What We Wished We’d Known

IMG_1541You’re buying a house for the first time. Everything seems like a dream: the crown molding, the old floors, the large yard. You can’t believe that someone will help you by lending money to make this your home. If you choose wisely, your home will make you happy every day. You can drink coffee in front of that big window, relax and read a book in the library, cook a meal for friends – all the things you wanted in a home. But owning a home is like being in a relationship – it’s not always smooth sailing, and wise investments yield rich rewards.

Anyone who’s been reading MML for more than a few months knows that we’ve had more than our share of home repairs over the years. The choice to locate in Midtown was easy for us, but most of the projects related to our historic home (built in 1930) have not been (as they say in the field of medicine) “elective.” Most of our renovation projects have emphasized the “repair” aspect of the phrase “home repair.”

We remodeled a bathroom, replaced a whole HVAC system, stabilized a leaning chimney while learning about plaster and our neighborhood’s uniquely mushy soil, fixed up our kitchen and remodeled another bathroom. We documented many of these adventures on this blog, chalking up many of them as the price of being the temporary caretaker of a beautiful historic home, keeping it up until the next generation has the opportunity to do the same. It has been expensive, but worth it; intense, but rewarding. However, lately, we’ve been involved in the most annoying, least intentional and most invasive remodeling project in our nine years in the house. Over the next few weeks, we’re going to write about that process from start to finish. If you like home repair and remodeling stories, you’ll enjoy this series.

Nine years ago, we were shopping for houses. We were moving to Montgomery (from Tuscaloosa)! We narrowed a list of potential homes into a single favorite. We had an inspection and a few walkthroughs. We loved the place. We still do. But while we were evaluating closet space (not as much of a priority back in 1930) and bathroom fixtures and yards, we didn’t really know the kinds of questions we should have asked. So this initial post in the series is about the things we wished we’d known to ask – a few bits of advice for potential new home buyers, or perhaps reminders for folks looking to sell their places.

Accessibility for inspection. Assuming this is not some shady transaction in which you win a house in a card game, most of the time when you buy a house, you’ll have an inspector. This person’s job is to look all over the house and tell you about every flaw in the property. You want someone who is going to find every wart and construction flaw. And, here’s the key: They need to be able to see all the parts of a property. Don’t settle for someone who can’t (or won’t) get into the attic or crawlspace. And if they say the crawlspace is impassable, that’s a major warning sign. Know explicitly what parts of your house they will vouch for and which they won’t. A structural inspectiojn should be done only by a structural engineer, not a foundation repair company.

This is important, in part, because down South we need to have termite bonds. In order to insure a particular property, it needs to be accessible – 12 inches of crawlable space under the studs. Many houses don’t have this. Which is fine, if you know about it in advance. But if there are parts of your house that cannot be crawled (for whatever reason) by a small and determined person, you need to know about that to make an informed decision about potential repairs and risks.

Any additions? We live in an old neighborhood. Houses were usually built smaller than today’s “McMansions,” with fewer closets, electrical outlets and other amenities. That means any Midtown home adapted for modern living may have additions. Many of these homes could have had dozens of owners over the years. Perhaps the previous generation closed in a porch? Maybe they decided to add a few feet to a room along the back of the house? Either way, you need to know when something is an addition because additions (it turns out) can be awesome but also (sometimes) they can be structurally suspect. Here’s what we learned: Folks in the ’60s and ’70s don’t seem to have had the same expectations (and enforcement mechanisms) for good construction practices in some situations.

You deserve to know what’s been added on and how those improvements fit into existing building codes. All of that sturdy pre-War craftsmanship with beautiful hardwoods that are impossible to find? It might be connected invisibly to something that Clem and Cousin Bubba slapped together on a spring weekend in 1974 and didn’t maybe get a city permit for because they weren’t too keen on “big government” having any business supervising what was happening on their private property. Unfortunately, this will be less amusing to you when your highly-qualified (and licensed) modern-day contractors are laughing and taking incredulous cell phone photos of what they’ve discovered beneath your floors or behind your walls.

Real utility bills. When we bought our house, the sellers hadn’t actually lived there in over a year. As a result, the utility bills they showed us made it seem that costs were much, much less than the ones we we began to receive after moving into the house. We wish we’d known to ask for multiple years of bills and longer-term trends, so we could have known the real cost of living in our lovely, but poorly insulated, new home. We had to learn the financial cost of January winter and August summer the hard way.

Eventually, this can be remedied with an audit of your home’s heat loss (thermal imaging is amazing) and proper application of insulation. It’s easier than ever to learn about your leaks and drafts. But just be sure that you know the real economic data behind what it takes to heat and cool the place you’re buying.

Insulation. An obvious related point. Our attic had exactly zero. Many walls were also well below code (as we found out when they got eviscerated recently). It turns out that simple spray insulation (plus an attic fan) can dramatically change the energy profile of your home. We had no idea what to ask about this, and we wish we could have. Sometimes you have no way about knowing about walls until they are opened up, but attics and doors and spaces around windows are easy to spot and do some remediation. Sellers should probably go ahead and properly insulate – it’s not cool to pass this cost along to your buyer, plus it’s good for the Earth to do it.

Know your cracks. Look, it’s true what they say about the soil around here. It moves. Some cracks in your walls really are seasonal and will expand and contract according to temperature and moisture levels. But others aren’t. Ask about all of the cracks. Try to understand how the soil moves, and in what direction. It’s within your rights to request a structural inspection of your house, but don’t regard this report as gospel by any means. We wish we’d talked more to an expert about cracks and their causes before we bought our house – we might have known what to expect when spending money.

Check the house out at night. Neighborhoods are different at night than at daytime. Are people out walking their dogs? Are the streets well-lit? Are there kids? One home we looked at was tranquil by day, but at night was on a particularly low flight path from the airport.

There’s so much more we could talk about here. But fresh off of a big, unexpected repair, we wanted to share our immediate “coulda, shoulda, woulda” reactions with others. We’ve never had any regrets about buying our historic house, but we do wish that we’d known more what we were getting into. We also want others to know what’s involved with keeping one of these beautiful old homes for the next generation.

Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with two cats, a dog, 18 fish, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.


Be Sociable, Share!

Tags: , , , , , , ,


If you enjoyed this article, subscribe now to receive more just like it.

Post a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *