Archive for June, 2013

For Bart’s birthday in April, I purchased a Groupon for an hour of batting cages in Gaithersburg. We went to one a few years ago with some family back in Arkansas, and it was on our list of things to do again. So when I saw the deal come around, it seemed like a natural thing to do.

Unfortunately, it took us a while to get around to it, since right after Bart’s birthday we got busy with travel and house hunting. But after a rough commute home today (you’re seriously going to close one entire lane of northbound Connecticut Avenue on a Friday afternoon during rush hour? Seriously?), I knew that beating the crud out of something was just what the doctor ordered.

Now, despite watching baseball all the time these days, neither of us know anything about actually playing it. But we grabbed our bats and balls and headed out to our cage. It took a whole 5-gallon bucket of balls each before we got our stride, but before too long we were making contact.

I’m a big wuss, so I whined a lot about the balls being too fast or too slow or too close together or whatever. But I managed to finally get quite a few solid smacks. Take that, road construction.

By the end of the hour, we had blisters on our hands from gripping the bat with our dainty palms. Next time, we need some batting gloves. But we had a good time, and who knows? Judging by the number of players on my fantasy baseball team that keep going on the disabled list, the major leagues might be desperate for some hitters in the near future. You just never know.

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I am just not cut out for real estate in this town.

I’m all about variables. Algorithms. Patterns. Statistics. Real estate is, evidently, about emotion. Desire. Vagueness. Mystery. Or at least this is the impression given off by most of the real estate transactions these days.

I’m no real estate expert or economist, and I don’t know what the market is like around the country, but things have been hot, hot, hot here in the DC area since, oh, precisely about the time we started looking at houses. Of course. DC is a unique market, where there’s always a high demand which has artificially driven prices up relative to other spots in the US. Then the real estate bubble happened in the 2000s, meaning a lot of people bought homes who couldn’t afford them, and prices artificially escalated even more. Once that bubble burst, the market here tanked. People had too much money in their homes to be able to sell, so there wasn’t much buying going on, and there’s been a low supply of homes on the market. However, with historically low interest rates, people have been scrambling for homes. With low inventory and high demand, it’s made things absolutely nuts for someone trying to buy a home. Houses with even a tiny bit of upgrading are snapped up within a couple of days. Bidding wars have escalated prices far beyond asking price. This, therefore, has encouraged sellers to start raising their initial asking price, and it appears that we’re in another mini-bubble again.

This obviously makes it tough for us to find a house that’s reasonable without thinking we’re getting ripped off. I mean, prices are high enough already; we’re sort of getting ripped off anyway. 😉 But we don’t want to overpay and be in the same boat as so many other people who have more in their house than it’s worth. So we’re trying to find a house that suits our needs and desires–and we probably have some different ideas of what we’re looking for than your average couple–while not getting taken to the cleaners.

So obviously, we want to make sure we’re paying a fair price, but determining what that is is very complicated. Back in Colorado. it was fairly easy to nail down a range of prices that a house might fall in. There were only a few parameters to consider: 1. how far is it from Boulder (price inversely proportional to distance), 2. what neighborhood it was in (a finite number of neighborhoods in the area), and 3. How big is it (number of square feet on the listing = actual number of square feet in house). Here, it’s just a tiny bit more complicated.

Our happy home in Colorado

Our happy home in Colorado…minimal variables!

Yes, one does pay a premium being closer to DC, but prices aren’t necessarily uniformly decreasing radially outward; in fact, in Maryland there’s a clear price gradient clockwise from the Potomac over to the east. Then there are pockets of neighborhoods here and there that, for whatever reason, are priced at a premium relative to other homes. And then there’s McLean, which is evidently a black hole of six-figure earners and probably famous people. I’m not sure Bart and I can even afford to drive across it.

Another issue is that homes are much older here than we are used to in Arkansas and Colorado. When we looked at houses, we looked at neighborhoods of very homogeneous homes built at the same time and not requiring too much work, but the difference in the “older” homes and new houses were at most 30 years. Here, the majority of homes were built before any of those Colorado neighborhoods existed. Now, over the course of 50 or 60 years, many people have owned these homes and performed various levels of updating to them. So within the same neighborhood here you could have original 1950s homes that haven’t been touched next to ones that have been totally gutted and renovated in the last year next to a brand new home that was built where an old one was demolished. And how much a house is worth relative to the amount and quality of renovations is really hard to put a number to.

