Part 9j: So You Want to Buy a House and Fix It Up? Thirty Suggestions for Survival
[The final instalment of Part 9; thirty suggestions over 10 sub-parts. Download the collector's-edition pdf of the entire Part 9 here. Also available through the Froogle Scott sidebar. -ed.]
29. Think about what constitutes quality
Before our renovation, my wife and I referred to our house, somewhat affectionately and ironically, as “our East Van shitbox.” We seem to have stopped the practice, perhaps because the house doesn’t seem so shitboxy anymore. If I ask myself why it doesn’t, the thing that comes most immediately to mind is the dramatic transformation of the exterior. When we bought the house in 2003 it had outdated two-tone stucco, and junky, single-pane aluminum windows with skinny little frames. The overall impression was dreary and depressing, a remuddling of the way the house would have looked when first built — nothing fancy, but at least neat and solid, with fiber cement shingle siding (possibly asbestos-containing) and wood-frame windows. Now the house looks neat and solid again, and attractive, with wood siding and trim, and windows, which although vinyl, have beefier frames and nicely balanced faux mullions (those little rectangles in the upper part of the window). The curb appeal, to use a term favoured by realtors, has been greatly improved. I actually like looking at our house now, while being under no illusions that it’s anything more than an attractive little 1940s bungalow. That the exterior is what I think of first would seem to contradict everything I’ve been saying about the importance of foundations and systems, but there’s no denying the psychological and emotional impact of exterior appearances. Human beings are visual creatures.
I’d like to return to the comment Renting made about “a million dollar home in Vancouver [being] a piece of shit” (amusing in a surreal way, isn’t it?), a sentiment echoed by many commenters on Vancouver real estate bear blogs. It’s also a sentiment that exists among the broader population, perhaps owing to Vancouver’s widely publicized leaky condo crisis and the ongoing spectacle of entire buildings shrouded in tarpaulins, like giant crime scene victims. If we leave price aside, at the heart of Renting’s contention is the issue of quality. And quality in houses can be a tricky thing to define, because it can mean different things to different people, and can have multiple applications when talking about the seeming unity of a house.
Differentiating between quality of design, and quality of construction, can help clarify matters. Quality of design can be further broken down into aesthetic quality and functional quality (form versus function). Quality of construction can be broken down into quality of materials and quality of workmanship. If all four of these characteristics — form, function, materials, and workmanship — meet a good standard, that’s probably a good house, assuming the house has been well maintained, and the location is also at least reasonable. Erode any one of the four too much, or two or more of them somewhat, and that may be a house deserving of Renting’s description. But what, exactly, constitutes ‘good’? ‘Good’ is a highly subjective term, and one person’s ‘good’ may be another person’s ‘shit’.
Aesthetic quality is probably the most subjective of the four characteristics, and workmanship perhaps the least. The eye of the beholder has much to do with things. There are many forms of residential architecture, likely to appeal to or repel different people for different reasons. How does one compare the ornate turrets and verandahs of the late-nineteenth century Queen Anne style to the post-and-beam, mid-century modern, or either of these to a concrete condo or a vinyl-sided tract house? There’s such a difference of intention that comparison lacks enough common ground to be meaningful. We’re thrown back on to personal preference, which is fine, but it should be recognized as such. If we’re going to compare houses on aesthetic grounds, it’s probably more fruitful to compare individual houses within a particular form, having arrived at those forms that most appeal to us personally. A certain amount of objectivity comes into play when identifying the best examples of a particular form, and these more objective comparisons can be useful when it comes to making a purchase decision.
Aesthetic quality and functional quality can conflict. Some of us may love the way a stately Edwardian house looks from the street, but find the rabbit warren of little rooms inside quite unsuited to a modern lifestyle. The interior design of ‘ticky-tacky’ Vancouver Specials, and the older, rancher-style 1950s bungalows, makes very good use of available space, and facilitates good traffic flow patterns. These house are highly functional. However, for many Vancouverites — perhaps Anglo Vancouverites predominantly — Vancouver Specials typify lower quality, regardless of whether or not they are easy to live in and maintain, or are well constructed with good quality building materials. The main reason for this sentiment has nothing to do with quality of interior design or construction, but rather, lack of curb appeal. To many, these houses look like ugly, naked boxes.
