The Treehouse

Oakland House

By Gabrielle.

This is the story of how The Treehouse, our home in Oakland, came to be ours.

This is the long version of the story. I’m still figuring out how to tell it in a short version.

Starting last summer, when we embarked on our final year in France, we started looking online at real estate in Colorado. We had loved living in Colorado and our plans never strayed from moving back. We just needed to find a house. We wanted to buy something and settle down. In fact, that was our original plan when we first moved to Colorado, but at the time, we weren’t able to find a house, and then we got distracted by France. : )

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We really wanted to buy a house before we moved back, because I was overwhelmed by the idea of moving twice — first into a rental, and then into a purchased house, possibly in two different school districts. Ugh. Purchasing a house and moving directly in sounded ever so much more appealing.

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So we searched. In every Denver neighborhood. In the suburbs. In the mountains. We did specific searches. We did broad searches. Occasionally we would find something we were interested in — and I would sometimes share our finds on Facebook. But nothing was quite right. Or a house might get grabbed up before we had a chance to really consider it.

There’s no question we were being really picky. We were looking for an extraordinary house. Living in La Cressonnière had changed us. It was such an amazing home. I remember returning from our trip to Venice, driving up to the farmhouse and acknowledging it was every bit as lovely as anything we had seen on vacation.

We both work at home, and shoot photos at home, and film at home, and spend so much time at home. Home matters. We were determined to find an extraordinary house that we could really fall in love with. That was a joy to drive up to. That was a treat to live in. It didn’t need to be in perfect condition, but it needed really good bones. And it turns out, that sort of house is hard to find.

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By January, we were a little nervous. Would we be able to find a house? Did we need to extend our time in France? Should we build? What are our other options? I was chatting about our house hunt with my sister, Jordan, and she mentioned we should look at the Bay Area. I shrugged off her suggestion and told her we were priced out of the housing market in San Francisco (and every big city — New York and L.A., too!) But she tried to convince me. She reminded me that we don’t have a commute, and that if we looked further out of the city, there were some great deals. So I did a real estate search by map that covered the entire area, and looked for houses big enough to hold our family and in our price range. But alas, it was just what I thought. We were out-priced.

Except.

There was this one house. It was big and yellow. It had 5 bedrooms. It was on 2 acres and backed up to a park! It was 100 years old and needed vast renovations (which is my kind of project). It was in El Cerrito — a little north of Berkeley and Oakland. There was certainly nothing else out there like it — every house around it was on a tiny plot of land. And it was in our price range. A miracle!!

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We asked Jordan to go check it out in person. She took tons of photos, even made a little video, and emailed everything to us. She told us that it needed a lot of work, but it was a really neat house. And we felt like the 2 acres made it a no brainer.

We knew it was a long shot, but we felt compelled to go for it. It was an extraordinary house. And even though we hadn’t seriously considered the area, there were strong draws for us to San Francisco. My father grew up in the Bay Area and I had been raised with visits to my grandparents in Menlo Park and San Carlos, so I had some roots there. Plus, I have a sister and brother in the area. Plus, our fields of work are centered there, and Ben of Pinterest’s advice to move where your field of work is headquartered had stayed with me since I’d heard him speak those words at Alt Summit 2012.

So Jordan recommended a local real estate agent (which we needed in order to make a bid on the house), and he recommended a mortgage agent, and she helped us get pre-qualified, and we bid on the house. The conversation with Jordan, to the search, to the bidding on the house, took place over about 5 days. It was fast. And a little nuts.

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Sadly, the next week, we found out that not only was our offer not accepted, there were also over 20 other bids, and the top bid was 200,000+ beyond the asking price. Yikes!

Our conclusion: clearly, that house was an exception, it had been priced too low, and our first impression — that we were priced out of the area — was indeed true. But we didn’t feel too bad. It had been good to go through the work of getting pre-qualified. It had been over a decade since we’d owned a house and it was good to remember what the buying process is like. So we abandoned our search in the Bay Area as quickly as we had picked it up, and we returned our focus to Colorado.

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And we were feeling more exploratory at that point, so we broadened our search. We kept searching Colorado, but we worked with a real estate agent in Santa Barbara, too. That’s where Ben Blair’s father grew up, so we felt roots there as well.

