Twenty years ago this week we bought the house where I live, a typically Cantabridgian, convoluted piece of real estate. It is a single building with a mammoth party wall; three flats on one side and a three story ‘owner’s’ unit on the other. The city used to consider it a single property until it got chopped in two, on paper at least, during the rent control wars of the early 1990’s. The 115 year old Victorian has impressive stats; 5,000 square feet, 56 windows, 23 rooms, seven dormers, six bathrooms and just as many porches, five furnaces, five parking spaces, four water heaters, stoves, and refrigerators, three generous bay windows and one wicked cool turret. In short, she is an alluring but very high maintenance lady.
My house is a member of family, but unlike the rest of us, she transcends generations. She reminds me of my grandmother; they share the same period charm. And of course she is a mother figure, sheltering and embracing. Yet my house is also paternal; it is an abundant provider. Twenty years of regular rent from the tenants have fulfilled many a vacation yearning over the years, put my children through college debt-free, and enabled me to hop off the money-for-work train to devote my energy to Haiti. Yet the house is also like a child with its demanding need for attention and penchant for hitting me up for money when I least expect it. You never know precisely when a water heater will pop a leak, but if you bet on the first Saturday night of a three day weekend after the warranty has expired, you will always be in the money. A few years ago I passed that dubious milestone of dumping more money into the house on repairs and renovations than I actually paid to buy it. That’s when I realized how much a house is like raising children, an expensive but thoroughly satisfying long haul.
Houses are also like dogs; they reflect their owners. Mine sits on a murky foundation and has the cracks to prove it, yet it has fundamentally good bones. It contains an orderly arrangement of fixed rooms, yet has proven very adaptable to changing circumstances. The layout that worked well for a young couple with small children and an architect running a business out of the attic adapted to a post-divorce depressed man with a pair of stranger housemates and more recently a contently single man and his friend, each with our own bed/office suite and plenty of space leftover for big dinners, billiard parties and the now college aged kids New Year’s Eve blasts. Every few years’ life evolves and we shuffle who claims what space; so far the house has always provided a congenial balance. The latest evolution has my daughter living in one of the apartments next door; near but not actually here, which is pretty perfect for a 23 year old girl and her bachelor dad.
The size of my house borders on excessive, but I keep in check in two ways. First, there is nothing precious about the place. We live here and it displays all the bumps and marks to prove it. Second, I have always had housemates to help fill the volume. In a world where almost half of urban dwellers are single person households, I have always enjoyed having others around. There is so much space we all have our share of privacy. Housemates help pay the mortgage, but more importantly they force a beneficial level of consideration; I can’t leave dirty dishes around or make too much noise or erupt in a raging funk with housemates around. They are an important anecdote for my neurotic tendencies.
It is as difficult to imagine why I should stay in this house another twenty years as it is to understand why I have stayed so long, except that I am settled; I know the house’s foibles and I love its charms. My house is meditative and peaceful; when the early morning sun slivers through the dining room windows and highlights the caramel trim on the baluster, it sets me in a contented state for the day. The only thing I know for sure is that how I use the house in the future will be different from today. Sometimes I fantasize about opening up the whole building up and having a bunch of my single friends move in so we can all grow old together, yet independent. Other times I dream of handing the house down to my children. I bought it from a woman who lived here for 72 years – my own children could trump that record. Any parent savors the opportunity for such a substantial bequeath, but if they view the morning light on the old woodwork as a dust magnifier rather than a blessing on the day, they can sell it off to pursue their own dreams.
For that is why, despite the ups and down of the real estate market and the endless work our houses demand, we are a nation that values home ownership. Owning our own home is not about shelter for tonight; it is the place where we dock our highest hopes and loftiest dreams. It may or may not make us rich, but is makes us stable. It is part of our identity, a part most recognize as good. It is the stake in the ground that proclaims, “This is where I am from. This is my home”.