Burning Down the House

In her efforts to create the perfect home, the writer set her marriage and her finances on fire. How a child of divorce finally healed old wounds

by Susan Gregory Thomas
Photograph: Dan Saelinger

It turns out that many in our age group were thinking the same thing—that “home,” laden as it was with the emotionalbaggage of our generation, was worth any amount of investment. By the early 2000s, a raft of studies had reported that Generation Xers were arguably the most attentive, involved parents on record, the result—according to a 2004 report—of having gone through their “all-important, formative years as one of the least parented, least nurtured generations in U.S. history.” According to a study from Harvard, Generation X spent more money on home remodeling than the previous generation at the same age. Psychologically, it was a perfect fit: We weren’t investing in glass tile from Italy; we were investing in our families.

Of course, now I know that a top-of-the-line stove doesn’t engender stability. But back then I still needed to suffer a lot more in order to learn my lesson. So when, after little more than a year, my husband and I were fighting all the time, we decided the apartment we had just renovated was too small. The problem, we agreed, wasn’t our relationship. No, we needed a houseto make a home. In 2006, with the help of a jumbo mortgage and another home equity line of credit, we bought a beat-up Brooklyn town house with gorgeous bones and began a gut renovation. Selling our apartment for almost twice what we’d paid for it, we poured all our gains into the new rehab, and this time we did it right. We bought all the same expensive kitchen appliances, updated the bathrooms (three), busted down walls. This was the house our kids would grow up in!

The rehab went on for months. And months. Such projects always take at least three times as long as expected and cost twice as much as estimated, and we got more and more broke. In the meantime, we lived with my husband’s parents. First, we argued quietly, then loudly. We stopped sleeping in the same room. By the time the house was ready, we were deep in debt and barely speaking. Then, over a rare dinner out, my husband told me that he was miserable, had been for years, and that he was “done.” I was, too. Our marriage was gutted. We separated before we’d even moved into that homiest of homes, which we sold six months later, at a small profit.

To the extent that people can have an amicable divorce, we did. But my vision of home died a hard death. I had been thinking of what we spent on our house as play money, outside the normal rules of finance since it was for something important, but now even I couldn’t uphold that fiction. In 2008 the economy collapsed. Work dried up. No longer remotely able to afford our fairy tale neighborhood, I put a down payment—everything I’d made from the sale of our town house—on a tiny house with a hefty mortgage in a part of Brooklyn where teenage gangs swarmed at night on spray-painting raids. I put bars on the windows, kept a baseball bat by the bed and slept next to the phone, ready to dial 911. It was a horror.

The kids and I spent almost five years in that neighborhood, barely scraping by. In lieu of child support, my former husband paid to keep our children in the private school they loved. Thank God for that, because money was so tight that sometimes the lights at home were turned off when I couldn’t pay the bill. Every month, thanks to my outsize mortgage, I lived in fear of foreclosure. I developed stress-related illnesses that hospitalized me three times. I couldn’t pay the medical bills. The perfect home? All I could offer my children was unequivocal love.

But in the end, they still needed—we all needed—a real home, a safe home, one I could afford. And that meant moving again, this time to a less expensive city. I bought the cheapest house that met my requirements (a room for each child, a backyard, a working kitchen), paid off a chunk of debt with some of the money I made from selling the bad-neighborhood house (even a crummy house in Brooklyn is worth more than a nice place in lots of other cities) and used the rest to create the beginnings of a nest egg. I didn’t buy a single new appliance; I didn’t even repaint.

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