, but we took down the web address on the sign. As we drove away Becky tapped the URL into her phone, we texted the owner, and set up a meeting.
The next day we pulled up again at the lot and parked. There was now a path mowed in a giant figure eight through the tall grass, and shortly after we arrived a spectacled man with close cropped hair rode up on a small bicycle.
“Hi, I’m Chris.”
We introduced ourselves and thanked him for cutting the path.
“While I was mowing I found a dead deer back there,” he quickly offered up. “The smell was awful and I had to drag it to the curb myself so the town would come pick it up. I’m glad they got here before you did!”
As were we.
Chris had lived in the area for many years, so it didn’t take long for him and Becky, who grew up here, to identify people they both knew. He and his wife had bought half the double lot with the couple who now lived in the recently finished house on the northern half—the one I watched go up. There had been a 1950s brick house here, in bad repair, which the two couples tore down. When Chris and his wife decided to renovate their current house just a few blocks away, rather than build a new one on their half, they put the lot up for sale.
We strode around the path, listening to Chris tell us how great it was to walk to everything in Carrboro, especially the restaurants. “Some nights we just start walking toward Chapel Hill until we smell something that draws us in. It’s pretty sweet.”
Carrboro is adjacent to Chapel Hill, home to the main campus of the University of North Carolina. The college town is known for being one of the more liberal outposts in the southern state, much to the frustration of conservative politicians, of which there are more than a few. The legendary Republican Senator Jesse Helms, when the state was debating where to put a new zoo in the 1970s, is said to have asked, “Couldn’t we just build a fence around Chapel Hill?” Carrboro, just to the west, is even more liberal. “A little to the left of Chapel Hill,” a sign here once said.
The next day, Wednesday, I called the town hall and spoke with zoning officer James Thomas. He confirmed it was a buildable lot but warned us there was a stream buffer along one side, on either side of a drainage ditch. “You can’t build within the buffer,” he stressed. We’d seen the ditch and didn’t think it would be a problem. On Thursday we gave Chris and his wife a cashier’s check and executed an offer to purchase.
It was done. Becky and I, eight weeks after meeting, and four days after first laying eyes on the lot, had committed to building a custom home, something neither of us had ever done before nor even dreamt we might. The next several weeks consisted of both easy things, like securing hundreds of thousands of dollars of financing and choosing a builder to entrust it to, and difficult things like convincing our families we weren’t out of our gourds.
We hired a local design-build firm to put a house our lot. In September, their architect, after just one meeting with Becky and me, produced plans we loved at first sight. It was a craftsman bungalow with a big front porch–we found ourselves looking at it several times a day. The firm’s owner, our “builder” in construction parlance, told us if they submitted the permit application by end of year then construction could start in February. Neither of those things, it turned out, would happen.
By early March we were growing more frustrated by the day. What could be taking so long? Then frustration gave way to the gratitude when an impossibly small creature, a coronavirus named SARS-Cov-2, began causing the infectious disease COVID-19. It had already wreaked havoc in China and was now grinding life on the rest of the planet to a halt. Restaurants closed (the Weaver Street lawn was eerily empty even on beautiful Sunday mornings), college students all came home, and toilet paper disappeared from grocery stores. I began working from home and set up a desk at a window that looked out on the local health clinic, where I watched them erect a tent for drive-through screenings. Seemingly overnight, life had turned upside down and outside in.
Nobody knew how bad this was going to get. Becky and I had to wonder, if we started construction now, could we finish? Would workers be available? How about all the materials? We had visions of a half-built house rotting in the sun for months. Or years. And what if one or both of us lost our jobs? All that cash we were about to pour into a house might come in very handy.
We put the project on hold. “I’d probably do the same,” our builder offered up glumly when we called him with the news. We told him we were postponing for two months, knowing it might be much longer. It was depressing, pulling the plug like that. But, we decided, it was better to be sad than scared.
Then, with the pressure off, we took a few days to size up the situation. Yes, if the worst of our predictions all came true, then Becky and I would be, as a learned economist might say, really in the shit. But it might not be so bad. There was uncertainty.
There was no uncertainty, however, on the likely effect of pulling the plug on spending hundreds of thousands of dollars. Construction workers would need to look elsewhere for work. Our orders of cinder blocks and two-by-fours and everything else would be cancelled. The national economy was facing its worst crisis since the Great Depression, and we had control over just this tiny little bit of it. But it was our bit.
We might get hurt if we proceed but others will certainly hurt if we don’t. Fuck it, we decided. We called our builder back not two weeks after postponing. Let’s build this thing, we told him, full speed ahead. We could hear his sigh of relief. “This will be one special house,” he said.
To us it already was.