Ask the grumpies: Worthwhile renovations?

Chacha1 asks:

Well, I am deep in the throes of remodeling angst so this is a house-and-home but also finance-related topic that people might like to discuss:

What do people think was the BEST money they spent on home improvement, and what do they wish they had left alone?

This is partially a cost/benefit question, because a lot of people think of owning a home as an investment (I think of it as a forced savings plan with really high barriers to entry), but also a Greatest Domestic Happiness question. e.g. I read anecdotally that people love the idea of a huge multi-stage bathroom (separate tub & shower, toilet in a little room with door, double sinks) but personally I see that as a gigantic waste of space. And from a ROI perspective it is also, not anecdotally, a waste of money. So has anyone done such a thing, are they happy about it a few years down the line, etc.

Note, as renters we are not considering any such thing. For us it’s more “do we get the entry door with sidelight that requires reframing or do we choose a standard door with half glass which would mean we can replace BOTH entry doors.” (You can probably guess which way I’m leaning.) :-)

This is definitely a personal question for each homeowning (or formerly home improving) individual of Grumpy Nation to weigh in on.  We have done remarkably little home improvement other than replacing things when they break or when feral kittens or toddlers destroy them past the point of regular aesthetics.  I guess our kitchen looks nicer without gingham wallpaper and our window dressings look better with new blinds.

We have one of those multi-stage bathrooms as our master bath.  The first few years it made me feel kind of dirty, since it literally is the same size as our first efficiency apartment (100 sq feet).  I’ve gotten used to it, but don’t get any additional happiness from it than we would get from a normal bathroom like we have in our MIL suite.  I don’t feel at all deprived at hotels or visiting relatives.  The water closet is one of DH’s favorite places to escape when the kids are going wild– if we can’t find him, chances are he’s in the water closet.  But I’m sure a normal-sized bathroom would function the same way so long as there’s a door to close!

So, grumpy nation, what home improvements have you felt were worth it?  What home improvements do you regret?

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Ask the grumpies: if I want to give my kids a huge amount of money as young adults, how should I do it?

Sandy L asks

Should I buy my kid a house or pay for tuition?

Student loans can be deferred etc. if the kid is paying their own way they may be more serious etc.

Tuition. The pay your own way thing is BS. Here’s our deliberately controversial post on that topic. You can compromise by having them pay their own extras (clothing, meals out, etc). Then they’ll have the same experience of learning how to budget and not living high on the hog but without the huge amounts of debt at the end.  Also, note that if you’re paying tuition directly, it isn’t subject to the gift tax.  “Under current IRS rules, a payment made directly to an educational institution to pay for the tuition of a student does not count as a gift to the student for gift tax purposes, ” according to fastweb.

Buying a child a house could lock the kid in place and create additional expenses.  A house is a lot of responsibility when you’re just starting out, and trying to deal with selling and repairs on top of job searching and dating and hobbies and anything else that young people do might be more hassle than help.  (And if the kid decides to sell the house in order to pay off hir education, basically you’ve just given realtors a bunch of transaction fees and paid gift taxes for nothing.)  If you’re only talking about providing a downpayment, that’s even worse because a mortgage is a big fixed expense and the kid might not be able to sell very easily if the house goes underwater and they get a job elsewhere.

What do you think Grumpy Nation?  Any experiences with either?

(Mis-)Adventures in trying to get a whole house water filter.

I’m allergic to the water in our area.  If I take a bath or the shower filter wears out, I end up with super-flakey skin and sometimes it itches.  Generally we handle this with a shower filter in the master shower and a sink filter for drinking water in the kitchen.  But then I started getting an itchy spot on my back where one of my bra straps hits (sort of on the right side), and we thought maybe instead of a blemish (there’s no bumps) or some kind of neurological problem it might be me becoming allergic to cloth, specifically the water it’s washed in (we’ve already narrowed down laundry soaps I can use).  I’m not convinced that the itchy spot is from the water, but we figured this was something to try.  Add to that that DC2 seems to have inherited a lot of my skin allergies, and the praise one of my colleagues who is allergic to chlorine gives his whole house water filter, we decided this was worth trying.

In fact, we decided it was worth trying back this summer when DH started getting paid again.  (This was our celebratory purchase.)  We decided it so much that I ended up buying a whole house water filter on “60%” sale from aquasana off amazon (quotes because it’s always on at least a “40%” sale).  From online searching, we determined it would probably cost another $700 -$1K to get the thing installed, and we were fine with that.

We still don’t have whole house filtered water.

