Greetings Old House Lovers!

February 20, 2009

Welcome! I created this site in response to requests to share information and answer questions about old homes including history, style, repairs, housekeeping, maintenance and domestic issues. I offer my insight and observations having been an old home owner and landlord of Victorian era structures my entire adult life.   I share some of my monthly columns written over several years for the “Food for Thought” newsletter of the venerable George Street Co-operative in New Brunswick, NJ.  Summaries and photos of my old home services are included as well.


May 2016 Historic Albany Foundation Presents us with the Preservation Merit Award


At work on the 1810-1897 Tompkins-Nodine House, Ravena, NY

At work on the 1810-1897 Tompkins-Nodine House, Ravena, NY

I share my enthusiasm for old home living and offer support to other old house dwellers and those with similar interests.

HOW TO USE THIS SITE: Search the site by typing in a subject or view posts in chronological order.

If you have questions about a post or an old house issue simply post a comment.

All images and text copyright M. Kafka 2009-2019; contents are not to be reproduced or distributed for any purpose other than for personal not-for-profit use without my express written permission. Information is for general purposes only;  I assume no liability for any damages or injuries sustained based on these recommendations and caution that appropriate experts should be summoned for home repair and improvement and all construction code and local regulations should be followed for home maintenance and improvement projects.

MY BACKGROUND: I’ve loved old houses since childhood when we often visited the large, intact Victorian Queen Anne home of family friends in Plainfield, NJ. My parents encouraged development of my interests in building and architecture. I began helping with maintenance on my family’s 1940 Garrison colonial in Maplewood when I was 9. My mother took us to historic homes and museums and purchased old architectural books for me. We were estate sale afficionados, enjoying visiting homes seemingly frozen in the past. By my teen years my stepfather was teaching me  about construction.

I studied architecture briefly at NJIT but the focus was on modernist and post-modern architecture  and I was equally interested in architectural history.  I changed course and graduated Rutgers College with a degree in Art History, with a strong interest in historic residences. While at school my parents supported me in acquiring and refurbishing a circa 1860s Italianate town house in New Brunswick.

1889 Wisteria Hall New Brunswick, NJ

1889 Wisteria Hall New Brunswick, NJ

I spent over 25 years preserving and upgrading Wisteria Hall; an 1889 Queen Anne considered the focal point of the Livingston Avenue historic district in New Brunswick. I was the third owner of this house, which was previously in a state of decay. It contains  an original owners unit and three sensitively designed rental units added in the 1930s. I’ve volunteered in the local historical societies since the 1980s and served on the Mayor’s Historical Association for New Brunswick since its’ inception.

123 kitchen sink unit 1988

Before picture of Wisteria Hall Kitchen (above)

1st floor 002

After picture of Wisteria Hall Kitchen (above)

I am partners in a retail booth featuring vintage lighting and hardware in the Coxsackie Antique Center, south of Albany, NY. For over 30 years I have collected and serviced antique lighting .

1879 Benjamin Wooster House

1879 Benjamin Wooster House

We are honored to report that in May 2016 we were presented with the Historic Albany Foundation Preservation Merit Award for our work on the architecturally significant, but formerly at risk 1879 Wooster home, an Eastlake Victorian style landmark in the Washington Park area of Albany.  Designed by William A Woolett and originally outfitted by prosperous furniture manufacturer and interior decorator Benjamin Wooster as his family home it was later a female residence hall for the State Teacher’s College. The house had suffered greatly when the heat failed during freezing weather and broken pipes and flooding ensued.  Fortunately that damage has now been mitigated and it is was a delight to serve as curator of such a special home. and help ensure it survives for future generations to enjoy. As of 2017 the home has expert new stewards working hard at ensuring it continues to be preserved and restored for posterity.   Now we continue at our work in Albany on the dramatic 1963 Morris Kaplan house, likely constructed by local father and son team of  Dominic & Fred Alvaro. This middle class suburban home is largely intact and is apparently a unique modernist home designed specifically for the site.summer 2018

For over 25 years I have  maintained a residence in Provincetown, MA working on a variety of unique early Cape Cod buildings, most notably the pristine 1847 Greek Revival Universalist Meeting House, where I had the honor of refurbishing over 60 historic window sash. In early 2010 I began the slow work of maintaining and  preserving  a  1966 Modernist house in the woods there. This house is an example of a trend that began on the Cape in the 1940s of building modest homes in a modernist style integrated into the landscape.

1966 Cape Cod Modernist Cottageimg_0867

I’m a huge advocate of saving physical resources and repairing things rather than replacing them whenever possible.  Encouraging people to be hands on in making their homes safe, comfortable, sustainable and energy efficient while helping them to avoid pitfalls and relieve stress is my goal.

More detergent or softener is not better!

January 12, 2019

I wanted to issue this alert about ‘blue goo that leaves a residue’ (credit to comedian Maya Rudolf for using this phrase in a recent commercial).

too much detergent!

In this illustration this new  high efficiency clothes washing machine has just completed its entire cycle. The machine was  not malfunctioning in any way. Notice it is a very modest load of laundry.   And notice all the blue drips as well as the slightly blue sheen on the fabric.  This should disturb anyone who knows what is happening here. After this mess it took an additional two washes with no detergent added to get the machine clean.  What a waste of water and energy!

The person who did this load of laundry didn’t take the time to read the directions on the detergent and just eyeballed the amount. This was based on what they guessed was necessary for a full load of wash in a traditional machine (which was way too much even for that kind of machine) with no consideration that High Efficiency washers use about 1/3 the amount of detergent of conventional machines and one should only use detergents recommended for HE machines in them..  The sad end result of over use of detergent is clothing that does not rinse truly clean but has chemical residue on it when taken out of the washer, even if one doesn’t see such dramatic evidence as in this image.  The residue on the clothing is composed of chemicals that are likely unsafe to ingest or leave on the skin, can cause allergic reactions, like have a strong scent (one that you might be nose blind to but others may find disturbing or even sickening) and will attract dirt that sticks to the residue in the fibers.  If the residue in the machine means that the next time it is used it will result in too high a dose of detergent if the user puts even a modest amount of detergent in with the next load.

Worse yet, if you put laundry like this through the clothes dryer without knowing you have to fully rinse the detergent left on it out first then that nasty residue will get cooked into your clothing and baked onto the interior of the dryer by the heat. It will also find its way into the mechanisms of the dryer and the exhaust tubing. There it will both attract lint to itself and create a sticky, hard to remove, flammable mess that clogs up the dryer exhaust and require an expensive service call unless you are very handy and know how to take apart the dryer safely and are patient and fastidious in cleaning. Aside from being dangerous it means it takes longer to dry clothes, costs more on your utility bill and  put extra mileage and wear and tear on the dryer.  It also will broadcast a strong and probably quite toxic odor of heated chemicals into your home and the neighborhood, even if it ‘smells good’ in the bottle it will smell awfully strong and headache inducing in this situation.

So … please prevent ruined clothes, wasted water and energy and avoid worn out machines and potentially toxic odors by carefully following the directions for your laundry machines and for the products you use.  More product will not make clothing cleaner, it will make lasting residues on clothing and in machines and create problems.  Chances are you need less product than you think.  I find that in our home about half the recommended amount of detergent gets our properly sorted and carefully loaded into the machine clothing perfectly clean.

