Real American dream is still alive

Published 8:00 am Wednesday, November 9, 2011

It’s been getting to me, I must admit. Fifteen years ago, I bought my first house. I’d just started a freelance writing business and money was tight.

An appraiser I knew told me about a fixer-upper in the country he had just assessed. He was confident I could get a good deal on it.

Boy, was he right.

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See, the owner of the house, an elderly fellow, was a hoarder. The house was packed inside and out with junk — unimaginable piles of it.

I made an offer and, regrettably, it was accepted.

My father and I worked nonstop for the first few years to get the place up to snuff. We filled Dumpsters full of junk. We renovated and improved.

Just when I got the joint decent enough to live in, I moved to Washington, D.C., and rented it out. I rented it to the same nice couple for more than 13 years.

Two months ago, I moved back to that house.

This time, I have a talented construction fellow to help me. He has shown up every weekend since I moved in. We’ve been ripping the place apart inside and out to make it nice.

There is dust everywhere. Mud, too. I spend every waking moment driving my old truck to Home Depot to pick up supplies, then going right back because I always forget something.

And I’m single-handedly trying to end the recession by spending lots of money.

See, the rule of thumb with home renovations is that no matter what you think a project will cost, it will cost three times as much.

So you factor in the fact that it will cost three times what you expect — and it is still three times whatever you factor.

In any event, living in a construction zone is living in a constant state of agitation and, as I said, it has been getting to me.

But then I remember that I am living the American dream.

You remember what that is, surely. It involves buying a home, holding on to it long term and paying it off.

It involves a great deal of appreciation in value over time — so that when you retire, you can sell the house and bank a bunch of dough.

Well, a lot of Americans aren’t living that dream anymore. Many bought homes at inflated prices during the peak of the housing bubble. Nearly 25 percent of them are in homes that are worth significantly less than they owe.

I am just an English major but I predicted there would be a housing collapse way back in 2005. I was living in D.C. and saw people speculating wildly on houses, confident that no matter what they paid, they’d reap a huge windfall by selling the following year.

Most of those people lost their shirts in 2008.

The fact is the American dream is still alive. It just isn’t as sexy as some would like it to be.

One way to create long-term wealth is to buy a fixer-upper, below market value, and put in some elbow grease.

Sure, it is unpleasant to live in dust and mud for a spell. It is unpleasant to work hard and spend every waking moment at Home Depot.

But that is how most of America’s wealthy acquired their wealth — through hard, dirty work over a long period.

And when I remember this, the agitation of living in dirt and mud for another month or so doesn’t bother me anymore.

How blessed I am to have a shot at living the American dream.


Tom Purcell is a freelance writer and humor columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Email Tom at