I’ll never forget walking into the dilapidated structure that was to be my first house and hearing my husband, Jim, repeat over and over, “You have to have vision.”
The thick brown carpet smelled like day-old soccer socks; the graying popcorn ceiling seemed to ooze asbestos; and the backyard shed and garage were filled with an odd collection of wood, junk, electronics, and rotting clothing amassed by the eccentric former owner.
But a decade ago, we believed that Southern California house was the only place we would ever be able to afford. So we borrowed a mindboggling amount of money, signed a mountain of documents, and started the toxic-waste cleanup.
So I get Matthew Batt, author of “SugarHouse: Turning the Neighborhood Crack House into Our Home Sweet Home.” Batt brought me back to our early marriage years of wrestling with our first house. But you don’t have to have lived Batt’s story to enjoy it.
He recounts an often hilarious, endearing tale about how the transformation of a neglected home helped him and his wife take control of a world slammed by family illnesses and deaths. Part Tracy Kidder’s “House” and part National Public Radio’s Click and Clack, Batt combines specific details of home repairs and the complexity of his quirky personal life with self-deprecating humor.
Batt starts by introducing the reader to his situation: He and his wife, Jenae, are driving around Salt Lake City looking to purchase their first home. Originally from the Midwest, he is a PhD student in English, and she is working at a theater when they decide it is time to stop being long-term renters and grow up.
Intermingled with house hunting, Batt describes how he met his wife in graduate school in Boston, married her, and then sadly witnessed the breakup of several of their best friends. He tells of his grandmother’s death and his grandfather’s infidelities.
After several failed attempts at purchasing a property they settle on a house with an overwhelming smell and carpets “that look and smell like the oily, seepy mud revealed at low tide in industrial ports.” The kitchen paneling “is a badly focused photograph of knotty pine printed on some plastic/cardboard abomination made from recycled Trapper Keepers and tampons.”
The funniest section of the book involves Batt’s wide-eyed, first-person accounts of house repairs. He begins with the tale of a workman hired to remove the carpet only to find repugnant hardwood floors underneath. But the poor condition of the floors wasn’t what shocked him. “I am amazed because I had never realized what carpet was,’’ he said. “Just a topping.”
He walks into Home Depot and finds that the “entrance is flanked with disturbing, improbable items with names like wet saw, rotary hammer, stump grinder — all of which, I think, would make for good stripper/drag queen names.”
He describes running a sander, stripping hardwood floors, and cutting slate in ways that had me chuckling. And as he learns how to manage machines that could cut off a limb as easily as slice through stone, he also gains a sense of confidence.
In the end, after living in the house around three years, Batt gets a job offer in Texas, and the couple decides to put their home on the market, hoping for a hefty profit from their sweat equity. He then recounts the stressful selling process. As a business writer and generally nosy person, I would have liked the dirty details — to have learned how much the buyers paid and how much the sellers profited. Nonetheless Batt packed a lot of details into the book — a reminder that hard work and a sense of humor can cure many ills.