I also warn that use of fabric softener should be moderate.  Try white vinegar instead in the washer – the smell of vinegar will be gone when your clothes are dry but they will be soft without chemicals. This is inexpensive and safe as it is a food grade product.  No worry about children thinking it is candy either. And use extreme caution with the pellet type detergent fabric softeners. These may look like candy to a child.  If the little pellets of softener do not totally dissolve and all wash away when the cycle is over in the clothes washer and you accidentally have any pellets in the folds or pockets of your clothes when they go in the dryer they will create a horrible mess with a very strong odor, one that is very hard to clean up and will require dryer and exhaust disassembly to clean out.

Good clean clothing doesn’t have any scent, certainly after washing it should not smell like some kind of perfume or some cloyingly named ‘The Hills are Alive’ fragrance  after it has been stored in a dresser or closet for weeks. This is especially true once items have been worn or used; dirty items should be easily identifiable as dirty and not loaded with perfume.   Don’t mistake artificial fragrance for freshness.  They might just be covering up something that hasn’t really gotten clean.  Properly laundered linens or clothes smell simply like clean fabric, very subtle, not something that someone at the other end of the room is going to smell whether they want to or not.  And chemical residue strong enough to smell in stored fabric is strong enough that it should not be in contact with your skin, least of all in sensitive or delicate areas. Nor is it something desirable to breathe in.

So please ignore the profit-motivated media hype. If you must have some kind of scent on your clothing consider doing what my grandmother did and placing little sachets of lavender leaves or other subtle organic fragrances in the linen closet or dresser drawer instead of adding chemical fragrances of mysterious origins to your laundry (… and unfortunately ending up in your septic or city sewer as well where they do nothing good for the system or environment).   Your respiratory system and the people that are in close proximity to you will be healthier and more comfortable for it.

Dryer, exhaust fan and refrigerator coil maintence … oh my!

November 29, 2017

Often Overlooked but Important Maintenance, by Mo Kafka

Here are a few housekeeping items that can help prevent home fires, reduce utility cost, increase efficiency and lifespan of appliances and keep the air indoors cleaner.
Clothes dryers are a leading cause of fires. Usually the problem is the highly flammable lint clogging the internal workings of the dryer or exhaust duct. Even if you clean the lint screen diligently it still builds up further within. The first photo shows inside of a dryer exhaust duct that hasn’t been cleaned in about five years. All this build up also makes it hard for the dryer blower to exhaust the moist air. It thus takes much longer to complete drying clothes and wastes time and energy. Clean the entire duct annually by taking it apart, bringing it outdoors, spray with a garden hose and then scrub as needed. If it can’t be disassembled use a shop vac, then a wire brush made to fit a 4” diameter duct and finally wear gloves, reach in and scrub it clean. Spray flexible ducting outdoors with a hose from both ends until clean. If you have flimsy vinyl or foil duct replace it with rigid aluminum duct or use only the heaviest duty aluminum expanding duct made for dryers, which is harder to work with but safer.

At least annually have someone who knows about clothes dryers disconnect it from the power source and carefully disassemble it to thoroughly vacuum out and wipe clean all the internal components including the motor and turbine. Make certain fabric softener residue is washed off of all surfaces. Wash the lint screen gently with soap and water periodically so any residue from fabric softener is removed. These nearly invisible residues can clog the screen and render the dryer less efficient. What you can see in the above images is first what it looks like when a typical under the door lint screen area is opened up and second is lint pulled out from just behind the exterior louver simply by reaching in with gloved hands and cleaning.

If you are a landlord and allow tenants to have their own dryer consider specifying that they are liable for any damage caused by their equipment, and making it mandatory that the owner be allowed to have it inspected for safe installation & use as well professionally serviced and cleaned annually. Vigilance is crucial to keeping safe from fire as well as gas or electric hazards from improper install. If you provide clothes dryers for others to use be very vigilant about such servicing. Where dryers receive heavy use cleaning and service must be done at frequent intervals.

131 bath exhaust fan - before

Kitchen and bath exhaust fans are essential to reducing moisture problems in a house. They are also a source of potential fire if they aren’t maintained as the motor may overheat or debris or grease in the fan or exhaust line could catch fire. The second photo shows a bath fan caked with lint. Bath fans usually unplug and unscrew from their housing for service by someone reasonably handy. Annually service; make sure power is off and carefully take apart the unit. Vacuum lint & debris and use a household cleaner or soap and water to wipe down parts. Wearing gloves reach into the duct and get it clean. If accessible to take the ducting apart and put it back together do so and clean as directed for dryer ducts. Check that the built in damper where the housing connects to the duct opens and closes smoothly. This is important so it remains shut when the fan is off and reduces the possibility of vermin entering or conditioned air exiting. Clean the exterior vent damper and make sure the flaps operate smoothly. If this is on the roof or out of reach have it done when gutter or roof maintenance occurs. If a fan just vents into an attic or wall have someone competent vent it to outside or you may end up with a moldy or greasy problem inside. Examine the fan assembly itself while out. If it is old and has an oil port on the motor add three drops of household oil for fans. If not neatly apply a bit of spray lubricant to the motor shaft. Twist the blades or turbine by hand; if they don’t spin free and easy further service or replacement is needed. On kitchen fans clean or replace the metal framed filter inserts. Aluminum filters can go in the dishwasher or soak in ammonia in a sealed container overnight then rinsed. Dry the fan unit and reassemble snugly and it should work efficiently and quietly. If a fan burns out or is worn get a replacement for just the fan assembly itself from a hardware store or on line by name and model or bring that removable portion with you to the store to match.

131 fridge coils before

The third picture (bonus point if you identified it) is a dust and lint caked coil on the bottom of a late model refrigerator. The fourth image is after cleaning.

131 fridge coils after

Before, one could not even see the coils. A refrigerator works hard when coils can’t get air flow and will waste energy and be less likely properly protect food during hot weather. Roll out the refrigerator, unplug it and remove the bottom grill in front and cardboard panel at bottom back (if it has them). Use a soft paint brush or cleaning brush to loosen dirt and vacuum with a crevice attachment taking care to not bang or damage coils or tubes. Next dampen an old towel and have a partner hold it over the opening in back. Put your vacuum hose on the blower end or use a compressor and blow the dirt out of the coils towards the towel. This will make a mess but the wet towel should help contain it. Then hold the wet towel in front and blow the coils from behind. Use a damp cloth to gently wipe off any fan blades, drip trays or other accessible surfaces that might be dusty or dirty. Clean the front grill and back cover, reinstall, clean floors and walls in the alcove and roll back into place. Caution! If you have tipped a refrigerator over do not turn it back on for several hours. Check that the doors are well aligned, close properly and their flexible gaskets are clean and seal well. Plug it in and confirm it is working. Some refrigerators are completely sealed units nowadays so if you don’t see any coils just focus on keeping the cabinet clean.

