Do not lie awake worrying about house maintenance #707

#707 in a series of true experiences in real estate

One day I saw a magazine article about a house two friends redid in Wisconsin. The house, built about the time of the Civil War, had been unoccupied and crumbling for 50 years before the owners bought it to use as their summer home. They made repairs but kept the structure much as they’d found it because they explained, “We didn’t feel we should intrude too much on what existed.”

They did not install indoor plumbing, nor did they remove the old sheet linoleum a previous owner had laid on the floors of the main rooms. They stripped the tattered wallpaper but did nothing else to the plaster walls preferring to see the shadowy patterns made by the lath underneath.

I liked knowing about this house and especially enjoyed something one owner said. “I think we’ve succeeded in befriending our house.”

Nice thought, nice word “befriending” – just what I hope I am doing to my own house. But not everyone feels the same. Some people are more able, more interested in making friends with the places where they live than others who do nothing to change them from the way they got them.

One house we visited when it was offered for sale was empty and forlorn. The agent had left the front door open but was nowhere in sight so we never learned who owned it and lived there or how long ago he or she moved out. But judging from the condition of the roof, whoever it was must have gotten wet when it rained.

Standing on the sidewalk, we could see that the roof had broken down into layers of mush. From inside the living room, we could look through to the sky. The wood floors had buckled, pieces of plaster hung by threads, walls were spotted with mildew.

Did the owner have buckets and pans all over the place for drips? Why wasn’t the roof replaced? Was the owner old and ill, or had no money, or what?

Maybe the owner chose to live in the house the way it was. Maybe he or she didn’t pay attention to the problem for a long time, and then decided it didn’t matter, or that it was too late. The house still worked, still provided some shelter. Even with all that water pouring in, the doors and windows would still close and lock. The floors were wavy but had no holes. The lights and plumbing still turned on and off.

It is possible that the owner found the house acceptable. How people live in their houses is something we’ve been talking about lately because we’ve heard from several worried homeowners who told us they’d like to sell but they can’t because things are in such a mess.

One woman who called us mentioned one of our columns, her favorite she said, a story of a man who had made no repairs to his house in the 40 years he’d lived there. When the downstairs toilet leaked and rotted out the floor, he just closed the door and stopped using that toilet.

Our caller remembered this story because she is facing the same sort of thing. She said she’s got to clean up her house. She needs to get rid of a lot of things first, then do repairs before she can sell. She is dreading it. Worse, she sounds pretty embarrassed.

I don’t know how “bad” her house is because she doesn’t want anyone to see it like it is. I do know that whatever state it is in, it can be dealt with. Houses can be fixed or can be sold without fixing.

The man who had done nothing for 40 years asked us what would be the smartest thing to do. We looked the house over and got bids for a new roof and furnace, fireplace and floor repair, painting, cleaning up the yard. Then we estimated what he could sell for without doing any work and what he might get if he fixed things. He decided to borrow some money, move out and go ahead with reconstruction — the right decision for him, but not for everyone.

While it is frequently true that the houses that sell quickly and for the highest prices are sold clean and pretty, it is also true that it may not make sense to fix your house. It may be better, you may come out ahead, by letting the buyer fix it himself. It just depends.

If you are thinking about selling and your house needs work, you’ll need to collect information. Talk to an agent, get some idea about selling prices and the agent’s concerns about the condition of your house. Get bids, then consider your objective.

We want you to know that there are many possibilities. Every house, every owner is different. Whatever your plans, whatever your style, we hope that you are not laying awake worrying about house maintenance. It actually takes quite awhile for houses to fall down and die.

So, take heart. Think about the Civil War house, vacant for 50 years. No one painted, caulked, washed or did anything at all in those years, and it was still standing upright.


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