In the spring of 2016, my husband and I plunged headlong into one of the most tantalizing fantasies a couple can share: We bought a house to flip. By that summer, we were bogged down in renovation. I followed election coverage on the radio while painting trim all day. I screamed in my mind and glared at my husband.
“But you wanted to do this,” he reminded me.
Why did I want to flip a house? Well, who doesn’t? More than 80 percent of Americans hold sedentary jobs. Most don’t want to. Most don’t even want to work for someone else. From Flip or Flop to Fixer Upper, the glut of home-transformation shows on TV prey on our fantasies that renovating a house can be an adventure, one that lets you escape the office, create a beautiful home for a deserving family, and earn a tidy pile of cash.
At least, my husband and I were once naïve enough to believe that. As lawyers working 100-hour weeks, we imagined buying some rough diamond, fixing it up ourselves, then displaying glorious before-and-after photos. We mused about swinging hammers, about the catharsis and visible accomplishment so alien to people who spend their days in endless, Bleak House–style litigation. Most of all, we pictured the sexy, sweaty, celebratory beers at the end of a day of demo. We were frustrated lawyers, and we wanted to bash down some walls.
My husband already knew how to bash. He’s a born handyman and looks great in jeans, a T-shirt, and a tool belt. I had fallen for him on our first date, when he promised to come to my apartment to fix the windows that kept running off their tracks.
We were both first-generation lawyers at big firms. I grew up in rural Alabama, and before law school my husband had been a steelworker in Australia, so we knew there are many different ways to make a living. Some seem more fun than others. Nothing seemed more fun—before we knew better—than flipping. So we made a few bold career moves and set aside three months to get it done.
We must have rejected 50 houses before we found our fixer-upper. It was a neglected split-level in a lovely old neighborhood. Weeds and overgrown shrubs filled its lawn, its porch rails were missing, and its interior hadn’t changed since 1972. Just our thing, I thought. Inside were several non–load-bearing walls that cried out to be demolished. The place wanted to be open-concept. So we dipped into our savings and found a way to buy it, confident we’d recoup our investment. I got some cute shorts and a baseball cap like in the shows, and we started to bash.
Here are some things I did not realize, although they should have been obvious. Demo means dust everywhere. Under your nails, yes. In your eyes, of course. But also in your car, in your sheets, in your laptop, and worked deeply into the fur of your long-haired Chihuahua. You can demo a wall on Tuesday and find that debris in your soup on Thursday. That is the nature of demo. It travels with you. “Cloud of Debris” is what the barista will write on your cup.
Many will also find, as I did, that they are allergic to the noxious chemicals in the cleaning supplies or perhaps to the 13 cats that once lived in the house they are renovating. For weeks, I went around with puffed-up eyes and long itchy welts all over.
But the itching and welts were the easy part. If you’ve seen the house-flipping shows, then you’ve seen the Crisis Moment, when the budget is stretched, or mold shows up in a crawl space. Everyone is on their cellphones while the scene goes a little slo-mo and the soundtrack grows ominous. Then there’s a commercial break, after which everything works out. Before flipping a house, I used to think, “What a laugh. That’s all fake.”
How wrong I was. Turns out the rest of the show, where things go well, is the fake part. Really, flipping a property is a montage of crisis moments.
The moment we drove up to our house—after the closing—we realized we had not paid enough attention to the house next door. Tiny brown bats circled its crumbling chimney. The place looked so haunted, I half expected hunched vultures to glare back at me. Its yard was also a magnet for old cars painted with sexually suggestive art.
Then there were the snakes and mice in our flip. We found a fully developed ecosystem in the basement. Once, as we lifted the refrigerator, a copperhead bolted out and slithered over my sneaker. I screamed, dropped my corner of the fridge, and skidded backward into the pointy edge of the counter. We thought the snake must be pregnant, but it turned out to be full, with a barely digested mouse in its belly. This we discovered as my husband pounded the snake into our newly laid, wood-textured, fabulous yet understated ceramic tile.
A house flipper’s experience shifts between extremes of panic and tedium. Nothing is as boring as painting trim. It could be meditative, but it’s not. You crawl along the floor, in the residual dust, and grow enraged. There’s not much to think about except the sad state of the world, whether the house will sell, and what exactly you have done with your life. The ghosts of every bad decision you’ve ever made show up—every dollar you’ve wasted, every job you wish you’d taken, every choice of chips over side salad. At least that’s how painting affected me. My regrets gathered like evil elves, staring at me.
Meanwhile my husband, whom I now called Mr. Smarty McHandypants, painted entire walls in perfect tranquility and contentment, as if blitzed on shiraz at a wine-and-paint party. Occasionally, he would stop and advise me on how to prevent splotches and smears. “Steady lines, long strokes,” he’d intone, like some kind of Australian Bob Ross. Once, I responded by viciously painting his leg.
Working on and off for six months, we eventually finished. We embraced in the kitchen, gleeful as the last bits fell into place: tasteful drawer pulls and a glittering light over the sparkling new sink. The whole house was gorgeous. It was so gorgeous it made our own house look awful.
We’d planned to have a big, raucous party in the flip, but in the end we couldn’t bear anyone treading on the new floors unless they could lay out a substantial down payment. A few friends did come by, removing their shoes, stepping lightly, and they were so congratulatory you’d have thought we’d executed our own moon launch. “Wow! Look at this granite,” they said.
All I could think about were the kitchen counters in our own house, which are made from some kind of manufactured scratch attractant.
“Look at the marble bath,” they marveled. “And what a gorgeous deck!”
I thought of our bathtub at home, molded out of the same stuff that helps bacteria grow in Petri dishes, and our dank concrete patio.
As you know from the shows, the final, critical phase of any flip is staging. In fact, I learned that staging is so important, we could’ve spent most of our attention on that and left the creepy old fixtures where they were. It’s the darndest thing, but buyers don’t hear the squeak in the floorboards when they’re waltzing over to admire a bowl of fresh peonies.
The really weird thing? The peonies worked on me too, even though I’d put them there to snag buyers. In its finished state, I admired our shared fantasy in concrete, tangible form. Every elegant fixture and well-placed shrubbery reflected our personal taste and effort. It had become a symbol of our tenacity and real estate ambition, and that was hard to let go. “We can’t keep this place,” my husband said. I knew he was right. Plus, the neighbors with the chimney and the vultures.
So we sold it. We made our target price, down to the dime. Doing so much of the labor ourselves, we made a reasonable, but hardly inspiring, return on our investment. Yet given the months of work and the financial risk we took, it was not worth it. Like a submarine diving beneath the safe zone, every additional week over schedule increased the pressure exponentially. After shooting past our schedule for renovation, we faced the stress and uncertainty about whether and when we could sell it. No flip is a sure thing.
When people hear we flipped a house and say, “I’ve always wanted to do that!” we always respond, “Don’t. Save yourself!” Sometimes it can be wise to recognize a fantasy as fantasy.
It’s been two years, and we have no desire to flip another place. And we don’t watch those shows anymore. Why would a shark-attack victim go to a Jaws marathon? The best thing that came out of it was learning to be happy with the house we’ve got. Our kitchen is still outdated, but I greet it as an old friend, safe from copperheads and evil elves. No wall bashing would ever feel good enough to make up for the tons of dust and chaos a kitchen renovation would generate. Besides, a bowl of fresh peonies can obscure almost anything.