October 7, 2003

The Whole Hearted Renter

by Alison Dunavan Clement

I'm a renter. I live in rental property, but I live in a neighborhood of houses that are owned by the people who live in them. Their houses have nice curtains and their paint is not peeling. Their cars don't break down or leave oil spots on their driveways. They have perennial gardens and nice yards. Their houses show what the real estate agents refer to as pride of ownership.

We moved here four years ago, temporarily, and I have been reluctant to consider this my home because I am convinced that at any time our economical fortunes might change and we might get our real house, one that we own and that is permanent. In my real house, I would tell my myself, we will have fresh paint on the walls and a big garden. We'll have fruit trees and all our closets will be organized.

If it wasn't for the fact that we have to rent, I could have all these things, I would tell myself.

If my property management company cared a little bit about this house, I could have some of those things, I thought. But they won't pay for paint and they won't pay to rent a pressure washer to wash the outside of the house. They won't let me take up the old brown carpet and refinish the wooden floors that are beneath it. They won't haul away the trunk of the tree that fell in the backyard. They say I can't have a pet, take down the ugly white drapes or hang things on the walls.

This is a little box house and I hate it, I would tell people. This is a charmless house and I will move as soon as I can.

The students who lived in this house years ago called it "the sewer." A man walking by told me that one day, while I worked in my yard. He said he used to come here, back when he was a college student, and that's what they called this house -- the house where I live with my family.

I don't think that was very polite, but it started something in me. I thought about what he meant. I thought about this house someone built thirty or forty years ago: a plain, little, square house where renters live. Rental property with peeling paint and a yard full of dandelions.

Yet his comment brought out my protective instincts. This house has lovely arched ceilings, I noticed. Whoever built it thought to put dozens of drawers and cupboards in the kitchen. It has a patio out back with a big old apple tree. In August the whole tree fills up with finches and every fall we make cider. The house is always cool in the summer. There are big closets in each bedroom and someone designed the layout so that, even though they're small, each of the three bedrooms is private. Two of them have windows that open onto the patio. And the master bedroom opens onto both patio and the backyard. At night it is very quiet here.

I have had many wonderful, loving days in this house.

Of course, it would be nice if the property management company cared about the house. It would be nice if they encouraged us to make it our home. If they said we could have a dog. It would be nice if they thanked us for planting flowers. All those things would be nice but I can't control them.

But some things are controllable.

My husband started by painting the kitchen. He painted all those cupboards and doors. One day I rented a pressure washer and washed the house. The paint is still peeling outside but it's clean. I painted the front porch and I painted the back patio. The patio is light and cheery now and the kids like to sit out there and read or visit their friends. On warm days, we eat our supper out there. I planted flowers all around the patio. I planted honeysuckle by our bedroom window, in case we're still here next year when it blooms. I found the drain that was broken and pouring water under the house all winter, causing everything to mold. I fixed it and I got all the mold off the walls and I painted. I hung lace curtains in our bedroom.

Our oldest child is 17 years old and this may be the last year she lives with us. Later, when she thinks back about growing up, she'll think of this house. Right now, this is where she lives. This is where we all live. And it occurred to me that every place we live in is temporary because we are temporary. It doesn't matter if we've bought our house or not. It doesn't matter if a corporation owns it or if we do ourselves. Either way we only get it for a little while.

Maybe next week I'll sell my novel and I'll put a down payment on a house that we own and we'll get a dog and we'll hang pictures on all the walls, sand strip the floors and I'll have a compost pile and vegetable garden and plant fruit trees. But right now we live here, in this little house. It's the house my children are growing up in and I'm not half hearted about it any more. And if any of us are ever walking by this house, sometime years from now, and find someone in
the front yard, we'll tell them about living here and having barbecues on the back porch. We'll say "see those flowers, we planted them." We'll ask if the honeysuckle is blooming by the back window.

Allison Dunavan Clement is a student of Japanese Psychology and a writer, working in the library of an elementary school. She rents a home in Corvallis, Oregon, with her husband and two children.

Posted on October 7, 2003 9:11 PM

Thanks so much for the article. My wife and I own our house (temporarily!) and yet I sometimes act is if I rent it - I certainly don't give it the care it deserves. What am I waiting for? Your article opened my eyes to the gifts of our homes, owned or rented. Thank you.

Posted by: Vince Flammini on December 13, 2003 5:58 PM

Wonderful article... Thoughts and attitude make circumstances rather than the other way around.My husband and I lived in an old rental house also and have many fond memories of that place!

Posted by: Liz Walters on November 21, 2003 2:16 PM
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