Can a house be a home?

Amal Chatterjee
11 min readAug 24, 2018


Source : Google photo

Synopsis : We all dream of having our own house someday somewhere but do we know how to make the house a home? Many fail to do so. I look at the reasons and suggest ways to make a house a home where people can live happily and raise good children.

We all dream of our own house someday somewhere and work very hard to make it come true. For some it may mean years of effort to save until it allows them to buy a piece of land somewhere and then start building their house. Some do not finish their house at first but move in and slowly finish the rest as the finances permit that may take a long period of time to do it but eventually they do it and proudly say that they did it.

Others save just enough for the down payment, sign the papers and assume the mortgage for 25 or 30 years to pay a fixed amount to the bank including the interest every month . In fact most people do it this way if they want to live in a house and can’t wait to accumulate the whole amount to buy it with cash outright.

If something happens to them like terminal illness or death then the next of kin take up the mortgage and continue to pay it because it is a debt that has to be paid. If the debt is passed on to the children then it puts heavy burden on them which they may not like to carry and seek an alternative.

If you default in paying your mortgage because you lost your job then the house may be foreclosed and all the money you paid so far is forfeited. This happens during the downturn in the economy when recession sets in; factories close or become bankrupt so lay off workers who then lose their homes in large numbers.

At such times the housing industry takes a direct hit with large numbers of unsold or forfeited houses that they have built with bank loans. The banks suffer because they cannot collect their large loans. At such times many people become homeless because they are jobless so try to cope with their difficulties by moving in with their parents or friends or others who may be able to help.

So people make a great effort to meet the three basic needs of every person that is food, clothing and shelter in that order in organized societies but in primitive societies , people do not worry about their shelters as much as their counterparts elsewhere because they are not dependent on their earnings to provide for their shelter. Their shelters may be a grass hut that they put up by themselves or with the help of their neighbors so it becomes a community affair and everybody pitches in to help others at such times.

When we were in Mali, we asked the help of the villagers to build our house that consisted of five round houses interconnected with passageways in a semicircular fashion that I designed myself and they built to perfection in less than three months. They made clay bricks that when sun dried became hard. They used the bricks to make the perfectly round rooms and joined all the rooms with one meter wide passageways to make the whole house as one which was a novel concept for them.

Then they plastered the walls with mud to give it a smooth surface inside and out and coated the outer walls with butter made from shea nuts they gathered from the forest. Then they made the conical roof with golden yellow grass they gathered from the fields so we had a beautiful house that people came to see from far places. I had to pay for their labor and some things like doors and windows but I could afford such a house and paid with cash.

People living in cities are not so lucky. The city rules will not allow you to build grass huts in a subdivision.

After you build your own house with your own resources somewhere or borrow the money from the bank to do it or buy a readymade house by signing the mortgage papers, you start worrying about filling the house with all the things you need like furniture, appliances, curtains etc. that can set you back quite a bit financially so a new house is a costly proposition no matter how you look at it. So living in a civilized society has its costs that can put you in deep debt for years.

I was watching a movie the other day in the U tube that showed a massive house the rich parents built in a small rural village in India but they died in a car accident leaving two sons to be raised by their elder brother. Later these two kids were sent to England where the elder one died and the younger one became heavily indebted to someone so one day he decided to go back to India to sell his father’s massive villa.

But no one had money to buy such a massive property that included many fish ponds, land and garden so he settled for a very low price someone was willing to pay and returned to England to settle his debt there. People who took care of the house all these years were in tears when the house was sold because to them it was more than a house. It was full of happy and sad memories.

So a house you buy and decorate and live in gathers all these memories over the years where your children grow up, where you built the tree house for your kids in the backyard, where you held birthday parties for them, where people came over for the bar- b- que and beer and where you passed good times with your wife and children.

But like all houses where people live and raise their families, the changes take place over a period of time. Your children grow up and leave, your parents die and one day you too follow them so your beautiful house that you made home becomes a house again because it is locked up and collects dust.

If you live in a derelict town as many poor people do in many parts of the world, the vandals notice the locked up houses and break in to steal what they can or move in to make it their drug den or for other criminal activities. Or they smash the windows for fun and trash the house because the next of kin have moved away and not coming back. You can see vast tracts of such derelict houses in some countries where people are afraid to live. It is very different from the neatly mowed lawns and nicely painted houses in rich neighborhoods.

There is a song that says The house is not a home if no one lives there so it is the people who make a home out of a house for a while and when they die or move away, the home becomes just a house again collecting dust.

In happy homes , the memories of good times linger in the minds of children who grew up there but they grow up and make their own life somewhere else so the parents’ home just gets locked up and often put up for sale. If the children decide to live in another country then their childhood home may fall into disrepair with overgrown garden and uncut lawns. So one day they decide to sell it even at a loss.

Now let me go back to primitive villages where millions of people live and see how they cope with the changes brought about by births and deaths.