A Kafkaesque Evening at Ikea

July 21, 2015


I originally wrote this piece in early 2010 immediately after my bizarre experience while attempting to pick up a single piece of countertop to assist in a home improvement project for a friend.  Let me underscore that I do not mean to slander or insult any company. Indeed I now own some very nicely styled items from this company.  This piece is meant to convey some of the challenges of being a customer in this era and examine the shortcomings of shopping in our era.  It is meant to be humorous and I made up the various product names but the narrative sequence accurately follows my actual experience.

A dear friend (let’s call her Ruth) asked me to use the truck to help her pick up a piece of counter at Ikea.  I verified that she had called ahead to see that it was in stock as it is a 45 minute ride.   We arrived at perhaps 7:00PM. I had never set foot in an Ikea to the best of my memory.  My experiences with them were basically having to dispose of broken furniture that departing tenants abandoned. I knew their products by their brand logo and model names something like “SKOR” bed frame, “GLOOTUN” dining set or “TANKT” bar stools (I’m told the names are Swedish but they sound very much like made up plays on English words to the casual observer).

After navigating strangely designed and confusing feeder roads off the Turnpike with a battalion of 18 wheelers, SUVs and minivans and going deep into a barren setting as ugly and industrial as NJ (and possibly the nation) gets we passed over a field of speed bumps to chaotic parking area filled with many young couples with children in tow.   We entered a glass foyer as busy as a train station and were almost blown up a staircase as if in a wind tunnel.  There was no normal greeter, sales circulars, floor plan or directory that I noted.  At the top of the large bland staircase suddenly there was the scent of artificially fragranced candles (supposed to come across as sweet and appealing but cloying and nauseating)  and you saw a wall with merchandise display and had to turn sharply into a strangely demarcated concrete aisle.  Unlike a conventional store where you might see an open space with shelving or panorama of furnishings and goods stretching away towards outer walls, with somewhat logical sequences of areas indicated by hanging or wall signs this felt more like the aisle of a pervertedly out of proportion office pool. There were many haphazardly placed cubicles with dividers that went most way to the ceiling. As if Dr. Suess designed it we literally had to walk through a labyrinth to find the kitchen department. Though Ruth had been there perhaps a half dozen times for kitchen items she couldn’t find that section right way.  The floor had arrows painted on it – showing that you were supposed to follow in one direction but not explaining what you would find there or why to go that way.  Then there were open cubicles displaying vignettes as if peering into doll house rooms that were life size; “FONGIBL” living room – only $1995! and featuring vinyl retro seating and vaguely Asian inspired paper lamps that looked highly flammable  or “KLISHEA” tween girl bedroom in Barbie pink with Disney like fairy design accents and an acrylic beaded swag lamp …  It was so easy to get lost in what seemed like endless variations on similar types of room settings around every corner.

Finally we saw the kitchen area.  Two couples were standing waiting at a round table with computers on it and I asked how long the last one had been waiting for help and one woman said about a half hour. A man in an Ikea blue and yellow shirt came down the path and when they looked towards him he said “I can’t help you” and ran off and disappeared.  I felt like I was part of an Alice in Wonderland play.  As soon as the next person in uniform came along I said “Sir – is there anyone who can help the people over here”. He gave an affirmative indication and someone did come along but it took perhaps a half hour to get our order handled. Then the clerk printed us an invoice but when requested he was not able to take payment saying he hadn’t been trained to do that ( what kind of store would not train the clerk to take your payment?) nor could he relay the order to the customer pick up zone so they could get it ready. Certainly such basic functions have been efficiently and conveniently in place in most major retail stores since the pneumatic tube systems of the 19th century; so this strange lack had to be an intentional part of the retailer’s design.  We had to ask someone how to get to the checkout area from here as it was so maze like.  We were told to take a number of turns and we found the path forces you to the entrance of the main cafe before finally allowing you to locate and descend a staircase to ground level.  I noted that there were no obvious elevators or escalators, again this was unlike any department store I had ever been in before. Connections between the various parts of the store were painstakingly designed to be unconventional and counter intuitive. We had to walk a great distance in more maze like areas. We found that on the lower level they had large shopping carts with easy gliding wheels and large yellow totes readily available at the start of the path.  All along this way were various, mostly lightweight housewares of simple and sometimes very sensible design, easy to grab and throw into the cart,  but little that seemed that different from what you would find at say Target or Kmart beyond the fact that the packaging had odd names and credited the designers.  Some of it was outright disposable nonsense, anyone could see that the paper thin lamp shades, flimsy thin metal of the serving items and the thin plastics used in the housewares would suffer or break if dropped and indeed I recognized some of the items as things my tenants had owned and frequently disposed of. Not that Ikea has any monopoly on flimsy goods of course. Heaven forbid there is a fire as the place is very much a tinderbox and lacks central aisles, prominent staircases or clearly labeled exits placed in a logical perimeter rhythm – the features people need to be able to exit quickly and intuitively.  Rather, as explained it has many small compartments or departments with walls going up nearly to the ceilings and each one turns on itself – there are swinging doors with little signs that say “short cut to child play area, exit” etc. tucked away that you can hardly find in normal use, with the lights all on …and there were signs indicating remodeling – probably so frequent shoppers who had figured out how to quickly get to what they want without distraction had to navigate anew. I’m amazed they can pass inspection or get insurance! I was disoriented and I’m usually very good at knowing exactly where I am in a building and what path leads out. The place was essentially laid out like a ‘Candyland’ type board game.

Perhaps in another 15 minutes after Ruth selected some kitchen storage containers, some trivets and a clock we found the way to move towards an exit. Finally we came to an open area, as if rising out of a narrow corridor in a cave into a major chamber where the ceiling seemed higher and the lighting changed.  Here it looked reassuringly someone normal,  where we could wait on a line for a cashier with a crowd of people with carts piled high. There was absolutely no sign of the current economic downturn here and Ruth assured me several times that this mayhem was only half of what one would find on the weekend.  I can’t recall any time in my life where I have seen so many people on line at once with so many big purchases.  Even at the holidays in a mall during boom times things didn’t look like this. It was a feeding frenzy and I imagine that if one had been at, say Sears Roebuck and Co. in the postwar boom era when so many young couples were setting up housekeeping perhaps it might have felt this way.  The corporate wet dream of compliant, enthusiastic and lavish consumers lining up was never better illustrated for me than here. Aside from her counter and cabinet invoice Ruth had a selection of small items. They don’t even offer bags so far as I could see (they probably sell bags or have them right there but don’t offer them unless you ask).  You have to wrap and load your cart without their help after they ring you up –  this was alien to our normal way of doing business. After paying in this line Ruth had to go to the customer  pick up counter and present the receipt and wait with dozens of people for them to assemble her order – conveniently here was a cafeteria like snack area where we had a vanilla frozen yogurt.  They only had vanilla and it only came in a cone.  All other food options were similarly pragmatic – “Have it Our Way” could have been their slogan.  And how clever to place the food where your own system caused long delays between check out and loading! She had me move the old pick up truck into the loading zone which was total mayhem – about as bad as jockeying into the toll booths for the Geo. Washington Bridge, worse even, as people were not all going the same direction and there were pedestrians and carts on the pavement, including children running into the lanes. I did find a spot which had a view of the turnpike, the airport, the brewery and the Newark skyline off in the distance which was at least reassuring – as I recognized my historic “home turf” of Northern NJ out there, coldly urban and busy as it appeared with not a tree in sight. I realized that this was the experience of most people visiting NJ to shop or for work – they would never see the beautiful greenery and architecture I loved so in my Maplewood childhood nor the views from the Watchung Mountains or the gingerbread houses and fine sand beaches of Ocean Grove.

