A Dream Home Inside a Nightmare House

by Katy on July 21, 2015 · 29 comments

I’ve had an anxiety dream on repeat ever since we bought our overwhelmingly difficult fixer-upper house in 1996. In this dream my husband and I buy a falling down house and put all of our time, money and energy into the house only to give up and sell it at a loss. The subsequent buyers do a couple of tiny and inexpensive projects and are able to bring it to a magazine-worthy state. In short, we do 99.99% of the work, yet don’t get to enjoy any of the results from our backbreaking labor. My husband and I are then heartbroken and filled with regret.

It’s been a few years since I’ve had this dream, and had kind of forgotten about it.

Until last night.

But my running dream took an unexpected turn to the left.

Last night’s dream featured my husband and myself visiting the new owners of the house only to discover that yes, some projects looked impressive from the outside, but the interior stairs were falling apart, the living room had unfinished splintery floors and the fancy painted ceiling was collapsing. My husband and I left the house whispering to each other about how smart we were to have sold the house when we did, and how happy we were to be in our current home.

You don’t have to be Freud to make the connection that I just got home from visiting my sister for two weeks, and that I’m very happy with the life my husband and teenage sons have crafted in our 1914 fixer-upper.

Yes, almost everything we own is either thrifted or hauled home from someone else’s castoff pile, and there are more than a few embarrassingly unfinished projects. But those things are just that. Things . . .

Our fixer-upper used to feel like a burden and cause me a lot of anxiety. Not only did I regret taking on an endlessly expensive project, but it put a lot of pressure on my husband to spend all his spare time being a contractor, which he isn’t. Stressful for him and guilt inducing for me. Oh, joy!

But our project heavy house holds countless wonderful family memories, all surrounded by unfinished wood trim, a never-built second bathroom and a hideous basement. We raised our sons in this house, yet I highly doubt that they’ve ever been bothered by the bare wood trim or the mostly tiled bathroom. What they have noticed is the love and attention they’ve received through the years. Home cooked meals in the dining room, the four of us snuggled up watching library movies on our got-it-for-free television and endless Lego sessions on the living room floor.

A magazine worthy house would be great, but it just can’t be my main priority. Not when there are meals to be enjoyed and Lego castles to construct.

Our house may be incomplete, but our home has everything it needs. Thanks Freud for once again pointing out the obvious.

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

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{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

Sharon H. July 21, 2015 at 8:15 am

This is known as ‘a wise contentment.’



Christa July 21, 2015 at 9:17 am

Thanks. I may need to bookmark this to combat future stress about our own fixer-upper!


BONNIE July 21, 2015 at 9:26 am

There’s no place like home.


K D July 21, 2015 at 9:46 am

Welcome home! We too have not quite finished projects as well as the thought of the big one (kitchen remodeling). I don’t think it makes a difference on a day-to-day basis, our house is safe and functional. I tend not to care a whole lot about what other people think, so “it’s all good”.


Megyn July 21, 2015 at 9:48 am

Oh did I need this today! We’ve been in our house less than a year, and it has been non-stop work. It doesn’t help that the last house we owned, we fixed up until we quickly had to move, so never enjoyed the fruits of our labor. I actually wrote a list of very small fixes we can do, so this house will stop eating all of our time, money, and contentment. It needs to start being our home. Thanks for the reminder 🙂


Kim July 21, 2015 at 10:01 am

You sound psychologically sound. Yup, people and their relationships are way more important than a perfect house. That being said, all the many projects that I have been staring at for the last 20 years and have not gotten to fix ($, conflict and motivation) are a real source of stress for me. I’m a SAHM and am married to a hard working man who does not want to be pestered on his time off. In my next life I’m coming back rich instead of beautiful. 🙂


Kathy July 21, 2015 at 2:14 pm

Loved the last line. Perfect


Ruby July 21, 2015 at 10:41 am

I had anxiety dreams about our old house, and I’m glad yours have changed focus and mine seem to have disappeared since we moved to a place better suited to growing old in. 🙂 Your home also seems to have great neighbors, and that is priceless.


nicoleandmaggie July 21, 2015 at 12:02 pm

I feel sorry for your sister!


Katy July 21, 2015 at 12:12 pm



nicoleandmaggie July 21, 2015 at 1:12 pm

“You don’t have to be Freud to make the connection that I just got home from visiting my sister for two weeks”

This post makes it sound like she’s got the opposite– a house but not a home.


Katy July 21, 2015 at 1:27 pm

Nah, it’s just that I’ve been away for two weeks. Nothing negative about my sister at all.


Jessica Wolk-Stanley July 22, 2015 at 5:15 am

And from the sister…my house is home too! No worries there, but thank you for your concern! We all had a lovely visit with each other and Katy was a super good sport about sleeping on an air mattress in my studio. ; ]

Joy July 27, 2015 at 6:33 am

I was gonna say, you weren’t in YOUR home though. I am sure you had an amazing visit, were an awesome guest, Sis was a welcoming host, but home is home. I’ve always said, no matter how great of a time I have or how comfortable our “stay” was when we are visiting others, I am always so glad to get home in my own surroundings.

