How to Have a House

Living with and understanding a home.


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Antique windows really can’t be replaced.

I worked on houses for almost 19 years, I had some favorites.  Favorite houses, and favorite neighborhoods.  I had my favorite house pets, mostly cats, even though they were neurotic and not to be trusted. I had favorite driveways to back up, and, I had favorite jobs.  My all-time favorite work was repairing antique sash windows.  I don’t know why, they are difficult and moody, like favorite cats.  Windows seem simple, with only few major components. And every house full of windows had its own character and challenges.  

Antique windows are important.  Like trim and other decorative elements in the house, they represent the style and functionality of their time.  Windows built from 1900 to about the 1930s were the most common I worked on.  Craftsman style.  Usually one light (glass) in the bottom sash, and 2 to 8 lights in the top sash.  The stool was simple, as was the apron and casing.  Windows before 1900, victorian windows, are narrower, have fancier trim, and many operate staying open with spring bolts instead of ropes and weights. A double-hung window has two moving sashes, the top one comes down and the bottom sash rises. This was a function of cooling the room when they were installed, way before the age of air conditioning.  A couple of windows I repaired were round, with the bottom sash rotating like a pie piece.  Some windows had single sashes that dropped into the wall, disappearing.  These were common in washrooms built onto the back of the house.  They meant the wall space could be used for wash and rinse tubs, but air and light could come in above.  All kinds of things were different from manufacturer to manufacturer.  Some window units used pulley for the ropes while some used wood or glass grommets in the jamb.  There were windows with no weight access and some with weight access built-in. And of course, the access could have been one of several different designs, some of which didn’t work so great.  Some windows were bare-boned with nothing but wood components, while other sported tin sidetracks, and tin weather checks on the meeting rails.  The stop holding the sashes in usually matched the house, it may have been an ogee, a round bead, or even a simple round-over.  I always tried to preserve the stop.  By the time I got to the windows they had between 70-120 years of wear and tear on them.  This included a bunch of coats of paint, scuffed, damaged, or rotted wood, broken ropes, missing hardware, over applied caulk, and more.  Windows on back porches and second-floor sunrooms were often out of shape, thanks to the room settling away from the back of the house.  I’ve rebuilt a bunch of windows with trapezoid jambs.  

But the most important part of the windows is the history.  The clear representation of the time and age they were built and installed in.  Antique sash windows are some of the longest-lasting components in an antique house.  While old water heaters, coal-fired furnaces, and knob and tube wiring have likely been taken out and replaced, the windows remain.  Mostly.  Sadly, Americans are throwing windows into dumpsters at a rate that is basically unmeasured.  They are most commonly replaced with a vinyl unit, “replacement windows”.  Once this occurs, the original window is gone forever, and the vinyl unit will last just long enough to outlive the company that put it in.  10-15 years.  Then it’s done, again, vinyl is torn out and vinyl put in.  It’s like buying pretty trash that will work ok for about 10 years.  Those of us who love history, who visit museums to see the stuff, and who work hard to preserve it could lose our minds watching this.  But we have better things to do, mostly to preserve.  To somehow convince Americans, living in the biggest throw-away society on the planet, to keep something.  To keep a window that won’t even open anymore, and if it does, maybe not stay open on its own.  To keep windows full of nails, screws, and gadgets providing supposed security at night.  Windows marked with hammer and pry bars, and windows with separated joints and gapping glass.  Of course, we’re trying to preserve them.  Generations of families, kids, moms, dads, grandparents, have stood at those windows and gazed out.  They’ve watched snow fall, lightning strike, and wind blow.  They’ve watched kids play ball in the yard, ride bikes in the streets, and walk to the trolley to see a movie downtown.  These people have gazed out those windows while someone recently born slept in the room, and while another slipped away to the life beyond.  And all those years, and decades, the sun, moon, and cosmos have gazed back in.  Breezes have moved back curtains, and pies have cooled.  So the next time the local vinyl window company calls, ask yourself, why?  Why tear out the magic, the mystery, and the history.  Instead, consider having your antique windows repaired, preserved, and kept in their original state.  Remind yourself that as an owner of an American antique home you are in fact a steward of America’s history.  Plain and simple, in almost every room, even the basement, attic, and garage, your home holds the undeniable view of history, in simple, quiet form.  You will find great pride in keeping antique sash windows, and with them in their original home, with their original view, you too will be lucky enough to gaze through history, into the very present world around you.  


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Monday is House Day. Even in a travel trailer.

