I will remember 2016 as, among other things, the year I bought a second home — a fixer-upper in Pass Christian on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
It is a solidly built ordinary brick house, 25 years old, 400 yards from the beach, 32 feet above sea level (Hurricane Katrina’s surge reached 26 feet), with a sturdy live-oak tree dripping Spanish moss in the backyard. By Gulf Coast property standards, it was a steal due to a motivated seller, the brownish water in the Mississippi Sound, and the lingering memory of Katrina. Perhaps prophetically, we closed on August 29th, the 11th anniversary. They say memory fades after ten years.
Pass Christian and neighboring Long Beach and Bay St. Louis, with their man-made beach, will never be compared to Destin or the over-designed creations along 30-A or the high-rises of Gulf Shores, which is fine with me. The tallest building is four stories. The boats in the harbor are working boats, not toys or yachts. U.S. Highway 90 is lined with tree sculptures thanks to “chainsaw artists” who came here after Katrina. The neighbors we have met are compassionate, creative survivors of Katrina who are glad to share their stories and know-how.
And their tools, which is Lesson One for the would-be fixer-upper: real life is not like television. Those “reality” HGTV shows like Fixer Upper, Flip or Flop, and Property Brothers are inspirational and fun to watch, but about as real as Santa’s workshop. DIYs (do-it-yourselfers) do not wear eye shadow and makeup or have perfect hair, perky breasts, and unflappable dispositions. They look more like people you would move away from if they sat down next to you in a restaurant.
True fixer-uppers do not have crews of professionals to come in and do the carpentry, wiring, dry wall, painting, framing, tile, landscaping, and decorating. DIYs consult YouTube, Home Depot, curious neighbors, and the hardware store. We take a sledgehammer to a wall with fear and anxiety because we aren’t really sure what’s back there. We measure once and cut twice and forget to add the width of the saw blade. We shake paint that is supposed to be stirred. We spill, trip, cuss, blame, break things, lose things, overestimate, underestimate, and cut ourselves at least once a day. There is no Chip and Joanne or Property Brother producer there to save us.
But there are considerable rewards too. My wife actually knows what she is doing when it comes to painting and redecorating. This is a second act for us, something we can do together. Much as we like Midtown, we have lived there for 34 years. You can’t see diving pelicans, sailboats, a distant island, or the lights of fishing boats at night between Poplar and North Parkway.
We crossed the Rubicon with wallpaper, curtain, and carpet removal. The previous owner was an old woman named Gisela who was kidnapped by the Nazis and escaped during World War II. She loved pink carpet, pink paint, pink light shades, and pink flowered wallpaper. As I tore it off hour after hour, I invented a back story: a girl enduring the horrors by vowing that if she survived she would some day live in a place with bright colors and flowers all around her.
I learned or was reminded that whatever the job, there is a hard way and a less hard way to do it. Downy and hot water, lots of it, will strip wallpaper. Attach dry wall screws with a quick punch, not a sustained push. An oscillating saw will undercut baseboards and trim so your tiles and flooring fit. A rented paint sprayer is essential to painting the exterior of a brick house white, which is another essential if you live near the coast.
And save your old fence boards. Rustic weathered boards are gold in today’s home improvement economy. New cedar fence boards sell for $2. Old ones go for $6. Cypress is even more valuable. There is rustic flooring, rustic walls, rustic bathrooms, rustic kitchens, rustic picture frames. I expect to one day see someone get married in a rustic-print wedding dress.
I don’t have the skills of the Property Brothers, but I do have a garage full of weathered boards I salvaged over the years before they were cool. Call me one lucky customer.