More than once I have had my brain paralyzed by what psychiatrists call Old House Delusion Disease (OHDD). My wife and I bought an old house that had every known old-house problem, including termites, not to mention a grand total of one closet, and an entire room that had no electrical outlets — a clear indication that the house was not built by or for people with a need for, say, lighting.
Were we discouraged?
No! We thought it was quaint!
Here’s how delusional we were. We had plumbing problems (of course), and in an effort to fix a leak, some plumbing guys were crawling around under our house. They emerged holding some yellowed, crumbling, rolled-up newspapers, which they’d found wrapped around our pipes, apparently as insulation. We carefully unwrapped one of the newspapers and found that it was a Miami Herald from 1927. It had a story in it about Charles Lindbergh.
So there we were, confronted with stark evidence that our pipes, in addition to leaking, were very old. It’s like being aboard a boat in the middle of the Pacific and discovering that not only were you sinking, but also your hull was made entirely of Triscuits.
How did we react to this horrible news? We were thrilled! Charles Lindbergh! It was so charming! The plumbers were also very excited, but in their case it was because they knew we would be putting all their children through Harvard.
Our House Delusion Disease is very powerful. Usually, when you buy an old house, you hire professional house inspectors. These inspectors are very thorough: They spend a whole day crawling around the house, and then they give you a detailed, written report, which says “Do not buy this house, you idiot!”
Not in so many words, of course. The report breaks the house down by major defects, then sub-defects. The house, according to the report, consists entirely of defects. You read the report, but because you have OHDD, none of it actually penetrates your brain, even when the inspector goes out of his way to warn you about serious problems:
INSPECTOR: I want to show you something in the living room …
YOU: Don’t you love that room? It has such character! The molding!
INSPECTOR: About the molding — I wanted you to see this. (The inspector takes a screwdriver and taps it against the molding. The molding disappears in a smokelike puff of wood particles. Then a large part of the wall itself collapses, leaving a gaping hole, through which can be seen, in the gloom, an exposed wire that periodically emits a shower of sparks, illuminating a dripping pipe covered with green slime. A rat darts by, pursued by what seems to be a boa constrictor.)
YOU: Ha ha! These quirky old houses! That can be repaired, right?
INSPECTOR: Well, I suppose it could, if you’re willing to …
YOU: I’m not worried about cosmetic problems, as long as the house is structurally sound. (You stamp your foot on the floor to emphasize this point. Your foot goes through the floor.)
INSPECTOR: Um, that’s another thing. Your floor joists have been almost entirely eaten away.
YOU: (retracting your foot) Termites? No biggie! A lot of these old houses have termites! We can just have it treated by …
INSPECTOR: Actually, it’s beavers. They’re building a dam in the basement.
INSPECTOR: I’ve never seen that before.
YOU: (recovering) Well, the kids have been wanting a pet!
At this point the inspector, who has dealt with OHDD before, gives up and edges out of the room, taking care not to put too much weight on any one part of the floor.
You, of course, buy the house. As a true OHDD victim, you would buy this house if it were on fire. Once it’s yours, you begin calling what will become a never-ending parade of highly paid craftsmen, who will spend so much time at your house that eventually they will become a part of your family, and invite you to attend all their children’s graduations from Harvard.