My lovely friend Amanda just bought a house for her and her daughters in our neighborhood. We joked that the house must be the little sister of our Babushka house: same narrow Chicago lot, same bay windows and faux brick asphalt siding, same recently deceased old lady owner; but slightly smaller and 7 years younger. And let’s face it, a hell of a lot cuter:
I call it “The Dollhouse,” which describes the cuteness of both the house and its soon-to-be inhabitants.
And like our home, the Dollhouse “has potential.” That’s top-secret real estate code for “needs work.” But in my mind (here I commence rationalizing a major life decision), lovingly restoring an old city house is an expression of civic pride and a noble act of sustainability. And most importantly for us, it was way cheaper than buying a newer house with, say, post-war electricity.*
Fixer-uppers certainly aren’t for everyone, and they may not be for you. But do us fixer-upper types a favor: The next time you visit our house, try not to say any of these things:
- You should tear down this wall.
- I saw some human poop behind your garage.
- I got a couple of buddies that could tear that garage/porch/dead tree down for you. Just give ‘em a case of beer and some chainsaws.
- I’m sure the land is probably worth something.
- Have you had your kids tested for lead poisoning yet?
- You could always put an addition on the back.
- Hmmm, it’s so very …. European!
- I’m sure that smell will go away in the spring time… once you figure out how to open the windows.
- At least you guys are handy [Bonus points for: “I’m sure your husband is handy”]
- People were certainly a lot smaller when they built this house.
- You have good health insurance, right?
- I wonder how many people died in this house?
- At least you don’t have to worry about thieves wanting to break into your house.
- You know, asbestos is only dangerous if you actually breathe it in.
- It’s so much more charming than a plain old rehab.
- I’m sure the rats will scare away the homeless people. Or vice-versa.
- It’s definitely not THE MOST ugly house on the block.
- It’s so interesting to see how they did things before indoor plumbing was invented.
- Your kids are probably old enough that the lead won’t do THAT much brain damage.
- I saw this one TV show about house flippers where they …[insert anything here].
- You’re gonna tear this whole place down, right?
* I’ll let you decide which war I’m talking about. Because technically, the Korean War still hasn’t ended.
Great post. It made me laugh and brought back memories my own past-fixer upper. It will be fun to see the “after” photos!
Got others for you: “Please tell me you’re not keeping that [insert actually quite nice period feature here]”. Or how about “Nothing a spot of carpeting won’t hide [of the 10″ wide, original and intact but needing sanding and polishing floorboards]”. As a serial doer upper with 7 houses under my belt, this post definitely rang a few bells!
“serial doer upper” is my new favorite phrase!
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I find it quite funny how different attitudes are to old houses in the US and in the UK. Over here, a 1920s house is quite new. I’ve never lived in a house that was built later than 1900, and one of my previous homes was partly 17th century. I love old houses, but am pretty sure I’d not be skilled enough to rescue one from decades of neglect or ancient wiring. It’ll be interesting to see how your friends’ experience differs from and is similar to your own.
That’s exactly right. Here in the states, we love everything new and shiny. Which is why folks like us who actually prefer older houses feel a wee bit persecuted (OK, maybe just misunderstood). I bet they have it easier in older cities like Boston and Philadelphia; Chicago, for as big and dense as it is, isn’t really a very old city. It didn’t even exist as a real city until about 1850, and then burned down in 1871. So an 1893 house is considered pretty old, as most of the existing housing stock was built in the 1920s and 30s.
Which makes me wonder if anyone got the joke about, “It’s so very …. European!” Here, “European” is code for “old and small,” which are two characteristics that Americans don’t value so much.
Haha yes, that’s what made me think about it – it’s accurate too, Europe has far more old, small homes (and we love them!).
Gawsh, I do love the Babushka house. It’s very… cozy 😉 Truly, though, it is very cute.
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Ugh, tell me about it. Especially the knocking down of walls. I also get a lot of passive aggressive comments about my neighborhood. I live in San Diego and real estate does not favor the poor. But I wanted a lot of yard to garden and raise city chickens and such. So I had to move to what San Diego calls a ghetto. It isn’t. But some of my friends think it is. It’s just a part of town unified economically. With many fixer-uppers.
But I love me a project. Especially when many have little faith in the outcome. In just three years I already have the makings of an sustainable oasis.
Something else you’ve mentioned that strikes a chord with me; doing you civic duty. Man, I really dig that and wholeheartedly agree.
That’s another reason I didn’t want a split lot and I refuse to build another unit in my back yard. These lots are designed to sustain a family without causing too much strain on the environment or the street parking.
It is our duty to make use of the usable. To revitalize before reinventing. I dig your style!
Hi James, sounds like you got a good thing going in San Diego. Things are similar in Chicago, especially as the neighborhood I’ve lived in for most of my adult life has gentrified at warp speed over the last 3-4 years — right when I was ready to buy a house, of course. Who knows? Maybe if I had money I would buy a fancy new house with 15 bathrooms. But we bought what we could afford and even just one year later it’s really starting to feel like ours.
The other thing I love about fixing up an old house is how much you learn and the confidence and sense of achievement it gives you. Just in the last year, we’ve learned how to install a toilet, put down a new tile floor, repair plaster, hang drywall, build a fence, fix a porch and probably a million things I’m forgetting. Now I know how stuff works and I’m not afraid of power tools. Thank goodness for knowledgeable friends and YouTube videos!
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I know the feeling. There’s nothing quite like it. It’s an almost primal satisfaction.
I was the lead carpenter at the San Diego Museum of Art for many years (still there, but with a promotion) and I learned so much that has helped me immensely with home ownership.
My current neighbors have asked me why I picked this neighborhood to live in. I always respond that “a neighborhood is what you make it. We are unified by our pocket books. What are you doing to make it a better place?”
We even have a community garden a stones throw away. Adapt adopt and improve.
I love Chicago by the way. I’m a Buffalo native and Chicago speaks to my rust belt soul!
James, I am following your blog now. Chickens are on our wish list. I just hope they don’t clash with the feral cat colony we’re now hosting (to cope with the rats, of course).
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Fantastic news! I can definitely be helpful in that arena. You should be fine as most cats are afraid of a fast moving and loud chicken. They are mini dinosaurs after all.
I have feral cats all over my yard and they never mess with my girls. It’s only bantam breeds and young chickens you need to be careful about.
I have a bunch of posts about coop designs and predator precautions. Check them out and ask any questions you may have. Once you do it, you’ll never go back. So little work for so much reward. And the fresh eggs? Amazing! Do it do it do it!