In which I actually do something house-related (!!)

A few months ago, I noticed that the airport had acquired a cute little bungalow.  They've been buying up houses like mad for the past several years; they knocked down a half-mile of neighborhood to move a road and expand the runway, and there are plans for another expansion in the future.  This little bungalow was in the way.  Once the weather cleared up a bit, I went to check out the house.  Not only was it cute on the outside, it was adorable and in near-perfect shape inside.  Aside from the shaggy carpet in the living room, the house looked like it fell out of the '30s.  The entire upstairs floor is pine, and there is beadboard everywhere

Living room windows

Original plumbing

Beadboard sunroom

Beadboard wainscot and original kitchen cabinets

Jackpot!  LOTS of pine flooring!

I spoke with the airport property manager and found that it had already been awarded to a demolition company (which meant that the airport couldn't OK me going in to salvage anything).  I got the demo company name and phone number, and, after a bit of run-around, got permission to go in to salvage flooring, windows, cabinets, beadboard, plumbing fixtures, and anything else I'd like. 

They're doing a final walkthrough today in preparation for demolition later this week, but we can go in once they're done today.  That doesn't give us a lot of time, but I'm sure I can still get some goodies!


The uncertain future

As much as I want to move right now, obviously reality dictates that is not going to happen.  I'm not sure it will happen any time in the next 5 years, simply because there is so much uncertainty in the world right now.  The Middle East and north Africa is in major turmoil.  Governments across Europe are implementing "austerity measures".  And the United States has its head in the sand, with our leader telling us that we can save money in the future by increasing our defecit this year.  Huh.

I really don't see things in this country improving much in the near future.  I fully expect housing prices to decrease again (side note: housing prices from the 1890s through 1990s increased at an average of 3% per year.  In order to get back onto that average trend, prices still need to contract another 20%.  Ouch.  Thankfully, that's a national average, not local.  So we may only contract another 3-5%, since we were never all that inflated to begin with.).  Loan rates are increasing.  Food prices are rising.  Gas prices are climbing.  Unemployment is hovering around 10%.  Remind me again why I should be optimistic?

I've said this before, and I'll say it again: It's so important to increase your family's self-sufficiency!  So many skills from our grandparents and great-grandparents are on the verge of being lost.  How many people know how to butcher their own meat?  Render lard?  Make soap from tallow?  Use herbs medicinally?  Grow and can their own produce?  I can see that we're in the midst of a movement to regain these skills, but how many people out there are really doing it?  By connecting with like-minded people on the internet, it sometimes feels like everyone is involved.  And then I go to work and talk with people who don't even know how to cook something that isn't from a box.  There are children who don't realize that food must be grown or raised and slaughtered before it appears in the store.  We've surrendered our freedom in exchange for purchasing power; America has become a nation of consumers. 

I'm not saying that there's anything inherently wrong with buying your soap from a store instead of making it yourself, or getting carrots from the market instead of from your garden.  But when you buy something, at least do it mindfully: consider where it came from, how it was made or grown, the negative effects its production had on people and the earth, and whether it's something you're willing/able to learn how to do yourself.  You'd be amazed at the satisfaction you can get looking at a few jars of freshly canned applesauce or a blooming garden.  Seeing my chickens outside destroying my flowerbeds honestly gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling.  I raised them, they're mine, and they make food for me.  All in exchange for my table scraps and a bag of chicken feed every few months.  I'm grateful that we have started ourselves down the path to homesteading, especially with the state of affairs in the world.

I'm feeling very conflicted, though.  All of the uncertainty is exactly why I want to leave the Prairie Box and buy a farm or some property on which to build our farm.  Especially after talking with the realtors, I think about the improvements we planned on making to the house, and I just feel so discouraged.  I was really expecting to make money on this house.  Not a lot.  We aren't house-flippers, and that was never the plan.  But I was expecting that our sweat equity would translate into about $10K after closing.  Looking at just breaking even after closing, even with 5+ years of payments behind us and paying extra on the principal... just makes me sad.  I have a major "why bother?" complex. 

I don't want to fix up the house for us, since we aren't planning on staying here.  I don't want to fix it up for someone else, because it's not worth my time and money.  I feel like I'm smacking up against a wall, and I'm not sure how to get motivated again.  I suppose I just have to look at it as a necessary step on our way to moving.  I just wish I could be excited about it.  Maybe once we start making progress, I'll find some enjoyment in it.  Hmmm.