But, now we were on the radar of the real estate agent in Oakland, and once in awhile he would send a listing he thought we’d like. I eventually wrote him an email and told him we simply weren’t interested. We had only bid on the yellow house because it was extraordinary. And the very few options in our price range in the Bay Area just weren’t appealing to us. The good stuff was too expensive. He totally got it.

But a few weeks later, he emailed again. He had a house he thought we would really like. It was being privately sold (instead of publicly listed) because the couple who owned it were older and they didn’t want the hassle of open houses and bidding wars. Since there was no listing, he had no link or photos to show us, but thought we would really like the house. We were grateful he thought of us, but without photos to look at, we didn’t give it much thought. And I didn’t want to bother my siblings to go take photos — I didn’t want to waste anyone’s time.

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Several weeks later, he emailed about the same house again, encouraging us to send someone to look at it and take photos. It was now March, and we were feeling so unsettled we decided to give it a try. So we asked Jordan again, and she took photos and made a little video again. And as she was driving away, she called us in France and said, “I don’t what the price is, but if you can afford it, you should buy this house.”

The photos she sent us are the photos in this post! These shots feature the furniture and belongings of the previous owners. (Jordan actually sent about 100 photos, so this is 20% of what we saw.)

When we saw the images, we fell in love with the house immediately. It’s a mid-century house with unusual architecture. And it’s completely surrounded by forest. It’s in a residential neighborhood, but there are so many trees, we can’t see our neighbors — it feels totally private! The house is built into the side of a hill and even on the main floor, it feels elevated, like you are high above the forest floor. The main floor is surrounded by decks and patios, and the 2nd floor has two decks as well. And because the weather here is wonderful year round, it’s really designed for indoor/outdoor living. There’s even a tiny stream in the back yard. Everyone that has visited us so far has commented that being here is like being in a treehouse.

It’s definitely an extraordinary home.

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So mid-March, we bid on the house, and our real estate agent suggested we write a letter to the homeowners as well. Turns out the letter did the trick. There was another (apparently better) bid, but they accepted our offer! We couldn’t believe it!! We kept asking each other: Is this for real? Are we really moving to Oakland? To California?? After all this time, are we going to be homeowners again?

Through April and May we applied for our mortgage. That process, made more difficult by being overseas, just about did us in. I swear, it was like a 40 hour per week job. Nuts. But the sellers were incredibly patient. And so was our accountant. And so was our mortgage agent. And eventually, it happened! The official closing occurred mid-June.

And on July 15th, we flew from Paris to San Francisco, rented a van, drove to Oakland, and saw this house — which we had bought — for the very first time.

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This post is long enough as it is. So I’ll save details about the number of bedrooms, the renovation work that needs to be done, and the furniture we inherited, for next week. But I have to acknowledge how lucky we feel. If it hadn’t been a private sale, with owners who weren’t intent on getting the highest possible price, we never could have bought it. This house is such a gift, a treasure. We couldn’t feel more gratitude about calling it our own.

Friends, I’d love to hear: have any of you ever bought a house without seeing it in person first? (I’m sure we’re not alone!) Or, do you think we’re crazy?

P.S. — Speaking of crazy, I’m afraid this move has pushed me over the edge. I’m definitely struggling. During the year after we moved to New York, I experienced a full-on breakdown, and happily, it hasn’t reached that level. But my mental state feels more serious than a typical “down” day for me. If things don’t improve over the weekend, I’ll see a doctor to get some help. Thanks for your patience as my publishing schedule has been so erratic this month. And for those of you waiting on emails from me, my sincere apologies. We’ll get things sorted out eventually!

191 thoughts on “The Treehouse”

  1. We bought our home in Australia after seeing it only on the Internet. We packed up and moved from Los Angeles to Melbourne and are happily still here five years on. Your new home sounds and looks wonderful. Take care and I hope you are able to enjoy the chaos a bit.

