There’s a house on our street that everyone whispers about. Not just the neighbors but the visitors, the strangers, the prospective buyers of any homes for sale. It’s three stories high and over a century old, with painted-red brick and green shingles, narrow and pushed forward, the postage-stamp lawn littered with tubs full of kibble for stray cats. There’s also A Smell.
But that’s not what causes the whispers.
It’s the signs.
All along the plastic sheeting that encloses the porch, there are large signs written in clear, angry Sharpie that viciously attack the government, police, people of color, and anyone who dares leave their dog’s poop ungathered. They’re updated and rotated occasionally, letting frequent viewers know the person writing them is…firm in their convictions. It’s these messages that make guests and real estate agents ask, “What’s the deal with this guy?”
The man who puts up these signs doesn’t live there, though. His mother does—alone. She’s 90-some years old, barely speaks English, and is in poor health, but she’s kind enough when someone meets her eye and enjoys sitting in the sunshine with her dogs. She doesn’t seem to know about the signs. The man who wrote them—her son, the man who proudly displays vitriolic anti-authority billboards—comes every day to care for her. He ensures the thermostat is comfortable, the fridge is full, the many animals are tended, and the visiting nurses are doing their job. Every single day.
Or at least, he did.
When covid hit last spring, any time his mother got a sniffle, an ambulance showed up to whisk her away to the ER, just in case. Every other week, flashing lights interrupted the peace of our street, neighbors peeking out of curtains, wondering if it was the last time we’d see her.
Then one day, the house everyone whispers about was empty1.
Then one day, a “for sale” sign went up.
Then one day, we bought it.
1 She’s fine. At least, to the best of my knowledge. In her already-delicate condition, the pandemic simply made living alone untenable, and she was moved to a care residence, where, as far as I’m aware, she’s doing great. I hope she’s made some friends.
Rewind about four months.
I’m laying on my couch, reading a book, minding my own business, when I sense a susurrus in the air—the kind I’ve learned to associate with the arrival of the Holy Spirit. Then a voice that’s not mine says, in the hush of my mind, “It’s time.”
Vague, yes, but I knew exactly what it meant: “It’s time to buy a house.”
And I cried.
That response sounds ridiculous, but the wave of grief that hit me was not. Unlike most folks I know, including my own husband, I’d never wanted to own a home. I much prefer to not be responsible for roof repairs or appliances or property taxes and greatly enjoy the freedom to up and go whenever the wind changes. For thirty-seven years, I’d imagined myself living a true bohemian lifestyle, not tied down one second longer than I felt like it. Being quasi-transient was part of my identity—and I was being asked to give it up.
But beneath the fear and sadness of sacrificing yet another piece of myself to heed God’s call to something I’d never wanted2, there was an all-important, tremulous “yes.”
Yes, I hear. Yes, it’s time. Yes, I will.
About a week later, after visiting our mortgage broker friend, my husband and I pulled into our driveway and noticed that a “for sale” sign had gone up in front of the house next door. In front of that house. The one with the signs. The one everyone whispers about.
I looked at Lino. Lino looked at me.
We’d heard it might go on the market and had joked about it being the easiest move ever, but nothing about the place ticked any boxes on our dream-home list. It’s in a rough neighborhood deep in the city; it’s got a teeny disaster of a yard; it’s endured too many animals and not enough Lysol. But something about seeing that sign ignited a spark in both of us.
“Call,” I said, a little breathlessly.
Two days later, we were standing inside with a vivacious real estate agent who wore a sharp suit and Italian leather shoes, dual-wielded Febreeze spray, and was clearly screaming inside his heart at the state of the place. We’ve lived next door for nearly four years and never seen the inside, so we were just as shocked. We’d expected neglect. We hadn’t expected this.
Not only are the floors covered in peeling linoleum, the walls a patchwork of plaster and drywall, the electrical boxes exposed, and a squirrel-hole in the ceiling, but the ten cats who’d lived there had had their own bedrooms and the bathroom is so tiny my husband couldn’t sit on the toilet without breaking a kneecap on the sink. And let us not speak of the backsplash.
As we meandered from basement to attic, grateful to be wearing masks and careful not to touch anything, the atmosphere shifted from stunned disgust to tingling excitement as the conversation built toward not what the house is but what it could become.
Pocket doors rescued and lacquered.
A twelve-person dinner table.
Bedrooms expanded with actual closets.
Stacked laundry in a triple-sized bathroom.
Raised garden beds with a concrete fire pit.
An open porch with a swing.
A fridge full of cold beer and taco fixins.
But it went beyond renos and value-adds. The more we talked, the thicker the air became with the presence of God. And very quietly, almost ninja-like, He slipped the vision to us.
A project lovingly executed by the people of God—not only us but a crew of church family who just so happen to be expert tradespeople—pointing to God’s house a mere two blocks away, for the glory of God, making it a house of God itself.
A century-old building restored, polished, redeemed, and displayed as a jewel in the neighborhood where there was once a wound.
A place where anyone can come and feel welcomed, seen, and heard—feel loved.
“Are you sure you guys are first-time home buyers?” the real estate agent said as we wrapped up. “You’re so chill about—” he waved a hand at the decrepit house—“all this.”
Lino and I looked at each other and laughed.
“It is what it is,” Lino said, “but it’s going to be great.”
2 This is the fourth time God’s challenged me to go against what I thought was good for myself to do what He’s asked and done wildly better things for me: staying in my marriage, having a baby, and buying an SUV being the others. For more on this story, pick up the Fall 2021 edition of Joyful Life Magazine.
