Why I Hate Houses

I have had, up till now, the good fortune to live in apartments, ranging by urban standards from nice to really very nice. I now live in a house that most would likely consider to be somewhat better than mere “nice”. It’s on a ridge, with nearly a full acre plot, in quiet tree-filled neighborhood with reasonable amenities all a short driving distance away, including a well-kitted out gym and quite a few good restaurants. Bonus points for it being only 15 minutes from the airport. Nearly all the routes take you past other pleasant-looking-to-glam houses, or the country club, or the golf course, or twee shopping areas.

I’ve discovered that I hate the house part of this equation, as in dealing with the day-to-day time demands of home ownership. I find it stressful and unrewarding. And it’s made worse in my case by finding that this house has a lot that needs to be addressed pretty soon, to the degree that that plus moving-related tasks (like plenty of boxes yet to be unpacked) is cutting into my blogging time.

There are bona fide reasons to have problems with this way of living, namely the environmental cost. Free-standing buildings take more energy to heat and cool than multi-unit structures. Car ownership is pretty much unavoidable, since even in those few suburbs with decent public transport, it’s designed for going in and of the city center (as in for commuting), not for provisioning, transporting kids, or running other errands. And if you decide to fit in, as a recent post pointed out, “Lawns, in general, are pretty much the enemy for healthy insect habitats.” And don’t get me started on leaf blowers.

Now I could pretend to not like houses out of reasons of conscience, or a preference for living in high-density areas (which I do have). But my big reason for not liking houses is the inefficiency and time sink of maintaining them.

There’s a reason that biggest-single-family-home owner in the US, Blackstone’s Invitation Homes, is widely regarded as an upscale slumlord by virtue of not doing adequate maintenance on its properties and even failing to deal promptly with problems that will clearly damage the house, like leaks. Keeping up free-standing homes doesn’t scale. And that imposes a big tax on the time of owners.

Think about it. As a tenant or owner in a condo or co-op, the building is responsible for taking care of the public spaces, the heating, plumbing, and electrical systems, and sometimes even cleaning the outside windows. Maybe you have to provide your own air conditioner. Maybe you make a lot of improvements and some of them don’t work so well (like using a stylish bar sink in a bathroom and having to regularly have it snaked because the drain pipe is a bit narrow). But the general point is if Something Happens or Something Needs To Be Done, you can call a superintendent who knows the conditions in your unit and either is required to fix the problem or can refer you to someone (“the building’s electrician”) who may not necessarily be the cheapest or the best, but is probably fairly priced (to get repeat business from the tenants in that building) and actually can be efficient in how he goes about his work because he knows the conditions in that apartment complex.

The fact that a building manager is responsible for core systems and has incentives to minimize costs over a long-term horizon means (unless they are stupid property owners or self-conscious slumlord types), they’ll do at least an adequate job of maintenance.

By contrast, as an individual homeowner, unless you are the sort that likes carpentry or plumbing or other stereotypically manly tinkering, maintenance is a time and cost sink. My brief experience is it is far more frustrating trying to deal with various home upkeep pros, first because there seem to be so many to deal with, and unless you have a service under contract, they are usually dealing with the particular conditions at your site afresh. That is less efficient from a macro perspective (more one-off or somewhat customized work), plus it can also leave the homeowner wondering whether the service professional was giving you the straight scoop (did you really need that mini-rewiring job, or was he taking advantage of the fact that you couldn’t determine that all you needed was a new socket?)

The individual homeowner also has greater incentives to defer maintenance because upkeep is a nuisance and entails outlays.

I am more acutely aware of this than I’d like to be because I am having to deal with a maintenance backlog, including replacing rotten wood under the gutters, investigating electrical issues, having two stoves that only kinda-sorta work fixed (they broil but won’t bake at higher than 350 degrees), getting the carpets cleaned, and fixing a sink and counter ruined by a home health care aide (the last also ruined my day).1 And there are other reminders of what as an former urbanite feels like excess….like the necessity of having a yardman.

I imagine many of you detest apartments for good reasons: you lived in one or more as a young person and they were cramped and noisy. From what I saw in Manhattan, the stock of rental apartments was markedly inferior to the ones for purchase, and in most cities, you have more rented than owned units, meaning most of what is out there is skanky. But that is a function of how we do housing in the US, and not of the inherent merits of apartments. It’s perfectly possible to have more generously proportioned apartments with decent height ceilings and heavy enough walls so as not to hear your neighbor’s music. It’s also possible to have very clever designs. I was struck, for instance, with how much good layout mattered when I became a volcano refugee in London and a planned two-day stay with Richard Smith turned out to be a twelve day visit. He lived in an 800 square foot apartment in the Barbican. Yet even though his wife was also there a fair bit of time, it never felt crowded even when all three of us were there.

Now I am sure many of you have defenses for owning homes, such as:

Kids needing a yard. Maybe, but that is a less compelling argument than when I was a child and kids were allowed to have unstructured time playing with other kids nearby. With children now shuttled to and from school and to their activities and play dates, yards seem way less useful

Gardening. There are urban gardens and we could have more of them, but for some reason, this practice hasn’t taken hold in America.

Necessity. Where you work doesn’t have decent apartment stock.

Fear of or distaste for urban living.

Wanting to be close to the countryside. A strong reason if you love the activities like hiking and water sports.

Nevertheless, I encourage you to think hard about the time cost of your house, if you have a free-standing house, and how much more leisure time you could spend on your favorite activities if you didn’t have the millstone of property maintenance. Unless, of course, you are rich enough to have staff to do this sort of thing for you.

____

1 This is what happens when you have people in the house and you can’t watch them all day, particularly since you also aren’t supposed to, as in they should stick to their job duties and not play amateur professional.

One of the bathroom sinks was draining slowly. The home health care aide came back from the grocery store with a bottle of Drain-O. I told her not to use it, the pipes in the house are old and we already had one serious problem with them. I had her boil a big pot of water and pour it down the sink. She did that twice and the drain seemed fine after that. I noticed nothing amiss with the drain the next AM when I turned in late.

When I got back up (mid PM, so the home health care aide was on a new day), I went into the bathroom and saw the sink about 1/3 full of black, and I mean black, water. I stupidly stuck my hand in to see if there was an obstruction and got burned. I then went and got paper towels to sop up the water and put the wet paper towels in a steel pot.

The water was so caustic that it stained the steel. It had also stained the sink, which was beige resin and part of the bathroom counter (as in it had been fabricated as a single unit). The grey marks were bad enough that I thought it needed to be replaced, although one could make a case for living with the eyesore.

The home health care aide was out taking my mother to get her hair done and pick up lunch. I was ripshit and assumed the home health care aide had used the Drain-O contrary to my instructions (she’d been muttering about putting some in the sink after the boiling water treatment despite that having looked like a success). I was also dumbfounded that she’d left the black water in the sink to corrode it. I called the service to complain.

The home health care aide got back much later than usual. I suspect she was trying to avoid me and having my mother see the damage she had done. I chewed her out. She said she hadn’t used Drain-O and found the bottle to show me it was full.

She had instead gone to the Dollar Store and gotten….drumroll… a sink plunger.

In all my years of living in different apartments and more than occasionally having stopped up the drain, no super every used anything like a plunger on a sink or bathtub. They always snaked them out. This sink, had the health care aide bothered to look, had the classic S-curve pipes underneath. No way would this itty bitty shallow plunger be able to create enough pressure to move an obstruction through that curve. I could not believe what an obviously bad idea this was, compounded by the fact that “plumbing” was not part of her job spec.

It gets worse.

The home health care aide disappeared (she does that an awful lot) and then came back and reported she’d used “Lysol towels” on the sink, as if that had reduced the grey stains. I started to think that maybe this wasn’t as bad a train wreck as I’d thought.

I went back shortly thereafter, which was also after she’d left, and found the sink again 1/3 full of black water. I nearly hit the ceiling. This was not the result of it backing up but her running the water from the tap and doing God knows what else (pouring Lysol down the sink, perhaps?)

I again sopped up the water. The sink was now extensively and badly stained. It has to be replaced. And the plumber is coming in four and a half hours, so I am sure to be cranky and sleep deprived.

But I had to go back to the service and withdraw my complaint because my mother had given a go-ahead to this bad idea. And that means we’ll have to eat the likely $1000+ cost of a fix, which would also never match the rest of the bathroom well. Plus finding the contractor and working through the choices would fall on me, when I don’t have time for distractions like that. And on top of that, this was the best home health care aide my mother had gotten from the service (despite her tendency to disappear way too often, she at least would clean the kitchen and bathrooms well). I can guarantee she’s going to do something like this again (she falls in the category of “stupid and industrious” which in the schema attributed to German General Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord is dangerous). That means we’ll need to get rid of her. That likely means the service will get rid of us (they already regard us as unreasonably demanding by virtue of expecting health care aides to do more than sit next to my mother when the service advertises that they will run errands and do light housekeeping and cooking), which will create another round of stress and time sinks. Welcome to the joys of home maintenance.

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180 comments

  1. PlutoniumKun

    I agree – I live in an urban apartment, but in the past I’ve owned a small house and rented in numerous different set ups. People simply don’t adequately calculate the time (and money) sink that is a house.

    Apartment certainly aren’t perfect. I hate the lack of space (I do lots of outdoor sports which means I’ve nowhere to store my bikes, kayaks, etc) and I’d love a garden to grown more, although I can get a surprisingly good crop of tomatoes and chilis and herbs on my balcony, not to mention a constant supply of green shoots from a small sprouter. And the sheer convenience of being able to walk and cycle almost everywhere I need is enormous and saves a lot of time and money. A friend was recently telling me about the great prices for her kids clothes she got in a sale in a suburban outlet. I didn’t like to point out that if she calculated costs of the driving round trip there properly, it was hardly a saving at all.

    The cost thing is a major peace of mind. I don’t enjoy paying my maintenance fee for my building, but its far better to have that regular cost than the constant awareness in an older house that ‘something’ might go wrong landing you with an unexpected high bill. When I owned a small house in England on more than one occasion I had to cancel holidays because of unexpected costs – guttering re-done after a storm, an unexpected electrical job, etc. This is far less likely in an apartment.

    What I find slightly odd is that my spare room is in constant use from family and friends who use me as their pied a terre in the city (I don’t mind, I’m glad its in use), and everyone raves about how much fun it is to be able to stroll to everything in the city centre in 15 minutes. But then they say ‘wouldn’t you like a little house, with room for all your bikes?’. I can’t quite get the mentality that they think I’m missing out badly by not having a garage, as if having a garage and shed is minimal qualification for being a man.

    I do think that there is an element of fear that puts people off cities. My area is, as they say, ‘gritty’. I live opposite a homeless hostel and there are plenty of rough drinkers and junkies in my area, many all too obvious as they sprawl out in doorways and sidewalks. I hardly notice them anymore, but if you come from a nice suburb or small village it must look quite disturbing (well, it is disturbing, but I’d be in permanent depression if I didn’t shut my mind off from it occasionally).

    But to get back to the point, I think the primary reason people buy larger houses further from cities is simply bad economic calculation. I’ve had people say ‘oh, I’d love a small apartment in the city, but they are so expensive’. In the meanwhile, they have heating bills five times mine and do 10,000 miles a year on their cars just getting too and from work and shops. Plus they spend 5-10 hours a week just sitting in a car or bus, not to mention many hours cutting their lawn or vacuuming all that carpet.

    You can see the advantage of some of those savings in dense European cities. I’ve heard tourists to Paris or Barcelona comment that ‘the locals seem to spend all their time just sitting outside cafes, drinking – don’t they work?’ It doesn’t seem to occur to them that people living in those cities can easily spend more time just chilling out in an evening sipping a glass of chilled wine, because they don’t have a long commute home, and don’t have a lawn to cut. The journey from office to home is a real pleasure in dense urban cities.

    1. a different chris

      Across from our hotel in Athens was a small plaza. When the sun had mostly set it filled up with Greeks of all ages. We walked across the street and sat down with them. It was one of the most pleasant experiences in my life.

    2. Synoia

      If you donot like maintenance, then a newer dwelling house is a solution.
      It is unlikly you can find urban liviing in the south. The US chose suburban living, with all its drabacks, as its housing model after WW 2.

      There maybe what you would prefer is in renovated buildings in the historic part or the town.

      If do not like repairs DO NOT get into a renovation project, whitch appears to be what you are facing now.

      Houses are machines, and ware out. That unfortunatly is where you at are. If Alabama is a full disclosure state, you could prevail and have recourse against the seller, and all realtors in the transaction.

      Get legal advice.

      1. TimH

        In California at least, the wood framed houses have a design life of 50 years. When property values shoot up, that means that there a lot of lipsticked pigs on the market, not with horrendous issues necessarily, just lots of minor ones.

        If I move, I’ll do a teardown, level the lot, and rebuild. I won’t buy greenfield because it’s difficult to get the utilities…

    3. Jonathan Holland Becnel

      Living in Homes is our way of life. Maintenance is a chore yes, but theres Dignity in Labor, no?

      Sigh

      Cant remember the last time i disagreed with Yves so vigorously. I feel like if you had more local friends and family to help out, this situation might be more manageable.

  2. Mark Alexander

    I’m happy to be living in a house in rural northern New England, where it’s quiet and dark at night. Fortunately we’re in an area where we can’t see our neighbors’ houses, and we don’t have to keep a lawn. Instead, we let things grow pretty wild, and we have a great habitat for all kinds of wildlife.

    But you’re right about the disadvantages, especially the maintenance thing. One advantage we have here is that we built the house ourselves — everything but the foundation and the stove chimney. So we know exactly how it’s all put together and how it all works, and if something goes wrong, we can usually figure it out and fix it.

    I once lived in a house that was built the 20s. Every day I’d come home from work, and I’d say to my now-ex, “What broke today?” The sewage bubbling up in the front yard in the middle of an extra-cold (for coastal California) winter was the prime example. It was actually snowing the day I discovered that problem. I ended up replacing the septic pump myself, a lovely aromatic job.

    Another fun time at that house was when the ceiling in the bathroom in the guest cabin collapsed due to a leaky roof, during the big rainstorms of the winter of ’98-’99. The renter had to move out while I completely re-roofed the cabin (with some help from friends).

  3. vlade

    As someone who’se time was eaten up by home renovation (and that was mostly dealing with builders and project managers, and way less time my wife spent on it), I can see your point.

    That said, I still prefer our house to an apartment. I had good experience living in apartmnets, but also some really horrible – neighbors upstairs regularly overfilling the bath, which they placed in living room, and that springing leaks all over my celings, which, when the landlord try to fix, she found were full of asbestos, since at some time it was thought cool to have “popcorn ceilings”, which were often done with gypsum full of asbestos. At which time I moved out.

    Oh, and getting the bulding manager to deal with those neighbours (who were also very noisy, to the point where I had to sleep with my noise-cancellation headphones on) was pretty much impossible.

    So I think, for better or worse, the problems are unavoidable. The real problem IMO is that you’re stuck with too many issues hitting at once, which is just bad.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      I never had noise problems, beyond the infrequent Saturday night party, and I can see that having to contend with noise would be maddening.