But I digress; the retrieval of her merchandise took a whole hour.  They brought Ruth out the wrong counters (thank heavens she opened the boxes to check) and when she pointed the error out they sent her to the refund line, perhaps because the clerk upstairs had made a data entry mistake, but they couldn’t just swap them out due to some strange rule. So at refund she stayed, to wait behind other people and then she had to go back and wait again for them to bring out the right items. At each step of the way it seemed like no one was able to do what the customer needed without sending them somewhere else – this was the walking equivalent to waiting on hold and being transferred over and over when trying to call a corporation.

We had checked out at 8:30 PM. The place closes at 9 and sitting in the truck making various cell calls as I waited I watched perhaps 50 cars come, load and go. I saw an almost choreographed line of young, reasonably prosperous but nondescript appearing families with the men pushing large carts with big boxes and the women and children walking along side – at one point four families with similarly piled up purchases were literally moving forward in the same exact trajectory, evenly spaced and silhouetted under the fluorescent lit dark blue canopy stretching off into the distance and with airplanes taking off and traffic rushing along the Turnpike as the backdrop. It was so very surreal I wish I had had a video camera.  I don’t know exactly why but it was almost ominous to me, as if in a scene from Metropolis or a science fiction movie where real people have been replaced by soulless clones.  At about 10 PM after I watched an anomalously well dressed and well groomed pair of young men totally fill a new looking dark blue crossover SUV/wagon with merchandise to the point where I couldn’t figure out where the passenger could possibly fit.  Finally Ruth came out with two clerks who helped load the truck with the proper items.

As much as people tout the intelligence of Swedish design and the family friendly environment of Ikea based on this night I prefer the mainstream American retail system. While occasionally a sales associate can be too eager generally the process is straightforward.  You walk into a building, often with a clearly posted map or aisle signs and you look over the choices without feeling corralled along with a crowd.  Then you can just load what you want onto a cart, wait on one line to pay and leave. You actually get to select and personally inspect your items before you pay for them (instead of not being able to see the item first and then having to get a refund when they bring out the wrong thing after you’ve paid … how stupid that was)!  And how gullible all the people are to put up with that Ikea logistical and clerical crap? There is no such thing as running in and picking up one item you really need quickly with their setup. Possibly it was meant to work more efficiently but something has been lost in the execution of their scheme.  I am absolutely sure the entire business is calculated to sell you items that seem well designed and fashionable and useful but are disposable and are logically produced by the least costly methods possible. Likewise they are marketed in a way designed to nearly force you to spend a lot of time in the store and encourage you to impulse shop – stacks of plastic storage containers and light bulbs that were either not priced or were priced high (lids alone for plastic storage totes were $5 and the “energy saving bulbs” had no prices anywhere on the display or package … perhaps if they appeal to our sense of environmental responsibility they know most of us will swallow whatever price they charge at the register? Having been fatigued enough by the over stimulation of the senses and the maze probably makes most folks very pliable.  So much so that many may not even be able to focus on price at the end nor to reject an item if the price is too high.  Who would step out of line when so many other people are lined up so pleasantly complacent while they hand over four figures  checking out at one of 30 register lines?

I won’t deny that they have some attractive items that seem decently made. But I hope that competitors have similar things at close price points that are easier to go buy.  Ikea somehow seems to have mesmerized a large segment of the public or hypnotized them into thinking this is the place you “MUST GO” to buy anything for inside your home.  Conveniently as I noted above they also sell food between the checkout and the pick up areas where they know people will be stuck for a long time … I know many businesses strategize and do variations on this but this was the absolutely most controlling, manipulated design I’ve ever seen for a retail outlet.  It took all my mental resolve to not ‘lose it’ there after nearly four hours to essentially pick up a piece of stock counter which she called ahead to verify was available and a few incidental items. The same shopping transaction would take perhaps 45 minutes – with a crowd present – at my local Home Depot or Lowes.  I was so glad to be out of there.  Perhaps a thesis or study has been done of Ikea in regards to their forced manipulation of the mind and body of the consumer but I can assure you this is exactly what they were doing, intentionally and systematically. It is a subconscious economic seduction that they want to create.  Many people are too passive to protest or even be aware of it, especially when it has the happy face of trendy domesticity and offers you such nice free ferry or bus rides in from NYC. Shopping as Adventure! Discovery! And the fragrance of scented candles wafts out at you while perky pop music is broadcast and  colorful, attended play spaces for the children, Swedish meatballs and cookies and ice cream are all available.  Once you enter there is no contact with the outside world. Even I, with a spatially focused mind and architectural training could not readily figure out how to exit. You are immersed in and controlled by their design until you have moved through every layer of their marketing.  There is no turning back as you cannot find the door you came in again.  I felt as if I have been violated after being there though I emerged without buying anything.

It was absolutely fascinating to me to see how architecture, design and display combined with marketing to produce this effect. I have to say that as a businessman I appreciate and admire the fastidious and thorough way in which Ikea has been able to execute its plan and draw in paying customers.  On another level as an unsuspecting individual going into a corporate machine designed to vacuum money out of my pockets while masquerading as an innocent amusement park I was quite annoyed. There was no permanent harm done but I was so very glad to leave their maze and get home!

Letter to a friend: Challenges of owning property (and old cars)

July 21, 2015

Below I share the text of an e-mail I sent to a friend who was struggling with owning rental properties as well as her own home.  While this was very specific and personal and is a bit different from my usual post I was urged to share what I wrote:

Free advice is said to be worth what is paid for it.  But you have asked and so I give my thoughts from the heart.

Candidly, property ownership is as you know an endless challenge. And if you have any intention or desire to ever travel or focus on other things it becomes an anchor or something that diverts your time, attention and resources from whatever else you wish to do. If you aren’t a very good repair person or don’t have the time / some of the skills the expenses and tasks of finding contractors, ensuring work is done adequately and paying for it all is a royal pain.

I would suggest that based on the stress properties in various locations have caused you that you meditate long and hard and not make any decisions until after you decide, to the best of your heart, soul and mind, where you would want to live and own property for the balance of your active years.   I do not feel any ordinary mortal should own property in more than two locations.  This is from vast experience.   I never want to have personal responsibility for more than two properties again and I don’t want them far apart.

You have properties in a distant location to deal with and you still aren’t finished locally yet. If you feel you will go back to the old premises at some time and would like to live again in one of your homes there or you think one of the properties is a great investment there choose that one to keep – and make a plan to figure out how to have funds for contingencies from bad tenants, to no rent, to big repairs or big tax increases.  Sell anything else that you have there, just get it out of your hair unless you have a very good reason to keep it and the ability to maintain and manage it successfully.  Tenants far away and houses you can’t see personally each season are a recipe for decay and hassle and stress.  This is not news to you.

