Not My Dream House

What happens when you love the man but can't stand his plans?

not my dream house illustration with house and chain
Illustration by Serge Bloch
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It was not my idea to build a country house. But my husband, David, had his own dreams. Misguided dreams. A Manhattan apartment dweller who hadn't handled a hammer in years, he believed that building a glass-and-cedar home in a remote corner of the Catskill Mountains would be easy. Rewarding. Mentally stimulating. The way I saw it, if we had to have a house, why couldn't it be one already built? Within walking distance of a charming town in, say, the Bahamas? But no. He wanted to build on a windswept mountaintop surrounded by 30,000 acres of untamed forest.

It's not that I'm against nature. I like nature. Especially manicured lawns surrounding stone fountains. But our plot had rocks and rattlesnakes and the howl of coyotes. It was 35 minutes from the nearest coffee shop, and being that far from cappuccino puts me on edge. New York City is beyond my comfort zone, climatically speaking, and this piece of land was two hours north and 2,000 feet up.

Besides, what did I know about houses? I was a renter. As a renter, repairs are not your responsibility. Whenever I needed a hook hung in my apartment, I called Vinnie at the hardware store and hired him to do it. I didn't own a power drill or wrench or nails. When I met him, David didn't even have cuticle scissors he could call his own. Now we'd set off on a vision quest to exploit our incompetence in the most expensive, time-consuming venture we'd ever tried.

We broke ground in November, the excavation team dynamiting through the area's notoriously rocky land. Our lack of experience immediately proved costly. The architect's foundation plan called for enough concrete and steel rebar to support a house in the middle of a swamp. Or so our contractor told us—after he'd laid it. "By the way, it cost five thousand dollars more than your foundation allotment."

Why hadn't he told us this earlier? Why hadn't we asked? Because we didn't know what we were doing. The electrician's bill came in $2,000 above the estimate; he'd given his bid based on an assumption that we'd want a single ceiling-mounted fixture in every room, this for a home with 17-foot vaulted ceilings and an architect's restriction against canister lights.

As construction dragged on through the winter, I found the sheer number of choices overwhelming. We had to locate electrical outlets and switches, design bathrooms, buy vanities and mirrors, choose tile and tubs. Did we want radiant heat or forced-air? Solid wood flooring or engineered? I'd stand inside the freezing shell of a house, wearing boots and a sweater, down vest and down coat, snapping out decisions until the cold drove me to the car, where I'd crank up the heat and watch my life tick away on the digital clock, trying not to cry.

It was not my idea to build a country house. But my husband, David, had his own dreams. Misguided dreams. A Manhattan apartment dweller who hadn't handled a hammer in years, he believed that building a glass-and-cedar home in a remote corner of the Catskill Mountains would be easy. Rewarding. Mentally stimulating. The way I saw it, if we had to have a house, why couldn't it be one already built? Within walking distance of a charming town in, say, the Bahamas? But no. He wanted to build on a windswept mountaintop surrounded by 30,000 acres of untamed forest.

It's not that I'm against nature. I like nature. Especially manicured lawns surrounding stone fountains. But our plot had rocks and rattlesnakes and the howl of coyotes. It was 35 minutes from the nearest coffee shop, and being that far from cappuccino puts me on edge. New York City is beyond my comfort zone, climatically speaking, and this piece of land was two hours north and 2,000 feet up.

Besides, what did I know about houses? I was a renter. As a renter, repairs are not your responsibility. Whenever I needed a hook hung in my apartment, I called Vinnie at the hardware store and hired him to do it. I didn't own a power drill or wrench or nails. When I met him, David didn't even have cuticle scissors he could call his own. Now we'd set off on a vision quest to exploit our incompetence in the most expensive, time-consuming venture we'd ever tried.

We broke ground in November, the excavation team dynamiting through the area's notoriously rocky land. Our lack of experience immediately proved costly. The architect's foundation plan called for enough concrete and steel rebar to support a house in the middle of a swamp. Or so our contractor told us—after he'd laid it. "By the way, it cost five thousand dollars more than your foundation allotment."