      However, there is an additional layer to the maintenance problems that I didn’t lay out. This is a 1950s house, which means it’s old enough that some of the innards are creaky. For instance, only the kitchen and bathrooms are up to current code. And I am making decisions on behalf of my mother, who is cognitively capable of making them but can barely get around the house and sometimes has trouble hearing, so she can’t negotiate with and supervise vendors. That winds up putting me in the position of making decisions when I’d really rather not be the one in that position.

      In theory, this is a teardown, since the plot has very good views and you could build a much bigger house on it. But it could also be a fixer-upper.

      The large living room and a couple of other rooms appeal to my aesthetic. The rooms with things that need help generally speaking don’t (like the one-piece sink-counter affair that is now damaged, I never would have chosen anything like that). So I am faced with “How much to spend on fixing what” and “How do I make it work with things that don’t appeal to me all that much”

      1. vlade

        Yes, it does sound like the maintenance has been neglected (sounds like your mother couldn’t really do it for quite some time) for a long time. It was similar case with the house we were renovating (house from 1920s, little to no maintenance for the last two decades, not many changes since it was built). We were thiking we might live there while renovating, but it would not have worked, it would have been worse than it was. Sounds like that’s the situation you’re in, and I’m not surprised at all it puts you off houses :(

        I used to say to people who were keen on houses – house is NOT an asset. The land is, but house is hole you throw your money in – and sink your time.

        1. Robert McGregor

          Good principle: “The house is not an asset; the land is.” This week I ran into a prospect in the middle of Buckhead, Atlanta (expensive neighborhood). She has a 9.5 acre property she is selling for around $4.5m. It has a large home, a carriage house, and a separate garage–all built in the 1920s, and with interesting architectural distinction, like slate roofs, but no one cares about those structures. They’ve been poorly maintained, and the buyer/developer just wants the land. The houses now actually have a NEGATIVE ASSET VALUE, since you have to pay to demolish them to make way for eight new homes which he will sell for probably around $1.75m each.

          1. Susan the other`

            We’ve been living by that motto for 25 years. Our place, 1978, is essentially a tear-down as well. But it is on an acre+ in the most coveted area in town. We just stumbled into it in 1993 because we were looking for a duplex as our daughter was off to college but would be in and out for the next decade. It was the only thing in town; it wasn’t a duplex, it was what was called a house with a “lockout”. So now the house has become a negative asset value with all sorts of needed repairs and it is better to scrape it and start over. The land itself is worth a small fortune. I don’t have a problem with selling it to a scraper, but it has been such a pleasure living here I also don’t really want to move.

            1. Alex Cox

              Construction is one of the last bastions of skilled labour and craftsmanship (see post about the decline in the skilled trades in today’s NC). So when you rebuild, or repair, a home you are (with luck) employing skilled craftpersons and training the next generation of same.

      2. Clive

        My mother-in-law is in a similar situation. Living in an early 1970’s house which is nice and in a nice area but is, in no particular order:

        a) too big for her, being c. 2,000 sq ft (with the consequences of higher than need be utility costs and property tax)

        b) structurally sound, but needing extensive remodelling (the kitchen and all bathrooms need a gut plus pretty much every carpet needs replacing and full decoration upstairs) which my mother-in-law is capable of doing financially and cognitively but not at all up to managing the various trades (plumbing, electrical, gas, plasterers, decoration, heating etc.) in the right order with the right instructions and being able to spot the cowboys ripping her off. I haven’t got the mental bandwidth — plus it’s an hour’s travelling each way — to sort all this out for her. Her late husband took care of all this kind of thing and ensured that the fabric of the house wasn’t neglected, but my mother-in-law as a result never developed the skills to handle these tasks. Or the confidence.

        The kitchen is particularly pressing, since it is not anywhere near up to code (I’m pretty sure the gas range is borderline dangerous and I got her to get a full electrical survey which had half a dozen “should fix straightaway” issues on the report) and every few months something springs a leak. I don’t have a practical bone in my body unfortunately (give me complex mental or intellectual challenges and I’m in my element but ask me to fix a slipped roof tile, for instance, and I’d probably destroy the chimney stack in the process). So it’s no use her expecting me to resolve such things.

        c) a garden which is also going to become too big for her. I help organising tree surgeons (a lot of the trees are protected so you need a professional to do the paperwork and the actual tree works themselves), a gardener to do the hedge trimming and jobs which are above her physical limits, order in supplies and that kind of thing, but her standards are the kind of high standards which people get when they don’t have to do the, ahem, work involved In achieving them.

        d) handle the various insurances for domestic emergencies like your sink disaster (I need to make certain that, in the event of a plumbing issue — my mother in law can’t change a tap washer or tighten a loose sink or kitchen appliance waste pipe) or no-heat or no-hot water situation a reliable pro will do a 24-hour call out and not present her with a stupidly high bill. These run to nearly £60 a month — if I didn’t haggle the companies down, they’d quite happily whack her premiums up every year. Most of the time it’s dead money but I can’t run the risk of her ending up stuck with an impossible (for her) to resolve time critical problem which can’t be left until I get chance to visit on a weekend.

        That’s just for starters. In short, my mother-in-law really needs to move to a serviced retirement apartment. There’s plenty of choice near where she lives and they’re pricey, but price isn’t an issue. I’m also pretty convinced my mother-in-law would enjoy a better quality of life (there’d be places in the complex where she could socialise easily — any interaction with others necessitates driving and traffic congestion where my mother-in-law lives is chronic, especially in the summer months, for example). Almost all places allow you to move in with a companion animal, so the cat would be alright, especially if it was a garden apartment.

        But no. For all the reasons in the post: “I like my garden…”, “I don’t want to be too close to other people if I might be aware of them…”, “I’d have to downsize…”.

        1. vlade

          Well, sounds like the story of my father… Even in his last year he was refusing to move to a serviced retirement apartment (or at least to an apartment closer to us his sons), when he was basically incapable of even cooking his lunch (and before that he was a good cook).

          Will I be better if I spend next 30 years in this house? No idea.

        2. fajensen

          In short, my mother-in-law really needs to move to a serviced retirement apartment.

          Thing is, once moving to one of those you know for sure that you are about to become a statistic!

          My mother refuses also. At least her home is a very small townhouse and she pays someone to go over the garden for the hard stuff like pruning trees, mowing the grass and getting rid of rubbish. We will probably have to sponsor a cleaner soon.

            1. Clive

              My mother-in-law could well end up a statistic of a different sort, if I have to deal with one more “the breaker’s tripped in the garage and now the door won’t open…” (that was last week’s little treasure of a phone call, whereupon my options were somewhat limited when confronted by someone who, when instructed to “push the breaker back in and see if it stays in”, somehow managed to push the main supply breaker off and disconnect the whole house, cutting off the phone too, because, naturally, it’s one of those cordless ones which conks out when the power goes off) heart rendering plea for assistance. It had me looking up to see if the statue allowing deportation to “the colonies” had been repealed…

        3. eg

          We were very fortunate that my mother convinced my father to move the both of them into a condo apartment — as it turned out just a couple of months before he was diagnosed with terminal cancer and about six months before he died. The building is great for her, housing as it does a great many similarly circumstanced widows like herself.

          My brothers and I escaped a potential horrorshow there …

          1. Pavel

            Dear eg

            This mirrors my parents’ own situation. With some difficulty my mother convinced my father to move from their beautiful house (with garden, his main love) of 60 years to a small condo. At first he resisted but then really liked the flat, especially once all their artwork was on the walls. Then he passed away 8 months later from cancer. :((

            As in your mum’s case, there are quite a few recently-widowed women in the apartment building plus a book club and other social events so it is much better for my mother than knocking around in a large and rather isolated house. (It has actually been “passed down” to my brother, so it remains in the family.) Of course not everyone has the means to do this so readily.

      3. Tomonthebeach

        Yves, you can hire all those house-maintenance chores done for you, and can even hire somebody to manage all the hired hands that mow, weed, trim, plumb, caulk, paint, etc. Given the SES of your neighborhood, I suspect that you can afford the expense.

        Many homeowners think retiring to a condo alleviates the drudge of chores, but their monthly maintenance fees go to pay people to do those chores for them. For that they give up a private pool in the back yard, no noise from neighbors (left-right-above-below) a workshop, multi-car garage, and mucho squarefootage.

        1. Lambert Strether

          > Yves, you can hire all those house-maintenance chores done for you, and can even hire somebody to manage all the hired hands

          That was an option I did not take, because I could do a better job if I picked my own vendors, and I am the only one who understands the house as a whole, but I had the time to do that.

          1. fajensen

            No, no, no!! That way lies misery and financial ruin!!!

            If you do *any* kind of renovation that requires multiple contractors, you must for your own sanity’s sake hire a main contractor responsible for the whole package and the daily – sometimes hourly – management of the sub contractors.

            That way you will, for a small’ish fee, have one of Them, who knows Their Ways (and trickery) on your side and dealing with the very significant amount of coordination, traditional enmity between trades and straight up bullshit they always come up with. A murder(?) of builders will simply run rings around an amateur.

            A good “lead contractor” of course also doesn’t like hard work and hassle so he/she will hire a known team of subs that will do good work and work well together.

            For a large 30 kEUR renovation on my former home, I accepted the architects offer to manage the project which she did for a fee of about 3 kEUR – it was little over 2 weeks of work in total then dragging out over four winter months(!) of drying time due a reality excursion in the form of concrete floors having to be hacked out to fix newly discovered leaky buried water piping and recast. This is what happens when one pokes an older house.

            That management fee, IMO is peanuts in the total picture. Everything ended up exactly as she designed it and I/wife only talked to her about the work, not to 6-10 other “random” people.

            Paying good professionals to get rid of annoying problems and work that I am incompetent at is one of those things that makes me grateful and happy!

        2. Yves Smith Post author

          I have heard of battle royales in condos in Florida, and I get that they can be trouble. I was spoiled in NYC because older buildings have heavy walls and high ceilings, so noise (save street noise, depending on the ‘hood) so even a small apartment doesn’t seem all that bad.

          I don’t object to paying fees for chores but not everyone is wired that way. However, per the Florida comment, I was once in a co-op (where the owners have more restricted property rights than in a condo, I can unpack if you care) with an inexperienced board and an incompetent managing agent (not just my opinion, my accountant knew them and said they’d been fired from 9 of the 10 buildings they were managing among his clientele). It made CalPERS look good. So you can wind up in a real mess if you buy a condo or coop that is badly managed.

      4. lordkoos

        We are presently living in a good-sized 100+-year-old craftsman that belonged to my parents. It’s been fairly well kept up and was updated about 30 years ago, but there are issues, some of the plumbing is iffy, the basement has some minor flooding in the spring, and in parts of the house the wiring isn’t great, and so on. But I’d guess this house is much better built and constructed than most houses built in the 1950s. The ancient taps on the basement sink still work great and the floors don’t creak, after over a century.

        I fully understand the downsides of owning a house, but we love having a garden to grow food, and there are some fruit trees on the place. Additionally we use all parts of this house, my wife is an artist and has a studio to paint in, and I have a small recording studio in another room. This would be impossible in an apartment.

        However as we are now in our late 60s the work is beginning to wear on us — the cleaning, lawn care, painting, general upkeep etc. We lived in a small one-room apartment in Thailand for 7 months and were very happy during that time, and I’m sure something similar is in our future… or perhaps a small moblie home on a little piece of land so that we could continue to have a vegetable garden. (Community gardens are an option as well but the plots are usually too small for us.)

  4. jonst

    I love houses. ANd the responsibilities that come with them. (but not necessarily the costs…. but what the hell). Working around my house is simple, hands on, grounded work. “Simple” is not the same as easy. Having a house, and doing this work, means I have to deal with people less than I normally would. It gets me off the computer, and out of my own head. And the rewards are not abstract…I can look at them. And they increase the value of the house. It’s all the same reasons I like to cook and clean around the house. it keeps me in touch with myself and bounded to the basics (or, what I take to be the basics) of life. I’m a lawyer who prefers to work with his hands, soil, wood, plants, lawns, food, and such v. working in the law. With people and with the abstractness that is law. But that got me a nice house to retreat from the world.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      I imagine that people who like manual work can’t relate to those who don’t, and vice versa. I have dreadfully poor manual dexterity and have always loathed hands-on work because I do it slowly and badly. I don’t get pleasure from it. I become frustrated and upset.

      1. inode_buddha

        Hrm, that’s interesting. I have poor eye-hand coordination, so that is why I enjoy tasks that require it. I enjoy the pride of craftsmanship, and the sense of accomplishment when I finally do get it right. For example, playing the piano, studying art, learning to sew, and becoming good enough at welding pipe to do it for a living. Renting in general and apartment life just aggravates me no end.

    2. ChrisFromGeorgia

      It’s all about trade-offs and personal preference. Some people like the quiet suburban environment, while others prefer an urban one. But the maintenance work with any house is not trivial. At any time it seems I have to deal with 2-3 major projects that need to be addressed sometime soon (not like the roof is leaking in terms of urgency, but if I don’t there will be trouble.)

      Right now I have a driveway that is cracked and needs replacing, some drainage issues in the backyard and a garden that needs substantial reinforcement to keep pests out next year (birds or chipmunks plundered most of my work.) And I can attest to the frustration in having to deal with shady maintenance outfits that want to charge $100 just to walk in the door and look at the problem. Finding good handymen and a network of locals who are trust worthy is essential. Over time I have taught myself some basic skills but I am not naturally mechanically inclined either.

      1. False Solace

        After I inherited a townhouse the joy of living rent-free was quickly replaced by never-ending repairs. There’s been zero cost savings vs renting. Plus the commute is 3x as long and I have to deal with a HOA.

        I honestly don’t understand how anyone manages to afford a house these days. The price of carpet alone is astronomical. The idea of a mortgage on top of everything else… well, I guess that’s why I never bought a house before.

      2. Lambert Strether

        > Finding good handymen and a network of locals who are trust worthy is essential.

        +100. Takes time. OTOH, dealing with a really good contractor can be a pleasure. Found a good electrician, found a good carpenter, never did find the perfect plumber.

        1. ambrit

          File the search for the “Perfect Plumber” under ‘arete.’ Sisyphus would understand.

  5. mle in detroit

    After 40 years in a house in Detroit, we’re looking at apartments in the mid-south. I’ll happily go back to white walls in exchange for no stairs plus a manager.
    My all-time favorite apartment building (condos now) is on the edge of Detroit’s Palmer Park. Built in the 1920s by Walter Briggs for his baseball-player employees with young families, the foyers of each apartment are the size of my dining room, there are four bedrooms and a large sunroom, and the basement had an open space that was originally a large playroom for kids. Sweet!

  6. Dirk77

    Perhaps management of a house gets better with practice? Or at least appreciation for the benefits increases over time? I own a house but it’s rented out and I live in an apartment, so can’t say first hand, but wondered.

    1. NotTimothyGeithner

      Perhaps management of a house gets better with practice?

      My mom said my father knew nothing when she first found him in regard to household repairs whereas having grown up in an old house under a fairly steady process of renovation I have a pretty good handle on how to fix anything without dealing with electricity.

      My personal experience is once you learn how to do “minor” repairs they aren’t so daunting, but if you haven’t done it, it can be a problem because one simply doesn’t understand how “easy” it is versus shelling out for the repair that takes the repairman 10 minutes.

