Sunday, February 21, 2016

Homeownership: The Beauty and the Beast

This blog post is dedicated to my friends who returned from a dream vacation in Costa Rica last week to discover that the lower level of their home had flooded in their absence. (You know who you are and you have my deepest sympathies.) When I found out what had happened to their house, I told them, “This is why I’m not looking in my basement until the spring.” They thought it was a joke. Homeownership is the cornerstone of living the American Dream, right? Owning your own castle. But the road to happy homing is fraught with pests, flooding, mold, faulty wiring, head-scratching plumbing configurations, diseased trees, missing conduit, and alligators in the basement.

In the interest of scientific research, I invite you to take the following quiz if you own your home. Email me your answers to tabulate.
Question 1. I own my home because
a) I like to grow food and pretty flowers on my property.
b) I want to support my local tree company by paying them $5000 to trim my oak trees so they won’t fall on my house.
Question 2. I own my home because
a) I want to be able to do things my way inside my own house.
b) I crave the adrenal rush of getting electrocuted by surprise amateur wiring that a previous owner thought was a good idea at the time.
Question 3. I own my home because
a) I don’t want to be dependent on a landlord to make needed repairs.
b) I would prefer to replace my roof than go on vacation any time in the next ten years.
Question 4. I own my own home because
a) It’s a wise investment and it makes more financial sense than throwing away money every month on rent.
b) I would rather pour my money into the black hole of home repairs than retire to a small but adorable oceanfront beach rental and write my memoirs.

If you chose answer “a” to any of these questions then congratulations, you either just bought a house a few minutes ago or you have a ridiculously positive glass-half-full outlook on life and I will be right over with a welcome-to-the-suburbs goody basket that includes fresh fruit grown in my yard, a pipe wrench, a coupon for a discount on nontoxic carpet cleaning, a kitten, a box of acorns, a fire extinguisher, a plunger, Benadryl, and a catalogue of garage door openers. As you have probably inferred, the correct answer is “b.”

When you buy a house, it is theoretically functional, habitable, and in working order. It goes downhill from there. The most unbelievable (and expensive) things soon transpire, and they often begin as something so small and benign that it seems deceptively inconsequential. The refrigerator leaves a puddle on the floor every few hours that needs wiping up (in the middle of July); this results in a man from the appliance store carting away the refrigerator and informing me that I need to buy a new one, which is mostly under warranty (not completely) and will take three weeks to arrive. Water drains slowly out of the bathtub and when I get around to calling the plumber, he informs me that I have a plumbing leak in the basement that will require a team of experts flown out from NASA and working round-the-clock for a week to resolve. And while they are resolving the problem, I have to drive to the nearest gas station to use the toilet because the water has been turned off. When I turn the heat on, my house smells vaguely like gas; the heating company comes to take a look and swiftly shuts the furnace down and condemns it for leaking carbon monoxide. They tell me I’m lucky to be alive (news flash), and charge me $1500 to install a new furnace. The phone stops working for a couple of hours during a rainstorm and AT&T reports that the wire is bad from our house all the way to the connection box under the street, more than a hundred feet away. They dig up my yard to lay conduit and I am wading in mud along my fence line for months afterward. (Although I found a cool machete under the oleander bush that one of them forgot.)

Occasionally I am let off the hook when something turns out to not be such a big problem. Like once, when I still lived at the Ranch, our water pump stopped working. I thought we had to replace the pump, which would have been costly, but then we discovered that a mouse had made a nest in the electrical box in the pump house and had been electrocuted, shorting out the system. Fortunately this was one problem that was not expensive to fix, however, the pump house smelled like BBQ rodent for months.

The hidden albatross of owning a home is ongoing house maintenance, which happens even when everything is running smoothly. It’s preventative and I never seem to have what it takes to budget for it. Choice:  trip to SoCal to visit my children or servicing the furnace, cleaning the chimney, and clearing the gutters. No brainer. I think I’m supposed to be washing my lighting fixtures and repainting my walls every few years, but who has the time for such nonsense? What really gets to me is that the service workers who conduct house-related maintenance and repairs make so much money off me. The plumber, exterminator, and appliance repairman charge $100 just to make a service call. Period. Out of the box. The guy who repaired my lawnmower a few years ago charged $96/hour, and he never finished high school. I have a master’s degree for goodness sake and he was making more than I was; so I raised my rates for grant writing to $100/hour after that because it infuriated me that I was charging less for my professional services than a guy with a sign on his counter that said all bills must be pade in full at time of pik-up.  

Nowadays, I am starting to feel like I really don’t want to know. This is why I am quite serious about not looking in my basement until the spring. There is nothing down there but cardboard boxes, but if snakes are living in them then leave me oblivious. I have many questions that will therefore remain unanswered, such as:  Why is my dryer leaking brown water? Is the cat eating something it found in my underwear drawer? What’s that high-pitched screaming noise I hear when I turn on the heat? Did I just see a beak poking out of my closet? Never mind.

The thing that keeps me owning a home is basically my garden. As long as I am still agile enough to do the work in the yard necessary to grow my own food out there, I’m going to stay trapped in homeownership. So pass the duct tape, the socket wrench, and my checkbook. I’m doomed by a passion for standing in my yard eating tomatoes, asparagus, peaches, and blueberries straight off the stem.

This plumber looks friendly, but when he gets done fixing the sink 
he will ask you to give him one of your kidneys in payment.

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