risk and reward, a qualitative study

It’s time for the one-year anniversary edition of Complaining About Homeownership, which is a pretty fucking ridiculous thing to complain about when you step back and consider the matter for half a second. Which doesn’t, you know, stop me from doing it here.

It was about this time last year that we signed and initialed seventeen thousand reams of paper and got to work ripping open the walls of our new old house. So much has happened since then! And yet somehow so infuriatingly little.

I really thought by now I’d be able to proudly post some HGTV-worthy before-and-after transformation photos, but there are still no projects that are fully done — even after twelve motherloving months. On good days I tell myself to forgive our slow progress, because we ended up taking on so much more at once than we had originally planned. On all the other days I wonder if the rest of my life is just going to be me wandering from room to room, gazing critically at what’s left undone.

There’s a lot left undone, and I would say the biggest thing (again, still, always) is painting. Every square inch of this house needs to be repainted. And it would be one thing if we could just saunter up to a wall and start slapping on the latex, but this house is older than William McKinley’s presidency and chronically uncared for. Which means that before we even get to the new paint, we have to scrape any paint that’s peeling, fill the cracks and gaps in the plaster, and sand down the old messy paint drips. I mean, it could also be that we’re fucking nuts. That’s a legitimate option. Maybe other people would just paint without prepping first? Or maybe they just wouldn’t paint at all! Maybe other people would have bought a worry-free, move-in-ready new build and now spend their nights and weekends alternately going outside and watching Netflix instead of dressing down in grubby clothes and manhandling caulk guns.

Other people are looking pretty damn stellar right now.

A lot of painting is details, and the details are pretty devastating. You can’t paint the trim without getting it on the wall, and you can’t paint the wall without getting it on the trim. Talk about your zero sum game. Tape is about as useless as a bag of limp dicks in this application, because no matter how careful you are it still seeps into nooks and crannies and/or takes little paint flecks with it when you peel it off. Despite my reliance on cocktails as a housework crutch, I somehow ended up with the steady hand between the pair of us, so anything involving a clean edge falls to me. If you were to stop by unannounced odds are you’d find me with a glass in one hand and a paintbrush in the other, interminably drawing straight lines. The trick is to unfocus your eyes on the space just in front of the brush and for the love of Roger Sterling keep that glass topped up.

One of the worst things about house projects is getting into one and finding that it’s actually comprised of a thousand house projects, each one hidden just inside the other like a manual labor matryoshka doll from hell. Take the vent trim, for instance. A few weeks ago I started painting the trim around the wall vents, and the grates were looking like they were in pretty bad shape so I decided to unscrew those and repaint them, too. Only once I had them off I realized that they hadn’t been cleaned since McKinley got popped, so I took them all out in the yard and proceeded to spend four (4!) hours scrubbing the shit out of these things. I jammed my middle finger up something good during this process from gripping the brush, I guess, which seemed like some mild cosmic irony right there. Old paint started coming off when I was scrubbing, so I tried to scrape away anything that was loose and leave the rest. Then I got the grates back inside and started merrily slathering on the new paint, only on the ones where the metal had been exposed rust started forming on top of the new paint. So now I have a pile of grates and half of them are rusty and have of them are lumpy with old paint, and I’m like: where’s my Weird Al parody song for this? I have no idea what to do now. Go back and scrape ALL the paint, somehow seal the metal, then repaint everything again? What are the odds of me having the vent grates screwed back in before we have to turn on the heat again this autumn? ALL I WANTED TO DO WAS PAINT SOME STUPID TRIM.

It is just the two of us and we both have jobs and occasionally we want to go out and do other things like real people, so yeah, it’s slow. It makes sense. But that doesn’t stop me intensely wishing we were done working on this house we could just… enjoy it. “You’ll never be done working on a house,” my father reassures me whenever I mournfully mention this to him. “But you can take a real sense of pride in homeownership, and from a job well-done.” OK, Calvin’s dad! I’ll still be over here cursing under my breath and maybe stomping around a little.

I feel like with a lot of the big life questions — marriage, home-buying, kids — people always want the 411 on the payoff. Is it all worth it in the end? No. Yes. Ham and cheese on rye. What was the question again? The problem is that you can’t really qualify choices like that. You can’t really qualify anything you do, large and small. You gave in and ordered that afternoon coffee and +1 thumbs up because it woke you up and tasted delicious but -1 thumbs down because you ended up with caffeine jitters. Was the coffee “worth it” in the end? Who the hell knows. People like to gauge if things are “worth it” because that information could theoretically protect them from making a bad choice. But every decision is a subjective measurement of risk versus reward, and no one can game the system to reap all the rewards with zero risks. Life ends up being about you going ahead and doing things, for better or worse, and then dealing with the various terrible, beautiful outcomes.

So we bought a fixer-upper and now we are dealing with the various outcomes of that choice. This is what we are doing right now, this year, and probably the next one too. It seems to suck a lot but there are potentially good points! Let me get back to you on what those are, but I’m sure they’re here somewhere.

8 Responses to “risk and reward, a qualitative study”

  1. I am currently painting half a houseful of dark mauve trim. My dream is crisp crisp white. So it is multiple layers of primer (did I mention the former owners were smokers?) and multiple layers of paint and if I see another roll of blue tape once I’m done painting I am going to set it on fire.

    Did you take before pictures? We didn’t, but I saved the real estate “virtual tour” and when I’m feeling particularly despondent/dizzy from paint fumes I look at those and at least there is some progress. Also, I bet if you share pictures here we’d do lots of oohing and aahing even if it doesn’t seem finished to you.

    Hooray home ownership!

    • We did take before pictures, but they are so old at this point — a lot has changed and we’ve really lost track of the progress.

      Dark mauve???? Oh dear god.

  2. Ugh, houses. There are guys drilling in my kitchen as I type. It is driving me batty. Most of our downstairs still has no trim, which means, if you are sitting on the toilet you can peek into the hall (and vice versa). Yay. Our upstairs is missing half of it’s siding. Basically, we only get mail half of the time, and the other half, it gets sent back because the house looks “abandoned”. Where am I going with this. Oh yes, home ownership sucks.

    But then! Landlords also suck. Like, our dishwasher broke in our old place and it took them 3 months to fix. Sort of. You couldn’t really open the dishwasher all the way after it was “fixed”. And the owner thought a skylight in the middle of the master bedroom would be an awesome idea, except it would leak all over my sleeping face every time it rained. So renting, it also sucks.

    I think the moral of the story is, win the lottery.

  3. Another redundant comment from the weird Australian! Love the McKinley joke and the Sterling reference, and those last couple of paragraphs are exactly why I look up to you as a blogger and as a person.

    I know I can’t qualify a lot of things in my life, and to be honest I’ve stopped trying. Maybe not altogether, but I’m trying to stop trying.

  4. Been here. Then sold the house we worked so hard on for two years and made enough to put a substantial down payment on our small farm. Totally worth it – now. But if you had asked me at the time I would have cried and cursed at you. There was no possible way it could be worth it in the midst of all that crap. My husband literally had to talk to a counselor about the pressure of it all. We probably should’ve used your rule about drinking. Usually things are only ever worth it a ways down the road.

  5. This line is excellent:
    “Life ends up being about you going ahead and doing things, for better or worse, and then dealing with the various terrible, beautiful outcomes.”

    It’s all a risk and we never quite know where our decisions will lead us and we just have to do the best with what life throws at us. Cause all we can control is us. Nothing else. As much as we might wish we could…

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