When you buy a house what do you actually own?

dirk dieter
5 min readFeb 12, 2024

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Homeownership is becoming more elusive for people today and I’m here to tell you that you might be better off. I feel very lucky to own my house but what do I actually own.

Neighbors have opinions

More than 20 years ago, soon after I bought my house, I planted a garden. None of those plants survived but that was the very beginning of my homeowner education.

I had big dreams for the house. The house is tiny but seemed perfect for a second story addition. My path to that addition was slow and methodical but also an education in neighborhood psychology.

This is how I learned that I don’t actually own anything. My little slice of land and the structure built on it are my responsibility but the gophers and the neighbors still give a lot of unsolicited advice.

Let’s start with the garden since that seemingly would be the less volatile subject. You would think there aren’t a lot of strong opinions about your garden but, believe me, the gophers feel otherwise. I don’t want to blame gophers for everything. I also have skunks and raccoons and at least one rat. Skunks, raccoons and rats have all tried to take over my crawl space and they all like to dig things up in the garden. They all have very little concern for home ownership.

But only the gopher will immediately comment on what you can plant in the garden. I learned very quickly that every idea I have for the garden is just an experiment. Some plants will be devoured instantly overnight but others will seem to thrive and then start oddly withering into their slow death.

I’ll admit, at first, I tried to kill them. My efforts were useless and embarrassing. I thought a little effort on my part would solve all of my problems but quickly I learned what I was up against. It’s a losing battle. They’re much more clever than me. They were there terraforming long before I got there and will be there long after I’m gone. Who am I to say I own this garden. Perhaps it’s their garden.

I started calling them “my” gophers. Not to claim ownership but to see them as part of the family and part of the garden. Now I plant my experiments and wait to see how the garden accepts them. I feed the soil kitchen scraps and watch leaf litter gather for insect housing. My gophers have taught me that I’m the caretaker and not the owner of this land.

Similarly my neighbors have taught me that I don’t really own my house either. I had the audacity to add a second story on my house (so that I might have a bedroom) and 2 of my neighbors will never forgive me. I went through all the city approvals and all my neighbors were invited to legally object since my house is tiny and considered “substandard.” But years later 2 of my neighbors are just like my gophers. They still have their own opinions.

Even though my house doesn’t block their sun or their view or any of their rights and despite all my efforts to be a good minimalist, a thoughtful and restrained designer, and an aware and generous neighbor my design has gone completely unappreciated by 2 people. I have done the unforgivable. I have visibly improved my house.

Yes, my gophers let me know their opinions through action rather than words and my neighbors communicate similarly through passive aggressive theatrics and petty acts of defiance. That’s the real difference though. My neighbors can be very petty and I would never accuse a gopher of being petty.

During construction my neighbor posted a sign on their fence that read “dirk is a dick.” I was inflamed. I was fuming.

Such a dumb little maneuver set me off. I had to regain my composure. I had calm the fuck down. That was a moment of truth. Even though the city told me that they could demand removal of the sign I realized I couldn’t blame them. My neighbors are just like the other animals in my neighborhood. They do what they do. I don’t control my neighbors any more than I control the gophers or the skunks or the raccoons.

One neighbor calls the police when I use my saw in the street or when I trim a tree. Another breaks branches and hacks away at my front yard. They blow leaves off of their “property” onto mine. They scatter various detritus at the fence line. It’s all very meaningless really. It’s a sad attempt at revenge. And so I started to realize that those property lines aren’t real. Gophers don’t care about property lines why should I hold my neighbors to a higher standard. What are city ordinances and County assessments to a Skunk?

When my neighbor gnaws at branches of my tree I admire the strength and resilience of that tree. The tree is not dead. It’s a strong tree. My gophers have killed a few trees. They do it equally unobserved but, I suspect, without malice.

Why should I worry that my neighbors have any more malicious intent than my gophers and why should I assume they understand the rules of decency any better?

So for my own piece of mind, I have given up. My gophers have the last say on my garden and they will be here long after I’m gone. The best that I can do is be a good neighbor, be a good caretaker and leave this little spot better than before I arrived.

I don’t own this ecosystem, either above the ground or below. Manmade laws do not rule human nature any more than they tell my skunks and raccoons and my gophers what to do. While I’m here I do my best to feed the worms and mulch the soil as well as sweep my curb and greet the many nice neighbors. I hope the next person to live here will appreciate that and that they will do the same.

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dirk dieter

I'm living in a small house and adding a second story. I profess minimalism, practical and simple design. Your home should be a place of joy and relaxation.