Houses are a lot like human beings: they have characteristics that are often genetic and cannot be overcome. Even with an aggressive 12-step program, many homes are beyond rehab by redecoration.
There are two types of house dysfunction. First is the simple need for repair: things are broken and need to get fixed. Whether it’s rot, leaks, an HVAC system that doesn’t work – those systems can be easily triaged and cured.
The second typical dysfunctional home has two distinct points of mis-fit with their owners. The first is simply its design (or, more usually, un-design). The vast majority of homes in America were designed without any site or family in mind. The typical American suburban home was designed for a demographic (Doughboys coming home from World War I, GIs coming back from World War II, Boomers fulfilling their potential as the “Me” generation).
As such, most homes either work, or don’t, for most people – but if your home is a mis-fit for the way you want to live, the level of discord keys a “go”- “no go” reality.
When a home is a mild mis-fit, one where the home lays acceptably on its site, has spaces that can work with the way a family’s use patterns flow, (and is not terminally ugly), it can be made much, much better with acts of decoration. The colors, appurtenances, and surfaces that you choose to put in it, all the way down to a sexy couch, can turn a home that is a Marriage of Convenience into a Relationship of Delight.
But, when the design of a house is so discordant with who you are that its outrages cannot be painted away, remodeling, renovation or outright demo are often needed. This is also a useful analytic method when it comes to thinking about whether you should buy a house or not.
When thinking about risking huge amounts of money and equity into a home, you should realize there’s a direct parallel we have all experienced: dating. When you found or find yourself thinking about entering into a relationship with a person you may (or may not) love, there are ground rules beyond pheromones and resumes.
If the person in question is quirky, fun and smart, you can probably contour your discordant mindsets into a delightful dance of harmonic discontinuity. Or if they are bland and nice you may be able to find comfort in their quiet goodness.
However, if you are thinking about any relationship with a schitzy, misanthropic sociopath, no amount of love and attention can ever make the relationship work.
These concerns do not matter much if you are speed dating or engaged in serial monogamy with your home. If you are just having casual domestication with benefits relax, paint and wait for a buyer.
But if you are just a little pregnant with a love of the neighborhood, history of the place or just rock out on your yard, a long term relationship may require some cosmetic (or worse) surgery to the house itself.
So a home’s personality keys how you need to deal with it – if you are locked into a relationship with it, if you simply can’t leave because you are financially underwater or have nowhere else to go and your home is insanely discordant with your values and your ability to cope, it may be time to call an Architect.
If, on the other hand, your home is a near miss, and all you need to do, effectively, is make it stop smoking, cease texting on the highway, or simply wear pants that fit, it’s time to think about redecorating.
As with most things in life, the choices are yours, but you need to know what they are.
Duo Dickinson has written seven books on architecture. His latest, “Staying Put: Remodel Your House to Get the Home You Want”, was published by The Taunton Press in November 2011.
He has been the contributing writer for home design for Money Magazine, is the architecture critic for the New Haven Register, and a contributing writer in home design for New Haven magazine. He has written articles for more than a dozen national publications including House Beautiful, Home, Fine Homebuilding and was the “At Home” editor for This Old House.