What renovations are worth doing?

A few months ago, I received an email from a woman who had bought a 1964 ranch with all its original interiors: wood paneling, Formica countertops, a blue bathroom, the works. She hosted a housewarming party for her friends and relatives. Six different people at the party asked her The Question: “So, when are you going to flip this place?” When they heard that she had no desire to flip the house, which she found to be interesting and charming, her guests were shocked and tried to convince her otherwise. She should try for a return on her investment; the house was dated; it would need future repairs. One guest called the house “plain ugly.” She asked me if I thought the guests were right: Should she think about remodeling?

Remodeling and other house-fussery has become a national pastime. In 2015 alone, Americans spent $326.1 billion on renovating. Previously contained to affluent households and the glossy pages of architectural magazines, remodeling has been transformed by 24/7 media like HGTV and websites like Houzz, Pinterest, and Dezeen. While older media, like early issues of House Beautiful, discusses the process as mastering the careful art of interior design, newer media is more neurotic and self-loathing, describing houses in need of renovation with words like “dated,” “immature,” or “wrong.” Whether presented as a self-improvement project (update your house let you be judged for owning a dated one) or a form of self-care (renovate because it will make you feel better), the home renovation is presented as both remedy and requirement .

Instead of falling prey to this thinking, take a moment to consider this simple idea: There is nothing wrong with your house.

Most of the time, this statement is true (especially if one lives in a house constructed relatively recently). The roof does not leak; the house is warm or cool when it needs to be; there are no structural or electrical issues; nothing is broken or needs to be replaced from routine wear and tear. Why, then, do so many of us feel dissatisfied with our perfectly fine houses?

A fixation on the ills of one’s house is cultural, and has come in many different forms in many centuries. House-positivity is seen as bizarre. Consider the HGTV series Love It or List It, in which the show’s hosts, a realtor and an interior designer, compete to sway a family to leave or stay in their current home. Always, one member of the family (and it’s usually the one who manages the finances) wants to stay, and defends the home—and the family’s life within it—even if it is a little dated or cramped. This person is almost always painted as being wrong or in need of repair, and although the house is changed regardless, either renovated or discarded, the person who wants to stay is always a downer and always the loser. Although the show plays on the rivalry between the two hosts, the stay-er is always the most despised character.