Sunday, July 22, 2012

A House With Character

Subtitle: Defending New Suburban Construction

When we first began toying with the idea of moving last year, there were three main possibilities:

1) find a home near to our existing neighborhood with the features we were looking for (a bigger, flatter lot, nicer kitchen or good "bones" in which to add a nicer kitchen, and a bigger garage and/or more storage for stuff like lawn mowers and bikes)

2) Look for a house roughly equivalent to what we already had (which was not really too small and did have plenty of good points) but in a much upgraded school district (for the STL-area readers, I mean something like Clayton or Ladue schools)


3) Get a nicer house, nicer yard and a school district upgrade by moving to St. Charles County.

When we decided on option 3, we got a few raised eyebrows from our college friends. We tend to run with a fairly progressive crowd, by far and large more Democrat than Republican, more liberal than conservative, more urban re-development than suburban settlement. And my husband and I tend to agree with most of those principles as well.

So why did we contribute to suburban sprawl?

1. Lot size. In the St. Louis inner-suburban areas that we would have considered, in general you get tiny houses on tiny lots. Or you spend a cool million or more on something more. Comfortable as our salaries are, we are nowhere near that "cool million" level. There are not-as-inner suburbs where a middle-class family can afford more than three blades of grass, and the ones that appealed most to us were in St. Charles County.

2. Patchwork houses.  Lovers of old houses call this "character". I looked at pictures of aqua carpet, green countertops, pink tile, and other assorted "character" as work to be done.

We had a very brief flirtation with a massive fixer-upper house near the border of U City and Clayton. Good square footage, all brick, double lot, "charm" and "character", a great asking price, a kitchen out of the 80's, bathrooms whose grout was well beyond cleanable, and a basement full of asbestos.

We looked at another one near our neighborhood that had the lot size and square footage we were looking for, plus the price was reasonable. And every room in the place had a different style/color/species of flooring and a different color of paint. The former owners had added on here, tacked on there, re-worked this into that.  The result? Franken-house.

A brand-new house is a blank slate. Walls do not need wallpaper stripped or multiple layers of primer to cover strange paint colors. Floors are level, free of stains and wear. Cabinetry has not been damaged. Basements have never been flooded. Walls do not have a million nail holes or patch marks. Maybe those things add character. But I like that I don't have to remove unwanted character prior to adding my own.

3. Funny smells.  Maybe I'm too picky.  Or maybe I have a thing with smells. But other people's houses smell funny. They smell like people, like pets, like sewer gasses, like cooking spices. Like sweaty feet. You can walk into a house and tell right away if a dog lives there, or if the occupants ever smoked in the house (it seeps into the paint and the ceilings and the ductwork and the dust.) You can tell if they eat a lot of curry, wear a lot of perfume, think fresh cut flowers liven up a place (cut flowers make me sad, and also make my nose run and my chest constrict).

 I'm sure my house smells funny too. But it smells like us. And a newly-built house is wonderfully strange-smell-free.

4. The "cookie cutter" myth. Why do anti-suburbanites claim that in the suburbs, all houses look alike? I've driven through streets in south St. Louis, Creve Coeur, Clayton, U.City, the Central West End, etc where every house looks alike. Not identical--there are variations in siding and landscaping, and over time the subtle differences get amplified with additions, outbuildings, screen porches, new window styles, etc. But anytime there is a neighborhood where houses were built at a similar time, by a similar group of builders, then the houses tend to resemble each other.  In some neighborhoods, you can guess by the outside what the inside layout looks like.

The same is true in planned subdivisions in the suburbs. I don't think its a bad thing. It is merely a predictable thing. Houses are single story, multiple stories, different colors, different yards. I don't actually want my house to stand out from the crowd.

5. Maturity of landscapes. Unless we move (again), my kids will never have a treehouse. We have no trees that large. Even in the 12-year-old house we moved out of, the largest tree on our lot would barely have supported any climbing. The new house has (half-dead) grass, and a few dozen seedling trees. Hopefully in the next year or two we will add some larger trees to that list. I do not consider our lack of mature landscaping to be a downside. In fact, it gives us a blank slate. If we want to keep the middle of our backyard free of obstacles for playing volleyball, we can.

There is a certain appeal to being the caretaker of towering trees. It also brings the risks of strong winds, messy cleanup, and extra expense for changing a home's outdoor spaces.  And we have hopes of at some point adding some solar power to our home. Had we bought a house shaded by mature trees, that would be an impossibility. This way, we can be smart about our planting.

6. Communities planned for the way we live. I have no desire to walk to a grocery store. I'd be limited to bringing home only what I could carry, and have to shop several times a week to keep the fridge stocked for the family. I do not have that kind of time.

And I do not care to live near where I work. If I had a community-focused career (something like a doctor or a teacher), then the idea would be great. But I have a career that supports working for large corporations. Large corporations do not make good neighbors, and I have no desire to move next door to an industrial park. I want to live in a nice residential area.

Maybe someday in the future, hubby and I will revisit the idea of a fixer-upper, or a down-sized house with lots of charm in a older, established neighborhood. But for our lives now, I'm pretty happy with our choice: a blank slate in the suburbs where we can add our own charm, plan our own landscape, make our own memories (and strange smells, lol). We got a good school district, a reasonable house payment, a nice community, and room to grow. 


Kathy G said...

I SO understand where you're coming from!

Our first house was wonderful, but the school district stunk. Son #1 was only a year old when we moved to West County suburbia. Five years later we'd outgrown that house. Sons #1 and 2 were enrolled in the parish school, and we were fortunate to find a house within the parish boundaries.

Now, twenty years later all three kids are grown and gone. The house is too big. I'd love to move to one of those inner-ring suburbs and a house that wouldn't have suited us back in the day.

Bethany said...

I've always like reforming the character...until now. New, no work required house sounds like bliss to me right now. There are benefits and drawbacks to any neighborhood and our needs change over time. We've got until kindergarten age to figure out our next move...and it could possibly be somewhere far away from easy T access :( but only time will tell.

Kristi Lea said...

I love the idea of old houses. Not like 70's houses, but like 100 year old houses. Ones with nice woodwork and high ceilings and all that. Twice now, we have started our house search looking at 100+ year old houses and twice have been scared away by the amount of work.

There was one in the Central West End that we briefly had a contract on a while before we got married. That one was less of a mess than the Asbestos House. But we were young and had no experience maintaining a house, let alone renovating one.

Maybe house #3 will be an old house--when the kids are old enough to help and not just "help" (or else stay out of the way and not eat paint chips). Or maybe we will retire in this one. Who knows :)