The sudden onset of fall weather has me in a nesting mood. Unfortunately, my nest is in need of repair. A recent cataclysm of failing plumbing and a broken furnace has led to days of doing dishes in the bathroom sink and bundling up like we’re tent camping in our own house.
Ah, home ownership. It continues to be part of The American Dream, for reasons that are currently beyond my understanding. Despite the multitude of barriers to becoming a homeowner, it is still something most Americans seem to aspire to. Why? Are we masochistic? And folks who are lucky enough to own homes often look to move up the housing rung to something bigger, better, brighter. But not necessarily newer.
In this region, we are blessed (or cursed) with a large stock of vintage, charming, curb-appeal heavy homes. Several of my friends are currently house hunting, and these are the houses they gravitate toward. When these friends ask for advice about houses, in my current drywall-dusted state of mind I want to scream, “Buy a condo! Rent! Buy new construction with a home warranty! Do not buy a vintage house!”
I fell victim to the charm of my vintage house about 15 years ago. I loved its old-fashioned cottage feel, tucked away in a neighborhood from the early to mid 1900s. I was seduced by the original (creaky) wood floors, casement (inefficient) windows, ancient (pilot-light blows out regularly) stove. I neglected to think that because the house was 80-plus years old, it meant I would have to start rebuilding it, piece by piece, as systems began to fail. Anyone who has owned a lovely old house knows these things.
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My mother recently called me, nearly in tears because of some mishap with a 1960s kitchen renovation. We shared our frustrations with living without working sinks, then reflected about how upset we were getting over things so minor in the scope of the world’s problems.
Maybe that’s why people love to own homes. It gives us the sense, as misguided as it can be, of having a space we can control in this very out-of-control world. And that’s why it is so jarring when that space gets turned upside down. Why moving is one of the most stressful activities we can undertake.
Our insurance company offered to put us up in a hotel while our repairs were being completed. It sounded like fun — a “staycation!” An automatic waffle-maker in the breakfast room! A pool! Unfortunately, between my 5-year-old losing all sense of hotel-appropriate behavior, the off-gassing from new carpets, and rock hard pillows, the event added up to what I can only describe as a boondoggle. After one night I would like to wipe clean from my memory, I bagged the whole adventure and said we’d live without a kitchen sink and heat for a couple of weeks. Back to our charming, slowly disintegrating nest. It never felt so good to be home.
Character, in humans and houses both, is built upon flaws. Mistakes get corrected, lessons are learned, improvement occurs. As I work with my children to hang our beaten old Halloween decorations, make grape juice from the bumper crop of fruit from our very old vine, and cook pies and cupcakes in that ancient, temperamental oven, I know the character of this house is becoming part of my character. Stubborn, complicated, definitely in need of some renovation, but full of love and hope.
I likely won’t stay here forever. Despite recent lessons, I know I’ll most likely fall in love with and want to buy another old, vintage charmer of a house. I want to be part of that river of memories, of laughter, of struggle, of love that flows only from an old house. I want to add to it, and leave it better than I found it.
With my new furnace and new drainpipe (and new debt) in hand, I know that someday I will get my roof fixed and my fireplace in working order. I can’t think of anything better than opening stockings in front of a roaring fire (even if the heat is being sent straight out through those leaky casement windows). We don’t need an automatic waffle maker. Once I get that kitchen plug working again, I can make waffles the old fashioned way. In the toaster.
Jennifer Davis is an environmental planner, writer and member of The Olympian’s 2015 Board of Contributors. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.