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When we're finished

This morning, Brownstoner views the agonizing subject of renovation costs from an interesting angle:

The House & Home section [of the New York Times] today uses the quest of the former editor and chief of Dwell magazine to find the perfect house for $100 a foot as a jumping off point to investigate whether in New York City it was possible to do a gut renovation for that number. They look at six renovations across the city that ranged from a Red Hook house…for $67 a foot to a Tribeca loft for $180 a foot. We know first hand that it's possible: We did our house for about $75 a foot… But the way we look at it is that an old house like ours is a lifelong project and, plus, we couldn't have afforded to buy it if a "perfect" renovation was the only option. And, like most things, it looks great by candlelight!

I toast your attitude by candlelight, Brownstoner! Because this calculation is a bummer for me. I see the logic of it--correcting for the difference between renovating a tiny cottage and a 4,000-square-foot brownstone (or a 3,000-square-foot CrazyStable). But how on earth would we arrive at such a figure as "cost per square foot"...when this presumes you start with the entire cost of renovation and divide it by square feet? Does this calculation not presume that we are done renovating? Why, that's as much a howler as it was 20 years ago when we bought the place.

We are members of the One-Floor-a-Decade Club, or the equivalent thereof if you factor in the exterior chunks. First decade: Half the first floor and all the mechanicals (boiler, roof, electric--the latter two before we even moved in). Next decade: Most of the second floor (with floor and hallway cosmetics eaten by intercurrent bouts with the porch and the shingles and the fence and the tree)--oh, plus two little rooms (my study and a guest bedroom) and a bathroom on top floor. New millenium: Front hallway and entryway, then re-doing (oh, the irony) some of the stuff we did so long ago that the renovations themselves need renovating. Balance of house? This isn't your decade, and the next one isn't looking so good, either.

However, I do fancy the concept that some particular square feet of the house are responsible for a grossly disproportionate share of what might someday (ha) be the "total cost." I can name these evil square feet right off the top of my head; I dream of bludgeoning them into rubble with a baseball bat. There is the Roof Valley of Death and its dripping outlet in the ceiling of the laundry room (where it rained 20 years ago, and by God, rains again). There is the Sewer Trap of Doom in the basement, where Roto-Rooter over the years has consumed the equivalent of 5 memorable weekends in a picturesque bed-and-breakfast or one full week on a tight budget in London. There are the irascible steam radiators, whose leaking joints, if measured in square feet like the human intestine spread out, would cover an area the size of Argentina.

I guess I got het up over this because, as the 20th Anniversary of Closing closes in, I am grappling with the eternal undone-ness of the CrazyStable. I still cling to fantasies of done-ness: a best-selling book or the largesse of a distant relative's will suddenly dumps enough cash in our laps to just do it. One of my favorite ways to go to sleep at night (this is sort of sick) is to actually "spend" the money in my head...credit card balances evaporated in a blink and then, what? Bite the bullet and do the roof first? Or have some fun with cosmetics right away, doing the wide-plank pine floor in the entryway? Or maybe go crazy and demolish the unused garage on day one--and call our garden-design lady to come over with slate and pine trees, pronto. How long would it take, I wonder, to "finish"? What would it feel like to know that it were possible?

As self-therapy, I've sought out Icons of Eternal Undone-ness for consolation. One is the Cathedral of St. John the Divine here in New York.

cathedral start.gifcathedral of st john.jpgThey'll never finish it now, they admit as much; they're happy just to keep an intact roof over its nave.

Or there's the Golden Gate Bridge; ggatebridge.jpgI've heard that, as soon as they get through painting it to one end, they must start again at the other. (Their site claims this is a myth, and they are just engaged in "routine touch-up on an ongoing basis." Oh, yeah.) And of course there was Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel; Pope Rex Harrison would ask him querulously, over and over, "When will you make an end?"

And Charlton, er, Michaelangelo, would resolutely yell down from his scaffold : "WHEN I'M FINISHED!"

(Pope Rex Harrison also warned: "You dare to dicker with your pontiff?" a line I plan to use a lot around here.)

Posted on Thursday, August 31, 2006 at 09:53AM by Registered CommenterBrenda from Brooklyn | Comments2 Comments

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Reader Comments (2)

I know this suggestion is heresy, blasphemy, sacrilege and maybe worse. But unless you're totally tied to Brooklyn have you ever considered selling Crazy Stable and moving to less expensive parts that also have fixer-uppers? For what you could get for Flatbush Crazy Stable you could buy a house for cash outright and have much money left over for all kinds of renovations, especially if you're do-it-yourselfers. That's what my husband and I did anyway. But then again, we craved the peace & quiet of the countryside and we were happy to leave Brooklyn (*mentally ducking as a large object is flung past my head*). I agree with the impossibility of quantifying the $$ of a renovation - especially when if you factor in "opportunity costs." For example, my husband is doing virtually all the work himself, thereby saving tens of thousands on contractors. But he's foregoing a salary (which would have gone to contractors). We're English majors, not accountants - so how do you quantify that?

Love your blog, Brenda!
August 31, 2006 at 01:11PM | Unregistered Commenteranon2
Heresy, blasphemy, sacrilege, tell it to the hand. (As English majors, you should be particularly ashamed of yourselves, since Brooklyn is now the Literary Capital of the World...and we live 2 doors down from where Bill Styron lived during the years he novelized into "Sophie's Choice." Compose an essay in which you compare the psychic weight of literary history to the cost of new sheetrock, giving examples to support your thesis.) But frankly, you describe in a nutshell our retirement cash-out plan, when we are too old to shovel snow, sewage, and debt. We call this plan "Sell the House and Live Like Kings In Mississippi." From our trailer in Tornado Alley, we will travel the world in style...or, having taken a 32nd home-equity loan to pay for college for the Child, maybe we'll do the Earlybird Special at Applebee's...
August 31, 2006 at 01:31PM | Registered CommenterBrenda from Brooklyn

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