Sunday Almanac: The Myth of the Perfect House

house, imperfect

Here is the list, I explained less than one month ago to our patient realtor.

1. It must be a pure architectural style—preferably Arts & Crafts, but we’ll keep an open mind. As long as the style represents an authentic design movement, we won’t rule it out. And naturally, the home’s interior should possess character in keeping with its style.

2. The finishes and building materials must not be synthetic, including the exterior cladding. It shouldn’t sound featherweight or hollow when you tap your fingers on it. We need solid.

3. This goes for the flooring, too: We prefer genuine hardwood, and not plastic or vinyl.

4. The property should include a large, fully fenced back yard with plenty of mature shade trees.

5. We need a detached garage with private living quarters upstairs where our family will be comfortable when they visit, but that will lend itself to vacation rental income for the balance of the year.

6. It should be located in midtown, convenient to everything in Wilmington, and where the housing stock is older and more varied, but not ancient. Oh, and we’d like to live on a tree-lined street where the canopy meets in the middle overhead.

7. And please find us a parcel on high ground, not in a flood zone.

I could hear her smiling through the cellular connection, and then after I finished describing the impossible, she scratched the needle right off of that tiresome recorded message and set me straight with a reality check. I won’t bore you with the details.

The good news is, The Chef and I bought a house week before last.

As I was explaining on a phone call with my mom yesterday, that list up there is not arbitrary or impulsive. Many of those line items came together to form a collection that reflects years’ worth of tastes and desires I’ve carefully honed and polished, long before I moved up to Vermont for my decade of self-imposed exile, long before I met The Chef, and certainly before the two of us hatched our plan to go south to Wilmington, thence to stay forever and ever amen.

House shopping this time around has taught me that getting mired in a rigid paradigm of what you think you need does not help, especially just now. I shall not belabor the situation home buyers find themselves navigating in this here pandemicky, wildly inflated, housing-shorted economy, because you already know that story.

Not long after we arrived here, though, well before we’d gone to the mortgage lender or enlisted a realtor, I wondered whether I might be painting myself, and us, into a perfect corner in my imagined perfect house. To be fair, we were open to a decidedly “imperfect” house, a fixer, but only if it could be had at a fixer-friendly price. (Off in the distance, the universe bellows.)

We live in a vibrant coastal community where “beachy” is the secret handshake anywhere you go. It’s different, a little, when you work here instead of vacation here. There is no blowing out of flip flops stepping on pop tops, most the time anyway. But there is definitely a holiday vibe that permeates life in the coastal Carolinas, however you live it. Sometimes you have to unclench your fists and let go of your precious collections.

Change your way of thinking, I heard myself say, if you want to be settled, and indeed I do after these last ten nomadic years. Right now, you must be nimble, quick on your feet, to achieve the hard-won prize of feeling settled, ready to press play when you find something that might be the one. You also need some dumb luck; the wheel needs to land on ‘jackpot’ one of the times you spin it. There is only this guarantee: The prize will be imperfect.

So here is our revised, imperfect list:

1. The house ought to look like it belongs, feel like it grew out of the sandy soil on the North Carolina coast.

2. Instead of a fenced yard, let there be sweeping green spaces shared by an intimate community of people, maintained by the homeowner’s association, and behind it, a dense wood with meandering pathways, benches that invite you to linger, and tall, tall specimen trees.

3. Where the exterior has traditional architectural elements, inside should be a surprise reimagining of today’s kind of living space. It should be fresh and clean and painted in a palette that reflects this part of the world, which is to say, beachy.

4. The floors should be attractive, if fabricated in a material that stands up to the wear and tear of coastal living, but at least they’ll be new.

5. Let there be a cathedral ceiling that reaches clear to the second floor, with fantastic gallery walls on two sides to display a lifetime of collected artwork. Add to this openness plenty of natural light.

6. We’ll need a fully screened porch, and beyond it, a private patio paved with flagstones in mottled, earthy tones.

7. Finally, the property should be one moment away from the Atlantic Ocean.

Those were the boxes we finally checked. Ours is a lovely home with thirty-year-old bones, good muscle and sinew, healthy organs, and pretty skin.

I can’t wait to hear what y’all think of this one, said our realtor, stepping outside the front door just a week and a half ago, as we climbed out of our car.

Sometimes you wind up with what you didn’t even know you needed, and it is just the thing.

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