My future homestead: the passive solar home

I've been thinking a lot about building our own home.  Not having it built, but literally building it ourselves.  Granted, Shayne's only building experience is a massively over-engineered chicken coop and shed, but both of us are capable of following directions and putting together a kit.  We've been considering Shelter-Kit, out of New Hampshire, to help us realize our dream of a cabin-type home.

The kits are post-and-beam, which allows you to customize the interior floorplan any way that you'd like.  The only restriction is the beams, which are 8' OC.  I designed the house to leave the beams in their original locations, though Shelter-Kit can move some of them around a bit.  I'm interested in passive solar heating and cooling, so I've worked to incorporate solar gain into the floorplans.  Here's what I've come up with so far:

The top wall faces south, and this orientation is perfect for our tentatively chosen home site.  The "front", on the right, will face west and the road.  The stove is situated in the stairwell, which is open to the roof, to allow heat to move upwards into the bedrooms.  The downstairs bedroom would be for guests and used as an office.  My mother may come live with us at some time in the future, and I think a main floor bedroom would allow her some privacy.  It would also serve as our bedroom if/when we are too old and infirm to climb the stairs frequently.

The garage would be sited to the north of the house, and the utility room would serve as our day-to-day entrance.  Being close to the kitchen and basement stairs, bringing in groceries would be a short trip. 

The "main" entrance on the west side of the house would be covered by a porch, possibly wrapping around to the north side.  The south windows would be shaded by 18" shed awnings to keep out the summer sun.  The kitchen, being on the north side, would help heat the house in the winter and be cooler in the summer.  Upstairs, the rooms would have skylights to help vent the heat in summer as well as bring in sun in the winter.  If finances allow, nearly the entire south upstairs wall may have a shed-roofed dormer, increasing solar gain.  I think it would add about $6000 to the cost.  The exterior would look something like this with the dormers:

from RRennerArchitects.com
Obviously, our home would be around half the size of this 3200 sq ft behemoth, but you get the idea.  Without the dormer, it would look something like this (view from the northwest):

From Shelter-Kit.com
We're going for a craftsman/cottage look (surprise, surprise). 

Let me know if you see any major design flaws!

So maybe Laura Ingalls had it worse...

I'll quit whining now....!


More thoughts on selling

We decided to cancel the third realtor's appointment since we liked #2 so much.  He came in and spent 45 minutes looking at the house and discussing our plans.  He also brought a fairly detailed market analysis.  And, he spelled Shayne's name correctly.  Major bonus points.

The jist of the conversation is that we can't sell for much more than we owe.  We can put money into the house, but we probably won't get a great return on it.  Housing prices in our area aren't too depressed from the real estate bubble fallout, but we do have high-ish unemployment, and it's definitely a buyer's market.  Bottom line is that he advised not to put more than $5K into the house, unless we're doing it to make our lives here more enjoyable.

While that's not what I was hoping to hear, it also wasn't the worst news we could have gotten.  Thankfully, we aren't underwater, but after realtor fees and closing costs, we'd be lucky to clear what we owe.  After another year of payments (plus the extra principal we pay), we'll be in a bit better shape.  And since that's what we were tentatively planning anyways... I guess it works out.

My only real concern is that I've read in a few places that the market is going to take another dip in 2011.  But since there's nothing at all I can do about that, we'll just have to wait and see what happens.  At worst, we'll continue living here another few years.  While that's not what we want, it's obviously no worse off than we are now!

We are continuing with our plans to buy a chunk of property.  After examining the numbers and a probable selling price, I've found that we can swing it while still making our current house payment.  I plan on saving the amount we'd be spending on our land payment for the next year.  This will serve two purposes: 1) we'll make sure that we can make the payment in reality, not just on paper, and 2) it will help us save an even larger down payment.  And extra money in the bank never hurt anyone. 

The rest of the plan is to buy the land next spring, fix up the pole barn that is already there, and store any salvaged items (windows, cabinets, flooring, etc) until we are ready to build.  We may be able to rent out the land to the current owner, or we can start planting pasture forage on the south part and a wildflower meadow to the west.  I want to give the land a chance to heal from all the not-so-natural fertilizers and such that the previous farmers have used for who-knows-how long.  Once we get settled out there I'd like to raise grass-fed beef, maybe Dexters or Galloways.  And chickens, of course.  :)

But for now, we're just going to keep on keepin-on.  We'll finish the two bedroom closets, get rid of the paneling in the dining room, and remodel the bathroom.  Hurry up, spring!  I want to get started!


