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Cavanaugh: Dream home to house from hell
Thoughts of a Baby Boomer
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I wrote this some time ago. With so many folks in the same boat as I was in those early days of my adulthood, I thought you might get a chuckle from my young eager mistakes:

I have come to the conclusion that what financial success you achieve on buying and selling your first house sets the bar for every house you may own the rest of your life.

The first house I ever owned was located on the main drive into Elizabeth City, N.C.

It was more than 100 years old and had been the family home of a powerful southern judge, who had long since died. It seemed like the typical southern mansion you read about in all the travel books today. It was a two-story, 4,000-square-foot house with a cedar shake roof, three large pecan trees in the backyard and two of the most beautiful claw-foot tubs you ever have seen.

The perfect house, right? Wrong. It was in all aspects the house from hell.

Let’s start at the beginning because this house taught me many lessons. Maybe I can help you by writing about my mistakes.

I was raising a very young family in the mid-1970s, and I had no credit to speak of and any credit I did have was rotten. We rented a house from our friend Brantley, who lived in one of the finest houses in town and was nice enough to make it affordable for us to rent his starter home.

The first lesson I learned is when a person who has more money than they know what to do with, especially when you have none, approaches you with the greatest offer I suggest you run and keep running until you don’t see that person again.

This old Southern gentleman, named Mr. Phil, approached me one bright fall day at the local eating establishment, known as Stalks, as I was eating lunch. Stalks was the local eating establishment where everyone knew your name. It was the place where every young executive ate lunch, ran a charge and read for free all of Stalks men’s magazine. Everyone sat and solved all of the world problems all at the same time.

After he got my attention, Mr. Phil proceeded to tell me about this house that had been in his family for more than 100 years and that he was in the process of getting his affairs in order so he was trying to sell it.

I asked him if it was the old house on the main street into town that had been for sale for the past three years. He said it was. I said, being the very astute person that I was, “Well, there must be something wrong with it if you haven’t sold it yet.” He chuckled.

There are three lessons to be learned here - first, do not under any circumstances believe someone who tells you that the reason they haven’t sold their house is because they wanted it to go the right person. Second, if you have to ask someone if the reason that his house has not sold is because something is wrong with it, trust me there is something wrong with it. Finally, if someone chuckles after he has told you the above, know that it doesn’t mean he’s just a funny guy.

Of course, I was now the right person for that old family house, according to Mr. Phil.

It didn’t matter that I had no money, and my debts, well, they were so bad that I couldn’t even afford a CB Radio (that was the rage in those days). I could only afford a CB receiver, which cost $19, prompting all my friends to give me the handle, “One Way.”

I told Mr. Phil that I appreciated his picking me as the right person for his family house, but alas, my financial picture would not yet qualify me for a real estate loan. Not to worry Mr. Phil said. He thought so much of me that he would make the loan himself.

This was another lesson. Here was a man who only knew me for about half an hour. He heard me tell him that I was at best a bad credit risk, but he still knew I was the right man for his family home.

OK, so if a stranger could trust me so much, I believed by this time that I had a special charisma given to me by God himself and that the Good Lord wanted me to have that house.

So sure enough Mr. Phil had himself the right man for his family house.

We then went on a tour of my soon-to-be new house. It had just been painted a beautiful pea green. I never realized how much I hated pea green until later. The wood floors were buffed and shining. The windows sparkled. I didn’t find out until later that none of the windows could be opened. It smelled just like a new house.

As we toured the house, I was floating. I was loving Mr. Phil and his whole family - including the old dead judge. I dreamed of my first bath in the giant tub with the lion’s claws. I thought someday I actually might have servants to live in the servants’ quarters. The wallpaper was pre-1918 and it was ripped a little, but heck, I could live with that. After all, don’t fashions come back? The backyard had all those pecan trees. I even had visions about fresh pecan pies.

I was hooked.

As we were leaving I casually asked Phil a couple of questions. I noticed that our back door was only 15 feet from the back door of Elizabeth City Junior High School. I asked if that might be a problem. I also asked if the house had a good furnace. I can’t remember what his answers were because for some reason he was now speaking in whispers, which I interpreted as his sorrow about giving up the old family house. I actually thought the tears in Phil’s eyes were tears of sorrow. Another lesson - did you know that tears of joy look just like tears of sorrow?

Well soon we had moved into our brand spanking new mansion. The Cavanaughs had arrived. It wasn’t long before the first major wet southern cold spell hit. So what if the water had a little ice in it when I took my bath, and when we talked our breath looked like smoke.

We called the local oilman and ordered our tank to be filled. Now keep in mind this was in the middle of the great oil and gas crisis of the ‘70s. The oilman came, filled up the tank and gave us a bill for $4,000. It turned out that the tank held 2,000 gallons of oil.

I turned a pale shade of gray.

Since he was a Jaycee friend, he told us not to worry. We could make payments or give him our youngest child. So now we would have a cozy house, and heck, I had a whole year to pay the bill. And for two weeks we were very comfy.

Then the oil ran out about 2 O’clock in the morning. I knew it was gone because I heard a big sucking sound, and then immediately it was colder inside than outside. We all bundled together for survival.

I was shocked. I called my friend the oilman. I told him he must have shorted us. He assured us that he did not. I then discovered the awful truth. Our house, our mansion, had no insulation. Not even one ounce.So I had a choice, I could insulate or buy more oil.

I bought more oil and we stretched that delivery out for five weeks, it took me five years to pay the oil bill.

Undaunted, we bought space heaters, which blew out the fuses on an hourly basis. We then found out the wiring had not been replaced since 1935. Did you know you could put a penny behind a fuse in the box so you can circumvent something? Of course, you could burn your house down or kill yourself but when you are in the throes of frostbite you don’t think sensibly.

During this time period the worst snowstorm in the history of the area hit. One night during this storm I actually saw snow and thunder and lightning at the same time. Believe me, I thought it was the end and I almost became saved at least four times. I also could go to the old servants’ quarters and watch snow fall in my very own house. Actually, it was very pretty until it soaked through the ceiling and ruined my beautiful wood floors downstairs.

We found out soon enough that in the attic, that was covered by the Cedar Shake roof, which had about a hundred holes in for easy entrance, there lived about 100 squirrels. These squirrels held races every night over my bedroom. One day I purchased my very first BB gun. The next day, I went out in the yard and, I spent the day shooting at squirrels.

At the end of the day, I was a happy man.  I had showed the squirrels who was the boss. Wrong. That night there number must have doubled and I feared for our life as they sounded like they were going to chew through the ceiling to attack us. I never shot at them again.

Later my good aunt and uncle felt sorry for us and replaced the roof.

I later moved from Elizabeth City and rented the house. I actually received no money and had to evict my tenant after six months.

I could go on and tell you about the ghost of the old judge, but I don’t want to scare you.

The school ended up buying the old house from me at a tremendous loss. The most fitting thing happened.

They “paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”


T. Pat Cavanaugh is the publisher of The News. He can be reached at