Another confusing issue is square footage. The amount of space claimed in the listing is usually not reflective of the actual livable square footage in the home; if a basement has been finished or a room added without the county considering it livable space, it’s not reflected in the listing. Sometimes the listing is true to life, other times it’s only half the space that’s actually there. So pricing a home by square footage is pretty much bogus, too.

So, my previous experience with homes had few variables that were easily comprehensible to my scientific mind. I could almost imagine an equation to sum it all up. This market feels like chaos theory. I have really been struggling with nailing down an exact science behind the market. I thought real estate agents would know, but any help I get from them is just “oh, look at the stuff that’s sold, and that’ll tell you what this house is worth.” With all the variability from one home to another, that’s not exactly scientific to me. The best I can do is take an average of “sold” prices in the last six months, but to me, that’s like comparing apples to green beans with all the different parameters out there.

This has rather frustrated me, but in the last couple of days I have just about given up an empirical solution to the problem. Instead, I’m trying to embrace the craziness and variability and just go with the flow…

Okay, who am I kidding? I still want a formula. :p Regardless, Bart and I are still looking diligently, and hopefully we have a few tactics to circumnavigate the current craziness while still landing a house that can ultimately be our home.

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I took this photo last Friday. I am incredulous that my car, which still feels new to me, has 95,000 miles on it. We purchased my car just a few months after we got married, which got me thinking….

Bart and I probably had five thousand miles under our belts in those three months between getting married and buying that car. We drove to and from our honeymoon, then a few days later we packed all Bart’s stuff and drove another thousand miles to move him out to Colorado with me. So does that mean that after 7.5 years, we’ve got a hundred thousand miles on our marriage so far? Is there regularly scheduled maintenance for that?

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Pounding the pavement

When I was feverishly writing my thesis in the winter/spring of last year, I felt very cramped and stressed spending day after day crouched over a keyboard staring at a computer monitor. I obviously had a lot to do, but I decided I had to get out from behind my desk or I would go bonkers. For some strange reason, I decided that running was the thing I just had to be doing.

Now, I’m not a runner, I tell myself and everyone else. I tried it before but I didn’t stick with it very long. But for whatever reason I had in my brain, it seemed like the thing to do. I started something like a couch-to-5k program and hit the streets. A few days later, my good friend Mary-Hall said she had also started running and was planning to run the infamous Bolder Boulder 10k on Memorial Day. I scoffed at the idea of me running 6 miles, but I needed an outlet, and I had a goal and accountability, so I started Hal Higdon’s 10k for beginners program with just enough weeks to spare to start training.

And you know what? I did it! I didn’t have an amazing time, nor did I manage to run the entire race without walking a bit, but I did it. I was almost as proud of myself for that accomplishment as I was for my PhD, which I had earned a few weeks before. Almost.

I kept running some that summer, but without a goal and with the time crunch of moving, it fell by the wayside. I didn’t pick up my shoes again until a few weeks ago when I began running during the day from work around DC.

We have a great program at work where you can get a couple of hours each week for exercise, so after the dreary winter gave way to warmer days, I thought it might be time to give running a try again.

Ironic statement: running in DC northwest is hillier than running in Boulder. Or at least it’s the case where I’m located. You see, I work at an observatory, and those are, well, always built on a hill. So no matter which direction I go, I face some serious elevation climb either coming or going. That’s certainly made it a challenge to gain back both my speed and distance, but I think I’m making progress.

Today, I finally broke 5k/3 miles for the first time here. All my routes have me stuck at 2.75, but I ran just a little further today and backtracked to make it the full distance. Also, except for a few stoplights and tourists, I only stopped to walk one time. I’m always bad about wanting to rest, so prolonged periods of continuous running are always triumphs for me. 😉

Running here is quite a different experience than running in my neighborhood back in Colorado. First, there are definitely more trees. That makes it shadier and more verdant, which I like. But then this also happens, which I’m not all that excited about. Thank the good Lord I haven’t encountered that yet.

