How to Have a House

Living with and understanding a home.

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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.