The Perfect House
It's only three major renovations away!
I’ve reached a stage in my life where my hobbies have gotten… well, a bit duller.
Maybe it’s a symptom of my entry into middle age, maybe it’s a side effect of parenthood, or maybe I’m just becoming dull myself. I listen to new music, but I don’t seek it out with the passionate fervor I once did. I follow sports, but I no longer pin my entire emotional state to their outcomes. I love the idea of travel, but I now temper my wanderlust with a desire for logistical ease.
My one true remaining hobby? It’s Zillow.
I find myself spending more and more time on the real estate-listing website, despite the fact that I’m not looking to move any time soon, and I’m not in the market for a house. Or, I should say—I’m in the market, but in the same way I might kill time by wandering through a store with no intent to purchase anything.
Can I help you find anything?
Just looking, thanks.
I love poring through the listings, seeing what’s come on the market near me recently. If I see a realtor’s sign pop up in someone’s yard, within seconds I’ve pulled up the listing to flip through the photos. (This can be a real problem when I’m driving.) I’ll dissect each listing, parsing everything it offers, everything that could be changed, everything that’s wrong with it.
I’m not looking for a house.
I’m looking for the perfect house.
As soon as a listing goes up, I have to determine for myself if the sellers are asking too much or too little, divine what justification they might have for a seemingly-high price or—more often—identify what catch there might be in a suspiciously-under-market house.
Ah. The kitchen needs updating. Look at those cabinets. That’s a shame.
Ugh. That bathroom vanity is terrible. And the tile? You’d have to gut that, if you ask me.
Look at those carpets. I bet there’s good hardwood floors under there. Tsk.
Huh. The rec room has a wall-sized mural of the University of Kentucky’s basketball arena. Not sure what you do about that.1
This persnickety attitude is fueled by Instagram, where all the accounts I follow that aren’t restaurants, dogs or Peloton instructors are dedicated to home renovations, the kind you simply must do now if you don’t want your house to look [horrified, conspiratorial whisper] dated. For a house to be acceptable in this world, it has to be everything: clean and bright but warm and cozy but sleek and modern but classic and rustic and well it’s like smut you just know it when you see it.
With those devils on my shoulders shouting their encouragements, I can view a home listing and reflexively pick out what’s “wrong” with it with the same speed and precision I once reserved for the Photo Hunt video game at the back of my favorite bar in college.
Of course, that doesn’t mean everything’s perfect here at home—indeed, far from it.
I often joke that “homeownership is terrible—the only thing worse is the alternative”. I’m fortunate enough to have purchased a home before the market went completely haywire these last several years, but as a good friend presciently warned me on my closing day, “congratulations, your list will never be done.” They weren’t wrong. There’s constantly something that needs to be done, something nagging at me, something begging for my attention, my time and my money.
Any discussion of changes we might make to the house quickly unravels like a sweater with a loose thread—if we do (a), we should also do (x/y/z)—and a simple weekend repair suddenly snowballs into a hypothetical renovation costing tens of thousands of dollars we neither want to or are capable of spending at the moment. In the classic hubris of the first-time homebuyer, we had told our realtor when looking that we were “not afraid of a project”, something she sagely ignored, correctly perceiving our lack of capacity for genuinely ambitious projects with two small children in the house.
There’s always projects, she advised us.
At this very moment, in fact, the front porch, back patio and a good portion of the roof are blanketed in the helicopter-like seeds from our towering maple tree, which has a bafflingly-strong ability to reproduce considering how much of it appears to be dead and how often windstorms drop limbs onto the roof and gutters. It should probably come down, I often think, before considering how much removing a mature tree costs and just hoping it falls toward the street. The stamped-concrete back patio—when you can see it under all those maple seeds—is cracking and spalling in places. I could fix those spots, but poor drainage is likely responsible, and I’d be better off tearing out the whole thing and rebuilding it. The driveway needs to be resealed, the guest bathroom tile is ugly, the dishwasher is frustrating, and the cabinets really truly are dated if we’re being honest with ourselves.
To be sure, we’ve scored a few victories; in more manic moments during the stay-at-home portion of the pandemic we repainted most of the interior, doing away with some of the previous owner’s more questionable design decisions like the royal blue living room and blood-red dining room. We’ve replaced nearly every light fixture in the house, fenced in the backyard, and cleared out a ton of nasty brush on the tree line.
Most days, though, it feels like we’re barely holding ground against the entropy of home.
I saw a new listing pop up the other day. It caught my eye, being suspiciously under-market relative to the current comps, which I have memorized for no good reason. A cursory flip through the photos revealed why; it was in what a realtor might sunnily describe as “estate condition”, with virtually nothing apparently updated more recently than 1973. Everything needed work. The bedrooms had ugly wallpaper, the bathrooms Pepto-pink tile. The kitchen was a museum piece, with Formica countertops and small, too-ugly-to-be-retro cabinets. The furnished basement looked like an Elks Lodge, and the main living space was covered in weathered, faded wall-to-wall carpeting.
I scrolled through the photos once, then back. I looked at that carpet, the sort of thing any buyer would immediately rip out. It wasn’t stained, really, but bore the obvious discolorations of where a couch and side chairs had once sat, arranged around the hearth. It was an unmistakable sign.
Lives had been lived here.
I closed the tab, and took a second look around at our house.
I looked out at that troublesome maple tree, which provided shade for sunny summer afternoons reading books to the kids on a picnic blanket when they were barely old enough to walk. I thought about the patio, where we’ve had barbecues and movie nights and birthday parties both large and (in 2020) very small. I considered the driveway, and how that cracked, weedy asphalt has served as a canvas for hundreds of chalk-art masterpieces. The guest bathroom tile, where I’ve sat patiently but uncomfortably for countless baths. The dishwasher that—for a brief time that seemed like it would never end until one day it did—ran constantly cleaning baby bottle parts.
Perhaps one day we’ll bring all of our plans to fruition. Perhaps one day we can have the most enviable Zillow listing, the most Instagram-ready showpiece.
Perhaps one day this place will be the perfect house.
Until then, being the perfect home will just have to do.
—Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)
This is a real one I encountered while home-shopping for real a few years ago. Almost made an offer on that house.