Helen July 21, 2015 at 12:13 pm

Katy, my husband and I just bought a fixer upper house in inner SE Portland. If you knew what we paid for it, you would fall over and faint…. 🙂 Your house not only holds years of love and memories but probably also a lot of equity considering the current real estate market in Portland.
I don’t shop, watch TV, have lots of stuff, or over-schedule my life, so I actually feel like I have lots of time compared to most people to just putter and fix things around my house. I am looking forward to building equity in our house thanks to our own hard labor, sweat, and some (probably many) tears!


Katy July 21, 2015 at 12:54 pm

Yes, it’s equity-tactic. Although that only helps if we’re selling the house.


K D July 22, 2015 at 3:43 am

Actually, a large percentage of people I know tap the equity in their homes to help pay for college, remodeling, and a gazillion other things. I don’t believe in doing that but it is not uncommon here in the Mid-Atlantic region (home equity loans and lines of credit as well as cash-out refinancing of mortgages).


Katy July 22, 2015 at 9:39 am

I know, but we’re on track to pay off our mortgage before we retire and I’d hate to throw that off schedule.


Trish July 21, 2015 at 1:19 pm

oh, I know how you feel. We bought a rather rundown old farmhouse in the midwest that needed everything done to it about 20 years ago. we did a lot ourselves without having much skill or talent to do it. We have finally run out of steam and have several projects sitting unfinished. And the bad thing for us is that we aren’t in an area where the property values are increasing, plus everyone around here is building new. Oh well. I have loved living out in the country, and I love old houses. It will cost us when we finally move to our retirement abode, but it was good while we were here!


auntiali July 21, 2015 at 1:22 pm

When hubby and I bought our house it had a recent renovation done on almost the whole house. While the house wasn’t decorated to my taste it was fine for us and affordable so I could be a sahm. I also looked at it as we had 30 yrs (length of the mortgage) to fix to our standards. Fast forward 25 yrs and while we’ve done some renovating there is still a lot more to do. It still doesn’t have a second bath but it’s home and almost paid for and I like it.


Chris July 21, 2015 at 1:42 pm

Our house was basically OK when we moved in some years ago. We’ve updated and replaced flooring, replaced the deck, replaced sinks, repaired the heating, roof, garbage disposal, siding, water heater, painted, etc. – it never ends! Family comes first, house updates can be squeezed in when convenient!


Anne July 21, 2015 at 2:08 pm

We bought a p.o.c., I mean fixer-upper in 1983 and figured we would have it to our standards in a year. Twelve years later we were nowhere near done and sold it. Selling it was the best thing we ever did. It was fine for me and the kids, but poor husband never had a restful moment. On top of it he was driving at least four hours a day to and from his job.

On an acre and a half, it was a great place to raise two boys, but I felt it took way too much out of my husband’s life. Of course we were relatively young when we made that purchase, but if I had it to do over, well, I wouldn’t.


Michaela July 21, 2015 at 2:27 pm

I think you described your home once as the “house that Gollum built” (or maybe I imagined this? LOL). Anyway I will describe my 1912 dungeon (aka home) in Ohio as the “house that Gollum’s broke wanna-be-contractor brother-in-law built” Since buying this house in 2000 nearly everything has been ripped apart and redone. On top of that I have paid extra on some things just to keep it “old” vs. “new” I will probably never get all the money back I have put in this place. On the upside 15 years later, its paid off, it looks fairly decent, and it feels like home. Its more done than undone. I don’t think a new home would have the same feel this old place does LOL.


Kathy July 21, 2015 at 2:31 pm

I am very blessed to live in a famous landmark property with several adjoining lots in Portland. I always have a list of projects I am working on to make something great even more fantastic. I love the process, the before and after.

We must travel a lot for work, but I am always thrilled to be home unfinished projects and all. When people visit they only see the magic of the house and setting, not the projects to still do. I think we as owners are much to critical of our list of still to be completed projects. No one else even notices. I am sure it’s the same at your house.


Christa July 21, 2015 at 3:39 pm

Well said. I would do well to remember that as I continue to have to put more time, effort and money into our own “younger” home circa 1968. I am just glad I didn’t have to read that you were going to sell your home and move! Phew!


Katy July 21, 2015 at 5:39 pm

I like that circa 1968 is considered “younger,” as that is exactly my age! 😉


Lisa Sharp July 21, 2015 at 5:35 pm

Great reminder! We are house hunting right now, not a big fan of our current home but trying to be happy in it until we find our perfect home (perfect for us, not magazine perfect 🙂 )


Marcella July 22, 2015 at 3:33 pm

Gosh, houses and homes can generate such complicated emotions and feelings, can’t they? Anxiety about sunk costs (monetary and time), ‘value’, especially perceived market value, which is often totally moot if you are never planning to sell… Weirdly you need to be dispassionate about them, but also highly passionate as they are a home where many memories are made.

I think I might top all of the previous comments in ‘mature’ homes. My house here in Melbourne, Australia, was built around 1914! It’s a terrace house, which is a style typical of the period and has lots of “charm” in the high ceilings, leadlight windows, but also “less charm” in susceptability to rising damp.


mike August 1, 2015 at 1:24 pm

did I hear give-away?


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