So aside from a general meandering look at potentially interesting new parcels shopping for a new place seems premature.   I would not buy a home in a town you don’t know very well. You may not like it and will get stuck.  Nor would I purchase in an area that is inconvenient to health care, spiritual sanctuary, shopping, cultural centers and transportation. And if you ever plan to rent or sell it should also have good, convenient schools and family focused facilities or the value will be reduced at sale time.  I’d also be alert to be in an area where the residents and politics are open minded and tolerant both of your own views and those of people you might live with or rent to. Best to take a short term rental and try it out while keeping any funds you have safely tucked away in an interest bearing account or safe investments that can be liquefied when you are ready to buy.

Furthermore as much as you love cars they are costly to maintain and they decay when not kept close at hand and given daily TLC.  I kept my truck 27 years and it was an ongoing chore – like having an eternal baby that always needs costly health care.   Finally when the frame was rusting I drew the line.  It was tempting to keep the old truck for sentimental value but I knew it would rust and dry rot if not given constant attention and that once it was no longer fit for daily use it would just be a very costly hobby.   So I say choose carefully and keep only your most favorite, practical car and if budget allows, one other car that you can very safely and securely store when not in use and which you will have ample funds for the costly and ongoing repairs such a vintage vehicle will need.  Indulge your passions but indulge them in moderation – enjoy the fun of an old VW, etc. but don’t let it become a money pit or think that having more in your collection is better.   Unless you have funds for constant care of such a vehicle and can enjoy it enough of the time to make it worthwhile best to not be sentimental.  The same goes for houses and other collections – how much can you really use and savor?  When does the master of the house become the servant to the house?  When do your possessions possess you?  All this I know from many years of experience now. The balance is key – less is more.  Choose very carefully and stick to modest projects unless you want them to dominate your entire waking hours day in and day out.

It is too soon to know what to ask for in specifics about a house or building.  But location, location, location.  Also taxes and insurance – how much will they cost you now and anticipating those things rising to double or more over the years.  As we near our golden years do we want to worry about such things? Finding a very solid, easy to maintain, energy efficient house that has just enough space and just enough land in the best possible location for your needs is going to give you the least headache and be the most cost effective long term.  Most importantly it means you will have more time to do other things.  The property you are attracted to is huge, absolutely enormous.  The cost to maintain it, heat it, cool it, clean it are going to be outrageous.  Unless you were a professional innkeeper with vast experience and you knew that there was a business that would be viable in that remote location there it isn’t a suitable place.  The outbuildings and other parcels look like they need overhaul too.

As I mature I want less.  So that giant houses are not as exciting.  The more modest kind of place … three units and a total of 2000 square feet of concrete, brick, glass and plank siding construction in the woods with no lawn to mow – very low maintenance compared to the fancy Victoriana and much more suited to my needs now is what I tilt towards.  Something with all the room I need, nice views, privacy and is relatively modern so that the mechanics and structure generally will not need to be fussed over and totally updated like one needs to do in an antique house.  The stress level is lower, and where the location is good for helping assure rental income it makes sense.  One couldn’t do this if one  wasn’t living on site or very nearby; it is hard to find someone reliable and affordable to do it for you.  I will try to not have to rely on third parties to remotely tend to my property.   Ultimately I want to be in a small solid brick or stone cottage that is easy to maintain and can be heated with one wood stove if necessary, somewhere I don’t need to climb high ladders to do repairs or worry about aged matrices that are hard to repair or replace.   This is my trajectory … my appetite has decreased and I’ve already struggled enough so I don’t have the urge for more real estate.  Focus resources to a) reduce debt load and b) grow a nest egg towards retirement.   My accountant said when all ones eggs are in the real estate basket one should seriously consider investments elsewhere that did not require so much work nor cause so much stress.  He’s right and this is my final thought for the moment.

Got Questions for the Old House Lover?

February 24, 2015

Previously people could only ask their questions inside of a specific post.

Now you can ask your old home questions right here… be they about maintenance, repair, architectural style or something else.

Feel free to send an appropriate photo or two of the issue if you are willing for them to be posted along with the answer.

What became of the Moderne style of the 1930s and other victims of the shrinking American Dream

December 31, 2014

This is a draft essay based on a question from my Stepfather.  There’s a lot in here;  if you enjoy examining pop culture  … have at it!   Here I look at a trend through the lenses of my studies in Architecture, Art History and Cultural Anthropology to seek to understand complex layers of recent history, style and indeed our culture itself.  Photos to come.

I was asked why is “Mid Century Modern’  so popular while  modern architecture of the 1930s and 40s is mostly ignored?  There is indeed an obsession with the 1950s, meanwhile the origin of that era; the earlier modern styles are largely forgotten.    In fact to this day architects do create buildings that refer to early modernism and the Bauhaus,  styles with origins go back a century.  Most everything  considered  ‘contemporary’ into the late 70s or early 80s evolves from those early styles. The popular consciousness doesn’t necessarily know of high style origins but does recognize elements of them.  For example few today may know of the 1928 Barcelona Pavilion but nearly everyone is familiar with the legendary chairs Mies  van der Rohe designed for it, if not by name.

There was a quite a fad of nostalgia for the roaring 20s during the 1970s. I recall an album called ‘Deco Disco’ and a time with women wearing fringed dresses and a great deal of fabric, wallpaper and furniture emulating the 20s.  In the later 70s the traveling exhibition of Egyptian artifacts from King Tut’s tomb caused a huge sensation; with hordes waiting in line, a hit song from Saturday Night Live and poster size photographs of King Tut’s golden mask becoming absolutely ubiquitous right through the next decade.  This fad mirrored the obsession for all things Egyptian when the tomb was first discovered in the 20s.  I once owned a synthetic silk dress shirt featuring overlapping, repeating images of Tut’s mask  across it with stripes suggesting movement of the head – a convergence of discotheque fashion, Art Deco and  Egyptomania that caputured moment in time.

The 70s saw a surge in interest in original Art Deco items and the inspiration for many new items; most prominently interior décor  including vastly popular metallic mylar wallpapers with Deco zigzag designs. From that time forward surviving original Art Deco buildings have been better recognized as an historical style and some have been consciously preserved.  To whit the now famous structures in Miami.

The collection of buildings there includes Streamline Moderne or Art Modern styles of the 30s – 40s, which are mostly the tail end of the Art Deco period. The usual surface ornament of the Deco was minimized and voluminous, curving forms with a sense of movement took center stage.  Art Deco focused on decorative treatment of surfaces integrating both angular, linear designs and foliate or curving elements carried over from the Art Nouveau period.

In contrast Streamline Moderne was focused on the shape, volume and sense of forward movement of the home and surface decor was pared down, an appropriate response to a slower economy and a need for a feeling of progress or optimism during difficult times.  The 1939 New York World’s Fair is an iconic example of the style, which lingered on in structures well into the 1950s.

I am not aware of  any buildings built as accurate reproductions of Art Deco however I have seen quite a few restaurants and nightclubs inspired by or decorated in the style starting from the 1970s onward. And some of the ‘Post Modern” houses of the 1980s clearly reference the angles and linear surface embellishment of the Art Deco along with the interest in curving volumes of the Moderne, if in a modified way.

