A Home of Our Own

As long as we have been together–37 years and counting–Stew and I have fantasized about building our own house. But while waiting for that to come true, our lives often seemed like an endless series of remodeling projects.

Our bookshelves clearly revealed our passions: Magazines about architecture, interior design and gardening (lots of those), along with some about the less glamorous but essential arts of wiring, plumbing and home insulation.

The moving van from Chicago carried additional evidence, a mini Home Depot of manual and power tools, and other construction materials. Miter, jig, and radial saws, even a pole pruning saw with a telescoping handle. Another pole saw, this one electric, never made it to Mexico. Dozens of screwdrivers mixed in with strange gizmos for those once-in-a-lifetime construction or repair projects. We also brought plastic containers and little cabinets holding hundreds of screws, nuts, bolts, washers, cotter pins and other odds and ends, some new but most just orphans left over from projects over the years. You never know.

Yet our desire for a distinct, utterly idiosyncratic living space mostly swirled inside our heads.

We bought and remodeled four houses along the way, two in Chicago and the other two outside the city, but never built anything from scratch. Instead we had to adapt to something created by someone else to suit their own fantasies and realities. We always rationalized that we didn’t have the money or time to supervise a ground-up construction project.

Even when we finally dove into massive and messy remodeling–gutting a building down to the studs, joists and plumbing stacks was our last project–the results were, at the very best, a mix of personal ideas constantly hemmed in by what we considered realistic considerations.

If our imaginations strayed too far, the Guardian Angel of Real Estate was always ready to whisper, “Yeah, guys, but think resale value. What will the next owners want? What’s the payback?”

When we went shopping for real estate, we often thanked Angel for his vigilance. Once we saw a house in which the owner had transformed the dining room into a pleasure dome with a hot tub and shag carpeting creeping two-thirds of the way up the walls. “What were these people thinking about?,” we chuckled. We knew better.

Our relatively timid logic wasn’t necessarily cheap. In our last home in Chicago we installed a luxurious whirlpool bath in the master bath, whose overall design–psst, don’t tell anyone–was a shameless rip off from a spread in a remodeling magazine we found at the supermarket checkout.

When it came to sell the house, potential buyers were dazzled by the master bath with its fancy tile work, marble counter tops and huge skylights. The house sold quickly and at a great price.

Problem is, we never used that expensive whirlpool more than a half-dozen times: It took forever to fill and then made a worrisome racket, or so it seemed, sitting as it was on the third floor of an old Chicago frame house.

The house also had a guest bedroom and bathroom that also were hardly ever used, except by my mother when she came to visit. At other times it was basically a beautiful room in which the cats spent afternoon sunning themselves. During her final few years my mother couldn’t even walk up the stairs to the second floor guest bedroom. Had it been more accessible to a handicapped person perhaps she could have stayed with us instead of ultimately having to move to a nursing home.

Our occasional flashes of originality weren’t always admired by visitors or potential buyers. Cast iron, wood burning stoves–a no-brainer in frigid Chicago, right? They are airtight, efficient and kick off an amazing amount of heat. We had a slick Scandinavian Jotul stove in one building, and Vermont Castings models in two other homes. We found the crackling and smell of a wood fire an indispensable respite from winter.

Yet most visitors reacted with polite puzzlement or observed how dirty, inconvenient and laborious those contraptions must be. What’s wrong with gas logs?

Indeed, the most heavily used space in our house may have been the basement. That’s where Stew stashed his hundreds of tools and contraptions, some of them part of his business as a home inspector, but most just components of our endless projects.

Come April, for example, dozens and dozens of spindly seedlings craned their heads toward banks of fluorescent lights we had set up hoping to speed up spring’s arrival.

Shouldn’t we have built a greenhouse? But where? In our minuscule Chicago backyard? Or at a weekend cottage we had bought about two hours north of the city?

The latter had plenty of space but had turned into such a bear of maintenance, work and fussing that adding a greenhouse seemed downright masochistic. And who besides us would want a greenhouse? What would it add to the resale value of the property?

An old chestnut of Home & Garden sections of newspapers are lists of remodeling projects that supposedly add value to the house and are therefore good “investments.” Stainless steel kitchen appliances and central air conditioning always seem to make the list.

But a greenhouse? I could imagine someone buying our property and taking a sledgehammer to the greenhouse as their first home improvement project. Or maybe the second. Surely they’d go after the wood stove first.

Our fears and constipation about house and home remodeling are not really that unusual. Stew theorizes that Americans move so often, and have so much of their net financial worth sunk in their homes, that they are afraid to do anything that might hurt the “value” of the property when the time comes to sell. It’s ironic that so many now face foreclosures or mortgages larger than the value of their homes despite all their efforts to play by the rules.

Indeed, if you want vinyl siding your choices are a pusillanimous palette of pastels like “antique parchment,” “adobe cream” and “colonial ivory.” No fuchsias or burnt oranges. The extreme in group think are gated communities, where aesthetic vigilantes guard against any deviations from accepted rules, down to the type of plants allowed in front yards. Everything must look the same.

Even in Mexico, stereotypically the land of wild, intense colors, homeowners seem to be losing their nerve. Atascadero, an upscale, hillside neighborhood of San Miguel is dominated by monotonous earth hues, except for Federico’s house, a guy I met yesterday at a birthday party. His choice of color–a visceral shade of purple–led to prolonged howling by the neighbors, one of whom went so far as to hire two guys to impersonate building inspectors who visited Federico and “ordered” him to pick a different color. The ruse fell apart when Federico asked for official identification.

You ought to build and equip your homestead according to whatever tickles you, shouldn’t you? If someone else, even your neighbor, doesn’t like your visions and fantasies, well, screw him (or her).

That’s the line Stew and I always talked up, but seldom followed. Our homes, wood stoves notwithstanding, hardly stood out as monuments to originality.

That’s why we made quite a bit of money in real estate back in the States, and why we vowed to do something different in Mexico.

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