Renovate Your Way To A Better Marriage


How a fixer-upper first home became one couple's labor of love.

Ryan was working full time and would commute 45 minutes in traffic to the apartment where we were staying in northwest Portland, pack his tools in his truck, and take off to start work in the new bathroom by around 7 p.m. I’d feel him crawl into bed sometime between 2 and 3 a.m., after hours of tearing out nearly century-old lath and plaster and corroding pipes.

I managed to drag him away from the bathroom long enough over the holidays for our real-estate agent to snap a quick photo of us in front of the house, wearing Santa hats, for the complimentary "We've Moved" postcards that she sends out for her clients. The look on Ryan's face was more "Ho, ho, what the hell am I doing in this hat?" than holiday cheer. I sent them out anyway. Except for about two hours for Thanksgiving dinner at his cousin's house, it was all I saw of Ryan that holiday season.

In contrast to Ryan's tireless efforts, I was absolutely paralyzed by all the work the house needed. And it wasn't just the bathroom. Or the lack of closet space. Or the tacky light fixtures.

Or the weird smell that was emanating from one of the kitchen cabinets. It was the asbestos we found after tearing down some walls, the lead-based paint that needed to be safely stripped, and the aluminum windows, which were so poorly insulated that some mornings there would be sheets of ice on the inside. Though I felt guilty letting Ryan handle all the work, I had to agree with him that, with the exception of some painting and scrubbing here and there, it would be best for both of us if I avoided the house altogether while he completed the bathroom.

But wanting to feel part of the process, and knowing that he wouldn't eat otherwise, I'd psych myself up around dinnertime and bravely venture in, bearing takeout. My carefully constructed cheerfulness would crumble under my panic the second I walked in the door. Instead of "Hi, honey, how's it going? I brought you a burrito and beer," I'd ask, "Will the sink be in by the time we move? Do you think my mom will help us pay for asbestos abatement? Why aren't you wearing a respirator?" And then I'd look around at the mess that was our house, and I'd start crying.

Needless to say, my takeout bags were much better received than I was. Likewise, my suggestions that we off-load some of the work to professionals didn't go over very well. Ryan comes from hardy stock, a long line of thrifty do-it-yourselfers. Costly contractors—whose attention to detail is notoriously lacking— just weren't part of his plans.