Could You Walk Away From Your House?

What is a house? Is it a roof over one’s head or something more than that? A trove of memories and belongings that needs to be viciously guarded by emotion and more capitalistic instruments like insurance? For most of us, if our house burnt down – rented or owned – we’d be devastated. Even if it wasn’t full of our worldlies the very fact that the house, the structure, it’s rooms and its floors is gone, in itself would be a bad thing. We spend vast resources protecting our homes from harm. We do our best to keep people out with locks and doors – not only from stealing the things that are within but from vandalism and squatting and invasion of its sacred space. We protect our houses from the elements with shutters and steel frames that termites cannot eat through and firebreaks and special cladding to protect from the flames and embers. Our houses, or more aptly homes, in and of themselves mean something to us. It would be hard to just walk away.

To pay $300 per week rent for five years and then to move away is simple enough to do. We wouldn’t think too much of it. It’s common. I have done it time and time again. But that’s a $78,000 home effectively burnt to a crisp – nothing more to show. Gone, in and of itself. The memories are still there, but that’s the case either way.

I have read in various places of people that have built disposable homes. No, they are not made of cheap plastic or paper. They are homes that, if the situation fell upon them, they could walk away with no regrets. C’est la vie. This is an unthinkable proposition to most. But the memories, the meaning, the… the… house. But why not that rental? That building – the wood and bricks – that you walked away from after 5 years of good times? That belongs to, and always has, someone else?

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5 thoughts on “Could You Walk Away From Your House?

  1. Interesting subject to think about, thank you.
    I believe that a house you own, as opposed to rent, is an expression of our inner selves, we change it to suit our natures. I remember our first house; a little wooden box in a small local town, it was my sacred space, I built a garden, I painted the walls (the toilet was violet, I seem to remember) and I made it mine.
    I agree that a house is just a house, but the memories we build there and the expression of ourselves we create is embedded in the material of that house. A house you build yourself is even more personal.

    Although we have built our little shack and love it dearly, we have no insurance, we do not lock the doors (it seems redundant when one wall is unfinished and there is nothing worth stealing) and we do not use chemicals around the house at all (no termite deterrent).

    • I quite agree that to own a house can be more than owning a shell in which things are placed and experiences had. The object itself can be a matter of self-expression – a work of art, if you will. And that expression leads itself to sentimental attachment. This is true of many things – knick-knacks, old birthday cards and letters, photographs, and so on. This is where our views may well separate. I try to live fairly ‘minimally’. I don’t have a lot of possessions and don’t have many knick-knacks (or ‘dust collectors’ as I call them). The reason I no longer buy many books is because I don’t like the act of storing them. They take up space – space that needs to be maintained and paid for. This is a common phenomenon in consumerist society – taking pleasure in buying things and then having to buy space in which to store them; storage containers and systems, extra rooms, etc. I believe things can complicate life. Likewise, a house that we have built and put loads of self-expression into too can complicate life. It needs to be guarded and worried about.

      I say all this in the context of if I were to build a temporary but comfortable structure without permission on a block. I think, knowing my personality, there would be an anxiety there doing so. I’d be worried about the day that I got a knock on the door from the shire. But, if I could subscribe to the view that nothing is permanent, everything is changing, then I would be a lot more comfortable with the proposition.

      In fact, I just finished the section of Greg Foyster’s book, “Changing Gears”, where he visits Peter Cowman near Castlemaine, Victoria. Peter lives in a 3.3m x 3.3m cottage that he designed and built himself – without permission. It cost him less than $4000. Greg writes on his blog, “In a country where a home is conceived as a status symbol, an aesthetically pleasing object, or a bankable asset, Peter has the radical common sense to think of a home as – shock! horror! – somewhere to live. His EconoSpace house is a place to eat, sleep and relax, and nothing more. If that sounds too simple or austere, then perhaps the problem isn’t that his EconoSpace house is too small, but that our expectations of what a house should be are too large.” Peter doesn’t have insurance and is prepared to walk away from the house if need be – he needed to be prepared for this ‘building under the radar’. Thankfully he has his neighbours onside.

