Wednesday, June 09, 2010

The White Elephant Project

The origin of the term white elephant comes from southeast Asia, where receiving a white elephant as a gift often turned out to be a curse. They are expensive to keep but, because they are sacred, could not be used for labor or given away. So the expression means any thing that you can't get rid of, but you are obligated to take care of even at great expense.

That's a pretty good description of my house. It's a decent house in a good neighborhood, but in retrospect buying it seemed like a better idea at the time. We searched for a long time for a house that had a number of specific features. First, we wanted a fourth bedroom because we thought that our families would visit more often if we had a spare room. As it turned out, that extra room has been occupied maybe 20 nights during the 8+ years we've been here. Second, we (mostly i) wanted more lot space. I grew up on a farm, so our 1 acre lot is a compromise between rural and suburban. Third, we wanted an older neighborhood, or at least one that was not a completely uniform development where the choices were between beige stucco and gray stucco.

We found a place with those features at a fairly sane price by southern California standards. We knew it was a bit of a fixer-upper, but we had reasonable expectations of increasing equity and disposable income. In fact, those expectations were met until the economic meltdown of 2008. We made some minor home improvements, replaced the heating/air conditioning and the roof, renovated the pool, did a little landscaping and painting, etc. I put in grass on the back part of our lot (over 7000 sq. ft.), which was a blindly stupid thing to do in a place with no rain.

Any house requires more maintenance than you expect. A house that's almost 40 years old requires more. A 40 year-old house where the previous owner was an ambitious but unskilled DIY-er, where there are parts of the property you don't set foot on for months, where the trees grow faster than you can cut them down is a bloody, freakin' nightmare. It is a white elephant.

Technically, there is nothing sacred about this particular white elephant. My reluctance to sell it stems partially from the fact that my kids like this community, and partially from the reality that it's definitely not a seller's market. However, since i simply can't let it fall apart for the next five years while my sons finish up school, i've started to make some incremental fixes. In the cluttered bazaar that is my psyche, i call this the White Elephant Project.

The project is complicated by the fact that i have no money, so it is primarily a sweat equity sort of thing. The only real difference between me and the previous owner is that i am fully aware that i have no skill. I will probably limit my activity to cleaning, cutting, and the minor repairs that i've mastered over 25 years of home ownership. I am somewhat fortunate that my property can be improved significantly simply by removing things.

My first steps have involved trimming some of the runaway flora, and fixing some of the irrigation (there must be a mile of unused PVC under my ground). I got a pro to remove the more troublesome trees. This summer i hope to take down a rotting shed, fix some of the outdoor plumbing and electrical, and get some of the windows fixed. Probably the biggest challenge is figuring out what to do with all of the extra space. I'd really like to open it up to a sort of community garden thing, but i'm fairly sure my litigious neighbors would go apeshit.

I feel guilty at times that i have a sort of reverse American dream, by which i mean that traditionally the dream is to own one's home while mine is to unload the thing at the first opportunity. In a sense this place should seem sacred, since it is where my kids grew up; and fixing it should be a labor of love. Instead, it feels like a huge, festering symbol of every bad choice i've ever made.

Anyway, i will probably do periodic updates on the project as it proceeds.

1 comment:

J said...

It may take more time and money to maintain than you would like, but I would submit to you that buying that house was no mistake. Let me count the ways.

First, you could sell it today for several hundred tho more than you paid.

Second, it increased in value more than your prior home (haven't checked, but I'm sure of it).

Third, it has a great layout and is very comfortable for a family of four.

Fourth, it is in a great school district that your kids love.

Fifth, it has the space from neighbors you want, and along with that goes quietness.

Sixth, it is in a very safe neighborhood where you could (if so inclined) leave the door unlocked and not have to worry about anything turning up missing.

Seventh, it is in a neighborhood that will hold its value very very well during our lifetime - as has already been proven in the last downturn.

Yes, if you view that purchase as a mistake, then I can only wish that I would make mistakes like yours.