What a couple of weeks it has been!
The local police chief failed to take a police report about an identity theft for 4 weeks. This has brought my mortgage process to a screaming halt. For some reason, it takes the local PD another week to generate the hard copy (some of us can just hit Print… In California, they tore off the relevant layer of NCR paper and handed me that. This town has some weird stuff.) I can get the mortgage app back on the road late this week, maybe Friday. /Eyes roll so hard they fall out and dribble across the desk./
You won’t get that full story, because I couldn’t log in for most of it. (Probably just as well.) The mighty Wizard of Interwebbery who has kindly chosen to support my online presence for years, has triumphed over the poisonous Login Lizards who made it impossible for me to post. Steven Radecki, my hat is off to you! And since I don’t wear hats, I had to put one on specially, just to doff!
Shameless plug: When he’s not defeating Login Lizards or whacking hackers, he publishes books at Paper Angel Press or constructs interweb-homes for lovely, tasteful, intelligent people like my readers at Practical Content. He’s a joy to work with; highly recommended!
So, finally, I can gather my thoughts here – and share an outstanding set of information I’ve learned about low-income, non-toxic housing in this time, in this country, and in this region. I know darn well I’m not the only one interested in this!
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been researching what goes into making a home I could live in. I had to learn a lot about building materials, ordinary building practices, alternatives, brands, and a surprising level of detail – combined with yawning gaps of ignorance – about all of that.
Here is a more colorful version of the table I sent to my Dr., laying out what it is that I react to an ordinary housing, what the reaction looks like, and how long it lasts. The columns on the right indicate how much control I have over this in different environments:
Here is my high-level, thumbnail sketch of how much it would cost to put up a building with one to one and a half stories, 600 square-foot foundation:
And, last and biggest, here is a link to the Excel spreadsheet I worked up as I was researching the costs for conventional versus non-toxic building which I could get hold of online.
PLEASE NOTE: this is for my planning purposes, not yours! This is not a responsible price guide, it’s me dumping the crap-tastic information I could find online, into another thumbnail sketch I could work from, as I talk to my builders and funders and so forth. In short, this is the third-grade homework that could one day lead to a thesis, but don’t confuse the third-grader with the graduate, okay?
Of course it looks impressive! – and of course it makes all kinds of sense. I tend to create informational material that does all of that, whether or not it should. Please be very diligent in costing out your own projects with appropriate professional support – but feel free to make use of the search terms, brands, and concepts I’ve mentioned here.
So, here are the results of much thinking and online research. Now, time to do my due diligence: checking my figures against competent local professional experience, filling in the blanks, and otherwise holding these data to the test of reality.
Filling in the blanks
Following through with my due diligence opened up a big fat wriggling bag of boa constrictors.
Intellectually, lifting the lid and finding a muscular tangle underneath is intriguing; these days, I’m not sure I can take shock and surprise anymore! However, this is why we have friends, and why it’s worth the spoon-tastic effort of taking care of relationships. I got hold of an old friend, who’s a longtime builder, a good listener, and who always, always tells it exactly like he sees it.
I find that level of honesty very reassuring. I don’t need people to have soft squishy manners, I need not to have to guess!
As you can see from the tables above, I haven’t priced out several key elements convincingly. I had no idea how much it costs to get electricity in. From the masthead at the road, to inserting power into the house, is probably around $2000. Once inside the house, as long as I don’t have more than 100 A of electrical need, I could probably get that done for $5-8000. This adds a total of $7-$10,000. And then there’s plumbing: one kitchen and one full bath for a small place, probably $8-10,000.
Well and septic are fascinatingly complex examples of geology at play. I heard about one 3rd-generation well builder who could describe, in such detail it’s as if he could see it, exactly where a ledge dropped off, where a granite seam ran, and if you moved your well 3 feet to the right, you’d have a much shorter drill depth. I also realize how breathtakingly rare that is. I don’t even know if the guy is still alive. I do know that the hard-working people who dig a well, or anything else around here, have to get paid for the digging they do, whether or not it means I get what I want.
The geology of the Connecticut River Valley is so complex and interesting that several of the world-class colleges in this area have classes dedicated to just that.
What this means to me is, putting in a new well and septic tank does have the minimum costs I cited, but the maximum costs can be horrific given the wrong geological morphology.
Checking my assumptions like a hockey star
Building is a complex gig. Although it looks like a bunch of hammerheads slamming nails and flexing their measuring tapes, there’s an astounding quantity of math, knowledge, organization, and subtlety that has to be done before, during, and after the build.