My colleague had told us it was so easy.  They just hook up to the waterline and put it in your garage, he said.

My colleague does not have a corner lot where the garage is on the other side of the house (with the pipes imbedded in the concrete slab under the house).  There is no real feasible way to put the filter in the garage.  It has to be attached where the waterline comes into the house.

So we had the plumbers out and they said first we’d have to find the water line, which they could do but they didn’t have the specialized equipment so that would mean digging up a good portion of the lawn searching for it.  So they recommended a service who doesn’t do plumbing but just finds leaks.  That guy found our water line… and a leak (a real leak– that part of the lawn was definitely much greener than the rest of the lawn, we just hadn’t noticed).

So we had the plumbers out again to fix the leak.  Our home water pressure improved noticeably.  They still needed to get back to us on the cost of installation of the water filter.

Then weather happened and the plumbers couldn’t do non-emergency stuff for a while.

Then school happened and we didn’t have time to contact the plumber.

Then our sprinkler system started leaking, so we had to have a new sprinkler repair person out.

Then some hose connections started leaking (at which point we began to suspect that the increased pressure was busting out wherever it could bust) and we had the plumbers out again and they were able to get us an estimate on the whole house filter while they were out.

Then we accepted the estimate and made an appointment.

Then the two plumbers who were supposed to come out couldn’t because one had a wife in the hospital and one had a baby in the hospital (both emergencies, though with the baby it was a preemie so not entirely unexpected and the prognosis and eventual outcome was good).

Then they rescheduled for the next week when I was out of town for a conference.  They came out and fixed another hose connection thingy.

Upon further inspection, they realized that the hot water closet didn’t have enough room for both the water heater already housed there and the whole house water filter and told DH to get a shed.  DH took the day off work and went out and purchased a $300 ugly grey plastic shed and spent $30 on truck rental to get it home.  Then he put it together.  Then he realized he’d need a concrete floor or something to use it for the filter.  Then he realized the plumbers wouldn’t be coming back that day.  Then he realized the shed violated our HOA agreement.  [Update:  he has since resold the shed on Cragislist and so is only out $130, not $330, and we no longer have the ugly thing in our backyard waiting for the HOA to notice it.]

After much discussion, we decided to contact the HOA architectural committee for advice.  They didn’t give advice (the helpful lady had stepped down and was replaced by a guy who spent a long time explaining to DH why rules are important) but they gave us a horrifically lengthy and detailed document we would have to fill out if we wanted to get a shed (only wood are allowed, and boy are they pricey and difficult to find as small as we would want).

Then Thanksgiving happened.  Then Christmas happened.  And today is New Year’s.

So now we have three options which may or may not work.

  1.  (The one we’re leaning towards):  Install the filter without the pro kit (looks something like this but is 10-year, not 6-year).  This cuts the width from ~44 in to ~22 in and might allow it to share the outdoor closet with our water heater.  We don’t know yet and would have to have the plumbers out again.
  2. Remove our tanked water heater (which is going to have to be replaced in a year or two anyway) and replace it with a tankless water heater.  Then install the entire filter.  This should be possible, but it may cost another $2K, one K for the tankless water heater, another $1K for installation.  We have to do more research on this.  If money were no option, we’d be in the ideal situation for tankless as this water heater services two bathrooms and nothing else (meaning if we all took showers and baths at the same time we’d only be using 8 gallons max) and we’re in a warm climate.   Apparently the installation of tankless water heaters could be difficult or could be easy depending on where the hookups are and how big the tubes are.  Some newer tankless heaters have more standard hookups than did older models.  But we have to figure out which is which.  (Our garage water heater replacement will be another tank because we like running the dishwasher and clothes washer at the same time.)
  3. We could keep trying to get a shed just for the water filter.

Am I wishing that I’d held off buying this filter?  YES.  Especially since my back hasn’t had that itchy spot for a while (it went away whenever I traveled, so right now my primary suspect is a different environmental allergen).  And the plumbers aren’t returning our calls.

We could cut our losses at this point and either try to return the filter at a loss or sell it on Craigslist at a loss.  But it would also be nice to take a bath from time to time without having to shower afterward (or regretting it later).

So I had hoped to have a happy post about how great whole house water filters are and how it’s changed my life etc…. but… instead I have this warning post about how corner lots and HOA suck and man, home improvement sure can suck away a lot of time and energy.

Have you ever gotten a whole house water filter?  How about a tankless water heater?  Any advice on getting a small (under 6 feet) wooden shed (and does it need a concrete bottom)?

