Why Do This?

A question that has come up a lot lately is, "Do you regret buying a fixer now?" I can understand why that would be a question for people: we've had some serious pain and suffering in the last year, and bad luck with contractors in general (the painters were a Piece of Work, too). The last six months have been some of the most stressful of our lives, and it's definitely not over.

But the answer is no. I do not regret buying a fixer in general and this house in specific. I love my house. Even when the worst has happened, it brings me joy and hope to think about what we can do to make this house what it should be. I've always liked making and shaping spaces, and this house gives me a palette to work with that is above and beyond everything else we saw during our house hunt, and we saw some pretty nice houses.

The other thing I've had people ask me about lately is whether they should buy a fixer, and what my advice on that would be. The thing about living in a house you're renovating is that it requires a certain level of equanimity about your surroundings. If you get stressed out by spending half your weekends moving all your furniture from one room to another to get it out of the way of some new project, or if the idea of having to remove the dust drapes from the bed to grab some sleep in the middle of the war zone is anxiety provoking, obviously renovating is not for you.

But there's more. Renovations are expensive, and unsure. You can never quite be sure what is going to happen, and where the money is going to come from. You have to be able to deal with that on more than just a day-to-day basis: there will be whole months when you are not sure whether you will get to keep the house or not, and whole years when it looks like you will never be able to afford to buy a new car. This sort of uncertainty is hard on a person, and you have to know and accept it when you get into a complicated renovation project.

And you have to find the project exciting and interesting enough to make it part of your life. You have to live with the idea that your Christmas presents for the rest of your marriage will not be diamond bracelets and furs, but authentic replacement windows. The house becomes a partner in your marriage, a member of the family. While the kids needs braces or the dog needs knee surgery, the house may need a new roof or extensive dry-rot repair, and you don't get to put that sort of thing off for later.

So should you take on a major renovation? If you're like me, and you can't look at a house without thinking about how you would rearrange the rooms or which walls Have To Go, you won't be able to help yourself. Whether your house is 125 years old or 5 years old you're going to be changing and adapting it. The important thing, then, is to choose a house that is worth renovating. Not because it has historical value, or for what it will be worth when it is done (which is not going to be anywhere near what you put into it unless you renovated with flipping the property in mind), but because what you get in the end will be something you will love.

When we walked into our house for the first time, we both saw what could be done with the space. Not everything, but the fact that it was a space we could work with. Some people say "the house has good bones." To me it's more "I can see a future here." While we passed up several houses because they lacked yards or parking or were on busy streets, we looked at a lot of great houses (cheaper houses) where I would stand in the living room and try to see how I would renovate. We passed them by because standing there trying to see what we would do with the house, I could not come up with a space that didn't feel out of proportion, dark, or just weird.

The exception to that was a house that literally needed to be gutted because it had been open to the weather for years. We chose to pass it up not just because we actually needed a place to live, but because the kind of work it needed was beyond the resources we had at the time.

Which brings me to the next question I have heard a lot lately: why not move out and do it all at once? For one thing, we don't have the kind of money that sort of renovation requires. But for another, doing it in pieces gives you ongoing, constant rewards for your work. If we had done the full renovation before moving in, we'd still be renovating in our heads, only we'd be renovating a house we'd already paid to fix up. And a lot of what we wanted to do to the house came from the experience of living in the house. Some aspects of the plan for the house only occured to us two years after we moved in; one of the solutions to a major design problem only came to me two weeks ago. A minor revision to a circulation path occurred to me a couple of weeks ago while sitting on the side porch with a friend, enjoying the sunset. So the reason we don't move out and do it all at once is that it would be less fun, and we would not get as good a house. For this reason we are working on modifying the Ten Year Plan to happen in chunks, rather than all at once.

(Note that when we do the floors, we are going to have to move out of the house for at least a week, because you really cannot live in a house that is having all its floors replaced. But really.)

So back to that first question: I have no regrets about buying the house at all. I do regret hiring certain contractors, and I do regret some timing issues, but I never wish we hadn't bought this house, or that we had never decided we wanted to take an old-neglected house and turn it into something beautiful.

posted by ayse on 08/20/05

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