Sweat Equity

My friend Tori posted this to me today: "It's never too soon to start building sweat equity." She's right, and the thought stuck with me.

My Knoxville house was my first. It was small and old and very affordable (code: cheap and in need of repairs). Both J. and I entered into the deal with enthusiasm. In the first month, we had ripped up the dirty tan carpet in the living room and refinished the 60-year-old original oak flooring. It was a lot of room for the two of us, considering that our Ohio apartment offered 400 square feet (total, all the rooms included) of living space. Our first Knoxville apartment was bigger, but still tiny, at around 600 square feet. The Hillside house came in at just over 1700 square feet over two floors and half an acre of land in city limits. It was like shabby-neighborhood heaven.

But somewhere, that enthusiasm wore off. Or more accurately, it was replaced with stress, exhaustion, limited free time, and limited disposable income. I finished the MA and started the PhD, and J. switched jobs. We started to think of Hillside as temporary, as a money pit that wasn't worth our investment in either time or money. The sweat equity stopped, and while we still maintained the house, we didn't bother to make many upgrades and many of the irritating repairs just lingered. It wasn't until this year, in January, that the state of our neglect became an issue: We'd have to sell this place, and it was far from being market-ready. Realtor assessments supported this sinking feeling: That our lack of attention had quantifiable real-world implications. We interviewed three realtors, who all priced the house around $10,000 less than comparable properties. They cited the lack of maintenance and upgrades as the reason. Two weeks of steady work--painting all the upstairs rooms "Sahara," a color J. started to call "Rent-Me Beige"; moving out most of the furniture; steam cleaning the carpets; and completely renovating the bathroom--and the fourth realtor priced the home at $10,000 above the others, right on target for a home that size, that age, in that area. The differences seemed very surface, but they added up. We spruced up downstairs over the following three weeks--new hanging tiles, new floors, paint--and we started getting showings almost daily. The value of the surface renovations transcended their monetary and labor cost.

At the same time as all of this house renovation, I was defending and revising the diss, teaching, and prepping to move. J. was freelancing and prepping the house for our eventual flight. We fell into a strenuous but predictable routine, and much was accomplished. After two months on the market, the house sold, and we feel very grateful.

We vowed to be more engaged with making our Raleigh house a home. It's not a temporary space, and there's no good reason to not make it exactly the way we'd like it. We started building sweat equity the week we moved in, and we try to devote at least 10 hours a week to improvements. This weekend, we dismantled the pool deck and sorted the reclaimed materials for what will be the cat habitat. (Think something like this, only more like a sunroom/greenhouse and less like an open-air exhibit.) We have a few big projects in the pipeline: a two-storey screened porch, a portico where the koi pond was, an honest-to-goodness workshop, new paint, new floors, updated electrical.

And then my mind started to crack.

Because that's a LOT of stuff to do.

Rough segue: At my job, I am expected to write books. When I think about WRITING A BOOK, I get nervous and a little phobic. So much thinking. So many words. I'm tired. I need to nap now.

I've had to frame the house improvements in much the same way as my book plan. One chapter at a time. Nibbles. Focus on completing something, even if it's a small victory. It will get done. I have a plan. I'm keeping to that plan. "Slow down. Calm down. Don't hurry. Don't worry. Trust the process." So much wisdom for a coffee cup.

The parallels between home improvement and career building are rough at best, but today, as I rushed to pull out corroded screws and stack lumber, I wasn't thinking about the end result, about the screen porch that will eventually sit where the ugly scar of the pool is now. I was only trying to beat the storm coming in over the crepe myrtles. I'll try to do just that tomorrow, as I sit down to work on my article. I'll not worry about the book, its role in my career, or even its final shape. I'll enjoy the words, the process, and not wish away the time.


Meagan Kittle Autry said...

Well said, Casie! Great minds think alike, too - I posted a very similar set of thoughts on my blog last August when I first started the CRDM program: http://megsroadtophd.blogspot.com/2010/08/earning-your-phd-is-like-designing.html. What I didn't realize when I wrote it, though, is that the work on the house (designing, renovating, whatever it may be) is a really important outlet when work is overwhelming or you finish a big project. It became a welcome "other task" for me this summer while I was revising something for publication and was like a big reward for getting it done - I then got to focus on creating something that I love to see everyday and just cheers me up in the house!

Casie Fedukovich said...

Wow, Megan! How funny! I agree that having brain breaks that are productive helps when you're overwhelmed by the same kinds of tasks day after day (reading, writing, grading). I haven't yet moved to the place where my house is cheerful to come home to (still in boxes!), but I hope to make it there. :) Thanks for the comment, and I'm enjoying catching up on your blog!