About the House: When It’s Totaled

By Matt Cantor
Thursday February 11, 2010 - 10:00:00 AM
Just one example of the superlative maintenance employed in this home.
Matt Cantor
Just one example of the superlative maintenance employed in this home.

There are times when an economic model in the evaluation of a house is particularly vital. In fact, in times like these, the avoidance of this model could result in financial trauma. Most houses I see don’t seem to demand this metric, but some (and they’re not always obvious) absolutely do. 

The property I looked at yesterday was just such a case. This case was a rare one, since I consider most houses worthy of the “right” set of repairs, regardless of age. I won’t say style or condition because some are too ugly and some are too damaged to merit the investment. The really ugly ones should be turned over to Myth Busters for one of those experiments where they shoot a water heater through the roof or put it at the bottom of the Marianas Trench just to see if fish will judge it as harshly as critics like me. 

Also, significantly and interestingly, this house did not immediately appear to be a falling-down wreck. But that’s not how ill-conceived plans generally present themselves, right? They usually look manageable, if not promising until, at some point, the fact of their ill conception slowly dawns on us, leaving us with that sorry, just-dumped look. 

The first signs that this was one of those homes was that the exterior cladding was in bad shape and that replacement of the siding wouldn’t be enough on its own. This house had been sided in wooden shingle (probably cedar, as it’s the most popular in these parts) and the shingles were deeply worn and beginning to pull free in a number of locations. They weren’t totally worn out in all locations, which was part of the illusory nature of this defect. It would be easy to eliminate these from the math, but to do so would leave the buyer holding the bag for repairs within a year or two. Some repairs would be needed right away and they would certainly beg a larger course of action as soon as a competent contractor showed up. Once I’d looked at the siding long enough, it was clear that there was no point in doing small repairs and that the only reasonable approach was to bite the bullet and do the entire job. 

Another reason for doing it all would relate to economies of scale. While it might seem a short-term cost savings to do one or two faces of the building, this would end up inflating the cost of the entire replacement 50 percent or more. A contractor who makes one set of purchases, has all the materials brought on site at once, sets up tools and workers once and does one set of accounting can do a larger job for a small additional fraction. Doing all these things twice ends up taking far more time and that means far more cost. 

Additionally, like many jobs in the home, the fact that all these little parts integrate into one another like pieces of a puzzle is no small part of the total equation. Claddings of all sorts, whether shingle, clap-board or stucco, are part of a system that sheds water and keeps out cold air and bugs through their manner of physical integration. They overlap, interlace and hang on one another in clever ways that are virtually impossible to mimic when we do things in small sections. There is no window that is more likely to leak than the one that gets stuck in after the fact, though it’s the skylight that’s added after the roof that really wins the Gong Show.  

The concept is exactly the same, though the consequences are more dramatic, though not necessarily more dire. They show themselves immediately and tend to draw action that a leaky interface window might avoid though years of mycological husbandry. 

A close look showed that many trims had been poorly installed in relation to the shingle and were suffering from an array of ills. These were never well primered to begin with, and were cracking along their length as water and sun had done their damage and left nice deep ravines for fungi to begin raising a family and farm inside of.  

Metal flashings between adjacent components (trims, siding, windows, doorways) were absent, allowing water to have its way into just about any part of the cladding system it felt like going into. And water is as insidious as anything in nature. Were it not for this nature, we could not exist. 

Problems with water intrusion into wall systems often don’t show up inside for some time, though this can go either way depending on the route. It’s tricky business.  

The absence of flashings in many of the most important locations, the condition of the trims and the poor condition of the siding all contributed to a sorry picture. The trims were clearly a low-quality wood that would begin to decay much more rapidly than a denser, more mature wood.  

The windows were clearly a bad batch (every one was double-glazed and had a film of fog inside, showing that the seals had failed). The window flanges were not well-installed with regards to the adjacent trims. The relationships, up-down, forward-backward, are critical since all the exterior surfaces of the house, windows included, are giant slides in the water park of nature. Water must be guided over and around every surface without any managing to get through. And this assembly of components showed nothing but bad signs and head-shaking doubts. It just wasn’t ship-shape. 

So the only reasonable thing to do was to recommend that the entire exterior of the house, windows, doors, trims and siding, be fully removed and done again from scratch. In this way, one could address the various troubles while reasonably guaranteeing that water would get shut out. Anything less and you’ll be back at it, throwing good money after bad in a year or two at most. And there is nothing more aggravating than that, as any recipient of this common pestilence can attest. 

To cut things somewhat short, I’ll say that this wasn’t the only major system that had the same sort of profile—the substructure, the bad drainage, the faulty wiring, the troubled plumbing. Within a couple of hours at most, it was terribly apparent that this house would have to be worth a lot of money in its finished state to be worthy of the expenditures it would demand. Sad but very clearly true. In this case, the entire property was worth something under $700,000 and this house was one of three major structures on a great deal of land. The house was probably worth well under $300,000. It was easy to see how an amount equal to that could be spent repairing the structure so that it was safe, dry and bore the promise of modest longevity. 

This meant that it was very likely not worth fixing up at all. Building new would have huge advantages over working with the existing structure in terms of speed, quality, longevity and a wide range of technological novelties that we’re all benefiting from today. In fact, I felt obliged to suggest the idea of looking at the possibility of replacing the building with a prefabricated one, made to order. The cost of one of these would likely be far less than the repairs needed for the current building and, again, the other benefits (or the loss of the other liabilities) could be huge.  

The central issue here is that we have to take a look at the whole beast, the entire enchilada before we make a plan of action and, perhaps, even before making a purchase. What will repairs get us? How long with they last? When are larger-scale upgrades the better choice and when is a little patching compound actually the smart way to go? The answer could be yes for each of these depending on the big picture. But be sure to get that picture by some trustworthy means. If you’re not sure, do more research. Talk to more experts. Consider the motivations of each participant.  

Bringing things into focus and being honest with ourselves is not only a good everyday mantra, it has real cachet.