Ten years ago this week, I bought a house in a town I barely knew.
It was 2006, and home prices were climbing quickly. There was a lot of pressure to find and lock in a house quickly – before values rose even more – to maximize your investment through the American Dream™.
No one knew that the market was peaking, that things were about to burst. It didn’t seem possible. Mortgage officers asked, “How much house do you want?” and volunteered to “do what it takes” to make the numbers work. I stuck by my calculations of what I could reasonably afford at 24 years old and bought a 115-year-old house near downtown Elgin.
Ten years later, I’m living with my fiance in a townhouse in another town.
But in between, that house taught me a great deal about… everything.
About living in a “transitioning” neighborhood that slipped from ok to better to worse to better and back again.
About knowing what better and worse look like.
About getting to know my neighbors and the value of a neighborhood watch.
About budgeting for expensive home repairs, and then some extra for the uncertainties that come with an old house where nothing is “standard.” (See the three attempts to find a chimney liner narrow enough to fit my ancient chimney, or the extra-narrow doors.)
About becoming part of something, joining neighbors to help make things better, that it really does take a village. And no matter how hard you try, a handful of volunteers can’t rescue a whole neighborhood when the market has other ideas.
About how drug deals happen, and why sometimes it’s a good idea to let the police conduct a stakeout from your bedroom windows.
About the false promise of sweat equity, but the satisfaction it brings.
About how sidewalks can make a neighborhood – and how some people will never clear theirs.
About how the school schedule greatly affects the sound, pace, and feel of a neighborhood.
About scheduling time for mowing the lawn in rainy springs, and quickly rearranging plans to dig out the driveway after a heavy snowfall.
About staying up late, hearing the house creak in blizzard winds, hoping that those shingles in the yard aren’t yours.
About picking your battles, choosing when something has gotten bad enough to say something.
About how infinitely useful the internet – and particularly YouTube – can be with home repairs.
About the sheer joy of coming home from working and finding that the zinnia seeds you planted weeks ago have suddenly sprouted.
About when it’s best to suck it up and call in professionals.
About chasing bats from the house while protecting the cat.
About how plows don’t care that you just spent an hour digging out the foot of the driveway – and why such digging can “count” as a workout.
About property taxes, and how a two-year “clerical error” by the township doesn’t mean you get two years to repay the difference.
About the signs of neighborhood change.
About why picking up the trash from the vacant lot across the street can be satisfying and maddening.
About why it’s handy to know someone with a truck.
About why it’s important that gang graffiti gets cleaned up right away.
About carpenter ants and mice and groundhogs and robins.
About why “charm” and “character” in an old house are vastly overrated compared to a comfortable climate and reliable plumbing.
About how expensive – and delicate – old plumbing can be.
About the joy of a hammock after a tough day’s work.
About why it’s great being close to the commuter train, but there’s such a thing as too close.
About how you really do fill all that extra space over time.
About why good fences really do make good neighbors.
About when the person sleeping on your front lawn is high, drunk, or just napping.
About why you should never consider a house anything more than a home, as my “investment” lost 29% of its value over the decade. (Though my taxes went up over the same period.)
About how the idea of “home” changes with time and circumstance.
About how a neighborhood, a town, and a house can all break your heart – but lead you to something better.