        1. Jason Boxman

          And you have tools. My father had an entire garage full of tools for a lifetime of home and yard (sprinkler irrigation system) maintenance. Granted, if you have houses your entire life, that’s still a savings over hiring vendors. But the scope of things you ultimately are forced to learn how to repair or replace is daunting.

          1. vlade

            And you have time. Time can be actually the worst constraint on any of this. Say, for a long time I had to fly out on Sunday evening, and fly back on Fri night. Last thing I’d then want to spend my weekend on was fixing stuff (mind you, finding someone who coudl fix the stuff often probably consumed as much time as fixing it. But I really don’t want to be fixing high-voltage electric wiring, or dig ditches [ which I’m likely t be doing tomorrow]).

              1. Dirk77

                Yes. My blender went out last week. They aren’t that complicated, yet…my voltmeter batteries were dead so I couldn’t troubleshoot as I normally would. So I played around with it a bit and then guessed at the problem – and I was right. But I can imagine just as easily being wrong in this case. Same thing with my car, which to troubleshoot the electrical I really need the shop manual. It it fun – but only when you have the time and usually good tools as you guys say.

            1. Lambert Strether

              > And you have time. Time can be actually the worst constraint on any of this.

              Especially for Yves. When all the systems are solid, emergency events go away, so essentially one has a never-ending checklist.

  7. mpalomar

    Very sorry to hear of these difficulties in your new housing and urban environment. As an adult I’ve lived as tenant in apartments and then coop apartments for decades until very recently, leaving urban for village and becoming a house owner. I agree with your assessment regarding houses as time and money sinks and less efficient on all the fronts you note.

    In my case work space requirements and available local housing were determinants in my move to a house. Would ideally have preferred 900-1000 sq. ft coop apartment for us (my wife) and nearby 1000 sq ft. work space, preferably within walking distance and with nearby shopping. After five years of searching this arrangement was not in the cards.
    Commercial developers are largely in control of planning and create hopeless living situations where automobiles are required.

    A decade ago I went through something similar with my parents to what you have undertaken with your mother. In my case it started with them in a house (urban and their residence for 35 years) and me a half hour auto trip away in apartment. As their condition deteriorated mine did too. I would get calls at 2am to come and pull one of them off the floor as falls were happening regularly.

    What made an impossible situation possible was finding a competent home care worker from outside an agency who was, despite initial impression, excellent. Kendra was about fifty, from Trinidad with a lovely accent, a little rough around the edges, tattooed and a crazy christian to boot.

    The home care agencies were skimming a significant percentage off the wages of their staff who were unmotivated. The agencies also would switch out workers and the difficult process of orienting the new aide to the specifics of care would repeat.

    The other key was locating 2 coop apartments within the same building, one for parents one for us. Not surprisingly it was through the informal volunteer help network within the coop (a NORC – naturally occurring retirement community) that I found Kendra, word of mouth recommendation.

    Good luck I trust you’ll find a way to make it work.

  8. John A

    I am not sure how the home buying system works in the US, but do you have surveys done? These are designed/intended to discover faults and things that need fixing. The vendor/buyer then haggle over incorporating the costs of rectifying any such faults into the final sale price agreed. After that it is ‘caveat emptor’, unless the vendor knowingly lied about something on the sale declaration form.
    I, like Vlade, prefer a house to an apartment for a variety of reasons, the most important of which is that you are in control of costs. If the apartment management company says e.g. the roof needs replacing, or the exterior painted etc., they simply divide the costs, plus their fees, pro-rata between the apartments and you have no choice but to pay. As a house owner, whether or not deferred maintenance is false economy, at least you have the option of saving up for a big expense and also getting quotes and deciding which contractor to use. Plus in England, not many places have draconian rules about lawn mowing, washing hanging outside to dry, leafblowers etc.

    1. lordkoos

      Yes, in the US we have home inspections which are carried out after earnest money is put down. Any negative findings are then negotiating points for the buyer. Conversely, if nothing wrong is found, the seller has a stronger case.

  9. john bougearel

    LMAO, Wish I could be a fly on the wall.

    Remember “Hello Everybody, this is Paul Harvey, Stand by for news….much of our weather is mean and ugly this morning.”

    “And now you know [we want to know] the rest of the story.”

  10. Henry Moon Pie

    I hear you, Yves. I remember working full-time and trying, along with my spouse, to maintain a single family house and large yard. It can be frustrating, exhausting and expensive.

    There is another approach to housing that is neither a single family suburban with a mowed yard nor a big-city apartment that’s part of a huge hive. Our lot had two buildings on it when we bought it for $3,500 in 2011. One is a single family cottage; the other is a two-story, two-family house that must have even housed people in the basement in part of its 130 year-old life. Neither had been inhabited for years. The two-family was stripped down to the studs: no plumbing; no wiring; no dry wall.

    We tackled this rehab job as a family with the active participation of our middle-child son. While there is a lot left to be done–and there always will be–things are fairly comfortable now, and there are even some aesthetically pleasing aspects to our humble abodes. We’re currently housing six adults: my spouse and me; our daughter and her husband; our son and his girlfriend of four years. Our daughter and her husband are in the process of moving out because they were able to save a nice down payment by living here rent-free for 15 months, and they’ve bought a house in the ‘burbs where they are already dealing with some of the same kind of issues you discuss in this article. Meanwhile, our son is finishing up his professional training at his college alma mater which is 1 1/2 miles away while his girlfriend prepares to enter grad school at the same institution. They’re forming a non-profit to seek grants for using their acquired professional skills to help people in our very needy neighborhood.

    We have done all the work ourselves except for installing the gas lines. (All the metal had been ripped from both houses while they were vacant.) My son did the wiring. I did the plumbing and carpentry. My spouse did the dry wall and plastering. We have no mortgage. Our property taxes in this poor urban neighborhood are less than $1,000/yr. We do continue to put money into the houses to make them more comfortable, weatherized and visually pleasing, but we do that as our budget allows. If anything breaks, we know how to fix it because we installed it.

    Not everyone is cut out for something like we’ve done, and I’m not sure we would have tackled it at our age (60s) unless it was the best of not-great options. Also, our background is quite different from those raised in the ‘burbs and trained to be professionals. We grew up on farms, and our non-conformist natures led us to build our own adobe in a remote part of Sangre de Cristos when we were in our late 20s. We had not been disabled by job specialization and the lure of “convenience” as Wendell Berry writes about.

    My advice to young people is not much different from that given by the “level-headed dancer” to the “soldier on his way to Montreal.” While it works as well in a poor, forgotten urban neighborhood as in “the country,” the main point is to reject the drone life, develop the skills necessary to house and feed your family, generate income from as many diverse and durable sources as you can, build community where you live and do it with other people like family or friends. Let the Joneses ride down the road to ruin if they must while you learn to live on as little as possible while finding a place to “make a stand.”

    Spanish Pipedream (music)

    A Place to Make a Stand (movie clip)

  11. john bougearel

    p.s. Presently looking for a new home that is almost turnkey to avoid too much elbow grease on my part. What is more challenging is finding one that is not surrounded by cell towers and antennas, and discerning whether the home has likely had and still has mold issues…

    Just call me Slim Pickens.

  12. Bob

    Spoiled New Yorker, who finally has to work. Welcome to fly over country,

    Oh and what would a home be without chickens. And bees. And a garden – just put in the fall garden (with turnips)

    Try that in your NY apartment.

    1. Darius

      It takes all kinds. My family is from rural Michigan. They wouldn’t know what to do with themselves in a Manhattan apartment.

    2. john bougearel

      Tsk tsk Bob. Yves is wonderfully suited to what she does best. And she does it better than anyone I know. I daresay she also works as hard as anyone I have ever known. Spoiled and lazy are gross mis-characterizations to describe Yves.

      Further, when one is not gifted with the touch of being a handyman, nothing but frustration and irritability is going to come out of it. But if you got the gift, you can whistle while you work. If you ain’t got it, you cuss.

    3. vlade

      Dumb and bitter flyover, no wonder he’s poor and forgotten. How’d you like being called that by a stranger coming to your house?

      On a more serious note, bee keeping in the city can be done, all you have to do is a flat accessible roof. Indeed, flat accessible roofs can be also turned into some extremely nice gardens. I know people who keep chickens and pigs in the city (and only a few people around complain).

    4. Clive

      I guess you’ve never figured out all the hidden energy inputs in your rural idyll? My dad worked on rural electrification in the 1960’s and I can tell you for a fact that it’s those city slickers who are subsiding your power distribution infrastructure. That goes double for water and sewerage. Are you familiar with the concept of “economies of scale”? As you’re reading an economics blog, now’s your big chance to learn a few important things. Plus the transportation costs for all of those things you have to buy. As in “white flight”, the people who “flew” didn’t suddenly sprout wings to get them away from the city centres. How, exactly, do you think they get there?

      You also give the impression of suffering from the self-satisfied snobbery that afflicts all too many acquaintances of mine who live in the hoity-toity villages which adhere themselves to the outskirts of my town. At once decrying the urban architecture, infrastructure and facilities — plus the working-class vibe — while baking bread and scrambling their free range eggs from the woman who keeps chickens down the road on their Agas (complete with a spectacular 50kWh daily energy consumption, running on tank-stored LPG delivered by diesel truck) and patting themselves on their backs and giving themselves save-the-planet awards.

      Oh, and you’re rude and judgemental, too.

      1. PlutoniumKun

        Back in the late 1970’s an Irish public research organisation got itself eliminated for having the audacity to study the costs of rural vs city houses. It found, in short, that rural dwellers cost 3-5 times as much implicit public subsidy as urban dwellers – mostly with costs for road and electricity and phone connections. Rural politicians didn’t like the results and they were first on the chopping block when cutbacks came. It will differ of course from country to country according to the regulations and subsidies.

        1. Clive

          Yes, that’s the range I’ve seen widely reported.

          A seaside town in East Yorkshire near where I grew up (a fairly sizeable place, maybe 5,000 population) only got a supermarket about six years ago. It was simply not worthwhile as a business case to incur the costs of this sort of “end of the line” operation and even now, I’m pretty sure it’s marginal to keep the place supplied given how far it must be from a distribution centre (maybe only in tourist season does it really pay). And as it’s Tesco, I’d also venture it was built during their rather rash period of over expansion in the mid 2010’s.

          As a stand-alone retail unit, it wouldn’t last five minutes. So it’s implicitly subsided by other super profitable stores elsewhere. And yes, as you say, that’s before you get to roads and so on.

        2. Lynne

          And we’re back to slicing and dicing society, in that much-loved pastime of neoliberals, rather than looking at society as a whole in which rural residents contribute towards food security, environmental care, etc, and urban centers could contribute to economic and other support. Reminds me of an “environmentalist” when we offered a donation of an old dam and surrounding wetlands in exchange for assistance in cutting invasive Canada thistle and other weeds blown in from national grasslands unmaintained by the feds, “why should we do that when we can just force you to?” As a result, the dam and wetlands went away, so that the land could be mowed and sprayed with chemicals that were illegal to use on water and wetlands. *sigh*

          1. Clive

            I’m certainly not advocating that everyone should live in urban areas or high density housing. We’d lose, never to recover, our cultural heritage of rural life.

            But what I am saying is, in terms of energy usage and allocation of resources, rural communities, compared to urban and even exurban living, requires a disproportionate level of consumption. There’s nothing inherently virtuous about it. No amount of beekeeping will offset that.

            1. Lynne

              Yes, and when you say you are talking energy usage and “allocation of resources”, that pretty much proves my point. You are not factoring in what you get back for that “allocation of resources.” So, as in my example, the “environmentalist” considered our backbreaking labor as worthless, while the time and labor of his compatriots he valued very highly. Hence, the removal of wetlands. It’s not an issue of virtue. It’s an issue of whether you place any value on other people’s time and environmental resources, not to mention the food trucked to market on those roads that some city-dwellers complain about subsidizing. And, most importantly, it’s an issue of what you consider your community: your house or apartment; your neighborhood; your county; your country; your region; the world?

              1. Clive

                The problem is, resources are not infinite. While nobody enjoys the great outdoors, visiting historic places and countryside, appreciates the artisanal as much as I do, they demand constant maintenance to preserve them and even if they contribute non-financially (“social benefits”) to our wellbeing, how to you decide if, given that resources are finite, this is a good use of them?

                And I get to enjoy them because I can afford the access charges (money for transport, available leisure time). So they are inherently elitist.

                I don’t want to turn our societies into Giedi Prime. But I do want to challenge some assumptions about what we think is inalienably “worthy”.

                1. Lynne

                  It sounds like we are getting to the heart of economic policy, and you assign financial value only to those things which you perceive make you money. The problem with that is that, while you may perceive wetlands, for example, as valuable only in that you can go look at them, and therefore that can be discounted as inherently elitist, they are an integral part of the environment. Just because you do not perceive the essential nature of them does not mean they are only “non-financially” contributory to society. For all the talk about “fake meat”, etc, on the news, people seem to miss something most basic: organic matter may multiply but it can’t be created from nothing.

                  My recollection is that Giedi Prime was unable to survive on its own. To say we need to preserve and value that which is necessary to ensure we do not end up there does not mean making value judgments on what is “worthy”, but rather what is necessary. And just because some do not perceive necessaries as worth anything other than prettily scenic does not mean they are not necessaries.

        3. lordkoos

          Now that I live in a small town rather than a city, I have a better perspective. While rural living may indeed be subsidized, rural people do some of the most important work in the country – growing and raising your food.

  13. GERMO

    Plungers are great for sinks. The flat-bottom usually red color rubber kind. You have to cover that little runoff hole with some tape, or plug it with a cork maybe, but the way to do it is to have a little standing water in the sink and use the plunger to draw UP the obstruction. It’s gross because it’s a wad of hair and soap, now in the sink. I’ve done this many times in apartments, houses, and at work. And by the way if it fails, you need the good drain stuff from the hardware store, not Drano.

    It is something that if you manage it once, you will be able to bypass a plumber time and time again forever, at several hundred bucks a shot! But yes, not everyone likes the handy stuff so no judgement!

      1. polecat

        With regard to our sink plumbing, if needed, I unthread the P-trap and dump out the obstructive crap, then thread the trap back together. Done ! Sometimes, just lifting out, and cleaning the gunk from the drain plug, is all that’s needed.

    1. Carolinian

      Right. The idea is to suck the obstruction out, not push down the drain–at least when it comes to sinks.

    2. bob

      Agreed. Plungers aren’t going to fix and underlying plumbing problem, but they work well for moving clogs enough to get the water moving again.

      I’m also wondering if there is a more serious problem with the plumbing where the sinks aren’t connected to a roof vent? Is the water filling the sink backing up into it from another location?

      1. Lambert Strether

        > if there is a more serious problem with the plumbing where the sinks aren’t connected to a roof vent?

        Oy. I wouldn’t like to hear that. However, from what I hear, the sink had been running freely.

    3. anon in so cal

      There’s a plastic thing one can use for clogged drains. It is a long thin (approx 1/4 inch diameter) piece of plastic, maybe 2 feet long, with zig zag edges that grabs hair, etc. that is in the drain. Works better than chemicals.

    4. Lambert Strether

      > Plungers are great for sinks. The flat-bottom usually red color rubber kind. You have to cover that little runoff hole with some tape, or plug it with a cork maybe, but the way to do it is to have a little standing water in the sink and use the plunger to draw UP the obstruction.