In the agrarian societies where only the farming sustains them, you will find many generations of families living together all engaged in agriculture and animal husbandry. The patriarch of the family builds a few rooms at first but keeps adding rooms as the family grows to accommodate them. These are simple dwellings they build themselves anyway they want because there are no rules or building permits to obtain or applying for electricity and water connections.

Millions of people live this way and are comfortable in their primitive dwellings. They eat what they grow and live simply generation after generation and hardly anyone moves away. If they marry, they choose a mate nearby from similar farming backgrounds forming an interconnected rural society that endures good times and bad because they help each other out to meet the basic needs of food, clothing and shelter.

In the United States I know the Amish and the Huterites live this way and have become quite self-sustained communities. The Amish people do not believe in modern living that needs TV, phones, electricity or such things that others take for granted and live without them happily. They have their horse buggies for transportation and simple and sparsely furnished houses they build with their own hands or with the help of their neighbors. They too eat what they grow and live simply and live in robust health. They are deeply religious and crime rate is very low in their well regulated communities. In their own way they are similar to people living in agrarian communities mentioned above.

The curse of the modern living:

Now let us study the modern communities where the middle class people live or aspire to live in comfort and take on the burden of high cost of living starting with massive debt to acquire a house that is built for them by a housing company that specializes in the mass production of houses that may look good but are made of flimsy materials like plywood, wood and fake marble floors. The roofs are made of tar papers in eye catching colors but peel off during tornadoes or such calamities that may leave you destitute and in need for immediate temporary shelters somewhere.

The super typhoon Katrina leveled large tracts of land and thousands of homes that people until now have not fully recovered from and do not know if another Katrina will hit them again someday piling up more misery of them. This is the curse of modern living where people become totally dependent on the government for emergency relief and help to rebuild their shattered homes. By contrast the so called primitive societies are self-reliant and help each other if needed.

So I come back to the topic of this blog which is to discuss what makes a house a home.

I know many dysfunctional homes that never get the homely feeling because the couples may have marital problems due to reasons of their own, where children are not properly cared for due to poverty, negligence of the parents etc., where they quarrel over petty matters, and where drinking or substance abuse is common, where children do poorly in school or drop out.

I have also known happy homes where you can feel that people live happy and contented lives if not in prosperity, where the homeowner makes the effort to make it a happy home.

So a house may not be a home if the people living there have their problems like poverty, infidelity of spouses, bad habits like drinking, gambling or domestic violence all of which may be interlinked someway resulting in a very toxic atmosphere that has its consequences. Such a house never becomes a home where the children can feel safe and happy.

Such houses never get to be homes because they start to disintegrate due to its inhabitants who are very unhappy people and have serious domestic issues that they cannot cope with. Often you see such families end up splitting up due to divorce where the children suffer the most.

I have known families that have suffered horrendously because of spousal infidelity. But I have also known happy homes where the parents were so loving and decent people who raised good children who later became successful in their lives.

The physical condition of a house has a lot to do with the health and happiness of the people who live there. Have you ever been to a house where you sense a feeling of unease as soon as you enter? It may be the smell of sickness and medicines or it could be the damp walls that breed germs and cause illness to those who live there.

I have been to such houses where someone was sick with tuberculosis and spread the germs to others. I have been to houses where the stink of cats and dogs was nauseating that made you leave in a hurry. In such houses, people suffer from asthma due to all the hairs the animals shed all the time but fail to see the connection.

I have been to very dirty houses where people live like pigs and pile up garbage in and around the house. Such living conditions do not make a good home that is conducive to raise a happy and healthy family. But I have also been to very clean and antiseptic houses where there is no happy life because the happiness does not depend on a clean and antiseptic house. It depends on the love, care and concern people living there show each other.

That is the key to turn a house into a home. Sometimes having too much money can seem to be a curse that blights some homes. To have a happy home, there has to be a balance between what a family needs and what it wants as a status symbol like very fancy house in a posh suburb. One fellow in South Africa was so paranoid of burglars that he shot dead his own girlfriend who was in the shower. A simple question like who are you could have saved the life of the poor girl.

You see this sort of paranoia among rich people who equip their houses with very fancy alarm system and keep dangerous dogs to keep people out but live in constant fear of being robbed and burglarized. This kind of paranoia is very unhealthy and breeds unhappiness.

I think we all have a duty to raise our family in a happy and healthy home where everyone enjoys good health and is properly cared for but some people just cannot change their unhappy homes into happy ones because they are very unhappy people. Often too much money or not having enough to meet their basic needs is the cause.

Often the happiest people are the poor people who live in a community where they know each other, attend their social events and are always ready to help someone who needs help with food or house repair.

You may live in a grass hut but if it is beautifully built and is kept clean then it turns into a happy home where the parents care for their children and each other. If money and cars divide people in any community then people become selfish and aloof.

Where would you rather live and raise your children?

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