How to Have a House

Living with and understanding a home.


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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.

 

white_house_fall_colors


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Everyone has a skill.

How do you shake out your trash bag? Do you open it and shake it to fill it with air, so it fits in the kitchen trash can just right? Do you snap it with one hand, holding the can with the other? How do you do this? It seems like a weird question, because who cares? Who cares how a person does something as mundane as putting a trash bag into a trash can? I do. I noticed the other day that after 16 years of putting contractor trash bags, into my collapsable trash can, that I make about 7 motions in one fluid sweep. It’s almost beautiful to watch.

These are the moments we come to know as experience. Craftsmen like me, and homeowners like you, do something so many times, the finished piece is almost perfect. Your trash bags and my trash bags go into the can exactly the same every time. Neat and tidy, in it’s place and ready to perform without fail. For those of us working on your houses, these motions apply to almost every tool on our truck. Way beyond the trash bags. Several years ago I had a personal injury right in the middle of some improvements I was making on a small garage. My brother was in town so I hired him and another worker I know to Install the facia trim, pressure wash the gutters and finish painting the whole thing. Both of these guys are experienced craftsmen in their own fields. The guy running the pressure washer was as if a machine. Repeated angles of approach, every inch and every corner, perfectly pressure washed. You could tell this guy had done this before. My brother, the same way. Doing compound miter cuts on my saw, the same model saw he uses on his jobs. Every cut was preceded by 10 or 12 hand movements that placed the board, set the board firm against the saw fence, shifted just enough to get a perfect cut on the mark, set the board again, hold down tight, fingers and hands clear from the cutting path, and one smooth cut, exactly where it is supposed to be. Experience. Experience gained through time and repetition. Not just any repetition, but repeating the job with a passion that includes a balance of speed and care to not remove one’s own finger. Repetition including the belief that each step is important to a finely finished job. Sure, I could put trim up faster if I didn’t sand the cut a little every time, but the job would not be as pretty when I’m done, and the paint or stain would take more time. I could skip gluing the joints, but in less than two years they would show. A lot of the skilled labor jobs we do aren’t 7 steps of motion like a trash bag, it’s more like 20 steps, or more. Steps that include machines and materials all composed into a dance that can go south at any moment. Going too fast, or overestimating ones own experience will reveal needed practice. Some guys end up with a finger laying on the saw, neatly dismembered by a modern carbide blade. Others go to the emergency room with a nail imbedded in a body part. I won’t even begin to explain why I wear eye protection every minute of my work day.

Experienced craftsmen. We are in the middle, taking just enough time to do the job really well. Installers are the fastest. They count on certain things being in place before they start. 90 degree inside corners, plumb walls and door frames, level floors. Installers walk in with the smallest number of tools and go to town. They are so neat and tidy they could be mistaken for salesmen. Artists are at the other end of the spectrum. I know this since I have a fine arts degree. An artist takes great time and effort, sometimes employing personal quirks and habits that add to the value of their pieces. Craftsmen like me lie in the middle. Since I specialize in antique houses, I feel lucky if I work on a door or window that is actually square. Because of the age of the house, I have to strip 90 years of paint off lock sets before I make the repair. You can’t even repair a modern lockset, you call an installer. As a craftsman, I employ creativity to work through challenges. I don’t do pen and ink cartoon illustrations anymore, but I use the same motor skills to fit a coped joint in crown moulding, in a 105 year old room.

Experience is gained through repetition and practice. We start out with jobs we can manage and work our way into projects we never imagined we would master. We go home ever week thankful for the customers who employ us. Tonight when you shake that trash bag out and put it in the can, under the kitchen sink, imagine the steps in your simple task. Imagine the experience you have at work or at home.

What is the experience you have? What is your best skill? Knowing this and claiming it makes you a craftsman (craftswoman) in your own right. Stand on this confidence, know your value.

 

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