I sometimes wonder whether my home is a sign of my lacklustre ambition or a calamitous failure of imagination. You see, since 2008, I’ve written about the local housing industry for multiple publications, including this one.
I’ve wandered through vast, lovingly appointed custom residences. Savoured tasteful model homes in shiny new suburban communities. Relished meticulous renovations that ran into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Applauded the beaming winners of innumerable design awards. Nifty home automation systems that are smarter than some world leaders, gleaming jet-black countertops that are worth more than my car, ensuites that could double as basketball courts: there’s little a homes writer doesn’t see and, sometimes, covet.
So you’d think, what with all this inspiration, I’d either live in or hunger to live in a commodious, leading-edge home with every modern convenience known to man or woman. Instead, when I turn off our gravel road east of Navan, it’s to arrive at a modest white farmhouse built in 1904.
It commands all of 1,700 square feet, including three smallish bedrooms, a single bathroom, virtually nonexistent closet space, and a dank, unfinished basement with rubble stone walls, spiders, and a collection of discarded ski boots. No home theatre or second-storey laundry room here. The kitchen floor — its hardwood forever stained by water pumped over the house by the volunteer fire department when a former owner accidentally set the roof ablaze with a rubbish fire — tilts at an alarming angle. The old pine stairs sometimes squeal worse than the pigs we once raised in our ancient, rambling barn.
It’s all a far cry from what I see on the job. And, truth be told, despite the pastoral views and the quiet privacy and the warm, welcoming character of our home, there are times when I think: Wouldn’t it be fine to pull into a garage with a door that opens remotely, trundle into a spiffy, draft-free home where Alexa perkily awaits my every enquiry, and do little but glory in what modern design and construction can achieve?
But then I remember there are reasons — other than sheer indolence — that we’ve lived here for 40 years. For starters, it’s been affordable. We paid $46,000 back in 1979 and an additional $30,000 in the mid-’90s for 13 acres, including the barn. Even allowing for inflation and soaring house prices, that’s not much compared to the average $446,661 that the Ottawa Real Estate Board says non-condo properties went for locally in 2018. Also, our taxes are low: about $2,200 a year. And because I’m handy, I’ve rebuilt the old place almost single-handedly, in the process contributing little to a booming Canadian renovation market estimated to be worth over $75 billion this year.
“Don’t misunderstand me. I admire greatly the work of the local housing industry.
Designs are creative, homes are well built, commitment to the profession and the community is deep.”
Fixing up your own old home cements a special relationship with the place and those who preceded us here. Tearing open a kitchen wall one day, I discovered a dentist’s bill made out to Ralph Hayes, a former owner, in 1936. The fee, for unspecified services: $2. Another find: a valentine, circa 1950, from a brother to a sister, both of whom lived here. That connection with the past, the contextualizing of one’s existence, lends, at least for a time, stability and continuity to the transience of life. I can’t imagine that happening in a newly minted home.
The work demanded when you live in an old-school home like ours — the hours in the bush every summer bringing down trees to stoke the wood stove all winter, the quick repair of an aging well pump because it’s 6 a.m. and you need water, pronto — also fosters self-sufficiency and resiliency, traits we now see passed on to our two grown daughters.
There’s also a sense of scale, living here. Family and friends love to visit, and first-timers almost invariably note the big, open living/dining room with its century-old pine walls and traditionally styled windows. But it’s still a modest and relatively plain home, one that reminds us daily that despite the blandishments of a consumer society and smiling folks on Facebook, we really can’t have it all.
Don’t misunderstand me. I admire greatly the work of the local housing industry. Designs are creative, homes are well built, commitment to the profession and the community is deep. Nor do I doubt how much other folks love the homes they own or question the ways they discover of connecting with their spaces.
But I’d rather come home to this old, sometimes cantankerous place with its singular personality and long memory. It’s where my heart is.
When Ottawa-area writer Patrick Langston moved into his home in 1979, he swore his next move would be in a pine box. He’s sticking to that oath.