Haven: First the jinxes; now, paradise

The kitchen walls are decorated with Steve Dunbar's black-and-white photography studies, including one of a lone fisherman, pole at rest. "We just loved everything about the place," says his wife, Katie Hartman.
The kitchen walls are decorated with Steve Dunbar's black-and-white photography studies, including one of a lone fisherman, pole at rest. "We just loved everything about the place," says his wife, Katie Hartman. (TOM BRIGLIA)

Brigantine retreat endures a year of calamity before peace settles in.

Posted: August 26, 2013

Katie Hartman and Steve Dunbar knew just what they wanted when they decided to buy a house in Brigantine, the island community near Atlantic City.

These year-round Moorestown homeowners were after what Hartman calls "a turnkey operation" - something simple, affordable, low-maintenance, and move-in ready. And back in 2007, they thought they had found it.

A simple twin house on the beach block on the south side of the island was small, manageable, and a perfect kick-back place for the family: Hartman, 50, a busy attorney; Dunbar, 60, an attorney who had returned to his media-specialist roots for the Princeton School District, and their then-teenage daughter and son, Molly and Riley.

"We just loved everything about the place," recalls Hartman, newly installed as president of the Burlington County Bar Association.

"It was just the right size - two bedrooms, a great front porch, and ready to be lived in," Dunbar says.

They signed on the dotted line in summer 2007. And before the family even had a chance to live in the house, along came a renter eager to occupy it during the winter months. Perfect timing.

Fast forward to winter 2008 and a frantic phone call one night from their renter. A pipe had burst and flooded major portions of the house.

So much for the turnkey operation.

After weeks, then months, of filing insurance forms, the real work of remedying the extensive damage began.

Floors, rugs, walls, ceilings, kitchen cabinets - all had to be repaired or replaced. The couple alternated trips to Brigantine, trying to jam supervision of the projects into their already heavily scheduled lives.

And then, blessedly, the work was just about finished. Hartman went down to the house, where they had not yet slept a single night, with what she calls "the fun stuff" - accessories and bed linens.

When she returned a few days later, the brand-new bath mat was soiled, and so was the comforter in the master bedroom. Turned out to be animal urine in both places.

"Yes, we were horrified! Traps were installed, and it turned out that a possum had been living in our house," Hartman says.

By mid-May 2008, the Brigantine house finally seemed in pristine order. But when one of her sisters stopped by to check on something, horrible sounds were coming out of the downstairs bathroom. Hartman was treated to those sounds when her sister held the phone to the bathroom door.

A feral cat had somehow gotten in and taken up residence. That's when Hartman proclaimed that the house was jinxed and maybe they shouldn't ever live there.

Things quieted down when it was discovered that it was human error, not some scene from a horror movie. Workers still coming and going had probably failed to secure the property.

There's a happy ending to this tale, of course. The Hartman-Dunbars have spent summers since then at their charming seashore getaway without flood, possums, or feral cats.

The living room is done in beach colors, pale greens and tans, and casual furnishings. Miniature lighthouses, ship models, and glass containers filled with seashells accessorize.

The kitchen has a single terra-cotta-painted accent wall. Dunbar's black-and-white photography studies, including one of a lone fisherman, pole at rest, adorn two other walls.

Just beyond, a small porch holds a well-used grill. (Many meals are eaten at the beach house, but occasionally the glitter, and gourmet restaurants, of Atlantic City beckon.)

Upstairs, the master bedroom, a study in neutrals, has an upper deck from which Hartman and Dunbar can watch the world go by.

When they're not communing with neighbors, that is, on the expansive first-floor front porch with wicker furniture, plants, and baskets of petunias.

Though the couple are still debating where to hang a particular painting in the living room - a hillside village scene that she loves and he doesn't - they definitely agree on the important things:

The best beach they've ever known is just yards from their house.

And the best place to relax and forget their cares is right there, down by the sea.

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