Running here is also a jarring combination of bustling streets, quiet neighborhoods, wildlife refuge, and tourist attraction, all within a couple of blocks of each other. One day I’m dodging tourists near the cathedral, the next I’m dodging foxes in Rock Creek Park.

My favorite route is one that takes me around the National Cathedral, which is just a couple of blocks north of the observatory. I run uphill first, somewhat gradually, and after I round the cathedral, I head back down Mass Ave, and it’s downhill all the way. I pace myself carefully going up, but my split times are much better on the second half, obviously. 😉

This route also takes me by a school that kind of looks like Hogwarts.

I will never be the world’s greatest runner, and that’s okay. I’m just so thankful I am healthy enough to get out on my own two feet and be mobile. One day that won’t be the case, so I try very much to appreciate the gift while I have it. Hopefully I can keep it up and get stronger and faster. But no matter how slow I go, it’s nice to just get out a bit and pound it out.

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Tomorrow marks the first day of summer. The summer solstice is the “longest day of the year,” meaning we have the most daylight hours relative to total hours in the day. This should be exciting, as most of us like these longer hours, but I can never ignore the fact that this also marks the slow denouement to gradually decreasing daylight hours and the eventual dreariness if winter. Honestly, it doesn’t feel like winter ended all that long ago…

From the standpoint of a season being a time of year defined by similar weather, I’ve always thought that the beginning of seasons should really be acknowledged midway between the canonical astronomical points in the earth’s orbit around the sun (solstices and equinoxes). These days, such as we will acknowledge tomorrow for the summer solstice, actually mark a turning point or a midpoint in the earth’s yearly cycle. But as far as defining a three month period of the most homogenous weather, I would say that summer actually started midway between today and the vernal equinox in March and will end in about six weeks from now. Nobody asked my opinion, though.

However, I believe that my feeling about seasons exhibits a very human characteristic of preferring homogenous, uniform circumstances to what ultimately boils down to change. I like to be steady state. I like a routine. I like to know exactly where I’m going and how I’m getting there. I find little need to be hasty.

However, while we will all have those homogenous seasons, I’ve learned in the past year that life really takes its shape and definition by the turning points. I was in a very long season of life during graduate school, and I grew very accustomed to my circumstances. When I graduated last year, it was a turning point, a place where a new season was beginning. I recognized this and thought I was at peace about this fact and would stoically ride it out, but over the last year and a half I’ve realized that this transition wasn’t just one point–graduating, finding a job, moving, buying a house–but it’s an entire season itself that has lasted longer than I expected. That doesn’t mean that life isn’t good now; on the contrary, I have so much to be thankful for, and I do remember that every day. However, it’s too easy to focus on the fact that this transition time isn’t immediately resolving into a new homogeneity.

I don’t know how long this season will last. Maybe when we buy a house and finally get settled in a permanent abode? Maybe when we join a church and get involved with relationships and projects and ministries? Maybe I will just wake up one day and realize I’m there.

I feel like I’m always blogging about the same thing here, a general dissatisfaction with having to be patient or being in flux. But it has been one of the most obvious and expected consequences of our move, and I’m continually amazed at how long it has lasted and how it has affected me, hopefully by molding me into a better, more mature person.

So now that it’s summer and our terrestrial trajectory has just transitioned, I’m going to embrace what life is now instead of being sad that winter will be coming again, even if its still months away. I’m going to enjoy the current warmth and sunny days instead of only being satisfied with what perceived stability the future will bring.

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Yesterday, Bart asked me if I’d ever heard of a derecho before. Evidently he’d heard on the news that the severe storm was forecasted for our area on Thursday. I had to go read about them and learn what the fuss was about. A derecho is basically a line of storms with damaging, straight-line winds and heavy rain with the possibility of producing hail and tornadoes. I’d never heard of such a storm before I moved to DC, but initially I learned about them by hearing of the one that occurred at the end of June in 2012.  The storm ripped through the area, downing trees and shutting off power to huge chunks of the city. Then it got ridiculously hot in the following days, making for some uncomfortable and dangerous conditions for many people without electricity. Nevertheless, I was having a hard time getting very worked up about them. I mean, I’m from the south. I know about thunderstorms…big deal. I don’t do tornadoes, but thunderstorms I can handle.

