Thursday, December 29, 2011

Zen and Granite Counterstops

Have you noticed how people whine and complain on HGTV’s House Hunters and Property Virgins shows?

Oh, lawsy.

They criticize Formica counters, funky wall colors, small bathrooms from the 60s with pink tile, vinyl flooring. Whine, whine, whine. No house is “perfect,” they sigh. Why isn’t there a perfect house for them for a reasonable price?

I think about the nice house I was privileged to grow up in, with one pink bathroom for seven people, a tiny sliver of yard, about three linear feet of Formica kitchen counter. The mouth-watering meals my parents turned out of that bare-bones kitchen were the definition of delicious. Cherry pie from the fruit tree in the backyard? Who does that today? My family loved that house—it’s the place we think of when we remember home. My parents were so proud to make their last $200.00 monthly mortgage payment after thirty years.

The HGTV house-hunters’ expectations are high. How did these young Americans get the idea that they were supposed to be living so large? What the heck is wrong with Formica, anyway? Some of the most fabulous meals I ever cooked were in a camper trailer kitchen with an apartment sized gas stove from the 1950s—and gasp—no granite counters. Here’s a shocker: granite counters and stainless steel appliances don’t make dinner taste any better. Or create family harmony.


Here comes the hypocritical part, and my secret shame. I live in McMansion. Before you start hating on me, let me explain.

We owned the lot for 20 years; we bought it when it was called a swamp and not a “delightful marsh-front property with bird-watching from the back yard.” My husband built the house for us in 2006. Sounds ominous, right? Yep, we built at the height of the real estate boom, planned to stay in the house about five years, sell, and have enough equity to help with our eventual retirement. That retirement has been moved back to about age 90 since the real estate bubble burst. We pray our health holds out.

We aren’t wealthy people. I teach in the South, for Pete’s sake. That alone speaks volumes; you must know I teach for love, not money. Like many others, I haven’t even had a cost of living raise in five years. They’ve cut my health benefits and are going after my retirement plan next. Although I’m not happy with this treatment, I’m incredibly thankful to have the job, for obvious reasons.

So now the lovely house we built, our “dream” house that we really built for other people, is sitting on the market. The market is in the toilet. We’re stuck in a house that has a humongous mortgage payment, is too big and fancy for us, and may not sell for years. The house has most of the hot-button features that HGTV buyers crave: oak floors, granite counters, 3 full baths, loads of windows, porches, decks, and even a boat dock.

The house is lovely, and we’re lucky to live in it, but it has never felt like home to me. I knew we’d sell it, so I haven’t let myself relax into it, to feel like I belonged here. I appreciate all the features, I do. We looked at house plans for ten years before we picked this plan as a match for the lot. It’s a special, light-filled house, built like a fortress to withstand the hurricanes we get here in the South.

But when I write that murderous mortgage check every month, I dream of a house of half the size, with a small yard, some old-timey charm, and yes, even Formica counters.  A house with a tiny little mortgage to reflect its tiny little square footage. Room to breathe financially. A lift to this relentless weight on our shoulders.

Yet we are extremely lucky, and I count my blessings every day. Yes, I really do. Believe it or not, we moved directly from a comfortable double-wide (not a thing in the world wrong with double-wides) to this house. We sang the theme song to The Jeffersons, “Moving On Up” when we moved in. We have this huge mortgage, but we are not underwater. The house is still worth more than the mortgage, although if you count the cash we put into the house ourselves, we are at breakeven. For today’s economy, that’s a miracle.

We see people—we know people who have lost homes to foreclosure in the last few years. Other people are underwater but still scraping together a mortgage payment each month. Some families are homeless and may never be homeowners again. They are the ones who deserve our attention, our help, our understanding.

We have been there, too. In the early 1990s we were bankrupt and foreclosed on, wandering the country in an old van and living in a tiny 1964 Holiday Rambler camper trailer. Foreclosure is heartbreaking. No one can fully understand how it hurts unless she’s been through it. It hurts financially and it hurts because a dream dies when a family loses a home after trying everything they know to save it. The hurt lasts for years, and never really goes away entirely.

Please don’t judge someone who has lost a home to foreclosure. An outside observer never knows the whole story about how a family lost their home. The situation is always more complicated than you could possibly imagine. Saying they shouldn’t have borrowed the money in the first place is not helpful. Illness, job loss, addiction, and death can hit any family at any time. Most foreclosed families have spent their life-savings fighting to keep their house, trying to do the “right thing.”

In our case, after foreclosure, we rebuilt our credit over the course of 15 years. We worked and saved. We don’t ask for praise. We did what so many others have done; we built a pretty house.

