Does Small Equal Cheap?

Posted July 1st, 2009 by Anne Lupton and filed in Issue 8: Bureaucracy/Regs.

It is common in our culture to see real estate as an investment. Most homes are a very high ticket item that commonly take half a lifetime to pay for. When that much time and money is “invested” in a house it’s understandable that such homeowners would want to protect it, at least keeping the value steady with inflation or improving the value with remodeling projects.

One factor that homeowners see as out of their control (which may be actual or perceived) is what happens to the properties surrounding their home, which can have a profound impact– if not sheer saleability– on real estate values. This fear of sliding property values is a motivating force for homeowners to attempt to control zoning laws in their neighborhood and community. And one common perception of a factor that causes property values to deteriorate is square footage of neighboring houses, ie. smaller homes are worth less and will cause larger homes they are next to be worth less also. Or, rather, that is the common perception.

But, witness those homes designed by visionary architects like Sarah Susanka and Ross Chapin. And, since meeting her at the Midwest Renewable Energy Fair, I have since found out about Sonya Newenhouse and her Casa Kit Homes. sonya-newenhouse-1Their philosophy is to build small, but rich with detail. I would hardly consider these homes to be cheap and cheesy. Their beauty and quality of construction enhance, not denigrate, the value of the neighborhood.

Those people in control of zoning laws probably feel there’s no way to control the value of a property/neighborhood , and future house that’s built on it, than by controlling its size. They supposedly have no control over the quality of craftsmanship, so the only fall-back is to lock in minimum square footage. I’m sure another motivating factor in keeping house sizes larger is to make sure the tax base is kept high. They can charge more in property tax for a 3000 s.f. house than a 1000 s.f. one. More property taxes coming in help to “grease the wheels” of running a city or municipality.

In new developments the primary motivation is the bottom line of the developer and builder(s). If they can sell a 2500 s.f. house for 20% more than an 1800 s.f., yet it costs them only 10% more to add on those 700 more square feet, it becomes a no-brainer to push the sale of a larger home. I’m sure very little mention is made during the sales process of future property taxes, heating and cooling bills, and cost of upkeep. The benefits of having those extra square feet is emphasized over the long-term costs. Multiply that extra profit margin by the 30-80 homes that are in a typical new development and you end up with a very hefty profit. Business as usual, right?

Thankfully, there is an emerging paradigm shift in how to do business: the triple bottom line… looking out for people, planet, then profits. And how to run local governments: The Natural Step. revelations-house-mrea-1 I am far from being an expert in either one of these emerging philosophies, but have recently become aware of this growing trend. It’s encouraging to see there are those among the human race that still weigh their heart and soul over their pocketbook.

For the individual seeking to build a smaller house it can be an impossible battle going against the common perceptions that small equals cheap. That’s why so many in this movement to live small and light choose to live away from encumbering zoning laws and prying neighbors. Sometimes the good fight is too much. I applaud those individuals and families who are courageous to stick to their ideals in seeking simpler living both in urban and rural areas. If you’re among those who seek this path there are many others like you out there. The Internet has become a tremendous tool for connecting those people of similar philosophies. If you want to continue the conversation on the challenges of living small and light there are many groups you can join:

The Small House Society
Tiny Houses
Little Houses
Cheap Shelters
Simple Life Connections
Shipping Container Homes
Frugal Rural Living
Underground House
Seattle Small Homes
Fiddle Sticks Small Spaces
Low Cost Community Housing
Tiny Home Collective
The Small Home Design-Build Forum

And of course all the websites and blogs by the contributors here… can’t forget that one.

There is always the option of filing for a variance permit when you’re seeking to build a home of a smaller square footage than your neighborhood allows. Be prepared with extensives plans, pictures, and testimonials from other people who have built small, but high-quality, homes. You will sit before the county and city government officials in charge of hearing your case. You will feel very much like you’re on trial for thinking outside the box. Bringing all your materials together and doing a dry-run presentation before your friends and family might not be a bad idea, either. The more prepared you are the better your chances will be of having the board approve your variance. It’s definitely worth asking. And when you win make sure to tell us all about it to inspire others to do the same… well, even if you don’t win it can be a great learning experience for yourself and others.

