Finding Willow Bend

Amy and I have always imagined our lives ending on a farmette of some sort in the country.  At the same time, we’ve always lived in the city, and imagined that move to the country at some unspecified time long in the future.

We’ve (especially Amy) also maintained a hobby of watching real estate listings.  “Just for fun”, we say, but on the other hand this hobby has enabled, and sometimes driven, our history of high-frequency moving (four houses seven years!).   And so it wasn’t really that unusual when Amy suggested in early March that we find a way to look more closely at the “Sweet Farm” –  an old farm on 26 beautiful acres about 25 minutes from Madison.  Little old farmhouses don’t really have open houses, so looking at this property required getting a realtor involved.  We talked to friends from the kids’ school who live in the country, and heard positive things about Jack Pohle, so called him to set up a showing.

We visited the Sweet Farm on one of those late March days when spring is starting to really poke through.  Winter ended early this year, so there was no snow left and that exciting spring-y sense of winter-is-gone-now-things-can-grow-again in the air as we toured this tiny, run-down, 100-year-old-plus house with no kitchen (literally!).   The house had been a rental for decades, and the outbuildings were somewhat run-down.  Two big barns and the pastures were also rented to a nearby farmer, and cattle dotted the hills.  A tiny stream ran along one side of the property, and a huge county nature park abutted its south end.

I like to tell myself that I kept a poker face while we were looking at the property with Jack, but as we drove away I excitedly exclaimed something along the lines of: “we need to buy that farm”.   Amy didn’t disagree.  This really wasn’t the plan – we were just looking!  And we knew enough about how this process goes to know that there was a ton more detail to be sorted out before really making that decision, and that it was unlikely we’d actually end up trying to buy the very first farm we looked at.

But something had changed.  Walking around the Sweet Farm, despite its many imperfections and challenges, made the idea of moving our family to someplace like that seem so possible, so real, so achievable.  We really could grow a lot more of our food.  We really could keep more chickens, and maybe other living things.  We really could replace some video game time and take-out dinners with family time outdoors, and with the satisfaction of working around the family property.  More generally, we could put a bit of distance between ourselves and the typical American lifestyle, and engage in only the bits we wanted to, when we wanted to.

I know that doesn’t all sound appealing to many — to each their own.  The more we thought about it, the more it sounded very appealing to us.  Our long-term aspiration to move to the country came into focus, and was suddenly far closer to us in time than we had previously thought.  As we further reflected on our motives, we realized it didn’t make sense to wait decades to make this move, that instead this was something we should do much sooner, and have as part of our family’s life while our kids were still young.

And so our casual, “just for fun” look at a small old farm turned into a mission to move our family to the country ASAP.  We’re very committed to our kids’ school, have a number of dear friends in Madison, and are deeply involved in both a job (me) and a growing business (Amy).  So we weren’t interested in moving beyond a reasonable commuting radius of Madison.  And decent Internet access was a must.  Ideally, we wanted a place that could offer some dedicated space for Amy’s business, too.  And it couldn’t cost much more than what we could sell our house in the city for.

With help from Jack, we started the process of getting a lot smarter about our options.  We’ve always been very DIY-oriented about our real estate, and this was our first time working closely with a pro.  The relative scarcity of choices in the country, less accessible data records, and lower transaction volume made it really helpful to have a realtor involved, as did our naiveté around some of the potential complexities in a deal like this. Along the way we also learned the county highways of western Dane county and the basics of septic systems and wells.

We looked at all of the MLS listings that were even remotely close to our target, and had showings of a handful of properties.  Most fell into one of two categories.  There were the large country estate-like houses built in the last decade or two with more space than we needed, fewer outbuildings than we wanted, land less suitable for some of our micro-agricultural objectives, and price tags that were at best a bit of a stretch for our budget.  Then there were the small farms that generally needed a ton of work just to get a state we’d be comfortable moving in to, often had house layouts that were manageable but not ideal, almost always had insufficient Internet connectivity options, and had daunting agricultural elements.  It’s one thing to lust after 20+ acres of pasture, but it’s quite another to actually maintain it.

