Today is the two-year anniversary of the day the house burned. (As it happened, it’s also the anniversary of wedding my ex). So, I’m going to take some time for looking back on what I did right and what I did wrong. And, take time to make time to get back to writing. But I’m only looking back two years to the more recent anniversary. I’m just writing a post, not a book.
The most important thing I did right was when I decided to settle with the insurance company. I didn’t want a false incentive to rebuild my life “cookie cutter” style, nor to work hard at digging deep for proof of all that I owned. “Cookie cutter” was the adjuster’s phrase. If you choose the “build your house back” option, cost overruns are only covered if you build back exactly as it was. Meaning that if you upgrade to stone counter tops or move a wall, any completely unrelated cost over runs in the basement or drive way are not covered. When you live in a house 23 years, you can’t help but see some things you’d change. I had one of the more modern floor plans for my neighborhood, but the house was more than 30 years old and trends change. It was still not what you would build from scratch for the next 50 years. I moved on and sold the lot. A builder put a spec home there. He did a nice job of building a current home that fit well in an older neighborhood and it sold for a top price. I thought the clean slate was a good result for me and for the neighborhood that I called home longer than any other. I felt good about that.
There are drawbacks to a clean slate though. When you are building back cookie cutter, there are few decisions to make because you already made them. “Same” is the answer to everything and you just watch the contractor to be sure it’s done right. When you do that, moving on in ways unrelated to the dwelling and contents moves up in the queue.
When everything is a new choice, the layers of choices past aren’t there building the foundation for quick new decisions. A conscious choice to start from scratch is not for the weak at heart. Those decades of layered choices are how you ended up with the life you had, and even though stuff is just stuff, it’s the stuff of your life and insurance isn’t designed to improve your life, only to keep you from suffering if the worst happens. The mistakes you make while remaking your home and life are at your own expense, just like the original ones were. The more unknowns, the more likely it is that there will be mistakes.
The biggest surprise was how long things took. I thought there would be more quick replacement involved in my rebuild, but things didn’t fall neatly together. There was the unexpected news that we had a seller’s market going on big time. I knew that neighbors weren’t having any trouble selling in my great school district, but I didn’t know just how hard it was to buy. We even went to a neighboring area where the school scores were a few percent lower, but finding a home was really tough, a big time sink.
I was in that price range that has the most people in it, so well-priced houses were snapped up quickly. Now, I’m driving past houses we looked at constantly. I’m glad we didn’t end up in any of them and Russ says the same thing. But, there were complications and delays. We were still looking at back up houses the week before closing in case the deal fell through. I hated to ask to see a house when I had one under contract, closing in a few days, but I really didn’t have confidence that we would close and I really didn’t have time to fail. If it hadn’t been for my allergies and that little hint of dog smell left in the carpet I might have jumped ship and be living in the last other house we looked at instead. Of course the irony is that the house we bought had knock your socks off pet odors from dogs and cats, but for that house the cure was to rip out everything and seal it with Zinsser. I tell you, when we were working with that stuff, I pulled my filter mask away from my face to speak and felt the fumes in my mouth. I won’t say “never again” but only because when you do, it ends up not being true,
The biggest mistake I made might have been having the urge to get on with things and buying the stuff before I had a permanent place to be. We had the goal to replace as much as possible through thrift stores and estate sales. It was the only way to get some semblance of the quantity and quality of what we had back. When you appreciate the quality, weight and feel of an antique tool, flimsy short term pressed sheet metal doesn’t cut mustard.
With that goal, we had to buy things when we could find them. They might not be available again. So, in some respects, it wasn’t a mistake to do it that way. And that may just be how it is when replacing an entire household at once, but it was definitely the hot spot.
The place where it hurt was in the mix. Getting the right house meant getting a fixer because of the market, and our size needs. Our fixer came with delays. We piled stuff on top of stuff inside of stuff and then rearranged stuff so that we could fit in more stuff. We rented a garage at the apartments, then another, the total irony being that 5 years from now we might have bought an Airstream (or a Spartan) and chosen not to even have a stationary home.
It wasn’t 5 years on though, it was two years ago. I replaced a lot of hobbies and do it yourself tools, household items and just plain stuff. The pile of stuff FOR the house got in the way OF the house while we’re working on it, and it gets covered in sawdust too.
My son downsized and wanted to fill my basement the day we closed. Life doesn’t stop going on just because we are still really, really disorganized and stressed. We were moving stuff to do stuff, moving stuff to clean it or clean behind it, or to keep from having to clean it. We thought after things settled, we might take a long overdue vacation. One where we don’t carry our food and bed on our backs. One where we walk on the beach and sleep in a bed. Russ had an injury in the spring that lasted through the summer. There’s no telling how overdue that’s gonna get!
The uncomfortable irony happened when we learned from neighbors that lightening had struck several times in the new neighborhood. So far, it’s been mostly tree damage. The old neighborhood was in a dip and I never worried about tornados. The new neighborhood had several new roofs due to storm damage. I noticed before we bought that several homes had new roofs, but I had guessed it was just the age of the neighborhood.
Later a nearby house burned. I was coming home and saw the dreadful black plume. Every turn brought me closer to a home I’d been in for only a short time, and every turn I was unable to tell that the plume was coming from somewhere other than my home. I don’t wish loss on anyone else, but another fire before recovering from the first? I really hoped it wasn’t me.
At the same time, I started going through emergency choices in my mind. I listed settling as the best choice I made, but that double edged sword also makes me wonder if it was the worst. The whole thrift replacement idea got me some cool finds, but all that time and gas… there is no reimbursement for that, and I was only able to do it because of my employment gap.
I believe that if it ever happened again (please, NO!), I’d go the other route. Rent close by and rebuild. At least if you know where you’re going to live, it is possible to know if you’re renting something nearby when you sign the lease.
I think I’d make it as clean, fast, painless and finished as possible. I’m not sure I regret how I made my lemonade over the past two years, but the litmus test for any choice is “Would you do it again?” Right there in that moment, drawing closer and closer to a plume that could turn out to be my own home going up in smoke? The road was long. The answer was “no.” For that house at that time, maybe my decision was right, but I hope I never find out what it would be if it happened again, and I hope you, dear reader, never have more than a passing interest in what your decision might be either.