We don’t clean our house all the time, but when we do it’s easy.  Our place is only 238 square feet inside.  Monday is house day.  It’s like Saturday, but Monday is our Saturday.  We start by getting weekly chores done that come naturally from living in this house.  Swap the compost toilet, empty the waste tanks, fill the fresh water tank, chase leaks, tidy up…and on the inside, we oil the counter tops, defrost the fridge, vacuum, vacuum, vacuum.  It’s like a real house. And it gets lived in 24/7. This week we wired our TV antenna for local broadcasts.  We stream some live networks on our smart TV, but it’s mostly national news.  Christina really likes local news and programs.  She likes having local news in stormy weather and the holidays.  I can’t blame her.  It’s free and every time we move the newscasters, dialects, and culture change.  It’s fun.  We’ve been on the road for 18 months and just got local TV.  We’re pretty excited.  The antenna came white, so I painted it black.  Pulled a coaxial cable through the tongue area, under the belly skin, and up through the floor just under the TV.  Secured the cord and sealed the hole.  It’s only about 10 steps between the TV inside and the antenna on the tongue.  Working on a travel coach is almost laughingly small.  We’re at my mom and Joe’s house, boon-docking on smooth concrete, so working under the coach is practically relaxing.  A forgiving Oklahoma winter.  I’ve been wanting a hubodometer for the coach.  Call me crazy but I’ll never keep a straight enough log in the cab of the van to keep track of rolling mileage on Luna.  The hubodometer is ordered according to the tire size, and rotations per mile.  None of the universal mounting brackets fit our wheels, so I headed down to Machine Head in Kansas City Mo.  Machine Head is pretty much an art studio machine shop.  It’s pretty, has lots of natural light, a perfect tin ceiling, and tons of raw metal and glass.  They’ll let you help,  and they do the skilled and technical work.  I love that place.  When we were in KC several weeks ago I spent the day there and made the bracket for the hubodometer, the shower curtain rod for the outdoor shower, and aluminum braces for the front stone guard.  So the hubodometer is on and I can’t wait to see it work!  I finished a simple adjustable support post for the shower curtains I have coming to hang on the outdoor shower curtain rod.  When the curtains are hanging there will be room for the folding tub in the outdoor shower.  This is not our first outdoor shower, we had one at the house we sold, and having this one up and running means a lot to us.  On Sunday evening the sink started draining slow.  I figured the trap was full of food and saved it for house day, Monday.  My grey water tank coupling is clear so I can see how things are going.  The tank seemed slow, so I had Christina fill the kitchen sink full with hot water, and drain it straight through.  I was amazed at how much debris came out of the tank and plumbing.  We’ve been in this house 18 months, and I can’t figure out if the debris was from us or if it was from its 40 years before we moved in. We’ll keep an eye on that.  So we do these chores all day long.  Together we go to the grocery, get fuel or run to the post office.  This week we filled a bottle of propane too.  Most of the time Christina cuts up a bunch of the vegetables for the week and loads them in the fridge.  It’s kind of nice to have a house day.  We moved out of our last house a year sooner than we planned, so we were working like crazy on the coach, a lot of the time.  Our work week is not like it used to be, so moving our Saturday to Monday works great for us.  Especially considering if we are staying at a park, or campground, we’d rather be visiting friends camped near us.   Not to mention waste stations are always crowded on the weekends.  But for now our little house is parked at mom’s house.  Home living.  Good coffee and Saturdays on Monday.  We love taking good care of our little house.  

If you’d like to see more of our life on the road, check us out at lunaandtheseekers.com

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Care for your trees.

If you’ve ever bought a tree, you know they can be a little pricey.  I don’t mean one of those pencil-thin, root bare, vacuum pack trees that come from a forestry service or orchard catalogue, but a good 6 to 10 footer, with real leaves and a root ball.  They’re expensive because it’s taken years of labor, gallons of water, and pounds of soil amendments to get it ready for transport, and market.  If you have it planted, there are a few more dollars spent.  For the most part, a tree this size will be pretty carefree for several years, with the exception of watering and any fertilizer you choose to add.  

