Home Improvement -- The Seasonal Acts of Suburban Renovation

ALL around suburban Boston neighborhoods these days, the sound of hammers and saws echoes through the spring air. On street after street, middle-class homeowners are orchestrating renovations, as if taking a cue from J. D. Salinger's book title, ''Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters.''

One house in our neighborhood, until last month a modest white ranch, is being transformed into a handsome Colonial with four dormers. A block away, a two-story addition has nearly doubled the size of a gray Colonial. Nearby, a large family room is under construction.

Add to these the more modest projects -- here a brick patio, there a new deck, bay window, fence, or lawn -- and the message is clear: Birds are not the only ones with nesting instincts this time of year.

Never, it seems, have more construction trucks dotted the suburban landscape. But what's good for builders may not be great for real estate brokers and moving companies. Figures released last week show that sales of single-family homes dropped 17.5 percent in April compared with a year ago. Economists attribute some of the decline to higher interest rates.

Yet money may not tell the whole story, since some of these additions probably cost more than the house did when it was new. Rather, the decision to add on may suggest a new attitude on the part of some residents. Instead of the old stepping-stone approach to homeownership -- starting small and moving up to ever-grander addresses -- they're choosing stability over mobility. Instead of pulling up stakes, they want to put down roots.

Talk to homeowners in the midst of remodeling and they'll list reasons for staying: They like the neighborhood. They appreciate their proximity to the commuter train. They're reluctant to uproot their children from schools and friends. For working couples, there's another consideration: Pack up and move? Who has the time or energy?

Even for those who stay put, time constraints are effecting another change. Renovation and maintenance projects that homeowners once undertook themselves -- good old sweat equity -- are now contracted out. From the lawn-care trucks that begin rumbling through quiet streets early in the morning to the carpenters, painters, and cleaners who keep exteriors and interiors in trim, suburbia requires an army of paid laborers to replace homeowners working ever-longer hours. Talk about a service economy!

This month two new groups will begin the nesting cycle. June, high season for weddings, will produce its share of newlyweds settling into their first married quarters. It will also launch a new group of college graduates eager to use entry-level paychecks to rent starter apartments -- the first modest step toward their own mortgages and domestic responsibilities someday.

For most of us, the dream house in our head does not match the real house in our yard. We watch ugly-duckling-to-swan transformations on ''This Old House'' -- the most popular show on public broadcasting -- and wish Norm Abram could give our house a modest face lift. We study photos of beautiful rooms in home magazines and imagine living there.

But then the dream of perfection ends and we are back in our own highly imperfect but comfortable houses -- the ones with dandelions in the lawn, tired wallpaper in the bathroom, and way too much stuff in the attic. Yet whatever the flaws, it's home -- the place we can't wait to come back to at the end of a long workday -- or even a short vacation.

Given this preoccupation with domesticity and nesting, can the American family really be as endangered as the doomsayers claim? The desire for order, beauty, a place of one's own goes beyond bricks, boards, and nails. In this season for construction and reconstruction, what finally gets built is not just a tangible house but an intangible home connecting the people who live there. In the end, that just may be what renovation is about -- give or take a sanded floor here and a touch of fresh paint there.

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