Whether it's hardware that wears out, machinery that breaks down, or components whose efficiency and purpose have become obsolete in the face of new technology - there's always something.
It's romantic to think of restoring an old, elegant, historic house. When I was little, I loved old Victorian houses, and I loved reading stories that featured deserted old houses, where heroines like Nancy Drew uncovered the mystery within the spooky old-fashioned rooms of Blackwood Hall.
Put in proper context, though, the houses in those books I loved in the 1960s were not, in fact, centuries-old historical masterpieces. They were typical domestic structures perhaps 50 - 70 years old at the time the books were set in.
Bunker Hill house, Library of Congress Historical American Building Survey collection
Click to "embiggen" for wonderful detail
Click to "embiggen" for wonderful detail
The kids in "Gone Away Lake" were simply seeing the architecture of their grandparents' time. The rambling and deserted house Mary Lennox roamed in the turn-of-the-century "A Secret Garden" was probably only 50 years old, to her.
But fashions in architecture change, and by the mid-Twentieth Century, Victorian houses were considered out of style, embarrassing, and tacky.
You can see this in film and TV, too. Abbot and Costello's haunted houses had probably been built around the same time Bud and Lou had been born - Abbot's birth was in 1895. But they were pictured as shambling horrors.
The old house was considered as outmoded and lame as we consider Levittown's ticky-tacky little boxes today. Or a '70s A-Frame with earth-tone tiles and shag carpet.
So here we are in 2010, and my house, built in 1961, is now almost 50 years old itself. Does it look like "This Old House" romantic fantasy I always longed for?
Well, no. It's a low-slung, flat-roofed split level, with jalousie windows, stuccoed walls, and vertical wood paneling. It style apes the International Style of Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler of a few decades prior to its construction. I will concede it does so gracefully, and the house is pleasing to live in.
But as far as a homeowner's chores go, it might as well be a shambling turretted Victorian wreck. Since we bought the house 13 years ago, we've replaced the kitchen appliances and cabinets. We've replaced some 20 of its windows, but there's another 20 to go. When we moved in, there were still dial telephones hard-wired into the walls - we had to have proper phone jacks put in. We had the wooden railings on the deck rebuilt, since the wood was rotting and becoming dangerous.
We also put off more costly system replacements - the '60s-era electric furnace is about as efficient and effective as having a giant toaster in the basement. The bathroom is woefully out of date. And what keeps me awake some nights is thinking about the septic tank - which may fail at any time.
After thirteen years, it's also obvious that a fresh paint job will soon be necessary, but first we should replace some of the wooden siding where woodpeckers have drilled holes - and I guess that indicates a need to check for termites.
Right now those big projects are out of reach, so we keep going on day to day with a sort of triage approach. We repair that which is critical and necessary. Case in point - the stairs to our back deck are the kind made of concrete slabs cantilevered on steel beams.
One day our grown son was thundering down the steps when a chunk of paver broke off beneath his feet. We spent a week or so blocking off access to the stairs while we searched building supply houses for replacement slabs, and the Yellow Pages for a welder who could attach them. We even laid in a supply of spares in case it happened again.
When you think of restoring an old house, you think of painstakingly refinished intricately carved woodwork, not welding exposed-aggregate concrete slabs.
But it's a good thing we did that. Because just this Saturday, I tried to turn the '60s-era brushed aluminum doorknob to open our front door. It stuck fast. It had been sticking a bit lately, annoyingly, so I asked [The Man I Love] to give it a try.
No luck. It won't budge.
We've spent the last three days going up and down the back steps to get in and out of our house. It's no fun with a carload of groceries. Today I'm waiting for a locksmith to come. I warned him we'd probably need a replacement doorknob.
I wonder how much this is going to cost.
And I wonder what's going to break next.