Yesterday I received a check in the mail from my mortgage escrow for $51.58. I’ve been kind of staring at it, intermittently. It wasn’t something I expected from life, a mortgage that is. My empathy for the average homeowner didn’t take long to blossom once I became one. The privateer morality I developed in my early adulthood got scraped off with my ego like the roof of a speeding van under a country underpass. I own a construction company. I am a talented builder in my own right, a trait which may sometimes be an impediment to business itself. Even I feel a daunting pressure at the demands of home improvement. Sometimes it feels like home improvment.
Perhaps if my ignorance were more thorough I might fall into the trap of ripping my house apart with good intentions and high hopes, thinking all the while, “I got this.” I’d have to be intentionally blind to do such a thing. Like duct taping a pillow to my face kind of blind.
I grew up in construction sites. First with my mom, who in 1984 paid a jolly and mercenary band of delinquents to put a basement under her house. During the early phases of that project we slept in a 10’ travel trailer in the moonlit driveway. We read books, played cards, and participated in the equally imaginative game of watching broadcast television on a five inch black and white portable television. The picture was about as clear as one of those Magic Eye 3D posters, but easily contained more artistic value. We bathed in the yard in an exiled claw foot bathtub filled by garden hose and warmed with boiled water from an enamel lobster pot. All while a season passed with the modest wooden home atop steel picking and RR cribbing. A pumpkin patch grew and fruited beneath it in my old sandbox where we had carved jack o’lanterns in 1983.
The crew lasted long enough to get the foundation poured and the house back in place. After her patience broke and she told the lovable misfits not to come back, she finished the project herself with perhaps intermittent assistance from wayfarers and family friends. She did not like to ask for help. I give her major kudos. When she was done, our house was an aesthetically forward minor miracle, a completed home renovation. It must have been completed by 1986. Memory as it is, I only know for certain that my life during those months never lacked adventure.
In 1993 I moved in with my dad. He grew up in a 3 sided chicken coop in the back yard of a one room house in Pacific Washington. He ran away from home at 14 and joined the military 3 years later. Despite his endearing faults, his overall optimistic condition and his longevity are to be considered miraculous. When I moved in I thought I was desperate for answers, and I thought, 'this man has them.' Like many 15 year old children I longed for answers I didn't have the bandwidth to comprehend.
Roughly six months after moving into his 900 square foot ranch with three men, my adult sister and her ten year old son(George), we all felt overdue for an expansion. I know that in some parts of the world this sounds like a luxury. In the microcosm of Portsmouth, NH it was becoming unusual for each member of a household to not have their own room.
That summer, 1994 my father hired a general contractor who agreed to hire my father to work on his own house with him. Control issues clearly. Together, my father and this contractor and his father made my summer into a working holiday. I resented it of course. I felt that my labor was commandeered through martial law and surely there had to be some law against it. We ripped the roof off the house and put a second floor on.
After the major work was done and we had a finished shell, the contractor moved on, and so did my dad it seemed. I went back to high school for the year. The kitchen and bathroom remained skeletal. No trim on the bathroom door, you could see right in through the crack. just a plank subfloor in the kitchen, with the marks of teenage frustration in the form of patched stomp holes everywhere. No doors on the bedrooms, because of course, who needs privacy. Wires hanging from the ceiling or poking up through the floor. The stair railings were 2x4 safety rails, and more than one of us, while charging up the stairs, fell backwards, soundly rejected by plywood scaffolding on planks laying across the open stairwell.
I had once again adapted to a less than complete living space. It took over a decade to finish. My brother-in-law made the cabinets in his garage wood shop and they eventually found their way into our home. The renovations took some thirteen years to complete. I believe that only happened because dad sold the house. In fact, I began my own business before my father finished his house. I never worked on that house as a paid contractor though, and I was really in no position to help otherwise at the time.
So, I know about the foibles of taking on large projects with my willpower as the sole driving force, and how it can diminish the living space over time to a situation which is far less comfortable than simply having an out of date kitchen or bathroom. My kitchens are both furnished with mid-century built in place cabinets which will never break nor will they function with the smoothness of those fragile soft close drawers and doors of the modern budget cabinet shop. My countertops are likely chip board covered in laminate and they will never be beautiful. The tub in my bathroom was installed by a novice who didn't put a bag of mortar under the center, so it flexes when I stand in it every day. My steam heat system is a ragged dog bonfire struggling to heat the outdoors because there is little to no insulation in my 150 year old walls. I am not complaining. I love it. It's a form of insanity, this illusion of power that home ownership creates. Really it's an act of love.
When I bought my house I promised myself that I wouldn't start any big projects on my own time, and so far I've made good on that. Not that I don't want to make changes. I think about design changes every day. I think about demolishing it and building a modern three story. It's fun to think about. For now, that's enough, after all, I'm so busy running a construction company that I don't have time to work on my own house. Knowing and remembering that is crucial to enjoying it. Being happy with it the way it is becomes easier knowing that until I can afford to change things, I stand a better chance of making them worse by ripping it apart and becoming overwhelmed. One day, when I have it in my budget, I'll be able to hire my own company to make improvements, and they will be managed well and completed on time. Until then I'll live with the imperfections as is.