Wednesday, August 28, 2013

I'm a lover, not a lister

Now that we have some basic cable service at home, I've been taking advantage of our access to network websites to watch a few HGTV shows I've only seen glimpses of in the past. For instance, this past week, during a lull in my work schedule, I've treated myself to several episodes of "Love It or List It" as a kind of mind candy. For those who are unfamiliar with the show, here's the basic premise: you start with a couple (or, once in a while, a single homeowner) whose house is no longer working to meet their needs. Often it's because their family has grown, but it could also be that the house was a fixer-upper they never got around to fixing, or maybe they now have a family member working at home. Typically, one partner wants to sell the house and move, while the other wants to keep it and fix the problems. Enter the show's stars, Hilary and David: a designer who will try to fix up the house (on the homeowners' budget) so they can keep it, and a realtor who will try to find them a new house that's ideal for their needs. The show follows both experts through various trials and tribulations (invariably, Hilary uncovers some sort of unexpected problems that cut into her budget, while David gets complaints about every house he shows them), but the end is always the same: Hilary shows them a gorgeous remodeled space, David tells them how much more their home is now worth with Hilary's changes, and they must decide whether to keep it or take their increased equity and get out.

So I watched a few episodes of this, and while I generally enjoyed them, I began to notice after a while that only half of the show really interested me. While David is an amusing character and does his best to make a house viewing more entertaining, I'm always impatient to get back to the couple's current house and see how the remodeling is going. The process of fixing up an existing house is just inherently more interesting to me than the process of shopping for a new one.

I think my preference for Hilary's job over David's is due to a basic element of my character: I'm a lover, not a lister. In virtually every case, I would rather find a way to work with what I already have than discard it in favor of something new. And this is true not just of houses, but of practically everything I own. When any of our belongings—from a bicycle to a desk fan—starts to wear out, my first thought is to fix it so I can keep using it, rather than to look for a replacement.

I have several reasons for this attitude. First, I've never been one of those folks who enjoy shopping for its own sake. In fact, for most things, I find it to be a big hassle. Partly, this is because I'm picky. I can spend hours going from one shoe store to another, trying on pair after pair, and come home tired, grumpy, and empty-handed because not one pair fit my highly particular needs. Partly, also, it's because I'm a tightwad, and I don't want to spend money on anything unless I'm absolutely sure it's what I want. If I buy a new bottle of hair conditioner for $6 in hopes that it can make my unruly mop more manageable than my $1 conditioner does, and I find it's no improvement, then I've just wasted $6, plus I'm stuck with a nearly full bottle of conditioner that I can't use and hate to just throw away. So unless I'm really dissatisfied with the $1 conditioner's performance, it's just not worth the risk—not even a $6 risk. And if I'm this cautious about even the smallest of purchases, then you can easily imagine that a big purchase—a car, a computer, an appliance—is a major undertaking involving loads of research, and not something I'm about to enter into lightly.

Moreover, while I don't tend to enjoy shopping, repair and renovation are my idea of fun. I get a real kick out of transforming a room in our house, or the landscape in our yard, or a piece of furniture—turning something that was ugly or non-functional into something new, useful, and beautiful. Even the tiniest of repairs, like darning the sweater my sister got me for Hanukkah, gives me a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. And if I can fix something up on a budget, by making use of materials we already have on hand, that just doubles my pleasure: I get to satisfy my creative impulse and my frugal instincts at the same time.

I think, though, that the main reason I prefer repairing over replacing is that I don't believe in waste. I just can't stand the idea of discarding something that's "still good." Yes, I do realize that when you replace something—especially when it's something big like a house—you're not necessarily throwing it away; most likely, you're passing the old one on to someone else for whom it will be a better fit. But it's also true that the bigger the item you're replacing, the more hassle and expense there is in buying a new one. Buying a new house, in particular, is a huge chore; even once you've found a place you like, you still have to run the gauntlet of price negotiations, inspections, loan approval, legal wrangling, and seemingly endless paperwork, all leading up to the major proceeding of packing up everything you own and moving it from one house to another. And every stage of this process comes with a price tag, too, completely independent of the price you're paying for the new house itself. Why would you ever go through that if there was any possible way to work with what you already have?

Moreover, while repairing rather than replacing can save money and reduce waste for almost any purchase, in the case of a really big purchase, there's also an emotional factor to consider. On the show (remember the show? The thing I was writing about way back at the start of this column?), the homeowner who wants to stay in the house often pleads in its favor with arguments such as, "This is the house we raised our children in," or "The kids shouldn't have to leave their school and their friends behind." These points aren't based on cold hard facts—they're not saying that the house their children grew up in is the best fit for those same kids in their teens, or that the school their children go to now is inherently better than the one they'd be switching to—but they're important all the same. People do form strong emotional ties to their homes, and sometimes to other belongings too, like cars or even articles of clothing—and the happiness that comes from living in a place that's full of joyful memories isn't something you can really put a price on.

None of this is meant to say that repairing is always better than replacing. Some problems really are too big to fix, and sometimes a new item offers benefits that you just can't add to the old one (like a new appliance that's twice as efficient, or a new computer that's three times as fast). But for me, the process of repairing—transforming something that doesn't work into something that does—is inherently more interesting than the process of finding something completely new. And that's why, while I do enjoy "Love It or List It," it will never be as dear to my heart as the late lamented "Wasted Spaces."
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