Trees that grow taller than the house they near, or over the house, require maintenance.  If a tree is really close to a house, the roots can cause problems with the foundation.  Trees growing directly over a house, left uncared for will cause a number of problems.  Almost all trees shed foliage, fruit, nuts, limbs, twigs, seeds, and other natural debris.  This all falls onto the roof, collecting in roof valleys, the house gutters, and a lot of times the downspouts.  It’s not unusual to find small trees, growing from the very seeds the tree dropped, in the gutters.  Little forests hanging on the facia, I’ve encountered snakes and rodents in these little landscapes.  If a tree is allowed to grow low enough to the roof, the wind will sweep the roof with the tree branches and scuff the roof shingles, even damaging or knocking them off.  Trees growing over houses are also susceptible to dropping branches in wind storms, and snow and ice events.  Some limbs fall simply due to old age, weakness, and decay.  All of these situations can cause damage to the roof, chimney, utility stacks, gutters, siding, and windows.  As if trees growing directly over the house aren’t challenging enough, any tree growing closer to the house, than its actual height, is a threat.  Watch the news after any spring storm, and a story of a tree falling on a car or house always comes on.  So what to do?  Preventive maintenance is key.  

Like a lot of other care homes require, there won’t be a lot of bragging rights.  $2300 spent on a big screen TV just before the Superbowl will win accolades from your guests that Sunday, but no one is really impressed by your well-maintained trees.  So it’s harder to want to spend that money.  Do it anyway.  Get a reference from you neighbors.  Invite at least three tree companies to come to view your property and access the trees near and over your house.  Ask them if they have liability insurance.  This is important because if you hire them, someone will likely be climbing high in the tree with things like chain saws and rope.  If your trees are anywhere near power lines things get even more dangerous.  They’ll also be showing up with a bunch of dangerous machines like bucket trucks, cranes, and chippers.  Again, ask for proof of insurance to be emailed or texted to you by their insurance company, the day before the work begins.  This is important because there are some unscrupulous companies that carry a copy of liability insurance they owned for one day and canceled. 

If you have trees that are very special to you, feel free to ask to visit another customer’s garden to see their work.  To some degree, tree shaping is an art.  A lot of tree trimming practices are outdated, or just plain more damaging than not.  It used to be quite popular to “top out” trees, but for the most part, this practice isn’t used much anymore.  Some trimmers use “dressing” on wounds and some don’t.  If you have questions, ask.  Trust your guts.  If the tree hanging near or over your house is old, has a lot of wounds, or looks like it could cause a lot of damage, don’t be afraid to have it removed.  We ran into this at our house.  I asked two tree companies their opinion on some old hardwood cherry trees in our front yard.  They had been topped out, were full of woodpecker holes and leaned toward our house and driveway.  Both companies said “keep them”, and said they shouldn’t be a problem.  Within months, one of the trees fell onto two of our cars.  I should have gone with my guts and had them removed sooner.

 Some common work done to trees is shaping them into pleasing forms.  This is usually done on ornamental trees.  “Airing out the interior” removes much of the extra limbs under the canopy, allowing wind to pass through the tree easier, and reduces snow and ice loads.  Depending on the tree, it will be a little easier to grow grass under the tree too.  Removing all the deadwood and damaged limbs is a basic step, and adding cables up high from one vertical trunk to another adds stability to trees that may be less than perfect in shape and strength. If you have a fireplace, you can ask to have the timber cut to length and stacked. Those cherry trees we had cut down in our front yard were eventually milled on our driveway into 1″ lumber. We built the countertops in the house we live in now. Great memories, and the trees continue to live on in a different life.  The ground under the tree is important too.  Never pave under a tree.  Many trees are especially sensitive to what is going on with the soil under the drip line.  Be sure to keep that area free from landscape elements that may affect the tree’s health. 

In the long run, caring for your trees will protect your house from un-necessary damage, the tree will look nicer, and live a longer healthier life.  It’s money well spent, even if it’s just you and the trees that know it. 

 


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Empty the House.

In America, we are lucky enough to have just about everything.  This became even more apparent while I was chatting on the phone with a podcast host when I mentioned: “empty the house”.  He laughed and said that’s crazy. “Really?” I said, “next weekend look into all the garage doors open on your block, see if any cars fit in them”.   Some of the most passionate conversations I’ve had with homeowners have been about what to do with all their stuff. 

For most of us, we live pretty stuff free in our 20s.  Then we move in with a partner or have kids, and things start to pile on.  A lot of that stuff is just part of setting up a house, necessary and helpful.  We decorate, buy kitchen gadgets, add an exercise room, take up a couple of hobbies and go garage sailing.  If kids show up, so does an entire world of cribs, diaper pails, toys, batteries, strollers, high chairs, and more toys.  Kids mean more family room accessories, like huge TVs, bigger sofas, surround sound, and flat-pack cabinets to hold it all.  After a few years, the whole house is just about full.  But the stuff doesn’t stop showing up.  There’s so much stuff, dad needs some room, so a man cave is built.  Mom had a couple of kids, so the ski machine goes out and a palates gym appears.  All that old stuff gets stored in one of the garages, the attic, maybe the basement, if there’s any room left in there. In many cases, a storage unit is rented to move the stuff into.  There’s too much.  But life is a busy thing, and getting rid of stuff is the last thing anyone wants to fool around with.  

