04 Apr 2015
Now that we have considered how much yard we want, and whether we want the privacy of living deep in bear country versus the shorter commute and more access to services from living in town, we come back to the house. How much house do you want? How much house do you need? They aren’t the same thing.
To talk about this, we’ll have to talk about our experiences in our two homes, the one in South Carolina that we started our married life in, and our current home. We hope that you can learn something from our experiences, even if it’s only “I don’t want to go through all that.”A lot of us lower- to middle-class people grew up in 1,200-square-foot, three-bedroom ranch houses. Bill and I grew up in one, and that’s what we lived in down in South Carolina. Three bedrooms (parents, boys, girls), one lone bathroom, kitchen, small dining area, living room, laundry corner, furnace and hot water heater tucked in somewhere. No basement and not much usable attic space. A carport. No pantry. Tiny closets. Very little storage space and most of that was in the barely accessible, non-climate-controlled attic.
There are plenty of these houses available in much of the country. Ones built prior to 1960 tend to have under the awful carpeting hardwood floors. Behind the plaster or drywall, there was two-by-four framing. In the attic and under the floors, large heavy joists of a kind you don’t see anymore. Pre-1960 ranch houses also tend to have windows arranged to maximize cooling from breezes during the summer. Since they are small, they usually cost less to buy, less to insure, have lower taxes, and their utilities can cost less. Are they worth a look? If the location and price are excellent, then certainly.
As noted earlier, it is impossible to fix the location of a house. But you can fix the house. In the small 1959-vintage ranch house I grew up in, my dad remade the carport into a family room, insulating it well, and installing a pot belly stove for supplemental heat. He built shelves wherever he could. Redid the bathroom. Fixed things. Insulated wherever he could. Made the house more functional in every way.
In our 1954-vintage ranch in South Carolina, we ripped out the carpet revealing the red oak floors, added a closet in a bedroom, and converted a previously enclosed sunroom into a home office, a half bath, and a pantry. We rebuilt the kitchen, added ceiling fans throughout, put in shelves everywhere, and insulated the attic and crawlspace. If we hadn’t moved up here to Hershey, the next step would have been to turn the carport into a family room.
Our current, 1955-vintage ranch reveals what can be done over and above staying in the footprint of the house. It has, unlike the other two, a full basement, with 3/5ths of it turned into living space with a small bathroom. They also added a Florida Room to the back of the house that provides seasonal living space, and built up by adding a partial second floor. The second floor gives us a fourth bedroom with its own, large walk-in closet and private bathroom. There is still plenty of attic space left over for storage.
We have repainted, added shelves, rebuilt the pantry to triple its usable space, insulated, insulated, insulated, added solar tubes for free lighting, built in a home office, rebuilt the closets, and in general added storage organizers of every kind to every possible corner. This doesn’t include any of the extensive work we did in the yard, starting with the 4-foot chain-link fence and the hedges.
Did this house have some issues? Of course. But we could afford it, its daily maintenance, and its renovations while still paying extra to the mortgage. We are in town in a great school district, Bill did not have a bad commute, we don’t live in an HOA, and we can walk to all kinds of things. We also have a world-class (they tell us this regularly so it must be true, da?) hospital two miles away in the Penn State Milton Hershey Medical Center and in the other direction, we have Hershey Amusement Park.
When Bill spent six months house-hunting up here in central PA, he worked from a list of things we wanted:
* A home with enough space for all five of us and all our animals.
* A home with space for storage, our library, our home office, my sewing area.
* A home with a basement.
* A yard for kids, dog, and vegetable garden.
* The best school district we could afford.
* A home in town to be closer to a range of services.
* A home within 20 miles of Bill’s job. We lucked out there, finding a place 10 miles away from the Patriot-News. When they moved its offices to the West Shore, the commute doubled, but was still within the magic 20-mile radius.
Bill was renting an apartment up here, while I, three kids, four cats, and a big dog stayed behind in South Carolina doing the “Dress Your House For Success” program trying to sell our house. Not easy but we did it. And it was worth it. Bill got us a house that worked for us that we could afford. And we got, six months after the sale, a lovely piece of validation for all the work we put into the house in South Carolina. The new home owner sent us a thank you note saying how much she loved the house because it “made her organized”. Wow.
So take your time and look over the houses you see. Look at location and price first. Then evaluate how much of your money and life energy it will take to turn the house into what you really want. Some extra space is absolutely worth paying for, but be realistic about how much that extra 2,000 square feet will cost you in life energy.
A basement is very nice. We use most of ours as finished living space, including my sewing area and our home office. There is a finished bathroom with a shower stall so we have some overflow space. We rebuilt the existing shoddy pantry shelving into a finished space that was double in volume compared to what we started with. The unfinished portion of the basement serves to hold the washer and dryer, a work shop, the mechanicals, and plenty of dedicated storage space. A crawl space could not have been rebuilt like this. I suppose you could dig out a crawl space into a basement, but really, it would be easier to buy a house with a basement. A slab foundation wouldn’t even give you that option.
A carport or garage is very nice. My dad, as mentioned above, turned our carport into finished living space, all by himself. He even built in a desk for a home office. If we had stayed in South Carolina, we would have enclosed the carport in much the same way. A garage might be even easier to finish as it already has walls.
An attic that you can stand up in is very nice. These can be finished off as well, either into living space or dedicated storage space. The hard part is arranging for a permanent staircase rather than one of those awkward pull-down ones, or worse, a hatch accessible only with a ladder. In my parents house (bought in 1972 and long since paid off), my dad took advantage of the two parallel hallways on the second floor. He removed both pull-down staircases (the house was weird in many ways) and turned one hallway into a permanent staircase with a closet built underneath it. You can’t refinish an attic that is full of trusses into any kind of storage space without putting on a whole new second floor. That is a huge job and will need a contractor, but it can be done.
Porches can be very nice. My house in Norfolk had, at one time, a porch that was enclosed by the house on two sides and had the house roof as it’s roof. Someone, years ago, enclosed the porch, turning it into heated living space. I used that space as a sewing room. Our house in South Carolina had the same thing. Someone, years ago, enclosed it and tied it into the heating system. We finished the job, installing a home office, a much needed half bath (a second toilet! what luxury!), and a big, walk-in pantry.
An extra room can be very nice. This can become a home office, a sewing studio, a guest bedroom, or dedicated to storage.
Some space for a dedicated workshop is very nice. You should have at least some place to put the tools, the screws, the paint cans and their brushes. A built-in workshop area means you can do simple home repairs more easily as you have space to do them in and a space to store all the tools. A bigger workshop can lead to bigger projects, like library-style shelving and upgraded pantries. Because these projects kick up a lot of dust, opt for a separate room, or at least an area curtained off from the rest of the basement. Dust will fly!