Things My Houses Taught Me

Our home-ownership journeys inevitably teach us many lessons that only experience can provide. I probably fall into the median as far as numbers go, having lived in five (plus one designed and built but sold before ever being lived in.) So what were the pearls of wisdom that my various dwellings cast before me?


house1-in-1950House #1 was the one I grew up in, one of the tens of thousands built in the late 1940s and bought by returning WWII GIs (think Levittown.) It was a two-bedroom, one-bath cape cod with a full basement and an attic that you walked up actual stairs to (both areas unfinished) plopped onto a 1/8 acre lot. This photo was taken shortly after my parents bought it in 1950; check out the vintage vehicle in the driveway! Lessons learned:
* Cast-iron radiators are the enemy of sleep. Our house sounded like a war zone every time the heat came up, and with my mom keeping the house at 74-76F or more during the winter, that was basically all night.
* Cinderblock cesspools can and do unexpectedly collapse, leaving a gaping and extremely odiferous hole in the front yard – we returned from vacation one August to be greeted by that exact scenario.
* The number of garage ‘spaces’ should never be less than the number of cars in the family.
* A teenager’s bedroom is always too small even after the square footage has been doubled, because ‘stuff’ automatically expands to fill the space available.



house2-as-boughtHouse #2, which took more than a year to find, was my first ‘post-parental’ one. It was a circa-1960s highranch on a 1/3 acre canalfront lot, with baseboard heat (no radiators! yay!) and an inground swimming pool taking up about 75% of the backyard. Photo taken shortly after purchase; it eventually got all new windows, new doors, new roof, and my first garden (some photos of which can be seen here.) Lots of learning curve here, including that
* When developers use “fill” in order to build on marshland, you are at the mercy of the water table. When you combine a high water table with a cesspool there is often no place for “stuff” to go other than from whence it came. I learned to time my water usage by watching the water level in the bulkheaded canal outside my back window; if I could see barnacles, I knew it was safe to do laundry or run the dishwasher.
* It is not a good idea to store firewood right next to the back door of the house. Carpenter ants will find the big pile of aging wood a perfect place to excavate their nesting tunnels, and the house a most convenient place to forage for food.
* A swimming pool is a hole in the ground into which you pour money and a boat is a hole in the water into which you pour money. Only truly worth it unless you can get at least 6 months/year continuous enjoyable use out of same. Those conditions don’t really exist in New York.
* Some builders actually ran the hot and cold house-water piping within the home’s concrete slab foundation. This means that when a pipe springs a leak, you must either jackhammer up the slab flooring – if you can actually locate the leak, no mean feat  – or have the entire water line re-run through walls and ceilings. Then you sit back and wait for the other, still-embedded water line to spring a leak inside the concrete because eventually it will.
* A Chinese elm (Ulmus parvifolia) should never be located within 20 feet of a swimming pool. This tree attracts about fifty bajillion Japanese beetles every summer, the vast majority of which will constantly land in said pool and clog up the skimmer baskets.



front 1House #3 was the one shown in my Second Garden post, here seen as-bought and pre-garden. Built in 1949, it was about 75% smaller than House #2, had a garage that did not give access to the house, and was located on a corner lot that was even a bit less than 1/8 acre. I lived there for three years and while there were no major issues with the house itself, I did learn that:
* I despise living on a corner, something I had no experience with before.
* Asbestos floor and ceiling tile were used in most 1950s and 1960s homes, especially in basements, and it is very expensive stuff to have removed.
* When a 200-gallon heating oil tank located in a basement finally rots away beyond repair, they cannot simply pump the oil out and carry the tank up the stairs and away; they must cut it up with a Sawz-All and carry it out in pieces. As a result, the entire house and everything in it reeks of #2 Fuel Oil for the better part of a week even if you open every window in the place and sit there huddled in blankets risking pneumonia because it’s the dead of winter.
* What poison ivy looks like. I’d never run up against it before and blithely started pulling it out of a corner of the garden. Wearing a sleeveless shirt. And shorts.



house4-as-boughtHouse #4 (whose garden is seen here and here) was the one I fell in love with at first sight even though it hadn’t been updated in almost 40 years. This was the equivalent of a Masters degree in home ownership because everything you see in this taped-together pair of photos got replaced, both inside and out (basically a strip-and-gut.)  Some highlights:
* Termites can make lacework out of framing that is covered by siding on the outside and drywall on the inside.
* Never locate the central a/c air handler in a crawlspace or basement, no matter how many times the installer swears that “it’s a completely sealed system”. It isn’t, and there is no such thing as a dry crawlspace when you live on an island.
* Water can travel a remarkable distance through a ceiling from the actual source of the roof leak.
* Never select white paving stones for a driveway material. Autumn leaves will stain it if rained on, and at least 50% of the cars who park on it will have an oil/transmission/brake fluid leak. And you can’t buy less than a palletful of replacement pavers.
* Sweetgum (Liquidambar) balls and turfgrass act like the two halves of a velcro strip.

And now there is the Money Pit (house #5) and accompanying Temporary Garden. Thus far it has taught me that
* Drywall can successfully hide a massive rodent infestation within. Professional removal and sanitation is both disgusting (requiring hazmat suits) and shockingly expensive.
* Home inspectors put that fine print disclaimer into their reports for a reason.
* Never assume that “hardwood floors under carpet” means that the floor has not been completely and irretrieveably ruined
(hence the sellers’ carpeting coverup tactic.)
* The best nontoxic strategy against crickets in garages and basements is glue-board traps. Better buy them in bulk, because they’ll fill up in less than a week.
* Speaking of basements, there is no such thing as a dry basement when you live on an island.
* In suburbia, oak trees are best encountered in the form of furniture and staircases. No pollen, no leaves, and no *(*%&$#@! acorns.
* Never buy a house that has the cesspool/septic system located in the backyard rather than the front.
* Furniture makes permanent dents in vinyl flooring.
* Despite what I thought in House #1, the number of garage spaces should always exceed the number of household cars by one. This is because nobody really wants to have to retrieve stuff from the attic, which is typically accessed only via a scant 20″ square opening located in the ceiling of the most overstuffed closet in the house.
* The color of Benjamin Moore ‘Super White’ paint precisely matches that of spackle. This is very useful knowledge when fixing erroneous picture-hanger holes. There are times when I wish I had painted the entire interior of the house in this color…

I’m sure that The Money Pit will have a few more lessons in store for me as time goes on!

  1 comment for “Things My Houses Taught Me

  1. November 30, 2016 at 10:20 am

    A very amusing and useful post! You’ve moved more than we have – we are currently in our fourth (and final, we hope) home. Moving is a traumatic experience. Building on marshland filled with rubble sounds like a singularly bad idea, and also the kind of thing developers will do if they can get away with it.

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