The Long Winter

Have you ever read the Little House on the Prairie books?  They were my favorite when I was little, and I read them again when I was pregnant.  As an adult, I was much more impressed with how simple the Ingalls' lives were, and how much joy they felt from the small pleasures in life.  I was really struck when reading "The Long Winter".  As a child, I didn't really realize that the family was slowly starving to death; all I remembered was that the snow was over Pa's head.  I also remember wondering why we didn't ever get that much snow, since I thought it would be great.

This winter has been something like that.  We've gotten 97.2" of snow so far this season (average is 57"), most of which fell after Christmas.  In early December we had a brief thaw, but it started snowing again the same day that it all melted.  Granted, it's compacted over time, so we don't have 8 feet of snow outside the door, but I have at least 3 feet out in the yard.  The fire station down the street had to plow our driveway so Shayne could bring his car home and I could get mine out to go to work after the most recent blizzard.  We have 4.5' high piles of snow all along the driveway, along the entire front of our 120' wide lot, and in the back next to the garage.  Shayne snowblows a path out to the chicken coop after every snow, since it always drifts.  It's nuts.

I love winter, but I'll definitely be ready for spring when it gets here.  It's been a long, cold winter.  Usually we have a pretty regular freeze-thaw cycle, which tears up the roads, but is a nice break from the frigid temps.  This year, it got cold and stayed there.  The last time I remember a temperature above 40F is early December.  The past two days, it's been about -10F at night.  The water line to the laundry room froze (again), and I had to take my diapers over to a friend's house to wash.  Thankfully it thawed this afternoon and didn't burst.  This is the 5th year we've been lucky.  I still can't find where it freezes.  It must be the 8" or so of pipe that runs under the porch, through the foundation, and into the basement.  I can't even access it to wrap it with heat tape, so l try to remember to shut it off when it's going to be below 0.  Sometimes I forget.

The chickens don't seem to mind the recent weather.  About 10 days ago, production suddenly increased, and now I get 3 or 4 eggs per day.  I've eaten over-easy eggs 3 times so far this week and still had enough eggs to give some to my mom, plus have a dozen sitting in the fridge.  The yolks aren't as orange as they were in the summer when the girls were free-ranging, but still darker than a supermarket egg.  Maybe because my hens' diet is supplemented with kitchen scraps?  In the summer I don't have to give them chicken feed more than once a month; they eat grass, bugs, and whatever else they find.  Now I fill their feeder once a week.  At least.  I'm grateful that none of them have gotten sick or had any health issues in their unheated coop.  I do turn on a lamp with a red bulb (not a heat bulb) when it's going to be below 5F at night, but that's it.  I'm glad my coop design provides enough passive ventilation to keep it from getting too damp in there.  I've seen a few specks of frostbite on their combs, but nothing major.

Only about a month of cold weather left.  Almost there...


Thoughts on selling

Since we're planning on selling our house sometime within the next 3 years, we've really started to think about how to enhance resale value without sacrificing old house character.  It's something of a tightrope walk.  We had a realtor out to the house last week, sho told us that if we redo the bathroom and spruce up the kitchen, we should be able to sell at about $10K over what we paid.  Given today's market conditions, I'm not too unhappy with that assessment.  But because he really didn't spend any time looking at the house and its improvements, and didn't seem interested in hearing about any lot or outbuilding features, we've decided to ask for a second opinion.  Seriously, that particular realtor spent about 7 minutes in the house.  I understand that I just asked for a market analysis, but if you want us as your clients, spend some time with us!

We have another realtor coming out this afternoon, and another tomorrow.  I guess we're interviewing, LOL.  I'm looking for someone who is willing to sit down with us and spend some time talking about how to sell our house.  I think this time I'm going to frame the essential question a little differently: If we only have $5000 to put into this house, how can we best spend it to enhance resale value?  I'll post their responses and my impressions on Friday.

Talking to the first realtor made me realize that we are in danger of over-improving for our neighborhood.  The houses immediately around ours are all nice and well-kept.  The area to the north and south is nice as well.  But the area to the east and west, the homes are a little junky.  It's sort of up-and-coming; as new folks move in, they are fixing up the houses, but there are definitely some hold-outs.  Nothing too awful, as obviously we moved here, but it's definitely not a suburban utopia.

We really don't want to put too much more money into the house, but we need to redo the bathroom, spruce up the kitchen, and get rid of the ceiling tiles and paneling in the dining room.  I'm not sure we can do all that for $5K or less...