When I woke up this morning, I had a federal government operation status update in my email. I was a little confused, as these are usually reserved for real, serious weather conditions that threaten the ability of government agencies in the area to stay open for the safety of the workers. You know, in case of a foot of snow and such. The status was open, but with the option for unscheduled leave or telework. I peeked out the window, and I certainly didn’t see any cause for all this alarm. Big deal.

When I got to work, I received an email stating that we were being allowed 59 minutes of early dismissal leave to accommodate the adverse weather conditions. And by adverse I mean that I might have even seen a peek of blue sky after lunch. I’m starting to think people here are a little antsy about weather. Nevertheless, I never complain about getting to leave work an hour early.

I headed out about 3:00 with this alleged storm approaching southern Maryland imminently. I stopped by the post office to mail a package and pulled into my garage somewhere around 3:45. I was in the house for about two entire minutes before I looked outside to see a wall of water coming at us–rain being blown completely sideways in sheets and trees bending over to the ground. There was an utter deluge for about three minutes, and then it stopped. Well, I thought, that was impressive, but kind of short lived. Is that it? Then our power went out.

Sure enough, that was the extent of the storm here in Maryland. Just a few minutes of crazy wind and rain before it passed; maybe not enough to be a full derecho but close. While it didn’t last long, we quickly realized that the aftermath was quite significant. With the power out at home, I couldn’t fix any dinner. We decided to venture out and see if we could locate any restaurants with power anywhere. It wasn’t long before we saw the extent of the damage.

The metro area is chock full of beautiful trees and ugly overhead power lines…it’s almost guaranteed that power is going to go out when a storm goes through. There were downed branches everywhere, and in a few places we saw where multiple trees had blown across the road but had already been removed by county and city workers who are no doubt trained to expertly handle these situations. The power outage also meant most traffic lights were out, making rush hour traffic even more heinous. We even saw a huge billow of smoke south of us, but we had no idea what it was; we did see plenty of emergency vehicles as we slowly made our way into town. Hopefully that situation turned out okay. We also got an alert that there was a confirmed tornado spotted just to the northeast of our town. Did I mention I hate tornadoes?

We managed to make it to Rockville Town Center, where half of the streets had power and half didn’t. Fortunately, a couple of restaurants were open, and we had some burgers and walked around a bit before heading home again via an alternate route. Our power was still out, but I’m very thankful to report that it came back online a little while later. We were out for about three hours, which was better than I had feared.

All in all, we may not have had the full blown derecho, but the aftermath was still quite significant. Despite my skepticism of the severity of the storm, it proved to be worthy of respect and consideration. I’m thankful that we had minimal impact from it and hope others did as well. Maybe this will be the extent of significant weather for us this summer.

Wait a minute……our lights just flickered again! You can’t be serious…..

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Today marks seven months since our move.

For once, this doesn’t coincide with any other notable events, so without further ado….

I/we have:

  • Welcomed our new niece into the family
  • Purchased a grill/smoker
  • Enjoyed watching the birds at our birdfeeder
  • Fed more squirrels than birds with the birdfeeder
  • Started regularly attending a particular church
  • Met another newly relocated couple at church
  • Driven through a tornado watch
  • Driven through the remnants of a tropical depression
  • Dried up two floods in the basement
  • Fulfilled our civic duty to Montgomery County (Bart had jury duty last week)
  • Celebrated the high school graduation of TWO of my nephews
  • Escaped the fenced backyard while chasing a squirrel (actually that was Murphy…how on earth did he get out??).

I/we have yet to:

  • Go to Gettysburg
  • Go to NYC
  • Experience a dorecho storm (though they claim we’re in for one tomorrow)
  • Have someone come fix the leak(s) in the basement wall
  • Join a church
  • Take a furlough day
  • Find the perfect house
  • Finish my mitered square blanket
  • Run 3 miles since I started back up again (stuck at 2.7 so far)
  • Visit an Atlantic beach now that it’s summer
  • Figure out how to keep squirrels away from the birdfeeder (evidently Murphy just isn’t that threatening).