By contrast, many people equate ‘character’ or ‘heritage’ houses, such as Swiss-chalet-style Craftsman bungalows in Kitsilano, with quality. They covet these houses and are willing to pay a handsome premium, even if interior layouts are less than optimal for current lifestyles and family configurations, and are difficult and expensive to reconfigure, building envelopes are sub-standard or failing, insulation and energy efficiency are poor, drafts blow in, and basements are low, dark, and damp, making for less than inspiring living conditions on the lower level. Prospective buyers, however, may be blind to these shortcomings because these houses have the architectural proportions and adornment, the ‘character’, the aesthetic quality, the beauty, that strongly appeals to them. In the minds of many, these houses hark back to an earlier time when things were better built — even if they may not have been any better built than more recent houses. It doesn’t matter. The patina of old wood, buffed by the hands and feet of generations, the quality of light through stained glass leaded windows, the muted gleam of brass doorknobs, gives many people that intangible feeling of solidity and security, of being connected with something physically and emotionally solid, with roots to a place, which in an increasingly mobile and globalizing society, and amid a built environment constantly in flux, can make people feel more psychologically and emotionally secure. You see yourself in a particular kind of house — getting back to that childhood stuff — and nothing else will do.
Enter the heritage-style new house in Vancouver. Over the past decade, two styles have dominated new house construction in Vancouver: the boxy and unadorned new-style Vancouver Special, and the faux heritage house, sometimes built as a cleverly disguised front-and-back duplex. These new heritage houses blend aspects of different heritage architectural styles (which were often themselves an amalgam of even earlier styles) — the full two storeys of the Edwardian Box, the half timbering of the Tudor Revival, the roof brackets, tapered porch posts, and dentils of the California bungalow. A grab bag of Berelowitz’s “geegaws.” However, when it comes to materials, and workmanship, and building codes, these often spec-built houses are no different from the new-style Vancouver Specials they seem to be reacting against, or holding at bay. They’re the same house, with a different face. And they may be no better built, or even poorly built.
In 2003, when my wife and I were house hunting, we toured a heritage-style half duplex in Strathcona, one of Vancouver’s oldest neighbourhoods, traditionally home to immigrants and blue-collar workers, but now undeniably gentrifying. This house looked good from the street but up close it didn’t bear much scrutiny: outside, the corner of the foundation revealed badly honeycombed concrete; after we took off our shoes, we could feel screw or nail heads through the thin carpet; when sighting down the drywall I could see nail or screw pops were already starting; and an exterior deck on the upper floor used cheap 2×2 material full of knots, already cracking underfoot. Materials and workmanship were quite obviously crap. If these deficiencies were in plain view, what lurked beneath? And the tall, narrow layout enforced by the front-and-back duplex on a standard lot, meant small rooms, lots of stairs, and some awkward little spaces. The developer had approximated quality of a particular form, but profit-driven and sloppy practices in the other three areas — function, workmanship, and materials — betrayed a lack of quality.
I suspect that for many prospective home buyers, and especially inexperienced ones, the importance, awareness, or visibility of the four basic characteristics of quality in houses, and associated notions of good, from most to least, goes something like this:
So in neighbourhoods like Strathcona, and Grandview, which is perhaps also undergoing a certain degree of gentrification, and experiencing a spillover of younger Anglo buyers priced out of the West Side, the faux heritage house, sided and trimmed with wood, attracts a lot of interest. The houses sell at a hefty price, even if the rooms are not optimally laid out, and on close inspection by someone with a base level of knowledge, or just a sharp eye for detail, the materials are revealed as run of the mill — essentially, spec builder grade — or even cheap, and the workmanship is slapdash, almost guaranteeing additional problems beneath.