      That’s interesting, but I’m not sure it was in the operator’s skill-set. Also, I’m interested to learn about this, because I never heard of it; I always used a snake for a clogged sink. Could this be a New England v. the South thing?

      1. annie

        nyc: we’ve always used plunger. architect husband , born bred brooklyn. never had to resort to snake.

        1. Clive

          Plungers rule here in the U.K. too. I’ve never come across a “snake”, except of the slithering-along-the-ground variety! Certainly not anything I’d be willing to push down a blocked drain.

      2. rob

        Personally, I tend to just use a coat hanger..as it is the thing closest at hand and usually does the trick. (a bent hanger may qualify to some as a “snake”) Generally a clog isn’t going to be so great to warrant pulling the trap.
        If you have clogs that big in your trap, you are putting the wrong things down the drain. Traps do get “build-up” on the interior walls of the pipe, and can be cleaned infrequently, to keep them from greatly reducing the size of the inner diameter of the pipe, and to keep them smooth and flowing freely.
        Plungers and snakes are used on both sides of the mason-dixon line…. It is usually just whatever is handy.IMO

    5. Yves Smith Post author

      I had already probed (using a wire hangar I had uncoiled down to get more length) down to the S in the pipe and it was clear. This is consistent with the experience of the day prior, that the drain ran freely once hot water was poured down it 2x. It was fine when I used it in the wee AM so I cannot fathom what if anything happened to have the home health care aide deem it to be so sluggish as to need a major intervention.

      Does your sink have an S curve in the pipes? This would never have worked in my bathroom in Manhattan either, I’d always create my own snake-approximation with clothes hangars and could get some of the stuff out over the S, although at some point I would have to call in the super. I eventually had to have the S replaced, it became too gunked to clear.

      1. Synoia

        Clogs sometimes clear. Does the house have a raised foundation, bouncy wood floors, or a slab (hard concrete floors)?

        If raised, someone needs to look in the crawlspace.

        The “S” can be unscrewed and replaced (yet another trip to home depot), and examined.

        I recommend a plumber.

      2. The Rev Kev

        What about using enzyme products to clean those pipes over time? Would they be an option at all? They should be safer to use than chemicals and not so hard as something mechanical.

          1. GERMO

            Pro tip, I’m a professional custodian — every week or two or however often you clean the bathroom turn on the hot water in the sink full blast and let it run while you clean.

          2. rob

            If the drain pipes of the house are either cast iron, or galvanized steel, the insides of those pipes can corrode and get smaller in open space. Some pipes are half the size inside as the exterior would suggest. I’ve seen some pipes(not that old…50 years or so) get almost completely closed off. If this is true inside the old piping… clogs would happen frequently. And there is no “fix” other than replacing them…. which the cost of pipe for a house is only about 1,000 to 2,000 dollars… to go to the store and get what you need . 10 or 15,000 to hire someone… just guessing..
            “s” traps don’t meet code anymore… but that is for a different reason.

  14. Eclair

    Oh lordy, Yves, I empathize with your situation!

    All the horrible stuff associated with the ‘blessings’ of home ownership, plus, you’re now living with your mum. And watching her age. It rubs you (and I mean all of us with parents on the verge of disappearing from our lives forever) raw.

    For me, a fallen-away Catholic, when I rail against all this stuff that takes me away from what I really want to do, it works (after a few minutes of swearing and railing against the heavens) to ‘count my blessings.’ When one is in a situation where one cannot change the circumstances, it’s sometimes the only way to cope and stay sane. I shrug, and mutter, ‘well, it could be worse.’ And then beg the neighbors for the name, any name, of a good electrician (plumber/contractor/carpenter/painter/yard person.)

  15. Jay

    Get some of these. You can pick them up at your local hardware store. They are very effective at pulling up all sorts of nasty stuff from sinks and bathtubs, and are very inexpensive.

    Part of your frustration appears to come from deferred maintenance. I have older relatives whom I’ve had to help, and did not one bit of maintenance on their duplex since the late 1980s. Roof. Soffits. Rain gutters. Carpet. Air conditioner. Deck removal. Pest abatement. All appliances (oven, refrigerator, washer, dryer). Even the forced air filter hadn’t been replaced since 1988. The hassle, time, and expense of maintenance is the same whether you own or rent. Things take time and nothing is free. If you do things on a schedule or as needed, it isn’t overwhelming. If you let things go, as older people tend to do, and it gets to be a series of interacting problems. But entropy happens to apartments too. If the house is too big, maybe it’s time to sell. Might be a tough proposition for your mom, but she may be needing greater services and more socialization soon anyway.

  16. Larry Mulcahy

    I agree with Yves argument completely, but housing and school policy in particular is what makes it difficult for me to choose an apartment over owning a home. With regards to housing, very few apartments are built with families in mind. In fact in most Massachusetts towns you only see developments going up that allow very few three bedroom apartments and skew towards getting in retired or near retired folks or childless singles/couples. Towns can’t and don’t want to handle a sudden influx of students as the slight increase in tax revenue from the new developments will not handle the increased costs associated with a larger student body. That won’t change as long as we largely fund school budgets out of local property taxes. And single family home owners constantly fret over how their property values will plunge if zoning laws change. It’s disheartening that my town meetings are only well attended when something like that is being voted on.

    Which gets to my second problem. I work from home and my wife commutes to Providence, RI for work. I would love to live in Providence. It’s a very nice small city with lots of attractive cultural offerings and great restaurants. But unfortunately the schools are in complete disarray and are currently being taken over by the state. If you have means in Providence, you send your kids to one of the three private schools in the city and avoid the mess entirely. But I’m quite sure I’m better off paying the higher costs of financing a mortgage and expenses in suburban Boston than private school tuition for two kids. And the schools are largely in disarray because they serve a poor, immigrant student body that often lacks strong family support at home. The truancy rate is just one indication of a poor functioning school system:

    https://www.providencejournal.com/news/20180822/summit-aims-to-dissect-chronic-absenteeism-in-providence-schools

    Once our kids are out of the school system we fully intend to downsize into an apartment in an urban area, probably Providence, but I’m open to other areas as well. My mother moved to Northampton, MA from my more rural hometown when she retired and it has really suited her well. She has a one bedroom apartment but volunteers and walks to lots of cultural events that are open to the public. She still has a car, but is not dependent on it and rather likes it that way.

    1. David Carl Grimes

      Schools are a major issue for young families in the city. A lot of inner-city schools are not very good. Parochial schools are a better choice but they still cost at least $5K a year or more per child plus they are constantly hitting you up for donations. Non-parochial schools? Maybe $15K or more. In my area, they cost $26K a year. How many can afford that?

      1. ambrit

        How long can the society afford that? As the Supreme Court said in one of it’s more lucid moments; “Separate is inherently unequal.”

    2. Another Scott

      I’ve found that in Massachusetts, the cost of education is a convenient excuse for not wanting more development in cities and towns. Many municipalities are at the point where, due to the state funding formula, most of the cost for each additional student is borne by the state, not the school district. Since the cost for schools is mostly fixed, the additional state money mostly reduces the strain on the budget.

      However, many people are unware of this and stuck in the old “families cost too much money” mindset. But people don’t want new development, seeing the impact that it has on traffic and aesthetics. Schools seem like a more acceptable reason than “I don’t want to see more apartment who will be filled with people making less money than me.” The attitude I see is basically, “new residences are ok, provided they are on the other side of town and are upscale.” There’s a reason the state has housing and transportations crises.

  17. MyHero

    My wife and I just bought your typical McMansion in the suburbs. We are relatively young in our careers, and our employment is in the suburbs – so apartment options are limited. But what really drove us to buy the McMansion was to have room for our elderly parents to live with us. Neoliberalism has forced us to chase employment by relocating away from family, and we don’t trust our country’s wonderful health care system to care for our elderly parents. So my in-laws are moving in with us first, so that they can gracefully age under our care, eventually to be followed by my parents (who are 10-15 years younger than my in-laws). The in-laws are still healthy and active, and are able to contribute to home costs/chores, so the arrangement is reducing the typical time/expense burden of owning a home. Plus my wife and I want to have children, so the in-laws would help defray the time/expense on that front (although neoliberalism has forced us to delay attempts at procreation to the point of being almost impossible).

    During the course of our home search, we noticed that many prospective buyers in our area were looking to establish the same arrangement as we have now. In our case, we are spending most our savings (if not all, once the dust settles) and taking on a lot of debt to renovate the home into our family’s personal retirement home. I am forever grateful and lucky to have the means to make this arrangement a reality, but I don’t really feel good about it. On the whole I feel both sad and embarrassed about it – sad that we can’t trust our country to provide care for our elderly parents, and embarrassed that we are now living in a McMansion (something I swore I’d never do) with all the environmental/status implications of such (people either despise our choice on environmental grounds, or are infatuated with our sudden perceived ‘wealth’ – both of which are isolating my wife and I from our typical social circles).

    Life today exposes us to such constant doses of moral hazard, I feel like I’m always forced to choose between bad and worse options. I shutter to think of the moment when internalizing the pressure no longer provides relief, and our country collectively decides to release that pressure through external means. It will be an ugly, violent, chaotic affair.

    1. ambrit

      Don’t feel bad. You are recreating what was standard for millennia before the recent past: the extended family.
      When my Dad was running the plumbing department for HUD Dade Florida, they had two solid city blocks of seven bedroom, four bath single family houses. Most of the tenants for these houses back then were Laotian, with extended families being the norm. Dad said that the Laotians were the best tenants, never giving trouble, keeping the places up, etc. He always put them at the front of the weekly ‘to do’ list.
      Don’t worry about the McMansion esthetic. When I worked in new home construction, we would joke around about how those McMansions would make great rooming houses in fifty years.

  18. The Rev Kev

    Hmmm. This is going to take some thinking this subject and I can see by the number of comments that it is a hot topic. How about a lot of random thoughts. Technically a house is a machine for keeping the rain off your head but it is more than that of course. I have lived in flats and there is not much charm to listening to your neighbour’s plumbing in the middle of the night. Another factor is that the people that you share a block of flats with is like having a family in that you have no say on who is in it. Maybe it all comes down to the fact that people are mostly territorial by nature. Just witness where a person works and how they tailor it to what they want. Note too the hatred of “hot-desking” in office settings. Lots of people like flats, especially when they are younger and I wish them well. I did when I was younger.
    Having a house, for all its pains, is a source of satisfaction to a lot of people and I wish them well also. Maybe a problem is that houses these days are much larger than they were in the past and larger usually means more potential for problems. House sizes now are double what they were back in 1960 so that is a lot of square footage. There is of course societal expectations of whom should have a house. One of the weirdest sights I have ever seen was near a Scottish mine. The manager had his house which would have just been an average house in Australian suburbia. The workers? Well, imagine that aliens had lifted a whole block of double story terraced flats from the middle of an English industrial city and plopped it into the middle of the country. That was where the workers lived – in the middle of miles of empty countryside. Sigh!
    Personally I like living in a house although I recognize the constant maintenance is like an endless battle against entropy. When we get too old, then a flat will once again seem to be the right choice, especially if it is not too far from medical facilities. Would it be more efficient to l have most people living in flats due to savings on space and material? Yes, but that gives you The Projects, Berlin’s Gropiusstadt and Grenfell Towers. To hell with that. With all the problems that we have with our house, in the end I had to keep telling myself to relax to the inevitable and get used to it. Every home owner has their own stories to tell and the people that live in a house that is being renovated are nothing short of martyred saints so maybe in the end I can only say that it is a matter of different strokes for different folks.

  19. rusti

    Car ownership is pretty much unavoidable, since even in those few suburbs with decent public transport, it’s designed for going in and of the city center (as in for commuting), not for provisioning, transporting kids, or running other errands.

    Timely post, Yves! I just visited my parents who are about to retire and moved from a suburban house to an urban condo in a college town. They’re now thinking that one car is adequate for the two of them and it doesn’t need to be used daily, and suddenly they have no use for garden tools, lawnmowers, etc. The grocery store and other daily needs are within walking distance, the bus stops right outside and costs 50 cents per ride for seniors, there are walking and biking trails somewhat removed from traffic. I think it will be a big quality of life improvement for them.

    Looking at the inspection of the house they just sold, I realize how many hundreds of things there are to go wrong that will be covered by their new HOA rather than them shelling out individually. Not necessarily much cheaper in the long run, but far less volatile and it requires far less time.

  20. rcd2010

    Having had my own home for many years, and having done lots of work on it over nearly 28 years – both make good and do-overs – we have embraced apartment living with enthusiasm. It helps we have a large-ish outdoor terrace, but the comfort of knowing that when something goes wrong, help is on its way (and included in the rent) is a blessing. Goof luck sorting out the glitches, and the home help care.

  21. oaf

    …leaf blowers!…global warming silicosis inducing circle jerkers…grrr!!!!

    And we ban plastic straws!

    1. Carolinian

      During the day my middle class/affluent neighborhood can be like living in a factory what with the leaf blowers, giant riding mowers etc. Peace and quiet should be one of the great advantages of living in a house.

      Still, I’ve spent more time living in apartments and would like to see one of those soundproof models. Perhaps because most Americans do grow up in houses they don’t seem that versed in the ethics of party walls.

  22. ptb

    Yes, home maintenance is a drag. At least you live in a place where hopefully there isn’t the threat of the heating system crapping out on a freezing winter evening (fun fact: hot water pumps can overheat, stop moving, and therefore become stuck in the energized -> overheated -> but-not-heating-the-house state.)

    Still isn’t most of it the having someone else to take care of it? I think condo/coop vs own-outright is on the same spectrum as own-vs-rent. There developments where a bunch of near-identical detached houses are built by one developer and common service is provided for renters. The step from that to a condo/coop type arrangement is just a contract tweak, isn’t it?

    I should mention btw that condo/coop is not true ownership by the way, since you are committed forever to paying a quite significant amount to save you from for the hassles described so well here, and many others too.

  23. Hepativore

    I am a 35-year-old millennial, and I wish I had the luxury of owning a home. I have always been stuck in crumbling apartments with loud tenants and negligent landlords. While I have mostly lived in small and medium-sized towns, these have been all I could afford both as a college student and the meager income from the jobs I have had.

    I realize that home-ownership can be a lot of work, but I would like something to show for the money I throw away on rent every month. There is also the fact that many of my landlords have been very restrictive in terms of the policies that they have had for their tenants while completely ignoring regular maintenance.

    Finally, I do not like not having a garden. I have no space to grow things like roses or fruit trees and my current landlord would forbid anyone from digging gardening plots in the lot, anyhow.

    If I had my way, I would move to rural Michigan, particularly the northwestern corner of the lower peninsula. The problem is that because it is so rural up there, jobs are few and far between in that area.

    1. Henry Moon Pie

      “I realize that home-ownership can be a lot of work, but I would like something to show for the money I throw away on rent every month.”

      This is how we felt, and why we were willing to live in something little better than a barn for a couple of years as we used what would have been rent money to make it more livable.

      It was hard living and lots of work, but now we have lots of room and are surrounded by gardens we’ve developed ourselves.

      I call it bootstrapping a house.

    2. diptherio

      I realize that home-ownership can be a lot of work, but I would like something to show for the money I throw away on rent every month.

