Sunday, February 22, 2015

High Maintenance Homes

A garden can be a beautiful place to relax, but ironically can make your home hard to sell.  Click to enlarge.

As we get older, the idea of a high-maintenance home becomes less and less attractive.  What is a high-maintenance home and why are they a problem?

Well, the latter issue is easier to address.  A house that requires constant maintenance is going to be more expensive to maintain, in terms of hiring people to maintain it, paying for utilities and repairs, and in terms of personal labor to perform various maintenance tasks.  It will also be harder to sell, when the time comes, as others may be turned away by high-maintenance features.

What defines a high-maintenance home?  A number of factors:

1.  Lawn:   As I noted in the great American Lawn, getting a lawn to look "perfect" is an exercise in futility and a great way to empty your wallet.  Between fertilizing, weeding, seeding, thatching, mulching, mowing, and hiring a lawn service, it can get really expensive, very quickly.  And the moment you let up, it all goes back to weeds.   Planting a lawn is to declare war on nature.   And yet many people today have more than an acre of lawn.   I had a house (shown above) with five acres of lawn.   It was fun - for a while - but also a pain in the butt to keep it looking park-like.

A more reasonable-sized lawn - or none at all - is a lot easier to deal with.   I will never own a house again with a huge lawn.

2.  Basements:   There are two kinds of basements - the kind that leak, and the kind that are going to leak.   Living underground is never a smart option.   When you first build a house, they parge (waterproof) the walls of the basement from the outside, and install a french drain to drain water away from the house.   Concrete is actually as porous as a sponge, and if water can reach the concrete, it will flood your basement, if your basement is below the water table.   And unless you live in Arizona, chances are, you basement is below the water table, at least part of the year.

Our house in Virginia was over 60 years old when we sold it, and the parging had long ago been breeched and the french drains long ago had been clogged with soil.  Re-parging the foundation would require getting a backhoe to dig all around the foundation, re-seal it, and then install a new french drain.  It would cost thousands and thousands of dollars and tear up the lawn and all the plantings.   Plus, it would require tearing the deck off the house.   Fortunately, the house was torn down shortly thereafter.

The house stayed afloat (literally) by installing six sump pumps to draw water from the basement (and crawl spaces and even window wells) and ejecting it out to the road.  Maintaining these pumps, which had a service life of about five years, was a nightmare.   And the basement flooded regularly anyway, when pumps failed, power failed, or both.

Finishing a basement is often an invitation to heartbreak, as if a flood occurs, the cost of repairs expands considerably.

3. Gardens:   Gardening is a fine hobby.  The problem is, you plant some things, it looks nice, and then you plant some more.  Pretty soon, you have an amazing garden and then you can never leave your home, ever.  If you go on a two-week vacation, you will come back to a yard full of weeds that will take the rest of the year to pull up.   It starts out as a fun hobby, but turns into a never-ending chore.

It is possible to landscape with low-maintenance plants and shrubs.   They are not as colorful or beautiful as some flowering plants, but they largely don't require any labor or maintenance.

We had an amazing garden in Virginia that made our house basically unsalable.  People, when they see elaborate gardens, are not impressed but concerned that they are buying a maintenance nightmare - and they are often correct.   We did a slightly smaller garden in New York, and it was very nice (see above) but a batch of mulch with thistle seeds was our undoing.  It took a year to kill off all those thistles!   Pulling weeds became a way of life (that or spraying constantly).

Our house in Georgia has no real garden, just some plantings.   We may add some shrubs down the road but are in no hurry to do so.  We like to travel for weeks at a time, and a high-maintenance garden simply isn't part of that plan.

4.  Gutters:   If you have a basement, chances are you have gutters.   In order to help keep water away from the basement, it helps to use gutters to draw rainwater away from the house (hopefully far away) and thus prevent the soil adjacent the house from saturating.

The problem with gutters is that they fill with leaves, and you have to go up, two, three, or four times a year and perform one of the most distasteful messy jobs outside of toilet cleaning.   The leaves form a mulch up there, and often it is cold and damp when you do this, which insures you catch a cold.

Cleaning gutters is one of the top-cited reasons people mention when asked why they decided to sell their home and go full-time RVing.   There are, of course, less drastic solutions.

Many homes have larger eaves and no gutters.  We have no gutters here on the island - no one does.   The water runs off and away from the house.  And since we have no basements, it is not an issue.  We had a screen porch installed and the man wanted to put a gutter on it.  I told him, "No way!" - we want to remain gutter-free.

5.  Pool:   A pool is a really cool thing to have and I enjoyed having one at one time in my life.   However, after about five years, you find yourself using it less and less. So you put in a pool heater, thinking this will rekindle the romance.  It does, for a while, and then you find yourself using it even less.

In colder climates, it has to be winterized and de-winterized, which is cold, wet work, as you do this in the coldest weather.   The alternative is to pay someone to do this.   It requires constant cleaning to keep out dust and leaves.  A robotic vacuum helps, but skimmers still need to be cleaned and pool chemicals monitored.   Again, you can pay someone to do this, but that costs more money.

And the 220V pump does use a lot of electricity.  Add in more for a heat pump pool heater or even more if you use gas or propane.

We've thought about adding a pool to our Georgia home - and we keep thinking about it.   Most of our friends here who have pools rarely swim in them and unless caged in with screening, it is too buggy anyway.   The screening will keep leaves out of the pool, but can collect pine needles and leaves.

