Over the years, we hemorrhaged money on repairs and renovations. We also won and lost more than a few contractor wars, which, in the end costs more than money. The price is prematurely gray hair and permanently shot nerves.

The house lacked many things. But the one thing it did have was character.

And like an animal returning to a poisoned well, I return again and again to character.

Over dinner with friends, we discussed our prospective new house. They tried hard to understand my position. "It meets all of your requirements and is within your budget," said one. "So what, again, is the problem?"

Put that way, I sounded kind of loopy. I didn't quite know how to answer.

"I guess," I said, "I'm attracted to dumps."

The table nodded as one, as if they understood. One guest recounted a dump he lived in years ago. "That house didn't have character," he said. "It had issues."

Maybe that was the problem. Maybe this house didn't have issues. I wondered if I had a Pygmalion complex, if I was fatally attracted to flaws. Maybe I couldn't love something unless it needed making over.

The following day, we woke up early and started looking at a new batch of houses. We checked out a rowhouse that had only one bathroom, window units, and not enough space. I loved it. Built in the early 1900s, it had character galore. We looked at another that was completely torn up. "We're replacing the plumbing," the owner said. Talk about character.

After a full day of traipsing from one property to the next, we returned home, exhausted and more confused than ever. What was this ineffable quality called character and why was it such a harsh mistress?

"Character is in the eye of the beholder," said a friend. "But I'll tell you, to me, it's never having to replace the electrical."