Lessons in home ownership and repair
Credits: Illustration by Gilbert Ford
In the manual of life, there should be a chapter called "Stuff They Don't Tell You Beforehand." Sewing is more ironing and pinning than stitching, it would read; toilet-seat position will be the least of your marital worries; and oh, by the way, home ownership is really about home repair.

My three-story Victorian on the outskirts of Philadelphia is the first house I've owned, and when I bought it in 1996, I felt awash in fiscal wisdom and good fortune and artistic liberation. I had moved from Brooklyn to Philadelphia for many reasons, but mainly to reduce expenses so that I could write more of what I wanted, less of what would pay the rent. Before the ink on the mortgage papers had a chance to dry, however, I discovered that this house offered incontestable proof that the universe has a sense of humor.

All the details that drew me to the property in the first place hung to their functionality by a thread. The wood-sash storm windows fell apart if I thought about repainting them, the tiles of the master bath floor had come so loose I could vacuum them up, and that sunny little mudroom off the kitchen sucked in frigid winter air like a sponge. In my Pandora's Box, something fell apart every week and at every turn. The water line leaked when I tried to shut off its valve for winter, and the basement wall crumbled when I accidentally bumped into it with a laundry basket. One day, the dryer drum just refused to turn altogether. When visitors came to the 102-year-old home I called my own (or mine and the bank's), I was only half joking when I asked if they'd signed the waiver.

I spent the first year going through superintendent withdrawal. Having spent two decades as a renter, I'd see a leaking faucet or evidence of a mouse and fill with outrage, ready to kick up a fuss at...myself. I came to understand that charm is a synonym for things-that-will-eventually-break and they-don't-make-parts-for-that-anymore. "Fixing" was rarely cheap and never simple. First, I had to recognize that something was broken (harder than it sounds), then find someone who'd do the work (also surprisingly difficult), and learn enough about the issue (God bless diy.com) to understand what I was asking—and paying—for.

Inevitably, I'd face a Solomonic choice between a moderate short-term patch job and a pricey-but-long-term solution. I can't count how many times the contractor/plumber/painter would fix his face into a look of mock empathy and say, "Sure, you could go that route if money's all that's important to you." Each undertaking bore inherent philosophical quandaries: Can out-of-sight truly be out of mind when it comes to a collapsing chimney? How responsible am I, really, for other people's safety? If something is hardly ever used, is it really broken?
Within six months, I had emptied my cash reserves and credit line on a resurfaced roof, a repointed garage, and refinished floors. As funds depleted, genetics kicked in. I'm Midwestern on one side and Southern rural on the other, which is to say, I've got "can do" tattooed on my DNA. A friend, in fact, once declared that the world divided into two kinds of people: the troublemaking Mary Queen of Scots types and the practical Elizabeth the Firsts. I stood solidly among the latter, he pronounced. And so, somewhat naturally, I began to suit up and show up.

I still tithed generously to skilled tradesmen, but increasingly, I took on the upkeep of my home as a sport, a hobby. Which jobs could I do? How hard could this or that project really be?

In sweatpants and close-toed shoes, I apprenticed myself to the painter, so that I could do her scraping and spackling. Under her Jacqueline-of-all-trades supervision, I also replaced the O-ring on my kitchen's leaky faucet, which, even 12 years later, fills me with pride when I think of it. I spread 11 tons of gravel in the yard so that actual masons could come in and lay a salvaged-bluestone patio, and after inhaling clouds of lint, I managed to replace the belt on the dryer.

On my own, I redid the floor of my guest bath, covering a decrepit wood floor with one-foot square sheets of hexagonal white tiles that I laid and grouted. The renovation gods must have been in a generous mood that day, because even though I overlooked a little step called "leveling the floor," the surface has held up for years, none of the tiles cracking under the weight of foot traffic.
My Rosie the Riveter enthusiasms waned after five labor-filled years. An expanding circle of friends competed with my to-do list, and I developed a reputation for throwing 24-hour BBQs, parties of up to 40 guests invited with less than a day's notice. I cooked in my kitchen, sat in my yard, and I discovered the sunniest corners of the house in which to curl up with the Sunday paper.

What was happening? You could say I had achieved a degree of functionality with the house that obviated the need to spend so much time on maintenance. Or you could say I burned out. Both may be true.

Casual observers would most likely point to the seeming deus ex machina blind date of July 2001, when I met an architect who's good with his hands. We fell in love, then married—both of which took up time I could have spent stripping woodwork. But when he moved in, did he assume responsibility for upkeep? Oh, no. He's far too busy at work; moreover, his standards are far too high.

"There's no point in doing it unless you're going to do it right," is his position. In many cases, we don't earn enough to afford "right," or, in his mind, "right" has yet to be invented. The very idea of jury-rigging makes his lip curl. Consequently, his presence in the home maintenance calculus strikes me as both profit and loss: I have been liberated from the full burden of cost and responsibility but also from the freedom to steer my own course, to be as careful or as impetuous as each problem demands.

And problems do demand. The chimney remains a "don't ask, don't tell" situation, and our cellar walls still crumble under a hard look. I've triumphed in some areas (the living room looks great) and made peace with others (no one goes in the basement, no one). After all these years, I suppose what's really happened is that I've settled in: I'd rather spend time sitting on the couch (with or without the handy architect) than reupholstering it. I moved to Philadelphia for many reasons, and the best one is to live where I live, not just repair it.


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