Tuesday, January 12, 2010

I'm being held hostage by my house

Almost four years ago, Royal and I started house hunting. It was exciting at first. We went in houses that were out of our price range (out of our stratosphere, in some cases) and we toured houses that needed a lot of work, or maybe a match and some kerosene. We played "what if" in every room of the houses we liked. "What if we made this closet into a second bathroom?" "What if we made that old patio a glass sunroom?" "What if this house weren't painted pink?"

Some houses I could see myself living in the minute we saw them, like the one I fell in love with in Roebuck Springs. It was a small, tidy house that had obviously been well cared for. Built in the 1950s, both bathrooms retained their original tile (pink in one bathroom and spring green in the other) but it had otherwise been updated. I still weep that we didn't buy that house sometimes. But we wondered if Roebuck Springs was a little too far from the heart of town and especially from Royal's job on 280. Oh, did I mention this perfect little house was only $140,000? That may have been part of my love for it.

We began looking in Bluff Park, although I was sure we couldn't afford anything there. For those who don't know, Bluff Park is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Birmingham. It sits high on a bluff (duh) and has a lot of natural beauty. Some of the homes built at or before the turn of the century (that would be the turn of the 20th century) still stand, but mostly it's a neighborhood of post-WWII ranch homes. We found one home on a quiet street with a huge backyard, but with a bewildering floor plan. The kitchen was oddly shaped, and not at all built for a cook. My mother-in-law Doris, who has a real estate license, was with us on this particular trip, and she pointed across the street. "What about that house?"

"That house" was a gray house with a pagoda-style roof bordered with masses of flowering bushes. It was early spring, and everything in the yard was in bloom in shades of pink, white and blue. Butterflies fluttered amongst the blooms, and I swooned a little. It was all so very picturesque. "Let's go see it," I said, trying to keep the excitement out of my voice.

The home was owned by a sweet little old lady who was moving in with one of her sons due to failing health. There was a piano with a vase of flowers on it in the living room, lace curtains on every window and a aura of long-faded romance. I was smitten. The lady's son showed us around the place, opened all the closet doors (eight closets in all!), pointed out things they had changed in the decades since their mother and late father had bought the house, and walked us down to the creek that ran behind the house. We chatted for a while and said we'd be in touch.

Once we got in the car, I wouldn't shut up. "I. Must. Have. That. House." I didn't even want to look at anything else. I knew this was it. I felt like the house was whispering to me that I belonged there. Royal was a little bemused, as he had not heard any house whispering. "If it makes you happy," was all he said. I was convinced I would indeed never be happy again if we did not purchase this house immediately.

So buy it we did. Doris talked the sellers into a much lower price, and we signed on the dotted line. A month later, it was ours.

Then the trouble began. First, we bought a 36-cubic foot fridge. It was so beautiful and shiny on the showroom floor. But it wouldn't go through any of the doors of our new house. After hours of sweating, swearing and crying, and after removing the doors of the fridge, laying it on a blanket and sliding it up the stairs, we finally got it in the house. Next we started removing the things we hated, like the old plywood paneling and wallpaper in three rooms. I had budgeted two days for this. Three weeks later we finished the wallpaper. The walls were damaged, and so was my love for the house. Everywhere we turned we found something that needed to be fixed. Rotten wood around the windows. Leaky pipes. Eletrical outlets that were wired backward. An air conditioner that stopped working the day it hit 105 degrees in Birmingham. A roof that had been put on incorrectly. (And yes, we did get a home inspection before we bought the house.) And on and on and on. It still hasn't stopped. Sometimes when Royal and I start listing all the things that need to be fixed in the house we both get depressed and drop the subject for a while.

Meanwhile, our lives are on hold. I want to travel again and go back to school, but we feel like every penny needs to go into the house. On top of feeling trapped, I feel guilty. Who was it who just had to buy a house? Oh, that was me. I feel stupid sometimes for not seeing the house for what it was. And I kick myself for being such a perfectionist that I couldn't just freshen things up with paint and call it a day. No, I just had to get out a sledgehammer and then complain about what a mess had been made.

I have no idea when, or if ever, this house will be finished. My mother claims that no house is ever "finished," that there is always something you can find to improve or update and things are always getting old and breaking down. Intellectually, I know this. But emotionally, it's another matter. I fell in love with this house, and I, like someone in love, expected it to be perfect. Once I saw that it wasn't, my love faded. Now my house is holding me hostage. It's not ready to sell (and I wouldn't try in this market) and the unfinished projects stare me in the face every day and remind me of my failures to plan, to anticipate, and to use common sense instead of emotions when buying a house.

This house is my life in microcosm. I had one idea in my head of how it should be, and it turned out another way -- or it's just taking me far too long to get to where I think I should be. Isn't this the way of the world? If we don't have those pictures in our head of that perfection we so desperately desire, how can we ever hope to get close? I want to be one of those people who is happy with a roof over their head, windows that open and close and running water. I should just be happy that I even have a house to live in. But I can't, because I want more. I want the best house on the street, in the neighborhood. I want it to be perfect in every way. I want the same thing from my life.

Is that too much to ask?

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