My First Home: Split-levels have their quirks

My First Home Sudbury
Nick Lu for the boston globe

Three years after we married, my husband and I bought our first house, a split-level in a Boston suburb. We didn’t know anything about Boston suburbs, and we didn’t know anything about split-level houses. We were from New Jersey.

My husband had been transferred from his office in Trenton to Boston. We’d saved enough to buy a house. Now it was time to buy one in an unknown suburb of an unknown city.

We couldn’t afford a Colonial, and we didn’t want a ranch. Our children were 1 and 2. We wanted them to have bedrooms upstairs and a room to play in downstairs. We decided a split-level would be perfect for our young family, and we purchased one in Sudbury.

Split-levels, we soon learned, have problems. At least ours did. The downstairs room, adjacent to the one-car garage, was cold three seasons of the year. In summers, it was fine, like being in air conditioning. The rest of the year we had to wear jackets — over sweaters, over turtlenecks.

We moved into our home on Dec. 1. It was 20 degrees outside, and the seller had left almost no oil in the tank. We ran out in two hours. We had no telephone, so I introduced myself to the neighbors across the street. They helped us find an oil company, and I made the call. Soon we were warm.

Except for in the playroom.

It had ducts that forced out hot air, but not enough of it. The floor was tile, cold tile. The half bathroom next to the playroom was frightfully freezing.

Our first purchase for our five-year-old split level was the thickest carpet we could find for the playroom. Shag carpeting was fashionable. So too was that golden mustard color. Bathroom and kitchens were awash in what was then called “harvest gold.’’ We chose the thickest golden mustard shag carpet we could find and had it installed the next week. Including in the bathroom.

Gigantic mistake. Our 2-year-old son was proud of using the bathroom all by himself. Two weeks later, we tore out the carpeting in the bathroom and told our son it was all right. We were proud of him.

We bought two space heaters, and my husband rigged them up on shelves he made in the corners of the ceiling in the playroom. We turned them on, and the room went black; they had blown a fuse.

The owner of the only hardware store in town told us space heaters had caused fires in split-level homes. He urged us not to use them. I told him how my not-handy husband had built shelves up by the ceiling so our children would not think the heaters were toys. The hardware man said space heaters were fire hazards, that we should look into caulking, and asked “How are the storm windows down there?’’ We didn’t know anything about caulking, and we hadn’t thought of storm windows.

We caulked and put plastic sheeting over the windows, inside and out. I thought myself ingenious when I used beach towels as insulation for the doors that led to the garage and outdoors. Next winter we’d install storm doors.

Well, heat rises — duh — and we had forced hot air. On the third level of the house, our bedrooms were snuggy. The second level — living room, dining area, and kitchen — was OK. The playroom was never warm enough except in summer, despite all our efforts. Even the puppy, an adorable beagle we were trying to train, shivered down there. We thought he should stay there at night, but he whimpered at the bottom of the stairs. We gave in.

In the 10 years we were in the split-level, the only time we used the playroom was to get to the garage.

Barbara Leedom is a freelance writer who lives in South Yarmouth.  Send comments and a 550-word  essay on your first home to [email protected]. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.