What to do when they dryer stops drying: Or why DH spent some time on the roof

Our dryer was taking longer and longer to get clothes actually dry.  A regular load was starting to take upwards of 2 hours to finish.

We vacuumed out the inner workings of the lint trap (as one does on a somewhat regular basis).  That didn’t help.

We vacuumed out the vent tube and vent area behind the dryer (something we do about once a year, give or take).  It wasn’t particularly clogged. That didn’t help.

Then DH did something he has never done before, despite us having lived in this house for >10 years (give or take).  He followed the vent to where it spits out.  Growing up, our dryer vents had always vented somewhere on the first floor on the side of the house … I’d never thought about that being one floor up from where the dryer was (DH’s laundry room was in the basement, while ours was on the lower ground floor of our split-level).  Turns out our laundry vents out on the roof.

So DH went up to the roof and cleaned out that end of the vent.  It was completely clogged and he doubts that the previous owners ever cleaned it either.

One immediate side effect was that timed dry regular didn’t heat so hot as usual the first time we tried it (DH suspects the heat wasn’t blocked getting out at all).  So DH tried the sensor dry which has NEVER worked since we got the dryer 10+ years ago.  It worked way too well this time, with the clothes ending up hot and bone dry.  So then he tried sensor dry slightly damp and that was perfect.  A few weeks have passed (and the weather outside has gotten warmer) and we’re back to being able to used timed try again.

So yay not having to buy a new dryer because it was just the outside vent being clogged.

Do you have any appliance repair stories to share?  What’s your process when the dryer stops working so well?

Ask the grumpies: When to upsize or downsize a house

First Gen American asks:

When do you downsize, upsize, etc. When you can no longer afford the house you live in, how long do wait until you make the decision to sell. (Due to a life change..job loss, stay home with kids, etc)

We got nuthin’ for this one.  We’ve never been in that situation and never wanting to be in that situation means we haven’t bought as much house as we could afford or bought a house at all and we’ve always had lots of money in the bank.

So yeah, we’re not the people to answer this question.

The people we know who have been in this situation have generally not made the decision to sell at all– just the decision to short-sell or foreclose when forced.  On the internet, we’ve seen people take in housemates to help pay the rent, though IRL I don’t really know of this happening.  People we know tend to upsize over time and only downsize when their kids go to college or they get divorced.

It’s a good reason to live under your means and to lifestyle inflate slower than you can afford to!

#2 notes:

I have definitely moved, but not for can’t-afford-it reasons.

I got a bigger place when my partner joined me in Blasted Place after three years there alone; my place was fine for me but wouldn’t have been enough room for the two of us. We downsized when we moved to Paradise because Paradise is expensive.

#1 says:

Yeah, when moving across country we’ve sometimes moved into smaller but more expensive places (see: our current rental).  But we’ve never sold a house!

Once again, does the grumpy nation have a better response than our poor one?  It must…

Renting out our house is a PITA

We’re in a seller’s market right now, so the realtor says he could sell our house in a month, which is probably true.  But then when we came back in a year we’d have to *buy* a house and I seriously doubt it will be a buyers market at that point.   So yes, we could take this opportunity to downsize and to move into a better elementary district, but all the time spent buying and selling and buying (or renting and buying) sounds like a nightmare to me.  So we’re just going to try to rent out the house.

The real estate agent thinks we can get $2,800/mo for our house but I seriously doubt that’s the case.  The comps he was showing are in better elementary school zones and the houses probably aren’t falling apart quite to the extent that ours currently is.  They have nicer lawns too. And it’s unlikely they’re one year rentals, which is always bad for people who want, you know, longer than a year.  Also we’re not supposed to rent to students, though we’re fairly sure someone on our block is now doing just that (6 cars in front is generally a hint).

Covering our costs if we put things in storage will be $2,200 + management fees.  Of course, about $1000 of our mortgage goes to principal these days so really we’d be covering costs with more like $1,200 + management fees.

Craigslist is no help on pricing because nobody with a house as nice as ours posts on Craigslist in our town, so Craigslist rentals tend to top out at $1650 or occasionally $2000 for houses that have the same number of bedrooms as ours but are more in the 2000 sq ft range vs 3000.  Houses like ours are all listed via MLS.

Fortunately, so long as we keep under $5K/mo in Paradise City, we don’t need to actually rent out the house at all and could even hire someone to house-sit for us.  So we’re not desperate for rentals to go through.  But still, I’d rather ask $2,200 and have the house get rented than ask $2,800 and have to keep in on the market until September or forever.