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It is not the Taylor way to wait. Our family celebrates birthdays early. We can’t wait until Christmas to open presents. Even Bart proposed to me earlier than he had originally planned; once he got my engagement ring, it drove him crazy until he hopped a last-minute flight across the country to pop the question. Therefore, it came as no surprise to anyone in our family that Bart’s sister, Jennifer, went into labor yesterday, three weeks before her due date.

Jennifer and her husband live in Raleigh and are now a convenient four-hour drive away from us. Since we learned of her pregnancy last fall, we appreciated that we would be able to drive down for the birth, originally anticipated for the first of July. While we knew it could theoretically happen at any time once June rolled around, it hasn’t yet crossed our minds that we should be leaving our weekend plans open and flexible, you know, just in case.

We had already been out for dinner Friday evening and had purchased our movie tickets for Star Trek seconds before Bart’s mom called to inform us that Jennifer’s water had broken. We spent the twenty minutes before the movie started rearranging our (thankfully sparse) weekend plans and deciding when we should leave. Since no one can predict how long labor will last, we ultimately decided to finish our date and just get up super early Saturday morning and make it there by 9 am or so.

We got word that little Taylor M. was born while we were on our way early Saturday morning. She is small, but very healthy and very cute! We made it into town a few hours later, only beating Bart’s parents, who had made the trip from Arkansas overnight, by half an hour.

You may recall our friends Laura and Sujit who also live in Raleigh. They were so kind as to let us drop Murphy off at their house before we headed to the hospital. He had a fun day playing with his doggie friend, Trina, and was much better off than being alone for the weekend. Laura and Sujit also let us stay at their place so we didn’t add to the chaos at my sister- and brother-in-law’s house.

Needless to say, nobody got a lot of sleep Friday night except for Bart and me. After we visited a bit Saturday afternoon, we went back to Jennifer’s house to unwind a bit. I actually went grocery shipping and made dinner for us all and also put together a baby swing that was still in a box (not surprisingly, since they thought they still had three weeks to work on that!). But by the end of the day, I was pretty exhausted, too.

All in all, we are having a nice visit with our family and are enjoying doting over our new niece. We’re very thankful that she and mom are healthy and that we were able to be here for it, something we could only have done after we moved to the east coast. Hopefully we can all get some sleep tonight and be ready for more family time tomorrow!

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Well, I vowed that my monthly challenge for May would be to finish the seaming and border of my mitered square blanket. It has taken me the first six days of the month to finally admit to you that I’m nominally ashamed it didn’t quite happen. Only nominally so, though. No reason to get too worked up over a blanket. I did make some progress, however: of the nine big squares I needed to seam, I have 7.25 of them done.


I have 7.25 of the 9 large squares assembled so far.

I hesitate to set another bold goal for June, but if I don’t set one at all I may never get it done. Okay, I guess my goal for June is to at least get all the big blocks assembled and then seamed together. I’ll hold off on lofty visions of borders just to be safe.

Work in progress

Work in progress

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House Hunters: DC

There’s a popular series of shows on HGTV called “House Hunters” that follows people as they prepare to buy a home. The potential buyers look at three homes that don’t meet any of their criteria or are way out of their price range and are forced to make a decision about which one to buy. Actually, it was recently divulged that the “International” version of the show was staged; the buyers on the show had already picked out a home, and the other two homes they pretended to look at were plants, or even belonged to their friends. I’m sure the TV audience at large was totally (not) shocked at this revelation. I’m also sure this was (not) only true of their international version of the show.

Seriously, people. Have you ever purchased a house? Maybe there are some people who could randomly pick three homes that meet their general criteria and pick one to be happy in for many years and spend hundreds of thousands (or more) dollars on. However, for the rest of us it takes dozens (or more) houses to find the one that’s going to work for us.

Bart and I have already bought and sold a home, so we are at least familiar with the whole process now. However, the housing market in Colorado is leaps and bounds different than the market here in DC. While we still have a number of months left on our rental, it’s already time for us to get in the game if we want to find a house here. Since the market is very different and complex here, we need the time to come to terms with what we’re dealing with. Welcome to our own version of “House Hunters: DC.”

