"These days," folks around me never tire of saying, "are days of austerity." I started wondering about austerity when I was running my little home inspection business. At just about every house I inspected, no matter how austere things seemed to be, I found homeowners, builders, do-it-yourselfers and family members buying, fixing and upgrading things that would make their houses just a little better than the other houses on their street. One of those attempted upgrades stays with me, even though this was some years back on a fine spring day.
I walked up a client's front walkway and found a pile of football-sized rocks arranged in a circle around a small newly planted tree. Think something a druid might have built, or maybe knocked over. That's when I noticed that somebody had dug a trench around the baby tree. This caused much wonderment. Anybody with a thimbleful of brains would know that digging a trench around a baby tree would eventually result in damaging the roots and killing the tree.
My mistake was not seeing the important fixture in this setting, which wasn't the tree. It was the rocks.
I know, I know. A whole lot of you people are thinking, "What was so wrong with prettying up the place?" Well, nothing. It was just that the homeowners didn't think the baby tree was enough. They went out and got some rocks — you know, to give the place that we-can-afford-to-buy-rocks look.
But not even that was enough. They had gone out and bought several gallons of sealant from the local Big-Box store, and they had carefully applied many layers of that sealant to the stones that encircled the little tree in the yard. You see, I was in Williamson County, where the menfolk applied sealant to every horizontal surface — decks, cars, picnic tables, cats, dogs, trophy wives, you name it.
Back in the '80s, there was no home-improvement upgrade too fancy for Williamson Countians, no sin that sealant couldn't spackle. Even rocks. Can't have your rocks getting all dirty down there in Williamson County. People would think of you as ignorant and incapable of proper rock upkeep.
Lest you think I complain too much, friends, I repeat: These people were trying to improve their rocks. They were determined to shine 'em up to impress the neighbors. They were doing everything they could to gloss up objects that were roughly 4 billion years old. It had to be a real heartbreaker when a lot of the local homeowners realized that even super-tidy Brentwoodians couldn't scrub a rock beige.
Skip ahead to 2012, and escalation continues in the race for the shiniest rock. I'm not talking about the 4-billion-year-old shined-and-sealed Brentwood rocks left over from the '80s. I'm talking about the rocks that homeowners are buying now in giant slabs. Here in these austere times, folks are paying $100 per square foot — or more — for rocks they're going to use as countertops.
Yes, friends and neighbors, we are now witnessing the days of the obscene and excessive granite countertops. Formica isn't good enough for us now. Neither is Corian, which makes a pretty good guitar nut. If a countertop installer drops a piece of granite on his fingers, he'll most likely crush most or all of his hand bones.
Thirty years ago, evidently we were judged on the shine of our rocks. It continues today — except in 2012, we are only as good as our kitchen counters. Serves us right. Even humble linoleum laughs at us now. Once-loved Formica has become older than old school, the equivalent of a 1963 Rambler American. Or worse, an Amphibicar.
Soon enough, more and more granite countertops will be coming in by the truckload, finding their resting places in the $100,000-plus kitchens of Nashville, most of which have never been tested. I know, because in the course of more than 5,000 home inspections, I've tested thousands of fancy Nashville kitchens. Most of the appliances don't work. Why? Because nobody uses them. They're for show — stainless-steel variations on the sealant-covered ornamental rock.
Maybe this is a good time to hoard tile, Formica, Corian and the rest. You installers and do-it-yourselfers, watch your fingers and toes. And a few years from now, you might just decide to switch from overpriced granite back to linoleum. When that day arrives, come see me. Look for the yard with the unkempt rocks.