3 Six years ago, the Holy Spirit told me, “I’m going to teach you what home means.” Each year since, I’ve thought I knew what He meant. I had no clue it would lead us here. Selah.
Forty-eight hours later, we won a bidding war in which we weren’t the highest offer. Hamilton’s market is out of control, so we expected competition for this “as-is” house in an area clearly in the next wave of gentrification. But the other buyer was a flipper and asked for an inspection—a huge mistake with the owner. Dude should’ve read the signs.
If they hadn’t borked themselves like that, we would have lost the house. Not even our financial wizard could’ve breached that gap. But because we knew the owner, and therefore knew better than to ask for literally anything, it saved us $20,000 and won us the bid.
Favor ain’t fair, y’all.
We had no downpayment, barely any savings, and about 12% of a plan when we contacted the real estate agent. And within a week, we owned the house next door: the shameful stain on our street that most people associate with hate, rage, and neglect.
And we are so. freaking. excited.
Because not only does the vision God gave us for this house mean healing for our neighborhood, but—because this is how God do—it also includes healing for the lives connected to it.
Whereas I never wanted to own a house, Lino has harbored the dream since childhood. As the son of two European immigrants, land ownership means more to him than a building. It represents permanence, belonging, establishing himself as a true citizen of the country he loves. There was a house-shaped gap in his identity, one left unfilled as he let my desires overrule his4—a gap God filled, first spiritually and now materially.
It’s also a project for us to do together, something we haven’t had in roughly ten years since leaving the gaming organization where we met5. Attempts to find new shared interests always fell flat, leaving us worried our relationship is fatally broken. By uniting us in the desire to own a home, God presented us with an enormous task to complete, multilayered and long-term, where we can work side-by-side and rediscover the vital friendship we lost somewhere along the way.
We’re also already seeing others being tapped on the shoulder by God.
My dad, who lives a thousand miles away and with whom I’ve longed to be closer but not known how as God changes me more and more, generously partnered with us to cover a huge gap in our living expenses during the renovation. It opened the door to include him in the saga of the house and gives us an excuse to talk after years of not knowing what to say. I’m praying he’ll see God show up in his life as he watches what happens in ours.
The previous owner, on learning that it wasn’t an “effing flipper” who bought his family home but someone he knows, has given us several gifts, shared stories about the house, been extremely contrite about the state of the place, and been diligent in preparing it for transfer. We mean to invite him for dinner to show him the restored beauty of the house.
Our real estate agent is so invested in the transformation. The second time he came to walk through with us, long after he’d done his bit, he showed up in sports gear on his way to a game and stayed over an hour to blue-sky with us. We’re hoping to see more of him soon.
Lino’s best friend from high school, with whom we had a soulcrushing conflict years ago resulting in deep wounds all around, turns out to live quite close to us and is one of the best restoration contractors in town. He’s coming to help—and hopefully bringing the family to dinner someday, too.
All this, and we haven’t even swung a hammer yet.
4 This is not the first time, either. Each time God has asked me to go against what I want in exchange for what He said has been in an area where Lino sacrificed his desires for mine. And eventually, he’s rewarded with a change in my heart as God’s worked on me. Bless him.
5 One day I’ll write about this, but hoo-boy is it a lot. Suffice to say we are enormous nerds of the variety other nerds tend to scoff at as being too nerdy.
Looking ahead, I don’t know what the future holds. It would be beyond audacious to guess, given how very wrong Past Me was about where and who I’d be at this stage of my life.
What I do know is two very specific things:
One, this is not the end of the story of this house but the barest of beginnings.
And two, God said something crazy when He asked us to buy this house and that means He’ll do crazy things to make good on the vision He gave us, as long as we continue to trust Him.
When all this is done, when the dust is swept and the paint is dry and the wood is polished and the bookshelves are alphabetized, there will be nothing we can claim as our own doing. Everything about this house, everything it was and will be, every life it will touch, every provision, every chapter and twist of its story, is credited to the One who loves and oversees it all.
The best (and only) thing we can do is to throw open the front door and say, “Come in! Come and see what God has done.”
13 thoughts on “Home is where the squirrel-hole is: How we ended up buying That One House (and what God has planned for it)”
Congratulations Ellie and Lino!!! God Truly is GREAT!!!
He certainly is! Thank you, my friend!
Well now, this is a story I’ll be eager to hear more about! Amazing. So excited for you, and what the future will hold, and heal.
And thank you for teaching me several new words 😉 I had never heard of “susurrus” or “borked.”
Ha! Well, I live to serve.
Thank you for the encouragement! I’m sure there will be lots more story to tell with this place.
Yesssss I can’t wait to see what comes of all of this!
Thanks! Me neither! LOL
Thank you so much for sharing this story. I can’t wait to see where it leads you <3 And what stories it will have for the future.
Thank you for reading! 🙂 I’m also intensely curious to see where we’re going with all this. It’s a major undertaking, but so much good will come of it. It’s just a matter of HOW we get there!
Everything about this drew me in! I, like you, am perfectly fine not owning a house, but we probably will in the next few years, and will probably have to purchase a run down one and fix it up. And your vision for your new home – it’s inspiring. Thank you for sharing.
Oh gosh, thank you for the sweet words of encouragement! And I love that you’re looking down the road to see where God’s taking you. I love how He sometimes shows us what’s coming to help us prepare our hearts for His direction once we get there. I would love to hear about your journey as it approaches, too!
Wow. ❤️ I hope you’ll share the transformation.
I hope to! I’m going to take a full walk-through video today so we have some before and afters to share. God has really got His work cut out for Him here! ?
Love this post. It truly drew me in.
Can’t wait to see the before and afters.