Moving from one house to another in our 20s, 30s, and 40s is easy enough.  No matter how much stuff we have, we just pack it all and haul it to the next house.  We throw un-packed boxes into the attic and the back of closets, get the kids enrolled and go to work at the new job.  But what happens when the kids are all out of college and the parents are living in a house that they don’t need anymore?  Usually, they freak out a little bit.  If they are like a lot of folks they’ve kept a bunch of the kid’s toys, all the kids’ drawings, and A+ papers.  There are 15 years of camping gear, bikes, game consoles, beds, and all kinds of other stuff. In the meantime, grandma and grandpa are getting too old to deal with their house, or maybe one of them had a fall, and they have to move.  Some of you have been there.  You might be there right now.  It’s pretty overwhelming. So here’s the brutal truth.  Empty the house.  Empty it now.  Stop overthinking it.  Most of that stuff we raised our kids with holds little value.  We may have paid $375 for a Barbie Dreamhouse, but now it’s almost worthless.  Sure, you can jump on eBay or Marketplace and try to sell this stuff one thing at a time, but that will take forever.  Here are the steps I’ve taken customers through.  One, get your emotions out on the table and face them, getting rid of all this stuff is going to hurt.  So many memories, and don’t even talk about the money spent.  And how about the fact that your grown kids don’t want your mom’s china cabinet. Ouch.  But it’s true.  Don’t take it personally.  Face the facts and get past the emotional block that will get in the way.  Two, call your kids, family, and friends and tell them you’re emptying the house.  Remind them you don’t need their advice, you’re just calling to let them know that if they want anything they have 30 days to come and get it.  Three, in the meantime sort the garages, basement, garden shed, attic, and extra rooms into estate sale condition.  This will help when friends and family show up to claim their favorites. When the last of those visitors drive away, immediately  have at least one estate sale.  Ask for help.  Have a bunch of friends come and help conduct the sale.  Empower a couple of your friends to ring everyone up, and let them negotiate prices.  Forget it, you’re not going to get your money back, you just want the stuff to go away.  Have two or three sales in one summer if that’s what it takes.  Fourth, donate as much as possible.  Call ahead and know the guidelines to the local second-hand store Savers, Goodwill, or Salvation Army.  Take everything they will accept.  This might mean van loads of stuff.  Do it.  Get it out of your house.  By this time, you will have shed a few tears.  It’s worth it.  Five, hire a dumpster and throw the rest out.  Now you’re really flipping your lid because you know you’re going to be throwing stuff in the dumpster you paid good money for. 

You might be asking, “how can this guy be so cruel and thoughtless”?  Here’s how, since you just got rid of all your stuff, you’ll avoid the unfortunate situations I’ve seen.  You’ll be living in a house that feels open again.  Service workers will be happy to work for you because they can get to the water heater, furnace, basement plumbing, and electric service panel. You won’t be tempted to upsize, and if you do move and hire a real estate agent, they won’t have to be the one to tell you to empty the house.  Also, your grown kids won’t have to do all of this work for you when they are trying to move you to your late-life residence.  And most importantly, the energy in the house will be airy and light. Feng shui is a real thing, and it will return to your home and energize your days, relax your nights and make room for you to truly love the things you live with, with nothing else in the way.  


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Sell it AS IS.

During 19 years of working on houses, I watched a lot of people move. Moving from one home to another is a big deal.  Not only on the sheer scale of things, after all, everything one owns will be moved, and a long time place of shelter and security will be left behind.  A lot of emotions come to the surface in each family member, including the pets.  These are legitimate feelings.  Strong, and full of good reason.  Guys like me get a call because they are looking for a consultation to make a plan.  They may have a list they have written on their own or they may have a list the real estate agent gave them.  This is my favorite part.  Reviewing most customers’ lists, simple things can be found.  Things they want to be repaired because they are proud of their home and want to sell it in a certain condition.  Sometimes the list can be pared down, save a few dollars and get the house on the market.   Listing agents love to leave lists of things to be done also.  Curb appeal, clutter-free rooms, and a house rid of pet or smoking odors are all fair game.  Do it.  And do it yourself if you have the time and energy.  After that, sell the house AS IS.  I’m not kidding.  I’ve been through moves both ways, and every time the AS IS sales make for a much different process.  Any house will sell like this.  You’ll get resistance from a lot of agents, that’s ok, there’s a dozen more waiting for your call.  Find one that appreciates the process and embraces it.  Stick to the plan, don’t buckle or give in when people try to change your mind.  

