This Old Home
Our current house was built in 1874 and was completely gutted and renovated approximately one hundred and ten years later. When we bought it five years ago, we promised each other that we would never, ever renovate it. Despite our determination to buy a small, newish bungalow, we loved its quirkiness and character, the half steps between levels, the beat-up pine flooring, the sprawling wrap-around veranda. But before we bought it, we made a pledge to each other not to renovate because we did not want to re-live any aspect of the sixteen-year renovation we had endured in our last house (circa 1883).
Let me explain. I had subscribed for years to the now-defunct Century Home Magazine. I loved it. I loved the pictures and the stories of young couples who had rescued old homes and barns and falling-down structures and lovingly restored them to stunning showplaces. The smiling family pictures in front of English gardens and stone fireplaces and spinning wheels and harvest tables whispered to me, called my name, and completely seduced me. I convinced myself, and my ever-supportive partner, that we could do this, we should do this, and it would be fun. So we foolishly sold our sweet cottage-like bungalow and bought a run-down farm on the top of a hill at the very edge of the Oak Ridges Moraine in southeastern Ontario.
A passing farmer extinguished a blazing fire that had been set in an oil barrel under the eaves before the real estate deal closed. Their motive later became clear. We were incensed but naively ignored the warning. Moving day brought another omen. When we were finally given the key, we discovered that all the interior hardware, light fixtures, doors, carpeting, and anything vintage or of value had been stolen. The fire was to cover their tracks. The interior of the house had been gutted between the final viewing and the closing. Our lawyer told us to walk away, but we were now homeless. Another family had already moved into our previous house and were likely drinking the champagne we’d left to welcome them, or dancing on the hardwood floors we had carefully refinished.
And so we moved in. The house had been built using what is called “balloon construction.” This meant that the wall studs ran up two stories so all manner of creatures could travel freely through the walls and floors. And they did. For the next three years, we spent much of our energy trying to establish ourselves as the dominant species. There were bats in the bedrooms. There were mice that not only chewed through the original wiring but also the new re-wiring we had just paid for after ripping out the knob-and-tube. There were really nasty, bloated rats. Starlings taught their young to fly in the parlor. And spiders and cluster flies and yellow jackets mysteriously appeared inside during all seasons. Ants and earwigs would sometimes join the party.
Chipmunks chewed through the dishwasher hose so that water flooded the basement. They climbed into uncapped pipes and died, filling the house with an indescribable smell of death so strong that it kept us outside until the exterminators arrived. Birds flew down the chimney and through the furnace, dropping soot and sparks as they fluttered frantically to get out. Others worked their way into every possible crevice to build nests in the Spring, when you would constantly hear the chirping of baby birds and the flapping of wings between the walls.
This adventure lasted sixteen years. And although there were eventual triumphs, the lessons learned from our hard-won battles include the following:
- Do not be seduced by decorating magazines. People who are able to rescue ruined buildings have deep pockets, nerves of steel, other homes to live in, or contractor friends who gave them great deals.
- Do not ignore the warning signs. If the previous owner tries to burn down the house, you have to believe that there’s something tremendously wrong.
- Do not ignore the advice of your lawyer. If a professional tells you to walk away, do so quickly. Power walk. Run. Jog. Leapfrog. Don’t look back. Go!
- Do not feed the birds. No bird feeders anywhere near an old house. The joy you may feel watching them from your window is far outweighed by the wildlife that will infiltrate your house. The attraction of your nicely filled bird feeder will draw vermin from miles away, and they will homestead for generations.
- Buy a newer house.
Previously Published by Silver Sage Magazine, May 6, 2019