Home sweet home

July 10,2008
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

About two years ago, when we were house-hunting, we found ourselves torn between a new construction home and an older, established one. We have always been old home people. When we were graduate students in New York, our beloved apartment was on the top floor of a 1900's Victorian home. We have always loved the quirkiness of old homes, with their creaking, well-built wooden floors and doorways, and the sense of history and emotion that fills them.

But we were--briefly--seduced by new construction and by a "suburban experiment" of a community--a remarkably self-contained yet sprawling subdivision, complete with town center, town clock, pool, tennis courts, farmer's market, several "village greens," and "pocket parks." The sidewalks were brick and tree-lined; the homes all had "nostalgic" rocking chair front porches. And really, driving through there, we felt as though we had stepped into a bizarre alter-reality. Life here, the brochure promised, would be like "something out of a Norman Rockwell painting." Neighbors will gather "around the fireplace" at the community center and hold vibrant discussions (about what, I wonder...oh, to be a fly on the wall), or they will meet at the "town center" and swap recipes. The sidewalks and parks were designed to encourage people to get out of their homes and into the neighborhood, with the idea that if you build a close-knit community it will become one. "Our community will restore the meaning of 'neighbor,'" the developers claimed in bold print in the brochure.

Despite all this, we settled on the old home--one built in 1965. We've never looked back, really. Every now and then, when we find ourselves in the neck of the woods where that new construction home was to be, we drive through the neighborhood and re-commit ourselves to our decision, happy that we picked the house we did, in the neighborhood we did. But older homes come with their own set of problems, of course. Yesterday, we spent an entire day, give or take a few hours, installing a hood fan above the stove. The previous hood fan quite possibly was original to the house, and the amount of effort it took Scott to pry it loose and remove it should have set off warning bells in the both of us that installing the new one wasn't going to be "easy," despite the bold print on the outside of the hood box. It had also never been properly installed, and the new hood instructions seem to come with the understanding that you will be installing the thing under normal circumstances.

We took a break at 4:00 and went to the pool, and when we returned the hood was still there, propped up by boards and dangling wires, the towel-covered stove still cluttered with hammers and screws and broken tile.

"I guess the hood fairy didn't come while we were out," I said to Scott ruefully.

"I guess not," he replied and got to work again. In the end, the installation was a triumph of mind over matter, and we have a shiny new white hood over the new stove we had to buy three days after we moved in because the previous one a) didn't work, b) was ancient, and c) had what appeared to be an entire charred pig carcass in the oven.

I think what you get when you buy a new home is the insurance that you will never have to undo whatever follies previous owners committed to your house. You get the chance to hand-pick the fixtures and the counters, maybe, and the floor plan. You get that custom, made-to-order experience that lulls you into the sense that life can be ordered and predictable, and made out of just the color and material you want it to be.

But homeownership is like any relationship--and like parenting, really. There is no Norman Rockwell reality, despite what a brochure may promise you, but the one you create yourself--born and bred from the love you fill your home with, the challenges you continually rise up to meet, the hard blood-and-sweat work you put into it all. In the end, whether you live in a new construction home or an older one, what counts is the time you put in together inside the walls--those same walls that will end up containing so much over the years: tears, heartache, joy, love--life as you make it, not as promised in some glossy brochure.