  2. Gabby, the house is lovely, and seems perfect for you all! But I’m so sad to hear you’re struggling- please take care of yourself first and that means lots of time to rest! Don’t apologize to us- we’ll be here waiting when you’re back to yourself. Please take care- eat, rest, play, repeat! Xoxoxo

  3. Stephanie Smirnov

    Gabby, I’m so sorry to hear you’re struggling right now. Change is stressful under any circumstance, let alone a transatlantic move with a big family. You have so many fans and virtual friends who adore and are pulling for you–please take care of yourself and know we’re all thinking of you! xoxoxo

  4. Gorgeous house and so much potential. I can see why you love it. I have always wanted to decorate a mid century home.

    Take care of yourself. Blogging can wait. Your health is more important.

  5. We made a life-changing cross country move one year ago this week. I know the stress involved in a big move but ours was nothing compared to what you’ve been through. Good for you for recognizing more than just a down day and for putting your health first. Your lovely family deserves a mom who can hit the pause button to take care of herself as needed.

    I was too emotionally spent to share many of the details of our move and I look back with regret. I never even took a photo of our first day in the new house! I hope that in time you will absolutely cherish the posts you’ve done recapping your time in France along with this amazing story of the new home in Oakland. They will be treasures to you when life becomes calm and normal again.

  6. Wonderful house and wonderful encouragement for those seeking to buy after having lived overseas. We moved back to the USA last year after being overseas for 14 years. I felt similarly last year.

    I recently read on a posting somewhere that a friend encouraged an overwhelmed new first time mother to add the following phrase onto the end of her sentences to help with her transition into a new life, “…., for now”.

    I wish I had that phrase last year at this time when we had just moved back to the USA. It seems to help a bit, for now : )

    Take care –

    Ann,

  7. I can only imagine the amount of stress it took to get this move done. I recently moved a 1-bedroom apartment across town on my own. It was so hard to not have help and isolating to be on my own for a few weeks of packing, schlepping, and unpacking. I had some significant lingering post-move stress, so I imagine it would take a while to work out the stress of moving a family of 8 overseas to a house you bought without visiting while coordinating the sorting of all of your belongings in Colorado. You are a superstar for even attempting this, and you deserve a break.

  8. I imagine it took a lot to write that last paragraph. Recovering from uprooting and then going through all the memories of your things – a gift to be able to do but so hard on the psyche. Your new home is lovely, may it be a place to recover and heal from those intense choices.

  9. Wow! Such a lovely, lovely house and it will become such a dream home with your beautiful family in it!!!

    Moving is tough, even when we want to and everything goes well! But remember: This too shall pass….

    Take your time, be kind to yourself, try to rest a little, Rome wasn’t made in a day and we will be waiting for you! You have given us so much through all these years, take the time you need!

    Have you ever tried the Bach flowers remedies? They are natural and they can really help through this changing times… You should try them, even before you see a doctor maybe… I personnaly have Rescue with me for this challenging moments, and when I am starting to feel too blue, nervous, anxious or pessimist, I use other ones. Check them out!

    Have a lovely weekend and be as kind to yourself as you are to us!

    Lots of love!

  10. My husband is a professor, and we move a lot. We are mostly renting at this point, but living somewhere sight unseen in any circumstance is scary. Our current home is 129 years old, we found it on Craigslist, put the deposit down, and moved. It was scary but totally worth it. We are hoping to move to the Seattle area next year and will do the same, although I’d like to find a more reputable site for rentals.

    Feel better!

  11. Your house looks amazing. It’ll be fun to see what you choose to do with it. Please take time to help yourself amid all you have to do. Best wishes.

  12. What a wonderful story! We are currently moving to Ireland from the US for my work and we have been trying to find a home sight unseen. Moving internationally is so incredibly stressful! I have had some bad bad days in the last few weeks. We finally found a place to rent, it is everything we didn’t want–a cookie cutter house, new build, in a suburban cul-de-sac. But it is the only place that will take our dog and we can work on finding something better. I’m guessing it will work out great in the end, even though it isn’t the country cottage we envisioned :)

  13. That house is amazing!
    Hang in there. It’s no wonder you’re feeling it; I don’t think you’ve stopped moving for months, with Alt conferences, the overseas travel, and moving and everything. Slow down and take care of yourself!

  14. Beautiful home! We bought ours privately, too, and it was so nice.

    You are a hero for taking care of your family and moving and all of us, too. Take all the time you need to feel well again. You are loved and I will spend time on my knees in prayer for you. Xoxo

  15. I don’t even know you but am so excited for you. It’s a wonderful house and was clearly waiting for you and your family. Meant to be! Be surrounded by that much nature, but also somewhat close to a world class city….fantastic. As the others have said, breathe, take your time, don’t worry about blogging. Take care of you.

