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
Making a major decision, for someone with so little margin for error as a ragged, underfunded, spoony crip like me, means being able to answer all of these questions usefully:
- What are ordinary needs and requirements, in this situation?
- What are my particular needs and requirements they create?
- What’s involved in an adequate trade-off?
- What does success look like?
- Are there any choices that meet my needs?
- What are the usual pitfalls?
- What are my particular pitfalls?
- How do I avoid or mitigate those?
- How do I make this decision happen?
- Red light signals and how to respond.
- Yellow light signals and how to respond.
- Gotchas and how to handle them.
So here I am, bringing my laborious and slow-motion decision-making process to finding a home I can afford and survive. Definitely a major decision.
This could be fun. Or gruesome. I’ll find out.
Let’s take a look at this through the decision-making stages I discussed in the previous article.
Developing good info about the problem to be solved
Housing is a crucial human need, especially beyond the 35th parallels.
Hang on, I need to come back. Everything went white for a minute there. (PTSD about facing homelessness and surviving criminally unsafe living situations? Who, me? Yup.)
The need has been around as long as we have, so the laws and practices are pretty predictable.
There are two normal fiscal options: renting and buying. There is one additional option available to residents of Vermont: buy the house from the state, which keeps the land but gives you the right to use the part your house is standing on.
There are three normal physical options: freestanding home, adjoined units (apartments, condos, townhomes/row-houses, etc.), or portable housing (mobile homes and travel trailers.)
Nonstandard options include buying an RV (made and insulated entirely with Isy-toxic materials) and living with a level of mobility and uncertainty I can’t even contemplate any more; or buying a boat (a.k.a. a mold factory) and living on that, which I can no longer afford in any way. I have to eschew them both.
Adult co-housing is a nonstandard option that has some appeal. A group of adults get together, develop a set of guidelines that (through a real-estate attorney) turn into a contract, find and buy a place together, and arrange themselves on the property according to their contract.
I’ve seen that go very well and I’ve seen that go very poorly, and quite a lot in the middle. It’s partly a matter of chemistry, but mostly a matter of writing a good, clear, solid contract and everyone agreeing to play by the rules and being able to live and let live.
All I need is a group of adults who are not only willing and wanting to do that, but have no toxic habits (like painting or baking), are willing to live gluten-free (except for cold food brought in from outside) and are willing and able to give up wifi and live off of hard-wired internet access only — no Bluetooth — and, most annoyingly, respect hard limits on how much time the cable box is on. Radiation off that thing gives me unconquerable insomnia in the other room from 30 feet away.
Let’s look at how the remaining options fit into the questions I need to answer.
What are ordinary needs and requirements, in this situation (home-hunting)?
Safe, dry, warm, with working doors/windows/plumbing/electrics; close enough to where the person needs to be.
Also, it has to be affordable.
What are my particular needs, and the requirements they create?
- Mold free living, in this green land of upland lakes, swamps, and ubiquitous streams.
- No petroleum-based volatile organic compounds — a category which includes regular paint, all low-cost and most mid-range flooring, and every conceivable kind of carpet.
- Significant air pollution. For me, this centers around internal combustion engines, chemical processing, and fossil fuels. (For others, it’s woodsmoke that smells like doom.)
- Loud noises and the vibrations that come with them. (You know how the nearest bully used to sneak up behind you, and then smack their palms over both your ears at once? Remember that feeling that your head just exploded, and hot shards jinked down your spine? Kind of like that, times about 1000. A vacuum cleaner suddenly turning on can knock me down. I used to live near railroad tracks; not an option now.)
- Radiation of many kinds. This rules out being near power stations, overhead wires, hands-free phone technology (Bluetooth or cordless house phones) and (this is really limiting:) modern wireless signals, which feel like a blunt spear piercing me just below my xyphoid process and spinning barbed tails through my trunk while injecting molten metal up my spine and into my brain.
So much fun.
Believe it or not, after hearing part or all of this list, I’ve had people ask me, “How do you know that you need to avoid all that?” It’s not the words, it’s the tone. The implication is that all of this is somehow the product of a fevered imagination. If only it were!
I notice my responses, which are not subtle from the inside; I work out what particular exposure caused that response; and, intentionally or not, I get multiple exposures to each of these things because they’re everywhere, so I can test out the theory that a particular exposure causes a particular response.
It takes a special kind of person to go to the extraordinary effort to research substances that affect fragile systems and how, and claim to be that ill and be required to make all those compromises and spend all that money to avoid those materials, and give up so much because of it, without actually having their survival depend on it. That particular mental disorder is extremely rare — a lot rarer than invisible illnesses. Anyway, it’s one thing I definitely don’t have.
Examining the options
Rent or buy?
Good question. Let’s look at those from my point of view.
Rent tends to cost, month per month, about twice what home ownership does around here, even with all the taxes and fees figured in. Boggles my mind, but there it is. (Homeownership has loads of hidden expenses, but rarely do they double the cost month after month.)
Rentals are supposed to get repainted every two years or between each tenant, whichever is longer. That really sucks for me, because even low VOC paint makes me sick, goofy, nauseous, edgy, and unhappy for weeks.
The majority of rental units have carpeting, mostly cheap carpeting consisting mostly of petroleum derivatives, aggressively outgassing toxins all their lives while harboring mold and less savory things beyond the reach of steam cleaners.
Rental units in my price range are in high density housing (meaning there’s normally pollution, Wi-Fi, and noise completely beyond my control), and every single one that I’ve looked at has a mold issue – a solid, interlaminar set of colonies, usually in the kitchen and bathroom, often in the bedrooms, and if they’re in the bedrooms, they’re in the living rooms as well.
So much wrong.
In any case, unless I can find low income, high density living with non-toxic interior furnishings, nontoxic finishes, hardwood floors, no mold, good air, no pollution and no street noise (which would be fantastic for all concerned!), where all my neighbors have no power tools, dulcet voices, and no interest in using their cell phones every hour of every day (yeah, right), then… I probably have to think in terms of a freestanding house.
From the practical standpoint of having people to say hi to and help shoveling the stairs and the like, I would love to have close neighbors! It’s just that I need not to put myself in a position to be poisoned and tortured by regular people simply living their lives.
What with one thing and another, I realized a year and a half ago that I would have to focus on a freestanding house – despite all the upfront cost and work involved in that. It’s kind of like jumping off the deep end, an especially apt metaphor for a lifelong skin-diver, deep-water sailor, and former live-aboard “grotty yachtie” like me.
I’ve always had a pretty good instinct for real estate, which annoyed my father more than once – he kept ignoring my advice. The prices here only bobbled, they didn’t bubble; the overall trend has been gradually, consistently, steadily upward for a century or more.
This IS a region where it’s a good investment.
Buying requires good credit, but after LINK some work and time, that’s not a problem.
First-time homebuyers and low-income home buyers have special government programs that make it possible for them to get loans from banks by insuring those loans with the feds. Of course, the federal government has to be working for that to happen. (That could happen any month now. Maybe within a year?)
All I want is a clean, dry, safe-for-me 600-800 square-foot house on a couple acres of buffer zone for ~$135k inclusive, somewhere in the area of Easthampton to Heath to Montague to North Hadley, on a paved quiet road.
This is a reasonable price for a reasonable proposition. However, in two years of looking, it hasn’t turned up.
But I’ll show you what has turned up:
Century floodplain houses
How do you spell “moldfest”? It’s actually called “Sick Building Syndrome”, but either way, there’s a reason these places are cheap and still on the market.
[The century floodplain houses]
First-time homebuyer loans will not cover these, nor should they. Foreclosures are the ultimate black-box proposition — you have no idea what’s in there, but a few observations and questions have taught me to interpret clues. I won’t bother you with photos, because these have since gone off the market and I’m not researching foreclosures any further:
- Great little house in a gorgeous spot… with a cracked foundation — I mean a busted-right-open-and-let-the-critters-in foundation.
- Current tenant dropped not one, but two trees across the driveway. Is that a hint? I was curiously disinclined to investigate.
- The house has stood empty for over a year, and because of that, any characteristics that weren’t up to modern code are no longer grandfathered, but have to be corrected before moving in. This seems to add 30-120% to the effective price, and in one case I looked at, would have cost 3 times the purchase price just to turn it into a code-compliant property.
- Extensive plumbing work is often required: in one case, the well went bad; in another, the septic system was toast; in many foreclosures, the sinks and toilets are smashed apart to discourage squatters — and add enormously to the repairs required of pipes, flooring, and walls affected, not to mention the porcelain.
[Several examples of what’s in my price range, with wry commentary]
[The total reno, with the great bones] I love this. I would LOVE to get my hands on this. Sadly, I’m now a formerly handy person. Holding the tools required, let alone breathing the dust and fumes involved, are sot even to be thought of. Breaks my heart, darn it! This would have been so much fun!
My needs and wants are very reasonable, but apparently, a place that embodies them doesn’t already exist.
It’s horrifying to contemplate, but I have to think about building my own. There are so many issues, both physical and fiscal, that it simply boggles the mind. Just to start with, how is a first time, low income home buyer going to qualify for a building loan, even where there is so much documentation regarding these special needs?
I’ve spoken at length with builders specializing in non-toxic homes, one company’s owners giving me what amounted to a three-hour workshop in materials, gotchas, and things to know and watch out for in regard to renovation and building. It doesn’t have to be much costlier, but it requires an enormous amount of project management on my part to keep costs down by researching and sourcing used or overstock fixtures and fittings, hardwood flooring, non-toxic and natural finishes (some of which I worked out how to use on my boat), and so forth.
I’ve come up with a couple of novel ways to simplify plumbing and electrics, which are in compliance with the current building codes. (The electrician and builders I’ve mentioned it to are intrigued and plan to keep my ideas in mind for the future. I find that encouraging.) That’s one way I’ve brought down some projected costs, although it depends on my being able to do certain physical work.
I’ve also researched the toxins, materials, labor, permitting, and costs involved in prefab vs. stick built (traditional) vs. log building here.
What I’ve learned about heating methods (toxicity, mold, fuels, weaknesses, etc.) would bore you to tears. I just have two words: steam heat.
While I have always imagined/dreamed of living in a hexagonal stick built house with lots of windows and two small wings, it turns out my family have always imagined I’d wind up in a little log cabin. It looks like they might be right.
What’s involved in an adequate trade-off?
I have to know where I can be flexible. This wiggle-room could make the difference between having a rational home and spinning off the face of the earth. (Two people who couldn’t find a home in time were found frozen to death yesterday. I’m trying not to think about that.)
There’s a little bit of slack in my needs, but not much.
Radiation (from heavy electrics, heavy electronics, cell phone towers too close, and wi-fi) is a no go.
VOCs that can be washed off, treated with pine and baking soda, or aired out in a few days would be fine.
Treatable mold would be fine, but, unfortunately, by the time it shows, there’s usually a well-established root system inside the wall and mitigation becomes the sort of iterative, messy, relentless, and ultimately unresolved nightmare that usually takes three scream queens and gallons of artificial blood to get across on the silver screen; respiratory struggles, immune failure and mental impairment aren’t nearly as dramatic on the outside as they are on the inside.
What does success look like?
I could be really flippant and say that success looks like an added hundred thousand dollars free and clear in my mortgage account. That would definitely put me in a price bracket that would allow me to have my log cabin, with the right fittings and finishes, in a safe clean area, with everything I need and nothing I don’t. Plus…
I used to dream of having a big enough property to put additional cabins on, and provide safe non-toxic living for friends who like small spaces, and maybe some glamping spots for the summer. I’ve already got 2 friends who’d love to sign that lease as of yesterday, and 3 more who’d love to think about it, and that all turned up in 2 conversations. There is clearly a market for safe, small, inexpensive housing, and it would be a good, benevolent, and sound investment. However, the start-up costs (more buildings, more slabs, more plumbing, more septic, etc.) are unthinkable for me. I just don’t have that.
This is where being poor is super frustrating. (Yes, I really do think this way … I’m more frustrated that I can’t help others than I am that finding a place for my own self is so hard.) I could so easily provide safe and sane housing for people who, like me, are fighting their environments all the time, and who would, if they could, much rather be using their energy to contribute to the world. And helping pay my mortgage. There is no downside.
There is no money for it, either.
What does success look like?
It looks manageably small, manageably affordable (or self-supporting — hello, cabins!), safe, clean, healthy, nontoxic, and warm.
I have a lot to do, and a lifespan truncated by probably 25-30 years. I’m genetically wired for my 90s, if I don’t smoke, which I don’t. So I’d better hustle!
In order to do my work (write my books, produce my pain-mitigating products, do live trainings on handling chronic pain and disability at home and at work, etc.) I need a home that doesn’t make things worse; Time alone will do that. It doesn’t need any more help from my living environment.
My success path is very, very narrow. I’m still not sure how to get there, but I have a few more interviews with specialist professionals ahead of me.
Are there any choices that meet my needs?
According to two years of market research, there is nothing already built that meets my needs in my price range.
I might have to make it myself, whether I like it or not, whether it’s easy (which it was never going to be) or not, whether there is any standard path to get me there, or whether I have to forge ahead and work the steps out one by one, going purely by what works for me – as I did with CRPS for so long, before clinical practice caught up with what I was doing.
I’m a very reasonable person. I’m just in a very unreasonable situation.
I’m almost used to it. Sigh.
Two things come first:
1.Taking care of myself and my relationships, and
2. Finding responsible doctors.
That seems to be ok for now. So, among other business-y things, I’m working on rebuilding my credit rating.
I didn’t mention in a prior post that there are 2 aspects to building credit:
– Addressing negative credit
– Building positive credit
Here’s the progress I’m making. These links and resources are for the US. (I’m sorry for my overseas friends who need this info — if you like, I’ll link to yours and you can link to mine, if you are able to research your country’s policies.)
If a debt is less than 7 years old and it was always yours to pay, it still is. There’s no getting around that. However, it’s worth doing a sanity check on those debts, because, for one thing, they might be more than 7 years old but still showing up, and for another, they might not be yours to pay.
Start with a reality check
I went over everything twice, once to let the white flashing lights and internal screaming happen in private,
and again later when I’d calmed down to see what was really there.
If you owe it, you might pay less
There were a few smaller debts that were definitely mine, definitely in date, and still owed. I called those companies, to make sure the amount and address I had were correct, and paid them off as soon as I could. One creditor had just sent it to collections, which means they had to take a few cents on the dollar, and they’re a small company. I offered to pay it straight to them and she almost cried. (I now have a friend in Maine..)
I find that business people are super nice when they find out you want to pay them, after thinking they’d lost that money forever! They made it as easy as possible. If I’d had debts in 4 digits instead of about $100 each, I believe I could have negotiated for a discount and payment plan by talking directly to the company. I never spoke to a collection agency; I might have found a good one, who knows, and settled cheaply.
If you don’t owe it, point them to who does
I sic’ed a hospital and ambulance company onto Medicare for medical bills that should have been directed to them anyway. They were 4-digit debts, so it was a relief to discharge them; however, more to the point, they were not my debts to pay.
I’m happy to pay my bills when I can, but it’s silly to pay things I don’t owe. I had to check things against the impenetrable Medicare and Medicaid language, but I haven’t heard from those creditors again, so I was right — my health insurance had to pay for that ambulance ride and the emergency care.
If it’s over 7 years, you probably don’t owe it
The biggest bill is out of date. Imagine how my head spun when I realized that! it turns out I have one major debt still on my credit report, but it’s from 8 years ago. Since they’re only allowed to stay on the report for 7 years, I wanted credible guidance for wiping that off my report.
How to handle creditor errors
Most online pages tell you to report to one of the Big Three agencies and trust them to take care of it. I found out the hard way that the Big Three are not the definitive players in the financial world; they’re only 3 out of (possibly) a dozen or more. Furthermore, the Big Three don’t have an obligation to report the change to other credit agencies.
Here’s what you really need to do:
1. Make 2 (or more) copies of your documentation of the error.
One copy is for the company that made the error: in my case, the bank that forgot to take off the bad debt after 7 years. Extras are for any disputes you want to file with the credit reporting agencies (Equifax, etc.) Happily for those of us with limited attention, the company that made the mistake is responsible for making the correction with every single reporting agency it reported your problem to.
This documentation can be the credit report you got from CreditKarma or your mortgage application, or it can be from whatever documentation you have that shows the very last payment you made, or the very last time you told them that you’d pay, whichever comes later. That date is when the clock started ticking.
(This is why it’s vital NEVER to make promises to financial institutions. Either pay, or don’t pay, but don’t tell them ahead of time. Your word binds you as much as paying money does. Tell them as little as possible. My formula is, “I understand that you want to be paid. I would, too. I can’t do that right now, but I will let you know when I figure out what to do.” This is honest and clear, and totally avoids any suggestion that I owe them or will pay them.)
Despite anything they say, it’s not about your honor, it’s about their profits. Your survival does not matter to them; getting paid does. Remember that. It’s all about money for them, because that’s the way the laws are written that govern them.
2. Mark up your copies, either in a colorful ink or by taping notes to them, whatever works for you. Be specific about the most important problem; in my case, this would mean circling the dates of the last payment in red ink, adding the note, “This is over 7 years old.”
3. Write a professional, brief, factual letter to the company that made the mistake.
Here’s a good template from the FTC itself:
Under “Enclosures”, I might include a printout of the following page, in addition to my documentation of the error: http://www.consumerfinance.gov/askcfpb/323/how-long-does-negative-information-remain-on-my-credit-report.html
4. [optional] Go to the website of each credit reporting company that told you about this problem. Follow their instructions for filing a dispute about a record, and submit your marked-up copies however they ask you to do so. (You might need to scan them in.)
Format for letter to clear up errors in your credit record
If you have trouble with all the square brackets in the FTC’s link above, here’s a simpler version, based on my issue (you’d change it to reflect yours.) It looks funky here, but I just tried copy-pasting it into Word and it looks perfect:
My Name My Billing Address My City, State, Zip Code Date Complaint Department My Old Bank's Name Street Address City, State, Zip Code Dear Sir or Madam: I am writing to dispute the following information in my file. I have circled the items I dispute on the attached copy of the report I received. This ____ is inaccurate because _____. I am requesting that the item be removed to correct the information. Enclosed are copies of ____, ____, and ____ supporting my position. Please reinvestigate this matter and delete the disputed item from my credit reports as soon as possible. Sincerely, my illegible scrawl Isy Isington Enclosures: Credit report with old date Copy of FTC or CFPB page stating 7-yr limit Whatever else would help make the point
Sources of info: the good, the bad, and the pretty-but-useless
I found this info at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an outstanding information and assistance site whose job it is to make sure we don’t get too screwed by the financial industry: http://www.consumerfinance.gov/askcfpb/search/?selected_facets=category_exact:credit-reporting&selected_facets=category_exact:disputing-errors-credit-report
The financial industry’s job is to make money, not to be fair or to take care of the needs of non-financially-savvy people. The laws are written that way: their job is to make money, and devil take the hindmost.
The CFPB exists to give consumers a better chance of survival in this top-weighted economy.
Another excellent site for unarguable information is the consumer pages of the Federal Trade Commission:
After wading through dozens of pages on consumer debt and credit advice, the best, clearest, most useful information turned out to be at the CFPB and the FTC. I strongly suggest going right to those pages to find answers to your questions.
Also, the CFPB has ways of helping you if you think you’re getting screwed in spite of following the right steps. Look for the helpful links on the page you’re looking at, in the text or over on the right. Don’t make yourself crazy; make an honest effort within your limits, then go to the CFPB site, explain your situation, and ask for help (if necessary, use the term, “as part of an ADA accommodation for my disability, which affects abilities required to do this” — that’s a magic phrase that means you don’t have to jump through as many hoops as a healthy person in order to get help.)
A note on credit reporting that you won’t find on most sites
I found out that there’s a wrinkle to credit reportage in the US that explains why the “Big Three” (Experian, Equifax, etc.) are such a small part of the information yielded in in-depth credit inquiries, like mortgage applications or some brokerage accounts. They’re called credit bureaus. They are an added layer between creditors and reporting agencies: they collect info from the creditors, and pass it to the reporting agencies. You’ve never heard of most of them, unless you’re in the industry.
This is why the info from the Big Three is only the tip of the iceberg. Very annoying. I’m going to mull this, and maybe ask the CFPB about it.
What’s a Statute of Limitations on debt?
Each state has a statute of limitations on debt that’s usually less than the 7 years that a debt can stay on your record. The difference between a statute of limitations and how long it can stay on your record is this: a statute of limitations simply defines how long they have to file a lawsuit against you. They usually have to file a lawsuit within 2-4 years, but they can keep that black mark on your record for at least 7 years.
When I was a young adult, lawsuits were rarely filed for consumer debt. It wasn’t profitable enough, and besides, preying on consumers was considered bad business practice in the long term. Bankers blamed themselves for judging poorly; they didn’t see non-rich people as legitimate prey.
Since then, in the wake of the irrationally predacious financial practices that trashed the US economy from the middle out, suing and criminalizing debtors has become a big business. Please see the comment below from Sage for more on this topic; she has grabbed a couple of links for further info on this.
NEVER IGNORE A SUBPOENA. Ignore anything else you want, but if you ignore a subpoena from a court, you’re turned into a criminal automatically and can be arrested on sight.
Remember, it’s not about you, it’s about money. It’s all about money.
If I got subpoena’d (again), I’d call the court and sweetly but firmly request ADA accommodation regarding time and place, so I’d be physically able to attend. Then I’d show up in court, bank statements and disability “award” letter in hand demonstrating my financial straits, explain that I’d love to settle for, say, 20-30 cents on the dollar (which is the most they can expect, and more than nothing!) and set up a payment plan, but the creditor wouldn’t work with me.
The judge can order them to work with you, and it’s perfectly reasonable to look for a settlement that’s much less than half of what you originally owed.
I’m White and know the lingo, so I have two huge advantages in court. Nevertheless, it’s best not to ignore a subpoena, because doing so automatically criminalizes you. It’s not fair — in fact, it’s blitheringly crazy — but that’s the way the laws are written now.
To build positive credit, you find reportable debts to take on, keep within limits, and pay them off on time every time. There is no workaround to that.
If you don’t have much negative credit, you might be able to take on a signature loan from your bank. Stick the loan in a savings account and set up automatic payments from that account. Never touch it. It’s not yours. It belongs to your future. Consider it Monopoly money, which isn’t legal outside the parameters of the game.
Credit cards for the rest of us
If you entered your illness (or other hardship) with the usual rank of car payments and consumer debts, this may not be an option.
There are a few credit card companies who provide ways for you to have a credit card, usually by putting a certain amount of money in a savings account with them. With some cards, the better your record with them, the sooner they bump up your limits beyond what’s on the card. It’s best not to spend up when that happens, but instead, to let the higher limit ride and stay on target with your payments. The higher limit will work in your favor credit-wise, even if you never use it.
Needless to say, it’s essential to avoid debts you can’t service. Don’t spend more than you do now. Pay that sucker, exactly as the card company tells you to. Every. Single. Month. Without fail. That’s how you rebuild credit.
I’ll use my card for things I buy anyway, and pay it off every month out of my budget for food, gas, clothes, and exactly what (and how much) I’d buy anyway. It’s the same money, it just has to go through an extra step on the backend. More payments to automate, but I can do that.
I aim to wind up with 3 credit cards — one for groceries, one for gas, one for “other”, which will provide an illuminating reality check on my budget’s validity — and pay them off every month. More automation; I can do that. I’ll need 3 cards in order to build up a sufficient positive history as quickly as possible.
This section was added March 2018, regarding a lesson I learned the hard way, so you don’t have to…
“Good credit card utilization” is one way of generating positive credit. That phrase is in quotes… why? Because the meaning of it has changed.
When I was earning enough to get a credit card based on my income (when buggy whips were the turbo-charge of the day), this meant spending cards up and paying them off religiously. At the time, people who ran high debt on their cards and then paid them off every month were the ones doing it right.
I didn’t remember any current advice to the contrary…
So, I was approaching mortgage-application time (my goal), and had one of those jumpy bursts of misguided energy — “Maybe I don’t have enough positive credit! Quick, spend up and pay off!” I put all my expenses on my card. Predictably, in the helter of distraction and the skelter of all the other things I’m juggling, I was 3 days late on that payment.
Next thing I know, my glowing golden credit score dropped more than 100 points!
I dug into that. It wasn’t the slight tardiness. (I’ve automated minimum payments so I’ll never be late again. Should have done that in the first place!)
Credit Karma told me, “Oh, by the way… you want to spend your credit cards only up to 30% of the balance. Otherwise lenders assume you’re irresponsible and overuse credit.“
It’s no longer just about paying off. It’s about using less than a third of the debt you’re supposedly able to carry.
Yup, you’re right: Finance is a very weird business. It has rules rather than logic — although my finance relatives insist it has its own logic. (Speaking as an American who has kept an eye on financial events for the past 30 years, all I can do is smile politely. Logic? Is that what it’s called? Heheh… Okay!)
I would have rather learned that “30% rule” when I was doing the original research on this article. But hey, better late than never, right?*
When you use credit cards to develop positive credit, be sure to charge no more than $30 out of every $100 of credit to your account.
So, a $500 credit limit means you only spend $150 of that credit before paying it down. $300 means only spend $90 — seriously. $700 means $210 in usable credit, before you have to pay it down or suffer the consequences.
Keep your balance below that 30% mark.
This is key to protecting your score while developing positive credit with credit cards.
*“Better late than never” may not be right after all. The party currently in charge of the US government chose to gut federal HUD (Housing Development) funding. Therefore, waiting for this blip to age out may destroy my chance to get any low-income home-buying support… not to mention rental support or any housing support at all.
That’s not just about me. A significant rise in homelessness — and all the dimensions of costs that go with that — is a great thing for a great country, right?
Or not… I grew up in a country where homelessness was rife. It was a third-world country and didn’t have our resources. We have no excuse.
To find your current legislators, go to https://www.usa.gov/elected-officials
To check current voting regulations or register to vote, go to https://www.usa.gov/register-to-vote
To find out whether, where, and how to vote, here’s a nonpartisan website put together by all the states: http://nass.org/can-i-vote
When you go to the polls, reflect: the future your vote affects will ultimately be your own.
If you don’t have a copy of your Social Security card
I applied for a credit card from Open Sky, which has an excellent program for building positive credit without being charged an arm and a leg. https://www.openskycc.com/
They didn’t tell me up front that I needed a copy of my Social Security card. That was one of many things that didn’t make it out of California alive, so I have to replace it.
Some states allow you to apply for a replacement card online: https://www.ssa.gov/ssnumber/
Mine doesn’t. So, I have to download this form from the Social Security Administration,
fill it out for a replacement copy (not an original copy), send them my passport (the original, not a copy — gulp), and trust them to get that and the card back to me via snail mail.
For a change, there’s no fee.
It’s an interesting leap of faith. After being so stunningly betrayed, almost to being killed off, by the SSA (which, in Oakland, lost, delayed, destroyed, and poisoned my Disability app for years; I documented their illegal shenanigans, and was granted instant SSDI when I moved East and submitted my records) and the post office (where, in Alameda County, they stole my mail regularly, especially anything from the government and insurance company), it’s definitely an interesting leap of faith to trust these organizations with my most valuable documents and this aspect of my future. I’m hoping that East continues to be East for me, and West remains out West.
Alternative, more realistic credit reporting is in reach!
Another new piece of info I learned is that there is a legitimate, useful credit reporting agency that’s consumer-driven, rather than financial-corp driven. Major lenders, including lenders who work with those of us who are not rich, have signed on to receive their credit reports.
This agency is called PRBC, which stands for Pay Rent, Build Credit. You plug in your monthly payments, including phone bills, utility bills, dental bills or court fines on a payment plan, rent, and so forth; any recurring payments — and all of that goes to building your credit history.
These things are normally ignored, oddly enough; only consumer-debt-based payments and tax problems — the most prejudicial and the least useful of the normal person’s financial activity, if you think bout it — are normally included in credit scoring, and somehow this is considered normal and appropriate.
Those of us who’ve always paid rent and phone and kept the electricity on, even when we lost everything else, can really benefit from this. I wish I could backdate it 7 years, as that record would do me a lot of good in the mortgage market.
I ALWAYS paid rent. I did without food to pay rent. I let the phone go to pay rent — and I still feel an aching stab of gratitude to the 3 friends who took turns keeping my phone connected, most notably the last one, who stuck around longest and was there when I finally got paid.
I’d have loved to put THAT on my credit report. It would do a lot of good against the debt-based credit I couldn’t maintain when I couldn’t work and had not yet gotten the barely-adequate disability payments that put me back on track for ongoing survival.
If you’ve had to trash your consumer debt in order to survive, but you’re still finding ways to keep a roof over your head and utility bills paid, it may be worth the fairly small effort of signing up with PRBC.
Downside: putting up with more junk mail.
Upside: having your real-life level of responsibility documented in your favor.
I still mull the real value of having credit if you can live on a cash basis and don’t ever want to make payments on a car or mortgage, and you live in an area where getting rental housing doesn’t involve credit checks. As long as you stay in those stringent parameters, there’s no need for credit.
However, I really want to get a bit of property so I can have whatever pets I like. I really want to have the option of replacing my good and sturdy, well-adapted vehicle in the fullness of time, without being obliged to pay the full price up front. We shall see.
For me, it opens up options, and after 15 years of having fewer and fewer options all the time, I’ve rather enjoyed the opening-up of recent times. I’m motivated to generate even more options.
So, I’ve signed up for PRBC and today I’m off to the post office to send off my form and passport (gulp) to get a copy of my SS card so I can apply for an Open Sky credit card and start building positive credit. I hope I can keep it together and on track this weekend to write that letter to my old bank, and get that in the mail next week, to address the biggest stain on my negative credit.
I might be slow on these tasks (this represents 5 months of pixilated — and pixelated — brain-work)…
… but, by gum, I intend to get there in the end.
Update: Christmas Credit Scores
I didn’t say this because I was too embarrassed, but I had an initial credit rating in the 530-550 range (or, as one banker put it, “Very little credit, and no positive credit”, which is a terrible thing to hear.) I think I now have the best credit score of my life, a handy thing to have in hard times:
Regarding the second image (710), it’s worth noting that the key to a solid and sustainable credit score is accuracy. I intend to resolve every error so that the credit I’m looking at is really mine, because I only control my actions and can only monitor my activities.
Once others get into the mix, even if they temporarily elevate my score, that won’t hold up to the kind of inquiry made in significant searches, like mortgages — or like the incredibly invasive and expensive financial inquiries made by Massachusetts Medicare, called MassHealth.
…Because going over thousands of poor peoples’ finances with a nit-comb, making sure they’re not able to generate any savings, prepare at all for uncertain futures, or give back to charities they’ve used, is such a great way to encourage good financial practices and a terrific use of tight taxpayer dollars… sigh.
Can’t they see the forest? Nope; too many trees in the way! They’re too busy dealing with that to look up and notice what they’re, um, actually doing…