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a fresh start |  After years of living -- and loving -- big city life in Philadelphia, Erin nonetheless decided she needed a change of scenery. Her company had downsized; she'd just ended a long-term relationship. So she moved to a small town in New England to make a fresh start. As she began the search for a rental, she had a picture of exactly what she was looking for, "a small cottage with a postage size garden and a view," in the sort of town where she could "walk at night safely, take long hikes along the beach, and ride my bike down scenic roads." When she saw the little gray-shingled house overlooking a salt pond, it seemed perfect until she got a look behind the front door.

Inside, the house was in bad shape -- dark, dismal, with brown paneled walls and matching brown floors, plus ceiling tiles stained with cigarette smoke. Still, Erin wasn't ready to give up the location -- standing in the backyard, she could watch egrets feeding in the salt marsh's flats -- so she struck a deal. Her landlord agreed to buy the materials, and Erin would repaint and otherwise spruce up the house. >