Here’s what to expect.  Many AS IS agreements have multi-tier options of AS IS.  Everything from “I’ll take it” to “Here’s a few things I’d like to have done, even though it’s AS IS”.  You can indicate on your contract with the agent which of those options you are willing to consider in an offer.  This works.  You may hear that 30-40% of potential buyers will be eliminated in an AS IS sale.  Great!  You’ve already narrowed down the field to serious, low-maintenance, cash, or pre-approved buyers.  Be prepared to understand and accept the financial facts about your home.  You’ll be tempted or asked to consider doing a bunch of work on the house before it’s listed so the house will sell for a higher price.  Fair point.  Do the math, imagine spending $15,000 fixing the place up, making it “market ready” or upgrading supposed outdated fixtures, Then ask yourself, if all that money and energy spent having it done, will actually raise the selling price $15,000 why do it?  There would have to be a larger gain, say $20-25,000 to make it worth it.  Consider also, home sellers frequently replace fixtures, flooring, and appliances, only to get a call from one of their old neighbors after moving away, just to learn the new buyers threw it all in a dumpster when they moved in and remodeled.  Skip this craziness.  Sell AS IS.  Another good reason to sell AS IS is to eliminate the written critique of your home, after which the potential buyer expects you to complete the items on the list.  Most people don’t want an honest critique of their homes as they move out.  We all know which rooms are worn, what room has all the nail holes in the wall from the art and we know the library is purple.  We don’t have to be told or judged.  Want the house?  Buy it AS IS and skip the critiques and chores list.  In many cases a mechanical and pest inspection will be done, usually dictated by the loan.  Don’t take it personally, every house in America has something show up on inspections.  Some buyers bring cash and buy AS IS, with no need to satisfy a loan officer.  These are quick and effective sales, with almost no hassles.  

Here are some things you can do when you sell AS IS.  Know your financial position.  Know how much equity is in the home.  Your goal is to leave with as much of it as possible, plus, with any luck more, thanks to the market in your area.  Keep the house in good shape.  This doesn’t mean paint everything beige, as not to offend, but keep the house repaired and free from deferred maintenance.  If you’ve gotten behind on this, pull out your phone, look at your equity, and ask yourself how much of it you want to give up catching up on the house, vs how much of an effect the needed maintenance has on the selling price of the house.  I’ll remind you that the US housing market is currently booming.  Americans buy houses that are a mess!  A needed paint job or unfinished basement isn’t going to wreck the sale of your house.  Keep your personal belongings to a minimum.  You can do this on an ongoing basis, and be ready to sell your house at a moment’s notice, or be ready to liquidate personal belongings before you sell the house.  It’s hard to sell a house that is full of stuff, and most agents will ask for a lot of that stuff to be moved out before the house goes on the market.  This includes garages, attics, and basements.  Include the surrounding property when doing maintenance.  Keep trees trimmed and outbuilding in good shape.  All of this can be accomplished, even as you live your life exactly like you want in the meantime.  Live in the house exactly the way you want to, decorate, paint, wallpaper, and furnish in your style.  The house will sell.  And when you decide to move, to the next place where your life makes the house a home, a home full of your energy and style, be ready to make it the easiest move possible.  Sell your house AS IS.   


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Now for the Real Cold Weather.

IMG_0865It’s been cold enough this winter, with plenty of snow and ice. But if the forecast hold true, it’s going to get REAL cold. Here’s a few ideas to deal with this upcoming arctic air stream that is supposed to blow into the midwest.

 