My suggestion for a revised order of importance of quality and associated notion of good might be:
First and foremost, you live in a house. You need it to work for you on a moment-by-moment basis. That’s function. You need it to be well-built, durable. That’s a combination of workmanship and materials, although I’d place the greater emphasis on workmanship. Middling materials used well probably trump higher-end materials use less well. And ideally, a house should in some measure appeal to your soul. However, this last characteristic is probably the most negotiable, and the most subject to change. And yet, ironically, it’s the one that probably most influences most purchase decisions.
You can play with the four characteristics of quality, and perhaps come up with others, ordering and weighting them in accordance with your own beliefs and values. And location, both general within a city, and specific, as in site influences, can outweigh or overrule any of these considerations. The key is to understand that ‘quality’ isn’t a single thing, that it’s made up of several components, and that no one component should blind you to the others. As for what ultimately constitutes ‘good’, while I think there are some standards that most people would agree on regarding durability (workmanship + materials) and function, each person probably arrives at his or her own definition of what ‘good’ means.
30. Take pause, and ask yourself what’s important
Once you start, it’s easy to get caught up in the house battle. One thing inevitably leads to another. You renovate part of the house, and the unrenovated part looks miserable in comparison. You decide to have a new bathroom fixture installed, or a few electrical outlets, and find out all the plumbing or wiring is shot. You want to rearrange a few partition walls but an old masonry flue is in the way. You remove drywall and insulation and discover water is seeping through the building envelope. You learn something about the seismic inadequacy of most houses, and decide you need to act. You see someone else’s fantastic new kitchen or bathroom or storage solution and — human nature being what it is — you want something similar.
What you come to understand about houses is that the battle is never won. With effort and expense you can gain the upper hand, but entropy is always at work — whether the house is a hundred years old, or new. You must continue to expend a certain amount of effort and expense to keep disrepair and disintegration at bay. But how much of your life energy and your life earnings do you want to consume in this pursuit? Many people find renovation, or woodworking, or home maintenance and repair, or gardening, rewarding and satisfying, and an excellent way of staying active. I count myself among these people, but there are also plenty of other things not related to houses that I want to do with my life. Over the last few years I’ve been out of balance, the house sucking up too much of me — unavoidable, perhaps, given the scope of what we did, and still plan to do, but perhaps that scope needs to be reexamined, or should have been examined in a more circumspect fashion to begin with. At the moment, we’re taking a much-needed break from major renovation. A financial break that allows us to pay down debt — the money associated with home ownership and renovation and what it’s doing to retirement savings in this city is a big problem — and a psychological break that allows us to rejuvenate by doing other things. One of the reasons for writing this series is to reconnect with my writing, which was shoved to the side during the three years of the reno. When I’m not writing, I’m not happy, as my wife could tell you.
And that’s what it’s really about. Happiness. Satisfaction. Feeling a certain measure of security and calm in an uncertain world. People who think buying, or building, or renovating a dream home will give them this happiness and security are wrong. Too many North Americans have internalized this fairy tale. A dream home won’t fix them, or their relationships. It may do just the opposite. Approached with prudence and an appropriate degree of balance, what a reasonable home can do — whether it’s a house or a condo or an apartment, whether it’s owned or rented — is provide a stable foundation for the life you’ve already worked hard to achieve.
Part 10: “Doom Blogs”
My early mornings with coffee are no longer spent on RealtyLink comparing the relative merits and prices of listed houses to our house, and speculating how high the price of our place might climb. Now my early mornings with coffee become an inversion, reading the doom blogs and speculating how far the price of houses, our place included, might crash, and wondering if we’ll stay above water, in positive equity territory, or if the money we’re bleeding on the reno, chewing away at our equity, will be compounded with a crash progressively shrinking the amount there is to chew…
Financial details — our house
Asking Price: $355,000 Sale Price: $355,000
Down payment: $88,750 Mortgage (at purchase, Sep 2003): $266,250
Many thanks for a wonderful ‘Part 9′, Froogle Scott. We remain very grateful to Froogle for using VREAA as a portal through which to release his writings. When we’re doing renos, or even considering them, he’s our go-to guy — our ‘meta-contractor’. And, we’re looking forward to the rest of his Chronicles… – vreaa