Hassles of Homeownership


October 28, 2014 by Jean

I have lived alone for more than 35 years now, and I have been a homeowner for almost 25 of those years. As a self-sufficient person who is good at problem-solving and enjoys solitude, I mostly love living alone. There are certain hassles of homeownership, however, that can leave me feeling overwhelmed and wishing for a partner to share the responsibility.

I’ve been experiencing a string of these hassles recently. First came the mice that moved back into the house at the first hint of cold weather. I thought my new addition had blocked off the place where the mice were getting in, so it was disappointing to find that they have other entrance points. I know how to deal with mice, but they have a strong “ick” factor for me. I fantasize about a partner to whom I could say, “You take care of the mice, honey.” Without such a partner, my first reaction to hearing mice in the house was to turn up the volume on the radio and pretend those noises weren’t happening. But when I was sitting watching television one evening and a mouse ran into the room and behind the sofa, my powers of denial were breached. Now I’m back to setting traps in the evening and emptying them of any corpses each morning.

The mice have been a minor hassle. A more major hassle has been getting my new woodstove (the primary heating method for my house) installed and working. This hassle began a month ago when the stove shop came to deliver and install the stove. After they had cleaned my chimney and removed the old woodstove, we had one of those “uh-oh” moments and they called me into the basement (where the woodstove is located) to show me a major fire hazard caused by the fact that the opening into my chimney for the stove pipe was 2” wider than the flue. After they explained that they were not allowed to install the stove under these conditions, we agreed that they would get the stove set up and ready to be connected to the chimney, but that I would need to get in a mason to repair the problem with the chimney and then get someone to finish the installation of the stove. It took more than three weeks to get the mason here. After he finished installing a new chimney “thimble” of the proper size, we had another “uh-oh” moment when he called me down to the basement to show me the violations of fire code in the construction of my house (less than the 2” required space between the masonry chimney and the wood structures). This is a problem that cannot be corrected without tearing down the house and rebuilding it!

My first reaction to this news about my house being built in violation of fire safety codes was something close to panic. How would I heat my house if I couldn’t use the woodstove? Why hadn’t the inspection I had done before I bought the house caught this problem? I spent one sleepless night before I talked myself down off the ledge and reminded myself (as the mason had reminded me) that the house has been heated by a woodstove using this chimney for 35 years without any problem. Then I started to gather information. How many walls around the chimney were closer than the required 2”? How much closer? Could any of these wood structures be moved further away from the chimney? This involved a lot of time with a measuring tape and led to the decision to get the new stove installed and keep a careful eye on how hot the outside of the chimney gets. After a couple of years, if I find that using the woodstove makes me anxious about fire danger, I can remove and sell it, cap off the chimney and have an alternative heating system (probably a ductless heat pump like the one that is being installed to heat my new addition) put in.

Coming to terms with this set of homeownership hassles was helped by the fact that I am spending much of my life these days surrounded by what Dominique Browning (Paths of Desire, Scribner 2005) calls “the Helpful Men.” Browning describes the tribe of Helpful Men this way:

They are on this earth to be helpful. And they care about doing things right…. Once you are in their ken, they will come to your rescue at any time. (p. 158)

Even better, as she points out, the Helpful Men are part of a Helpful Men’s network, and once you have a relationship with one it gives you entrée to the others. My contractor was here on the day the woodstove was delivered and – in part because he is a Helpful Man and in part because he heats his own house with wood and is planning to replace his old woodstove – he came in to watch the proceedings and was there when the installers from the stove shop explained the problem with my chimney. I immediately turned to him and asked, “Do you know a good mason?” to which he responded by getting on the phone and calling one. And he made a couple of follow-up phone calls to get the mason here (even though I am outside the part of Maine where this mason usually provides service). When the mason gave me the news about the fire safety code violations in the construction of my house, he urged me to discuss it with my contractor, which I had an opportunity to do a couple of days later when the contractor asked me for an update on the chimney situation. He was both reassuring and practical, offering to install some fire-retardant insulation between the chimney and the problem wood beams. I’m feeling much better about all this. The next step is to get my new woodstove installed (which will happen this weekend) and to learn how to use it (it comes with a DVD tutorial!).

Would I rather have a partner in homeownership than Helpful Men in my life? Not really. I really do love living alone, and it helps to remind myself that single homeownership allows me to do things the way I want. It also helps to remember that real life partners (as opposed to fantasy ones) are not always calm and helpful in dealing with the hassles of homeownership.

15 thoughts on “Hassles of Homeownership

  1. Jean I felt for you as you were describing these issues and felt the same angst. But when you mentioned the helpful men, I knew just what you meant. I have found them many times too. I am lucky to have a partner who does take care of the mice, and who is a helpful man. But I also cherish my alone days when it is just me in charge. Glad things worked out except for the mice. Yuck!

