Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Gaining a House; Losing a Life?

To paraphrase Bette Davis…Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy blog post.

Just in case you thought building a house was all a bed of roses; paint chips, lovely fabric, and a sunny move-in day, I’m here to give you the lowdown—this will be one of the most (if not THE most) stressful times in your life.

At some point you will wonder why you ever started the project. You will worry a great deal about whether you can afford to finish it. You will hang on every real estate story watching to see if house prices are falling or rising, and then calculate whether you can still get out without losing everything. And that’s just the stress over the project itself.

Then there is the stress that design, financing, construction, and day-to-day living in temporary housing imposes on you, your marriage, and your family. Even your friends get dragged into it from time to time. No one is immune from the stress and the chaos.

Okay, there are two stories I would like to tell on this subject: One on the pros and cons of being your own general contractor, and another on how building a house will impact your life and your relationships. Today’s post is about just one aspect of the latter: the impact of building a house on oneself.

Temporary Housing
Let’s start with stating the obvious: While you are building a house, you are living elsewhere. Unless you have lots of cash or a 2nd home close by, that “elsewhere” is probably going to be some kind of temporary shelter—a parent’s basement (our situation), an apartment, a rental house, or maybe a house-sitting arrangement. Regardless of what or where, the housing is likely to be smaller than you are used to, owned by someone else, and not a place you are ever intending to decorate, settle into, or call home. It’s just a place to hang your hat while the REAL HOUSE is getting built. The real house gets all your love and attention; the temporary housing gets a cleaning once in a while but that’s about it.

Feeling "Rootless" and Adrift
Some people can thrive under any condition and setting. I am not one of those people. I need order, comfort, and routine to feel grounded and (somewhat) in control of my life. Temporary housing leaves a huge disconnect in my emotional well-being: I have no roots in this place. Most of my possessions are boxed up and in storage while I make do with the bare necessities during the construction period. Our construction is taking about 12 months, but with another 2 months of preconstruction work and 12 months of living in the old farmhouse that was on the site while we designed the house—we’ve been living in a “temporary” state for over two years. That’s a long time not to use my favorite mug and teapot. Or any of the other things that mean “home” to me.

I suppose if I was a less materialistic person, the loss of these physical comforts wouldn’t be so important. But I do love beautiful things and have spent a lifetime collecting ones that mean something to me and that I love to surround myself with. My home has always been a part of my identity—constantly evolving, yes, but with a core that has remained constant. These 2+ years have me feeling adrift. There can be opportunity in being forced to see the world differently and live differently in it, but for now it just feels like abandonment.

A Disorganized Life
Besides this overall feeling of rootlessness, there are 1001 daily annoyances related to temporary housing, not to mention the construction itself. In our old house, I knew where to find things. The house wasn’t always perfectly organized but it was generally in good working order. If I needed a flashlight, I knew where to find it. Not so in the temporary housing. It may sound preposterous, but my hairbrush has been missing for a month! Can you imagine? Something I use every day and yet without a clear home for just my things (we’re all sharing one bathroom with just 3 drawers in it) they seem to go walking off!

The frustration of not having my hairbrush at my fingertips, not knowing whether my winter boots are in deep storage or in the upstairs spare bedroom, and having all my hanging clothes stuffed onto IKEA rolling clothes racks for the last two years is almost more than I can take. (I finally did buy another hairbrush; the original still hasn’t turned up.)

Wearing Out Our Welcome
My dear mother is a saint, truly, for allowing us to live in her extra space this last year. We came into her tidy, sweetly decorated house like a tornado and have left devastation in our wake. One day she was alone in her lovely home, and the next day two adults, a 10 year old child, a geriatric female cat, a young male cat, two frogs, some fish, and an energetic puppy invaded her sanctuary. The cats have peed everywhere from the stress of a new house (see, even the pets get stressed out!) and the puppy has chewed her way through countless shoes and slippers and all manner of other things. We’ve really tried to confine our chaos to the basement, but inevitably it spills up into the rest of the house. Tempers flare.

Sharing a Kitchen
Technically we are “roommates” sharing the kitchen, but my mom often cooks as though she is responsible for feeding the whole brood. That may sound wonderful—someone cooking for you—but how much gravy and meat can a modern family eat (even as good a cook as my mom is...)? There is a clash of cuisines going on here—generational preferences and different mealtime habits. For my part, I’ve lost interest in cooking. I eat to survive, not the reverse which is how it used to be. It’s too frustrating to try and cook in someone else’s kitchen! I can’t find the equipment I need, the fridge is organized differently than I like it, and there just isn’t the motivation to cook and entertain friends in a space that isn’t my own.

By now you are probably thinking I’m a very fussy and inflexible person. Maybe I am. I always thought I could roll with the punches, but I’m not so sure anymore. Yeah, I know—the malaise of an over-indulged and pampered American. Boohoo, right? In a world of poverty and injustice, this discomfort isn’t even a blip on the screen. That’s why I hesitated to share this. But it is what it is. If you are thinking about building a house, you might as well know what’s ahead.

Next installment: The impact on a marriage of building a house together.

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