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Pocket of Joy: Renovating to Love, Not to List

My mom and I have watched Love It or List It for years, and it's no surprise to us that most families choose to stay in their own, customized home rather than move into a new, blank box. The qualities that make a house a home are not the same qualities that make a marketable real estate property. Houses sell better when they are whitewashed into sterile, blank boxes where a new homeowner can come in and add their own personalized color and texture. If you're rich like the people on LIOLI, you can custom build a personalized home from scratch or personalize a market-fresh house in a short time, but even so, it's easier to stay in an already-customized house than to start over. 

For regular people who aren't rich, turning a house into a home takes even more creativity, hard work, and time. But working class people certainly can create beloved homes. I've seen dream homes created from the tiniest of tiny houses in the humblest of neighborhoods, in trailer parks, in apartment buildings, in duplexes, and in very old farmhouses or what we refer to around here as "ghetto mansions." Sometimes humble homes filled gradually with collections of meaningful objects with real stories to tell develop a certain priceless, homey quality that no amount of fast cash can buy. These are the homes I've loved visiting the most, and this is the kind of home my husband and I are still creating, more than a decade after we bought our house.

My husband and I never had a "sterile, blank box" budget. When we were young, our price range limited us to cheap, older houses whose sellers did not have the budget for quick sale renovations or slick staging. The house we purchased was a real hand-me-down grab bag--some wall color and other decorative choices in the home we happened to like, and others we did not, but we had to live in those choices made by strangers until we scraped together enough money and vacation time to redo them. In the case of our kitchen and main bathroom, the big changes they needed from the start have been over a decade coming. This summer, it's finally happening!

And it is a joy not to worry about following or predicting trends, because we are renovating this house to live in, not to list! We get to design our habitat around our own lifestyles and preferences because we don't plan to sell over the next decade or maybe several, and by the time that happens, we'll need to redo stuff anyway, according to unpredictable far-future home decor trends. This is our chance to make ourselves feel more at home in our home than ever before.

Over the past month, we've torn out ugly soffits and strangely ill-fitting cabinetry, deteriorated-beyond-repair building materials, tacky decor, dangerous and dysfunctional electrical systems, and wrongly routed and corroded plumbing. We've dumped a lot of dingy, stained, moldy, cracked, peeling, and crumbling white stuff, added our own patching to the layers of patchwork whatever that makes up the walls and ceiling, peeled wallpaper border, and blanketed all four walls and the ceiling in a dramatic, moody, matte green paint that feels like the deepest, coolest forest shadows, which will serve as a dramatic background for the bright, sparkling, and bold surfaces, light fixtures, beautiful functional objects, and art pieces we plan to showcase inside.

While other people are following TV advice to paint their wood cabinets white because they look crisp in real estate listing photos, we are replacing worn-out white flooring and cabinetry with natural wood finishes, because that's what we like.

Some of the art pieces I plan to use in the new kitchen are fine art as well as castoff grad school projects and "seconds" produced by artist Lisa Truax, who, along with her husband Jeff, have inspired me and my husband to go bold and have fun with home renovation projects. They are old pros at high-creativity, low-budget home renovations in several places where they have lived. 

Long, long ago, back in the 2000s, when Lisa was in grad school, she and Jeff lived in our area, and we got to witness and enjoy one of their home transformations in person. I wrote the following blog post about it back when I was using silly code names for everyone I knew:

Mad Home Improvement Skills

Our friends the Waxxes are wealthy in skills. In Napoleon Dynamite voice: "home improvement skills... culinary skills... art skills... sewing skills... organizational skills... gardening skills..." And it shows. Mrs. Waxx is always dressed in haute couture (often homemade--shhh!), and they cook their own five-star-restaurant-delicious meals on a regular basis. And they've turned a small, shabby house into a hot spot for entertaining friends.

When Mr. and Mrs. Waxx bought their house, it was... well, to put it nicely, "plain." You might call it a "Mid-Michigan bargain basement find." Ahem. Mr. Waxx has put many of his home repair and renovation skills to good use since then, but as far as the aesthetics of the interior, they added two essential ingredients to each room: Color and organic forms.

Here is the dining room/kitchen area before.