The lavish materials and surface ornaments of the 1920s are too labor intensive, too costly and generally too detailed or elaborate for today’s budgets and tastes. In addition, as usually applied residentially Art Deco was about ornament rather than structure. The more streamlined, Moderne styles of the 30s do address structure and are thus arguably an architectural style while as the name implies Art Deco is a decorative motif.  Moderne designs were less lavish but remained costly due to the use of many labor intensive curved elements.  Moderne was aesthetically and conceptually a more natural fit for the post war era.  Thus it did indeed survive to appear where the budget allowed. One could argue that it never completely died away and that current modernist buildings incorporate curving and twisting sections descend from it.  But it was somewhat rare to begin with, perhaps mostly due to the style evolving being between the 1929 stock market crash and WWII in an era of financial challenges, coupled with later resource scarcity stunting construction. Curving walls, railings and windows cost more than rectilinear components and constrained the style to luxury buildings and ocean liners.  While hotels, apartment buildings, bus terminals and other prominent buildings were built in the Streamline Moderne style there are few family homes in this style and they were not as well promoted as homes in the rectilinear International Style of modernism were.

Thus the Moderne, book-ended in the dismal void between the roaring 1920s and the postwar boom remain unfamiliar and rarely discussed.  Those with wealth and taste do occasionally commission buildings influenced by the Moderne style, but they are not common. I attended the beautiful South Orange Junior High School in NJ, built by a prosperous district in the late 1950s it features pink brick and deeply recessed  stone doorways.  This is a late example of the style – Ocean Liner Modern with smooth, sculpted surfaces, linear polished aluminum trim and railings, a horizontal emphasis suggesting movement and a sense of luxury through proportion and shape with minimal surface ornament.  In front the offices project towards the street with a curving bank of windows and one level down on the rear the faculty dining room is composed of dramatically rounded banks of windows.  The staircase in the main entry originally had aluminum railings with repeating curves exactly as one would find on a cruise ship. This is so far as I know a unique school building.

The 50s had the A bomb, fallout shelters, McCarthy’s witch hunt, seething civil rights issues ranging from segregation to sexism. With women who had begun careers during wartime were forced into the kitchen (and pumped full of prescriptions to make them compliant) yet for some reason it has been ensconced as a golden age.  Perhaps what triggers this is the memory of a good postwar economy and a thriving middle class was able to afford ever more comforts.  There were new high speed highways and futuristic cars offering new freedom of movement.  For the first time the ordinary folks could afford air conditioned homes, automatic dishwashers, television and rumpus rooms complete with a wet bar.   Drive in movie theaters, soda shops, poodle skirts and sock hops have been so romanticized that the larger truth is now smothered by movie and TV interpretations and a never-never land of theme diners with pictures of Elvis and Marilynn, and bumpers from 1950s cars bolted to the walls.

History is in general revisionist and the dominance of certain styles goes hand in hand with the values of those who edit history and promote nostalgia.   Granted those who did well in the 1950s have waxed poetic.  That time has lingered in the brain from perhaps the last moment before there was rampant drug abuse, violence, filth and civil rights upheaval in the once exclusive suburbs.

If you were a white male with a decent job or a compliant female I suppose life was good then and all that makes for rose colored glasses for that era which in turn brings nostalgia for the trappings of that time. We saw it start in the mid 70s with “Happy Days” and by that time good 50s cars were getting expensive.  In the 80s at least partially because of a pro-war stance in some quarters there was a nostalgia for the fashions of the 40s (vintage military jackets for men,  big shoulder pads, big hairdos and floral prints for women … clearly of the WWII time). Decor echoed the same era with floral prints, mauve and teal became ubiquitous. Angular wall sconces, angular windows and lacquered,  floral or overstuffed furnishings some with chrome or brass metal components evoked the late deco / moderne moments.  But by nature architecture does not evolve as quickly as fashion and décor.  It is too costly and takes too long from design to domicile.  Most people cannot afford to be fickle with such an investment.  Only at the high end did one find it referring much to the Moderne era.

Fascinatingly the era of music videos ushered in during the 1980s by MTV did capitalize on this revival.  Many videos of the era sought out distinctive architectural backdrops or created stage sets to evoke them   A look at “There’s Something Going On” by Frida (of Abba fame) from 1982 displays a rather fantastical round bedroom high above a metropolis with a round skylight and triangular windows and sconces.  This is clearly Deco / Moderne in origin.  Note too that the very clothing and accessories of the singer relate to the geometry of the space.  They were clearly making a statement about style the goes above and beyond the basics. It reflects their idea of what was sophisticated and glamorous at that moment.  At this same time there was a clear move away from the harsh angles and cold industrial surfaces of International Style modernism.   The nostalgia for Deco had as much to do with the culture of the 1920s; the glamorous parties portrayed in the Great Gatsby for example as it does with seeking a warmer source of inspiration, a more organic and historically grounded look and feel.

This momentum continued to build with nostalgia promoting a completely commodified version of ‘Colonial’ and ‘Victorian’ style of architecture.  Homes and commercial structures were produced that were basic boxy structures dressed up with stock items in a neo-traditional way.  Style was evoked by signifiers;  imitation multi-paned windows, oversized arched windows, fiberglass Doric columns, randomly applied gables and dormers along with ‘gingerbread’ and shutters.  The architectural details were most often applied with illiteracy as to their original proportions, uses or contexts. In the best examples they were sometimes consciously ironic.  Such features dominated the facades of most homes through the 80s and have yet to depart from the mainstream.

The modernism of the later 60s and 70s was often so harsh; including what they called new brutalism, that the public tired of it and sought a warmer look. Only the daring designed contemporary homes – even those were usually of a more organic wooden style rather than glass and steel.  But the nostalgia for the 50s was percolating up – you could see it right under the PoMo styles of the 80s.  The exceptionally complete architecture and décor featured in the movie “Ruthless People” in 1986 uses the colors and forms of the 50s as the foundation of a thoroughly contemporary home.  The 50s were showing up all over the music videos of the 80s and they came full circle by the 90s … it always takes a couple of decades for the architecture to catch up with whatever former decade is fetishized in movies and TV.