  16. What a fabulous home! And I think you are so brave to head straight into the unknown! (Of course, if Jordan were my sister and she thought something was great, I’d probably go for it!)

    I am so sorry to hear that you having a hard time. My heart goes out to you! You have had some big tasks (unloading and sorting a storage unit after 2 years would have done anyone in!), and huge changes. Our family has moved so many times – sometimes I’ve been able to stay positive, but more often than not I am overwhelmed and depressed for the first year! I am certainly not at my best and it is really hard on me and my family.

    Take care of yourself, Gabby. You are such an inspiration for thoughtfulness and generosity. Your blog is such a kind, happy place.

  17. Congrats on your move. It seems like your day to day must be more full than most people’s weeks. You lucked out not moving to El Cerrito, instead of living in the constant fog (it rolls in the Golden Gate and moves right to El Cerrito), you get to live in one of the places with the best weather in the country! Just make sure your house is earthquake retrofitted (we have a great rec for a great guy who did ours if you need one).

  18. What a great story – and no wonder you’re overwhelmed! I’ve been following your story with interest and sympathy because I am such a terrible mover – there’s something about packing and unpacking one’s whole life that undoes me, even with all the optimism of a new start. It can take longer than you ever imagine to stop wondering ‘what am I doing here?’ even when the new place is wonderful (and it’s harder still when you have left behind somewhere as lovely as France). Though the routines of children are very rooting, I think. I’m not an alternative therapies person at all, on the whole, but at times of stress I have found Bach Flower Remedies ‘Walnut’ mysteriously helpful – I don’t know how it worked but it seemed to (the brandy base maybe?)!
    You will make that house look wonderful. It always amazes me how you keep all the balls rolling, but it’s also OK to drop them now and again. In six months’ time it’ll just be a crazy period to look back on and shake your head! In the meantime, go gently on yourself and take care!

  19. My dad purchased 2 of our houses sight unseen by my mother. Good trust there! It was always a surprise for my brother and I when we moved beyond bad listing photos :)

    Please take care of your health! Having moved many times in my life I know that there is an adjustment period involved. I don’t know how you did it with 7 others in tow + across an ocean for much of it. All your readers will understand without a doubt. In fact, I’m sure it will make you feel even more human :)

  20. What a wonderful house you all have found–congratulations!

    I’m sorry to read that you’re struggling; I can certainly relate. We moved to Colorado after living in Italy for 3.5 years exactly one year ago, and it was a really difficult time for me. We loved our life in Italy, and I knew I would eventually love our life here too, but it’s just SO different in so many ways.

    About three-four months in, I felt more adjusted and wasn’t quite so homesick. We’re military (although this is only our third big move), so I also had to remind myself that although I was happy in Italy, it took 3-6 months to really adjust and get into a new groove of life. Take it easy for now, and know that time will help. And you’re so lucky! You’ve bought this home and have the intention to stay for a bit, so the overwhelming parts of moving into a new home and making it yours will stay with you for a long time:)

    Good luck!

  21. Wonderful story – you’ll love Oakland! I’ve been here for 6 years (after 15 in SF) and it’s amazing. I *think* you live near me so if you need anything, reach out and I’d be happy to welcome you to the neighborhood ;)

  22. Here’s what you need to do. Go to Children’s Fairy Land in Oakland. Do you know about it? Truly a great treasure of the city: hardly updated since I was a child there in the 60s, little interactive displays of all your favorite nursery rhymes. So go to Fairyland and buy a Fairyland Key. At each display you can turn the key in a little box and listen to a nursery rhyme. But the great part is that when you go home you have the Key to Fairyland (!) in your pocket and even on a drag day it reminds you that there might be a fairy out there somewhere. I live far away from Oakland now, but I keep my Fairyland key close all the time.

  23. Your new place is lovely, but what’s even lovlier is your self-awareness and willingness to admit to and ask for help when you recognize you’re not feeling like yourself. Very good for you. I hope you end up feeling better all on your own, but am proud of people like you who acknowledge the stress of real life and the toll it can take. Thank you for that.

