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When Your Childhood Home Becomes a ‘Teardown’

It's hard to say goodbye to a family home after 43 years


(This article appeared previously on MarketWatch.com)

I have managed to navigate most trials in middle age (job changes, children leaving home, deceased pets) with a fair amount of grace. But now I find myself strangely unnerved by an event beyond my control: My childhood home is about to be torn down.

 
This summer, my parents sold the 2,000-square-foot split-level they bought in a suburb of New York City in the early 1970s. The buyer, a Bronx-based developer of everything from office complexes to strip malls, plans to demolish the house to make way for something bigger and grander — a five-bedroom McMansion with stainless-steel appliances, custom millwork, surround sound and a master suite with a marble bathroom and radiant heat.

(MORE: When You Inherit Your Parent's House)

 
For my siblings and me, my parents’ decision to sell provoked mixed emotions. It’s a huge relief to no longer have to worry about anyone tripping on the stairs. But it’s also hard not to feel depressed at the sight of the old homestead — the center of our family life — empty after 43 years.
 
When a neighbor emailed me recently to say my parents’ mail was still being delivered there, I was glad for an excuse to drive over and see the house one last time. But with a large piece of excavating equipment sitting in the driveway, it was impossible to ignore what’s to come.
 
Out with the Old
 
I understand why the house is being torn down. The stairs aren’t up to today’s construction codes. The bathrooms and kitchen are small. When someone slams the door in the garage, you can feel the vibrations upstairs in my brother’s old bedroom. The plumbing, windows and electric wiring haven’t been touched in decades. The metallic wallpaper with blue flowers in the bathroom my brother and I once shared says it all: The house is clearly outdated.
 
Still, I dread its rendezvous with a wrecking ball. When my childhood BFF’s century-old house was bulldozed last spring (goodbye high ceilings and ornate mantelpieces), the teardown trend in our old neighborhood suddenly became personal. Was some nefarious force — McMansion mania? Voldemort? — out to destroy my childhood haunts?

(MORE: Cleaning Out Your Late Parent's Home)

 
I’m far from alone. Robert Denk, an economist at the National Association of Home Builders, says about 25 percent of the single-family homes built nationwide this year will rise from the ashes of teardowns.
 
“Today’s buyer doesn’t want Grandma’s house,” says Brian Hickey, chief executive of teardowns.com, which helps buyers and sellers of such properties find each other. “Buyer preferences have changed, and many older homes are tough to renovate. The ceilings are too low, the basements are dreary and the wiring is inadequate for today’s technology.” All of which sounds familiar.
 
On teardowns.com’s list of most “active teardown communities” nationwide, I wasn’t surprised to find my hometown, Rye, N.Y. It’s a densely populated suburb where construction pits abound and the median price of single-family homes listed for sale is $2.8 million, according to Gail Feeney, a broker at Julia B. Fee Sotheby’s International Realty. For that amount of money, I guess I wouldn’t tolerate a dreary basement, either.

(MORE: The Upside to Downsizing)

 
A Lost Connection
 
Does it really matter that our house will soon be landfill? After all, even if my parents had sold it to the buyer they had hoped for — a family with young children — we would still be losing access to the property.
 
Irene Goldenberg, a family psychologist and professor emerita at the University of California, Los Angeles, says teardowns can be more traumatic for former owners, and their children, than sales in which a house survives.
 
For one thing, she says, it’s hard to escape the finality of a teardown, which makes it all the more obvious “that you can no longer go back to the safety and comfort” of childhood. “It’s in your face,” she says.
 
There is also an obvious analogy to my aging parents. With new construction springing up all over the neighborhood, the house suddenly looks like a relic of another era. Still, when I came across the property records in my parents’ files last spring, the comparison that immediately sprang to mind was to myself. Although I had always assumed the house was older, it was actually erected just a few years before I was born in 1964.
 
For many people, childhood homes function like a psychological safety net, says Gerald Davison, a professor of psychology at the University of Southern California. “Even if you don’t feel comfortable knocking on the door, it’s nice to know that it’s always possible to do so” and reconnect with childhood, he says.
 
When a house is razed, Davison says, childhood memories can be buried along with the debris. The experience of tunneling into the past is “more powerful when all of your senses can take something in,” he says. Sure, photographs are vivid reminders. But being there in person “triggers even stronger memories” cued by the smells, sounds, and tactile and visual details that can’t be captured in photos, he adds.
 
Hoping for Remnants
 
I agree that having some physical embodiment of the past would be easier on the psyche. When I recently drove by my first childhood home — where we lived until I was seven-years-old — things weren’t exactly as I had remembered. The driveway seems less steep and the backyard, now partially occupied by an addition, is far smaller than it was when my sisters and I spent afternoons in our playhouse.
 
But while the shingles are no longer the same shade of white, the facade is otherwise remarkably similar. And the all-important “home base” rock — a fixture in our games of tag and princess in a castle — still sits in the side yard. That house, at least, gives me a quick way to reconnect with the feelings and memories of a time when the world seemed less complicated than it does now.
 
Before my parents moved out of the newer house this summer, we joked about burying a time capsule in the backyard as a way of leaving something of ourselves behind. The first item in it, everyone agreed, would be my grandparents’ Norwegian flag. Perhaps, someone suggested, the “Tergesen” sign that hung in the family room would fit. My sister suggested a novel my other sister had written as a teenager, a potboiler whose new installments the neighborhood girls eagerly consumed. My sister-in-law volunteered my brother’s baby blanket. We laughed and went back to packing and sorting.
 
I am hoping the builder will have the good sense to preserve some of the property’s best features, including the stone wall in the backyard and the thick rhododendron bushes in which two deer took shelter during a snowstorm last winter.
 
But because it’s hard to get a glimpse of those things from the street, I’m pinning my hopes on the property’s towering oak trees. Assuming they make it through the construction, they’ll be the tokens I rely on to recognize the place as the same one where I grew up.
 

Anne Tergesen is a staff reporter at The Wall Street Journal, covering retirement finances and planning. This article originally appeared on MarketWatch.com

By Anne Tergesen
Anne Tergesen is a writer for MarketWatch.com, specializing in retirement.@annetergesen

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