Bubil: An unbelievable starter home


Four years before Craig and Erin McLeod rented the house at 1869 Wisteria St., Sarasota, I bought it for $43,000 in the spring of 1979.

I was 26 and clueless about home-buying. A Realtor had told me I should own instead of renting, so I started looking in the West of the Trail area, where I had lived with my family as a child.

Coming from Rhode Island, my family always thought of the “Spanish-style” houses, built by Owen Burns and others, as odd. But when I saw this one, which at the time was white, with the arches above the front windows painted an accent color, I had to have it.

Someone instructed me to visit a mortgage broker’s office. I sat down and the loan officer filled out some forms. She may as well have been speaking Hungarian. I had no idea what she was talking about or what I was signing. I just saw the mortgage payment: $427 a month, including taxes and insurance.

The interest rate was 10.5 percent. I might have put a couple thousand dollars down. I signed the papers. After the closing, I spent that first night sleeping on the floor of my first house.

Within a few months, a real estate agent knocked on the door and offered to buy the property at a price that would give me a handsome profit. I said no.

But two years later, I did sell it, for $60,000. I thought I was some kind of real estate genius, but actually I just benefited from a booming seller’s market.

The narrow, deep structure had uneven floors and small rooms. The electric service was rudimentary, with 120 volts and one outlet per room. The one bathroom was tiny. The house had been restored somewhat by an investor who left the job undone. Cool air was supplied by window air-conditioners, which strained to their limits to cool spaces that were confined by sturdy but heat-storing clay tile block walls. The interior walls are lath and plaster over ¾-inch plywood, making even hanging a picture quite a project. I nearly burned out a drill trying to put a hole in a closet wall. My patch job is still evident to the touch.

In 1979, a few years after ceiling fans came back into vogue during the 1973 OPEC oil embargo, one of my first projects was to install a black, cast-iron Hunter ceiling fan with wooden blades. Poking my head into the attic through a tiny trap door in a closet, I discovered there were, at most, 14 inches of headroom from the ceiling joists to the roof structure. To get to the living room, I made a sled out of quarter-inch plywood and pulled myself, one joist at a time, on my belly, to the hole in the ceiling where a light fixture had been.

Then I installed 2-by-4 cross braces between the joists, from which hung the fan. As I recall, this was done in the late spring or summer. I was 165 pounds going in and maybe 155 coming out after sweating in the heart-pine frame,120-degree attic.

The fan is still there, running, with barely a shimmy, even at high speed.

“It was one of those projects,” I told the McLeods during a recent visit, my first to the house since I sold it, “where you look back and ask yourself, ‘How did I ever do that?’ It was difficult.”

“Anything in this house is difficult,” Craig McLeod replied.

“We won’t take it down,” his wife said. “We will honor your installation. I love that ceiling fan. It beats the heck out of the cheapo white ones they sell now. And if you turn it on high, you can barely stand under it.”

In 1990, the McLeods updated the old structure and added a wing that extends into the property’s additional, 50-foot lot to the west. So adding another house is not an option.

The main entrance is where a porte cochere had been. Double French doors open to a living room. Beyond it is a courtyard patio and a roomy back yard with enormous pine trees that seemed just as big now as they did 35 years ago. The garage no longer has a roof or a door and is being used as a garden shed. An adjoining half-bath and laundry room sit idle. In the 1960s, a neighbor once told the McLeods, a Cuban refugee family lived in the garage.

The old entry porch is enclosed. Of course, the floors slope and creak.

“I grew up in a house that had creaky steps,” Craig McLeod said. “Floors should make noise.”

“If these walls could talk ... ” Erin McLeod said. “Love it. Wouldn’t trade it for anything. Not for all the tea in China.”


Harold Bubil

Recipient of the 2015 Bob Graham Architectural Awareness Award from the American Institute of Architects/Florida-Caribbean, Harold Bubil is real estate editor of the Herald-Tribune Media Group. Born in Newport, R.I., his family moved to Sarasota in 1958. Harold graduated from Sarasota High School in 1970 and the University of Florida in 1974 with a degree in journalism. For the Herald-Tribune, he writes and edits stories about residential real estate, architecture, green building and local development history. He also is a photographer and public speaker. Contact him via email, or at (941) 361-4805.
Last modified: July 31, 2015
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