Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Homes Gone Wild: Is Your Biggest Investment Falling Down Around You?

Yesterday I was talking to my friend Anne Hollows.  She is the realtor who helped us sell our house and move into our wonderful new condo.   As Anne wrote recently on her blog, the housing market is looking up in 2013.  Here in Massachusetts, however, the inventoryof houses is not keeping up with demand and that means buyers are snapping up the few homes that are available, sometimes at a premium. 

House for sale sign
At the same time, I have had conversations with my older friends who are curious about our downsizing and wondering whether to do it themselves.  When I tell them that the market is turning around and now is the time to act, I hear—quite consistently—two major objections:

The first comes only from women, who say they would love to move into a smaller place and ditch the big house with all its maintenance requirements and financial obligations.  But their husbands won’t hear of it.  The husbands are quite happy where they are, even if they can no longer keep the place up.  Moving is out of the question.  Although their wives are unhappy, these guys won’t budge from their comfort zone.

The second objection is that the house “needs a lot of work” before it can go on the market.  It’s normal for folks to see problems that another person would not see at all or care about if they did.  The difficulty here is that the house might not actually need all that work, or need the specific work that the owner thinks must be done.  In our old home, I worried about scratches and dings that did not register on anyone else’s radar and did not matter in the long run.  Although I read articles about which improvements count and which do not—or might even make the house more difficult to sell—I had no true objectivity.

Fixing up a house is understandably a big scary project.  Been there, done that.  One is faced with so many questions and so few answers:
  • Where do I start? 
  • What’s the right priority for doing these projects?
  • What vendors and suppliers are trustworthy?
  • How long will it take?
  • How much will it cost?
  • Where is this money going to come from?
  • Will I really get a return on that investment?
At that point, it’s only human nature to take a deep breath and put the whole thing off for another day.  After all, tomorrow you may be feeling better, have found some answers, aren’t so busy, or the weather is warmer.  There are so many “good reasons” to procrastinate.

What happens next is not good, though.  None of us get younger so it becomes more difficult to keep up with the work of caring for a house, along with other high-maintenance parts of the property: yard, garden, driveway, shrubs, and trees.  You do less each year.  If you have the diligence and the money, you pay someone else to clean the gutters, trim the shrubs, paint the house, or repair the deck.  If you don’t, you simply stop paying attention to those tasks—and it shows.

Feral house
Feral House
For many years, I have noticed what I call “lost houses” and photographer James Griffioen describes as “feral houses.”  First the foundation plantings grow out of control, obscuring windows and doors and giving squirrels access to the roof.  The gutters fill with leaves, and small plants begin to sprout in them.  The porch sags.  The lawn, unmowed, gives way to weeds and then saplings.  The driveway turns into a tunnel or disappears altogether.  At some point, we drive by and say, “Didn’t there used to be a house on that corner?”  Then we realize there still is—only we can no longer see it from the street.  We have all seen houses like this but, mostly, we choose not to look.

Does it matter if your house falls into decrepitude?  Yes, it does.  It matters a lot.  There are good reasons why those husbands should put down the chips, shut off the game, and pay attention.  After all, if momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.  My friend Kurt Leland says that “comfort is the enemy of growth.”  Over time, I have found this to be very true.  Staying stubbornly in your comfort zone can cost you, big time, later on.

You also does not have to deal with the enormity of fixing up the place by yourself.  Yes, it’s a big project, yes it’s scary, yes it’s going to cost money.  But you are not alone.

I’ll address the reasons why letting your biggest investment fall down around you is not a good idea in tomorrow’s post.

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