This old house, if it were mine…

#93 in a series of true experiences in real estate
October 1996, Hills Newspapers

Each night this week my last thoughts before falling asleep have been about a neglected old house. It’s a nice old house and I can’t stop thinking about what I would do to it if it were mine.

Paint. It does need paint. What color would I like inside? Gleaming white, the old green woodwork primed and painted several smooth coats, the edges crisp.

No, maybe not white. Maybe soft, pale yellow. Or a combination – the walls palest buttercream, the trim white. Yes, I see it, a rich, shiny white on the box beams, the wainscot and the baseboards and in the afternoon sun, the yellow will show itself.

I saw another house not long ago, the beautiful woodwork painted fresh, paper white, the walls a soft gray-khaki shade. The contrast was subtle, nice, the painting done well. Well-painted woodwork is almost palpable to me. I stood and stared at it for a long while.

The old house in my thoughts will need a lot of prep work before the paint is applied. There is staining on the ceilings from old roof and plumbing leaks, dusty and disheveled paper on some walls.

Someone removed the battens from the wood wainscot, then applied wallpaper. It must be removed (I would enjoy doing this), the battens replaced to give the room interesting dimension again.

A carpenter will be needed to find the right material for the battens, to fit and cut them and nail them up. I could find someone to do this. The energy I used to bring to house restoration, the ability to stay up until all hours eagerly working isn’t mine anymore.

Years ago I’d be planning an attack on the painted wood in this house, thinking what chemicals and gloves I would need, but I will never strip paint or varnish from wood again. It’s a job I find tedious beyond words. Anyway, I think the wood in this house will be lighter and look better painted.

The hardwood floors need sanding. What a pleasant thought. They’ll look clean and sleek, tawny, golden, lovely with the new paint, a bargain for the impact they will carry.

The windows need work. I’ve heard about a window man, someone who restores wooden windows, patiently providing whatever each needs. I’ve heard that he removes the trim and replaces the weights and ropes, putties the glass.

I wonder how to find him and how long it would take, how much the charge to make these windows whole again.

The kitchen needs everything. Uninteresting wooden, flat-faced cabinets were installed in the fifties or sixties, also counters of coral-colored laminate, a double v-shaped stainless steel sink, a metal sliding window.

These cause the kitchen to look foreign to the rest of the house, jarring.

The people who planned and paid to have the kitchen done must have liked it all clean and new. I can imagine them standing proudly at the doorway, saying, “It’s grand.” But it isn’t to me. And now it is worn and shabby to. I’ll enjoy watching it go.

I toss around the thought of tearing everything back to the studs, immediately switch to doing nothing but painting, try out a middle zone – recovering all surfaces – then turn back again to total destruction.

New cabinets would cost a lot. And I don’t know that I want to face changing the configuration of the kitchen anyway – too many choices, too hard to make.

It’s easier to leave things in place and paint the cabinets, add new pulls and perhaps some wood trim. Change the window to wood, replaster the ceiling, new appliances, floor and counters.

As I lie in bed, my mind skips around, unable to focus on one image. I’m getting impatient now. I want to forget the house, go to sleep, and I can’t. Too many options, I think, too much to consider, making an uncomfortable reverie.

Once I redid a tiny kitchen in a tiny cottage. It was great fun for me, in part because there was only so much that could happen in such a small space. Every inch was measured many times over, then used.

I chose white ceramic tile with a thin strip of dark green tile for the backsplash and stood watching while it was installed, feeling smug, for it was so right.

I asked the carpenter how I could get shelves for over the sink that were thick and he bought stair step tread, rounded on the front edge, and it looked great. The upper part of the wall between the kitchen and the rest of the cottage was removed for the longest possible views. A stainless steel stove hood was mounted above the four-burner stove and a delicately painted glass shade put on the overhead light.

I loved that little kitchen. For weeks it was the sweet subject of my falling asleep time. I lingered over it, enjoying each perfect part, especially the green tile trim, the color of expensive, lacquered cars.

I want the same satisfaction with the old house, want a mind picture of it as it could be with the right stuff. Light fixtures, hardware, floors, walls and garden healthy and inviting.

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