Some of you may be thinking, tough shit. I should just shut up, put on my big girl panties, and thank God I don’t lay my head down in a cardboard box or homeless shelter every night. I get it, I do.

Maybe that’s why some of the couples on HGTV upset me. They tend to have such high expectations of what a house should be. The hardwood floors, the granite counters, the high ceilings seem to mean everything to them.

If I could, I’d try to get through to these house-hunters. Lighten up, I’d tell them. It isn’t the house, it’s the feeling of home created within the house. A nice house means nothing if we don’t have peace of mind.

All the granite countertops in the world won’t bring us that.


  1. I loved this. Happiness is not about the house you live in. It's about the home you make of what you have. And you shouldn't be apologizing for living in a McMansion (I love that, by the way). You worked hard for it, own it and enjoy it.

    I realize that we are all just one paycheck or one lost job away from being foreclosed on, or being homeless. And I am thankful every day of my life for the home we live in, and for the jobs we have.

    Thanks for the great post. Enjoy your house!

  2. Thanks so much, Judy. Since it looks like we are going to be here for a while, one of my New Year's resolutions is to work at feeling more at "home" here. I think I'll plant some trees!

  3. I loved this, too. I definitely have tremendous compassion for people who lose their homes--as you said, there is always more to the story than simple snap judgments would have us believe.

    As to those people with absurd expectations--I know this is probably simplistic scapegoating but I think some of it has to do with the lifestyles portrayed on television--not just reality shows, but even regular dramas, sitcoms, etc. I've lost track of how often the character's means (job, age, etc) are completely off-kilter with the home they are living in or the vacations they can take or (as a former flower shop manager) how elaborate (and expensive) their wedding flowers are and so on. The messages are subtle, maybe even subliminal, but they're there and absorbed over time could easily result in the attitudes you're talking about. (I certainly saw similar attitudes in the flower business when people realized the COST of those lavish displays they had their hearts set on.)

  4. Love this. My mum was foreclosed on, twice – once when I was a child, and once when I had a child of my own. The weight of failure is so HEAVY, there. Made more so by the judgement of others, and their blissful, hurtful ignorance.

    I shake my head at House Hunters, too. My house is small, scuffed, worn and loved. It was like that when we bought it, and will always have the long list of small and large repairs that come with old houses. It's home, though, even if I'd really like it to be prettier. And the maple stick we planted 9 years ago is almost an actual tree, now. That helps!

  5. I am here via Masked Mom's Liebster awards, and as a retired teacher, I can certainly identify with the concept of "not being in it for the money." I also am not sure that I did not like my 16 by 20 windowless, powerless, waterless cabin that I built in 1981, more than the 3,000 square feet plus McBox that the little cabin has evolved into. I'm not sure what HGTV is and am not familiar with the shows you mentioned, but that doesn't make me a bad guy, I hope. And the only granite on the premises is that which is perched on my shoulders, thank you very much. I really enjoyed this p

  6. That last word was supposed to be piece. I guess I had better keep a firmer hand on the leash which controls my tongue/pen...

  7. Masked Mom-- thanks for the comments. I am with you on the weddings, even though some people would run us out of town for saying so. What is it with a middle-class couple spending an average of $20-30,000 on a wedding (and those lavish flowers you mention)? The attitude that a Kardashian wedding is a birthright is truly puzzling to me. The best thing I can say about these weddings is that they provide jobs for others :). But the expectations these wedding extravaganzas set up are extremely high. Hmmn. I hear a blog post coming on.

  8. Hi Desi-- thanks for stopping by and for your insightful comments. I'm going to plant some trees this week if I possibly can. A small, scuffed house full of love sounds heavenly to me. Aside from my husband, the best parts about our house are the noisy cats and their fur balls in the corners. Happy new year to you and your family!

  9. Hi Mark-- thanks so much for coming by and for the story of the evolution of your McBox. How I adore that term! My heart yearns for a small house with a small mortgage and a small yard for my cats.
    That you don't know the HGTV shows I mention speaks highly of your character in my book! :)

  10. Hi Melanie - I'm here via Mark (above) - that silly but cute man is my big brother and i assure you he is correct - he has NO clue what HGTV is but his McBox is perfect. The best thing about his McBox is the view out the living room window - beautiful NorCal hills. Oh, and the pool table....oh and the homage to baseball wall .... and his wonderful cozy warm kitchen....and, most of all, it's how people FEEL when they visit Mark's house.
    I am also in education and I hear you about the lack of raises, and the health insurance that is now being assumed more and more by the employee. As you said, however, I am certainly not in the profession for money but for the satisfaction and connections it gives me. I am fortunate to have entered the CA real estate market a good thirty years ago and have a sweet, just right sized home in a small town. Once upon a time we thought about moving over to the coast if and when we ever hit retirement but now we are happy to stay right here (again, if and when retirement ever arrives). Thanks for your post, I look forward to reading more.

  11. Thanks for making me re-think some of my thinking!

  12. Wow, Lucy, that is grand of you to say. Happy New Year!

  13. I liked this post very much, Melanie. We lost our home of many years when hubby lost his job the first time. Ever since we've been renting. It certainly makes a difference to "once have had and then lost." But after 13 years of moving and roaming and feeling so unsettled, we have learned to "roll with the punches," as the saying goes.

    By the way, I've never seen this show, "House Hunters." So thank you for blog. Now I know what it is all about! :)

    Amor i abrazos, querida Amiga!

  14. Nothing wrong with renting. The years we rented had their advantages, since we could call the landlord about any repairs needed! We were lucky to have landlords who cared. If we were renting here, we'd have given our notice about 3 years ago when hubbie's business took a nosedive (to put it kindly).
    You are better off not having seen House Hunters-- I want to yell at the TV. Today a woman looking for a house in Norway said she HAD to have air conditioning. I think she needs therapy more than A/C!
    Love you, my sweet!

  15. There is no shame in a double wide or a McMansion or a basement apartment lovingly called The Grotto. You're right. Home is what we create inside 4 walls.

    I worked for a custom home builder for just under a year and then as a personal assistant for a luxury real estate agent for 4 months (with a few years before and in between working for an urban public school district). I didn't last in either of those positions because I couldn't relate to this compulsion to live in a home well outside a person's means. You all built with your future in mind and I do believe you'll be able to sell and still have a nest egg. But do let yourself be at home in your luxury for the time being. Not feeling at home in your house is kind of almost as bad as not having a home at all.

  16. Everyone's home should have a charming name like your Grotto. Maybe if I can come up with a name for this one, I'll feel more at home.

    I was a real estate broker for 8 years-- it worked for me at the time and tied into my incredibly nosy streak-- how I loved seeing people's houses! That's how I met my husband; he was my client and a friend for years before the sparks flew.
    Just a little trip down memory lane tonight. Thanks for stopping by, Miss Jane.

  17. Melanie, this was the most wonderful post. Unfortunately, I am part of that generation of house hunters you speak of. Why do we feel like we are owed the grandest in life? We want it all and for very little. I could go on, but I won't.
    We lost our home when I was a teen, and my parents came damn close again this time around, but were able to salvage it. Thankfully. I really do not think they would have lived through another foreclosure.

  18. Hubby and I were just talking about this the other day and how the stigma of losing a home isn't what it used to be. It's happening so much, for a variety of reasons that, while still devastating, it isn't the social stigma it once was. In a way I guess it's good, but then it isn't...because it is still a loss and an ordeal.

    I'm always amazed at the disdain those house hunting folks have for other peoples homes. It makes me crazy when they walk into a bathroom with a sour face (which is larger than my bedroom) and exclaim, "'s pretty small" Ah...I imagine retiring in a small little cottage with a tiny little garden (that someone tends FOR me). But, I will admit...I love my granite counters. :-)

  19. I should have mentioned I like my granite counters, too, but because I am a certified (certifiable?:))rock hound. Stones, rocks, shells, fossils, beach glass... I have bowls full of them all around the house, so the granite kind of ties in with my rockiness. Rock-headed-ness?
    Thanks for coming by-- I'll be over to see what you've been up to. Any wordless days lately? You are the queen of the post-it!

  20. WW...yet. I'm sure there will be more in the future! :-) I have a wicked cool rock (somewhere around this house) that is loaded with very cool!

  21. When friends travel, I ask them to bring me home rocks, and they do! I have rocks from around the world, and they are precious to me. We get fossils and fossilized shark's teeth on our beaches here, so I go crazy hauling them home.

  22. Oh, Laine, I think I can understand what you mean about not surviving a second loss of home. So many people have lost everything in this recession and at mid-life or older, how hard it is to think about starting over. It can be done, but can also be a crushing blow.

    Please don't take it personally when I say "young" homebuyers. Young, to me, is anyone born after 1957, lol. I've seen plenty of demanding homebuyers in all age groups from when I was a broker, as well as on HGTV.
    There's nothing wrong in knowing what one wants in a home, it just makes me chuckle when someone looks at a midcentury home and expects it to have the big baths and closets that a home built today may have.
    Thanks so much for the comment!