      This is the main reason that people I know want to own a home: the security of knowing you can’t be made to move for no reason (relatively weak tenant protections in a lot of states) and that any improvements you make to the property will belong to you.

      I’m part of a small group of people working on starting a housing co-op/ecovillage here in tiny little Hot Springs, MT. Most of us are not in a position that owning our own house would even be possible, and the rental options here are pretty crap. We’re hoping that we can figure out a way to procure some housing for ourselves collectively, to realize all the benefits of home ownership (relative security) and renting (not being solely responsible for upkeep).

      1. Synoia

        Step 1. Find a plot of land zoned for the density of residential you want with sewer and other utilities.

      2. Robert McGregor

        We stayed once at an Airbnb which was a “Tiny House” in a group of Tiny Houses in a mountain area 20 minutes from downtown Durham, NC. It was a “Coop of Tiny Houses,” and was financed I think by a millennial woman with an environmental bent, and a good inheritance.

    3. j84ustin

      As a homeowner and a former housing counselor (and fellow millennial), let me tell you – rent is not throwing your money away. It’s just a trade off. I empathize with you regarding your ability to own a home. I was fortunate I was in the position to buy in ’15 before prices really got expensive in my chosen neighborhood. Most of my friends are still renters; some by choice, some by necessity.

    4. Yves Smith Post author

      You are missing the point. You can own an apartment. It does not have to be a rental, and as I said re Manhattan, the condos and coops were nicer than the rentals. But outside big cities, that is seldom an option and that is the fault of prevailing tastes in city planning.

  24. roadrider

    LOL leaf blowers. I live in an apartment complex where the landscaping contractors are ever present and use leaf blowers liberally even for cleaning out the outdoor stairwells (its a garden-style apartment in a suburban area). That’s in addition to the mowers, tree and brush trimmers and lawn edgers all of which are as loud if not louder than the blowers. I have used a digital decibel meter to measure the noise and they do exceed the county limits for noise even inside my third-floor unit with the windows closed. But is hopeless to file a complaint since it requires two people to file one which is hard to do when you’re working at home and no neighbors are present (not that any of them give a family blog anyway). You can call a cop to be a witness but by the time they get there the noise might be gone.

    I look forward to buying a townhouse some day (when I retire) because I’ve had it with apartments. In any of the so-called “luxury” complexes I’ve lived in you can hear every toilet flush, door slam and loud talker. I live on the top floor otherwise the footsteps would drive me nuts. I don’t, and won’t, live in an inner city so I can’t escape car ownership. And finally, the prices per square foot keep escalating due to lack of rent control where a fixed-rate mortgage would remain constant.

    Yes, there’s a downside to home ownership but I think you’re romanticizing the apartment life a bit too much based on your own experience which does not equate to mine.

    1. polecat

      I much prefer using a push-broom, as do my avian friends …

      When energy costs rise precipitously … along with hydrocarbon depletion, then how we live will change considerably .. pushing a broom, in front of one’s green-roofed, earthen-bermed, passive solar home or some such .. I think what Yves brings forth, unintentionally, is that for too long, detatched domiciles have been built/designed with very little fore-thought towards energy use/ retention and structural longevity. Change will happen by necessity, perhaps with the accompaniment of fewer human populations.

    1. Off The Street

      One side-effect of engaging trades, especially for remodels, is that they can make extra money by selling your contact information. You will then receive calls routinely from all those guys who just happen to be working in your neighborhood, year, right, and could drop by to give you a free estimate.

      While I feel for the workers, after so many calls I am tempted to change my phone number. Next time I’d consider requiring them to agree not to publicize my information, as if that would really help.

  25. fajensen

    In my experience, one must budget about 2% of what the house is worth for maintenance and put that in a savings account. You will be glad you did!

    Regarding plumbing, if the water backs up in the sink then the problem is further down the pipes and, in my experience, don’t bother with it. Just get the drain cleaning specialist in (here it is a guy in a van with a high pressure, hot water, hose that they will run through all the pipes all the way to the road). They also will figure out what is likely wrong. They can run a tiny camera through the pipes as well. Here, it’s 180 EUR for the unblocking job. Every year or so because my pipes are installed wrongly.

    1950’s – likely the glazed ceramic pipes they used back then have sunk or split apart so tree roots have gotten into them. This is where the “hidden pipes” part of the home insurance is well worth the extra money: That will typically be a 6-10 kEUR job to replace all the pipes all the way to the road sewer and re-establish the garden.

    The joys of Civilisation, eh?

    1. Harold

      I agree. It sounds like the healthcare worker took it upon herself to fix the sink. This should not be part of her job description. A plumber, in this case, would definitely be worth the outlay. Or drain specialist, as the case may be. After a while, one finds, the plumber has to come less often. We gradually had to replace quite a lot of our old pipes, because when fixed in one place, they exploded in another. Now they no longer do so.

      For our part,, we have chosen to just live with an upstairs bathroom sink that doesn’t drain very well. Though we did have to call a plumber to install a new faucet for that sink not too long ago. Still, we feel lucky to live in a house — with all its imperfections.

      1. Yves Smith Post author

        No one asked her to intervene with the sink and I had told her “no,”, but then she went after I had gone out to get permission from my mother to keep mucking with it, instead of doing what she should have been doing, like staying in the vincinity of my mother, who is a fall risk, and making sure she did her physical therapy exercises. See my comment about “industrious and stupid” = dangerous.

        And it isn’t as if this sink was critical, there’s another bathroom on the way to my mother’s bedroom and it wouldn’t have inconvenienced her to switch to that one for a day if the plumbers couldn’t come over pronto.

    2. pricklyone

      This, mostly. Sink appears tp be running freely, but is just holding the water from past uses..Needs at least a “roto rooter” snake out to the end of the house line, beyond that it is the municipal/county resposibility.
      I have noticed that all of the drain cleaners have disappeared from local yellow pages, and are now full service plumbing firms, or have been replaced by such. I used to get my 80 ft. line snaked out for just over 100 dollars. Now it’s a job at plumber rate much higher…

  26. Hayek's Heelbiter

    Thanks, Yves.

    Totally agree. From the macro level, it might be worth investigating zoning restrictions on multifamily units. Sometimes, they just aren’t available in suburban areas.

    Just spent two weeks in Charlotte, North Carolina (not inaccurately nicknamed “Car Lot”), where single family housing is the zoning-driven norm, and my parents’ 4,000 sq. ft. house on 1/4 acre in one of the nicest areas of Southeast Charlotte sold for $250k. No wonder the city is a draw.

    From 7:30 in the morning until about 9:00 a.m., and from 5:00 p.m. till 7:00 p.m., the city becomes one vast commuter parking lot, I don’t know how many hours that I will never have again to spend creeping along at 15 miles an hour in massive tailbacks.

    As far back as the 1970s, urban planners warned that unless the city improved its approach to zoning and mass transit (and heeded rather than deliberately violating every single precept of Jane Jacobs The Death and Life of Great American Cities), permanent gridlock would result. And sure enough, it has come to pass.

    And the situation is going to only get exponentially worse.

    https://www.sparefoot.com/self-storage/blog/why-everyone-is-moving-to-charlotte-nc/

    The Charlotte metro is the fastest-growing in the United States. From 2009-2014, 634,000 people people moved into the area — that’s a 36.4% growth rate, the fastest in the nation.

  27. Summer

    I assume, the main thing that has pushed most most people into desiring a home is having children or wanting children.
    They are two things (home & children) that are practically marketed together as a package deal. $$$$

    You seldom see a commercial about a single person owning a home or with the smiling realtor standing next to the smiling bachelor or bachelorette….

    1. Hepativore

      That could also be due to the fact that the down-payment as well as the resulting mortgage are priced well out of the react of the average single income in many locales. If you make under $40,000 a year, you can probably forget about owning a home around many medium-to-large sized towns.

      It is rather ironic that decades ago in the late-1950’s and early-1960’s it was a big deal for many people that women did not want to be stay-at-home wives and mothers anymore. Now most middle-class couples are required to have both partners working as they now need a dual income to afford the same lifestyle that was available to people on a single-income decades ago. It still baffles me that there was once a time where somebody like a factory worker could own a car, support two or more children, a spouse, and own a home all on a single income like that of the US in the 1950’s. Few people have the luxury to be stay-at-home spouses even if they wanted to be anymore.

  28. MoBee

    Why is a health care worker responsible for cleaning the kitchen and bathrooms?

    While I’m sure your frustration at home-ownership (unattainable for many of us) is fully warranted, I’m a bit then aback at how the domestic worker in your home is talked about in what seems a side-tangent. “Stupid” is a direct quote, and lazy is implied, about a person working what is presumably a minimum-wage and no- to low-benefit job to take care of an elder in your family. Jeesh. Your shitty pipes in your fancy house are hardly her problem (though if she has to clean your toilet, I suppose you’ve made it her problem). I’m sure she’ll be oh so disappointed to be “let go” from serving you.

    1. bob

      I’m also having a hard time finding fault with her going WAY outside her duties to try and fix something. She was trying to help, probably because not having a working sink would make her job a lot harder?

      1. Lambert Strether

        > trying to help

        One needs to understand the limits to one’s competence. If the TV goes on the fritz, is she going to open it up and start fiddling around? Or, more to the point, an electrical problem or a gas leak.

        That said, it’s certainly better to be motivated by a desire to help than by malice!

      2. Yves Smith Post author

        I do not like people operating outside their job duties and competence and neglecting what they are SUPPOSED to be doing and then being insubordinate. I told her to stop. She kept going despite that after I left the house.

        What you also miss is that her playing plumber had her at the opposite end of the house from where my mother sits all day. My mother is a fall risk. If something had happened, like she fell and knocked herself out, the home health care aide would have had no idea. Her job is to take care of my mother, not to assign herself tasks completely outside her scope of responsibilities that make her feel important at the expense of her primary responsibilities.

        The sink was working until the aide tried her plunger routine, which stopped it up totally. It didn’t bother me at all at. It was at most a little sluggish, and then only if you poured a lot of water in it, which is not my or my mother’s use case. And as indicated, it drained very well after 2 pots of boiling water were poured in it.

        It was working again in the AM when I got up, and my mother did not have any problem with it. So I question the home health care aide’s claim that suddenly later in the day it was blocked. I now wonder if she did something (akin to what happened later with the plunger) that made matters worse.

    2. Yves Smith Post author

      You have a lot of nerve second-guessing when you aren’t there and didn’t bother reading what I wrote with any care. For starters, you didn’t even get that this is my mother’s home, not mine.

      The home health care aide was insubordinate and created a $1000+ mess of unnecessary damage to the counter when I told her to stop as soon as I saw her with a bottle of Drain-O. And a resin counter is NOT a fancy counter.

      No one asked her to muck with the sink. It was draining adequately. This was her-self created project at the expense of neglecting duties that are important, including ones important to my mother’s health, like supervising her daily exercises (which I can’t do because by the time I get up, she’s already getting tired).

      She never should have gone out and bought Drain-O. I was not happy to see she’d done that without even telling me what she planned to do.

      She was getting involved with the drain (not her job, and the drain wasn’t even blocked, merely a bit sluggish, it didn’t bother me and I use that sink too) at the expense of doing things she was supposed to be doing, like emptying the dishwasher (a hassle for me since I am having trouble walking) and having my mother do her exercises (which I had repeatedly told her needed to happen daily and she’d kept refusing to do it, and by the time I get up in the PM, it’s too late, my mother is too tired).

      I told her not to use it.

      She insisted on mucking with the drain and I told her only pour hot water in it. There’s another bathroom on the way to my mother’s room and it’s no more net walking (a big consideration) for her to use that one.

      And it’s not just the cost of fixing the counter, it’s the time involved (finding contractor, having to choose a replacement sink and counter and maybe sink hardware too) and the disruption while the contractor sare in.

      I didn’t add that this home heath care aide goofs off by going out to her car multiple times a day for 15 minutes+ at a time to make calls. This is completely inappropriate since my mother is a fall risk and the home health care aide is out of ear and eyeshot in her car. She could call from the kitchen, a mere 15 feet from my mother, if she needed to or wanted a mini-break, and still not be abandoning her post regularly while nominally on duty and still be able to have a conversation that my mother would not hear. Similarly, she’s arrived and sat in her car as opposed to coming in and getting my mother up. I’ve woken up, noticed I didn’t hear the aide in the house, and either gotten my mother up myself (<4 hours after I turned in) or worse, found that my mother managed to struggle out of bed on her own. No other person (and we've had 20 between two services, there's a lot of turnover in these roles) has ever fucked off in such a flagrant manner. Sadly my mother tolerates this danger to her person because this aide cleans the kitchen and her bathroom daily, when the others do so less often.

      1. kiwi

        Most caretakers provided by services are horrible. If you find a good one, hang on to them like there is no tomorrow.

        I found that managing caretakers was horribly stressful (and most of them do need to be extensively managed and trained by you). I was furious 24 hours a day because of their incompetence.

        My experience was that if they were good at one task, such as preparing healthful meals, they weren’t good at other tasks, such as cleaning. I was lucky, though, as I had a few good ones.

        I just placed my Dad in memory care after he lived with me for almost three years. I wish you lived in Denver; I know a few really good caretakers who could work for you directly (and you could pay them more instead of the companies taking so much of the hourly fee). Of course there is the hassle of taxes, payroll, and insurance (workman’s comp), but my computations indicated it would be much cheaper to hire directly than through a company.

    3. kiwi

      OMG, you have no idea how destructive these people can be.

      First of all, it is part of their job to do light housekeeping, such as mopping, vacuuming, laundry (for the elderly person) per the companies that provide the workers. The workers have plenty of downtime (which I have no objection to when they finish whatever they need to do) even when they do cleaning tasks.

      Second, don’t ever have them do anything beyond their regular chores even if they offer because of their inability and destructiveness. Yves calls them stupid because they are stupid. If they were more intelligent, they would likely be working at a different job.

      Not only do you have to tell them what to do, you have to tell them what not to do. I had to hang up signs – don’t re-arrange the dishes, don’t flush personal care towels in the toilet, don’t use metal spoons on non-stick cookware, etc. I had one caretaker turn around all the clothes in the closets on the hangers. Another one burned up a kitchen towel and tried to hide it in the trash. Another one mopped the floor without diluting the floor cleaner, so the floor was all sticky. The same idiot mopped the floor and left dirt streaks all over. Several burnt and melted cooking utensils; they would use metal utensils, burn the food, then scrape the non-stick surface off with the metal utensils, thus destroying the cooking pans. I ended up buying those indestructible copper pans. One baked something with fat on a tray with holes in it, causing the fat to drip down in the oven, making a huge mess. Another managed to melt my dishpan by putting a hot pan in it. Then, they would not do the obvious, like clean my Dad’s rolling tray. I waited and watched for weeks to see if anyone would wipe the top of it, but nope, they just couldn’t manage. Oh, and they repeatedly destroyed kitchen towels, and would use bleach on regular towels, destroying the color.

      The caretaking they provided was barely up to snuff. Most of the time, my Dad was unshaved and hadn’t brushed his teeth, so I had to help him anyway. Most couldn’t put together a healthy meal if their life depended on it; they think stuffing someone with mac and cheese or grilled cheese sandwiches is nutritious. One even made a mayonnaise sandwich! What the heck is a mayonnaise sandwich? I would cut up fresh vegetables, put them in small containers, yet they would sit there in the fridge day after day – the caretakers wouldn’t even give him this food, they were so lazy.

