Real estate agents might tell you otherwise, but the most important room in the house is not the bedroom with a balcony, or the bathroom with the skylight, or even the kitchen with its high-tech island. It is the basement.

The basement tells you the secrets of a house. Where the floors are sagging. Where the leaks are. Where a previous owner has jerry-rigged a wiring job. A glance at the paint cans hidden in a corner offers clues on what has recently been repainted.

Long ago when I was house-hunting, I always made it a point to visit the prospective basement. When it comes to picking houses, I believed that by their basements you shall know them.

Now as lord of a mortgaged-to-the-max manor, I regularly visit the basement to check the status of the home front. I watch the furnace fire up, I listen to the hot water heater and the drain pipes. I check for any indications of bad behavior.

I don't push the inspection component of the trip to the basement too hard. For me the basement is also a recreation room. It is a place where I go to escape.

The family room has been ceded to the kids, the living room is my wife's turf, but the basement is mine. In a darkened corner, where I keep my workbench, I can hammer, saw, and putter with little chance of being discovered. When, for example, I want to watch a Saturday afternoon game on TV, I lug a small black and white television to the basement and close the door.

We have a big color television in the family room. But if I tried to watch the game there, I would quickly be harassed by kids wanting to play computer games, or by my wife asking me to move furniture. However, when I hole up in the basement, I have gone for as long as half an hour without being detected.

Occasionally I will mount attempts to clean the basement. Invariably they fail. Instead of being sterile, toss-it-out endeavors, these attempts at order lapse into sentimental reunions with remnants of former household projects.

When, for example, I discovered an old bathroom light fixture in the basement rafters, I remembered the time I took the fixture out and put a medicine cabinet in the wall. It was a nasty job that got nastier when I realized that I had put the cabinet in upside down.

And when I found a rearview mirror I once was going to attach to an old sports car, I smiled at the thought I once drove a two-seater. I also decided to keep the mirror. The passion for sports cars still lives, even if my family can't fit in them and I have trouble climbing out of them.

I suppose one of the reasons I am so fond of basements is that I spent a lot of time in them as a kid.

In the summer the basement was often the only cool place in our house. The basement was dark and not too clean, a place your mom visited only briefly, to do laundry. When you were in the basement, out of the range of parental authority, moral restraints fell. You did things you couldn't get away with out in the open. Like sit on your little brother until he cried. And smoke your first cigarette. It was a Salem, right next to the furnace. I was 13. Now as an adult, I have discovered the joy of being a basement voyeur. As I walk around my neighborhood, I can't resist peeking in basement windows.

I don't know why I enjoy catching a glimpse of a university vice president up to his ankles in sawdust, or a psychologist battling a power saw, but it does give me pleasure.

Meanwhile, back in my basement, my sense of solitude is being threatened. Lately the kids have been wandering over to the workbench to use my tools. And the table I always kept open for use as a TV holder has been taken over by my wife as a staging area for her furniture refinishing projects.

So what once used to be my quiet hide-out has become at times the Grand Central Station of the household.

On one hand, the basement intruders bother me. But on the other hand, I can certainly understand why they are drawn to the most important room in the house.

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