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Trials and tribulations of an American homeowner

by Brian Clarey

I want a bigger house. I don’t really need a bigger house, but it would be nice to have a couple extra rooms, maybe a finished basement and a backyard that didn’t have such a wicked slope at the rear. I hate cutting the grass that grows on that slope. But it’s not going to happen. There’s no way.

I’m going to sell my house, not in this market. Right? I mean, it’s not like there was this huge bubble in Triad real estate, but my house is 10 years old, and there are brand-new ones going up in my neighborhood that look exactly like it and are going right now for about what I’d like to get for mine. It’s cool: We can wait. We bought our house almost five years ago, a foreclosure on which we received a subprime mortgage. In our time here we’ve resisted offers of home equity lines, ARMs and toogood-to-be-true refinancing offers; we’ve been carefully chipping away at this huge debt; and we began our acceptance phase of our occupancy with a bout of nesting. The kitchen floor clearly had to go. This was according to my wife; frankly, I never give the kitchen floor much thought unless I drop a pretzel on it or something, but the stock linoleum pattern never sat well with my lady, and so a couple weeks ago we tore it down to the slab and installed a grid of porcelain tile, our one allotted homeimprovement initiative of the year. It was surprisingly affordable and easy to install — save for the corners and edges — and it incited the first groin injury I’ve suffered since I played goalie in soccer when I was 10. And I’ll admit: It looks great, though in the back of my mind I keep thinking about how it will affect our resale value. After all these heady years of easy money and fast flips, it’s hard not to look at your home as anything but the foundation of your wealth. But this is a trap we American homeowners should avoid. Homes are for living in, not for making money. This was illustrated to me in stark terms early Friday, when our toilet blew up. It was a true gusher — the wife and I pulled more than 10 gallons of water from the carpet with a shop-vac purchased in haste that morning. And I suppose a more appropriate term for it is “fluid,” because this was not just water… it was toilet water, saturated with 10-years worth of grime from deep under the carpet, and it collected in the tank of our new shop-vac as an organic-brown froth that I wouldn’t dump over the head of my worst enemy. Or maybe I would. No matter…. Did you know that household dust is comprised mainly of dead human skin cells and hair? Yeah… that means that in my carpet, where my babies crawled, existed the 10-year-old detritus of people I’ve never met, in a sopping stew with unpotable water and a touch of the rawest sewage. By Saturday morning my house smelled like a butt. Now, if my house were a mere investment, like a stock or a bond, I would consider it time to unload, absorbing any losses as the cost of doing business… a cold, mathematical calculation. And for a time it was like this: a home as a commodity, valued for its potential earnings and its ability to be leveraged. Resale value became more important than livability (and affordability). Home improvements were valuated on a expense/profit basis as opposed to a cost/necessity ratio. A house on the water became desirable not so much for the view, but because of the scarcity of the property on which it sat. Homes in good school districts became prized even by people without children. And extra rooms… well, everybody needed more square footage, right? “Buy as much as you can afford,” one charlatan advised me a few years ago. “When you sell you’ll make that much more.” But the music has stopped in this particular parlor game, and those of us fortunate enough to still have chairs are going to be sitting in them for a while. At least, that’s how my wife and I feel. So there’s more than math at work in this episode of the exploding commode. For one, a home is much more tangible than a financial interest in an organization, and unloading it requires more than a sell order. Plus, there are market forces at work. Who wants to buy a house that smells like a butt? And then there’s this: We live here. We prepare meals here. We’re raising a family here. And each day it becomes more impractical to live with the windows open. So, yeah… instead of watching football and playing Batman Lego on Sunday, we tore out the foul carpet and piled it curbside, then dropped the equivalent of a mortgage payment on hardwood flooring, padding, transition molding, floor molding and a kick-ass circular saw that scares my children when I fire it up. It took all day, and my groin is a-throbbing. Not in a good way. But my house smells less toxic with each passing hour. And the floor looks great. Still, when I look at it, I’m silently calculating the payoff when we sell the house… maybe by 2013.

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