Here is the same space with a coat of bright paint, new surfaces and shelving, colorful art, and green foliage.

Here is the living room before...

And here is the living room with bold color and art! Even where there are no houseplants, Mrs. Waxx adds pleasing visual interest using glassware and ceramics with curved shapes that contrast with the straight lines of the room's basic structure.

Mr. and Mrs. Waxx do all of this themselves--no hired contractors and no mass-produced "decor." I've seen rich people with big, ugly, tacky houses, and I've seen people of more modest income--and even extremely poor people--with beautiful homes because someone who lived there had an artistic eye and a creative mind and the skills and bodily strength to turn dreams into realities. Money can buy a professional opinion, products, and labor, but it can't buy taste. If you are poor in money AND poor in design skills, enlist the help of an artsy friend to help you redesign your home. Expense is no guarantee of style, and lack of money need not be a limitation in creating a beautiful living space.

Once, I saw on a home improvement TV show a family who paid some contractors to install a wood floor in their kitchen and then beat it with metal wires for an old-looking texture. They said it was giving the floor "a story."

Um. What?

"Once upon a time, we lazy rich people with boring lives hired some people to scratch our floor up with metal wires to make it look like we actually cook in here. The end."

Here's a better story.

Once, Mr. Waxx and Mr. G went on a dumpster-diving trip to the local college campus in the springtime. They nabbed a bunch of raw lumber from discarded loft beds and tossed it in a truck. Mr. G built a firewood rack with some of the lumber, and Mr. Waxx took the rest and built, finished, and painted a three-seasons room off the back of his house in under three days. Mr. and Mrs. Waxx held dinner parties happily ever after.

True story. We hang out in there all the time.

Cin cin!

Jean Michelle Miernik is the author of Leirah and the Wild Man: A Tale of Obsession and Survival at the Edges of the Byzantine World.


  1. "Plain Mid-Michigan Bargain Basement find"???

    We used to DREAM of "Plain Mid-Michigan Bargain Basement finds"!!

    Why we were so poor we used to get up for work three hours before we went to bed and then slave all night at the bottom of active volcano mining leather, while being beaten on the back with a stick by the foreman who would feed us nothing but sawdust and dishwater -- and we'd pay 3 dollars a week for the privilege! Uphill! Both ways!

    OK... maybe things weren't quite that bad, but I too learned the value of value while growing up. My parents couldn't afford their own house until after I was out of high school and what we did have was very humble. But Mom was always able to make something wonderful out of nothing.

    One of her greatest achievements was in decorating the house with beautiful cobalt-blue glass bottles that my sister and I dug out of the ground from the 200 year old dump site way out in the back of the old converted farmhouse we rented. What was trash to people in New England 200 years ago became highly sought after, collectible glassware to people in the 1970s right through to today.

    Most of the windows in our parlor were lined with old antique bottles on glass shelves. When the sun shined through, the colors were amazing. If you're looking for a splash of vibrant color, a few cobalt glass pieces in the window can do amazing things.

  2. Wow, it sounds like your mom was a pro recessionista too! Antique glass bottles are beautiful. Any colored glass objects make great light-catching collections, really. That's a good tip.

    You raise an important point about my blog in general, which is the definition of "poor." If you can buy a house, you're probably not THAT poor. I've defined it very loosely as an annual household income of under $30,000. That threshold is way above struggling-to-survive-poor. But it's a bitch when you have around $40K of student loan debt between you and your spouse.

    Strangely enough, we found that the mortgage payment on our more-than-sufficient house is little more than the rent on a slummy studio apartment downtown or a rundown rental house in a bad neighborhood. Is it just Lansing, or is it that way in other places? It seems the biggest barrier to homeownership around here is lack of good credit, not income. Then lack of good credit leads to higher interest rates... eh, what's wrong with this picture?

  3. The Waxxes have mad style, ESP. Lisa! That yellow is good enough to spread on some fresh out of the oven bread! Their home looks like a warm and inviting art gallery, I love it!

  4. So true. I can't wait to find out what's she's going to be for Halloween! Apparently it's a Level Five Security secret, and only the hubby has clearance. I'll have to wait until Saturday.


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