It’s always a good economy for somebody.
That’s what I said to myself about the recent slide in real estate values. All my adult life, house prices have been exorbitant. I’d look at the price of a one-bedroom condominium. I’d look at my pay check. I’d pass.
But now. Well, now, they can hardly give houses away, especially in Georgia where the banks misbehaved worse than in any other state of the union. In 2009, The Economist reported that “The state accounts for a fifth of the 100 or so bank failures in America since the start of 2008.”
When I do a Realtor.com search on pretty much any community in my state, I find houses, even in Atlanta, going for $40,000, $20,000, $10,000. “MAKE us an offer! We need to unload this house,” the banks are screaming.
So, it seemed like a good idea to use my credit card for the first time. Little known fact among credit spenders: When you never use your credit card, the credit card company gets desperate to put you in debt, so they offer you the opportunity to borrow lavish sums up front for around 8% for up to a year at a time.
Using this handy offer, I bought a two-bedroom, two bath 1936 bungalow in Statesboro, Georgia on my credit card. At closing, my total costs were $20,000 and some change.
Mind you, you do not get a McMansion with ice maker and installed plasma screen for $20,000. The house I bought–and renovated with my long-suffering husband–needed work. A LOT of work. But it was in live-in condition. After a wee bit of negotiating with the utility companies, we got the water, gas, and electric turned on. Then we moved in and got cracking.
Contrary to popular notion, it does not take a rocket scientist or even somebody with vast experience to renovate an old house. But one critical thing Do it yourselfers must consider: What is the ongoing damage? In other words, when you are renovating a house, you must give priority to whatever problems are steadily destroying the house. If you have termites or the house is not water tight, those are the first things to address. Our house came complete with a tree that had fallen on the roof. No extra charge.
So the first thing we had to do was save the roof. This involved hiring a neighbor who needed the money (who doesn’t, these days?) to remove the tree with a chainsaw. Then, three solid days of rain gave us a pretty clear idea that we needed a roofer. A new and improved roof, with longer eaves that protect the house from rain rot, was our biggest expenditure, but it could not be delayed, because any other work we did would be jeopardized if we didn’t make the house water tight against flooding and rot.
Then it was time to have fun. That’s right. For people with strong environmental leanings, restoring or renovating a house is fun. You’re constantly learning, constantly trying out new things, because green design is such a new field, with new technologies emerging daily.
First thing was to paint with no volatile organic compounds. Turns out Olympic makes a premium no-VOC paint with the reassuring green seal, and it’s readily available at our local Lowes. VOCs are not just an environmental issue. They’re also a health hazard for people who spend a lot of time exposed to paint fumes. Do it yourselfers, in other words.
Painting is sexy. Okay, that’s obviously relative to home improvement projects. But nothing transforms a room so quickly or easily as a new coat of well chosen paint. And the new on-line room visualizers that let you see how your colors blend together and how that contrastive white will look on the rafters are loads of fun.
Then we pulled up all the old ratty carpeting and refinished the original 1936 pine floors to a shine, restored the fireplace with a gas log heater, and installed a gas water heater. Why gas? Because all electricity in Georgia is produced in coal-burning plants that contribute (heavily) to global warming, gas is the environmentalist’s choice when renovating. It helps that our old house was already rigged for natural gas. It also helps that our county has a gas-incentive program. The county literally gave us a water heater. Our only cost was installation.
Then came the bamboo floors in the kitchen. Bamboo is the guilt-free wood for environmentalists who love wood floors. (Is there anybody who DOESN’T love wood floors?) It grows fast and densely, lasts a lifetime on your floors, and takes a serious beating without losing its looks. The only serious problem with bamboo is that you will never have a decent reason to get rid of it, no matter how much you lust for change. It WILL NOT get all scratched up and pinged like other floor woods. Go ahead: Drag a couch across it. Let the kids walk on it in sandy flip flops straight from the beach. Get a dog. Get twenty cats. They will not hurt the bamboo. If you do succeed in damaging it (good luck), you could probably sand and restain a sturdy bamboo plank about twenty times. I’m thinking about restaining my bamboo floor another color just out of boredom. And, if you think bamboo in the kitchen if risky, you’re wrong. My husband is a trained chef. Food and hot oil literally fly through the air in my kitchen, and he has yet to scratch that floor.
Putting compact fluorescent light bulbs in all the fixtures and lamps was a no-brainer. If you haven’t tried cfls for a few years, you should know they’ve come a long way. In particular, they come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and moods. Soft light cfls are particularly nice for people sensitive to how light hits the room. And you can retrofit most ceiling fans with them. I saved most of the fan lights in my bungalow, by upgrading their shades and, of course, applying a new coat of paint to the fan blades. They were all cfl friendly.
Serious green builders and designers always recommend supporting your local Habitat for Humanity Restore which, at least in theory, recycles building materials with some life left in them. As somebody who actually shops the Restores, I’m a little ambivalent. The five of them I’ve toured are much richer in living room couches than floor tiles. I have yet to find a decent used air conditioner in one of them. And the prices are often determined by somebody who does not know, to the penny, what comparable things cost at Lowes the way I do. My advice to Restore shoppers is just go to the counter and tell them what you will pay for something. This has worked for me.
That said, we did score a few deals at the Restore. We got a great kitchen sink, probably worth $300, for around $50, a stove, some good floor tile for the bathroom, some more tile for the kitchen counter, and a serviceable ceiling light.
Finally, because the house had been stripped of all major appliances before we bought it, we sprang for an energy-star refrigerator, an energy star air-conditioner, and an energy-star front-loading washing machine with matching dryer.
And I made it my personal mission to strip and restore a beautiful set of French doors
So, here we are, living the green dream: all the charm of a mid-century house on the corner with low utility bills and a $200 monthly credit card payment.
People often look at me sideways when I tell them I put a house on my credit card. But is it worse than owing $20,000 for a plasma TV and a bunch of other gadgets? The housing market has to recover some time.
And then it will be a good economy for me.