America needs days of the fixer-uppers

Published 10:33 am Thursday, June 3, 2010

If only more Americans had bought fixer-uppers.

Maybe I better explain.

My first house was in need of major renovations. Boy, did my father and I suffer when we improved the bathroom.

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The project started well enough. We tore down the old wall tile and put up wallpaper and a tub surround. We repainted, then put down a new floor. All we had to do to was reinstall the commode.

The bolts that had secured the toilet to the floor had both broken. The hardware-store guy sold me a kit to reattach them.

My father spent an hour reattaching the bolts. But as we attempted to fish the bolts through the commode’s bolt holes, we discovered they were too short.

“Son of a … !” said my father.

“The idiots gave us the wrong bolts!” I said.

I raced to the hardware store and bought longer bolts. My father spent another hour getting them in place. We were finally able to reattach the commode.

But another problem arose: the wax goop that seals the commode to the sewage pipe wasn’t thick enough to seal anything.

“Son of a … !!” said my father.

“The idiots gave us the wrong goop!” I said.

After another visit to the hardware store, our third attempt to secure the toilet succeeded. But we needed to reattach the water fittings.

To reattach the water fittings, you have to wedge your body between the tub and the commode. Then you have to screw the water-line bolt, made of metal, into a plastic pipe coming from the commode. But they won’t screw together.

So you have to keep trying to screw them together until you bang your head on the commode, which makes you angry, so you attempt to stand quickly, which kicks the newly-laid tile out of place, and then you bang your shin on the toilet, which causes you to throw whatever you’re holding through the bathroom window.

Eventually, we got the metal water-line bolt to screw into the plastic pipe — but we stripped the threads. When we turned the water back on, a leak sprouted that made Niagara Falls look like a lap pool.

“Son of a … !!” shouted my father.

“The idiots!” I said.

I raced back to the hardware store and bought every plumbing fitting ever designed by man: glue, sealant, putty, rubber washers, pumps…

Eventually, we got the commode installed. We got the sink installed. We sealed every leak. The miserable job took several hours more than we had planned.

If more Americans were willing to have such experiences, we’d all be better off.

You see, in the sensible old days, before Americans bought massive houses they couldn’t afford and paid more than those massive houses were worth, Americans were cautious and frugal.

The smarter folks shopped around — they bought modest, fixer-upper houses for less than market value. They weren’t afraid to get their hands dirty to produce wealth.

They came to appreciate how difficult it is to grow wealth — they knew that eventually they could sell their house at a gain and use it to buy a nicer house.

Of course, that was before our government kicked off the housing bubble by lowering lending standards — before Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac bought millions in bad mortgages written by reckless brokers who knew they could sell the bad loans.

It was before greedy Wall Street morons overexposed their firms for millions in short-term bonuses — before American home buyers routinely assumed the boom times would never end.

Well, the bubble finally burst and the economy hit the skids. Now millions are learning about wealth creation the hard way.

If only they’d bought a fixer-upper.

Tom Purcell is a humor columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Visit Tom on the web at or e-mail him at