One can recall the Victorian era being romanticized in everything from Gone With the Wind to The Ghost and Mrs. Muir … and by the 1950s one could buy decent fake Victorian furnishings from Magnolia Hall and so forth but only in the 70s did we start to see mass merchandizing really take off with fakeVictorian.  At this time those who built the last of the good modernist homes of the 1950s and 60s are retiring from them. Many of the homes have been remodeled beyond recognition, the cars have almost all be scrapped and the furnishings broken or cast off.  Little of what was once commonplace is now left.  And the younger set is programmed by media to ‘rediscover’ what has been recently abandoned.  They get nostalgic for what their grandparents or sometimes parents had materially and for the seeming swank and glamour and ease of bygone days and they want to evoke them.   The good old days that weren’t so good when they weren’t so old as the saying goes… Nonetheless, every era has some great design and merit can be found in the best of each decade. The interior magazines are populated with full on restorations of 1950s houses complete with people putting in vintage appliances and removing later kitchens … as well as magazines focusing on luxury upgrades to mid-grade homes.  I’d tend to postulate too that from a matter of practical convenience a modernist home from the 1930s probably with scant wiring, hard to regulate, noisy steam heat and balky steel windows and maybe a one car detached garage. Such a home is mechanically and functionally much more obsolete and generally with a generation more of wear and tear and design compromising than one from the 1950s with air conditioning, a two car attached garage and relatively modern wiring and insulating, more standardized construction  that is often easier to add onto, etc. More odious is the fact that many of the older homes are in the inner ring suburbs which are no longer desirable, while the 1950s and 60s homes built when the auto was king are farther out and quite often in neighborhoods that were designed to be inaccessible by mass transit and to be far from city centers and have remained desirable and are perceived as ‘safer’.  Sometimes class, race and culture are hiding just below the surface in terms of what we get nostalgic about. I also feel that building standards, interest in good architectural design for the average home and affordable, quality materials and construction probably converged optimally and peaked in the 1950s-60s. After that time it began a long decline that has not been reversed. By the 70s average people’s homes became completely commodified and ‘consumers’ were less literate about good design. The focus of life was moving out of the home and the white glove test was becoming passé.

The 1960s apex is apparent in my Provincetown home – it was the second home of a New York businessman, more or less a contemporary of my parents.  Certainly it was not a luxury home, nor even an especially costly one.  Yet it has features that were somewhat ordinary at that time but shortly after disappeared .  Here one can still see an echo of Frank Lloyd Wright and prairie school design with low beamed ceilings, wide overhangs and open spaces focused around a monolithic fireplace. The structure is surprisingly solid and practical as well as optimally placed on the lot for view by a very thoughtful designer or owner. The original layout was superb and the wiring of 50 years ago provided a grounded outlet every 5 or 6 feet and separately zoned hot water heat for each level. All the plumbing, even the drain pipes, is copper.  The bathrooms are all ceramic tile with porcelain over iron tubs, still in good shape even after decades of tenant use. The house was fully insulated for that time, the floors are an inch and a half thick with two layers of plywood and the board siding is over a thick plywood sheathing.  The central chimney is a solid work of art of the mason and the house remains infinitely useful with an indefinite life span for most of the original structural components if they are maintained periodically.

Contrast this with a vacation home built in the 1970s or 80s – unless it was top of the line custom design one would find thin sub-floors, minimal sheathing, cheap siding and windows, bathrooms with fiberglass showers and plastic sinks and minimal ceramic tiling – with some exceptions. Along with these they used so many other engineered products and plastic components that have a short life span. This means that major capital improvements become necessary periodically causing both material waste and great expense.  Beyond that average homes followed the economy – shrinking budget meant not only cheaper construction and poor design but reduced ideals – if a starter home once was a solid Cape on a full size lot with room for expansion it became a cramped condo sandwiched like a row house by the 80s for many people.    So one can see why when the present is gloomy architecturally and decoratively that people reach back just far enough to something that seems better.

My mother has pointed out that everything we associated with the 1950s was already pretty much around in the 1940s already – this is true for furnishings and decor in general, though I think the 1950s perfected the proportions and finishes of the earlier prototypes and the Scandinavian and especially the Danish knew how to make exceptionally solid, practical furniture that was both warm looking and modern.  While not to everyone’s taste these were the last modern furnishings that were truly affordable for the middle classes that were made by famous designers and architects … by the time I was a school boy good quality modern design was getting out of reach and people had become disillusioned with the promise of the Space Age.  Remember that statistically modern style homes have always been in the minority (though the postwar era saw more than any era before or since from what I understand). An era of truly disposable and forgettable furnishings and low quality ‘period’ style pieces – especially odious insults in style and quality to the colonial and French styles – were dominating.  Nowadays anything all wood and by a good designer is only for the wealthy. All that said every so often one will see someone mention “Hollywood Regency” style.   I notice that most of the time the interiors shown have the glamor and proportions of those great black and white movies of the 30s and 40s – oversized doors with large accent panels and fancy knobs in the center, large lamps with exuberant shades, lots of crystal chandeliers and plush white carpets and curved upholstered pieces … all this is what was going on in those moderne homes.  While the attractive exterior styling remains a minority taste these furnishings have retained appeal and are getting collectible and any of those homes that survive intact will generally be recognized as worthy of saving.  They were rare and unfamiliar to begin with, predated the TV era and weren’t popularized or fetishized in the plan books and magazines anywhere near what happened at the apex of consumerism after the war and were always more costly to produce than the later rectilinear homes that is probably the bottom line.

More Thoughts on Homeownership

September 12, 2013


Continuing on the earlier subject it is important to plan in advance if you dream of buying a home.   Ensuring you have adequate down payment funds saved, good credit and that you understand the obligations and burdens of homeownership as well as how to choose the most suitable home and location are all important aspects of this goal.

Let us look more at the financing.  Most of us can’t afford a home without a loan.  Long in advance of purchase it is necessary to understand the kinds of loans available and know how to compare the offerings.    Establish a bank account and a good relationship with a trusted credit union or local bank.  These local institutions sometimes keep their loans ‘in house’ meaning that they can make decisions on a local level for known customers and this can be beneficial.   Large corporate banks tend to work best with ‘cookie cutter’ loan applications such as someone with a stable job with a reliable paycheck buying an ordinary home, a home that is easy to get a good appraisal on and is in very good condition.   If you are self employed or are buying a unique or damaged property expect more difficulty in getting a loan. Be prepared in advance, create a realistic monthly budget and do what you can to limit your expenses so that you can put funds away for the future.  The more you can save up the better position you will be in when it comes time to buy.  This is hard to do for many of us so seek expert advice if necessary.

In general because of the way the credit agencies rate your creditworthiness it is good to have a couple of credit cards or charge cards and to use them regularly, but not excessively and to always pay the minimum or more on time every time. Remember that credit inquiries can negatively impact your credit score so do not apply for other types of loans or credit unless they are very necessary.    Do not build up a balance and if you have one figure out how to pay it down.  That is a complete topic of its’ own but remember to pay your student loans, car loans or anything else on time and think carefully before each purchase. Don’t buy frivolous items or items that are costly without careful consideration.  Think every single time before you use a credit card.  Be ruthless with your income, how much can you put in the bank from each check you get? Do you really need that extra luxury item now or can you enjoy life without it so that you have some savings for the future.  Aim at having 20% of what your desired home will cost in your savings account.

Shop carefully for your mortgage.   Do you qualify for a first time home buyer (FHA)  or a Veteran’s Administration (VA) loan?   Ask financial institutions you know and trust what their rates are, noting that a 15 year loan will have a lower rate than a 30 year loan and that there are fixed rate and adjustable rate loans.   Figure out the price range of a home you can afford, factoring in property tax and estimated homeowner’s insurance costs. If you buy a condo or apartment there will be association fees – find out what these are and how often they go up and if they anticipate any capital expense that will raise them.  Estimate utility costs and repair costs.  While it is impossible to know these in advance speak to people you know who own similar homes, as your real estate agent and ask the sellers to try to get an idea.  Understand realistic total monthly costs for homeownership before making an offer to be most certain know you can afford it.