We are listed on sabbatical homes and on the university housing available webpage, but no pictures yet (other than an old one of the outside) because our house is a mess and we haven’t had a chance to take pictures.  Nobody has contacted us to ask any questions.

I’m tempted just to wait until the summer and we’ve figured out where we’re going in Paradise City.  Then ship what we’re going to ship and store what we’re going to store, and then list the place.  I suppose in the worst case scenario, the management company can keep it furnished and then rent it out for huge amounts of money on gameday weekends.

On top of that, DH or I are traveling all month and we’re only seeing each other a few days.  And I’m behind on a ton of work.  So in reality, nothing is going to happen until May because nothing can happen until May.  I suppose that will save us money and aggravation on trying to keep the house “show-ready” which is nearly impossible with a 2 year old in residence, even if we do hire a regular house cleaner.  (We couldn’t even keep the house clean for the most recent in-laws visit!)

Have you ever tried to rent out a home?  Any tips for short term rentals?

Recessed lighting and energy efficiency

We had an energy audit done on our house (free from the utilities company!)

We thought he’d go around the house with a fancy heat gun checking for drafts or something, but he didn’t.  But no, first order problems don’t require any fancy equipment.

What were his main suggestions?

1.  Put a tent over the stairs to the attic on the attic-side in the air conditioned access part.  He was shocked that we have attic access from inside the house and not just from the garage.  This has turned out to be difficult because there’s an inconveniently placed pipe up near this access point in the attic.

2.  Do something about the old-fashioned recessed (bucket) lights.

3.  Get black screens for our sun-facing windows.  (These look pretty creepy from the outside, like the windows are painted black, but our HOA must allow them because all sorts of folks in our neighborhood now have them.)

The recessed lighting has a light in a can, basically.  The cans (from before 2004) have holes in them because if they don’t, then the lights get so hot that it’s a fire hazard.  Because of the holes, the hot attic air comes down into the house because of some sort of pressure convection thing.  When the air conditioner is on, it pressurizes the house which means it blows cold air up into the attic.  Not only that, but these lights are supposed to have no insulation within three inches so that things don’t get so hot that they catch on fire. When people do temperature readings, you can see where the recessed lights are.

Since then, they’ve made new models that don’t have holes that you can put insulation up against.  Also compact fluorescent lights and LED lights are not as hot as regular lights.

He said, we’d really like to seal off those holes.  Our choices:

A.  Switch out with the new cans.  They may not be air tight but it’s better than just the holes.  Just like any fixture, they have a light shape and maximum wattage.  Their maximum wattage is lower than the old-style cans, but that’s clear on the can.  With this option, you can also do B because the cans themselves are metal and still transfer heat into the house.

B.  Buy covers that are insulation tents that you can just drop over the cans.  These can be used with the old-fashioned hot bulbs, but you have to be sure to open vents within the covers for safety reasons.  But then there’s a hole again.  With the modern lights you don’t need to open the vent.

C.  Tape off the holes in the current cans.  You can only do this with the low-wattage bulbs.  The internet is full of horror stories about what a bad dangerous idea this is.  We have opted not to do this one.

We have 9 of these recessed lights.  DH switched out 7 for LED and 2 for compact fluorescent (we’d already swapped those out when the previous bulbs burned out).  Finding them in the attic was difficult– one of them was buried in insulation underneath the air conditioner and took 20 min to find.

DH is concerned that if we just do option B that at some point in time someone will put in a bulk that the fixture says is ok, keep the vents closed, and it will start a fire.  Who?  Maybe a tenant or someone who buys the house after us… something small probability but a scary one.  We could remove the tents prior to someone else living in our house, but we’d have to remember to do that.

So most likely we’ll go with option A and option B combined and have an electrician do it.  DH has been banned from home wiring projects after a mishap wiring a fan.  (This ban is ironic given his educational background and the other types of home improvement projects he has not been banned from.  But an alive husband is the most important thing.)

How much will that cost?  Well, the new LED lightbulbs cost ~$30 each, so ~$210 for that.  The new cans are ~$10/each, so ~$90.  The tents are ~$15/each on the direct webpage (the amazon link above is more pricey), so ~135.  We’re not sure how much an electrician will cost– that’s something we need to find out.  But this little project will most likely cost more than $500 total.  How long will that take to pay for itself in lower utility bills?  No idea!  But our summer energy bills are pretty awful, so it might be less time than we think.  If only we could also do something about the water bill.

Have you done an energy audit?  What do you do to keep your energy costs down?