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JOSEPH N. BELL

Even If It's Old and Tract-y, a Man's House Is His Castle

April 29, 1989|JOSEPH N. BELL

When I open the cold water tap in our bathroom, I get a trickle of water. A diminishing trickle. I've been watching this happen for a couple of years, pretending there was nothing seriously wrong, but I can't do that any more. The water pressure in our bathroom wouldn't break a piece of tissue paper.

I know what this means. We live in a 35-year-old house, part of a tract in which the houses sold originally for less than $10,000. The pipes that carry our water are old, of questionable quality and probably irrevocably clogged. We need to be re-plumbed. Everywhere. And I need that like I need another hike in my variable rate mortgage.

We also have a small electrical problem. If I punch in a fan or a heater at the same time our auxiliary refrigerator is running in the garage, I blow out the system. We need to upgrade our electricity supply. And then there are the louvered windows in the bedroom that don't work and the hardwood floors that need refinishing and the single bathroom that can't begin to accommodate three people at rush hour--let alone house guests. And, of course, the mortgage rate that is tied to some mysterious index I can never find but that I suspect is related to the price of Algerian oil.

This sort of aggravation is making high blood pressure a frequent topic of conversation in our social circle. I know these problems are not uncommon, especially among owners of older homes. But that doesn't make me feel any better. The only thing that makes me feel better is to give serious thought to the ultimate solution: selling our house and either renting or buying a condominium. When I look at that option straight on, I start casing the Yellow Pages for plumbers. And electricians.

Why? I've asked myself that many times. My wife and I both work, but I work at home and much of the burden of household problems falls on me. I'm at a stage in my life where I've already been through several houses, and whatever it is I was going to learn, I've learned. So why set myself up for all these problems when other options are available?

For many of the same reasons that people continue looking for homes in Orange County, in spite of inflated prices.

First of all, there's space--and its bosom buddy, privacy. We live in a relatively small house, yet there is always the illusion--if not the reality--of space. My wife and my 11-year-old stepson and I all have places where we can retreat. We use them, and they are an important part of the fabric of our lives. Now before you tell me that there are plenty of condos larger than our house that would offer the same privacy, let me stress that space is mental as well as physical--and outdoor as well as indoor. A house, any house, feels spacious; and a condo, at least to me, feels constricted. That's partly subjective and partly because of a sizable yard we can see through every window.

Then there's our neighborhood. I've written about it before, about the spirit that infuses it and the important part it plays in all our lives. I know that kind of neighborhood doesn't come automatically with owning a house, but the chances are a lot better. There's a kind of sterility about condo living (whether real or imagined doesn't matter) that seems to prevail against the clubby atmosphere of a warm and giving neighborhood.

These are tangible benefits, things I can reach out and touch, things I can sit in, work in, play in. But probably even more important to me are the intangibles.

I was raised to believe in houses. Because of my father's work, my parents moved every year or two when I was growing up, and we learned together that apartments didn't do it for us. And so, despite the difficulties, we lived in a succession of houses, each one of which left a mark on me. I learned the wonderfully proprietary and substantial feeling of owning a house, a rock to anchor my life. The fact that a bank somewhere owns more of the house than I do is irrelevant. The bank doesn't sit in my yard or read in my home office or putter in my garage. I do.

Which suggests one final enormous advantage of a house, especially an old one: It's a wonderful laboratory for puttering. I'm a lousy handyman, but I see myself as quite good, and a house is expansive enough that I can saw and hammer and drill all over the place without doing any appreciable harm. And if I get in over my head the neighbors will always bail me out.

So I suppose I'll be calling a plumber one of these days about my water pressure. But not yet. If you open that tap as far as it goes, and add just a touch of hot water, it's still functional. Sort of. I'll give it another 6 months, at least.

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