19 Nov 2013
Once we went to an open house. The house in question was a small, no, tiny, original condition 2 bedroom double brick cottage. There are a lot of them in old suburbs in Canberra. They are heritage listed. The block is directly behind our current house. It was a massive block with not a stick on it. Not a single tree. A tiny shed and a car port were the only other structures on the entire block. It was real estate gold. It is 3 kilometres from the centre of Canberra. Walk to the nearby excellent local shops. The block is level enough and in the shadow of a beautiful mountain.
It was the saddest home inspection I have ever been to. The house belonged to a very elderly man and he lives there alone, with his equally elderly dog for company. It’s too much for him now, this house, life alone and looking after himself. He is however, not giving in lightly. He was vigorously mowing the lawn on Friday in preparation for strangers to come poking around. I saw him sweating away, neatly crossing back and forth mowing his lawn, for what he was no doubt hoping was, one of the last times.
The house itself speaks of decline. Of absolute austerity and an era of Australian life that has gone. The house itself occupied a very small portion of the huge block. There was enough room in the kitchen for one person. Standing at the sink looking out to the backyard you could almost reach the wall behind you. The ceilings were high. The doors original solid timber with brass fixtures. There was no heating. In Canberra. There was a fireplace but no other heating. In Canberra! The single sink in the kitchen was original. What struck me, as I considered the man and his house, is that this is what it meant to live within your means. It also spoke of loneliness and sorrow of loss. The house changed hands a decade ago. The man had bought it back and returned after a period away. To make it worse, most of the furniture had been packed up and taken away. The rooms looked utterly forlorn.
The house was reasonably clean. Had sound floor boards. The smell however, was overwhelming. Old man, old dog, years of living. The agent was doing her sensitive best to ‘market’ the property. It was clearly a sale that would be simple at one level – a developer will surely snap it up before the auction. The agent suggested strongly that the man would consider offers before the auction. On the other hand the agent was clearly emotional standing there in the almost empty house stinking of dog. She was keen to ensure that the man got a fair price. It was a hard ask. Almost unlivable, too tiny, too much work to be done. A massive amount of money would be required to fix it up. Not nearly as much money though, as could be made if a developer came in, took the back off the house and built two or even three duplex houses; as had happened to the other house of the same age and condition we had seen auctioned two streets away.
I wondered if we bought this house what we would do. We physically couldn’t fit in it as it was. Our possessions would burst out of it. The shed would overflow. We would have no hope of actually occupying the tiny house as it is; we wouldn’t be able to do it. We would fall over each other.
For a brief moment I imagined myself in a Grand Designs episode – climbing into our building site through a hole in the fence with my gumboots on. I envisaged trees and roses and a light filled box resting lightly behind the double brick facade of the original. I imagined book-lined studies and snug rooms. I saw water tanks and passive solar.
It is a shame that the people who bought the house didn’t see what I saw. Instead, they filled the block with house and concrete and blocked out the essence of the cottage. Filled it with modern small rooms and a rooftop garden, instead of a real garden, with trees and places for kids to play.