Buying a house, moving, home improvement… these are all things that can be funny, heartwarming and entertaining. It’s just that when you’re surrounded on all sides by boxes, closing documents and plaster, it’s hard to be coherent, much less endearingly hilarious.
Author Matthew Batt does not have this problem in his debut memoir, Sugarhouse: Turning the Neighborhood Crack House Into Our Home Sweet Home (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012, $14.95 US). His story of finding, purchasing and fixing the sort-of, maybe-someday perfect house in Salt Lake City with his wife is one of my must-reads for the summer.
Batt travels the roads you’ve seen so many new home owners go down. He manages to tumble through the common roadblocks with a healthy sense of humor and the entertaining vocabulary to back it up. He waxes poetic on the importance of countertops, the meaning behind carpeting, and the sheer weirdness of househunting.
Those in real estate will appreciate the book’s honest reflection on the home-buying process from the client’s perspective. The wacky real-life characters that shape the experience for Batt somehow manage to simultaneously take on and reject the stereotypes commonly expressed about FSBOs, real estate salespeople, contractors, neighbors, home improvement store employees and sub-subcontractors. Batt’s portrayal of the process balances the outrageous and reality in a way readers are likely to appreciate.
While real estate professionals may relate most to the buying and selling chapters, the battle to fix up this former crack house is entertaining as it is informative. In explaining the many decisions they had to make as new home owners, Batt elucidates the sometimes gulf between his wife’s predilection for “boutique-unique” and his search for “unique-on-the-cheap.” As the couple learns what the DIY options are between these two desires, readers glean a surprising amount about what it physically takes to create a one-of-a-kind living space.
As the home takes form, readers also get a front-row seat to a sometimes heartbreaking family drama, told in a frank and cathartically hilarious way. This sub-plot functions as a reminder that the effort to find, secure and create a home is really the manufacture of a setting. Meanwhile, life rolls along no matter how many layers of linoleum need to be peeled off the kitchen floor.
Perhaps the most rewarding moments for a reader who’s in real estate are the poignant, heartfelt treatises on what it means to be a home owner. Here’s my favorite passage on the subject:
There’s something about buying a house that makes the world more permanent and worthwhile, but also more tenuous and fragile. You begin to fine-tune your sensibilities and notice more of what’s going on around you because you are now a part of it. It’s your neighborhood. Your yard. Your crack house, by damn. It’s important.
You begin to make investments that renters and other, more transient folks don’t. You pick up trash on the way to the dog park. You keep an eye on your neighbors’ mail when they go out of town. You glare at cars driving too fast down your street—not because you have kids, but because your neighbors do, and that makes them the neighborhood’s kids too. You stand a decent chance of inheriting them versus some random adoptive family if, you know, it came to that. You begin to see that just because something is the way it is doesn’t mean it can’t change.
You can read a longer excerpt of Sugarhouse here, but I suggest you just go ahead and pick up your own copy. It’s a quick, fun, uplifting read. And who knows? Maybe it’ll be the perfect closing gift for that young, David-Sedaris-reading couple who just bought that little fixer-upper. As long as they have a good sense of humor about it, that is.