6a00d83452076769e200e54f127e278833-640wiThey 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.

tear-downTo 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.

03_Blitzen Leaning HouseIf 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.

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Raymond L. Atkins

Raymond L. Atkins

Raymond L. Atkins resides in Rome, Georgia. His stories have been published in Christmas Stories from Georgia, The Lavender Mountain Anthology, The Blood and Fire Review, The Old Red Kimono, Long Island Woman, and Savannah Magazine. His humorous column —"South of the Etowah" — appears in The Rome News-Tribune. His industrial maintenance column — "The Fundamentals" — appears in Maintenance Technology Magazine. His humorous column — "And So It Goes" — appears in Memphis Downtowner Magazine. His first novel, "The Front Porch Prophet," was published by Medallion Press in June of 2008 to critical acclaim and earned the 2009 Georgia Author of the Year Award for First Novel. His second novel, "Sorrow Wood," was released in June 2009 by Medallion Press and has been nominated for the 2010 Georgia Author of the Year Award for Fiction. Both are available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other fine booksellers. His third novel, "Camp Redemption," will be released in August, 2011.

12 Comments
  1. Billy Howard

    Before my wife convinced me to buy a 90 year old house, I was unfamiliar with the nouns: hammer, screw driver and power saw. I now know them all too well. As we prepare to move from our old house, we read your story and laughed. It beats crying. Thanks.

  2. Ray, I think this was one of your best.
    Since you are a pretty good writer, anyway, I guess that’s saying a lot.
    I love old houses. I get a lot of financial security out of helping with them
    j.

  3. Having just sold our National Historic Debt–oops, I mean Register home, I sympathize with you. It was not the mortgage nor the heat that killed us–since we reside on the edge of the Okeefenokee and there is plenty of heat to spare.. but it was the slow leak of cash to address the creaky floors, prehistoric insects, bats, and the rage-worthy lack of closet space that finally did us in.

  4. Terri Evans

    Great fun. Memories of our own renovation. I must say my favorite line was, “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.” Your wife sounds like a kindred spirit.

  5. Are you sure you weren’t writing about my house? It was built in 1922 and possesses every problem you described.
    Great job – you left me begging for more!

  6. Ray, again I am impressed with the quality of your writing, your humor, and your ability to make common things so fascinating. I don’t know why, but I can relate to so many of your experiences, including the old house obsession. Before I moved into my lovely new house, I lived in an old log house with a beautiful yard and a pond. Of course we updated, replacing the wooden ladder to the loft with steps, adding modern heat and air conditioning and a deck facing the pond. It was a lovely place as long as the spring fed the pond and us, and until we had a blizzard.

    Relutantly we left in the interest of onveniene and prosimity to family. I still miss the log house, whidh my son-in-law dannot understand. My sadness was somewhat reduded when I recently received a phone dall from the new owner. His question was ‘Jane, what do you do when the pond dries up?”Reluctantly

  7. Let me retype that last paragraph, which happened because the space disappeared and my fingers slipped.
    Reluctantly we left in the interest of convenience and proximity to family. I still miss the log house, which my son-in-law cannot understand. My sadness was somewhat reduced when I recently received a phone call from the new owner. His question was “Jane, what do you do when the pond dries up?”

  8. Ray…your words and your world make this former 1912 vintage owner giggle.
    Jane…I really liked your first last paragraph because I felt sure you were
    letting the new owners know that just a wee nip from a good still jug would
    sooth the body and quiet the creeks….

  9. Ray, that sounds so much like my house. Built by a next-door neighbor in 1924, my bungalow is long on charm. Its saving grace is that sits at the top of a slope that comes in handy with the recent rains. The cats don’t have to roll the toys across the living room floor (built before that 1933); they roll by themselves.

  10. Jingle Davis

    Ha, you think you made a mistake buying a fixer upper. I keep on doing it — two on St. Simons Island (c. 1930 and 1950); two in Brunswick (c. 1880 and 1885), one in Avondale Estates (c. 1940) and now the piece de resistance, a c. 1940 mansion of 650 (yes, six hundred fifty) square feet built by hand by very poor people who not only used scrap lumber, windows, doors, etc. but who knew nothing about building a house. Square corners? I think not. Bathroom? Five feet by five feet — knees are not an option. And, as my loudly cursing husband kept saying as he rebuilt the bathroom, the tiny room managed to be several inches both out of level and out of plumb.

    After two years of hard labor, the place looks better but we’ve still got tons to do. I never was very good at impulse control. Just as I’ve fallen in love with challenging (read inappropriate) men over the years, I also keep falling for challenging (read beyond derelict) houses. I’m married again now and in love with my husband, who is delightfully appropriate. I keep assuring him and myself that our current home renovation will be our last.

    But right down the street is this adorable wreck on a lovely lot . . .

  11. Alice Murray

    You’re a real stud and a straight up good guy. Thanks for sharing your old house saga. After three old houses in my life (1930, 1905 and 1922) I tried a shiny new model (1999) last year and love it. Now I know why my mom, raised in a 1906 farmhouse, always wanted brand new houses. My utilities are 1/3 of before, the temperature remains the same both upstairs and down, and it actually stays clean for days at a time. But I miss the “charm” and the spirits of the past that kept me company. There’s nothing like living with history to keep you humble.

  12. My husband forwarded this to me – I think it reminded him of our plight with an 1859 house here in Macon. Yes, it was my idea to buy it, as a preservation professional I told him I “wanted to do a house from scratch at least once” ha, ha. After a major renovation in the late 1920s nothing had really been touched, except to splice onto the existing knob & tube wiring and the excavation of the basement. The brick piers for the front half of the house were left standing on 4 to 5 foot columns of dirt, suffice to say the 42 yards of concrete later the foundation is secure & we will have a marvelous basement if we can ever affort to finish the rest of the house. The renovation is on hiatus now with the economy the way it is. Perhaps we will get to live there before our daughter graduates from school 2 blocks away – this was one of my great selling points “she can walk to & from school!”

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