      Unfortunately, they do get very low pay, but at the same time, they require so much management, are so destructive, and don’t do quality caretaking anyway. Just managing these idiots is horribly stressful in itself (oh, and lest you think I am being racist, they were of all races. The floor ‘mopping’ I mentioned above was done by a white person)

      1. Yves Smith Post author

        To clarify: I was in no way, shape, or form calling home health care aides GENERALLY unintelligent.

        That was a comment on this particular home health care aide ONLY.

        We’ve had some smart ones, like a nurse who works one shift 2X a month to get a little extra cash, a woman who has a mini-business she runs selling wreaths (I think she makes her real money there but the home health care aide work is to make sure she has a base line of steady income) and others who aren’t school smart but have lots of common sense. This particular woman means well and is very earnest but has some real deficiencies in the common sense category.

        The ones we have had so far have not been destructive like yours were (although they haven’t been cooking, which is clearly a big hazard) but there is a fair bit of “WTF were they thinking” in what they do v. not do and how they did it.

        1. cnchal

          > . . . a woman who has a mini-business she runs selling wreaths (I think she makes her real money there . . .

          That type of business got whacked big time by the post office about a month and a half ago with 300 to 400% shipping price increases from one day to the next.

          https://community.etsy.com/t5/All-About-Shipping/Dimensional-Weight-and-2019-USPS-Shipping-Rates-Changes/td-p/126447596

          This malicious price increase is asphyxiating small business everywhere. The constant advertising by USPS about how they want to ship ecommerce packages is fake advertising, a subsidy to the mass media owners, as USPS refugees flee to UPS where the price increase is a mere 125% or so.

          Everything is like Calpers.

  29. Jim A.

    OTOH, the nice thing about owner occupation of single family homes is that if you don’t have a HOA, you can, to a degree tailor the maintenance to your taste. If you want your lawn perfect you can spend the time and money to make it so. I, on the other hand do very little lawn work beyond mowing. If you want brand new stainless steel appliances and can afford them, you can have them . If you don’t care about that little section in the basement where the linoleum is peeling up, you can just leave it. You don’t have to pay to maintain things that you don’t care about or put up with shoddy quality if you can afford good, durable solutions.

  30. Adams

    Shame. My yard does not look like my neighbors’ yards. At all.

    Dog. I love my dog and consider dogs in apartments to be abuse.

    Dog wins.

  31. flora

    Oh man… reading between the lines… there’s a whole lot more going on here than simply moving from an apartment into a house. Hope things smooth out.

    1. jo6pac

      LOL my thought also. I’ve rented the same rural house for 40yrs. I use to fix broken items myself because my rent hasn’t gone up in 25yrs. This house with a little remodel would rent for 4500.00 per month or more and I pay 540.00. Greatest landlords ever.

  32. Deschain

    A few thoughts –

    1) Apartments don’t get you away from the cost of maintenance. It’s simply embedded in your rent.
    2) While the cost of a house + maintenance may be more than apartment rent on a monthly basis, you do get a fair bit of that house cost back when you sell.
    3) If you have a difficult landlord, dealing with them can be a significant tax on your time and emotionally frustrating to boot.
    4) In a house, you are your own landlord. You can decide what to pay others to do, what to do yourself, and what to ignore. You can make the time/money tradeoff in whatever way best suits you (assuming you don’t over-care about what the neighbors think).

    Houses definitely can be significantly overpriced relative to apartments. That was definitely the case in San Francisco 20 years ago, but much less so now. I don’t fetishize home ownership (I’ve spent long stretches of my life in apartments and generally had ok experiences), but I don’t denigrate it either.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      You are missing the point that maintaining a multi-unit building is inherently more efficient due to shared services and the commonalty of fixtures.

  33. freedomny

    I’ve lived in coop apartments most of my adult life. I am selling mine and will never live in a coop again. My apartment is quite large – about 1,000 square feet and I plan on moving to a smaller house – 900 sq ft. My living costs will go way down as I currently pay over 1,100 for maintenance. This maintenance doesn’t really cover any repairs I need to do. If there is a leak in my faucet, I need to pay the plumber. If there is an electrical problem – I pay for the electrician. The only time the coop will pay for repairs is if it is structural or within the walls. Additionally the coop board can really mess with you. I had sold my apartment last year to an all cash buyer who was a managing director at a well known firm. The buyer was rejected because the superintendent (who is a favorite of the board president) didn’t like the buyer’s dog. The managing agent later told my attorney that the buyer was rejected for financial reasons – an all cash buyer with amazing income and tons of assets. So coop apartments in the NYC area can be a real pain.

    1. pretzelattack

      the boards can be a real problem, it’s kind of a luck of the draw, but you can talk to people who live there who may give you an honest assessment before buying. another possible problem is some kind of kickback scheme on major repair jobs. i had to pay several large assessments to “fix the roof” on my prior condo. urban rents have skyrocketed–that’s why so many people are either homeless or sharing these days.

  34. Jerry B

    As I have mentioned in previous comments my wife and I recently sold our house and relocated to an apartment in Neenah, Wi (just outside Appleton). I can echo Yves frustration with the hassles of home ownership while agreeing with many commenters on the benefits of home ownership vs. apartment living especially in the US.

    A quick aside on apartments and IMO an example of the degradation of US society. In the mid 1990’s I had a garden apartment in a nice six flat in Rosemont, IL that was owned by an older couple who lived in the six flat across from me. My young son and I lived there for five years and it was great. Decent respectful neighbors, close to the city, etc. My next apartment experience was in 2008 when my wife, my son, and I had an apartment in what appeared to be a very nice complex in the far northwest suburbs. It was hell. Noisy, dysfunctional neighbors (even with a mix of backgrounds and income levels), poor management, poor maintenance, etc. I could not get back into a house fast enough.

    In skimming the comments here I did not read one of the problems with owning house/condo/townhouse in 2019 that I have experienced. The internet. Back in the day you could put a house on the market and people would come see it. Even if they did not “love it” they might like the potential the house has and think “I could work with this”.

    Now thanks to the real estate websites and apps such as Pinterest, etc, people can see pictures of the house and immediately form an opinion/judgement. And thanks to Pinterest people want upgrades like they see on Pinterest, i.e. hardwood floors, granite countertops, etc. etc. For example we had the interior painted and when we talked to the painter he said many of his customers are painting their interiors light gray. Why? Because that is what the trend it when they look at Pinterest or Realtor.com. Sigh.

    Yes you can sell a house today “as is” depending on various factors usually as always location, location. But if you want to get the most money for the house and have it sell quickly it is important to have the “upgrades” that people want and/or what they see on Pinterest, HGTV, This Old House, etc.

    Overall I enjoyed living in our townhouse for the last several years, but the last few months of getting the house “upgraded” and then dealing with realtors and today’s judgemental, entitled buyers are the worst parts of owning a house that Yves describes above.

    At least my wife and I were smart when we moved our apartment this time. This time instead of getting an apartment in another noisy, dysfunctional apartment complex we found a reasonable apartment in a very nice and most importantly clean, well maintained, and quiet , senior 55+ small apartment complex. So far so good.

  35. Paul O

    I like looking after my house – at least til now.

    I can wire, plumb, brick – actually most things other than plastering large areas. Having done so for years I have all possible tools. Regulation is making some of this harder as DIY. And I am getting older.

    It is a small British semi, built in the 50’s though – so modest but well done. However the plot is a doozy for doubling the size of the place – which would make good financial sense if I could clear the mental space to run with it (for this I would use a builder).

    I would be happy in an apartment (flat) though. But partner and pets love the garden.

    (for some reason I have leveled up my starting with an ‘And’ game after reading here recently)

  36. John

    Taking care and responsibility for an elderly parent and moving in with them is a huge and stressful undertaking. It is particularly daunting if it is a childhood home.
    On the plus side, it can be an opportunity to resolve all sorts of relationship issues and is a huge opportunity for personal growth.
    A long time ago now, I helped my stepmother care for my terminally ill father for his last six months. I always say that last six months was the best of many gifts my father gave me in this lifetime. Watching him die allowed me to face and resolve some of my own fear of death. The decrepitude of his 200 year old house in the core of a small town was appropriate to the situation.
    “That the master and his house are hasting each other to their death surely resembles the fate of the few on the morning glory.”
    And what you are doing certainly beats the $5k-$10k per month cost of institutional care for your mom. Neoliberal eldercare is about the benjamins.
    Btw, both Lowes and Home Depot have great pop in bath sinks for very reasonable prices and can arrange installation if you don’t care about getting a custom install.

    1. Lambert Strether

      > can arrange installation

      Interesting. If they’re good. I had good luck with Home Depot installing linoleum in a bathroom. If the job can be done from a three-ring binder, I bet they could do it.

  37. petal

    Just sent a couple of contractor and electrical/plumbing suggestions by email.

    The transition period is the pits. It took me about 6-8 months to adjust after moving from busy Cambridge/Boston to middle of nowhere NH. It was jarring, even though I had wanted to move for some time. My body had to adjust to the relative peace and quiet compared to the city, and my mind had to adjust. It’s a real physical and mental change that occurs. There’s nothing that can be done to hurry it up, it takes as long as it takes. And that was with no dependents(senior or otherwise) to distract and contend with. For that period I was a short fuse and every little thing that went wrong was irritating to the point I wanted to punch somebody. Totally out of character for me. It is hard to describe.

    I moved from a shared, rented condo in an old victorian house to a shared, rented townhouse in a development that is surrounded by woods. No longer hear footsteps and creaking above, gunshots(well, only during hunting season now), the 24-7 hum of traffic, no light pollution at night, and no crime worries. Some day I hope to have a house(yeah right as if I’ll ever be able to afford it!) and some land of my own as I dislike having neighbours and don’t mind manual labor. I enjoy gardening and currently have to drive 4-5 miles to the allotment. And I can have dogs here-which is the best thing. I hate renting. It is unstable.

    Hang in there-this too, shall pass.

  38. Mark Gisleson

    I’m in my third year of first time home ownership. I have no practical skills (I’m a good typist, I know how to build tires, and that’s about it). It’s daunting.

    So I cheated. The seller referred me to a guy who had worked on my house and knew it, and does maintenance/carpentry for a local hospital chain. Because I post under my own name, I won’t say how I ingratiated this guy to me other than to say, ‘by any means necessary.’ Not having to worry about infrastructure helped a lot.

    Walking barefoot in your yard is something you cannot do when you live in an apartment. My exercise program is to keep my large backyard free of twigs and other things that aren’t fun to walk on barefoot. This lets me walk around the yard after dark, insects permitting.

    Everything is a project, and I design my projects in ways that are good exercise for me. That’s not always the easiest way. I could have the garage powerwashed, but instead I’m getting set to scrape it by hand. This keeps my upper back in shape for raking and snow shoveling.

    I won’t beat this to death, just saying that I’ve been quite surprised by how easily I’ve turned household chores and maintenance into my exercise/wellness program. I understand your situation is quite different, but still you should look to see if any of your new responsibilities are opportunities in disguise.

  39. TimH

    Instead of grass lawn, consider creeping thyme. It uses less water than grass, there’s no mowing, and the airy depth of it supports an ecosystem of creepy crawlies very happily. The purple flowers in spring attract bees too.

    1. Arizona Slim

      Or try ivy and pachysandra. It worked for the Slim family. Got us out of that lawn mowing chore, which we didn’t like.

  40. eg

    Other than a few years in university residences and less than five in a couple of apartments (a tower and a small, 6-unit two-story) many years ago I have lived my entire life in suburban houses.

    Certainly the upkeep is both expensive and a nuisance, but having grown up in one it was difficult to imagine bringing up our children anywhere else.

    I suspect my wife and myself will be here until we are close to physically unable to manage the upkeep — I hope not to wait until a crisis forces the move, and I think I’ll be the one agitating to move on sooner rather than later, but anticipate resistance on that front.

  41. Adam Eran

    Recommended reading in this connection Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream by Duany, Speck and Plater-Zyberk.

    Personally, I’d say auto-centric sprawl is modern Potlatch. It squanders resources (land, drive time) and makes more efficient, even more pleasant living less possible. Wherever a nice, mixed-use, pedestrian friendly alternative is available, people pay premiums to live there. Heck, people pay premiums to live in places like Hong Kong and New York City. The complaint that big city crime is a problem is baloney, too. Per-capita crime is lower in NYC than in sprawl Phoenix. Such more compact living *requires* investment in the public realm, so… NYC as Central Park.

    The sense of community is one of the first things sabotaged by sprawl, notorious for its alienation, even in literature. The public realm, including social space, is privatized. Public gatherings occur at the (private) mall, where the very wall shout “buy me!,” not the town square. Even an encounter on the street typically spills out into the traffic lane, in sprawl. Parks are leftover floodplain, and newer public buildings in sprawl are typically concrete tilt ups, not the magnificent architecture of older buildings.

    Of course viable (i.e. unsubsidized) transit is virtually impossible where developed density is too low to provide enough customers within a walk of the stops. Lots of sprawl further deprecates transit by leaving unfinished sidewalks, or sidewalks next to fast-flowing traffic (dangerous!). Pedestrians don’t like sprawl.

    In a bit of good news, the State of California requires all new development to use “Complete Streets” — i.e. streets configured for pedestrians and cyclists as well as autos. Pure sprawl designs streets for autos only, with pedestrians as very much an afterthought.

    One partial remedy if you live in sprawl (as I do): get to know your neighbors. Gathering a list of neighbors’ phone numbers is a nice excuse to knock on their doors, and can be the beginning of many good things–like a neighborhood barbecue. It also means you’re safer. You don’t have to confront the kid siphoning your gas by yourself, and risk reprisals.

    Anyway…my sympathies for the “joys” of home ownership. It ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.

  42. Susan the other`

    Yves, your mom’s house sounds like a classic. On a good lot in a good, convenient location. It’s a keeper I’d say. The best way to approach these tasks is to think about what you need. As long as your mom has good access around the house and a reasonable home care person (it’s hard to find one you like, but don’t give up), the person you need to make comfortable is you. Respect the old architecture, people will love it, but do take care of old plumbing, wiring, fixtures, etc. Make sure it is safe and the roof is good. Set aside the area you need and just make it fit your brilliant but unhandy (I’m sure lazy is the wrong word for you.) world view. This way you leave your options open, you don’t spend money on fix ups that won’t make a difference, and both you and your mom will be comfortable. About ridiculous lawns and landscaping – I’d advise an over the fence conversation to see if something more environmentally friendly and sensible could replace it. Your neighbors are probably thinking the same thing. It sounds like a nice place. Don’t forget some good rocking chairs for the front porch – it is the South after all.

