They say that some mistakes can follow you for the rest of your life, and I guess it must be true. I had a great-great uncle once who stole a horse, and not much of a horse at that. But for the rest of his life—about a week-and-a-half before they hung him—he had to endure the ignominy of being called a horse-thief. My neighbor once thought he would look really sharp getting married in a powder blue tuxedo. And to this day, there he is in that photo on the wall of his living room, sporting those wide lapels, cuffed bell bottoms, and ruffled shirt. A guy I knew in college once bought a Yugo. No, I swear it is true. Even now it sits under a tarp at the far end of his driveway, bearing quiet witness to the level of excellence once attained by the Eastern European automotive industry. And twenty years ago, when I was still a young man with a twinkle in my eye and a spring in my step, I made the error of buying a ninety-year-old house that just needed a little work. Now it is one-hundred-ten years old—which is the same age I look these days—and it still needs just a little work. It does not appear that I am gaining any ground, and I am beginning to envy my great-great uncle, who at least got to go horseback riding before being put out of his misery.
In my defense, buying the old home was not my fault, although it turned out to be my problem. It was my wife who first found the house and brought it to my attention, and I continue to love her in spite of that fact. I will never forget that fateful day. There the rambling behemoth sat on its crumbling foundation, moldering in a shroud of magnolia trees and untrimmed ivy. It had an evil look to it, as only a house with a sag in the porch roof can.
“It looks just like Tara!” my wife exclaimed. It looked like Tara, all right. Tara after the Yankees had gotten through burning it down, stealing the chickens, and shooting the mule. But I held my tongue, because she was already in love with the house. If it had broken in half right then—which was a definite possibility, judging by the creaks and groans we heard as we walked—she would have been in love with both halves. So we bought it, and over the past two decades I have learned many truths about old home ownership. Home truths, you might say. Truths that you need to know if you are considering buying an old home yourself.
To begin with, there are no fine old craftsmen left to give you advice or to help you fix your house. Admittedly, they would be very old if you could find a few, but the reason for their scarcity has nothing to do with old age or the passage of time. The truth is that they were all hunted down years ago by a variety of owners of fine old homes who simply could not believe what these guys had done to them. I actually had one in my sights once, but the wind shifted, and he caught my scent and bolted. Sadly, the few remaining survivors have grown skittish—like Bigfoot or Nessie—and getting close to them is next to impossible.
The ninety-degree angle was not invented until late in 1947 by an accountant from Moline, Illinois, whose hobby was the development of arcane geometric constructs. So if you are looking for anything even resembling a square corner anywhere in your old house, you are searching in vain. You may as well be searching for adequate wiring, closets, or a clear deed of title.
Unlevel floors were mandated by law until 1933, when the statute was finally overturned. Prior to that year, all floors in all homes were sloped towards the northeast corner of the house. This common practice was initiated in conjunction with the invention of indoor plumbing in the 1890’s so that the houses would be easier to drain when the pipes froze and burst in the winter. It is important to note that the repeal of Prohibition also occurred in 1933. This was due to the overwhelming desire of that generation of fine old homeowners to have a couple of stiff belts, usually just prior to draining the house each spring.
If you are spending money on laser, thermal, ultrasonic, or magnetic stud-detectors, you are wasting these funds and may as well just give them to someone you know. Like me. You can also discontinue tapping that series of small nail holes a half-inch apart horizontally all along various sections of walls in the hopes of finding something to nail to. There are no studs in your walls. Plaster, structural mildew, calcified termite trails, and habit are all that keeps your house standing.
People in the old days were only three feet tall, which explains why the distance from the outer rim of your toilet seat to the opposing wall of the bathroom is only a foot-and-a-half. My advice to you is to take care of your business while you are at work, which is what I do, but if this is not possible, you are just going to have to continue to turn sideways when you sit. Remember that if you turn to the left too quickly, you will strike your left knee on the bath tub, and if you turn to the right too quickly, you will strike your right knee on the sink.
Don’t try to upgrade your heating with a more efficient and economical system. No matter what method you use to heat your home, it will still take all of the money you currently have combined with all of the additional cash you can lay your hands on just to keep the temperature above the freezing mark in your living room. After twenty years of experimentation, I have found that the cheapest way to heat my own home is to just burn small stacks of money in one of the many fireplaces. Through trial-and-error, I have determined that the five-dollar bills burn hotter, but the tenners burn longer. And remember that regardless of what you do, it will always be warmer outside of the house than inside of it.
Don’t worry about asbestos on the roof or lead in the paint. These substances may actually be the safest substances in your house. Common older building materials that are more likely to give you trouble include the plutonium insulation in the walls (surely you have noticed the glow), the mercury varnish on the floors (the floors are indeed shiny, but do not touch your tongue to them), and the ichor of Satan that was commonly used as wallpaper paste before the nineteenth century passed into the twentieth (Note to homeowners: If your restoration contractor has hooves and pointy tail, read all of the fine print very carefully before signing the contract).
Even with my vast experience on the subject of old home ownership, some truths elude even me. Thus, I don’t know why your roof is steeper than the Matterhorn. I could surmise that it is this way so that water will run off, but that would not explain the leaks, both when it is raining and especially when it is not. And I don’t know why sometimes your front door is too tight for the doorframe while other times you can see light all the way around it. I could guess that this phenomenon has to do with ambient humidity and the properties of old wood, but I suspect that the real cause is that your front door just has a bad attitude, kind of like mine does. And I don’t know why you have sixty-seven-hundred square feet of space in your attic but no steps up to it. I could speculate that there was a serious opium-smoking problem in the building trades back in the 1890’s—which is a theory that would explain so many things—but I have no facts to back up this assertion.
And, finally, I can’t explain to you why some of us choose to continue to live in these old homes even though it is obvious that they are out to get us. It could be that we are masochists, I suppose, and just enjoy living with the pain. Or it could be that we just can’t find anyone as foolish as we were to sell them to. Or it could be that we love the old barns and wouldn’t trade them for anything.