This is an adapted excerpt from Santa Fe Dreamhouse: Ten Years in the Land of Enchantment, A Memoir (August 2008), based on the author's experience buying property on Upper Canyon Road in 1988.
"It needs work," our real estate agent, Rose Daneman, warned us. But it is adobe."
She turned left down a rough dirt lane off Upper Canyon Road, and the car waddled through the river over a concrete crossing pad. We lurched up a muddy drive and there it was, behind a gnarly old apple tree: a plain rectangular building with one large plate glass window glaring a reflection of the winter sun. My enthusiasm drooped like the old electric wires that crossed the yard. Good heavens, I thought, this is the saddest, most uninspiring thing we'd seen yet. Rose was quiet.
"How much land?" Jim asked, glancing around at a tiny neighboring house on the left side of the drive. That was courageous of him. Would he even want to go inside? "Where's the property line here?" he went on.
"It runs along the driveway. It's on nearly an acre," said Rose. "I've got the plat. We can look at it when we get inside."
We ventured inside, though I was still focused on the possibility our beloved acre sat in a depression that might be within the city's flood plain map. It certainly was real adobe: distinct layers of mud bricks showed where stucco had cracked off around the windows. Bugs had chewed the ends of the vigas, those round roof beams which protrude from the wall of the house, Santa Fe style. Blistered blue paint on the window frames peeled from the shriveling wood. The yard was a confusing jumble of what looked like old junk.
"A mess," I thought and for a moment remembered fondly my tidy Philadelphia house where the stucco had remained intact the whole time I'd owned it. Four bedrooms and three baths for a third the price of this. But that was apples and oranges. For better or worse, when it comes to comparisons, old Santa Fe adobes are in a class of their own.
Rose wiggled open a sagging screen door and unlocked the narrow door behind it. There we were, in a brick-floored room, the living room, apparently. The walls were thick and unevenly plastered, the high ceiling coved between long round vigas.
The sun was bright on the floor. A hive-shaped fireplace, snugged into one corner of the room, was streaked with smoke above its arched mouth. The chimney tapered gracefully into the ceiling.
"Cute," I murmured, struggling to find the right adjective.
"That's called a kiva, when it's in the corner and round like that," Rose said. " You probably already know that. They burn really well. Throws off a lot of heat."
I peered up the blackened flue.
"No damper," I remarked. As if such a detail could possibly make a difference here.
Moving into the bedroom, I was already emotionally prepared for the rusty little toilet which squatted beside a rusty hot water heater. Nor was I surprised by the moldy-looking tile surrounding a rust-stained tub and dripping faucets. I pulled open the reluctant doors of a spidery plywood closet. Nothing to save here, either. New heating, new kitchen, new fixtures and counting. The numbers spun through my head like a slot machine.
Seedy and dilapidated as it was, the house felt like a fortress.
"You say it's on city water?" asked Jim.
"But it has a septic tank."
She consulted her papers and nodded again.
"And the taxes are how much?"
"Four hundred dollars last year (1987)."
Holy cow. Finally, a deal. Rose saw my face. "They'll go up, though," I said.
Jim was looking at the sag of the vigas in the living room. A leak had stained one corner of the ceiling. I didn't know what the sagging vigas meant. I was thinking where to put a proper front door. And a kitchen.
"Wish I had a ladder. I'd like to see that roof," Jim said thoughtfully. Jim saw the structure, what it would take to put it right. My province was the interior. We both had work to do. What neither of us understood quite so well was the process of falling in love with a house in Santa Fe. Some things are better experienced than explained.
Adapted excerpt from Santa Fe Dreamhouse: Ten Years in the Land of Enchantment, A Memoir (August 2008) by Reed Stevens, a writer and former NM Real Estate Broker. www.santafedreamhouse.net.