A price cut in the listing for what we now call Willow Bend caused us to schedule a showing when Jack suggested it.  We’d both seen the listing before, but from the data on the MLS sheet it didn’t even seem close enough to our target to bother looking, and was too expensive.  The price cut addressed the second concern, and so we added it to a hot summer evening’s itinerary of showings.

This was not at all the style of house we were generally looking for:

front of house at move in

But even more strangely, as we pulled into the driveway we saw a roofline just 100 yards or so away down the hill into the woods.  What?  We certainly weren’t interested in having a neighbor’s house literally within a stone’s throw of ours, and from the maps we’d seen that didn’t seem the likely explanation.

We toured the main house, which was relatively new construction and mostly nice, if not our typical style.  Judging from unusual features like an entire half-bathroom built at toddler scale (?!), an office with over 30 network jack and even more power outlets, and a large open lower level (with a ceiling of cloth!) consumed by an e-commerce business’ production and fulfillment operations, this house had been built to satisfy some very specific objectives.  Someone else’s very specific objectives, granted, but at least they included Internet access.

This was in the midst of the substantial drought that plagued Wisconsin this summer, and the land was predictably parched.  It was clear that there had at one point been some effort made at establishing a small orchard and a garden, but also that there was much left to be done.

But what was up with that other building?  We explored the grounds, which were generally covered in thick wild growth and dead grass, and eventually found a path that looked related to our search for the mystery building:

path to studio inspection

And there, down that path, we found what very much seemed to be another house!

studio inspection front view

Standing on its crumbling-down rotten front stoop and glancing through the glass on the front door, it was clearly not in active use.   The real estate listing made no mention of this house, so it remained a bit of a mystery on this first showing, though its garage (separate from the garage attached to the main house) at least looked like it would solve the outbuilding problem many of the newer homes we’d seen had:

shed inspection pics2

We left that first visit intrigued.  Certainly far from in love still, but distinctly more interested than we’d expected to be.  A few weeks later, after learning that the mystery building was an abandoned house the sellers’ had intended to let the fire department burn down for practice, we returned with a contractor friend of Jack’s to check it out in more detail.  It would need a non-trivial amount of work, of course, but was fundamentally sound.

Nestled in the woods overlooking a valley, with a wall nearly full of south-facing windows, it struck us both as a fantastic setting for Amy’s photography studio.  Amy shoots primarily in natural light, so winter in Wisconsin is a challenging time.  Having dedicated, well-lit indoor space to offer to clients was ideal!

In making our way down the path to the old house, we started to really see what was on this land.  The woods were breathtaking, and teeming with life.  Large rock outcroppings dotted the side of the descent into the hill down into the woods, and the pasture areas around the old garage had real potential (and mostly intact fences).

The garden would need work.  A lot of work.  And the house needed to be us-ified, but really they all do, in some way.  We weren’t afraid of some work, though.  With at least a strong suspicion that the old house could be converted to a studio, the missing link in our vision of this house meeting our needs was filled in.  It was the perfect balance of everything we’d been looking for.  A house in nearly move-in condition, with land that could support large gardens and some livestock, but wouldn’t require a ten thousand dollar (or more) tractor or a large herd of herbivores on day one.  And a gorgeous setting for dedicated studio space that was just some elbow grease and sweat equity away, all less than ten minutes from the west side of Madison and in our budget!

Of course there were many, many more details to be discovered, negotiated, and resolved.  I’ve come to firmly believe in our decade of buying and selling houses as a hobby that real estate transactions – at least the ones we’ve been involved in – are fundamentally emotional decisions that are later rationalized by objective considerations.  That decision had been made.  We had painted the picture of what we were looking for on the canvas of what this place was today.  We had found Willow Bend.

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