Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Two Bedrooms, One Bath

Young people today complain that previous generations had it so easy.  Yet most young people wouldn't set foot in the houses we lived in back then!

The above image is a contemporary photo, scraped from the Internet, of the first house I bought, at age 22, in Chittenango, New York back in 1982.  It had a new roof back then, and new siding as well.  But it seems to have fallen on hard times since then, at least in the roof department.  But hey, they have satellite television!  Priorities.

It was a tiny house (odd to say in this era of "tiny homes") built after the war as part of the boom in suburban growth.  It was a 20-minute drive to the factory at Carrier, down back roads, so it was convenient for me.  It had two small bedrooms, one bath, a living room, and an eat-in kitchen.  That's it.  Originally most of these houses were built on a crawl space.

Entire families were raised in these houses.  The kids would have bunk beds in one bedroom and everyone shared the one bathroom - no loitering!  In that neighborhood, it was typical for Dad to come home from work and "dig out" the basement.  He would dig down through the crawl space, one bucket of dirt at a time,  until it was 8 feet deep or so, and then they would put in a retaining wall and pour a concrete floor.  It took months if not years of backbreaking work.

My house had the basement "dug out" by some enterprising boomer back in the 50's or 60's.  It even had a steel "Bilco" door!  I had a laundry room down there and someone even put in a wood stove.  If you wanted more space, you had to build it.  Those "wealthy baby boomers" of the 1950s and 1960s weren't all that wealthy - just resourceful.

Another common tactic was to build up - adding dormers to the attic to make new bedrooms for a growing family.  Or sometimes the roof was raised.  Additions were also popular - and again, no one dreamed of calling a "builder" and spending as much on an addition as they did on the house.  You got our your hammer and started building.

The whole neighborhood was that way - the neighbors on both sides of me had pretty large additions, built by the homeowners themselves, and they raised families of children - sometimes four or more - in these small houses.  That was life back in the 1960's for working-class people.  Not everyone had a "Brady Bunch" house.

The second house we bought, in Alexandria, Virginia was nicer but also a two-bedrrom, one-bath house.  It had brick siding and a cathedral ceiling in the living room and a real fireplace!  But again, it was a postwar baby-boom driven suburban expansion home, with only two small bedrooms and yet people raised entire families in them.  Granted, there were larger homes in the neighborhood (three bedrooms and two baths!  The luxury!).  But many of the homes were 2/1 and were added on, piece at a time, by Dads who would come home from a hard day at work and then spend hours after supper nailing up 2x4's.  That is how it was done back then.  Indeed, we spend many an evening remodeling our kitchen.  Yes, we tried to get quotes from remodeling companies and carpenters - they all wanted far more than we could afford, even on my lawyer salary!

Today, I read online, pleas from the new generation, who complain they cannot afford a "two-bedroom apartment" on their minimum-wage salary.  We are not talking about two people, just a single person who decided they need to have two bedrooms for themselves.  Why, I do not know, as I rented a number of apartments over the years (I guess about five) and only one of them was a two-bedroom, and that was only because at the time, I was with Mr. See and we had two incomes and could afford it.  Even then, thought, we could have "made do" with one bedroom, as indeed we did when we first got together.

And yes, on more than one occasion, we slept on the floor, while saving up for a mattress.  In fact, we slept in the floor just last year, when we rehabbed the condo!  We're not too proud.

I see pleas online from young people, whining that they will "never be able to afford a house" because "all the houses" in their area are over a million dollars - or some unreasonable number.  If you scratch the surface of these stories, the house they want is more than what they need.  The apartment they want costs more than the apartment they can afford.

Bear in mind that after World War II, there was an acute "housing shortage" back then, with prices going through the roof (this is indeed, where rent control started) as returning GI's got married and settled down.  Huge suburban housing developments like Levittown were started - crackbox houses that progressives derided as "ticky-tacky" but were coveted by the new generation of young homeowners.  Today, if you visit Levittown, you will be hard-pressed to find one of the "crackerbox" houses in original condition - most have been added on and done over as to be unrecognizable.  And yes, back then, the remodeling was often done by Dad and a hammer.

By the way, the critique of "ticky-tacky" is somewhat apt.  Both of my first homes were sheathed, outside, with exterior grade sheetrock. I am not kidding about this.  Sheetrock covered with tar paper was the exterior sheething.   My house in Chittenango had asbestos shingles nailed to that (I had them removed, of course) and the house in Virginia had a brick "curtain wall" (non-structural) tied to the exterior sheetrock.

I believe our house here in Georgia was sheathed in a lovely material called "homasote" that is no longer as popular for exterior sheathing (oriented strand board has taken over).  The reason these alternative materials were used was the high cost of lumber and associated shortages.  The postwar era was marked by strikes and shortages and high prices - everything from steel to aluminum to lumber to cars.  Sort of like today.  Ironic that a nation that only a few years earlier had cracked out millions of tons of steel for weapons, ran short when it came time to make toasters and automobiles.

We really had shitty houses back in the 1950's and 1960's but no one wants to hear that.   Houses today have three or four bathrooms or more - one for every member of the family.  Sharing bathrooms is seen as third-world.  And of course, you expect to have a garage attached to your house - a two-car garage at that, at the very least.  Funny thing, but when I was growing up, having a "two car garage" was seen as ostentatious.  A three-car garage?  That was just showing off!

Our standards have changed over the years, and houses, as I have noted before, have gotten bigger and bigger, often for no reason, other than real estate agents tell home buyers to "buy as much house as you can afford!" as a house is "your biggest investment" - a lie I have exposed more than once.  A house is a place to live and owning a home can cost less in the long run than renting, provided you don't buy more house than you need.   But you can't eat a house.  It won't put gas in the tank of your car.  A house can end up being an Albatross around your neck, if you let it.  You can end up trapped in your home, which is what is happening to a lot of baby-boomers these days - too scared to sell, as everything is overpriced and where would they go?

I know the feeling.

I am not blaming the young generation for having unrealistic standards.  They grew up in what are lavish homes by 1960 or even 1970 standards.  Remember that the Brady Bunch had to share bathrooms and bedroomsThe original house was recently remodeled as part of one of those "makeover" shows.  They doubled the size of it to a whopping 5,000 square feet and added extra baths and bedrooms because subsequent generations expect that sort of thing.  Private bath? Well, your highness, to be sure!

I think expectations have been raised, which is again, one reason why "luxury student housing" has become so popular these days.  College apartments are expected to be like a hotel, not a hovel. No hot-and-cold running roaches for this generation!  No dingy cinder-block dorm rooms!  No siree!  Today we have "suites" with common areas and "suite-mates" instead of "roommates."   How times have changed.

But of course, shortages are not perpetual.  Eventually the postwar housing boom caught up with demand and housing prices leveled off - and houses slowly started getting bigger and fancier over time.  I suspect the current "shortage" will resolve itself, as our population growth stalls and as the baby-boom generation dies off or goes into assisted living.  And yes, a lot of commercial properties may end up being torn down or remodeled into residential properties - as my old office was, in Old Town Alexandria.

The laws of Supply and Demand cannot be denied for long.  This does not mean, however, that housing will be cheap or free or not take up the lion's share of your paycheck.  That is the way it has been since the dawn of time.  Your Dad and Granddad didn't get free houses after the war.  And there is a reason why Granddad built that addition, one nail at a time.