When you’ve lost your job and are not sleeping well, it’s nice to have a beautiful bathroom in which to relax (or curl up in a fetal position). Had my husband and I known unemployment was looming, the downright gorgeous shower into which I step to banish unsettling thoughts would be just an unrealized dream—like the one that millions of Americans had of retiring before age ninety. We’d be making do with our tiny existing bathroom, which we renovated ourselves in 2009, and congratulating ourselves on deferring desire. But now we have the bathroom—and the knowledge that we incurred debt to get it. Sussing out the true cost of our reno is more difficult than I could have imagined fourteen months ago.
When the tenant on the other side of the duplex in which we live gave notice last year, we plunged into our latest home makeover with the idea that house values were sure to rebound in the very near future and that it might be years before our next tenant would vacate, allowing us to pursue the American dream of a second bathroom (note: the American dream is nothing if not banal). The way we saw it, improving the unfinished and dysfunctional space below our main floor was an investment that would pay off—not only monetarily in better economic times (just around the corner!), but also in increased good will toward one another. If we didn’t split up under the stress.
As the work progressed (or didn’t), we had occasion to revisit our assumptions about the dollars-and-cents sense of home improvement—and even home ownership. In fact, ever since personal finance maven Suze Orman changed her stance on the advisability of buying a home and I began considering my paltry retirement savings in relation to our mortgage payment (to my mind, Texas-sized, even with the rental contribution), I’ve had a twinge in my tummy. But back in 2000, when Michael purchased his fixer-upper, many viewed a home mortgage like a high-tech IPO (you’d be crazy to miss out).
In hindsight, Michael’s home acquisition strategy seemed prudent: buy a run-down duplex, thereby settling for less space (compared with most single-family homes) and committing to a lot of DIY labor in exchange for the privilege of living in Marin County. When you buy a home in a gorgeous setting, you’ve got to think of it like a hotel room. How much time are you going to spend indoors when you’ve got a beautiful outdoors in which to play?
So the question is, how much should you spend—whether in down payment/mortgage or renovation—on a place to store your bike and your running shoes (furniture, appliances) when you could be spending your money on your bike and your running gear? Answer: whatever you can scrape together to get a toehold in paradise, plus whatever you can get a bank to give you on an equity line to make that toehold habitable. Then marry someone who’s not averse to lots of hard labor and not too picky about having daily use of indoor plumbing.
Has the calculated risk we took on a new bathroom paid off? I leave it to you, good reader, to figure it out, keeping in mind that value is measured on a sliding scale, times change, one person’s wisdom is another’s dross, and astrological signs can shift. Here’s where I’ve come out: consolation in times of financial stress (during most types of stress, come to think of it) is not a second bathroom (no matter how pretty and functional)—it’s about having any type of working bathroom. It’s about having a beautiful playground to run your heart out in. And mainly, it’s about having a spouse who would spend an entire year trying to make a house he picked out long before he met you into a home for the both of you.