Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A House Is Not a Home

 Home is the place where, when you go there, they have to take you in
— Robert Frost

I always get annoyed when I read real-estate articles that talk about buying a "home" instead of a "house." Does this bother anyone besides me? Or am I being excessively fussy and Edwardian about this?

It's bad enough when Boston Globe reporters (John Ellement, I mean you) and zillions of others who write about real estate can't spell basic architectural terms like "mantel."  I've also seen references to "parkay" floors. Try Googling that.

Then there are plenty of writers and realtors who refer to anything built before 1950 as "Victorian."

I recently read about a Back Bay condo that reportedly had its "original 18th-century wainscoting." That  realtor gets points from me for knowing what wainscoting is, and how to spell it. But all of Back Bay was a swamp in the 18th century! There's no original 18th-century anything in Back Bay.

I went to the open house, and the wainscoting was gorgeous: unpainted, 1880's oak.

* * * 

But the "house" versus "home" distinction perpetually bothers me. It's just wrong to talk about "home-buying." No one can buy a "home." Homes are made, not purchased. A house is a structure, with walls and floors. You buy your house — and if you furnish it, settle in, and get comfortable, then you feel at home in it. "Home" is a concept, a state of mind.

As with most of my English style and usage rules, I have no idea where I learned this. It's just there, in my little brain, making my skin crawl whenever I read Boston Homes, where reporters are permitted to write things like, "an absolute jewel of a home."
Nobody's home — and so this is not a "home." Yet. 

Perhaps my understanding of "house" versus "home" is just one of those antiquated class distinctions useful only for separating the hoi polloi from the well bred. If so, being from peasant stock myself, I should get over my pretensions. But I don't think it is. I believe it's correct usage; it just isn't taught widely. And everyone in the real estate business should know that, to some of their clients, talk of "buying a home" will always sound uneducated.

Here are a couple of examples of how we do use these words correctly: You would never say to your friend, "Hey, let's go to your home!" She would think you were weird. We always say, "Let's go to your house," because it's been ingrained in us for generations that it's only proper to describe our own residences as "home."  Other people's residences are spoken of as houses. Otherwise we're being presumptuous: maybe their house isn't all that homey.

We also say, "Let's go to my house," not "Let's go to my home," when we are taking others to our domicile, which is not the home of everyone who is accompanying us. When we say, "Let's go home," we mean something different: we're aware that whomever we're with will be at home there, too.

Final example: People (i.e.,women) who take care of other people's houses are known as housekeepers. People who do their own housework are known as homemakers. Because homes are made.

But I guess that, one day, some realtors decided that talking about "homes" would make buyers feel warm and fuzzy, and thus be more likely to fall for a ratty dump in a moldy basement with tiny windows facing an alley. (Or maybe they figured that "home" would sum up all the options in one neat little noun, covering not only "house," but "apartment, condo, co-op, shack, rathole, cabin, boardinghouse, loft."

But it's still wrong.

To be thorough, there are indeed "homes" where other people live. But in all of these cases, "home" is a euphemism: old folks' homes, nursing homes, homes for the mentally impaired. The New England Home for Little Wanderers. You can refer to such places as "homes" with enthusiasm and still be my friend. But we all know the truth: generally, these places aren't homelike at all. These homes are residences we all hope to avoid.

No, thank you.

I bet that, long ago, descendants of the cheerful (and probably annoying) do-gooder Victorians who gave us the "rest home" recognized that there would be more money in real estate than in charity ventures — especially if they began referring to every decrepit, rotting hovel as a "cozy home."

* * * 

Along these lines, I'm never happy to go to Home Depot. Not only is the store overwhelming, the lumber department gives me an allergy attack. I firmly believe it should be called "House Depot" because it primarily sells materials for structural improvements. Yes, you can buy d├ęcor there. But most of the time, that's far from a good idea. 

On the other hand, my favorite store is ABC Carpet and Home. And that's okay, because it sells things to make a house homier. It's also the best retail experience in Manhattan.

Mecca: ABC Home in Manhattan (ABC Carpet is across the street)

* * * 

In some cases, a house never successfully becomes a home — because it's not comfortable. Or it's not healthy for its inhabitants, or it's ugly, or ill-equipped. Or it's cluttered or disorganized. Sometimes places just aren't sufficiently "lived in" by their peripatetic occupants, so even home feels like yet another strange hotel.

In these situations, Groucho Marx was correct: "Home is where you hang your head."

For problems like these, there's Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan's excellent book, Apartment Therapy: The Eight-Step Home Cure. It's full of insights and ideas, including a guided plan to turn any house into a welcoming nest. If you're motivated, it really works. And when you're done, you might post a tour of your fabulous abode on the ApartmentTherapy site.

For some, "home" requires books, a cushy sofa, 
and/or a cat or two lounging by the fireplace.

1 comment:

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