Our old house is driving my husband crazy

We've been working on this place so long, I really think it's done my poor hubby in.

Published January 10, 2006 12:02PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

Here's what's going on:

My husband and I bought our house seven years ago. It's an old house that needed work, but the price was within our range and we liked many of its features: its location, its yard, its big front porch, its built-in china cabinets and bookcases, the way all of the bedrooms are corner rooms to catch the breeze and light. Like a lot of home buyers, we discovered problems with the house after we moved in: structural and masonry issues, weird electrical work and plumbing, leaks in the roof, and so forth. We're now well into a cycle of renovations that has involved quite a bit of work: replacing the roof and windows, fixing the structural and masonry problems, stripping woodwork, and renovating the upstairs bathroom. This has taken longer and has been more expensive than we bargained for.

My husband has told me that he now hates our house. He thinks we made a big mistake buying it and that we should have bought another house that we had looked at but decided against. The house is dusty, which aggravates his allergies. The new bathroom will be just as bad as the old one, only worse because we spent more money on it. He can't stand looking at the mess anymore and thinks continuing with renovations is throwing good money after bad. He wants to fix it up only to the point of being able to sell it. He feels too depressed to do anything in the face of so many problems and retreats to watch TV.

I still like our house. I think that we've made a lot of progress in fixing it up and that it will turn out OK. I don't see its problems as being insurmountable, although I am fully aware that they will take more time, effort and money to fix.

I am also reluctant to trade a known set of problems for an unknown set of problems. Almost everyone I know has had trouble of some sort with their houses. People with older houses face problems that are similar to ours. People with new houses have had incompetent and/or unscrupulous builders, or the bathrooms aren't done right and leak, or some other annoying and expensive thing goes wrong. I don't want to go through all the work of selling our house and moving only to find that we have gotten ourselves into a new set of problems.

Finally, I don't want to overextend ourselves with debt. Real estate prices in our area have increased quite a bit and anything we buy will be much more expensive than what we paid for our current house. This rise in prices does benefit us because we could get more for our house, but I don't know if it will be enough to cover the difference. I've been laid off twice in the past few years and feel that I no longer have any kind of job security whatsoever. We can afford to live in our current house on my husband's salary alone and this made it much easier for me to deal with losing my jobs. I don't know if this will be true if we purchase a new house.

For what it's worth, I think my husband is feeling depressed in general. He also is a perfectionist who becomes frustrated when things do not live up to his ideals.

I am at a loss to know what to do here, or how to reconcile our two completely opposite views of the situation.

Home Body

Dear Home Body,

I am so glad to hear that your husband is miserable. I am miserable as well.

Our house has been under renovation since August.

I've started eating lunch in the truck.

It's not as spacious as the house but it's cleaner. And no tradesman is going to start taking it apart while I'm eating.

Why is having your house worked on so nerve-wracking? I think about this a lot. I remember in junior high school we read some story and then our teacher told us that the house could represent the body.

Do you think the house represents the body? Is that why it's so weird when they cut a hole in the wall to put in a new door? But is that also why you really want a door in the wall in the first place -- because it would be like letting light into your heart?

I don't know.

Can I be of any help to you? Two things I can suggest: Whatever facts you can gather, gather them. And whatever decisions you can make, make them.

Get some figures so you know what it could sell for. Get some figures so you know what it could rent for. Get some figures so you know what it would take to buy or rent someplace else. Don't just dream up these figures. Do the legwork. have a real estate person put some numbers on paper.

Look at the numbers. What is possible and what is not possible, given these numbers? Is it possible to sell the house and buy another one, or is it simply out of the picture? Interest rates are still inching up. Figure out into the future with rates maybe another half or whole point higher: Is it doable? Could you get what you want for your house?

The truth is you probably can't know for sure. But you may be able to rule out certain things.

That way, at least you can make some provisional decisions. As to making decisions: Whatever decisions you can make, make them. For instance, based on the numbers, you could decide not to sell the house in the next six months. You could decide to finish just certain projects and then stop and evaluate. And based purely on the emotional toll this situation is taking, you could say, OK, after we finish these certain projects, we're going to take three months off. No work on the house of any kind. We're going to live in the house and try to enjoy life.

Likewise, if your husband really wants to move, you could make a decision to spend a limited amount of time looking at other houses -- with the understanding that you're not actually planning to move, you're just gathering information. For those three months. And then at the end of those three months, you could make another set of decisions to cover the next few months.

As far as your husband is concerned, it sounds like he's suffering the cumulative stress and uncertainty of living in a house that is continually being worked on. This is not unexpected. (Your Honor, I present myself as Exhibit A.) Think of all the things you and he used to do to keep yourselves sane. He probably used to relax in the house on the weekends, read the paper, watch a game, lie around. Look at all the leisure time you're missing. Look at all the time that ordinarily would be down time, when you could recharge, that now is instead taken up with a particularly stressful activity that makes you feel out of control, powerless and fearful.

Yikes. That sounds too familiar. Well, take heart. I know this as well: It will be over. It really will.

And then you can have a big party. I know I'm going to.

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