Book Review
Title: "Sugarhouse: Turning the Neighborhood Crack House into Our Home Sweet Home"
Author: Matthew Batt
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co.; 2012; 272 pages; $14.95.

When you think of people who constantly see the terrible and the bizarre in the course of their professions, the lines of work that most readily come to mind probably include all the first-responders — police, firefighters, paramedics — and maybe ER docs and oncologists, that sort of thing.

But real estate professionals do not escape. Inside homes for sale, we are exposed to an upsetting assortment of humanity and its leavings, from dog poo on the floors and ceilings to sleeping inhabitants in a makeshift drug rehab. We also see sad reminders of violent households, such as broken windows and punched-in drywall. Unfortunately, I’ve seen it all.

I recently got a note from a homebuyer who realized how begrudgingly a short-sale listing was on the market. The homeowner was seated on the sofa holding a shotgun during the showing. There are numerous tales of chaotic living conditions and bizarre home decor choices that are entertaining and enthralling and exhausting to those who do this work.

But this world of residential mayhem is also the province of the intrepid house hunter, especially those dedicated to scoring a bargain, whether because they want or need to.

"Sugarhouse: Turning the Neighborhood Crack House into Our Home Sweet Home," is English professor Matthew Batt’s memoir of the breathtaking stench and faux knotty pine nightmare of a home he and his wife bought and renovated with the sweat of their brows shortly after it had been vacated by its previous tenant, a single mother who supported her family selling crack out of the property.

Sugarhouse is hilarious, particularly in its descriptions of the home, their work on it and the various real estate psychologies, personalities and characters involved in their multiple, unsuccessful efforts to buy and their ultimate purchase transaction. Witness Batt’s house hunt-weary decoder of property listing descriptions: A "great starter home" is code for "really freaking small, so you’d better love each other," he says. If a house is described as "gorgeous on the inside," expect to find "crack vial mosaics on the steps" outside, along with "nine-millimeter shell-casing wind chimes."

But Sugarhouse is also sad, hopeful and insightful, as the life transitions that brought Batts and his wife to the brink of homeownership included a rapid succession of deaths and family illnesses that sparked their understanding of life’s urgency. From the purchase and subsequent events arose a new level of self-knowledge, marital intimacy, family honesty — warts and all — and personal growth (on top of a boatload of sheer comedy).

If you have ever house hunted on a strict budget, included family members in your home finance plans, remodeled a serious fixer-upper or even dreamed about doing any of these things, you will appreciate Sugarhouse for its utterly truthful, deeply human exposure of the interwoven nature of our real estate, our relationships and our lives.

And if you simply like homes or memoirs, you will find it an entertaining and quick read. While Sugarhouse is not a traditional "real estate education" tome in the how-to sense, it is educational in terms of enlightening readers about the decidedly unglossy, real-deal, years-long odyssey that doing a DIY remodel of a difficult property can be.

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