The Second Home Book

The Can-Do, How-to, Get-Through Guide

Marylouise Oates

St. Martin's Griffin


For almost twenty years, through no fault of my own, I have frequently owned a second home.

A commuting marriage, a false belief that it would be enjoyable to have a vacation home in the same small town where I spent childhood summers, the moves that accompany happy changes in marital status and career—all these factors stoked my unbridled desire to construct, decorate, entertain, renovate, and generally get my personal life as complicated as possible.

I am not an organizational genius. I am a messy person with a messy life—living in several places with thousands of books, hundreds of piles of papers, dozens of friends who want to brave it all to visit. Out of a deep fear that things are going to tumble down like a beach shack, I have developed plans to bring some order out of chaos. Or at least enough order so that the world thinks I am on top of things—and, sometimes, I am.

My biggest organizing breakthrough was facing the reality of owning a second home. Think of one of those dream sequences in Spellbound or Lady in the Dark, when the heroine cries out some variation of “I know I didn’t do it!”

Now I credit my entire life approach to classic black-and-white films, which my mother allowed me to consume like jelly beans. I was raised in a cult, worshipping and watching those movies with Barbara Stanwyck or Norma Shearer or Bette Davis or Kate Hepburn, all with their spotlessly white, creased trousers, running off to play tennis or horseback ride or ski or sail. They were at their second homes—country, alpine, or seashore—and everything was perfect. I foolishly believed that a second house would naturally equate with perfect; weather, guests, food, activities all would blend into a frothy vacation confection. I believed that for about the first week I owned a second home.

Then reality flattened my froth. There would be no creasing of trousers in my second home. I might own an iron, but I didn’t have to know its exact location. What needed to be ironed out were some plans, some basic steps for realistically, not reel-istically, operating a home that is welcoming to family, guests, and happy times.

At the beginning, there are some basic issues any successful second home owner has to deal with. First, come to grips by answering the haunting question: Why did I get myself into this?

You can choose from the following:

-You thought you were buying a second home to make it easy on yourself—lolling is the operative word—around the pool, the field, the beach, the ski lift.

-You thought, as increasing numbers of Americans do, of graciously splitting your life between homes, having family gamboling around you, vacationing in the healthy outdoors, then packing up and heading back to urban life.

-You thought old friends would visit, and you would spend happy hours cooking together and playing tennis and swimming and taking long walks. And still more lolling.

-You thought you could gradually move from your primary home to your second home, which will still feature lots of family and friends and guests and yet more lolling. Perhaps this would accompany a change in career or in career emphasis or would involve, using that red-flag word, retirement.

And your answer: How about all and yet none of the above?

You find yourself scrambling, shopping, schlepping, stewing. Lolling becomes number 22 on your list. And why not?

In your second home, you face all the day-to-day work and aggravations of regular living—with several big “buts.” But you are not in your most familiar surroundings. But you have none of the built-up-over-the-years safety net and support of neighbors and trades people, doctors and handymen, babysitters and dog walkers, not to mention plumbers. But you can’t figure out what to do first.

You need help. (What you really need is the hot-and-cold running staff from those old movies—“Let me unpack your bag, dear, and whip you up a soufflé”—but that’s not in your reach.) What is acquirable is a set of lowered expectations for luxe and gracious, along with a higher value for the time you are going to “vacation” at your second home. And you should start right now!

No matter the state of your second home, if there are walls, beds, a bathroom, and something that passes for a kitchen, get in there and commence living. Many questions about fixing, using, improving will only be clear (along with the answers) once you are enjoying the house. A lot of the minor crankiness that can unsettle a second home remains hidden (mice in the basement, bats in the attic, greenhead flies, raccoons that use your trash cans as a gnosh-a-rama, woodchucks under the porch) until someone stirs it up.

Whether you are standing in the middle of a wonderful house that simply needs a little tarting up, or in a wreck that’s direct from Rambo the Decorator, it’s yours and it should be fun. It’s your stage—and whether you want the play to be a soliloquy or involve a cast of thousands, all that matters is your being theatrical and rehearsed enough to pull it off.

There is as much style as substance in having a perfect second home. Make things glamorous: always have fresh tomatoes for your omelets; keep big jars of smelly hand cream beside the guest bed; have a tower of fresh white T-shirts to wear around the house; always cook wearing one good piece of jewelry; and answer every whiny request with “It’s my pleasure!” Keep a pile of unread or at least fairly new magazines on the coffee table; have enough gourmet-style olives, snacks, crisps, and cheese on hand to whip up an antipasto at the drop-in of a neighbor—and her guests! Have ten recipes that require little or no preparation and yet taste yummy.

Give it a break. Go easy on yourself—but toughen up your approach. Arm yourself with a forced system of prioritization and organization. If you already own a second home, you can catch up fast. If this is a new venture, get your head around the idea that the more information you accumulate, the less aggravation you will suffer.

You can do all of this, and much more, but only if you get yourself organized.

Who are the already organized anyway?

Some people are very organized because they are very rich, and others—“helpers”—make sure that fresh fruit and flowers and the clean laundry are there to greet the second home owners when they arrive at their cottage/cabin/condo/château/cave/castle.

Some people are organized because they are obsessive, because they keep track of how many stamps they left in each house and when the bills are due and they never, never have to pay a bill on the phone with their credit card.

Some lucky few are minimalists, so they have just what they need and nothing more and their sheets always look ironed and it’s all in earth-tones.

Some organized folks are merely cautious souls who never invite the thirteenth person to dinner, never ask the couple barely known to spend a week vacationing with them, and never use the butter left out from breakfast in the luncheon frittata.

All of the above-designated people should not read this book. They don’t need it. By means of money, personality, or mania, they have organized lives.

This book gives the rest of us a plan to help organize ours.

One last caveat: Please don’t hold yourself to the same standard for “finish,” for “spiffy,” for “done” that you apply to your primary house. You’ve fussed over that home for many years, adding ingredients carefully, à la a lovely French soufflé. Now you are going to whip up your second home (think Kraft macaroni and cheese), managing to spice it up with a few tasty bits.

Doesn’t that sound yummy!
Copyright © 2008 by Marylouise Oates. All rights reserved.