Why you should care
Because a happy home doesn’t necessarily mean granite countertops and spa bathrooms.
Linda H. Davis is the author of three biographies, including Charles Addams: A Cartoonist’s Life. She lives in Massachusetts.
Some people coast down the long driveway like invited guests, circling the horseshoe, then departing. Some creep partway down, trying not to be observed before they back up. Others hover, like hummingbirds, at the top. The dogs blow everyone’s cover.
It is an unsettling way to live — always on display, like Billy Pilgrim on the planet Tralfamadore, though we, too, can draw our curtains when we need privacy. Things that might be stolen are hidden. Things we use daily are tucked away so that the house is better staged, a necessary contrivance to allow people to imagine themselves living here. When, I wonder, did the American imagination become so impoverished?
We had lived in ignorant appreciation of our home for 17 years when our fortunes abruptly changed, and we had to scramble to put the house on the market — a house we had bought with the intention of never leaving, except to join our deceased critters in the pet cemetery. We invested heavily in my husband’s small business. We bought extra land and built a barn for the horses we thought would be good for Randy, our autistic son. (Our daughter, Allie, would leave for college and a life of her own.) But the economy tanked and continued to hurt the business.
We didn’t know Google Maps would be an uninvited partner in the selling game.
The barn and land we naively thought added value to the property did not. We had not listened to the warning whoosh from the nearby highway, which never bothered us. We didn’t know Google Maps would be an uninvited partner in the selling game, offering a bold green arrow pointing out the house and its proximity to a highway — but not the thick screen of trees in between. We soon learned that traffic noise is such an abomination in a country house that it keeps most prospective buyers away.
Thus began our journey of seemingly endless home improvements and repairs; house cleanings; and scrambles into the car, dogs barking excitedly. Like hotel guests, we are always out before the real estate agent and prospective buyers arrived — except when they showed up more than a half hour early or when they came after they were supposed to have left. The house showings are followed, inevitably, by cold email assessments from a realty service, in which our lovely home is usually dismissed as “average” at best. We had been prepared for the traffic noise issue. But buyers also complained of the need for “upgrades.” Upgrades? We learned that kitchens with granite countertops and chrome appliances, and spa, not ordinary, bathrooms trump fireplaces, central air, skylights and windows surrounded by greenery.
Does the absence of traffic noise guarantee the writing of that book you never wrote?
Sixteen months after beginning this odyssey, the house is priced so low that we half-joke that we’ll be lucky to end up with gas money to move to Vermont, where our daughter and son-in-law live. I am 61; Chuck, 62. We have both had a turn at serious illness; I am a cancer patient long in remission. The future is murky. How long will we be able to take care of Randy, of ourselves? Because our house is situated far off the road, with acres of private walking trails, Randy, now 28, has achieved an independence he may never have after we move. (Like many adults with autism, his awareness of danger is limited.) This spring, the stress of living on Tralfamadore started to show. After we turned down a low offer, gentle Randy suffered two bizarre, seizure-like episodes and underwent a battery of tests. Unable to understand the delay in moving near his sister and brother-in-law, he began grinding his teeth.
What dreams, I wonder, are people trying to fulfill with the purchase of a house? Do granite countertops ensure Julia Child-like cooking? Does the absence of traffic noise guarantee the writing of that book you never wrote?
Somewhere on the seller’s information sheet, there should be a place to say that even Mr. and Mrs. Blandings’ dream house in the 1948 movie was ultimately imperfect, as are most luxurious houses. That here, two wonderful children grew up and blossomed. A good business was started. Dreams more exceptional than granite countertops were realized. (Note the framed dust jackets on my bedroom wall.) That here in this lush forest of diffused light and hummingbirds is a true refuge. Animals and humans in need of rescue, comfort and hospitality have found it here. Until a like-minded buyer turns up, we remain on a strict budget and continue to improve our income. But there is no room for error, illness or bad luck.
“Stay in the old house for a long time,” prods Randy. “We’ll see,” I say. For now, in the thick of winter, the “for sale” sign has come down.