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.