The title of this post is obvious slang, but the truth behind it, speaking for myself and other makers I know, is absolute. I ran into the slogan while I was surfing social media the other day, and I am hard-pressed to find a better way to say it.
Tom and I started our maker’s journey when we bought our first fixer house. It was 1976, we had been married for just over a year. We were about 21 years old. We had a one-year-old daughter. I think we were generally pretty capable, creative people, but we were very challenged financially at that point. We were tired of paying high rent, had no credit history, and weren’t afraid of hard work. Neither of us had any family support, meaning no cosigning, no loans and no real interest in our project. We knew that if we didn’t buy a fixer then and there we might have to rent for another ten years. Comparably sized, small houses in decent neighborhoods were going for about $24K at that time. We both worked full time but couldn’t afford the payments on a better house or find anyone else to carry a contract.
The house had been a rental for many years, and we heard the last renters had been a pretty hardcore motorcycle gang. The owner of the house had just gotten out of the hospital after a heart attack and was at his wit’s end. He sold the house to us cheap because he didn’t have the wherewithal to make repairs or make it rentable.
Our house was the worst 2 bedroom house on a block in a good neighborhood, in Portland, OR. It had been built in 1913. There was zero landscaping, as the grass and shrubs had run together over the years. We purchased it for a total of $10k, with $1,000 down, which was all the savings we had. The owner carried a contract on the other nine thousand dollars. Once we realized what we’d agreed to, we were positive we were nuts, but our new neighbors absolutely loved us. They brought us a steady supply of homegrown vegetables, daffodil bulbs, homemade cookies, crocheted potholders, granny square afghans, lemonade, beer, and pizza. What more do you need when you are 21?
It took us nearly two months working evenings and weekends just to get the house fit to move into. The basement floor could be viewed from a hole in the bathroom floor where a toilet was supposed to be. The carpeting in the kitchen was curled at the edges and a disgusting dirty grey-brown color, except for the occasional stains that were clearly from dropped eggs that had fallen and been left to dry in place, pet stains, black grease, etc. It looked like the gang had worked on their motorcycle engines inside the kitchen. Our friends and extended family members made excuses as to why they just stopped by for a second and couldn’t stay or come in. They hovered timidly near the front door and were probably afraid they would catch something.
The woodwork was probably worse than your imagination can conjure. It had chunks missing, peeling paint, indelible dirt, streaks of black grease, you name it. My best descriptives still fall short. The house in the movie, The Money Pit, was completely gracious by comparison. We tore off the damaged woodwork, and Tom made new, nice moldings using a bargain table-saw and hand tools.
We installed a new toilet, fixed the bathroom plumbing and installed a tub we found at a builder’s supply sale that would at least hold water. You read that correctly. The old cast-iron tub in the house was split down the middle as though someone had hit it with a sledgehammer, over and over. We ripped out all the carpets and the dirty subfloors, then discovered that the fir floors underneath needed some boards replaced as they had suffered water damage and mysterious blunt force chunks were missing. The old fashioned range/oven was dirty beyond belief. The first time I lit the burner to boil water for drip coffee a mouse jumped up from beneath one of the burners!
We installed a linoleum floor in the kitchen and bathroom ourselves by following the instructions in a Reader’s Digest Do-It-Yourself book. It wasn’t a super pretty floor, it was just a leftover roll from another project that the flooring company wanted to move quickly. But it worked, and it was clean and new. The upstairs wasn’t quite as bad as the lower part of the house. We were able to paint everything and it didn’t look so bad once we laid new wall to wall carpeting. We learned quickly because flooring stores didn’t install bargain flooring for free. We rented a kicker, and though Tom’s knees were pretty sore, he got it done. Within 2 months of moving in, the house looked a lot friendlier. The next summer we planted Rhodies, painted the house exterior and did some minimal landscaping. We made progress every month, and within about 2 years, it was a pretty little house.
During that first two years, we had to learn to economize every way possible. My grandmother gave me her old Singer Slant-o-Matic sewing machine, and I learned to sew and quilt so I could make sundresses and play pants for our daughter, and birthday or Christmas gifts for friends and family. Tom built some very cool birdhouses and planters for other optional gifts. I made cornstarch dough ornaments for gifts or baked goods. I learned how to do home canning. We got by, in fact, we thrived! We realized that we both loved the creativity of making anything we could make. We lived there for eleven years and sold the house for many times what we paid for it. As scary as it was sometimes, and as little as we knew, it turned out that in the end, we had made a good decision to buy that place.
Four fixer houses and forty-some years later, we still love restoring old houses and making cool stuff. Our finances are decent now, but all things being equal, we would still rather make something than buy it. Tom designs and builds wonderful furniture, from scratch. I have learned to make herbal concoctions, full-size quilts, handmade soap, and I love knitting. The best part is, now that we’re retired, we have more time to do the things we love to do. It’s still a wonderful life!
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