    • Jean says:

      I was going to say I haven’t found that Helpful Men network yet but on second thought the guy who walked us through the process of contracting to build our house went out of his way on several occasions to do things for us.

      Your mouse story reminds me of something that happened before my husband and I was married. He had a mouse problem at his house and I kept nagging on him to do something about it. But he was brought up on a farm and they really didn’t bother him much. Then one day he was laying on the floor reading the paper and one ran up his pant leg. I never saw a man take off his pants any faster than he did that day. The next day he was at the hardware store getting armed to hunt every last one down. In addition to traps you should put some of those trays of d-con pellets down in your crawl space and any sheds or garages where cats or dogs can’t get at them. They do a great job and the dead ones don’t smell, they just dry up and most will try to get outside to die. I do it every fall and some years you can see where they’ve eaten out of the trays and some years you can’t.

      You are much more rugged than I am. I like my central heat!

      • Jean says:

        Jean, That is a very funny story — although I would probably have a heart attack if it happened to me!! I will resort to poison bait if the traps don’t do the trick — but I try to avoid it if I can, because I usually dispose of the mouse corpses in the woods where they can provide food for mouse predators, and I worry about poisoning the foxes and owls.

    • Jean says:

      Donna, So far only a few mice. They seem to be getting in somewhere near the back door, so I am keeping a couple of baited traps in the mudroom. Let’s hope that they are soon discouraged and don’t proceed further into the house.

  2. Jean says:

    Oops, I used the wrong ‘reply’ box which normally wouldn’t be a big issue except that we have the same first names and now it looks like you replied to Donna. Sorry!

  3. Ah, mice – hate them. We set traps in our attic in the winter. I went up to retrieve some fall decorations today and what did I find but traps sprung and two dead critters. So, I called to my husband and he and I had a lot of chuckling as to why it is his job to rebait and get rid of the dead animals. I just laugh and try to do something else to balance it out. 🙂 We have a pellet stove and a propane furnace. Try to use the pellet stove as much as we can to keep the cost down. Fire retardant sheet rock ought to do the trick for you especially since the stove has been there for many years and this is a brand new, efficient model. Do you have to stack wood in your basement to feed the stove? If so, you probably don’t need to go to the gym. 🙂

    • Jean says:

      Judy, What is it about mice that triggers that response? I’ve been known to involuntarily make that “Eek!!” sound depicted in cartoons.
      Most of my firewood is stacked outdoors, and then I move about a week’s worth at a time indoors (it takes about an hour). My new stove will presumably be much more efficient than my old one and will burn less wood, so less work for me. I may well need to join a gym this winter — unless we have lots of snow to provide shoveling exercise and opportunities for cross-country skiing.

  4. Melanie says:

    Dominique Browning writes elegantly of her life and I have cheered for her to triumph in independence and be a role model for women facing retirement alone. But she has seemed vulnerable and sad in her (forced) retirement, despite her blogs suggesting otherwise. Your blog, has portrayed a contrasting, more confident alternative.

    • Jean says:

      Melanie, Your observations about Browning are interesting, and I know what you mean about her seeming vulnerable and sad. (I just finished reading Slow Love a couple of weeks ago.) A lot of the contrast you are seeing may be a result of our very different situations. The research on adjustment to retirement shows that adjustment is much more difficult (a) when retirement is forced instead of chosen and (b) when it is unplanned. We can add to that the research finding that those who take early retirement are more likely to be dissatisfied with their retirement. Browning hits on all three of these conditions. She neither planned her “retirement” nor saw it coming, it was not her choice, and she is at an age when most of her peers are not retired. I think we can add to this the fact that some of Browning’s vulnerability and sadness is about learning to live alone, something I did almost 40 years ago. There may also be some personality differences here. I am (luckily for me) not at all prone to depression. Perhaps as important, solitude is a powerfully felt need for me and living alone is my first choice; I think Browning would prefer to live with others and is trying to make the best of the situation she finds herself in.

      • Melanie says:

        It is important for women facing retirement alone to have positive role models, and your blog provides one with assurances that living alone can be enjoyable, self-fulfilling, interesting, and otherwise very satisfying (notwithstanding the occasional mice and other small annoyances of daily life). Thank you for that. Your response regarding Browning is especially astute, I think.

  5. Diana Studer says:

    Susan J Tweit also writes honestly about her life as a widow.

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I am Jean Potuchek, a professional sociologist who has just stepped into the next phase of my life, retirement, after more than thirty years of college teaching. This blog is about my experience of that new phase of life.

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