    1. Susan the other`

      And also here’s some maybe useful info. Last winter, almost as if I had willed it, 3 (that’s 3 very big 2 x 10 x 16) rafters broke under the weight of an ice dam to break all previous records. So it was a big fat fix on the insurance company’s bill. The adjustor told me that recently the company is just breaking even because of the weather. No surprise. But they paid for putting us back together with new, extra strong lam beams for rafters. So it was a big deal and they did all this work from the inside so as not to screw up the shingles. But it took a month of them coming and going and dust and chaos. And during that month Bill had lots of doctors appointments, etc. You get the picture. So I just kicked back mentally. It worked. After a few days of cross-eyed misery I decided to turn that room into my studio. It has natural light to die for and is big enough for work benches and drawing tables. Since making that decision, I’ve been almost giddy. Get advice on good, reliable workers, plumbers, etc. The insurance contract almost demands it and they get a hard contract. So, I’ll send you a monotype if I can perfect my (lazy) technique.

  43. Harry

    Totally agree Yves. I have tried both. Hate houses. Part of the problem is the time sink. But due to construction methods its actually much worse in the US compared to the UK. Double layered brick has a lot of advantages to wood frame construction. It needs much less maintenance. Painting, or siding. Downspouts and gutters need to be cleared. Vermin and infestation problems are more likely.

    Of course, on the plus side I have learned a lot. But not enough to save me from rapacious and fully employed plumbers.

    Looking forward to ridding myself of the kids and heading back to the City asap.

  44. Sick Canuck

    I was surprised to learn that the post WWII sprawl was a defensive policy beginning in 1945 to reduce the US vulnerability to a nuclear war. After the development of the hydrogen bomb, the dispersal was intensified.

    In 1945, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists began advocating for “dispersal,” or “defense through decentralization” as the only realistic defense against nuclear weapons, and the federal government realized this was an important strategic move. Most city planners agreed, and America adopted a completely new way of life, one that was different from anything that had come before, by directing all new construction “away from congested central areas to their outer fringes and suburbs in low-density continuous development,” and “the prevention of the metropolitan core’s further spread by directing new construction into small, widely spaced satellite towns.”

    https://www.treehugger.com/urban-design/why-sprawl-was-caused-nuclear-arms-race-and-why-matters-more-ever-today.html

    1. Robert McGregor

      “dispersal of suburbs for nuclear defense”

      I don’t believe for a second the real reason wasn’t to promote the car and real estate industries. But “suburbs for national defense” is a good cover. But the Military Industrial Development and the Suburb Industrial Development Complex work together. They’re run by the same people.

      1. Susan the other`

        Yes it was hand-in-glove, but the rationale could easily have been nuclear holocaust survival. And it’s just human nature to make lemonade. I think we need to be more deliberate and long-term about our lemonade recipes. This one really turned out to be bad.

    2. Susan the other`

      Hi SC, after your detailed comment a few days ago about super-bugs and our difficulty fighting them because they seem to have mastered our techniques (or we them), I was cleaning my attic and I found a 2007 issue of Science News which reported briefly on the same problem. They have been after this one for at least 15+ years. About weakening cell walls for invasion. It’s like a very stubborn battlefield. The generals on both sides have elaborate costumes. Every body and bacteria is trying to weaken the other’s defenses; storm the castle walls.

  45. pdehaan

    I live in a modest house, but with a very nice backyard garden in São Paulo, Brazil.

    The good thing here is that because of the climate, we don’t have heating or air con requirements.
    The few colder weeks we face during winter time are still significantly above zero degrees celsius and, before you know it, these are followed by nice and sunny days. Colder fronts come from the South (Argentina), but are never long lasting and get quickly overwhelmed by warm air coming from the tropical north. We just stick it out with a few layers of winter cloths, and spend a bit more time under the blankets at night.
    Water usage is low, as we capture rain water in underground tanks for toilet flushing and watering the garden.

    Maintenance costs on the house more than offset administration and service costs you’d face living in apartment buildings, often so-called “condominiums” here, for the upkeep of shared areas, security, swimming pool, elevator, gardens, gym facilities, reception/party halls, etc., most of which I don’t care about.

    The nice thing about the garden is that we have more avogadoes we can possibly consume during 4 months every year, figs, acerola (a fruit with high vitamin-C level), pitanga (a sweet fruit that’s wonderful for making jam and birds love it too), bananas and blackberries. My wife uses a patch for growing some food and herbs and we have an ever growing assortment of non-conventional edible plants all around the garden.

    Living in a mad city like São Paulo would not work for me without being able to sometimes listen to, or spot a few birds, walk out into the garden without having to take an elevator, have breakfast, lunch and dinner or a beer out in the open.

  46. chuck roast

    Ha! You get it!

    But give it a year or so…you will not only hate the house, you will hate the suburbs for making you psychotic. Get out before you start hating the suburbanites too. The suburbs…the great American virus. The only way to recover from this illness is to kill your car.

  47. complaint agency

    I recently (in the last three weeks) moved from Portland OR to Oklahoma City to be closer to my parents. I grew up in apartments and townhouses, and had never actually lived in a single-family house until 2017. I was thinking about buying a house, and wanted to make sure I could deal with the lawn care and lack of shared walls with other people etc. I absolutely hated it, and I was in theoretically the sweetest configuration imaginable: the landlord was attentive, engaged, polite, and lived next door. But the house had been built in 1951 and had leaks, no dishwasher, no insulation, and I went through like 5 different washing machines before one would work without frying itself a few weeks in due to some mysterious issue nobody was ever able to figure out. It was also very expensive, because Portland isn’t cheap anymore. Because it was an actual single-family house it was in a 1950s style subdivision, aka half a mile back from the nearest major streets and a full mile from the nearest coffee or food truck pod. I realize that isn’t ‘that bad’ for America but I lived the prior decade without a car in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood and the inability to just leave on foot and have a grocery store nearby did me in. I finally had to buy a car after 17 years without.

    In OKC I was under no illusions about the car-centric nature of the city (I didn’t grow up here, but near enough to have visited regularly for years before I went to the west coast) and effectively bribed myself with the nicest, most walkable apartment I could find. It’s in one of those boring, generic entertainment districts with the same bar/gastropub and tech startup bs scooters/bikes and semi-useless streetcar that has popped up everywhere in boomtown america over the last decade, but it’s not terrible; I can walk to two different coffee places and restaurants and bars and a small passable corner market with pantry staples and milk within a few blocks. Because it’s an apartment complex I can call maintenance any time something is broken. Because it’s uncool OKC, the apartment itself is bigger than the house I rented in Portland and almost 800$ less a month with bills factored in.

  48. rtah100

    So much of the American dream is about mobility, from quitting the Old World to moving into the West to moving around for a job, and a feeling that the country is still young and empty. The result is a lack of permanence compared with Europe, with house lives in decades rather than centuries, built from cheap, quick materials, and a disposable culture. As an illustration, only a tiny proportion of houses gets torn down in the UK, even in the suburbs, despite land cost:build cost ratios much higher than in the US (this is good, because of the embedded energy saved). If it it had not been for the Luftwaffe, our city centres would be even older.

    New York is the giant US exception: skyscrapers on granite bedrock are a true commitment to the longue duree. No wonder Yves is cranky, she needs to go full Pharoah and build a pyramid on her plot. :-)

    Full disclosure, my favourite book is Candide, just for the ending, the homily of the homely, “il faut cultiver nos jardins”. For me, it sums up, intellectually and practically, that there is no place like home, that we need to put down roots as a society and adopt a location and improve it with pragmatism, rather than strip it and move on as tourists in the Universe.

  49. Lunker Walleye

    We have lived in the same house for over 30 years. It is small with 640 square feet on main floor and some “habitable” space downstairs that we use for studio/office/gym. My husband does most of the maintenance in this 80 year-old dwelling and thank goodness he is capable of doing the work. There are certainly downsides. Who, in their 30’s, thinks about having 15 oak trees when they buy a home? The number of acorns that have fallen in the last 2 years was enough to make a person want to move to a warm climate. And the snow, and more recently ice, accumulating on the 90 foot-long drive is becoming a burden (we shovel by hand) as we grow older. Upside: this is a gorgeous park-like setting. We have great neighbors, albeit, on one side we have had a next-door demolition with a “too large” structure for the neighborhood and on the other side, a nine-month long renovation. Finally, the “beep, beep, beeps” of machinery seem to have stopped and there is no longer a parade of workers parking in the street or materials being delivered. And don’t get me started on all the service trucks with mowers and blowers. I detest the noise. But, we are descendants of farmers and like our natural setting and large lot. Sadly, this home will likely be torn down when we have to leave it.

  50. EMtz

    Have not lived in an apartment since 1981. Crowded. Noisy. No privacy.

    But I also don’t have to deal with home maintenance because I rent my houses. Have lived all over the US and now in Mexico from urban areas to isolated mountain towns doing this. And I’ve been fortunate to always have good landlords.

    Considering that the bank actually owns most homes and all owners are doing is maintaining the institution’s investment, I’ll never buy and tie myself down. To me, renting a house is the best of both worlds.

  51. dbk

    Yves, I feel for you on many fronts. What you have chosen to do is heroic, really, following decades of big-city apartment living on your own. It’s admirable and you are deserving of our respect and empathy.

    My Mother recently passed away at the age of 101+, three years after my Father’s passing at 106+. Until his death, they had managed on their own with a weekly housekeeper and yard man, and nieces who did their shopping. During their final 10 years or so, I returned from abroad twice a year for 2-3 months to make sure everything was, if not fine, at least all right.

    After my Father passed, Mother had to have in-home help with the housekeeping and cooking and shopping; in the wake of bad experiences with the home health / help service we’d retained for a few months for my Father, we hired privately (Mother’s choice, but I met the caregivers). During her final two years, we were blessed to have a caregiver who loved her and who was also quite a good housekeeper, and very honest. She couldn’t cook a lick, but you can’t have everything, I found.

    When Mother passed away this spring, I had to clear their lower middle-class home in a lower middle-class neighborhood in a dying flyover city where they’d lived more than 60 years. This involved sorting/donating/selling/storing/shipping – far more complex than “dump/save.” It also involved preparing the home for sale.

    Because they were so elderly, and had not been able to oversee major repairs/maintenance for many years (and also because they were children of the Depression and had great difficulty spending money for anything), the house required a ton of work. I got a real estate agent first, then called in a home inspector who came highly recommended, and proceeded to have repairs/maintenance done on the basis of their conclusions. Over 10 weeks, there were the roof guys, the basement guys (the biggest thing I did, i.e. shoring up the foundation for the life of the house and installing permanent drainage and waterproof insulation in the crawl space – long story), the yard guys (general cleaning/clearing, reseeding with shade-friendly grass, trimming of 60 bushes), the contractor (did some jobs himself and brought in top-rated plumbers and gutter guys for other work), the painters (didn’t speak English, but they were great), and the floor guys (new carpet in living room; other rooms stripped of carpet and their floors refinished and returned to their original 1950s condition).

    This is without mentioning the haulers, the auctioneer, the storage people, the international shippers … my real estate agent told me she’d never met a client who did it all alone within the time frame I had stipulated for myself. But I finished on time, returned to Europe, and the house went on the market immediately.

    I sense that perhaps all this doesn’t exactly fascinate you; I was fortunate that although I can’t do any of it myself (I’ve lived abroad in small apartments for 40+ years now), I was deeply interested and felt I was participating in the process. I also took the decision to hire only well-known and reputable firms, so I obtained warranties on everything and knew I was dealing with technicians who knew what they were doing, starting from the home inspector, who brought me a lot of bad news, but who was really thorough and serious (an engineer).

    I have only read about half the comments (will read the rest tomorrow), but I’d like my comment to prove helpful in some, even if very minor, way. So here’s what I’d suggest: (1) have a home inspection done if you haven’t already done so – choose someone reputable who will give you the straight skinny and not just skim over “minor” problems (which can become major problems in no time); (2) decide what to have done, and consult with a contractor (or someone else knowledgeable) about the order in which to do it; (3) determine how much you are willing to spend, starting from the most pressing project (I spent too much, probably, but I hadn’t much choice); (4) surrender to the process, difficult as this may sound: perhaps Lambert and Jerry Lynn can fill in for you for a few more weeks or months – it’s okay, really, your readers/followers will understand; (5) get as many recommendations as you can from others – I relied on old high school classmates and homeadvisor.com, believe it or not, which I consulted religiously throughout the process; (6) re: the home health aide, consider going private, i.e. hiring someone who is not employed by a service – we were so upset and frustrated (and sometimes, angry) with the persons the service provided. My Mother was difficult and demanding, and I eventually came to see it her way. The last caregiver was the best person I could have imagined for a very difficult posting, and she was not employed by a service.

    There’s a lot more to say – I could write a book about this experience, frankly – but I’ve already said way too much for a blog comment!

    Just remember that what you’ve chosen to do is noble.

    1. dimmsdale

      Love this comment because it squares with my similar experience with my 80-year-old mother living with 80-plus years of treasured accoutrements of life, in a 50-year old town house. First of all, to take on care of an elderly parent is heroic, and loving. To be forced to take on the care of an elderly house in addition, however, would make me crazy, especially if I’m managing a professional commitment at the same time. It takes time and energy to develop a stable of reliable local contractors, and you don’t sound (to me anyway) like you have that time at all; I’m going to make a suggestion that you probably also don’t have time for, but it was helpful to ME: if there’s any sort of nearby teaching hospital with a geriatric facility, their social services department may have staff social workers who know of local resources; ditto a county or state Office of the Aging may have useful resources. I was also in a caregivers’ group facilitated by a CSW attached to the hospital’s (Columbia Presbyterian in this case) geriatric care department, and the shared experience in the group served to take a lot of pressure off me (in addition to being a source of alternatives for coping, the group’s fundamental mission was helping caregivers take care of themselves WHILE taking care of the aged parent). I hope such services are available to you down there; and I very much hope the situation eases (sooner rather than later).

  52. Robert McGregor

    “consider going private, i.e. hiring someone who is not employed by a service”

    Our family, and a friend’s family both had good success with hiring someone directly. Our family’s aide was a 40 year-old woman, former drug addict. She was live-in, and did the cooking, cleaning–you name it–beside the direct body care for our Alzheimers-afflicted Mother in her nineties. There are a lot of women out there who are capable of providing the care, and even have the experience, but really cannot afford to pay rent–even in Birmingham. This can be a good place to cut out the evil capitalist middle-man Home Health Care Service.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Yes, this is what we need to do but I don’t have contacts here. The person would clearly get more net than these aides are getting through the service, and I’d rather have someone who was better paid than having the service take a big cut for not doing much, including regularly saying they don’t have a backup if someone cancels. I can see not being able to get someone immediately but the fact that they can’t get someone to show up and fill in for a half day makes clear their value added is limited.

  53. Jack Parsons

    Heh. My father spent my entire childhood building one of those peculiar “Modernist” houses in the 1960s. It’s hexagonal… and made from concrete. They finished it after I went to college and I’ve never lived in it.

    Mom is 99. My sister and her boyf are retired, so they moved in with Mom to assist her final years/months, so that she can live in the house. The boyf is a handyman, so they’re not totally doomed on the house maintenance front, but a concrete house on a concrete pad is a difficult thing to fix.

  54. rjs

    you shudda just used the draino…if using hot water gave you a partially opened drain, draino would have opened it completely in a couple seconds…then you coulda rinsed & been done with it, with no worries about damaging to the pipe…

    1. pricklyone

      Gotta disagree. Would never, ever put that stuff in any plumbing I valued. Do some reading on one of the plumbing or handyman forums. It is a hazard to anyone who has to come in after your DIY solution fails. Do it right and it stays done.
      Yves rental life is very suited to her particular lifestyle, and I hope she finds a solution that works for time and budget. I have a 96 year old mom still in her own apartment-turned-condo, and it is a never ending slog…

      1. Yves Smith Post author

        Thanks for the confirmation. The super caustic water that stained a stainless steel pan (!!!) was almost certainly old Drain-O or equivalent.

