Home truths: The dream home splits are back
In New York, it's so common that lawyers have a label for it : they call it the "renovation divorce." Man and woman get married. Man and woman buy apartment/house/condo. Man and woman hire architect and go on crazy spending spree (or at least one does - to the chagrin of the other).
Both parties kill each other - and their architect and their designers and their plumbers - and the project goes head over heels over budget and kills their future financial prospects.
One party in particular is the 'spender', insisting on buying an expensive property in the first place and then plumping for all the most lavish renovations, finishes and fittings, which the couple can't afford. Debt builds up and up. Redecoration becomes an obsession, a point of endless arguments and a cash-weeping financial sore until finally one party walks out, leaving acrimony and bills in their wake. In this way, the 'dream home', or the quest for it, kills the marriage.
Often it's the woman who fulfils the 'spender' role that causes the financial grief - but not always. Last year, the second generation Irish author Kate Glanville talked about her recent novel A Perfect Home, which she said was inspired by her experiences with a cottage restoration. She blamed 20 years of renovation, which cost close to €200,000, for the end of her marriage to her husband Duncan, who she said was somewhat obsessed with constantly upgrading their house.
"One of the final straws was when Duncan wanted to do up a dilapidated railway carriage he'd found in a field as a guest room - I felt we could use our money better." Glanville, however, claimed to be equally at fault at times: "I was the one who insisted on the right shade of white for the walls and finding authentic window fittings." Ironically, when the house was finally finished, a 'for sale' sign went up on it because they were divorcing. At least she got a book out of it.
Studies carried out in Ireland on the causes of divorce show that contrary to what we might expect, money and debt issues are the main causes of marital splits rather than abuse, alcohol or cheating. And through the Celtic Tiger years, much of that debt was run up on the family home in the quest for pitch perfect everything - from paint finishes and designer wallpapers that cost €300 a roll to over-the-top bathrooms with tubs that would sink a battleship.
The wreckage of "renovation divorces" are to be seen all over the country today. You'll find plenty of massive houses for sale in the middle of nowhere with an Aga kitchen that cost €80,000, six bathrooms kitted for €50,000 a pop, cinema rooms with technology that's now obsolete, internal vacuum systems and hugely extravagant catering-standard cookers. The common denominator today is that the couple who did this are now broke, the house is repossessed and they are split.
And now it's happening again - people I've encountered who recently bought property are going around with frowns and muttering in fluent Tiger. They're fretting about the "right feature wallpaper" and what coloured chip to sprinkle into their poured and polished concrete floors. And I wonder if many of them can really afford the standards they are aspiring to. This often comes with a self-imposed crazy rush to get the property "done" and "perfect" as quickly as possible. It's all so very 2005.
And cracking through the tile stores with the newly-weds are a new breed entirely - the separated newly freed and spend-crazy downsizers.
The property crash and the recession kept split couples together in the same houses for five or six years. With Tiger-era purchased homes now finally beginning to lift out of negative equity, couples who split way back when are now finally selling up and dividing what spoils are left.
Those who have put up with tired homes for so long are now breaking out with a vengeance for their downsize pads, divvy cash in hand. They're hitting the kitchen and bathroom showrooms with vim, spending all around them and making rash upgrading decisions they might later regret. It seems the changed expectations of the Tiger era have stuck - the need to change a sofa or a kitchen, not because its worn, but because it's not as trendy as it was; the expectation that a house bought today must look "perfect" tomorrow or there's something wrong with you.
In America (where else?), the stress has spawned another industry - renovation counselling - to ensure marriages survive a property purchase and the resulting refurbs. In a recent article, Californian therapist Lisa Bahar says she encourages couples to start "with a 'reality check' conversation regarding the actual process of what is about to occur". Ahem. Counsellor and former bathroom designer John Wilder has more down to earth and practical advice: "Before renovating, watch the 1986 film The Money Pit together."
Then he goes and ruins it by pointing out that the rebuild styles have all dated.