Tales of an American homeowner: Upgrades

by Brian Clarey

It started with the blinds in the dining room — thin, crappy, cheap ones that dangled from the window frames when we bought the house. Over the years they’ve been mashed by chairs, splattered with food flung from the spoons of infants, tattered by our oversized collection of cats.

My wife wanted new ones, preferably before my parents got to town over the weekend, so our house would look more like a family run by grownups than what it normally looks like: a tweener clubhouse with a barely functioning kitchen.

The kitchen…. Maybe this whole thing started with the garbage disposal, which ceased to function a couple months ago and began causing our kitchen sink to clog up like the sole commode at a restaurant that serves only chili and bran. Last week I took out the old one that my late brother-in-law and I installed a few years ago, right after we put in the new hot-water heater.

Did it start when the hot-water heater went out? Maybe so. One day the thing just up and quit, after leaking rusty seepage from its closeted recess in the corner of the kitchen.

Oh man, maybe it started when the heat pump went down that longago Easter, unseasonably warm that year, causing the air-conditioning to go out just as — once again — my parents were coming to visit and emergency accommodations needed to be made so that the New Yorkers didn’t suffer in the Carolina swelter.

Or maybe I need to go back to 1997 to discern when this thing began.

That was the year my neighborhood was built on this clear-cut swatch of land in the northeast quadrant of the city, a small collection of stick-built domiciles thrown up as fast as the laws of physics and the state housing authority would allow, using the cheapest of techniques, materials and appliances.

I suppose it’s possible that some houses are still built to last, but much of the stock that came to be during the boom years in the Triad were definitely not.

The house I grew up in, a modest, modified Cape Cod on Long Island, was built 30 years or so before my family took occupancy in 1972. Made of brick, wood and iron, it weathered generations of Nor’easterners, blizzards, blackouts and at least one hurricane. My parents never replaced a hot-water heater. I’m not even sure if we had one. And how the heat emanated from the radiators in every room is a complete mystery to me. The only major home-improvement project I remember them undertaking was the installation of a new roof some time in the late 1970s, and I only know that because one day when I came home from school the roof was a different color: a ruddy, brick red.

My parents no longer live in the house, but the roof is still there — or, at least, it was the last time I drove by the place.

The roof atop my current house, a thin sheen of tarpaper stenciled to look like tile, will be replaced this spring thanks to a particularly strong hailstorm and the largesse of my insurance company. While we’re at it, we’ll also take care of some other architectural atrocities committed by the company — long since gone belly-up — that built it: cheap flaps on the outside air vents, improper seals on the front and back doors, a kink in the dryer exhaust that’s causing the ceiling in the garage to flake.

We’ve already torn up the shoddy carpet and replaced it with hardwood laminate, peeled off the chintzy kitchen flooring and swapped it out for ceramic tile and cut a new intake into the wall for the heating/ AC system, which we also replaced. There’s a new refrigerator humming away in the kitchen since the last one petered out on us. And just this weekend, I installed a new dishwasher because the old one had for years failed to perform its primary function. It’s frustrating to have to wash dishes by hand and then load them into a machine that’s supposed to do the job for you.

Installing the dishwasher was one of the more trying tasks I’ve accomplished since I became an American homeowner in 2003, mainly because I had a fundamental misunderstanding of the appliance: I thought you just hooked up the water and plugged it in. It turns out, that’s not what you do.

I’ll be more forthright with you than I was with the guy at the hardware store. The electrical cord that came from the wall wasn’t really a couple feet short — I actually clipped it with a tree trimmer when I removed the old unit, and it wouldn’t reach the electric box in the new one.

I bought a couple feet of line, spliced it and then brought it up to code by encasing the splice in about $2 worth of hardware, something I’m reasonably sure the original builders of my house would not have done given a similar circumstance.

Upgrades. Bit by bit it’s all coming together. Maybe some day I’ll even be able to sell this house. Then I can start this process all over again somewhere else.