It all started with blackberry jam. After a difficult first year in Colombia, a year of odd jobs, false starts, and trying to settle in, life was becoming more stable for us. My wife had found a secure, well-paying job, I was starting to get some interesting professional leads, and we had organized a routine of shared housework. The prior year, among our many nascent enterprises, we'd started a jam company, Manjares Caseros Caro y Greg. We produced two types of blackberry jam, as well as strawberry and Cape gooseberry jam, pesto, and tomato sauce. Our products were delicious, a big hit, but we could never produce large quantities or sell beyond friends and family, because our home kitchen operation didn't qualify for an official sanitary certificate. If we wanted to make a major run at the handmade jam business, we needed an industrial kitchen, clearly separated from our normal, family kitchen.
This condition coincided with our newfound economic security. Now that we could actually meet our monthly expenses comfortably, my wife wanted to invest in something, a common enterprise that would unite the two of us even as our work kept us from spending all our time together. We knew we'd probably only be in Colombia for another few years. My wife sagely argued that it would be a shame if when we left we had nothing to show for our time here. No capital built up, just a few thousand dollars paid in rent to our landlady and her horrid baboon family.
Thus arose the idea of investing in something. From before we arrived in Colombia we'd dreamt of starting our own farm, but our urban livelihoods precluded that now. The natural idea was to get the jam business up and running in a bigger way, or ideally to invest in a locale for our jam business, preferably in the small town where we went to buy berries direct from the farmers.
So we spent a few weeks scouting possible locations in the small town. One place was a dilapidated rural house for rent, but the landlord seemed to want us as tenants mainly so we'd tend his dairy herd for free. Another property was a lovely piece of land for sale, but the price was too steep for us.
After a few weeks of playing with the idea of investing in the small town, we realized it would be a hassle to put all of our work and resources in a place other than where we lived. That's when we began to think of buying and rehabbing an old house in our own city, which we'll call Alto Macondo:
I must admit that most of the prodding in this whole process came from my wife. I am a very methodical, slow-moving person when it comes to big life changes, and I always seek a comfortable routine to follow. I probably would have been happy to continue renting in our same old apartment. At least our income was sufficient to live on, even if we weren't building up our capital.
That said, among the millions of ideas I'd had before and after arriving in Colombia was to rehab old houses. This is something I'm relatively proficient at. At least I was proficient at house repair years ago, the last time I lived in a house that I had some authority to fix up. And in our town there are lots of beautiful old colonial houses that people don't appreciate. They prefer to rip down the traditional adobe architecture and build ugly cinderblock apartment buildings. Even now that there are historical preservation laws in place, developers will often buy an old house, neglect it until it falls down, and then claim that they aren't obligated to preserve the house, since it's not even a house anymore, just a lot with ruins on it. In the worst cases, they turn beautiful old houses into parking lots, maintaining only the original facade.
Inspired by our new idea, my wife and I set out to see as many old houses as we could. Many were small and of odd dimensions, the result of centuries of add-ons and divisions. Most were offered to us as potential teardowns so we could join the ranks of the cinderblock builders. And few were really suited for our plans, which were to rehab and subdivide into two or three units, one for ourselves and the rest to sell. There were two amazing, huge houses we saw, but both came with a $100000US price tag. One of them was literally falling to pieces, with holes in the second floor, rotting columns, and the like. If we ever rehab another old house, I'd like it to be that one, but for our first project (which also is sort of time-sensitive, since we intended to move in within the year), such a complex, big, expensive project wouldn't have been appropriate.
Finally though we found a house that really caught our eye. Perhaps more than the house itself was its location on a lovely little square, unlike any other neighborhood in Alto Macondo. The square was next to a 17th-century church, faced by a forested park, and had views of the distant western mountains. And the house was right on the square.
The house itself was a bit odd. The front part looked very old, almost colonial, with 14-foot-high ceilings. However, the traditional patio was bordered by reinforced concrete roof beams instead of typical wood columns and joists. There were a series of funny, tiny rooms in a row, with a dark semi-hall leading to another back patio with two shack-like rooms on it. Both patios had been defiled with bathrooms built right into the middle. The back part of the house faced onto another street, but the street level was so much lower than in the front part that the back had a garage below the living area. Everything in the back part was relatively new, built in cinderblock instead of adobe.
For some reason we were taken with the house. The size and the price were just about right for us, though the long, narrow floor plan made us puzzle as to how we might arrange multiple living units. But the kitchen had an old coal-burning stove that probably sold the house for us.
We told the owner that we were interested, and the negotiations began from there. But that is a story unto itself.
To be continued ...