  1. Get your pets indoors!  Little guys and short hairs can experience sudden effects of super cold air when stepping out to do their thing.  Keep an eye on them and get them and their bigger buddies back in quickly. If they’ll tolerate it, let them wear a jacket.  Watch for your neighbor’s pets too. If you see a neighbor’s animal out too long in this kind of weather, call the neighbor and remind them.  If your neighbor isn’t the kind of family that cares, call someone who does. They’ll come out, gather the animal up and keep them in a shelter.  Better to take action than watch them freeze to death.
  2. Keep the air filter on your furnace clean.  When it’s cold outside, the furnace needs all the help it can get.  In extreme cold, the furnace will run non stop at times, a clean furnace filter will allow the machine to run at correct temperatures and move lots of air.  
  3. Refrain from moving your thermostat back.  Don’t let your house cool off during the day while your at work, or at night while you sleep.  This weather will be challenging enough for the furnace. You may even find your furnace running almost non-stop.  Keep the house warm so the furnace is not trying to play catch up in extreme weather.
  4. Be ready for colder interior temperatures.  Furnaces are designed to provide only a certain amount of temperature rise above the outdoor temperature.  Usually between 70 and 80 degrees F. That means once the outdoor temperatures dip below 0 degrees F., it is likely the house temperature will dip too.  Bundle up, throw some blankets on the couch and beds. Remember basement family rooms are the last to warm up too.
  5. Keep the exterior intake and exhaust vents clear on your furnace.  High efficiency furnaces are vented through PVC pipes coming out the roof, or most cases the side, exterior wall of the house near the foundation.  Snow and ice build up can clog these vents. It’s not uncommon to find bug, bird or animal nests in these too. Make sure both the intake and exhaust are clear.  And remember the exhaust gasses are poisonous. Keep clear of that gas when working around these vents.
  6. Open the base cabinet doors on sink base cabinets, and washer dryer cabinets that are against an outside wall.  Depending on the direction the house faces, and the level of insulation in the house, pipes near outside walls will be the first to freeze.  If your basement is unfinished you may want to run a safe space heater under the plumbing that gets near the outside rim joist in the basement.  Make sure the area around the heater is clear of anything that can burn.  If you live in an antique home, and the wall insulation is missing or poor, this is important. In worse case scenarios, you may need to let those faucets run, pencil lead thin, streams of water overnight.
  7. If you haven’t done it yet, remove your garden hose from the frost free spigot.  This is normally done in October, but I still see a lot of hoses connected to houses all winter long.  If the frost free spigot has not frozen up to this point in winter, it probably will in the next few days.  And, you won’t know it’s a problem until the next time you turn that hose on and go into the basement to find a split frost free spigot flooding the room.  
  8. Ask a neighbor to check on your house if you are going to be away.  These are extreme temperatures like this region rarely experiences. If you are traveling away from your home, have a neighbor come and check the house for you.  Make sure they know where the main water shut off is in the case of a frozen and split pipe.
  9. And finally but most important, CHECK ON YOUR NEIGHBORS!  Take the time to consider your elderly and less abled neighbors.  Give them a call or knock on their door. Make sure they have your number in the case they need assistance.  This is one of those times when truly being a good neighbor counts.

 

We normally don’t get weather this cold in our region, so it’s easy to forget how damaging it can be to our homes.  Be vigilant and get ahead of things before they get ahead of you. Burn a fire, have some warm snacks, and do what you bought your house to do, stay in it and enjoy the safety and warmth it provides.  


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Winter Damage to Your House.

This region is hard on houses.  For those of us living in the midwest, things can be quite varied in the winter.  Unlike the great north, it does not get cold and stay cold here. And unlike the south, we don’t stay above freezing.  We actually get the worst weather of all. Sure, in our area (the Kansas City metroplex), we can have some sunny warm days throughout the winter.  It’s not unusual to reach 50 or 60 degrees in December, and our really cold weather comes around late January and February. We like to grill out on these warmer days, and go for walks in light jackets.  We feel lucky to get some light rain instead of snow. It seems easier than the long days of winter up north where it gets down to freezing in November and stays freezing until March. Unless you’re a house.  Recently our weather has been somewhat warm, in the 40s. We’ve had a lot of fog, rain and cloudy days. No ice on the driveway and leaving for work in the mornings is just easier when the temperature is above freezing. But our houses are getting soaked.  Water is seeping into cracks and soaking under paint. Our gutters may have leaves in them that are now full of water. Then, here’s the mean trick. We get a real freeze like last night. A freeze that makes the puddles on the driveway so clear and hard we don’t even see the black ice.  All that moisture and water soaked into our house is freezing too. With that freeze come expansion. And presto, our houses have just experienced one of the harshest conditions in the country. Here’s what to look for in the spring when things thaw out. Your gutters may have pulled away from the house with the ice load.  If there are no deicing wires on the house, it’s likely the downspouts have been frozen solid and torn up a little. Every place water soaked in under paint, is now under threat of that paint popping off. Caulk, snap-on vinyl window trim, joints in the siding, all these things are subject to the harsh effect of soaking and freezing.  In addition anything ceramic or clay on our patios is freezing and expanding too. Those big clay pots out on our patio loose a little layer of material at the very bottom every year. Freezing and popping. So even though we get to grill out in mid December, we’ll have to do some repairs in April. Put it on the list. Reattach loose gutters and downspouts.  Inspect the roof for loose or missing shingles, especially in the valleys. Touch up paint and caulk where it has popped loose, even the best paint on the market has a hard time standing up to the forces of freezing water. And don’t forget to have the trees cleaned up where limbs broke and fell. It’s all part of living the the great midwest. It’s a sneaky trick, these warm, rainy days, turning into damaging, freezing nights.  

