I called my father. He used to buy, fix up, and flip houses, back in the 80s and 90s. He was a handyman engaged in the process of perpetually fixing up a handful of houses from the time he left his job at the gunpowder factory until the move to South Carolina. I knew that if he heard we were thinking of buying and fixing a home he'd be enthusiastically for it, and quite possibly on our doorstep within hours, and impossible to remove. But he's also the contact we had best able to guide us in answering the question: would buying this house be a crazy idea?
He was thrilled with the concept. I knew he would be. I apologized to my mother for activating him this way. But he gave us advice on what to look for, both outside the house and during the thirty-minute inspection we'd be able to get from the county tax board. We did a lot of back-and-forth talking and photograph-sharing over all this.
What we found inside the house was ... well, a lot of abandoned mattresses. And a huge bag of kitchen garbage left on the floor which had attracted every fly in the world. Given that the last tenants had apparently moved in and then been kicked out for the landlord's failure to pay taxes within a month, I could sympathize with their deciding to leave a mess behind. We didn't open the refrigerator door. The county's person started trying to tell us something about foreclosed-on homes getting inspected, but the kitchen smell overwhelmed her and she had to scurry off. We never learned what she wanted to tell us.
There was plenty to be scared of, especially since the power and water were off (and so we'd be buying it utilities-unproven). There was a missing step in the basement stairs. There was a lot of household junk and abandoned furniture, especially in the basement and attic. There was a musty smell in the rooms that weren't, by bunny_hugger's estimate, 20 percent flies by volume.
And yet. The attic was drywalled in and partly finished. It couldn't be a livable room per code --- its only access was into the bathroom --- but it was quite usable, especially by kids. It's too short for someone tall as me. It surely was being used as a bedroom, based on the mattress count. The basement, too, was partly finished, probably also a bedroom. No wonder the house had needed so many cars, last tenant ago. The main floor still had wooden floors and lovely dark wood window frames, stained rather than painted. It even had its 1920s-era hard-wood medicine cabinet in the bathroom.
The furnace was six years old; it even had the installation and warranty sticker on it. (The warranty expired just in May.) The water heater was similarly new. The circuit breaker looked good, enough for modern needs. Well, the house had passed inspection for a rental certificate as recently as 2012. It seemed to be in strikingly good shape.
In short, based on the available evidence, this was a remarkably sound home that would be salable even if all we did was clean the junk out of it. It would be salable at a profit if we replaced the kitchen and bathroom fixtures and tiles, and maybe re-varnished the floors. At the $7,000 for back taxes it would be a steal.
And anyone else looking at the house would surely come to the same conclusion. But the house was seized just before the foreclosure-sale deadline, and inspections could be done by appointment only. So perhaps only a few people would be able to see what promise the house had. Maybe we'd be able to get it at a price we could pay.
And maybe we were planning to do something deeply crazy.
Trivia: Before taking the Presidential Oath of Office after Warren G Harding's death, Calvin Coolidge called several people, including Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes, for advice. He had to call from the store across the road, as his father's phone could be used only for local calls. Source: From Failing Hands: The Story of Presidential Succession, John D Feerick.
Currently Reading: Discord: The Story Of Noise, Mike Goldsmith.