I had a pool.  It was fun.  Been there, done that.  Not sure I need to do it again.

6.  Fancy Home Equipment:   I wrote before about hydronic heating and solar hot water heaters.   It is tempting to go all "high tech" on your home by installing such expensive and fancy systems, on the premise that they will "save you money in the long run".   I have a relative in Maine who is paranoid about leaving home in the winter, lest the power go off, and the pipes in his hydronic system freeze.  It is no way to live!

I have friends who installed $10,000 "wood burning furnaces" next to their homes, and they spend all Spring, Summer, and Fall, cutting, splitting, and stacking firewood, and then all winter stocking the outdoor furnace which smokes like an airplane crash site.   All this to save a couple-hundred dollars a month on the heating bill.

Another friend has covered his home with solar panels.  It seems to be working out for him, but I wonder how these systems will perform as they age and when tree limbs smash through them.

Elaborate lawn lights, security systems, yard fountains, and so on - all serve to complicate your life.   The Internet boy-wonders tell us we "need" Internet thermostats and other electronic garbage to run our homes.  I am not so sure.

7.  Tile Showers and Tubs:   At this moment, Mark is re-caulking, for the third time, the custom walk-in travertine marble and tile shower we have.  It certainly looks cool, but the seam between the floor and walls constantly needs to be re-caulked, as the caulk wears out due to age.   The more I think about it, the more I like the idea of the one-piece fiberglass shower or tub with surround.   It simply won't wear out and requires no maintenance whatsoever, even if it doesn't "look cool".

8.  Paint:  On "This Old House" they pooh-pooh any kind of modern siding material, such as vinyl, and promote the idea of using real wood siding and paint.  The problem is, even for a very well prepared surface and very carefully done paint-job, the most you can expect is about five years before you have to do it all again.  If you have one of those fussy Victorian homes in several colors, just hire a full-time painter and make an apartment for him in the basement.

And in the olden days, that pretty much was what one did - constantly scrape, sand, and paint, every year, to keep the house looking like new.  Yea I know, vinyl looks like crap, but all you have to do is pressure-wash it once in a while and it looks like new - for 15-20 years or more.

Our brick sided house needs even less maintenance than that - and has lasted over 40 years without any signs of wear.   Sadly, our brick-sided house in Virginia was the worst of both worlds - sided with a "white" concrete brick, and then painted.   It needed re-painting about every five years, which was a pain in the ass.

9.  Size:  Today's homes are larger than ever before, even as family size has shrunk dramatically.   No longer do you see families with five or six or seven children - yet many suburban homes have five bedrooms and four baths.  Most of these rooms end up empty or unused, or made into made-up rooms with names like "craft room", "sewing room", "library", or "man cave".   They quickly become a cleaning and dusting nightmare, and a lot of work, unless you hire a maid, which becomes a lot of expense, quickly.

10.  Trees:  I love trees, don't get me wrong.   They can shade your house in the summer and save on cooling bills.  However, all trees get old, and eventually have to come down.   You can't just let them fall down, as they will crush your house.  I have about eight Georgia pines on my property, and they are all near the end of their lives.  They are about 100 feet tall, and have trunks about 3 feet in diameter, if not more.   One has been removed (cost $800) the remainder will be tricky, as they are very close to the house.  They drop limbs all the time on the roof - which is disturbing - and pine pollen and pine needles everywhere.

Leaves and pine needles are problematic as they can clog gutters and can be a maintenance mess to clean up (I prefer to run them over with the lawn mower, others use a rake).

Having a modest amount of trees is a fine thing.  Too many trees makes a house too dark, invites mold and algae to grow on your roof, and can be a costly expense to keep trimmed, raked, and taken down.  There is a fine "sweet spot" between living in a forest, and living in a denuded lot.

* * * 

Now, I know what some of you are going to say right now - "Well, if you don't have all these fun things  then what is the point of living?  You might as well enjoy yourself!"

And that is true to some extent.   However, we all get older and become less and less interested (and less able) to maintain high-maintenance houses.   And ironically, many older people, in early retirement, make the mistake of building a high-maintenance home - with elaborate gardens, a perfect lawn, and so forth.   They have a lot of time on their hands, so they turn their homes into showplaces.

The problem is, they get older and money becomes more dear, and they have neither the inclination or the ability to keep it all up.   And the resale market for a high-maintenance home is narrow.  Working people don't want to deal with your elaborate gardens, and other retirees are wary of it as well.  I see this happening to a lot of my neighbors.

Myself, I am starting to appreciate public space a lot more.  I live in a State Park with an historical district.   Rather than trying to build a private garden of my own, I can drive to a lovely and brand-new picnic pavilion, let the dog run free, and sit among a carefully tended garden and not pull a single weed.

I am less and less interested in creating work and expenses for myself in the place where I live.  And as I get even older, I suspect I will move to an even less maintenance-intensive lifestyle - a condo (hopefully rented) or apartment, where my obligations begin and end with my signing a monthly rent check.

And no, making your home into a high-maintenance home isn't going to increase its value by very much - if at all.  The price spread between the fanciest house on the block and the plainest is not very large.   Not only that, high-maintenance homes can be harder to sell.  Before you install a lot of high-maintenance items into your home (or buy a home with high-maintenance items) think about where you are going with this.   You may find that you lose interest in high-maintenance hobbies, over time, or never have much interest to begin with.

Owning a home doesn't mean you have to be a slave to one.  And yet we all tend to do just that, when you create high-maintenance homes.