Why hadn't he told us this earlier? Why hadn't we asked? Because we didn't know what we were doing. The electrician's bill came in $2,000 above the estimate; he'd given his bid based on an assumption that we'd want a single ceiling-mounted fixture in every room, this for a home with 17-foot vaulted ceilings and an architect's restriction against canister lights.

As construction dragged on through the winter, I found the sheer number of choices overwhelming. We had to locate electrical outlets and switches, design bathrooms, buy vanities and mirrors, choose tile and tubs. Did we want radiant heat or forced-air? Solid wood flooring or engineered? I'd stand inside the freezing shell of a house, wearing boots and a sweater, down vest and down coat, snapping out decisions until the cold drove me to the car, where I'd crank up the heat and watch my life tick away on the digital clock, trying not to cry.

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not my dream house illustration with house on a hill
Illustration by Serge Bloch
David wanted a place to be closer to nature, an escape from the consumerism and materialism of the city. Now we spent our "country" weekends in strip malls. We logged 14 hours at Home Depot one weekend, the same at Lowe's the next. It was like being on a reality show: Extreme Shopping. After we made a fifth faucet exchange, an employee threatened to terminate our return-without-receipt privileges. Was this the kind of learning experience David craved?



On Memorial Day, we still lacked plumbing, drywall, and heat. "It's June," I said to David the following weekend. "I am not supposed to be wearing a down vest."

"I think you have a psychological problem in relation to the weather," David said.

Was this a supportive statement? From someone who'd foisted his dream on me? That night at dinner I asked, once again, how we'd gotten ourselves into this situation. I meant it as a philosophical query, not a segue into a talk about divorce. But there we were, wrecking a nice meal in our "town's" one decent restaurant by discussing splitting up and, if we did divorce, what neighborhood would I most like to live in in L.A.

Marital strife is common among home builders, I later learned. There are therapists who specialize in helping couples cope with construction-induced stress. This is because building a house is more than an onslaught of incredibly tedious decisions. It's also a physical projection of how you want to live your life. When you see it going up on a mountaintop in the remote section of an unfashionable destination in a climatically unsuitable locale, you realize that you and your husband have different visions of domestic bliss. Perhaps a therapist could have helped us, but we never got a chance to find out. We had to hurry back into the car to take the 45-minute drive to the mall before it closed.

"If you still hate it when we're done, we can sell," David said. Would I still hate it??At the rate it was going up, it seemed I'd never know.

"Would you really sell?" I asked.

"Of course. It's not worth it if you're miserable," my suddenly reasonable husband said. "But we have to finish first." Then, in July, something miraculous happened. The sun came out. Summer arrived. Baby deer scampered over the grassland. The house still lacked essentials, like flooring and toilets, but at least some of the lights were working. We decided to camp out in our living room.

On our first morning there, we awoke to a new discovery: the sunrise. In a glass-walled house lacking curtains, you see dawn in a new way. The glowing red ball pokes up over the mountains, then slowly lessens in intensity as the land around absorbs its light. It was a glimpse of the earth's ­daily routine that I never saw from our apartment. The sunrise rekindled a feeling I'd occasionally had before, the reason I'd allowed myself to get pushed into this project in the first place—the sense that owning a home could be empowering, and that escaping to the country could bring a kind of wonder easily lost in the urban crush.

It still wasn't the exact home, in the exact location, that I would have chosen. But in the following months, I became less eager to sell. The great room with its glass prow and unobstructed view of the blue-gray mountains is beautiful. The pervasive quiet is relaxing. And we met some neighbors, who make it feel less like the end of the earth. The fact is, it is possible to derive pleasure from a fantasy that isn't your own. And there's even something rewarding about helping someone else achieve his dream.

Plus, the longer we wait to sell, the better our chances of turning a profit, which we can use to buy that condo in the Bahamas.
 
 

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