  24. I love this story. It so closely parallels my own attitudes when searching for a home. Finding an extraordinary, unconventional home sometimes means having extraordinary faith in the unknown.

    Depression sucks. It’s the absolute worst. And clearly this long and exhausting process has taken a toll on you. I, for one, and I’m sure there are many like me, don’t expect you to be perfect or infallible. We admire your spirit and care and adventurous life. We will wait patiently and love any little post you feel up to creating, however small or unedited.

    Be well. Massage, medication and DBT have been very helpful in my life. I hope you find your salve.

    Xoxo,
    Nicole

  25. The house is beautiful, and I really do hope you’re feeling better soon. Transitions have a way of throwing me for a loop, too…even the really happy ones! Sending you lots of prayers.

  26. Prayers and hugs for you Gabrielle! What a huge adventure and I am sure you will land on your feet and have lots of lovely times in this most beautiful place. Can’t wait to read more!

  27. Thanks for this post and for you being so open about your mental state. I know nervous breakdowns and it is such a relief to know it’s happening to others, too. You did such amazingly exhausting things in such a short period of time, I find it very natural, how burned out you are and I hope you feel better soon. Breathing always really works for me, just a few minutes to sit down and breath and of course regular meals – can change a lot.
    The story about your house amazes me too, I always found myself in amazing living situations and sometimes I think when you go for the extraordinary and really believe in it you get as lucky as you did. You so deserve it. Thanks for being so inspiring.

  28. Yes, we bought our current house, of 9 years in Texas, without having set foot in it. We only walked through it after closing on it. We were living in Vermont at the time and we could not afford to fly down and look at homes. We knew the area we wanted to live in, we knew we wanted a hardy wood house vs the typical brick that is in the area and we wanted a floor plan that has usable space.

    We did have a friend walk through the house, no pictures were taken, just to be sure it was real and was just as nice in person.

    I have to say we love our home. I cannot imagine living in another. At the time it did not seem strange to buy a house that we had never seen. I suppose it just goes with who my hubby and I are…we met 19 years ago online when online was still dial up and there were no dating sites.

    PS Your home is lovely and I do love the privacy and the tree house layout. I think you will have a wonderful time in your new home. I hope that you are able to find peace and get through such a hectic time. It’s good to know you are aware that things are not quite right. So often people are no able to recognize that.

  29. Congrats on the amazing story of finding your house AND I hope as well that you feel better soon. Good for you for looking after yourself and knowing enough to realise when you need to get some help. It’s often too easy (erm…speaking from experience) to just push through and soldier on.

    Moving is stressful, even when it’s done for good reasons to a place that you love. A lot of change and transitions to go through. You’ll get there!

  30. What an amazing story. Thanks for sharing your incredible journey. The house looks like… an adventure – a place to escape. All the knocks and crannies are cool and you’ll have opportunities to put your own stamp on it.

    Hope you feel better soon. I’m sure you’re feeling added pressure thinking you have this huge following with expectations. Instead, it’s a huge following sending you positive thoughts and encouraging you to recoup, regenerate, and wishing you the best as your new home to wraps you in comfort and love. :-)

  31. Your Treehouse is amazing. Just looking at it makes me happy. All the green outside your many windows will lift your spirits year round. Thank you so much for sharing, and I can’t wait to hear more and see the changes you all make.

    However. It sounds like you need a rest. The logistics of moving (cross-hemisphere) are extraordinarily stressful, plus you’re taking care of a family. Be sure to rest. Best wishes to you as you get settled!

  32. My heart goes out to you, Gabrielle. You’ve accomplished an amazing amount in such a short time this summer- you deserve a bit of a rest! It’s nice to see shots of the house and how happy you are now that you’re getting more settled.
    Admitting (to yourself, as well as others) that you’re not quite feeling up to par is always the most difficult part. I have been there, many times, and it’s always so easy to put off seeking help when there are ‘more important’ things to focus on, errands to run, tasks to be completed, a new house to make your own, etc. Work on getting yourself settled- the blog can come later!
    Sending hugs, love and light your way. xoxo

  33. Your home is lovely! We just got back from vacation and as we heading up the hill from lake merritt in the cab I was so struck by how beautiful Oakland is. We’re so lucky to live in such a beautiful yet complicated city. I hope you feel better. I can certainly relate as the school year approaches with one kid starting middle school – yikes. new adventure!

