Moving into The House of Ill Repair
A 30-something, single woman buys a home and all the problems that come with it.
IOWA CITY, IOWA — On an unseasonably warm Sunday night last March, I stood on my patio, watching the man who had just cleaned out my sewer line hold his index finger out in the shape of a gun and repeatedly say, "Bang!" to his dog, who dutifully played dead each time.
Finally, I wrote him a check for his very helpful services so he could be on his way. Just an hour earlier, I'd been thankful for his emergency arrival.
So began my first-time homeownership as a single, 30-something woman without kids. I'd bought my first house a few weeks earlier.
"Bought" is a silly word, of course; I'd committed to a 30-year mortgage. And bought a challenge - my two-story, 90-year-old house had an ancient furnace, faulty wiring, and gutters missing crucial parts - like downspout connectors. It also had twice as many rooms as any apartment I'd ever rented, wonderful light, high ceilings, and a yard that could simultaneously host croquet and badminton.
I dubbed my place "The Homestead." After moving in, I nicknamed it "The House of Repair" as I started stripping the mustard-yellow kitchen wallpaper that screamed at the cobalt-blue cabinet trim that didn't go with the black and brown appliances.
I've had amazing help from my friends and family, for which I'm grateful. They've come with little more than my asking and the promise of a snack, to rip out carpet, paint and tile the kitchen, install miniblinds and put up a vented range hood. (Hint: To avoid doing this twice, remember first to punch out the vent hole.) But there still are many things I've had to do on my own.
Of course, I'm not the first single woman without kids to take on this kind of challenge. According to the US Census Bureau, in 1989 nearly 53 percent of all one-woman households "owned" their homes. By 1999 this percentage had grown to 57.6 percent. Some of this increase has come from women in my age group - 35 to 44 years old. But I don't necessarily need the government to tell me this.
Among my friends and acquaintances, five "one-woman households" have bought homes in the past year. Some bought houses, like mine, that could house a family of four. I sometimes feel guilty, taking up so much space. Then I recall how hard I'm working for it, and in the back of my mind is the thought that my house might someday be filled with more people.
But for now it is full of me, sometimes swearing, sometimes laughing as I deal with one more repair problem. I've primed, sanded, drilled, grouted, and caulked. They know me by name at the hardware store.
I feel complimented when someone sees the place and says, "Wow, you've taken on quite a challenge." Yet the comment also comes close to pushing the "What have I done?" button.
Yes, sometimes I want some knight in shining armor to Fix It All. Instead, there are tradespeople, most of them male, wearing proverbial armor that shines to varying degrees, available for a fee. Or not so available. There's something vaguely familiar about the unreturned phone calls from the tree trimmer.
And for my part, sometimes I lose focus, as when one repairman, who does great work, explains what needs to be done:
"First, you need to rip out the old, wet wood," he'll say. "Then you need to add new piping here, but first you'll have to check this wiring. And the insulation, you'll want...."
As he goes on, I see myself muddling the project, and I have to stop myself from whining, "Me? Me? You mean, 'you,' right? I'm willing to pay you good money so you'll fix this."
Other times, my self-assurance comes forth. When the man who delivered the washer/dryer discovered a faulty standing drainpipe, he made a temporary fix, saying, "When your husband comes home...."
"Well," I said, "I don't have a husband." He apologized and said, "Maybe your dad could help."
Now I hesitated. After all, was I ever going to see the washer/dryer man again? But truthfulness comes first.
"I don't think he'd be much help," I began, thinking that what I'd primarily learned as a child assisting my dad with plumbing projects was how to string swear words together.
That thought made me smile, so I completed my sentence somewhat too cheerfully, "And he's been dead quite a while."
The washer/dryer man raised an eyebrow and made an even deeper apology. Trying for a positive spin, I assured him a friend could help me. I joked it'd be a challenge since my friend's wife probably wanted him to finish their home projects first.
This seemed to alarm the washer/dryer man rather than ease his concern. Perhaps he thought I'd break up a marriage just to get the standing drainpipe fixed.
In the end, Ginny the plumber - the only female tradesperson to work on my house so far - solved the drainpipe problem.
She's clearly a woman in the right line of work. It helps me believe I'm also a woman in the right place - my own home.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society