But does it have character? - #31
And plenty of it.
When 4pm rolls in, the Slack messages ease off, and it looks like I’ll have one savory hour for actually getting things done, I put HGTV on in the background. Or the DIY Network. Or literally any home show I can find on Netflix, Hulu, and now Discovery Plus. Home shows are my comfort food, and they’re even better with comfort food. A plate of french fries and Home Town? I am at my worst best. A new season of whatever Jeremiah Brent and Nate Berkus are calling their latest show? Time to silence notifications and burrow into a two-screen cave of bingeing and designing.
That said, there are shows I hate. And I still watch them. When Joanna Gaines puts a giant metal sign that says FAMILY like she’s Dominic Toretto? Or when Mina Starsiak says a house has “good bones” and then tears it down? Or really any episode where someone redesigns an entryway but doesn’t add a place to put things down? Do you want me to just throw my keys down on this hardwood?
But the worst offenders to me are the Property Brothers. And I’m not talking about their sky-high-budget series of Brother vs. Brother where they seemingly outsource their design ideas to someone with vision simply because they’re not decorating houses for gen-pop-Americuh. I’m talking about the gray vinyl floors, the gunsmoke gray cabinets, the chelsea gray accent walls, the gray couches, the gray wicker on the patios. Where do they even find gray wicker?
When we were looking for a home, we had a very long list regarding what we wanted in a location and a community, but the list for the house itself? It was short, full of “it’d be nice” ideas with only one non-negotiable: it had to have character.
Lots of people ask for character, but it can mean a few different things:
The property is unique compared to other properties in the same market
The house is old and still has some of the original details
There are creative design details you won’t find in post-70s builds (e.g., tin ceilings, interesting tile work, beams, molding, built-ins, curved walls, etc.)
When you read between the lines here, it becomes clear that what you’re really asking for with character is problems. That’s what character building is after all: the character goes through problems to become a better character. It’s the same with a house. We’d already gone through one round of character development, and we knew we wanted to do it again, but this time, as owners — not renters.
I’ll never forget when a friend came over to our last house in Topanga Canyon and called it cluttered, as if we were somehow personally responsible for there not being a single closet in the 600-sq-ft space. All our belongings were visible because there was no way to make them invisible. And I knew for a fact, that man had belongings. But that house? That house had character. Gorgeous views of the canyon, a dilapidated deck nestled in the top of an oak, terracotta bathroom tiles, a hundred year old wood floors… and no heat, no AC, no insulation, single-pane windows, not a built-in light in the house. We called it The Treehouse — a major upgrade from the Spider Box we lived in prior.
When we were looking for the home we’re in now, we sent photos of that old house to prove our point. We weren’t starry-eyed Texans or Arizonans conflating our ski vacation for a potential forever, claiming to want rustic but not quite understanding that real log cabins are not at all similar to the Disney Wilderness Lodge. We didn’t want Disney character, we wanted question-your-judgment character.
I wanted to understand: What makes a person want a difficult house?
When we said we wanted character, we kept it vague because many characters can be charming. The reality is, we weren’t looking for something specific — we were avoiding something generic. We were avoiding off-white walls that come to neat little corners. We were avoiding white cabinets and quartz countertops. We were avoiding a house that felt like it came off a construction company’s inventory list — we were avoiding a home that was built by efficient profits instead of inefficient and painstaking love.
In the article “Reasons People Buy Fixer Uppers” by Claudia Guthrie on The Spruce, she interviews a woman who bought a house she saw on the Cheap Old Houses instagram. And you know what that woman said about her pile of old bricks? “It has character.”
But she also said something else: “Not just that, though; it has personality. I feel like the house is my friend. An old house has a spirit about it. You can be friends with your house and it will take care of you.”
A house was never just going to be an asset to me. When I first read Marie Kondo’s Tidying Up, and she relayed how you needed to greet a house, I foolishly thought, “doesn’t everyone do that?” I have spent years kissing my hand to lay it on the aircraft fuselage as a greeting. I apologize to trees when I bump into their branches. For christ’s sake, I talk to graves in the woods, even when it’s unclear if the deceased was a child or a dog. What I lack in religion, I make up for in my connective tissue with the things around me.
I wasn’t looking for difficult. I was looking for alive.
I wasn’t looking for a house. I was looking for a friend.
