Sunday, October 14, 2007

HTT, how do I overcome restoration envy?

Dear HTT,

Several years ago, my husband and I moved into an older neighborhood filled with bungalows and Victorians. Our house was in a state of mild disrepair---not falling down, but definitely in need of some pretty major repairs involving plumbing and foundation, as well as a bunch of updates. We’ve been working on it in waves since we moved in, and it’s starting to come along.

So, what’s the problem? Well, in a word, jealousy. Since a lot of people in this neighborhood are in the same boat and doing a lot of work to their homes, neighbors frequently tour each others’ houses to see what progress has been made, offer tips, suggest handymen, etc. And every time I go on one of these informal tours, I get envious over how nice their places look! It’s not like our house is a tar paper shack or anything, but we’ve spent most of our money on repairs that don’t show (aforementioned plumbing and foundation) and, even if we hadn’t, there’s no way we could afford stainless steel appliances and granite countertops.

How do I stop from comparing our cute little house to all these others, that look like they just walked out of American Bungalow magazine?

Green with Envy

Dear Green,

When I told a friend about this question, she laughed and said, “Do you think you have any frame of reference, any experience to draw on to answer that letter?” She was kidding.

I, too, live in an older bungalow, and I’ve sunk a mint into foundation, porch repair, and plumbing. I’ve bitched and moaned to friends and family about how I could have overhauled my entire kitchen or built a screen porch for what I’ve spent on these boring repairs. Up next at my place? Knocking down a non-functioning chimney no longer even attached to a fireplace, and patching the roof where the chimney now stands. Try highlighting that when you’re showing friends around your house! Not quite the same impact as, “And then, we installed this gorgeous claw-footed tub and period Craftsman-style lighting.”

So, yes, I know just where you’re coming from.

There was a time, not long ago, when middle class people were happy to have a decent, affordable home in which to live and maybe raise a family. Sure, people wanted a house they liked, a house that more or less reflected their sense of style. But these homes were practical places, where toasters rested just as easily on a Formica countertop as they do on granite. Where plain, white (or maybe avocado) refrigerators kept food just as fresh as stainless steel does. Where a fiberglass tub got you just as clean as a 100-year-old enamel-covered metal claw-footed tub. At some point, though, we all went a little crazy. Blame it on HGTV, or Martha Stewart, or Architectural Digest, or American Bungalow, or Restoration Hardware or their ilk. Our idea of what a home should be was transformed from a comfortable sanctuary to a showpiece. Some of us started to feel like we just weren’t trying hard enough if our homes didn’t have glass-fronted kitchen cabinets, or expensive period fixtures, or gleaming refinished hardwood floors.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with any of these things. I, myself, salivate over Frank Lloyd Wright / Charles Rennie MacIntosh styled anything. If people can afford to have their floors refinished, or have the moxie to do it themselves, right on! Get granite, go for stainless. But if these updates just aren't in your budget now, if you’re spending your money on keeping your house standing, don’t despair. Here are a few tips:

  • For god’s sake stop watching remodeling shows on HGTV. They only make you feel badly about your skills and your home. Those shows where the homeowners supposedly do all the work, remodel their entire house in a month for a couple thousand bucks? That’s pure trickery, my friend. There are tons of skilled workers and designers buzzing around off camera.
  • Cancel your subscription to American Bungalow and recycle, without first reading, all your home furnishing catalogues until you actually need to purchase something.
  • Walk through your house with your husband and discuss every feature you like about it. When you show friends around, don’t apologize for anything or point out all the negatives.
  • This sounds silly, but ask a good friend to “admire” the work you have done. For example, when my foundation work was completed, several friends gushed about how they had never seen a more level house or straighter porch columns. I actually felt a little burst of pride!
  • Finally, be grateful. You own a cute home that was within your means, and you live in a funky neighborhood that you love.

Maybe I’ll run into you at Home Depot one of these days!