Thursday, July 24, 2008

Touchy, touchy

I'm overly sensitive about the House of 42 Doors. I try not to be, but I know I am. Mostly because I worry about whether or not it was a wise choice to buy it. The opportunity cost for this house is high, and will remain so for years to come. So since I worry about it so much, I obsess about the wisdom of my actions. And when other people question my actions, I get defensive. Two instances come to mind.

When Ms. Huis gave our neighbors to the south a tour of the place, the wife (who lacks a bit in the areas of social graces) said "Wow. You have a lot of work to do there. Sure am glad I'm not you." The retort that almost came off of my lips was "Well, I can assure you the feeling is mutual." Fortunately, I bit back the replay, laughed a polite little laugh and made some non-committal, inoffensive reply. They are our neighbors after all, and until I get the ten foot hedge in place, we need to be civil.

When the plaster master was visiting the house the other day, Ms. Huis gave him the tour. They were in the middle of the tour when I caught up with them in the attic. He set me off the wrong way with the first thing out of his mouth. "I like looking at old houses, but I'd never want to own one." And then he continued with stories of his daughter and son-in-law who are now on their third old house. Seeing an opportunity for something in common and a chance to build some rapport between the two of us, I responded with something encouraging like "Really? They like old houses?"

And then he continued to alarm me. "Absolutely. The first thing they do to each old house they buy is gut it and redo it. Wiring, plumbing and of course plaster. We come in and plaster it...for free!" Polite laughter followed. At this point, I just tried to get the information out of him that I needed to fix the ceiling. I wanted to ask him, "What about the moldings? The old growth wood they ripped out? Did they keep the light fixtures? Or the doors? Maybe the old locks? How much unnecessary stuff was sent to the landfill?" But there was no point in the time that we were there.

There is always a fine line between preserving something old and replacing it with something new. On that continuum I tend towards the preserve something old. The country as a whole though tends to lean far towards "Replace it with something new." New is not always better, even if it might be cheaper. Of course old is not always better either.

I had a discussion with a co-worker last summer about the dangers of buying an old house, specifically around the health hazards - lead, asbestos, faulty wiring, etc. He was adamant against buying an old house due to these risks. My reply was to look at new houses and some of their issues - mold, petrochemicals, VOCs, etc. I think he saw my point.


ShoNuff said...

Yes and the old houses are much less likely to fall apart in a big storm. The father in law tells the story about his roofers explaining that they had to do some damage repair in the $$$$ southern suburbs by us and the people who originally built it only used four nails for every 4X8 sheet of wood...great roof for a storm?

DiploWhat said...

If you ever have the time and a babysitter (they don't allow children), I highly suggest you go to the Firelight B&B in Duluth. They restored the old Barnum house and if you check in a bit early, the guy will give you the full tour of all the rooms and what they had to do to each one, how they saved the bathroom tiles from the 1910s etc. It's old, but modern at the same time. I think you two would love it.
The beds are super comfy as well and the breakfast is GREAT.

Christopher Busta-Peck said...

People are silly - let them live in their homogeneous boxes.

On the other hand, when I was shopping for homeowners insurance on my residence, I came to the realization as to just what a great bargain old houses can be. Of course we love all the great historic details - that is why we buy these places - and if I could afford a new house built with this level of detail, I might consider it. Heck, if I could afford a new house the size of mine on a similar lot I might have considered it, and added that detail myself over the years.

Back to the insurance and why it matters. The first couple quotes I got placed the cost of rebuilding my house at 4-5 times our purchase price. I think that these numbers are low - there are a lot of details regarding the house that didn't fit into their estimate. The lowest valuation I got, to rebuild similar was at about 2.5 times purchase price.

Even if we had had professionals completely redo the mechanicals, fix the roof, and come up with storm windows that actually work, I can't imagine that that would be more than 2/3 of what we spent on it.

I really don't get why, as you mentioned, people who don't like old houses buy old houses. I understand why someone might want to buy a new house. There's a lot to be said for having a space that you can work with as you like, without the guilt of ripping out original detail or the expense of trying to match it. There's something to be said for not having to worry about mechanical systems failure.

Why, then, do these people buy old houses? For a while, I was looking at the slideshows of the higher end houses for sale in my city, mostly built in the 1920s, for design inspiration. I soon realized that their kitchens and bathrooms all looked the same - completely redone in the past 10-20 years, leaving no original fabric and not really relating to the design of the house.

Now, I'll be the first to admit that I don't want to work in a completely original 1920s kitchen. I'd probably hit my head on the hood of the stove, for one. I want more counterspace and more cabinets, too. One should, I think, remodel and add in a way that is at least sympathetic to the existing elements.

Ok, I'm ranting. Sorry.