August 23, 2020
Make no mistake; the COVID-19 pandemic is expensive.
In a macroeconomic sense: world economies sputter along in low speed, needing fewer of this and that means fewer people employed, making fewer dollars, and national and world GDP not nearly as robust as before. No doubt the world we go back to will be different. Maybe we (Americans particularly) will decide we need less stuff on the other side.
In a microeconomic sense: I noticed back in March that my incoming voltage was higher than usual — my various UPSes and power monitors ticked slightly higher levels, and the microwave in the kitchen boiled water FASTER than it did before. Less industrial demand for electricity means a higher voltage supply to all us home office folks.
But COVID-19 and its’ side effects are personally expensive…everyone I know in my oasis of privilege has taken on new home projects. I joked with a neighbor that we all have been spending so much time at home, in our yards and back patios, that we see all the things that need fixing. I myself never realized until this Spring that all our back windows didn’t match the trim of the rest of the house. Now after 26 years, they do.
There have been articles like this one from the New York Times detailing how people are bumping out their houses — trying to distance themselves from their socially distanced family members for remote learning, Zoom conferences, etc. I’ve often said that 2,600 square feet is a lot for only 3 people, but these days it sometimes feels just right or a bit cramped.
So yes; we too have been doing lots of updating to our 1938 house — things we should have done years earlier, derailed by new baby, new LLC, etc. etc. When we decamped to south Tulsa and our renters broke things, it pointed out that (a) these things have to be done by us, and (b) potential buyers can’t see how easy it is to fix things — especially if they have no history with older homes. Almost daily, I silently thank my father, who had a lot of rental property, for teaching me how to do maintenance and restoration. Unfortunately, those lessons also taught me that few people will do it as well as you, or the way you would. I could say the same thing about the IT profession. I can design systems that elegantly solve a problem, but the folks I task with assembling it have differing levels of familiarity with what success looks like.
Over the years of owning several houses around the country, I’ve come to the conclusion that most homes are nothing more than well-insulated theater sets you can leave out in the rain. Architects (if you’re lucky) design structures that seek to capture a particular look and feel, maximized for the space available and the owner’s needs. Going forward in time, subsequent owners then take those structures and edit them to reflect newer esthetics, or their needs. You only have to look at the postwar Levittown houses and how they’ve changed in 70 years. Simple, starter homes built at a pace of 30 per day have been bumped and expanded in fascinating ways.
In 1974-75 my mom and dad built the home that my mom still lives in. As my dad was an electrician, we wired it ourselves — I would scamper up in the rafters carrying Romex lines from the breaker box to the walls and drop the lines down. My dad hated extension cords — didn’t like how they frayed and were a fire hazard. So for a 2,500-square-foot house, it contains 97 receptacles! Basically a dual-receptacle every 5-6 feet.
This house was an engineered house — designed so all the weight of the home was on the outside brick walls. You can remove any interior walls without having to place any support headers — the typical way people have to bump out their homes. It also was designed with a hipped roof — less prone to damage in tornado alley, where flat sides can be caught and pulled off by high winds.
I remember builders coming from all over the area to see the house during construction. My dad insulated this house as though he were building it in Canada. Builders said: “Why are you doing all that? It’s never going to get cold enough to warrant that.” My dad’s answer: “If it will keep out the cold, it’ll keep out the heat as well.” To this day, for an all-electric home, the energy costs remain very low.
To correct cheap and shoddy building practices, some of the better builders today who specialize in green remodeling are using a technique called “outsulation.” As in Insulation that goes on the outside of the house. It’s become a copyrighted term, but it’s more than just one approach. Stick-built homes don’t leave any extra space to add in anything in the exterior wall, so they take off the wall claddings, put on additional foam insulative panels, then put the siding back on. But with additional adjustments for the windows, which are then slightly recessed due to the new, thicker walls.
Here in midtown Tulsa, people value the classic homes of the 1930s, but they value the location more. Short commutes to downtown or to fun (Cherry Street, Brookside, Utica Square, Gathering Place) trumps classic restoration. I would perhaps change that to say they like the classic LOOK, but want the insides as modern as any south Tulsa home developed as part of neighborhood development. When we listed ours back in 2016 to try to avoid two house payments, we discovered that potential buyers were conditioned to want all the NEW inside, and they wanted it for a price equal to the best house in the suburbs.
A friend who flips homes has put it very succinctly: people who buy at below the $500K price have no imagination. They’re putting all their cash into the best house in the best location they can afford, leaving no cushion for making it the house that they really want.
So here we are: fixing up our house not just for us, but for the next buyers who’ll hopefully see the appeal of an updated 1938 Georgian Colonial Revival. Previous, early 60s remodels were tasteful, and are being updated with an eye towards not doing anything stupid. We’re excising as much of the dark wood palette of the 1990s. As we do, we’re finding we LIKE this house more.
Which is good, because we’re spending a lot more time in it…