It was three years ago today that we moved into our Wisconsin house, which we marked by having a guy do some repairs on our deck. Small fixes, fortunately; mostly he was just cleaning it up. The biggest part of the job was doing the fixes on the deck while watching out for the two baby bunnies that live under there. The kids named them Star and Sniffy when we found them in the yard a month ago, and the entire household has been keeping an eye on them ever since. Fortunately the contractor was nice enough to accommodate our weird request to “please avoid painting bunnies,” cause if anything had happened to them during the work I probably would’ve had to sell the place.

The only fixes we’ve had to do since we moved here have been small ones, which is a big change from our New Hampshire house. We tried for over a decade to transform that building into a big old farmhouse, but the closest we got was the color. Even when we spent the better part of a year tearing the place apart and building it back up again.

The red house with its top floor removed and a blue tarp over the top.

We bought the red house in 2007, back when the housing bubble was at a rolling boil but hadn’t yet spilled over. Prices were high, and since my wife and I were both still what they call “early career” workers, the properties in our price range were limited to two categories: we could choose a place that was broken and unlivable or one that was creepy and unlivable. You learn quickly to read between the lines of real estate listings, because “14 acres – lots of space!” can mean “small cottage on a mountainside, that may or may not tumble back down into traffic.” “Great for pets” translated to “the garage has a colony of feral cats.” One realtor literally apologized to us for the house she was showing; in this case, “relax next to the backyard pool!” meant “you have to relax next to it because you can’t swim in it.” The roughly 25 people living in the house had filled the thing with old bicycles and who knows what else. It was a step away from a landfill.

An interior upstairs room with a white bookcase in the back.

The last house we looked at had some of this “character” too; we had to tour it quickly because of the gas smell. “We can replace that,” said the realtor of the 50 year old furnace that was literally on fire in the basement. But it also had some cool features the other houses didn’t have, like working electrical fixtures. It had been built in 1890 and rebuilt pretty much throughout the next century or so. The seller had been there for about 50 of those years; he was a do-it-yourselfer who’d added several new rooms onto the structure, including a “passive solar room” that trapped heat like a greenhouse, and fans built into the walls to blow the hot air through the house. Upstairs, the door to the unfinished attic was a bookcase. If we needed to hide anybody from Nazis for a couple years we were set!

It was quirky in the right kinds of ways, there was an enormous backyard, and it was three blocks away from where my employer was building a new office space. Compared to the other houses we’d seen, it was like the Biltmore Estate or something. It was slightly out of our price range, but our wonderful, patient realtor, Bill, talked the seller into dropping the price, and we were able to close on the place and start moving in… on Friday the 13th.

Maybe that should have been a sign of the weirdness to come, but after you’ve lived in some not so great apartments, complete with some not so great landlords, owning your own place can feel great, even if that place is kind of weird. So we started turning the house into a home. I worked inside, trying to consolidate our piles of boxes into slightly more organized piles of boxes. My wife turned the yard into a huge garden; she put in fruits and vegetables of all kinds in the back and sunflowers in a strip of soil next to the driveway. They looked great, even if they did face the neighbors’ yard instead of ours.

As enthusiastic as we were about being homeowners, there was no getting around the fact that the house was showing its age. The living room floor sagged to the point that I once put a pint glass on the ground and watched it topple over and roll several feet. The sellers had replaced the vintage on-fire furnace, but the house had lots of leaks and not that much insulation, so the temperature on the main floor never got above 61 degrees in the winter. (Upstairs there was no heat; the pipes didn’t work.) Sleeping in the winter meant getting into sleeping bags under multiple quilts and having four space heaters running. I honestly don’t know how we didn’t set the place on fire.

They gave me two tasks; eventually, after the dry wall was up, I would do most of the painting. Before that, I had to go before the zoning board of adjustment; because our property was set back from the street and accessed through a shared driveway, any changes to the house had to get special approval. It was a total formality, but I played the “we’re doing this for our newborn son” card really hard just in case. Also, the meetings were on public access TV, and oddly, more people in town told me they’d watched the meeting I was in than said they listened to me on the radio every afternoon. Who knew zoning board meetings had such high ratings?

Most of our stuff crammed into a back room of the house during renovation.

This was definitely a whole house renovation; we had to put all of our stuff in a back room for six months while they worked. Our living space was a kitchen, a bathroom, and a dining room that served as a bedroom for two adults, one baby and Rocky the cat, who made another of his derpy escape attempts. Somehow he sneaked upstairs in the night and climbed onto a part of the first floor roof. The pitter patter of cat paws gave him away; my wife had to climb up after him and lure him back inside. Our oldest kid loves this story, especially when he gets to say “we had to put Rocky in kitty jail for the night.”

Rocky the grey tabby cat sits grumpily in a pink cat carrier.

It was not the most comfortable way to spend a hot summer, but we managed, mostly by finding other places to be when we could. The workers were great, don’t get me wrong, but they found a lot of hidden oddities in the house, like extra layers of ceiling that previous owners had just covered over with new layers when they wanted to update. Occasionally they found soft spots in the ceilings. Twice they even stepped through the ceiling. Before they put the new second floor on it rained for a few days, so they covered the house with a blue tarp. We’d bought the place right before the housing crash, so we were financially underwater the whole time we lived there, but now it looked like we were underwater too. The mantra in the house was “when this is all done, we’ll never think about it again.”

The back room of the house has all our stuff on the floor, and a big hole in the ceiling.

But every day there was a new wall in place, or a ceiling, or a bathtub; the giant pile of boards and plywood sheets that had sat in front of our house got smaller and smaller. Plumbers and electricians came to put in faucets and light switches and finishing touches. They’d started in March, and by November, there was heat on the second floor for the first time in who knows how long. The only thing they hadn’t been able to do was add a fourth bedroom, which at the time didn’t seem like a big deal. It was, in most respects, a whole new house.

We had a party to show off the new space to our neighbors and friends, and to say thanks for all the times people had us over for dinner because we didn’t have any space in our own house to eat. It got a good response – better than what we got from the assessor’s office, which valued our three bedroom, two bathroom house at less than what we’d paid to renovate it. And even though we tried really hard to make it a “normal” house, it was a weird twist on New England homes and always would be. You can’t really make one kind of house into another kind of house.

The Carlson Kids are in two strollers, smiling and preparing for a walk around a very non-snow covered driveway.

Still, for the next five years, it was very much our house – where we added our second and third kids to the family, where we would get everybody ready for our weekly routine of walking to the farmer’s market every Saturday morning, then stopping at our favorite coffee shop for drinks and snacks. It was hard when we realized our family was too big for the place and that we would be moving on.

But we took everything we’d learned from our first adventure with a house and found a place that was the right size, right shape, right number of bedrooms, right amount of insulation, and we learned how to work with the house as it is instead of work around it. It’s been everything we’ve needed it to be, especially over the last year, when it’s had to serve as offices, studios and classrooms as well as living space. It definitely feels like the right spot for us.

And the red house in New Hampshire got a happy ending, too. Right as we were preparing to move to Wisconsin, I got an email from a firefighter who was looking to buy a place, and ours, being a half block down from a fire station, caught his eye. I gave him a tour and he had the same smile on his face that I’d had back in 2007, when I’d seen what kind of a home it might become for me. I was glad that we were handing off this weird house to someone who appreciated it. And the furnace was in perfect working order when we left. Though, of course, if you have to leave a problem in a house that a firefighter is buying, that’s one he can deal with pretty well.