 

house in snow.


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Someone’s moving in this spring.

It’s looking like spring outdoors. I’m getting calls about animals.  Mostly birds and squirrels. They are moving into peoples’ houses.

 

Springtime is busy outside our homes.  It’s nature’s time to nest, to build a safe place to lay eggs or have young.  Houses provide excellent shelter for animals.  They are steady and less prone to wind and storms than bushes or trees. Houses have nice corners and cubbies to build into.  Many houses are missing screen or wire over the attic vents, allowing animals easy access to a relatively warm space.  And with the convenience of simple food sources like bird feeders and pet food left outdoors, the wild animals living in or near our homes have little reason to move away.

 

Yet, they have to go.  Evict them now.  Birds will carry more debris into a gable vent than imaginable.  I have seen nests in gable vents that appear, from the outside to be simple and neat, only to climb in the attic to find almost a hay bale of grass, sticks and trash packed into the gable vent and filling the attic.  A full contractor trash bag of debris holding 2 or 3 little chicks. I don’t throw out baby animals or birds, so I reschedule the work for winter or recommend a humane critter removal.  Animals are even more serious.  Raccoons, squirrels and other four legged critters don’t carry in as much debris, but they rearrange the materials they find in attics.  Storage items, insulation, cardboard boxes, anything that can be shredded and nested in.  Plus the holes these animals make to get into the attic is usually big.  I can climb a ladder and flush out some birds, I just did it last week on my own house.  But flushing out a toothed rodent or raccoon is not a job for the inexperienced.

 

Decide your route.  But act on it now.  Most animals don’t have young yet, but will soon.  Most home owners don’t want to be a part of dispatching live young, even if it is supposed to be “humane”.  Now is the time to evict the birds and animals squatting in your house.    If you remove the nest yourself, wear a respirator and take your work clothes off outside or in the garage.  Bird and animal nests are dirty.  Gather the material in a trash bag and get it out of the house.  Have the holes and access repaired immediately. If you don’t, animals will move right back in.

 

This is an ongoing task.  Most homeowners enjoy having animals around the property.  They are a good sign of life.  An indication that the neighborhood is full of trees, ground cover and water.  It’s a good thing really.  But like a lot of other good things, too much can be a hassle.  Be a good neighbor, kick the animals out and help them find their own place outdoors.  Add some birdhouses to the trees and posts in your yard.  Put a bat house up if you have seen bats at dusk.  Learn to recognize nests high in the branches and trunks of your trees.  Those are likely squirrel nests or birds of prey.  Hold off on tree thinning until winter when the open nests are empty.  All of this requires a little getting in touch with nature.  Understanding the natural inclination for others to attempt to live in our houses.  Having the plan and compassion to evict them with humane timing and care.  It’s a wild world out there.  Enjoy it, but don’t let it in your house. IMG_2214


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No stairs for the holidays.

This has been a common conversation lately.  Stairs.  I have plenty of aging customers, which is a subtle way of saying, old enough to start worrying about getting around the house.  Most of them are single and living alone.  Alone except for the input of their grown kids.

I get in these conversations the easy way, by listening.  It only takes a few minutes of reviewing some job I’m doing when an elderly person starts talking about the stairs.  They are terrified of stairs.  For a good reason.  Stairs are hard to climb and easy to fall down.  In most houses the stair challenge goes like this.  Most bedrooms are “upstairs”.  In older homes, most washer and dryers are “downstairs”.  The aging home dweller doesn’t just want to age in their house, they hope to go on to their next life, shortly after leaving the one they have in their long time home.  They want to stay in the house. Period.

Then the aging parent mentions their grown kids.  This might be you.  If not, this may be you in the future, so think about this.  The elderly do great in their long time homes.  Food preparation, doing laundry, bathing and keeping pets.  But they are simply not as strong as they used to be.  They may throw laundry down the stairs to the basement, but still have to carry it out clean. They start sleeping on the recliner or sofa, because they are scared of the stairs to the second floor.  Grown kids come around and start telling the aging adult how to do things differently. After all, dad was a steel worker, why won’t he go to bed upstairs?  These conversations take place, or not, right up until the aging parent has a fall.  Maybe they are bruised and shaken.  Maybe a broken bone.  Hips are popular among the falling elderly.  Maybe they lay on the floor for a day or two until someone finds them.  Then the kids kick into full force.  The grown kids have a life and feel they have to act quickly.  A nursing home or aging care facility comes into the conversation.  It’s literally the last place anyone wants to be.  The aging parent goes silent, fearing the nursing home more than the stairs.  It hurts my feelings to watch.

