11 Apr 2015
Home renovation isn’t for sissies but it can really pay off. You can pay other people to do the renovations for you, but it has been worth it to us to do as much as we can ourselves. This saves us huge amounts of money and vastly improves our skill sets. It does still take plenty of time and life energy and some money. But not as much money as we would have laid out to Jake the Contractor. This is a choice only you, the potential homeowner can make. Only you know your tolerance for sanding walls and laying in fiberglass batts in the attic.
There are a lot of kinds of home renovation. The very best kind come with the houses that are disguised as handyman specials but are really cleaning lady specials. That is, the house is so messy that it LOOKS like it needs major repairs, but when you remove the junk, clutter, grime, and filth, you discover a nice house underneath. Houses of this type are hard to find and you have to have a good eye to see under the built-up layers of crud to see the good bones underneath.There are the home renovations where all you really need to do is repaint the walls, add Closet-Maid to the closets, upgrade the storage space in the kitchen, pantry, and bathrooms, add ceiling fans, and put in book cases. Add shelves, add hooks, add pull out slides for knives and upright storage for cookie sheets. Houses like these are also hard to find.
We’ve done all of those things and each one made the house a better performer.
Probably the easiest job with the greatest payback involves insulation. We knew, going into the Hershey house, that it had little insulation in the attic or under the floors. Bill insulated, insulated, insulated, and insulated some more. He installed reflective foil in the attic to keep out the heat. Younger son covered the fiberglass batts in the basement with white panels. This has a) improved the insulating qualities, b) improved the lighting by making the ceiling more reflective, and c) kept the cats from eating the insulation.
Insulating the house, a job which we did entirely by ourselves, paid for itself long ago. Now, each winter we spend far less money to heat the house than we otherwise would have. This awful, dirty job made us more financially independent.
Then there are the true handyman specials. The roof is damaged. The windows need to be replaced. The carpeting needs to be ripped out and the solid oak floors beneath to be sanded, stained, and polyurethaned. The wiring needs to be brought up to code. These jobs don’t change the layout of the house and very handy people can do much of this work.Bigger home renovations involve kitchens that have to be gutted and rebuilt, bathrooms that are filled with mold and leaks, cracked foundations, terrible layouts where walls have to be rearranged, and wet basements. These are all far more costly and far more aggravating to fix.
Still bigger home renovations can mean adding a second floor to the existing house or a new wing. If the house is bought and paid for and it is in an area you love, where you plan to live forever, this may be a better choice than selling and moving. Contractors for this level of work should be carefully selected and not just because the contractor and his crew will see you every morning in your bathrobe at 7 a.m. You will be living with the work crew in your house for weeks or months on end.
So when you evaluate houses, besides the location, the price, and the extra space, decide if you want to do the work of upgrading a house to make it reach its full potential. Almost any house can be improved if you spend the time and money. The improvements will make the house more useful to you, but consider the cost before you start. A house I remember quite well was the gorgeous Victorian castle in Steelton, built by a Bethlehem steel executive. The house was just unbelievable. Solid mahogany everywhere, a slate roof, huge and varied rooms with ten foot ceilings and eight foot windows, a full basement with nine foot ceilings. It was less than a $100,000 dollars! It needed, just from the walkthrough I did, another half million dollars in renovation and repairs starting with repointing all four stories of brick walls and a new slate roof. This was a project that would take decades of time to go along with the truckloads of money. The end result would have been a stunning castle for our heirs, unfortunately located in the dying town of Steelton. We did not, of course, buy this challenge.
There are other reasons to contemplate home renovations. If you want something out of the ordinary you will have to install it yourself. Home renovations of this type also mean that you aren’t planning on moving anytime soon.
If you want to store a year’s supply of food and a few thousand gallons of water, then you will have to build the storage; very few houses come with this kind of setup. Apace is needed for serious food gardeners as well. A productive vegetable garden gives you heaps and heaps of carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, whatever you grew. Good food storage means you can preserve that harvest and eat it all winter long.
Are you a serious gun collector? Then you need a place to put your arsenal; a place that is secure and dry.
Do you collect art? You need miles of blank walls for display and plenty of space for storage.
If you want to collect and harvest rainwater on a casual summertime water-the-garden basis, you need gutters and places to place your rain barrels. If you really need to collect every drop of rainwater to provide for every household need for a year, then you need to install a 10,000-gallon cistern and a hand pump.
If you want to reuse every drop of your water, then you need to install a gray water reclamation system. Very, very few homes have this kind of setup already in place so expect to install it yourself.
Do you want to generate your own power? More homes come with solar panels and battery storage space but still not very many. Is the roof big enough? Is it oriented correctly? Is there space for the battery banks? Can you go passive solar with hot water heating, trombe walls, and stone floors that act as heat sinks? You won’t find many houses with these things. You will have to install your own wind turbines as well. Good luck finding a house with one already on the property.
If your home business is car repair or fine woodworking, then you need way more extra space than a writer does. A writer can manage with a flat space to set a typewriter on. A woodshop needs hundreds of square feet of well lit space and miles of work benches.
If you need space for your 10,000-book library, then you need to evaluate the amount of blank walls you have. Should they all be lined with bookshelves or would it be better to turn a spare room into a dedicated library with stacks?
If you want your house to light itself, then you paint every ceiling white, every wall with pastel high-gloss paint, you clean every window, you install new windows, you mount mirrors opposite every window, and you install solar tubes and skylights. You will still need paid lighting at night, but you don’t have to turn on the lights during the day anymore to read, to cook, to work.
Are you serious about bicycling everywhere? If so, then where do the bikes live so they are easily accessed when needed? Where do you put their spare parts? Our bikes currently live on our Florida Room, where they take up precious living space. Better than the living room, I suppose, but still. The long range plan is to build a dedicated bike storage shed just inside the yard where the bikes are contained within the fence, hidden by the hedge, protected from the weather, out of the way, and yet in easy reach for use.
Are you a serious ballroom dancer? Then you need to add a 2,000-square-foot addition with a hardwood floor that is kept completely empty so you have plenty of space for your routine. My sister did this with her house in Florida. She absolutely loves the space and she would certainly never have found a house with this kind of renovation already in place.
There are probably dozens of specialty uses that houses can do, with the proper renovations. Art studios, yoga studios, dance studios, sewing workrooms, taxidermy, alpenhorn rooms (I read about this but have never seen one). What do you want or need? If it is an out of the ordinary requirement, you should evaluate houses with this renovation in mind.
So these are my thoughts on getting housing that will help you and your family to be more resilient, more sustainable, and get closer to the goal of Financial Independence.
There are so many things to be considered when you buy a house. What do you want your house to do for you? How much do you want to pay for your house in terms of cash, time, and life energy? Is the location good for the long term? Are you close to family, friends, work, and a supportive community? Are you subject to natural hazards that you know will happen like floods, landslides, forest fires, and tornadoes? Are there things you want to avoid?
A carefully chosen house can help you reach your goals. A poorly chosen house may cost you dearly. Houses and spouses, spouses and houses. Choose wisely and you will always be grateful. Choose badly and you will never stop paying.
Next Week: Let’s Shop for Groceries!