I’ve sometimes wondered if certain aspects of the building code were meant to keep costs up and access for the low-income that much harder. However, as Kris Thomson (of Kris Thomson Carpentry) reminded me, “People die for building codes.”
It relates to my apothegm, “there’s always an afterwards”: clever economies made in the design stage wind up exposing people who can’t afford better alternatives to problems that may not be survivable – from toxic exposures, to overwhelming infections, to house fires. This is where someone with Kris’s depth and breadth of intelligence and experience really stands out, for being able to make sense of something as technical as building codes in the context of their history and the social forces that have shaped them over the years.
Get him talking sometime; he’s a natural storyteller with a voracious mind.
The real, head-slamming moment came when, after an hour of listening carefully to my concerns, explaining fully every question I had, and telling me all sorts of things I never knew, this builder turned my thinking upside down with two hard data points:
- “Building new is absolutely the most expensive thing you can do.”
- “If you get an existing building, even if you have to strip it to the frame and make structural fixes, you have:
- more leeway in nearly every respect;
- less than half the moving parts;
- smaller pieces to juggle.”
Kris does make a living restoring and renewing old houses, so that’s his familiar territory. Structural work holds no fears for him. It’s good to note that he’s close to other people with horrific sensitivities, and doesn’t take these things lightly.
Old and antique houses are really common here. Europeans have been building for their heirs for well over 300 years in this region, a slice of history that deserves way more than half a sentence.
The point is, although I’m very reluctant to take on too many unknowns, if Kris says stripping and re-fleshing an old house is ultimately as safe for me as building a new one, I have to stop and consider that seriously. He’s not taking my concerns lightly; I can’t possibly take his suggestions lightly.
Revising, so to speak, an old building means that the following are already done, upgradable if they’re not currently up to code:
• ? Septic system (with at least one already in, even if it needs revising, subterranean features are less of a mystery)
• Electricity and phone (bringing up to code is much easier than creating new)
• Siding, probably
• Flooring, potentially gorgeous old hardwood
• ? Heating system
Once we started enumerating the advantages, I started feeling the pull… That’s a lot to not have to put in!
Having said all that, it’s still true that it’s hard to find a small house. I have to be able to project-manage a larger building (even if it’s really a smaller project)… and then find people to help me occupy it when it’s done.
That’s not a bad thing… I have discovered, over the past year, that if I don’t have other people to remind me that there is a world beyond my skin, life can get really hard to sustain. I’ve had an awful lot of housemates, despite being fundamentally introverted. Mostly, I’ve been extremely lucky.
Options: Good Properties
There are two kinds of properties that would be good to start with:
1. An abandoned project, with driveway, infrastructure, foundation, septic, etc. already in place. (So far, I find all this puts the build out of reach because the projects that get abandoned aren’t nearly as small as mine.)
2. An old house in the country, but nowhere near a floodplain, with, ideally, a solid foundation and frame, and a roof that isn’t too bad. (I probably need more cash down than I actually have to offer, but I’m thinking about that.)
I would gleefully pounce on either one, given the chance.
Flexibility is the key to turning the impossible into the imp-possible.
Next, the Money
This opening-out of possibilities doesn’t change my financial picture, which was rather bleak to begin with. I’m still a long way from having good options in my price point, and I’d be way better off if I could find someone to pool resources with.
A new possibility begins to open up: an investor.
The main difference between Saturday and today is, I can now talk about a property that could yield income.
For the money I didn’t have for a new build with room to share, I could actually rebuild/renovate a larger house that would be classy, safe, and non-toxic, and rent out half or two thirds of it. We already know there’s a roaringly under-served market for safe, non-toxic housing, so… Is there a downside?
I mean, besides coping with landlord issues. Being a landlord is no walk in the park. I don’t imagine that I have any secret formulas for being better at that than anyone else, but I have to say, I have had many many years of learning to be patient, clear, and effective with some of the most difficult people and intransigent situations outside of the current White House.
I didn’t realize that until I said it, but the more I think about it, the more accurate I see it is!
If the agonizing work and discipline of revising an old house doesn’t scare me, and if 20 years of pain disease and 17 years of growing disability (and all the doctors, insurers, fiscal abuse, and casual cruelty that comes with it) haven’t killed me, is there any reason I should quaver or shrink from managing a multi-unit home?
I don’t take it lightly, but it doesn’t seem like that big a deal to me.
So, if anyone wants to go halvsies with me on the cost of fixing up a charming old house, just let me know! I get a safe home, you get relatively safe income. I know a couple of good real-estate lawyers in the area who could write a nice safe contract for all concerned!
Hey, have I got almost everything dialed in here, or what?
I hope the two letters from my doctors will open up types of loans that would normally be closed to me; namely, construction loans and renovation loans.
- If I found that perfect little lot less than 45 min. from my hospital with all that prep work done and in budget, then a construction loan would be fine!
- If I found that perfect “cash buyers only” house less than 45 min. from my hospital and in budget, a renovation loan would be terrific!
I know that I qualify for the USDA rural loan of $90,000. Yes, folks, I’m naming figures. It’s possible that I can access about 33% of that in addition, in cash down. This is what I’ve got to work with.
Chances of success, given my financial and chemical limits, are absolutely miniscule. However, they aren’t exactly zero.
A Bigger Reality Check Than Before
Mom, you’ll definitely want to skip this. If you want something to research, maybe find me a freestanding cabin & a kind maid, somewhere safe & warm, an hour from a good hospital, something culturally interesting in the environment, with rent under $300/month?
Everyone else who’s still with me here … I have to keep trying. Fact is, either I find a safe house, or I put my papers in order and give myself about two years before I wind up drooling in a nursing home or stumbling into traffic. I have no good choices.
I do have a Plan G. Move to a cheaper place. Kansas, San Miguel de Allende, Turkey (where I was born), Portugal, Fiji, Cambodia, Croatia, New Mexico — the possibilities are endless. I’ve moved, and traveled, an awful lot. I know that:
- It takes a year to figure out where to get what I need as easily and reliably as possible.
- It takes two years to figure out who to trust in my area: shopkeepers, helpers, neighbors, etc.
- It takes a minimum of 3 years to make friends, and that’s if they’re already kindred spirits… when I was healthy, and could go out and do things like normal people who want to share experiences and get acquainted. With so little functional time (3 hours daily, and dropping) that’s totally unrealistic.
Am I really up to the job of being that lonely, that vulnerable, and work that hard to meet my needs, for that long? And do I really want to leave the one place on this whole earth that really feels like home?
Of course not. If I’m up against the wall, though, I can’t say my absurdly relentless drive towards life won’t push me to it. At least I’d be warmer… It’s June and in the low 40’s F overnight, which is ridiculous. Climate change is a cuss.
I’m too weak to keep doing this half-assed, “not real safe, but not dead yet” thing for much longer. I’ve lost a lot of ground fast. I feel my resiliency is not gone, though, so I believe I could recover appreciably, given the right home environment.
I’m keenly aware that, in most times, and in most of the world as it is now, I’d have died long ago. I know I’m one of the lucky ones. I’ve mentioned some of my friends who’ve died of this disease, some at home, some in hospice, some on the table, and several because they had no safe place to live. I’m silently terrified. Absolutely terrified. But I don’t have time to dwell on that.
Achieving this goal is not the end, but a change in the game. I have larger things to do, once I’m safely homed.
• I’ve had some ideas, based partly on my journey with this housey biz so far, about how to put together an effective, ultimately self-supporting charity to make affordable housing available to the chem-sensitive, even in emergencies. The realtor, builder, and policy wonks I’ve shared it with all love it, and I think it should happen.
• A dear (and brilliant!) old friend helped me rough out an idea about how to make my health-care guidance available to more spoonies more of the time, without hurting myself further. “Your Guide to the Medical Wilderness” probably should exist.
• There are 2 publishers longing for books I’ve pitched. They’re deliciously informative books and I believe they should be written.
Yes, I’m talking about all the do-goody stuff I want to do. It’s not an act: being able to make a difference for the better in this world is what keeps me going. It’s what I am. It’s why I keep going.
I want to keep going.
I hope that what I need can come together in time. The period it took to pull my fractured brain out of its winter hibernation right as the cops fell asleep at the switch has made this even harder and time more of a problem. Well, here we are, got to work with what I have and not what I wanted or aimed for!
Meanwhile, I’m looking into camping solutions for the summer. I love camping. I need nature like others need wifi; I’ve figured out how to smooth out many of the hardships; and I’m serious like a heart attack about saving the last of my resources for making a home. It’s a terrifying prospect, of course — in fact, homelessness terrifies me speechless, even if it is a great excuse to camp.
Fingers, and tent pegs, crossed.
I keep thinking I should revise this, but my eyes are reloading from cache and my brain is done.
Take care of each other; life is too short to be mean. <3