Act now.  Move the washer and dryer to the main floor. If your handyman has excuses to not do it, get a second opinion.   Ask your aging parent how they feel about moving their bedroom to the main floor, like a 5 year old, and a sofa cushion fort.  They’ve already dreamed of this.  They know it is good.  Get a good bathing solution on the main floor.  Add a simple IMG_1675shower somewhere.  Skip the excuses.  “Resale value” is the most overrated term I hear, used to stop progress.  The house will sell.  Your parent wants to stay in the house.  At least almost all of them.  They will live longer and be happier.  Especially if they have a few visitors a week.  Get them a call lanyard.  The kind with a push button, so if they fall they can get help.  Many seniors don’t know beans about cell phones and don’t carry them around.  Get the call button.  Install grab bars in bathrooms and around task areas.  None of this is going to ruin the sale of the house.  And it could make someone you love very, very happy.

You could be thinking, “what business is it of a handyman to tell me about my parents?”. It’s the business of the truth.  When I work in houses where old people live, they feed me coffee and ask me to eat lunch at their table. All.the. time.  They share their life stories.  Right up to the very day I arrive.  I know what they want and they want to stay in their homes.

We’re coming up on the holiday seasons.  What a great time to reverse the approach.  Instead of asking mom or dad when they will be ready to move out, starting acting on getting them on one main floor.  Join them in their love for the home.  The home where they raised you and your siblings and friends.  The home where they and their spouse loved each other.  The home they have always dreamed to spending their waining years in.  Eventually they will leave that home.  They’ll take that last pass out the front door, standing or not, knowing they lived a long full life in the most beautiful place they ever had.


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How does the fall season make you feel?

I know it’s a funny question, but I have to ask. How does fall make you feel? I ask this as a craftsman, who works on houses, for a number of reasons. One, for those of us who drive work trucks and own tools, fall includes a bunch of preparation not normally thought of in the summer.

Fall is mixed emotions for me. While I love the smell of the leaves turning, it means my walnut trees, all 13 of them, are dropping a ton of nuts in the yard to deal with. This year I’m going to learn to harvest some. I like the weather cooling off, but dressing for a day of work is tricky. It’s a little cold in the mornings, but long pants could mean a hot workday in the afternoon. Fall reminds me that I have several containers of glue, paint, caulk and other sundries on the truck that I have to prepare for freezing weather. It’s not quite cold enough to make me do these things, but it’s got me thinking. This is the lovely way of nature. We really can’t say we got caught off guard, because nature gives us warning. A subtle hint you might say. A hint like two tons of leaves falling into the yard over several weeks. Hints like mice and bugs moving into the house suddenly, or, the sun moving into a different place in the sky. Fall, year after year, through decades of our lives, allows us to prepare without haste.

Around here my list of fall preparation might go something like this. Clean the gutters, which is a snap on a low slung, one story house like mine. I use an attachment on my leaf blower. Blow the leaves off sidewalks and away from the house. Then mulch them into the lawn with the mower. Some people overseed their lawns. I’ll sort out the firewood pile and get it ready. I’ll blow the water out of the irrigation in the garden, and because I’m lucky enough to have an outdoor shower, I’ll blow it out too. But only after I take that last warm shower, in the cool weather, my own personal dare. The garden hoses must be disconnected from the frost free spigots, or what is known as a freeze problem will occur. I’ll pick up all the silly things on the drive way and patio that could damage the snow blower. The chair cushions will all go in bags and into the garden shed. I could go on and on but you get the idea. You’ll be going on and on at your house.

But most of all, I’ll relax a little. The daylight is going away, which means my time doing chores outdoors after work will shorten. The grass won’t be growing and weeds will take a rest. Fall signals relief.

What does fall bring to your mind? Where does your heart and mind find itself in the waining days of summer? What is your checklist of fall chores around your house?

Oh, here’s one more. What’s that special book you’ll be reading on those cool weekend mornings, knowing how great it feels to sit in a warm house on a cool fall morning? I’ve made a commitment to include more of these this year.

Have fun celebrating this season. Winter is just around the corner.

 

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