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.