No matter the degree of our comfort level, the world has become an unsettled place. Riots and revolutions, earthquakes, tsunamis, droughts, tornados and economic collapses can be seen as the apocalyptic precursors predicted and parodied to culminate in 2012.
The housing market that has been blamed for much of the downturn of the last few years still struggles to come back and is forever radically changed. Sub-prime mortgages have resulted in a banking industry too focused on profits to take a risk on the common family just wanting to buy a home. Stuck with an inventory, developers are hesitant to bulldoze fields into suburbs, making renovations to existing homes the most viable option for bettering our quality of life.
In the good times, our culture tends to be mobile and impulsive. As an expression of success, the standard has been a bigger home in a better neighborhood easily accomplished by a quick move across town. Proceeds from the sale of one put the money down on another and payments remained largely the same. Assumptions that values would continue to rise made playing as easy as the game of checkers.
Sub-prime mortgages changed all that and it can no longer be the expectation that anyone who works hard enough can earn their own home. Real estate is accumulated by fewer and fewer people who rent it out to the many. Ownership is less a right than a pride and privilege.
Staying put and renovating to meet expanding needs for many reasons is a wonderful way to spend a lifetime. Deep roots, relationships with neighbors and the creation of traditions are just a few obvious reasons. Nothing better than a well-established home life can assuage the discomfort of global uncertainty.
On the local level, the decision to stay put and improve the home can be a terrifying prospect to those of us raised in a lifestyle that used houses as commodities so easily bought, sold and left behind. Often brand new, we have not stayed long enough to enjoy the shade of the trees we planted, nor shared the celebrations and sorrows from births to graduations to weddings of our neighbors’ children who are friends with our own.
Renovations are dusty, inconvenient and hugely stressful, lasting one or many months. The contractor and workers invade the castle, often becoming part of the family in that time, sometimes the enemy. He might turn the corner and catch you in your underwear or arrive at three AM to tighten the tarp in a rainstorm. Homework still has to be done; holidays arrive; visitors want to tour and advise.
Marriages are seriously tested living through remodels, often stripping and re-painting the relationship in unexpected colors for better or worse. At the design stage, one man’s recreation room bar is the woman’s whirlpool spa. The screaming saws of construction might sound like the pitter-pattering little feet to the other. Constant decisions as small as round or lever door handles create relentless strain when all he really wants to think about is a round of golf.
Despite it all, the process of transformation, with proper planning, care and room for breaks, can be a time of great joy, anticipation and satisfaction. Lives are changed by taking the wall out that has separated the kitchen from family. The extra bedroom can save a marriage or unite sisters who could not share the same space. Staying in the same school system avoids the traumatic disruption of having to make all new friends all over again.
In thirty years as a contractor, my best of many moments is easily identified in the eighth month of a year long project that doubled the size of the house and touched every room existing, centered upon a massive restructuring of the kitchen. With a two year old, she had been washing dishes in the bathtub, the heat was off for the day in February in Vermont. The entire first floor of furniture was crammed into one room with a tiny path to the computer where she huddled in a down jacket.
“I love it!” she exclaimed, mist on her breath.