    Take good care. Hope to meet you someday around town.

    :) paula

  34. We recently moved to a fixer upper in the bay area and it has been exhausting! Fun….but tiring. Mentally. physically, and financially. Hang in there…..things will calm down and get settled in time.

  35. Yes! We moved from Utah to Idaho Falls, Idaho when my husband got a job up here, but we had to be there kind of soon after he got the job. We’d done one drive up to look around with our great real estate agent our last one in Ut. found for us. We took our 4 kids and everything and drove around all day, but nothing would work in the price range we were looking and for the dynamics of our family so we headed home and I got back online to look at more. There had been one I really liked from the pictures online, it was kind of more than we wanted to pay, but we sent our agent over to look and he said it seemed like just what we were looking for, and we told him we trusted him and didn’t have the time to drive up again and we bought it. The day we went to sign the papers we drove by it and found that a back door was unlocked and that was the first time we saw our house.
    It worked out fine overall and we know for certain that it is where we were supposed to be!

  36. it is lovely! Yes, buying a house, in person, is stressful enough. I can only imagine how much of a toll it has taken on you, to buy site unseen! Congratulations. I hope you are able to rest a bit and enjoy the trees!

    Best,
    D

  37. Dear Gabrielle, I really enjoy reading what you write, thank you for the time you have put into your work. But you and your family are more important. Please take whatever time you need to recover from uprooting, and be gentle with yourself. Moving, especially so far is a massive deal, it stirs up a lot of stuff. I hope you feel fully yourself again really soon. I can’t proof read this before submitting so I don’t know if it all makes sense – just wanted to say take the time you need, don’t rush, be kind to yourself, and let others be kind to you too x

  38. Thank you for sharing your wonderful house and the crazy story! Take care and good for you for being aware of what you need and getting help. That takes so much strength! Transitions (especially international ones!) are so tough- even if they are positive moves!

  39. I love your blog, and I’m so grateful for your courage and honesty. I started taking antidepressants a few months ago after my fifth baby was born during my husband’s final year of his doctoral program. It was so good for me to know that I wasn’t alone in having that challenge…I am so grateful for anyone who is open and honest about challenging times! I felt an instant upswing just days after starting medication…I hope you’re able to feel like yourself again too! Take care of yourself and know that all your readers are rooting for you! You’re even more amazing in my mind for acknowledging that you need to regroup and work on regaining your old self.

  40. How admirably honest. Take care of yourself and all of the pieces will come together… transition and change is such a challenge, not to mention culture shock. Be gentle and take things slowly- all the best.

  41. Thank you so much for sharing your extraordinary home and being vulnerable with all of us. I fully believe being honest about our own struggles gives others permission to be honest about theirs. You are so courageous and I am sure that courage will impact others and spread.

    I have to say, I am blown away by how daring and adventurous you and your family are :) I can only hope I will be like that when I have a family!

  42. I am an old woman so my perspective may be a bit different. The schedule you and Ben Blair set these past months seemed shocking to me, with superhuman expectations–especially with the large family you so lovingly care for. We’re not called to be superhuman, which is not so super after all–but simply our good human selves. Take good care of yourself: heart and soul and health. (Please forgive the preachy tone. I’m passionate that you deserve all the TLC you so generously give others.)

          1. Elle, you hit it on the nose! And oh Gabrielle! The house is indeed amazing. And speaking of amazement, I have often felt totally amazed by all that you do, and accomplish. I often feel like, wow, there are some seriously high powered energetic people in this world and I so am not one of them! But there is good stress and bad stress. Moving is one of the most stressful things ever, and you guys have had SUCH a move! (series of moves) Be kind to yourself, and rest. You deserve it.

  43. I love the house! I’ve always dreamed of raising my family in a “Swiss family Robinson” home. Fun! Moving is stressful! Starting a new school year, working in a new place, finding your comfort zone is hard! Hang in there. Praying for your peace. Much love!

  44. Indeed things will even out. Hang in there. You are obviously a woman who gives a lot of yourself. Remember to take what others offer when you are in need. And be gentle to yourself. Your new house is gorgeous btw.

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