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Monday, April 30, 2007

Home 0wn3rsh1p – a Thought Experiment

James Kunstler’s column today is the sort of thing that brings FAR Manor to mind. Not so much the state of architecture, nor even the shoddy build quality of most homes today.

My first thought upon reading it was that the real failure isn't architecture — or even construction — so much as people collectively have a “busted give-a-damn.” But then I thought about it a little further. Owning — or rather, being 0wn3d by — FAR Manor has taught me that two things are required to maintain a home: 1) money; 2) time (and improving a home requires the same, just more of it… lots more). Anyone who marketed any part of a house as “maintenance free” should have been summarily drawn and quartered, but that's another story. This tale is going to be a thought experiment that will perhaps illuminate the current situation.

Let’s look at Joe and Jane Average. They bought a tract house back when Joe had a decent manufacturing job and Jane was working part-time as a bookkeeper. Like most people these days, they bought something a little more expensive than they should have, but figured they could sell it in a few years for a tidy profit. Then comes the perfect storm: the decent job went to China, the local housing market cratered with the job market, and a birth-control failure led to a couple of unexpected kids. Joe’s “lucky” — he’s working a couple of so-called part-time jobs, six and a half days a week at crap wages, that bring in about 3/4 of what he used to make on a 40-hour shift. Jane still has her bookkeeping work, but she hasn’t had a raise in three years and is mostly tied up minding the kids.

Instead of owning the house, the house now 0wns them. They tried selling it, but the few offers they got for it weren’t enough to cover the mortgage, so they’re stuck. Fortunately, they were smart enough to nail down a decent fixed rate before things went to hell; most of their acquaintances with creative financing got foreclosed on last year, and most everyone else is looking at that reset and sighing in resignation. What Joe and Jane are bringing in would be enough, except for the credit cards. They ran up some plastic debt back when things were looking good; they bought a few luxury items and figured they’d have plenty of time to pay them off. Then the clock ran out and left them hanging — everything not going into living expenses is now barely keeping them abreast of the credit cards.

So the siding's starting to look a bit grungy, and it’s even coming loose in a couple of places. The fake-wood trim needs to be repainted, and the front door frame is dry-rotting at the bottom. The living room carpet is, to put it nicely, shot. Joe has little experience with construction or carpentry work, Jane none at all — they could do some maintenance, but neither one has much time or any energy to do so much as paint the trim.

They’re holding on by their fingernails, folks. They nearly got burned by a debt consolidation “service” that was saturating the radio with ads last year, which turned out to be little more than a scam — there may be legit ones out there, but they don’t trust any of them now. They looked into bankruptcy, but Bush-league made sure that door was slammed in their faces. Their few friends are in worse shape than themselves. The car is starting to make a weird noise (the second one got sold a few months ago, just before it went to pieces; they used the money to pay their property taxes). The bright spot is that they should be getting a few hundred bucks back on their taxes, which will go to fix the car.

Is it any wonder that people aren’t maintaining their houses?

Compared to Joe, I’m far better off. My job hasn’t been outsourced (yet), and I have (if Mrs. Fetched allows) a little time on weekends to fix steps or work on a wood floor. FAR Manor, as I’ve found by pulling up carpet, is far from quality construction (and I give Mrs. Fetched hell about buying this place every time, you betcha)… but it’s mostly maintainable. I can manage a few of the things that need to be fixed, and the few things I want to do.

The Averages might have a way out, though — now the thought experiment begets a thought experiment within itself. Jane’s bookkeeping skills have saved their bacon, so far; she set up a budget and has managed their money the way a skilled kayaker negotiates a Class V rapids. One mistake, or the submerged rock of an unexpected expense, could spell disaster; but so far so good. She made a little extra money this spring doing taxes — a local tax preparer was swamped with complex (i.e. expensive) returns, and farmed out many of the 1040A and EZ jobs to her. A little of the money treated the family to dinner at a cheap Mexican restaurant; the rest went to a credit card payment, opening up a little breathing room.

But I digress. One day, one of her neighbors sees Jane playing in the front yard with her kids. She just landed a job at a big-box store, nothing to brag about but it will help to supplement what her husband Frank makes doing odd jobs. Would Jane watch her kids (close to Jane’s in age) in the afternoon? She couldn’t pay anything right away, but —

“I have a better idea,” says Jane. That afternoon, Frank brings the kids over. While the kids get to know each other, he tacks up the loose siding and pressure washes the whole house. The next day, he paints over the trim. The house is looking better already. Joe gets home and silently picks up the trash in the yard before collapsing with a beer in front of a TV he suddenly can’t stand to watch.

That weekend, the two families get together and have a cookout during the few afternoon hours that Joe has free. Frank says he can replace the front door, frame and all, with a better one that he bought for a job (that fell through) some time back. Joe offers to trade the lumber he’d bought for a deck, back when he had a life, and the deal is struck on the spot. “I’ll keep an eye out for some carpet for your living room, too,” Frank says. “If there’s no hurry, I can probably get a roll-end for nothing or next to it.”

At his jobs, Joe gives Frank’s name to co-workers — there are always things that need to be done, and people willing to pay someone else to do them. Jane starts getting money instead of barter for the day care work, and takes in one more kid (all she feels comfortable handling). Slowly, almost reluctantly, the credit card debt gets whittled down. Jane manages to squirrel away a few hundred bucks for emergencies; the car will need new tires sooner or later and gas prices are only getting worse. Joe and a co-worker start car pooling to split the expenses.

The Averages are nowhere near out of the woods yet; a major sickness or accident could put them under in a heartbeat. They have put their house back on the market; it’s the nicest one on the street now. But as tempting as it is, I can’t in good conscious pull a deus ex machina and give them an offer that would pay off all their debts with enough left over for a deposit on an affordable apartment.

In the end, it’s not completely their fault that they bought the Endless Growth line; it seemed true for so long. But they are slowly bartering their way into (what they hope is) a better future.


  1. Hi FarFetched!

    This is a nice idea.

    I've done the same sort of thought experiments about how things could change if we had a National Health Care system.

  2. I did the same thing with Theresa's bathroom. I ripped it out and replaced all the tile and fixtures and she, um um.....................well I'm sure she will do something for me soon.


  3. Hi guys.

    KB, I know I've read some of your "Cover Everyone" posts on E4T, and they're great.

    Solar, knowing Theresa, you probably didn't have to go through all that trouble. >8-}

  4. I just finished reading a book called Off The Books. It was about a poor neighborhood in Chicago, but several of the chapters described a lot of the bartering type arrangements that your thought experiment covered.

  5. Hi anon... is this the book? Looks seriously interesting.

  6. Yes. That is the book. Because he was Asian (not B/W) he ended up as mediator in a bunch of situations. I checked my copy out of the library and it was an interesting weekend read.


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