Buying the Bohemian Way (Bohomeownership) Part I: The Score

It started with a 106-year-old coal company cottage.

"A what?"

Company Housing was the term used for small, uniform houses built for families who worked in the coal mines and steel mills of Western Pennsylvania during the height of the Industrial Revolution. Built into the hillsides and hollers of Appalachia, they were small and simple, strong and sturdy. I still can't get a nail through the pine floorboards of mine. To this day, they remain scattered in crowded neighborhoods throughout the city.


Photos courtesy of The Coal Industry, Google Books


Original Watercolor by the late Henry Fiore, my collection


Original oil, artist unknown, my collection.


Fun Fact: Almost all Southwestern Pennsylvania neighborhoods are built over abandoned mines. Homeowners are strongly encouraged to buy Mine Insurance, an actual thing, in case their house gets SWALLOWED UP BY THE EARTH WHEN A MINE SHAFT COLLAPSES. No lie.

Photo and caption courtesy of The Mirror

After 20 years out West, where the young go to change their names and escape the Inescapable, I moved back to Pittsburgh and found that my frugal city didn't suffer from the Housing Bubble Hangover because it never went to the party, so rental prices hadn't changed since I'd left 20 years ago. Even with my Soft Skill Set income, I knew I could swing my own place here with nary an adjustment to my free-wheeling bohemian lifestyle. And by that, I mean being able to keep making stuff, and eat, and  feed my pets.

A city apartment wouldn't do, though. I needed a place where my cats, once feral, could roam safely outside in the day (Mouser was fond of playing chicken with rush-hour traffic, sitting in the middle of the road and staring down kind drivers who waited patiently for him to either finish crossing or come around to the driver's side for petting. He's the un-feral one). I needed a place where I could have my own garden, where Buster could bark freely without waking the people upstairs. A place I could paint like the gingerbread cottage of my girlhood dreams. I needed a house.

The Score

"Single occupancy cottage, peaceful setting on dead end street with woods, pets ok", read the Craigslist ad. Then, "Carrick".  Carrick?  "Rough", my friends told me regarding the South Pittsburgh neighborhood. "Trashy" and "Blighted", said their faces. "Affordable", heard my brain. "Unlimited potential".  "Blank canvas". 

There were, indeed, woods across the street, and it was quiet, abutting a cemetery (read: no future development). Through the woods were three large baseball fields where Buster could really run, back when he could really run. It was on a tiny fenced lot, and the rear garden boasted a pergola, all tricked out with electric ceiling fans and a wall-mounted ashtray for the party people. It stood vacant for a year after the renter, Donnie, died of lung cancer, leaving his beloved space of 23 years only when it was time to go to hospice a week before his death. The house is built into the hillside so the first floor is half underground, and it was dim and masculine, smelling of stale tobacco. It should have felt heavy and sad, given the odor and black and brown palette, but it didn't. I don't know how to say this without sounding all Hippie Woo Woo, but the place, cosmetically challenged as it was, felt good. It felt happy. Like it wanted me there. I have been in houses that had a darkness to them, an oppressive dread, a Creep Factor, even though they were bathed in natural light and beautifully built (more on that in my future blog post, "Scary Ghosties"). This was not such a house. I rented it.


View of the woods across the street.       View of my only neighbor to the right.

 Shortly after getting settled in and fixing the place up (documented in future blog posts from here to eternity), a handsome young couple came by and asked if the house was for sale. "No," said I, possessive-like. "But we saw it in the real estate listings," they responded, befuddled. "Well, it's NOT", I snorted and stormed indoors. The house had been on the market before I rented it, but surely they'd taken it off now that it was occupied. When another couple came by and inquired, I realized it was, indeed, still listed.

I suspected from experience in other cities that the easy transaction, low deposit, lighting-quick maintenance and courteous staff were too good to be true. Those a-holes! Shenanigans like that really stick in my craw.

 Time to make an unpleasant phone call. It went something like this:

Me, all uppity: "Hello, Margaret? I see the house I'm renting is for sale and people are coming by at all hours of the day and night and this is a dead end street and I'm here alone I don't feel safe please call back ASAP."

Also Me, 10 minutes later: "Margaret this is my third call and I really need to know what's happening with the house I can't afford to be displaced and there was no disclosure that it was still listed and people are sniffing around my private space and I can't have people coming around when I'm here all alone call me please."

Me to Rae, 10 minutes after that: "Hi, Rae? I know I'm supposed to just deal with Realty Counseling but no one's getting back to me and the house is still listed for sale and people are coming around in the middle of the night and invading my privacy and I live alone and I don't need these strangers coming around my house I'll be calling my lawyer."

Like I had a lawyer.  And by "all hours" and "people", I meant the two aforementioned couples on one Saturday afternoon. I tend to embellish when my panties get up in a wad.

The Gentle Margaret a day later: "Hi, Jennie - I'm so sorry, I was out of town and I don't have a cell phone" (she didn't). "I kept the house listed because you'd expressed interest in putting in an offer, and if I closed the listing, it takes 6 months to reinstate it and you'd have to wait until then."
Ooops. I had, indeed, been interested in buying. I'd forgotten all about it, which happens a lot these days. Who's the a-hole, now?

After a round of Mea Culpas to The Gentle Margaret and Rae, it occurred to me that perhaps Margaret kept the listing active to light a fire under me to buy, and light a fire she did.

  I loved the neighborhood and I loved the neighbors, who were mostly related and who had grown up there. Everyone had a dog who got out and went on the occasional wild tear, so no one could complain if my Buster did the same. I'd participated in the weekly Happy Hour in Jimmy and Gemma's garage around the wood stove, where Jimmy did all his canning and regularly served up some wonderful thing he'd made from scratch from some wonderful thing he'd caught or grown himself. Last night I had a fish cake made from Red Snapper with extry hot horseradish sauce. They always had Michelob Ultra and homemade shine from West Virginia or his brother's still up the street, which I will never touch again. The shine, not the still. But I digress.

If I owned, I could do whatever I wanted to the place. I'd be investing in my own equity for the first time. It had a new roof, new energy-efficient furnace and an 18" thick stone foundation. I started asking around about the crime stats and housing prices, both of which were low. The last break-in had been 12 years before, when a former tenant who'd been evicted came back to get some of his stuff. So much for Carrick's hard reputation. Once the idea got into my head it spread like a happy cancer, occupying every cell of my body. I was going to own a home.


To read about how I went from renting to owning, tune in here next week, or subscribe and I'll send you the link directly!


  • Thanks so much, Marcy, Maggie, Mark and Julie, for your kind and encouraging words, and for reading! More articles on the way after I finish teaching the summer accelerated accelerated semester.

    Jennie Kay
  • I just stumbled upon your website and LOVE the beautiful one-of-a-kind light fixtures and LOVE your story even more! The before and after pictures of your precious cottage (a/k/a girl castle LOL) are fabulous. Keep up the good work and so happy you are living the dream!

    marcy peyton
  • Another fun read. Isn’t it wonderful to know that in some little pockets of the world folks still operate out of kindness, integrity, and trust. This makes me so happy for you.
    You of indomitable spirit, forging your way out of talent grit and goodness. I applaud you and share your delight in becoming a home owner and entrepreneur!

  • Wow! An excellent & interesting story. I’m looking forward to upcoming chapters.

    Mark Zupan
  • Oh my Jennie girl….this is just wonderful. I can just see you there making magic with your little ole Home. Love your writing. I keep your little drawing of a crouched, sad one surrounded by angels on my dresser. It has never left my sight since way back then when your love and talent made it for me in 1993. Let’s have a chat soon. 👍👏🏻❤️


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