      • I fully agree that possessions (of any sort) lead to complications, it is inevitable. However without complications we have no attachments and one of the basic human needs is for attachment; a sense of belonging. The econospace house is wonderful, and I am not a huge collector of stuff for the sake of stuff (excepting books, which is a mental illness in itself), but I live an increasingly self sufficient lifestyle which requires the keeping and storing of large amounts of tools, even at the bare minimum needed for the job. For example, I spin wool; so the fleece needs to be stored until I spin it, the wool combs and carders, spinning wheel, lazy kate and the niddy noddy need to be stored. It is possible to spin (as I used to) with a drop spindle and a dog comb, but the extra tools let me turn the pursuit from a non productive (very slow) hobby into a way to actually make something I need (socks, gloves, cardigans and hats).

  2. I love Jude’s comment – that “without complications we have no attachments and one of the basic human needs is for attachment; a sense of belonging”. Also her comment about book collections being a form of mental illness (it’s one that I certainly share).

    I guess that anyone who walked into my house could tell quite a lot about me from my possessions: lots and lots of books, all carefully ordered on huge bookshelves; an old piano, with loads of sentimental value, but which is also in tune, and in frequent use; mis-matched furniture, ranging from genuine antiques to a hulking 1980s glass-fronted buffet and hutch – all items that family members didn’t want, but also didn’t want to throw away (I am known for my inability to refuse 2nd hand furniture). Art on the walls and artefacts (yes, certainly dust collectors!) on the flat surfaces that don’t hold books.

    In addition to the stuff with sentimental and aesthetic value, I probably most value the things that make life really comfortable and pleasant: good quality pots and pans; nice crockery and cutlery; comfortable dining chairs; a fairly new mattress; a beautiful shower recess, with hand-polished tadelakt on the walls. My 2nd hand preserving jars and sewing machine. My spanking new microscope.

    Other aspects of the dwelling that make life a pleasure are lots of natural light (courtesy of north-facing glass doors), and very serious insulation which makes the living spaces relatively warm and bright in winter, and cool in summer (with almost no artificial heat needed in winter, and only a ceiling fan in summer). Oh, and fly screens!

    Beyond all of that, the things I probably value the most are the view from the living room, and the fact that I own the land I live on without a mortgage (there are several drawbacks to living in an “undesirable” place, but cheap real estate is the big bonus).

    I enjoy watching the British tv show “Grand Designs”, and have often noticed that when Kevin asks the pround home owners to name their favourite thing about their grand new home, quite often they will nominate the view from a particular spot within the house: a view that they certainly didn’t need a million-dollar house to appreciate.

    A final thought on this subject (which, once again, I agree with Jude – it is an interesting subject to think about): there’s been a lot of media attention in the past couple of weeks on the people in the Blue Mountains who have either lost, or faced the very real prospect of losing, their homes to bushfire. Most people seem to be extremely pragmatic about it: they’ll say that the only thing that really mattered was that the people and the pets got out safely, and that the rest is just “stuff” that can easily be replaced. There’s been a lot of talk about insurance: who has it, who didn’t have it, and how much the premiums are expected to rise.

    It’s interesting to me that we still live in an age of such abundance that people automatically assume that an entire house full of possessions can simply be replaced, almost as if by magic. But if people are so unattached to their possessions that they can simply shrug off their loss, then how valuable were those possessions, really? Seemingly not very valuable at all, in most people’s minds. Which makes me wonder why they had them in the first place. And it also probably points to why so few people take serious steps to protect and defend their houses against bushfire, even when they live in incredibly high-risk locations. Because possessions don’t really mean anything, and they can always be replaced.

    • I struggle with aesthetics more than I do sentimentality. Aesthetics is about something being in and of itself. Whereas sentimentality is a duality – there is the thing and the attachment. The attachment can exist independently. Then you have things that comprise both aesthetic and sentimental features. Those things are surely keepers.

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