DIY Home Repairs Can Teach You Things You Never Expected

Posted May 4th, 2009 by Anne Lupton and filed in Issue 4: Do-It-Yourself

do-it-yourselfThe abundance of do-it-yourself books on home building and home repair on the market is an indication that the subject of DIY is of great interest to people.  And why not?  Being able to fix or build things associated with your home not only saves money, but gives you a great sense of pride and accomplishment.  Laying new tile in the bathroom, building a new deck or patio in the backyard, or even tackling building a whole house brings a whole new way to boost your self confidence, as well as protecting your pocketbook.

Working with wood, tile, plaster, paint, lighting, power tools, etc. is a great exercise for kinesthetic learners.  Reading instructions in a book is one thing, but actually using a power miter saw to install new baseboard or crown molding takes you from theory to the real world.  Working with your hands, and with quality tools, is very satisfying.   But the kinesthetic, hands-on, lesson only comes after reading some DIY book or article that has inspired you to actually pick up a hammer and try something.

You read a DIY book on building decks, let’s say.  Talk to a few friends or family who may have done a similar project, and jump right into buying materials at your local home improvement store.  Being able to interpret those drawings and instructions and apply them to your own personal building project is a great way to exercise that muscle between your ears.  And with every project you become more confident to tackle something bigger and more involved.

But, even though doing your own home repairs and building can save you a lot of money, the one thing NOT to skimp on is quality tools.  I have a friend who once tried to use a Leatherman tool (think Swiss Army knife) to cut the miters in some new baseboard molding she was putting in the bathroom.  I cringed.  But, at the time I didn’t want to say anything to hurt her feelings.  Sometimes the best lessons learned happen this way.  Trying to make do with inferior tools or materials until you realize you’re really wasting your time while in the end discovering how inferior your final results will turn out.

My best advice on all you aspiring DIY’ers out there is to buy quality tools, especially cutting tools (saw blades, drill bits, router bits, etc.).  Clean, fast, and safe tools will make your job go a lot faster.  Having a sharp saw blade slice through wood like butter is a pleasure you just can’t explain unless you’ve been there yourself.

toolsNext is to ask a lot of questions of people who have done the kind of job you’re thinking of, and observe (or, better yet, take part in) someone actually doing it.  Sign up for all the free demonstrations at your local home improvement store as possible.  Even jump in on Habitat for Humanity building projects.  You’ll not only gain some basic building experience, but get a warm fuzzy by helping a needy family gain a home.

And, finally, know when to call it quits when it’s obvious you just don’t have the skills for a particular project.  For me it’s coping, the very precise cutting that’s involved in installing molding, specifically the inside corners.  The objective is to make that inside corner appear as if the two pieces flow into each other without any sort of gap.  For the life of me I just cannot make an accurate coping cut.  So I hire it out.

Also, if a job requires a lot of strength, like replacing windows, then it’s also a good idea to hire that one out too.  Last fall I had 2 very large windows replaced in my condo.  There was no way I would have been able to take on that job myself, especially considering one of the windows was on the second floor and required scaffolding set up outside.  These are good examples of when to hire out.

But, installing a new dishwasher?  You bet I’m going to do that one myself!  Which I really have to do in the next couple weeks as I’m putting my condo on the market soon.  Anyone interested in a cute little condo in a quiet neighborhood?

In the end, whether you end up with a gorgeous DIY remodeling job, or a complete mess where you have to hire a pro to take over, you will have gained such valuable knowledge—mostly about yourself.  And life isn’t complete until you’ve learn a few hard-won lessons about yourself.  For me the lessons learned in building a house have given me so much confidence to tackle just about anything.  There’s not much gained if you keep your nose in a DIY book all day.

Happy building!  Feel free to stop by my website and say “hi”.