I hadn’t been living in Australia long before Tim and I started looking for a house to buy. I had never owned my own home, so I found it very exciting. That is, until we started looking. I thought cars were expensive in Sydney until I looked at real estate.
It was 1980. The rules at that time required a 20% down payment on houses and interest rates were high. All mortgages had adjustable rates. There was no such thing as a fixed rate mortgage. That meant that we could not afford a house that cost more than $45,000 — and that wasn’t a lot of money in 1980 Sydney.
Tim did not want to live in the outer suburbs. We had to find something in the inner city or suburbs. It was a status thing. Tim and his family were very class conscious. And the right people did not live in the outer suburbs. It became quickly obvious that these right people did not have an inner suburbs bank account.
Tim did most of the looking. His schedule as a self-employed handyman allowed for daytime excursions. Mine did not. We didn’t need to look at many houses. There were almost none in our price range — at the bottom of the market. I was frankly horrified by every house we saw. I was amazed that this huge modern city had so many houses without indoor plumbing. And with good reason, because the best house that we could afford turned out to be one of them.
365 Riley Street
Surry Hills is an old, inner-city neighborhood. At that time, the houses were over 100 years old — row houses — up and down every street. Most of them were very rundown, but you could see that in their heyday, they must have been quite charming. Most of them had wrought iron balconies at the front and courtyards in the back.
Surry Hills was a neighborhood in transition. As in many other inner-city areas, the middle class was moving in and renovating the old houses, restoring them to their former glory. That was one of the things I liked most about Sydney. Instead of tearing down all of the old buildings and replacing them with modern high-rises, the residents of Sydney had been careful to retain the city’s sense of history. Even right down by the wharfs, they converted the old wool warehouses into shopping malls and restaurants. Sydney was brand new and 200 years old at the same time.
The house we found was 12 feet wide and four stories tall. There were two rooms on each floor, except the basement, which had only one. The basement was at ground level at the back of the house, the first floor at street level at the front. I saw the house only once before we bought it. A flimsy wall had been built across the front room, from the front door to the back room, forming a corridor, making the front room only 12 feet by 9 feet. There was a rickety back porch with a stairway leading down to the back yard. A small shed near the house held a bathtub, and at the end of the yard by the alley was a smaller shed — for the toilet.
Looking at the bright side, I noticed there were three fireplaces — one in each ground-floor room and one in an upstairs bedroom. Tim noticed that the building was solid — all interior walls were brick, except for that partition wall in the living room. The house had been used as a rooming house. Different people lived in each tiny room — and those attic rooms were really tiny. It was owned by two men, one of whom had died, so the house was in probate.
We signed a contract in February for $45,000. The bank valued the house at $5,000 less than the sale price, so we were going to have to start out with a mortgage and a second loan. But we couldn’t take possession until the house cleared probate. There was a clause in the contract that stated if probate had not gone through within six months, either party could withdraw. In the following months, Sydney experienced a phenomenal real estate boom. At first, we were relieved that we had beaten the boom, but as time stretched out, moving closer and closer to that six-month deadline, we realized that we could be in real trouble. I was a nervous wreck, but if Tim was concerned, it never showed. He remained confident right down to the wire. The house cleared probate three weeks before the deadline. By that time, real estate values had risen by 50%. The bank revalued the house at $60,000 and we no longer needed the second loan. And, at last, I was allowed to go into the house again.
We couldn’t afford to pay the mortgage and pay rent on our apartment both, so we had only one week between the time that we took possession of the house and the time we had to leave the apartment. I took one day off work during that week. Tim dropped me and all my cleaning supplies off at the house in the morning, promising to pick me up in the afternoon after work.
It was August by then — the coldest month of the year in Sydney. I walked through the house slowly, paying attention to all the detail I could see in the dark. There was trash everywhere. In the attic, there was homemade furniture that consisted of rough boards nailed together haphazardly. It had to have been built in place because it would never have fit up the narrow staircases. It would have to be broken apart to get it out of there.
There were two single power outlets in the entire house — one on the ground floor and one in the attic. We would have to have extension cords running up and down the stairs and across the rooms until we could get the electricity rewired. Hey, Dianne, look on the bright side. At least there is electricity. Now plumbing, that’s another matter.
There was a sink on the back porch with one cold water faucet. That was the total extent of indoor plumbing. I was going to have to bathe in that shed in the back yard in the middle of winter. "Shed" is actually a generous description. It was probably built by the same person who built that furniture in the attic. Don’t think about that now, Dianne. Think about cleaning the place up. Look! There’s a stove on the back porch — an ancient little black iron stove! Is the gas turned on? I twisted a knob and was thrilled to hear that familiar hiss. I can heat some water to clean with. I found some matches and lit the stove. An enormous flame shot out of the side through a hole in the pipe. I quickly turned it off. I guess I will have to clean with cold water. At least I wasn’t standing at the side of the stove when I lit it.
I saw a shelf above the sink and I reached up and touched the surface. My finger sank into some sort of goo. It was grease, thick deep grease. I tried to wash it, but I couldn’t get it clean. I went into the living room. The walls were yellow. I touched a wall. It was sticky. Grease, grease all over the walls. I guess the result of many years of cooking. Then I noticed the nail on the wall. Around the nail was the outline of a clothes hanger. How long was that hanger there while the grease built up around it? When it was moved, it left its silhouette, exposing the white wall it protected for so long.
I tried to clean. I really tried. But everything was covered in grease and the icy water left my hands so cold I could hardly move them. It was hopeless. And I was suddenly overwhelmed by regret. What have we done? How can we live here? I couldn’t even walk through the house without getting my clothes dirty. The tears started to come, and soon I was bawling. But there was no going back. We were committed. I pulled myself together and started to gather trash and throw it in the fireplace. I lit a small fire and tested the flue. The smoke drew up the chimney. Yes! More trash — and soon I had a roaring fire going. I sat on the floor in front of the fire and waited for Tim to come and rescue me.