Friday, September 17, 2010

Home stewardship

I've been thinking a lot about home stewardship in the past few weeks. It's a concept that Erin put a name to a couple years ago that means taking care of your home as things need to be addressed so that it doesn't fall down around your ears.

This has become more thought-provoking lately. We have some neighbors who have largely ignored their home maintenance for roughly the past 20 years and it has caught up to them. We take care of their two cats when they are away so we know more about this house than we would about most neighbors' homes.

They're not great at home cleanliness but that's easily fixed by having a cleaning service come in and whip the place into shape. The problems are larger than that: they have torn out molding, carpeting and fixtures, torn off wallpaper without ever putting anything back together. So things look like they're falling down and off, which they are. For example, the shower in the master bathroom leaked badly about 15 years ago. They stopped using it and eventually removed the glass door and fixture from the stall. The extensive water stains remain on the family room ceiling below along with dark soot from the fireplace and candle burning. Somehow the walls and ceiling in the family room have separated all around the perimeter and there's about an inch gap of exposed studs everywhere you look.

We looked in the main bathroom which they've used for years and, again apparently, the shower fixture was taken down and then put back up with the worst plaster patching job I've ever seen. I could have done better. And the fiberglass stall is slowly being consumed by mildew and mold. Outside, the roof has a plush covering of green moss and the white vinyl siding is gray with dirt and mildew.

We have studiously avoided going to their house for any meals for many years, claiming that John's allergy to cats would  act up and be too severe to handle. That's true but it's also true that we just plain didn't want to eat in their house.

Anyway, you can sorta get the idea of how bad the place is. The wife had a good job but quit five years ago to "find" herself (seriously, I hate quote marks used like that but it's the only way I can think of to describe this). The husband was laid off from his (very good) job 18 months ago and has been looking ever since. The wife has been going to classes for (I think) medical or legal transcription but still doesn't have a job.With the utter lack of attention to anything inside or outdoors, I really have no idea what they do with all their time as they both have been home for the last 5 years/18 months straight.

The husband got a job last week, outside of Denver Colorado so they are now faced with moving. He reports for work in early October. John and I have speculated over the years about how they'd ever sell the house. Our personal opinion is that we'd have to virtually gut the place and begin all over. If someone could do the work, we figure it would take about $25,000 - $50,000 to bring it up to livable conditions.

This house is probably worth $160,000 - four bedrooms, 2.5 baths, full basement, nice half acre lot, hardwood floors throughout, fireplace. Property values in our area have not fallen (and don't rise) as much as other areas of the country -- we're certainly not in a recession-proof area but it just doesn't experience the extreme highs and lows. A comparably well-kept home in a larger metropolitan area would bring upwards of $200,000 easily.

The couple came down last weekend to ask us to take care of the cats while they flew out to find a new place to live. And they told us that they'll be auctioning the house off rather than listing it with a real estate agent and selling it in a more traditional way. We were floored. The floor bid price will be $75,000. They're hoping that someone will get the bidding up above $100,000 (they owe a $92,000 mortgage  + $21,000 home equity = $113,000).

OMG! Not only are we concerned for them losing their shirts on this but also for what a crappy winning bid will do to the neighborhood. They'll be gone by the time of the auction and asked us to please attend to help bolster the audience. We want to be there just to see how much of a debacle it will be. It makes both of us cringe.

They admitted (with great incredulity and surprise) that they just haven't maintained the house. The wife said, "You're lucky, Cheryl, because John's so capable of doing all this stuff. We're not." In other words, somehow the condition of their home isn't really their fault because they're not capable and (apparently) helpless to identify contractors and write checks to get projects done. At one time several years ago, they asked for the name of someone to power wash their house. After the estimate came back, they decided it was too expensive so it was never done.

My point back to her was that we've done all this stuff to our house and yard over the last 16 years.  And while John is (thank the dear Lord) extremely handy at virtually everything to do with home improvements and maintenance, we have hired the jobs done when he couldn't,  wouldn't do or that I wouldn't let him do -- such as climbing on the roof to clean out gutters or reshingle the house.

In little chunks, taking care of your property is not (doesn't have to be) overwhelming and improves your quality of life at the same time it preserves the eventual resale value. We know we've put more money into our home than we'll ever get out of it but we are enjoying the amenities and things we've installed or added to our home -- they make us comfortable, happy and content to be here.

So now I appreciate our home even more than I have. I've been finding tiny projects -- such as vacuuming up tons of dog hair and dust bunnies under our desks among the thousands of cables and vacuuming dust off the fireplace and lampshades -- that help in infinitesimal ways to improve our home. We have a cleaning woman who comes and does the nitty gritty stuff every two weeks but the big projects and detail stuff is all ours. We're fortunate but we're also proactive. 

We'll miss these people because they're good neighbors and nice friends. But the process of them moving and what will happen with the house is frightening. Not to mention the pity and trepidation we feel for their unsuspecting landlord in their new place out west.

Any horror stories to share?

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