In praise of unrenovated kitchens and overgrown gardens

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‘There were pockets of trees where we could get truly lost, where no one would find us because our crudely constructed forts were impervious to adult invaders, and no one was looking for us anyway’

Our enthusiasm for turning where we live into display homes is making them soulless – and us boring

If you want a picture of marital misery, or perhaps you are a sadomasochist and wish to test the limits of your relationship, then grab your partner by the hand and head to a home hardware store or Ikea on the weekend.

You’ll find scores of like-minded types there. Walking about drearily like they’re in line for the gallows, bickering under their breath about paying through the nose for reclaimed river rocks, and rolling their eyes when one person suggests a Balinese-style gazebo (and fair enough, too).

Many of us have been sucked into this vortex of personal improvement through home renovation, driven by the boom, no doubt, in reality TV renovation shows and our national obsession with tradies.

Our last recession was long enough ago to forget what living with less feels like and we are putting our boon towards scatter cushions and al-fresco living, in an upended spend index that sees us buy too little of the things that matter – such as decent furniture and art work – and too much of the crap that doesn’t, such as throws and word art and overpriced hand soap.

I fear that in turning where we live into display villages, we have lost some of the charms of our childhood homes, of how we used to live.

I was born in Sydney’s Frenchs Forest, a suburb in outer north Sydney that was declared leafy long before leafy was fashionable.

It was a house that was determinedly unrenovated, with plenty of books, but few gourmet appliances or mod cons. Our gardens didn’t have water features or hedging, and no one competed for what estate agents like to dub “kerb appeal”.

Our home was also full of life and people. There were dinner parties I wasn’t allowed to attend because I was too young, so I fell asleep against my door trying to make out what adult conversation sounded like.

My family lived next door to a vacant block of land, virtually unheard of now in Sydney, where the local kids from the street would play in the long grass.

My best friend lived across the road and every weekend we migrated between each other’s houses, careful not to get in the adults’ way, hiding out in the overgrown back gardens, the big blocks and bush landscapes that seemed directly lifted out of our childhood books.

There were pockets of trees where we could get truly lost, where no one would find us because our crudely constructed forts were impervious to adult invaders, and no one was looking for us anyway.

As an adult, I have tried to recreate that feeling of boundless exploration and imagination and potential in every house I have moved to. But it’s not something you can manufacture, any more than a cushion can make a statement or a new rug can transform a space. Books help though. And so does art.

Which is why I fear the daggy and well-worn properties of my generation’s childhood have given way to something much more conventionally attractive, but ultimately sterile and soulless.

And also boring. Because when you start trying to turn your home into a magazine spread or commence a renovation you become easily convinced that you are the first person who has ever done this, and then you never stop talking about it.

So here is to leaving the kitchen unrenovated for another 10 years. Of cushions that don’t quite match and furniture that looks out of place but you don’t care because it was your grandmother’s and it means more to you than anything you could buy brand new.

In other words: the imperfect, loved home that is an expression of what you care about and whom you love.

As a postscript, I recently searched online for one of my favourite homes in the street I grew up in, and discovered it had sold recently.

The pictures showed a transformed home, with landscaping, hedging, staged furniture and an updated kitchen.

It was billed as move-in ready and sold for well over $1.5m, which is the going price nowadays for a property in Frenchs Forest.

The messy back garden where I had cemented childhood alliances and formed tree club committees and kissed my brother’s best friend had been cleared and replaced with a freshly oiled deck that shone in the twilight and, beyond that, metres and metres of perfectly manicured grass.