Let the buyer beware! Ultimately if it is in your plans to own a home I’d say the time to buy is when you are ready and the opportunity arises for the right home at an affordable price. The best one can do is keep informed and watch the loan market and the market in your target locale and make your best call on it.  Know in advance what type of neighborhood, what size home and what size lot you feel you need and what kind of features are essential. This way when a house that is suitable shows up you will be best prepared. A future article will look at how to evaluate the structure of a home and another article will be for those who rent as to how to try to discern the best rental options.



Home Ownership … is it in your future?

September 12, 2013

One cannot readily use measures of the economy or statistics to accurately ‘know’ when the best time to buy or sell is. For the past few decades the housing market has been swinging unpredictably.  When I was young people said ‘real estate doesn’t lose value’ and homeownership was thought of as a somewhat permanent goal within my circle. You saved up and purchased a practical home priced right for your income and needs and then stayed there.  The goal was having the mortgage (if any) paid off so you could enjoy retirement in place comfortably with limited housing costs or perhaps ‘cash out’ and retire to a warmer climate.   The market became very speculative in the 1980s. The increasing commoditization of the home has been a major part of the problem.     I watched as developers built increasingly larger tract mansions though family size was shrinking and the old idea that real estate held value was dramatically disproven.

While some wealthy people have long engaged in ostentation with vastly oversized showplaces, they have had the funds to spare without having to worry about providing for their essentials.  Working and middle class people historically purchased homes sensibly within their means.  But by the 1980s with dubiously arranged larger loans becoming readily available ‘status’ homes; that is generally flimsily built, oversized mock palaces of dubious architectural distinction became ever more fashionable.  The cumulative effect of these homes that were too big, too costly to finance, too expensive to heat, cool, maintain and insure coupled with higher property taxes and often in areas necessitating ever longer commutes and the need to own two autos with all the additional expenses of that was that the entire arrangement siphoned off too much of the income of those who chose these abodes.  Money that might otherwise have gone into savings or reducing family debt was usurped by the cost of living in an oversized place. If their income went down due to job loss or increased expenses the problems escalated.  Many of these homes had been sold at initially inflated values and went ‘underwater’; that is the debt load was for more than the house was worth for resale purposes.   It is a cautionary tale; don’t buy more space than you realistically need, choose a home that is well built, a locale that is convenient with minimal commuting needed and good transit and don’t make a decision based on superficial glamour or emotionality.  Look carefully for the house that suits your projected needs and consider all the various carrying costs to avoid getting stuck with an oversized burden.  A trendy new house may lose cache and value just like a new car does when driven off the lot and an auto that is essentially a military tank requiring a quart of gas just to get a quart of milk is a waste of money and resources unless you have a real need that justifies that kind of vehicle.

The banking industry has gone through dramatic changes and many gainfully employed people with adequate income are not able to easily get mortgages due to complex underwriting rules.  If the buyer is self employed or gaining income from rental property the bank may be especially cautious and discount a portion of the income or they may charge a higher interest rate.

If your goal includes buying a home it pays to plan ahead.  In my grandparents day you had good credit if you paid cash and had no debt. That is a healthy way to live, if one can. But most of us will need a loan for a home.  Today creditworthiness is controlled by corporate agencies and is a numerical score based largely on how many credit cards and loans you have, how long you have had them and how promptly you pay them.   The best assurance of mortgagability is for some the most difficult; put the most money possible in savings, maintain a good credit score and pay off other loans.

To be continued …


2012 in review

February 2, 2013

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The new Boeing 787 Dreamliner can carry about 250 passengers. This blog was viewed about 1,200 times in 2012. If it were a Dreamliner, it would take about 5 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Ink Cartridge Economy

January 1, 2013

            Many of us have home printers and know the frustration of spending a great deal of money on ink and having various problems with the cartridges and printers.  It seems that the designs of printers are now getting more complex and the printer may refuse to print at all if it believes a cartridge is out of ink, even if it was freshly purchased.

            Here are some ideas from experience and research.  If you are choosing a new printer check in advance as to how toxic the ink is, how long cartridges last and how much they cost, if the printer will work in black and white when the color cartridge is empty or vice versa and if they can be refilled. Ask if the printer will refuse a cartridge or claim it is empty if you take it out to examine it and put it back in … and avoid such a printer as it is the most obnoxious type on the market.  Some home printers promise ink will last a year and offer many functions but take too long to upload and print documents and have complicated or non-intuitive controls. One even advises “if not using the printer leave it plugged in and on to keep ink fresh”… how ridiculous! I find my ‘old’ printer from a few years ago responds quickly with less hassle.  Beware products with exciting gimmicks that look like a bargain but force you to buy costly cartridges or do not accept refills.

While refilled cartridges (and new ones for that matter) sometimes have problems most of the time I’ve had success with professionally refilled cartridges and they’ve gladly exchanged them if there was a problem. Some office supply stores and drugstores have refill services at a fraction of the cost of new cartridges.  An NPR report stated a typical cartridge costs about $30 translating to nearly $10,000 per gallon of ink.  Save ink by choosing an ‘eco font’ or less demanding font. For example: compared to“Arial”, “Century Gothic” uses about 30% less ink. You can search on line for eco fonts to download.  Find one that you like and make it your default font to easily save ink all the time.

            Read the directions and select the most economical settings. The ‘draft’ setting on my printer is perfect for most jobs, uses less ink and is faster than the regular setting which I only use for the most formal letters or photos. Use the print preview function to edit before printing to save ink and paper.  Your printer should have instructions for routine maintenance, follow them so the device and ink last and perform better.  Look for directions on cleaning ink dispensers or cartridges if they are performing poorly but are not empty. I close and unplug my printer when it will not be in use for a period of time.  Keep it away from direct sunlight and heat to help keep ink fresh.   Note the date the cartridge was installed on a card taped to the printer.  Each cartridge should last a similar amount of time with routine use.  If a cartridge fails much sooner than the norm it may be defective.  I have been able to return such cartridges for new ones; I recommend saving receipts and packaging in case such a problem arises.  Taking a cartridge out and shaking it around vigorously sometimes gets it flowing again if there is ink in it but it won’t work. 

The ink in most cartridges is also toxic and environmentally dangerous so read the fine print and choose accordingly.  There are soy based inks available which are safer.  Remember that your printer is spraying out the ink chemicals when in use and once you have printed you transfer the chemicals to the paper and people touching it or places recycling it are exposed to the compounds from the ink.

       Stores often have drop off containers for refilling or recycling used ink cartridges; you may also find pre-paid envelopes for sending them back to the manufacturer and a number of places will provide you with a credit towards new cartridges or other premiums when you turn them in.   Ask the clerk before you purchase what the policy is for refill, return and promotions.  In general as with anything that is resource intensive remember the guidelines: a) select only what you actually need and choose the least wasteful, least toxic option b) reuse the item as many times as possible and c) recycle the item when reuse is no longer practical.   Conscious choices about your buying, use and disposal habits can really help reduce your expenses, wasted time, and frustration and slow down environmental degradation.