The first time I walked into my house, I turned to my wife and said two words: "absolutely not." The space, which had been in foreclosure for more than two years, looked like a bomb shelter that was being rented out for raves. The walls had holes. The ground was filthy. There was no furniture to speak of, but a tension-mounted stripper pole dominated the living room, and a kegerator hummed quietly nearby. One of the windows was inexplicably blocked by a lime green wall on the inside and a tan, tin cover on the outside. Cats roamed freely, including one that limped, pathetically, with a cast over its leg. There was a door—I am not kidding about this—that opened directly onto a three-story drop into the alley below. This wasn't a place human beings could live.
But my wife saw it more clearly. The damage was superficial. The grime could be scrubbed, the holes could be plastered over, the cats shooed out, the pole taken down, the death-door sealed. And the space was unusual—a roomy loft in Washington, DC, exactly what we wanted but could never seem to find. It would take work, but it could be turned from a mess into a house.
The work commenced. The space was cleaned, the furniture unpacked, the wildlife removed, the door replaced. Soon enough, it looked like people could live there. Soon after that, it looked like they did live there. But the work never quite seemed to stop. We were always fixing this, tweaking that, scheming over something else. "How's the place?" was always met with "coming along."
We made a house. But it wasn't till we moved out that it became a home. The most serious problem was that the place was freezing in the winter. It was a concrete box that barely had a heating system. Temperatures in the living room would drop to the low 50s, and they'd be in the 40s on the floor. I'm from Southern California; I do not deal well with cold. I spent the winters huddled in the bedroom, dragging space heaters from place to place.
We were supposed to move out for three weeks while we installed a workable heating system and poured new floors. But then the cascade of contractor errors began—the concrete mix was wrong, and the roof leaked onto it, and the bathrooms were destroyed, and the efforts to fix it were making everything worse. Two weeks became four weeks became six weeks. The damage to our house was visible and everywhere.
Absence made my heart grow fonder. I missed my space, my routine, my location. Aspects of the house that I rarely thought proved to have tremendous emotional significance. Each contracting error felt like a physical injury—this was my house, after all.
When we moved back in, the house was warm. But, more magically, it felt, for the first time, like my home. I had grown used to its quirks and oddities, and I had come to love, without quite realizing it, the space itself. No other place felt right to me anymore. I had spent so much time worrying over what didn't work for me in the house that I hadn't realized how much I had come to love about it. The house had been "coming along" for so long that I had forgotten where we were going; it was only after moving out that I realized we had already gotten there.
There were still things that could be improved, but my wife and I made a pact: no more improvements, not for awhile. The house was not a project. It was where we lived. We had made a home, and we just needed to stop trying to make a better house for long enough to notice.
For Home Sweet Home, Curbed talked to 30 engaging personalities across a range of industries to learn about where they grew up and what home means to them. Follow Ezra Klein on Twitter and Facebook, and don't forget to bookmark Vox.com.