In the basement, a race against the clock

When you're looking to buy a house in an area you can't really afford, you generally find yourself looking at the homes of the geriatric.

Or, at least, that's what we found ourselves doing when we wanted to move our young family from the city to the suburbs several years ago in search of green space and great schools.

At open houses we walked from room to room over shag rugs, discussing whether hardwood lay beneath. We tried to ignore the hospital bed in the living room, the walker in the corner of the kitchen, the seat in the shower.

There was no staging involved in putting these homes on the market — no vases of pretty flowers, purchased furniture, or expertly hung mirrors. Everything remained just as it was before the owner left for the nursing home, the hospital, or — to be grim — the funeral home. Walking inside was like time-traveling to the '60s or the '70s, although these homes were a far cry from the glorified sets of "Mad Men" or "American Hustle."

My husband was expert at focusing on what we'd be able to do with trips to The Home Depot and lots of sweat equity: Rip off the floral wallpaper, replace the antique stove, and remove the brown refrigerator. I, however, looked around more discerningly, studying the oddities in each house.

There was the house with the motorized chairlift on the stairs that I had previously seen only in black-and-white horror movies. And the house with the dentist chair in the basement — apparently the owner saw patients years after his official retirement.

I lingered longest in the basements. More shag carpeting and wood paneling. The words "rec room" and images of "The Brady Bunch" came to mind. The walls were filled with family photos: births, picnics, first school days, graduations, weddings.

"What do you think?" my husband asked me back then about the house we had just toured. I was still staring at a photo of a chubby-cheeked baby.

"Hmm?" I said.

"If we could get it for a good price, I think we could probably redo the kitchen right away. The bathrooms will have to wait. Did you see that pink tile in the upstairs bath?"

That fuchsia bathroom had no doubt once been the hottest style. That chubby-cheeked baby was probably 50 or 60 now. He would be selling off this house, his mother's house, the house he'd grown up in. He would soon be packing away all the photos from the basement wall.

"Are you OK?" my husband asked me, perhaps sensing my reluctance. "It's too much work, isn't it? We'd be in over our heads with this one."

Perhaps he was thinking I was overwhelmed by the idea of buying such an outdated and neglected house. But I was thinking how someday our life would be all lived; someday it, too, would be only pictures on a basement wall.

When we finally bought our house, we began making our own memories there, celebrating our family milestones. Our two young boys became preteens. We welcomed a daughter. We hung our own photos. We redid the kitchen, the bathroom, that basement. We painted, we tore up rugs, we knocked down walls.

I still remember our basement as it was before we bought our house, before my husband painted over the paneled walls and tore up the green-and-brown- patterned carpet. I also remember our house-hunting days.

As another year of snow days, birthdays, and picnics passes, I wonder, have I rushed through the last several years? Am I appreciating these days in our house filled with noise, sports, homework, art projects, fights, tears, and love?

Did I peel back the wallpaper carefully enough?

Kim Ablon Whitney, the author of several novels, lives in Newton. Send comments to