My husband and I spent most of our Saturdays in 1994 searching for a home in Bell Canyon, an equestrian community tucked between Calabasas and Chatsworth.
Bell Canyon is the rarest of L.A. neighborhoods: It is not unusual to find yourself 10 feet from a family of deer, and at the same instant, 10 minutes from a Target store.
Coming from a cookie-cutter house in a subdivision where a patch of grass was considered a "yard," we were entranced by Bell Canyon's acre-plus lots, hiking trails, wildlife, creeks, views and, of course, the prospect of keeping a horse or two at home.
After a year of searching, it became clear that Bell Canyon's beauty would come at a price. An OK house on an OK lot could be purchased for about $600,000. Anything more than OK began at $700,000.
Given these financial realities, I had a moment of cognitive dissonance when my real estate broker mother-in-law called me on my car phone, informing me of the following hot-off-the-press listing:
"Bell Canyon Foreclosure. 5 bedrooms, 3 baths on 1.2 acres. Fantastic Views. Large Courtyard. $385,000."
Fortunate that a CHP officer was nowhere in sight and that my fellow drivers on the freeway that day were not road-rage types, I quickly exited the 101 Freeway, racing to scoop up this incredible deal before other potential buyers heard the unbelievable news.
Arriving at Bell Canyon in record time, I had difficulty finding the property, which was not visible from the street. Apparently, the prior residents had been partial to the "overgrown brush" look in landscaping.
The house did have a courtyard, but it was enclosed with wrought-iron bars, giving it a one-of-a-kind, San Quentin feel. A more complete description of the property would have been:
Owner wanted for "structure" ("house" would have been an overstatement) with broken windows, 1970s termite-infested cabinets and nonpaying tenants (a.k.a., dead rodents prominently displayed on the kitchen floor). Pool fully stocked with beer bottles. Heavy drywall texture throughout, except for a few "small" holes in several walls. Perfect for lover of multicolored, nonfunctioning toilets."
Despite the realities of the place, I could not see beyond the "low" price tag and a view of the canyon and mountains that took my breath away. My husband's promises to me during that year of house-hunting that "anything I didn't like could be changed" rang in my ears. So I made that fateful call: "Honey, I think I found a house."
My mother's reaction as she first surveyed the Bell Canyon home we were about to purchase was a combination of shock and horror. In fact, I think that the last time I saw that expression on her face was in 1976 when my then 10-year-old sister wrote on her bedroom door in permanent marker: "No one come in . . . especially Mom!"
I dismissed my mother's reaction, telling myself that her perception was clouded by a few broken windows, mouse carcasses and a little bit of easily clearable brush. Perhaps mom did not remember how Mary and George in "It's a Wonderful Life" quickly transformed the neighborhood haunted house into a beautiful home worthy of the pages of House Beautiful with just their honeymoon money and a little TLC.
So, like a know-it-all teenager, I ignored my mother's advice to pass on this house, convinced that she had no idea what she was talking about when she warned it would cost at least $250,000 to make the house habitable.
I hate to admit this, but my mother, as usual, was right. Her only mistake was in her quarter-million-dollar estimate: It was way too low.
We closed escrow while I was in the hospital delivering our first child in September 1994. Our plan was for the three of us to move in with my mother for "a few weeks" while my husband, who has a general contractor's license, "fixed" the house on weekends.
A few weeks turned into nearly a year and a half as we changed our modest plan of new paint and carpet to an overly ambitious one that included raising a ceiling and adding exposed beams, knocking down several walls, tearing out every inch of the hideous heavily textured drywall, and replacing every floor, counter top, knob and light fixture in what was then 2,700 square feet of space. My husband devoted Saturdays to this overwhelming task, trying to turn what in hindsight was a tear-down into a home.
The bills quickly mounted as I discovered that although tile can be found at my local home center, the Rolls-Royce of tile and stone is available only on Melrose Avenue in stores frequented mainly by professional decorators.
Finally, after more than a year of construction, the first half of the house was finished, as was the credit available on our charge cards.
Two more years passed while we attempted to save the money necessary to remodel the bedrooms, as well as an extremely narrow den. During that time another baby was born and a great architect was hired.