The unfinished house

When we were traveling full-time, one of the questions I got often about life in the Airstream regarded maintenance.  People were concerned that routine service and repairs of the trailer would be an onerous burden.  Typically this question came from someone who was considering going “full-time” in an RV.  They expected that moving from a fixed house to one that was mobile would greatly increase their obligation to clean, lubricate, adjust, and repair things.

Actually, the opposite is true. While full-timing, we averaged a few hours a month maintaining (or watching the repair of)  one thing or another, which amounted to an annual expenditure of about $2,000 – $3,000 and a few days.  It was never burdensome.  Once we moved out of the house, it was amazing how much free time we had.

Of course, now the situation has flipped on us again.  We’re in a house, and despite our best efforts to make it low-maintenance, it has surprised us with a seemingly endless list of fittings it requires in order to be usable. In the past week I’ve purchased chairs, toilet paper and toothbrush holders, bookcases, drawer organizers, nightstands, knobs,  and various bits of hardware.  We still need shades in one window, rugs, storage bins, end tables, and a dozen other things.

This feels very odd to us. We bought a house but it came with no place to put things.  We’re used to the Airstream, which came to us completely ready for living, fully furnished and organized.  We didn’t have to go shopping for appliances, check for mattress sales, or measure the windows for curtains.  The Airstream came with everything, right down to the storage bins.

By comparison, houses are just shells that need a ton of accessories to be usable.  The price you pay for the house is just the start.  This focuses your attention on the house, and you of course immediately start running errands to get stuff to line the nest, which is what we’ve been doing lately.

Being 98% fully functional right out of the lot, the Airstream allowed us to focus on doing things and going places.  We didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about which stove to buy.  We just hitched up and went.  Now that we are in the house-furnishing mode, I think wistfully back to that and realize what a good deal it was.

Yesterday’s big errand was 100 miles up to Tempe, where IKEA sits in a giant blue-gold box by the Interstate highway.  I know, a few blog readers are wincing because they despise IKEA.  But hear me out.  We made a conscious choice even before we bought the house that we would not put anything really worthwhile in it.  Our last house was furnished with antiques and a few really nice (expensive) pieces of furniture that would certainly last a lifetime.  When time came to move, we had to sell most of that furniture at a fraction of what it cost us (or give it away) because there was no real market for it.  The cost of moving it across the country almost equalled the cost of the furniture in the first place. We moved only a bed frame and the dining room table.

When we got here, knowing that this would not be a “dream house” and that we’d probably spend very little time in the house, we decided not to repeat that mistake.  Who knows if we’ll be here five years or 50 years?  Thus, we are buying essentially disposable furniture at extremely modest cost.  That means IKEA.  Seventy bucks gets me a veneered particle-board bookcase that can be disassembled later if needed. Honestly, the furniture in the Airstream is more durable than the IKEA stuff, but on the other hand, we furnished the entire house with IKEA for about $2,000.  Heck, just the dining room table that we moved from Vermont cost more than that.

The real problem with IKEA is that in its constant effort to emphasize its Swedish roots, all the products are given bizarre and confusing names.  The BILLY bookcases we bought are easy for a North America tongue to handle but things quickly degenerate from there.  The optional doors are called BYOM, for reasons fathomable only to Swedes, I suppose.  We have chests of drawers called MALM, and if we’d dared to shop the bedding we’d be looking at MYSA and GOSA.

The mirror is called MONGSTAD, which is bad enough, but the EKTORP couch just makes me laugh.  Reminds me of “ectoplasm.”  Pair it with a lovely LEKSVIK coffee table and a TULLSTA chair and you’ve got a tongue-twisting living room for under $1,000.

For undercabinet lighting in the kitchen we bought the GRUNDTAL light.  That seemed easy enough until we realized it needed to be paired with the ANSLUTA cord system.  What’s an ANSLUTA?  You don’t really know until you find it on the shelf.  (Turns out, it’s just a cord.)

Not only is it hard to tell by the name what something is, it makes for strange conversations.  It’s like we are speaking a combination of English and Swedish.  “What do you think of the BESTA ENON for the TV?”  “Do you prefer APPLAD or LIDINGO for the doors?”  “How about a ALSVIK with the DOMSJO drain board?”

No, I’m not making these up.  The names make me wonder if they are (a) really Swedish; (b) made-up for the US market, like Haagen Dazs; (c) randomly generated by computer or a cat walking across the keyboard.  I mean, honestly, is DOMSJO a word or a typo?

Along with assembling furniture and trying to find places to store all the stuff we haven’t yet managed to get rid of, Eleanor is trying to figure out her kitchen.  This means that nearly every day she moves things from cabinet to cabinet, drawer to drawer, to try out the most functional spot for everything.  The other residents of the house (Emma and me) get to go on a daily hunt for the things we need, since they are not usually in the same place twice.  Lately I’ve just given up and will call out, “Eleanor, where are the spoons today?”

In various places she’s also hung sticky notes with hints to herself about where things might go in the future.  One by an empty cabinet says “Spices & baking needs.”  There’s another one on the cabinet near my computer that says, “Coffee station,” but the coffee maker is still on the other side of the kitchen.  I could ask why but I’m afraid to know.  I think she’s waiting for me to find some place other than her kitchen to keep my office.

Today I have to assemble some BILLYs, attach the BYOM doors, and then install a few GRUNDTAL pegs for hanging kitchen towels, and two SAGAN toilet paper holders (named for Carl Sagan?)  Eleanor is attaching KORREKT handles, correctly I hope.  In between, there’s the hunt for everything that we remember owning but can’t find, including things that are still in boxes back in our “storage” room, and roving items in the kitchen.  It’s all very confusing.   We do this in the hopes that at the end of this process (which currently has no end in sight) we will have a house that is finally furnished for living.  So, in answer to anyone who is still wondering, yes, the Airstream was definitely simpler.

About the Author

Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine