Wednesday, May 30, 2012
Do you own your house, or does it own you?
I mowed the lawn today, a chore I have detested since I was a kid. At least I am down to about 1/4 acres these days, as opposed to the five we mowed in New York. My neighbor loves mowing his lawn and spends countless hours on it, as well as other home repair and improvement projects. Others, well, they either hire someone, or like me, can't really afford to do that (although we think we can) and do it ourselves and hate it.
A house is a place to live, yet so much of what people do with houses has more to do with status than anything else. We all want our houses to be showplaces, to impress people with their size, their appointments, their decor, and of course, the landscaping. When you think of someone rich and famous, you don't think of the fancy cars they own (unless it is Jay Leno) but of the impressive mansion they live in. It is one of the most prominent displays of status and wealth in our society.
And while Jed Clampett can hire someone to mow his lawn and trim the topiaries, for most of us, home care devolves into an endless stream of expensive, thankless tasks.
Compounding this problem is the temptation to "accessorize" your house, after a trip to the lawn and garden section of Home Depot or Lowes. Suddenly, we decide we need to chotchke up our front lawn, with stuff that requires constant maintenance - flower beds that need to be weeded, plantings that need to be pruned, beds of mulch that need constant renewal, gravel paths that grow weeds and scatter gravel everywhere. That sort of thing.
Yes, it is fun to do this stuff, and when we bought our house in Virginia, we kind of went overboard with it. We bought nearly every damn thing Lowe's had to sell, from a drip irrigation system, to a raised-bed garden, to Koi pond, to a swimming pool, to a hot tub, a deck, a "Florida room" and of course, garden benches, bird baths, tiki torches, and other junk (no cement donkey towing a cart of flowers, thankfully).
And while it was fun, we burned through a mound of money, one credit card charge at a time. And the end result all tasted the same to the bulldozer that drove through it the day after we sold the place. But in addition to the vast quantity of cash, was the vast quantity of time it consumed. And with each additional "thing" we added, it was like that guy on the Ed Sullivan show who was spinning plates on sticks. We would install a new thing, only to find a previous "project" needed attention, repair, renewal, or outright overhaul.
It became an endless amount of work. And moreover, we found we could never leave home - ever, ever again. Even a one-week vacation would result in coming back to knee-high lawn and weeds that had a head-start that would take a month to pull. It was really beautiful, but it owned us, not vice-versa.
One year, a hurricane struck, knocking down trees and making a general mess of everything. We lacked the energy to restore it all. It started to look a little shabby around the edges.
When the developer knocked on the door and offered us a wheelbarrow full of cash, we said "YES" in a hurry.
Lesson learned - never be a slave to a house. A house is a place to live, period. And if you accessorize it to the point where you constantly have to work on it, are squandering huge sums or money, or - worst of all - are heavily in debt because of it, then it ends up "owning" you, and you become a slave to it.
(And no, over-accessorizing your home won't make it more valuable to a buyer. You can spend thousands - even tens of thousands of dollars trying to make the "perfect lawn", but it won't increase the value of your home by more than a few hundred dollars. And speaking of which, if you are selling your house, the best way to enhance the curb appeal is just to do that sort of work at the last minute - making everything look fresh and new. Expenses incurred in selling a home are actually tax-deductible, where as expenses in maintaining a home are just expenses.)
But there are other ways to be a house-slave as well. For example, buying more house than you can comfortably afford, so that you end up financially stressed to make mortgage payments, to the point where you cannot afford to go anywhere or do anything, other than sit at home in your overpriced box, and lord over your domain.
Less is More. And in this day and age, where the taxing authorities are nailing us through property taxes, owning less house is starting to make more and more sense. Sure, you won't be impressing anyone with your fabulous "look at me!" home. But is status worth bankrupting yourself over?
I don't think it is.