    2. Yves Smith Post author

      No, these pipes are not great and we already had a pipe burst not due to the usual cause, freezing.

      The home health care aide later managed to stop it up completely, don’t ask me how. I agree it is difficult to reconcile the sink working well as of Thursday AM and the health care aide (after it was stopped up and full of very caustic water) insisting that it had been not/barely working before she tried using the sink plunger, which led to the sink being full of that nasty water.

      Plumbers had to replace that section of pipe, and these are guys who have a reputation of being honest workmen.

  55. Elizabeth

    Yves, I’m sorry the transition has become challenging for you. I fully understand what you’re going through – it’s difficult, so just give yourself time, and remember, Lambert, Jerr-Lyn and others can pick up the slack for you. Here’s my story – I lived in SF for 40 plus years – in apts. and a rental home. The single-family rental was very nice, but as the years went by, our landlord never did any maintenance (it was below market), so we never complained. He would come out for an emergency, but nothing else. We kept up the yard and did what we could about maintenance. Anyway, after living there for 25 plus years, we decided that SF was no longer livable, affordable or somewhere we wanted to spend our later years. We left and bought a home built in 1920 in a small town in northern Iowa. The home is in excellent condition (I had it inspected before it was purchased), and fortunately my partner knows a lot about home maintenance, since he once lived in a pre-revolutionary house in CT. The winters are quite a bit different than northern Calif!

    I don’t have any regrets, as I love the garden, the trees surrounding the house, no traffic or other big-city stresses. The reason we stayed in SF so long was so I could take care of my Mom – she lived to be 100, and was semi-independent up until the last two months (she fell). She was in home hospice for two months (I had a care-giving service – most of them were competent and caring, with the exception of one or two). It wasn’t perfect, but nothing is.

    Try to find people you can trust (electricians, plumbers, and other home improvement people). That makes all the difference.

    Give yourself time and remember, the main reason you left NY (your Mom) is not something you’ll regret. Take care of yourself – and keep us NCers up to date on your progress. Thank you for everything that you do to make NC a place of sanity in an insane world.

  56. ChadH

    This really hit home for me. I’ve concluded that home ownership is not just a bad investment (in money, time, energy, etc.) but a great way to lose money.

    I’m in the process of closing on my late mom’s house. I sold it for $65,000. To put that in perspective, it was assessed in 1994 for $83,700. That was 25 years ago!!!

    Why so cheap? Well, 70+ years of deferred maintenance. I would have had to spend in the neighborhood of $30-$40,000 of my own money just to make it sellable! And that’s the bare minimum definition of sellable. Then, I’d have to through all the rigamarole of listing it, showing it, and selling it, which includes the 4-6 percent taken by the real estate agent, plus the $2000 or so in closing costs paid by the seller of a house (although this can be negotiated). Even then, I would be looking at getting $140,000 net in the best case scenario.

    And there’s still a mortgage outstanding on the house, meaning some $20,000 dollars will have to paid out of that money on top of it. So, despite my grandparents building the house back in 1941, it ends up being mostly worthless.

    All of the years of insurance payments just vanish into thin air. So do all the years of property taxes. And then there’s the bank’s interest. And yet housing is supposed to be an “investment”?

    As for my own house, I’ve only had it for five years, but the concrete is crumbling, the siding is full of holes, the weeds are out of control, etc.. I could work full-time every weekend and still not make a dent.

    A big part of this is the fact that I’m in Wisconsin, which is a sure way to lose money on a house. The Siberian climate literally chews up houses and spits them out thanks to the extreme freeze/thaw cycle. You need a new roof every ten years. Concrete wont last five without cracking and spalling, no matter how good the workmanship. Any wood will rot and decay, and brickwork–especially chimneys–needs constant tuckpointing. I’ll probably have to burn who knows how many thousands just to make it sellable. And I’ve probably paid almost 0 equity into it, thanks to interest charges.

    And all those maintenance costs are 100% on you, despite the bank owning the lion’s share of the asset. You’re paying the upkeep costs for *their* asset, despite the fact that if you miss a payment, you will be kicked out into the cold. And, of course, you’re paying interest to them for the “privilege” of living in their asset (which you also have to pay all of the taxes on).

    Housing costs just aren’t rising fast enough where I live to make up for all these expenses. Plus, it ties you down to a declining local economy. Who can–or even wants to–live in the same place for the 30+ years that would make such an “investment” pencil out? Why not just buy stocks and bonds?

    I’m with you–it’s all a ripoff. When you consider the sunk costs in terms of maintenance, insurance, taxes, time, convenience, and so on, owning a house is a losing proposition, especially in a harsh, bitter climate with old housing stock where prices are flat.

  57. Jonathan Holland Becnel

    What an awesome thread! Thank you, Yves, for such an Honest and Refreshing Post!!! This is why NC is the GOAT!!!!

  58. BoyDownTheLane

    My wife and I own a small two-floor bungalow on the edge of the forest. Both floors have bookshelves everywhere. We both read voraciously. The building has less than 2K square feet, has about a quarter of an acre filled mostly with flowering trees and rhododendron, her flower gardens on the fringes, a small stone patio, a rock wall, and a koi pond with a twin waterfall recirculating pump system. We installed a wrought-iron fence dog run for our rescue dog who is now a fully-grown American foxhound mix. I write and handle my amateur digital photography in the basement where she also maintains a desk and installed a large screen TV for her Red Sox. We put a half-bath in there as well. Upstairs, we have a nice open plan kitchen with island and a couch and side chair in front of another TV. [She likes her game shows.]. There is a master BR newly re-floored in bamboo, a small bathroom with shower and built-in laundry, and a pellet stove in the basement which eats 2.5 tons a year. The master bedroom has a back door to a deck with a set of stairs; the deck overlooks the garden. Each level also has a Mitsubishi heat pump, a superb answer for the extreme summer heat here in the valley, and for dehumidifcation. We’ve eliminated baseboard heat.

    We downsized from a four-story townhouse in a condo complex featuring strict limitations, surprise assessments, and balky responses to major problems. There, we raised our two teenagers and cared for her mother until her eventual placement in a hospice nursing home. (Have you read Mary Bateson’s book “Composing a Life”? ) My wife is a certified case manager with previous experience in emergency nursing and multi-specialty medical office management. She has COPD, arthritic hips and knees, survived two bouts with breast cancer, and is a petite 5’1”. We have three grandkids. I am now recovering from some severe cardiac issues and a peri-operative hemiplegic motor stroke. We haven’t yet had to install an elevator or one of those infernal stair-climbers. But we cope well in a house that has everything we need. [Serendipitously, our large-group doctors’ office built a new office just two blocks away; its hospital is a 20-minute drive down the Interstate.]

    We did live for two years in an apartment in town with building maintenance. But my wife was not a fan of crying babies across the hall, or her being able to hear the neighbor upstairs take a leak ( she could let his urologist know not to worry his stream is robust, no prostate issues there), of sharing clothes washers and dryers with other people, or the drug deals in the parking lot. She likes to garden and you can’t garden in a facility where the land isn’t accessible or open to your creativity.

    We tried our hand at vegetable gardening but failed miserably. We still have the space, but why? We live in between two large and active farms with farmstands in a town with the #1 grocery store in the nation. We just had a two-car parking area installed, envision re-doing the pantry and installing an en suite closet system that connects directy to the bathroom, and one of our next projects is re-vamping the entrance to include a front porch that also connects to the pantry and the kitchen. [Mrs. Blanding has nothing on my wife.,]

    We opted out of apartment living and bought a house, having gotten ourselves out from debt and being underwater with the mortgage, to take advantage of tax benefits that seem to have evaporated. But the location we are in is in a hot housing market and so the real estate value has grown by tens of thousands in three years. We continue to make improvements which we can watch get reflected in the market.

    The neighbor over the fence is a former US Marine, US Marshall, DEA swat team leader and trainer, and is now a cyber-sleuth for the US DOJ. The lady who walks her dog with ours is a US Army intelligence office (Col., Reserve) with a unit citation for three tours in a war zone; she flips houses on the side. A town cop lives seven houses away. Daughter and son-in-law, who have already flipped a house and own a half-a-million colonial, live 45 minutes away,.They are having a house built on their ten acres toi house his mother and father.

    I like not having to shovel the snow; a strapping young boy lives across the street and brings his snowblower. We live in a town which is crawling with skilled industrial laborers, plumbers, carpenters, etc. The guy down the street who works for the nursery that specializes in koi ponds helps with winterization (the fish go to the bottom and hibernate). The backyard is a mini-paradise with birds. There are four or five very good restaurants in this town of 50,000 with a massive suplus in its coffers, two large public parks donated by the city’s former industrialists, and it’s all embedded in tens of thousands of square miles of forest. Train service (90 minutes) to the big city (35 miles) is six blocks away. The neighborhood is flush with small rivers that drain and feed a network of reservoirs.

    We found the place with the help of a really good real estate agent. Another really good real estate agent had our old townhouse staged inside a month and it sold in five days at a price that erased our “underwater” status in a flash. Good riddance! Hello, tranquility

    It’s a maxim that a good marriage is one in which the woman is kept happy, and the woman I’ve lived with for over 43 years is happiest when she has a garden, owns a dog, has tons of books to read, and can sit on her back porch with her coffee and look over her garden and koi pond and wait for her husband to cook dinner.

  59. Still Above Water

    Yves,

    Having an elderly mother who will undoubtedly only be compelled to give up her house of 33 years if she leaves it on a stretcher, I can empathize with your situation. You make a compelling argument for apartments, but you will never win me over. I can’t imagine a more ideal living arrangement for myself and my wife than my current house of 25 years.

    It’s 97 years old, but in my 30s I spent my free time remodeling it, adding insulation and insulated window, replacing the knob-and-tube wiring with romex, and replacing galvanized piping with copper. Since then it’s been fairly low maintenance. There’s no A/C, and the heating bills are fairly low.

    It’s 3 miles from downtown in a National Historic District full of beautiful elm trees and old homes, 1 block from a Mexican restaurant and a tiki bar, 2 blocks from a bus stop with frequent service, 4 blocks from a big box everything store and a Scottish pub, 6 blocks from a natural foods store. My wife and I share a car, which is low mileage, because much of what we need is nearby.

    Since we bought it when housing was relatively affordable, it was paid off several years ago. Then we took out a mortgage on it to buy the rental house next door, so we could choose who some of our neighbors are. It’s been wonderful so far, and the maintenance has taken very little of my time.

    There are cherry, plum, and apple trees in the yard. I dug a small pond with a waterfall, so there’s always the sound of running water. It drowns out the sound of the Detroit River (traffic noise), but unfortunately, not the sound of two-stroke engines (leaf blowers, lawn mowers, edgers, chain saws, etc.), which seems to spoil at least an hour of each day. That’s really my only complaint.

    When I look out any of the windows, the predominant color is green. When I look through one of the 15 skylights, I see green or sky blue or grey (lots of grey – it’s the Pacific NW). This soothes my soul in a way that I’ve never experienced looking out of a downtown building.

    I realize that the planet might be better off if we were all siloed in high-rise apartment buildings like Hong Kong, but I don’t see that happening before resource constraints make it unfeasible. Like my mother, I won’t leave my slice of heaven until I’m dead.

    In summary, horses for courses. I hope that someday you’ll live in an apartment that suits you the way my house suits me. I wish we all could be as lucky as I’ve been.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      I am glad you like your house, but again my point seems to be misconstrued.

      Individual homes take a ton of maintenance and are also environmentally costly.

      It is entirely possible to have lower-profile apartments (4-10 stories) with lots of green and even a shared garden.

      Moreover the complaints about noise are entirely a function of cheap construction. Heavy walls will cut out all but really bad noise. If we were to want societally to encourage more apartment living, leases could include clauses that allowed for imposing financial penalties for undue noise and noise after certain hours. Extra $ for the landlord, so they’d be inclined to enforce it.

  60. dk

    Yves’ sentiments and reasoning somewhat echo those of my father, who after 35 years in the Queens, NY house he bought shortly before my birth moved himself and y mother to a retirement-oriented condo complex in Westchester. He cited the burdens of maintenance specifically as a primary reason, despite his being an almost compulsive builder and on top of that, an architect (mostly of large shopping centers but also of some private homes and a hotel). He was constantly remodelling the Queens house, so that it literally kept changing from year to year, walls shifted, the carpeting from a few years ago replaced by tile, an extension built into the back yard, the second floor reworked twice. But he got sick of it and when he retired, the Westchester attached house was his last major home-project. He passed away abruptly in 1996, in a hardware store, of a massive heart attack, leaving my mother in the “palace of clouds,” a kind of mini-museum with echoes of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim (that’s not any exaggeration).

    But the condo management has changed hands several times and maintenance is pricey and at this point frankly bad, even on the basics like plumbing and roofing, and of course a custom home needs a higher level of craft skill, my mother struggles with it.

    In the earlier age when my parents were young, my father remembered my mother’s birth to the masters of the house where his aunt and uncle were “downstairs” servants. A substantial family home of the era (in America as well as Europe and most of the world) employed a small community, not just live-in housekeepers but also a host of support and service trades. Even working-class apartment blocks had live-in managers and maintenance workers in the community. Between automation (washing machines, refrigerators, communications channels from the POTS phone-line to the cable+modem) and more and more rapidly shifting economic prospects, the American dream-home has become a concept of independent self-sustained living, a fiction but a compelling commercial image.

    1. dk

      And yeah, that old economy which was much flatter that ours today, because value (as money or as goods or as contracts or as services) couldn’t move as quickly as current technology permits today, that economy had a built-in class system. but the edge-to-edge extremes of that class system were not as great because of the technological level and its limits.

      And my point about that is that is was a) sustainable for centuries, and b) that a large and/or fancy house was understood to have a built-in maintenance requirement, which in turn produced specialized skills and employment opportunities, also as built-ins.

      Also, growing up I encountered people living alone in small houses, a step or two up from huts. One or two chambers, maybe 200 sq. ft., I’m thinking specifically of a hermit who lived on a little island in Greece. Nico, he was nice to me as a seven year old but basically grouchy and just liked to be alone. He died at some point and I would stay in his hut for days, really a pleasant life. Patch the mud walls every year before winter, re-thatch the roof every two years, sweep the floor, and wash in the ocean. I had to carry water in, and food of course. A three-five mile round trip for groceries and other supplies. Not a family home, but hey, it takes a village to raise children.

  61. Fazal Majid

    I’d say living in a house means you can crank up the volume on your Hi-Fi or home theater, but I also find as I age I listen to music less and have lost patience with creatively bankrupt Hollywood productions.
    The only reason to get a house is space. I bought my house in SF in 2014 because I could no longer afford to rent, and 3BR apartments in San Francisco are rarer than hens’ teeth.
    Now that I sold it, I do miss the hummingbirds, though.

  62. Penny

    This could be a book..just collecting the wee stories….seriously and provoke a conversation…a serious one..about how we live! Title? When the dream becomes a nightmare.

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