Home & Garden

About the House: Kristi’s Rule: Proactive vs. Reactive

By Matt Cantor
Thursday August 07, 2008 - 12:56:00 PM

The weather has been so nice lately. I always tell myself that when it finally gets nice, I’ll get out and finish my arbor. My poor neighbors have to look at that thing all year, and you’d think that with what I know about construction, I’d just get it done, but Noooo. I just want to loll around the house looking for more 1 point snacks and watching YouTube. 

As I drive down the street it’s clear that I’m not alone. Most people’s houses need all sorts of work but without some terrific incentive there are always ten million other things that draw our attention and energy (not to mention time and money). So most of us approach our houses from a reactive stance rather than a proactive stance, putting out fires as they begin to smoke or flicker.  

Kristi, a recent client of mine, works for the Feds investigating very large financial institutions. She told me that like homeowners, even these huge entities tend to be reactive rather than proactive. Why am I not surprised? She uses this proactive vs. reactive question as a test to be passed or failed in the back of her mind as she looks over the spread-sheets of this or that behemoth. I wonder how many of us would pass the test. 

With homes, being reactive is surely a nominal requisite but being proactive has such huge rewards that I feel duty-bound to weave a specific argument for it. Let’s start with major hazards and then work down toward simple issues of longevity. 

Being proactive about fire isn’t easy or pretty, but it’s my opinion that this is the most important kind of prophylaxis there is for the homeowner. Not only does fire destroy the home, but it’s also my personal least favorite way to die (not that I’ve died that many ways). 

With fire, there are two issues: prevention and escape. While prevention is prudent, I’d sooner start with escape as the first area of investigation and action. The proactive person has taken the time to decide how they (and their family) will exit the house if fire comes from any of several directions. They will also have smoke alarms (the term detector is being abandoned in the current codes in favor of alarm, to my fervent accord) in lots of places as a way of giving themselves loads of time for escape. Smoke alarms are so implausibly cheap that there is scarcely a reason not to have one in every room that has its own door and at least one on each level of the house in a hallway.  

Next is the matter of escape. People often seem to have notions about how they will escape that are super-hero unrealistic. Breaking a window to get out of a room when said room is filled with smoke is not a realistic plan. Windows that open easily and doors that don’t require keys for escape are vital, and there is no excuse for not having both. If you’re in a house filled to the rafters with flammable books, magazines and junk, think about what it will be like in a fire. Most of all, be sure that you can move freely and directly to the outside from everywhere you spend time, especially where you sleep. 

Once you’ve tackled the matter of alarms and escape, you can settle down to fire prevention. If you have an ancient wiring system, have an expert look at it. About 10 percent of all fires are electrically based, and that’s allowing for cigarettes, kitchen fires and all the more common sources that I can’t help you with. I will say that a lot of smokers are now keeping their smoking outside the home, which I consider courageous and shrewd. 

Keeping a fire extinguisher near the stove is pretty smart, and checking to see if it’s charged on a regular basis is smarter. A recent favorite of mine on the fire front has been dryer vents. These need to be cleaned out regularly, especially when they’re long. Have you ever cleaned out your entire dryer vent? Most people will have to confess that they have not. Proactive means putting this on the calendar for Labor Day weekend every year. I’m looking for an obscure Jewish holiday for mine (Tisha B’Av is just around the corner for you holiday watchers). 

Have your heating system examined once a year. Furnaces and heaters of all kinds cause fires, and a short viewing by an expert might easily I.D. a fire hazard that has been missed before or developed anew. For more ideas on fire prevention, call your local fire department. Once they’ve overcome the shock that you’re interested in their help, you’ll find that they offer a range of inspection services. 

Proactive people not only know that an earthquake is looming for those of us who live near the Hayward Fault, but also know that changes in their homes are necessary. While a majority of homes in our fair city of Berkeley have had some retrofitting completed, the majority of that work is insufficient or ill-concieved. Being reactive to earthquakes is potentially expensive and maybe worse. Simply put, if you haven’t talked to a seismic retrofitting expert, do it. The cost of retrofitting many houses is often less than $10K, and I believe that many houses will experience hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of damage when these tectonic hills commence to pitch and heave. Insurance may be wise but I’d always start by getting physical. And while they are somewhat controversial, I continue to recommend automatic gas shutoff devices. They’re cheap and may prevent the fires that earthquakes are so adept at starting. 

Now to some more mundane aspects of proactivity. If I’m trying to get myself to cry, I know two thing that work well. First is The English Patient and second is driving past a few formerly regal Victorians that have begun to molt their corbels, spandrels and brackets. Most houses need only two things to prevent failure of the structure in this way; paint and roofing. For the lack of these two things (and, of course, their little familiars, caulk, flashing and trim) many houses slowly buckle, delaminate, leak and rot. Conversely, the house that has been kept well battened down with a few thousand dollars worth of paint and shingles may last a hundred years longer. 

I like to keep things simple and lists short so I’ll stop here. The summer is still warm and beckoning and the days long enough for fun and the occasional fix-it job. I might make some progress on the arbor. We’ll see. As for you, what will you do? There is always time to be reactive to be sure. The question is whether you will make the time for just a short while this summer to become proactive.