First of all, houses here are outrageously expensive. Growing up in Arkansas with my parents involved in local real estate, I had major sticker shock moving to Boulder. Home prices were double what I was used to, or more if you were in Boulder proper. Bart and I purchased a little further out of town to maximize the bang for our buck and got a modest yet nice starter home with a good yard in a nice neighborhood. However, in the DC area, you can easily double or triple the prices in Colorado. That’s serious jack. We had sticker shock all over again, even worse, and have had to readjust our ideas of what we thought our price range was and what it really should be to get something decent. One of the driving factors is, unsurprisingly, driving access to DC, and since I’ll be commuting every day, finding a place close enough to be reasonable and far enough to be affordable is the challenge everybody faces here.

While the houses are still very expensive, they are also old. Other than rentals in college, I’ve never lived in a house older than the one we just sold in Colorado, and it was built in 1997! And my dad built every house I ever lived in growing up, so I have pretty high standards when it comes to building quality. Here, a home built in the 80’s is practically modern construction. Most houses on the market here are built in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Even if a modest home has been renovated once or twice since it was built, it is on the market for half a million dollars or more, and even then it’s still an old, creaky house. There’s nothing wrong with an older home, for sure, but it’s taking some mental adjustment to prepare for the care an older home will need.

We’ve also had to adjust to the types of homes built in the 50s through 70s. Bart and I are used to modern conveniences such as open floor plans, large kitchens, master bedrooms with walk-in closets, and two-car garages. If you find a home with just one of these three, it feels like you’ve hit the lottery. More classic styles of homes are cramped with small rooms, low ceilings, and dank basements. However, many have been renovated and added onto over the years, lending some functionality and modernity to an individual home.

You also have your choice of five basic home styles:

The one-level rambler:



The 1.5-level cape cod:

Cape Cod

Cape Cod

The two-story colonial:



The two-level split foyer:

Split Foyer

Split Foyer

And the 3-level split.

Split Level

Split Level

At least there’s variety? Any of these styles could be cozy (i.e. tiny) and charming (i.e. dilapidated), but most of them are in neighborhoods with miles and miles of the same-looking homes with parked cars clogging both sides of the street (because most of these homes didn’t come with garages back in the day). So adjusting our expectations of the overall feel of a house has been difficult.

The one humongous upside to older homes is that builders in the day didn’t cram big houses onto small lots like they do today. While an old house might be small, you almost never find one on less than a quarter acre: that was the size of our yard in Colorado, and we thought we were spoiled relative to other subdivisions. If you aren’t right in or close to DC proper, it’s not uncommon to see yards of half an acre or more on a hidden street tucked away just a few blocks from a busy town.

Another huge task has been learning the area. The DC metro area extends into Virginia and Maryland and is a complex variety of ethnic and social pockets. Books have been written on the subject, so I won’t expound on it here, but basically the vibe of a neighborhood can drastically change in the course of just one block. School districts are a huge concern, not specifically to us at the moment, but it always affects resale. I honestly don’t worry about crime, but it could be a factor, particular in certain areas of the District. Whether you prefer a trendy condo in DC or a split-level with a sidewalk, it makes narrowing down areas that suit your ideal living environment very difficult.

One also has the choice of two states and one unrepresented federal district. We ruled out DC just out of general preference, though it has some interesting and popular neighborhoods. Bart and I also feel a HUGE difference in overall ambiance just crossing the bridge between Virginia and Maryland. We currently live in Maryland in a nice, older neighborhood, and in general there’s nothing wrong with it, but amazingly Virginia feels more like the south, more like home. We’ve also been going to church down there and seem to do more things in Virginia than in Maryland. Plus (how do I put this gently?), the general dogma and administrative attitude of Maryland at large and the county we live in don’t really jibe with our personal paradigm. Therefore, Bart and I have decided to concentrate our house hunt to the Old Dominion state. It’s taking some time to get to know the areas we like that are within decent driving distance to my work, and we continue to explore the neighborhoods to narrow down our preferences.

There are so many factors to consider in this area, and I haven’t even touched on how crazy the real estate market is right now…that’s a whole post in and of itself! But that’s the general landscape within which we are house hunting. I’ll have so much more to tell you as we begin our quest for a home.

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