Tuesday, December 5, 2006

'Tis the Season For...Home Improvement

My friend Robin is a tad nonplussed that her DH chose now to tear a hole in the wall of the dining room of her ninety-year-old house. Her saga has brought back memories for me…and, after all, that’s what the season is all about, isn’t it? Much as I love Christmas, the fond memories that are floating to the surface today are of…home improvement projects.

I don’t know where I got the home improvement gene. My parents weren’t big on remodeling. Dad was an accountant, who took tools in hand in order to save himself the cost of a professional. He painted and puttered and worked on a few rudimentary plumbing and electrical projects, like updated lighting or new sinks or faucets. With mixed results–his wiring sometimes smoked and his plumbing often leaked. In fact, when I was thirteen, and the house we lived in was beginning to need major work…we moved.

But for some reason, after I married and started feathering my own nests, I caught the home improvement bug. Husband and I signed our lives away on our first mortgage contract in 1978. I was 23 years old, husband was 22.  I have always thought of that as a remarkable achievement. Is home ownership some kind of yardstick of maturity or respectability? I guess not…but having been born and raised in suburbia in the fifties and sixties, it represented some kind of a right of passage. It was just what you did. How many 23-year-olds do you know today who are card-carrying, mortgage-laden homeowners, or even aspire to be? To be fair, home ownership is a much bigger stretch now than it was thirty years ago—what with barely habitable homes tipping the scales at nearly $200,000 in some markets. That figure alone blows me away. Our first home cost us $43,000.

That house was a tiny (less than 1,000 square feet) ranch in the distant northern suburbs of Chicago. No garage and a 4000 square foot lot. The one saving grace of the place was that it had a full basement, which contained a laundry room…and a pool table (which came with the house when we bought it and went with it when we sold it.) We lived there for a little over five years. And, young as we were, we managed to completely remodel the kitchen, update the bathroom and redecorate (complete with wallpaper and new carpeting) the master bedroom. I was so proud of that bedroom remodel. It was the first decorating project I had ever designed and implemented, and it turned out amazing, in a seventies sort of way.

And the kitchen… We tore out cabinets and re-arranged them. We replaced the kitchen carpeting with different kitchen carpeting. Remember kitchen carpeting? It was such a bad idea…but, like leisure suits, so chic, and so…late mid-century? The new carpeting of which we were so proud was a low-napped indoor/outdoor sort of affair with a fake woodgrain pattern. Just the thought of it now, nearly thirty years later, sets my teeth on edge. But it was definitely cutting edge in those days.

Our first home was also where we got our first taste of the endless home improvement project. The one where you have gotten in so far over your head that you have absolutely no idea how to finish what you’ve started. Very early on, we realized that we were much better at talking about projects than at actually accomplishing them. Every undertaking looked so huge in the design phase that we were, more often than not, totally intimidated by the job; so much so that we never got into it. So, somewhere along the line, we developed our signature method of home improvement that persists to this day: Tear it apart, then figure out how to put it back together the way you want it.

In 1980 (I think) it was the wall between our miniscule living room and barely adequate kitchen/dining room that became the object of our first foray into "rip into it and then puzzle out what to do with it." The two rooms were downright claustrophobic, and we knew that if we opened them up to each other it would give the house a much more open feel. Trouble is, we didn’t know how to go about figuring out if the wall between the two was load-bearing, or if we would have to build a header (I’m not sure we even knew what a header was, back then) to keep the roof from falling in on us. Nevertheless, we ripped off the wallboard on both sides, down to the bare studs. And then we froze. So we lived with that half-torn-apart wall for, as far as I can remember, almost a year before husband just got out a saw and said, "Here goes…!" and sheared those studs out of there. Of course, the roof didn’t fall down; and he proceeded to create a magnificent set of display shelves between the two rooms. It really did look great. A few months later, we sold the house and moved to Oregon.

Which became rule number two of our home improvement philosophy: Put the finishing touches on a beautiful, endless project, admire itfor about five minutes…and then move.

Oh...I have more home improvement stories.  At least one for every house we have lived in. I'll write more as time and wits permit...


  1. I loved these memories ~ look forward to hearing some more of your home improvement tales ~ Ally

  2. Well I for one am envious of your home improvement gene.  I have the desire, but not the talent, work ethic, or motivation to do home improvement. Example:  About 6 months ago I decided our bedroom needed painting.  In a burst of creative optimism I drove to the paint store and picked out the color.  The little samples of paint color are still taped to our bedroom wall....6 months later.  I've kind of gotten used to them and have felt no need to actually paint.  Plus I'm not allowed to paint, because apparently I "drip" when I paint, and DH, who IS allowed to paint, doesn't have time.  And we couldn't possibly HIRE someone to just paint, because WE can paint. You get the idea.

  3. Oh, Hope sounds just like me.  YOu sound way too ambitious.  I have other frieds like you, though....

  4. Joe is dangerous with a screw driver and does not know it. He once put a hole in the ceiling when he replaced an air vent on the roof. (Water damage and then kapowie!!) Thank God for the Monkey brothers! Where are they now that I need some major things done, like my kitchen needs new cabinets.....can you come to Indiana?

  5. We, I say that lightly, are in the throes of our three year home renovation.  Yep, the big work is done, but the paint (and colors) allude me ... so it's primer all the way.  Dear Lord, please help me make a choice.

  6. What a lovely entry!!  Being we are about to become proud owners of a frightening mortgage, only because it costs almost as much to rent as to own these days for anything half way decent just like you say, I have truly enjoyed this entry.  We are arguing the new vs the starter fixer upper thing.... scary, huh?!  We've both been the fixer up route before so dunno, but new construction is winning at this point.... still scary!?  Hugs,

  7. Home improvement paralyzes me.  It took me a year to decide on what color to paint the living room, and then I let the womanchild pick the color -- a bold, golden yellow that looks great or rather, will, when I get the furniture back in place and the swags back up.  I really am envious of that ability to just jump in and do it.

  8. I'd jump into those projects in a heartbeat but Aaron would never allow it.  He's not particularly handy and I think he's afraid he'd get sucked in.  I do minor repairs and paint and wallpaper.

  9. And provide the kitty kids with endless entertainment.


  10. Loved your home improvement stories.  I admire you ..... you had the courage to tackle these things, even if you weren't sure how you were going to finish them.  We have owned four houses, and it finally made sense to me that we have been in this house three times as long as any of the others, and haven't finished it yet.  It seems that every time I got a house the way I wanted it, we ended up moving.  Well, I do not want to move again, so I suppose that leaving it just short of being done is what is keeping me here.  Lord help me if I ever finally get it just the way I want it.    Tina