This house breathes— with plants crawling in every corner, critters between every log. I am in a box of trees, their rings hidden inside them, coiled around me like a barrier. And even as the wind sifts through them, I can feel the logs fight it, bending and creaking under the weight of the metal roof, holding as much warmth as they can. And in the center of them all, their old friend stone. Stones piled some 30 feet high, touched with lichen and old moss, the hoya carnosa kissing each stone in turn as she marks her route skyward to the center beam.
All the plants, these old friends, here for decades before us, watching their tender take his last clippings. I remember watching him — he’d come back a few weeks after we’d closed to get a few more things, and to take those fresh clippings of the plants he’d had to leave behind. There’s an epiphyllum by the window, draping from her perch to the ground below, and the way he grabbed it and sliced his taking — like watching someone slap a child. But I thought back to the contract. We had to take care of the plants. That was his biggest concern — that the plants, too big to move, would be chopped down and discarded. That these friends of his who he’d known and cared for for years would be thought of as “obstructions.”
Most home renovation shows these days include some aspect of “curb appeal” which, in a baffling turn, has come to mean making sure everyone from the street can see the entirety of the front of your house. Many of these properties, when we’re introduced to them, are poorly kept. The plants have lost their tenders and have tended instead to growing. And everyone from Joanna Gaines to my beloved Erin Napier takes out the plants. They cut down trees, dig up bushes, and unravel vines, all for the sake of seeing the house. And worse, a thousand times worse, they put fake plants in the house, created in factories out of synthetic materials, false idols in the landfills they inevitably end up in.
I remember when the man who built this house asked what we thought of the plants, I was breathless, slung so swiftly back into the awe I’d felt when I’d originally seen them that I could barely get the words out.
“I love them.”
As if there could have been another option, as if I could be any other human than the one who runs outside in the storm to feel it, as if just sitting amongst them now doesn’t rattle me to tears.
When I watch home design shows, I don’t hope for beautiful couches and clever storage. I don’t hope for “room to grow” or “places to gather.” I hope that they can create the kind of sanctuary that allows people to slow down, to run their hands along a piece of raw wood and remember what it took to get there, to be still enough to listen, not to the TV or to the hum of the refrigerator, but to the world around them.
It’s just easier to hear when the windows are single pane.
oh my gosh. thank you for mentioning the ubiquitous gray design saturating everything. I HATE IT. i remember jokingly coming up with a zillow drinking game of take a shot every time you see a “renovated” home and its interior is entirely gray. you’d be passed out in 30 minutes. there’s some house flipper invading my town who buys the affordable homes, renovated them (gray), and sells them for 100k more a few months later.
we found my place by accident. i remember being drunk on a boat with my best friend and saying “i think we’re going to go look at this place. just for fun.” it was very much not gray. a 120+ year old textile mill converted into living spaces. i have three enormous south-facing windows, 14 ft ceilings (maybe? idk. they’re high. like i want to dust the exposed wooden beams but i need to buy a specialty ladder high) and crumbly exposed brick. i found out the first night i slept in it that the ceiling expands and contracts with the temperature changes. it makes a startling cracking sound. sometimes it’s like someone busting through a door. sometimes it’s like someone popping their stiff back. sometimes it travels from east to west down the house. when i kept waking up from it that first night, i texted my boyfriend about it and he said, “well, you wanted charm.” i’m mostly used to it by now (and so is my dog). i feel like i am becoming more myself here in this space; growing like the house plants that thrive with all this natural light, and my growing pains marked by the cracking of the ceiling. charm over gray all day, every day, even with the quirks.
I’m so glad I found your Substack - I yell pretty much every thing you’ve said about HGTV to my tv screen when I have that faulty addictive crap playing in my house. The property brothers, ugh. My favourite thing to hate in the Midwest home idiom is fucking ‘GATHER’ signs or ‘FAMILY’ and especially if it’s in what I call bridesmaid font.
You’ve found a real treasure and I can’t wait to keep reading about your next steps with Shangrilogs.
I’ve skipped the Subscriber channels on tv in the last year and follow a bunch of people on YouTube. My favourite new addiction is a chick named Kylie Flavell who has Aussie roots, and muscles galore. She’s renovating a Tuscan ruin with her unfeasibly good looking husband, cooking slow and doing just about everything herself. Once you start watching that kinda stuff YouTube does the rest, throwing out all kinds of off the beaten track homes to marvel and imagine at.