The pain of home ownership

William Levitt, the American founder of prefab suburbia, once said “no man who owns his own house and lot can be a communist. He has too much to do.” Perhaps. On the other hand, by the time he’s finished doing it all he’ll certainly be poor enough to become one. And possibly bitter enough as well. Take me, for instance. I recently put a new roof on my shed. It’s so lovely that if you ever come to my house and fail spontaneously to praise it I will throw you out. The previous owners apparently felt that if they ignored moisture it would ignore them, so the stench of decay and the steady pitter-patter inside the shed of little bits of dirt that was probably once wood couldn’t mean anything. Surprisingly, this approach proved flawed.

About 300 screws and 900 nails later, the roof looked as good as my arms and legs looked bad. Did you know ladders can bruise? Homeowners do. If you come over for dinner I will serve it in the shed. It’s very dry now. And you will notice that, of course, the new roof is so splendid it throws the rest of the structure into hideous relief. We need to replace the doors which we can’t do until we replace the decaying doorframe into which we would have to screw the new hinges if the relevant bits hadn’t fallen off last November. So first we have to do something about the posts to which the frame is attached. And the walls, parts of which might soon fall onto the busted-up cement floor. Unless they smash what’s left of the windows. Oh the door bone’s connected to the frame bone, and the frame bone’s connected to the wall bone, now shout the name of the Lord.

Water. There’s a problem to hand off to a landlord. Instead it’s dripping on me like the Chinese water torture. (Note: ask editor if this phrase is politically incorrect; if so substitute “Oriental hydrating experience.”) The previous owners were as insouciant about water in the house as in the shed, especially the downstairs bathroom with plain, moisture-absorbent drywall. Between seepage from outside, from the shower and from a toilet they felt should leak gently on the floor for a decade just because, we ended up with mould that would have made H.P. Lovecraft blanch. Several weeks of hammering, crowbarring, hauling, chucking and (I kid you not) shovelling out what was left of the old underfloor, plus an exquisite encounter with the ruins of a toilet wax ring, and all I have to do is remove a cabinet, the tile ceiling, a mess of wires and a few cubic feet of cement so we can redo our rubble walls (only homeowners know what those are). And just like that, I’ll have a perfect bathroom as soon as I pay a contractor to install it, for little more than all the money I saved doing the shed myself, everything I haven’t been saving for my vacation and the stuff I’ll get from robbing a bank.

Instead I stuck my head up the chimney and fixed the cracks in the fireplace bricks and mortar. Rumour has it seeping fire is even worse than seeping water. What could go wrong? I bought specialty goop that said on the label “designed to seal fire rated service penetrations” though some larky store employee added a sticker on top saying “ATTENTION! THIS SEALANT IS DESIGNED FOR NON FIRE RATED…” Seriously. That’s how it ends. Along, possibly, with my house.

Before setting it on fire by fixing the fireplace, though, I had to set it on fire by repairing the stove. Have you ever seen a stove element turn bright yellow in one spot and flare up? I have. Homeowners get to see such visions. So, having fixed the stove, I now only need to replace it. The dishwasher I’ll probably just replace without fixing.

I could escape these troubles up a tall ladder to try to empty the gutters of a decade of loathsome junk, and plunge to my death. But if I do, my wife insists I take great care not to hit the back porch on the way down as it is creaking ominously and probably could not withstand the high-velocity impact of a plummeting homeowner due to an amusing renovation involving fewer, thinner supports.

Luckily I won’t be dealing with any of that soon, because I’m pretty sure whatever lives in the front porch roof has done enough damage (something’s seeping and it ain’t water, if you get my drift) that several boards are about to fall off, dropping startled starlings, a rowdy raccoon, a bewildered badger or possibly six skunks onto the heads of visitors. If I were you, I’d head right round the back to the shed, whose roof is solid. I think.

We’ll be hosting a meeting of the Communist League. Oh, and bring a trowel if you have one, to help patch holes in the wall left by the electrician so we can paint the upstairs.

P.S. Know anything about removing wallpaper?

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson