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.