The usual suspects are staggering around the landscape discovering their backside regarding housing again. It’s amazing and amusing that people who claim to have a crystal ball can’t even figure out what’s already happened, never mind what’s going to happen.
Foreclosed houses might not be up to Martha Stewart’s standards? Who knew?
As huge numbers of foreclosed homes continue to work their way through the real estate pipeline, another problem is blossoming — mold. In most homes, as residents go in and out and the seasons change, natural ventilation sucks moisture up to the attic and out through the roof. It’s called the “stack effect.” And in many parts of the country, it’s driven by air conditioning in the summer and heat in the winter. But no one is going in or out of most foreclosed homes — regardless of climate — and the effects can be devastating.
I see the local Punctuation Boutique was having a special on em dashes. Anyhow, the author has no idea what the stack effect is, or how it works in a house, open or closed up, and simply wrote whatever Wikipedia and the local Service Magic dude or energy efficiency loon they’ve got on speed-dial told him or her.
Let’s look at the picture they’ve supplied with the article:
Well, it’s mold, and it’s in a foreclosed house, I guess, so they’re not lying; they just don’t know what they’re talking about, and don’t know who to ask to find out anything, and don’t know what to do with any accurate information that comes their way anyway.
It’s only technically mold. More specifically, that’s mildew. That mildew has bleep-all to do with foreclosure and abandonment. It’s probably gotten better since the occupants moved out, because that mildew’s been there for years, caused by steamy showers in a room with no mechanical ventilation and the window painted shut.
You see, they used to make houses that relied on the occupants to have a little common sense, and to perform mundane physical activities to ensure their own comfort. They put a big window in the bathroom, but you had to open it and close it yourself. Notice the shower curtain on the left, none on the right. After years of soaking the window, they gave up on maintenance and painted it shut. It used to be a requirement that a bathroom have a window for ventilation, but after decades of people not using them, the building code devotees said you needed mechanical ventilation in your bathroom. That’s why you have a ceiling fixture with a fan in it that you refuse to turn on instead of a window you don’t open now. Half of the exhaust fans are worse than nothing and simply dump the moisture into the attic, the other half are disconnected or ignored by the occupants because they’re too noisy.
But they’re not wrong about mold in foreclosed houses, they’re just right for the wrong reasons. But I’m no 20/20 hindsight handyman. I’m more of an “I told you so” kind of guy:
Why won’t these numbers converge into one big, happy cheap housing fiesta? Regular people are waiting out the Great Recession, hoping to someday get a job, form a household, and then buy a house. They are being told that when they finally emerge, that all that empty inventory of houses will be waiting for them in fine condition at rock-bottom prices. No it won’t. Because a house needs occupants, and the contractors they hire to maintain them. Houses left alone by absentee banks are going to slowly disintegrate. Entropy doesn’t take years off while you try to scare up a down payment.
I kept going, ’cause that’s how I roll:
Time will pass. Pipes will freeze. Raccoons will get in. Persons who know a house is never worth nothing will break in and discover sweet, sweet, copper in them thar walls. Mice and squirrels will breathe their last in the attic, and you’ll be breathing their lasting perfume for a good, long time — if you can smell it over the mildew.
The only people that know how to renovate these places aren’t going to hang around in an industry with Dust Bowl unemployment numbers, waiting by the phone for years for you to pull yourself together. They’re going to leave the industry; the few that are left aren’t going to be interested in being your coolie labor. All you know how to do is download songs from iTunes and fill the copier when it says PC LOAD LETTER. They know what a house is worth, and how to fix it. They only need you to show up at the closing with a big, fat check. Just like old times.
A two-tier market for housing will develop. Regular houses, owned by regular persons, will be bought by other regular people with regular mortgages for regular prices. The “shadow” inventory – houses not occupied and in very uneven condition — will be purchased by speculators, renovated and flipped as rapaciously as before, and will be sold for about the same money as the regular houses. No amount of waiting around in mom’s basement and reading about housing bubbles on the Internet is going to change the fact that houses are expensive because they are valuable and always will be.
The interviewees in the NPR article are just organized handymen, and are capable of cosmetic repairs to mildewed surfaces at exorbitant rates. But they’re not prepared for real mold, and neither will the next occupants be. The eco-everybodies, the “remodelers,” the energy monomaniacs, and the code tinkerers have transformed the average contemporary house into a little sealed terrarium for humans, entirely dependent on mechanical contrivance to continue its existence, never mind be habitable. The fetish for airtightness, and vapor barriers, and ersatz materials masquerading as environmentally-friendly improvement, and endless codes in substitution for common sense have produced a house that will entirely self-destruct in half a century if you live in it and take good care of it, and about half a decade if you don’t.
There’s mold inside the walls of lots of foreclosed houses, don’t get me wrong. The real kind, not mildew; the kind with spores that’ll kill you if you breathe them. Nothing short of the demolition of the entire interior of the house, the removal of all the soaked insulation, the replacement of the OSB sheathing silently turning to damp shredded wheat beneath the immutable face of the vinyl siding will have to be addressed. Six grand to a glorified handyman won’t cut it. Hell, the vandals stealing all the copper pipes and wires are doing you a favor getting a head-start on all the demolition you’re going to need.
A house has been made so “energy-efficent” that it can’t go two weeks without dehumidification, humidification, heating, cooling, mechanical ventilation, sump-pumping, and ten other things I’m too weary to write.
We were all better off before we “fixed” houses, and housing.
[Update: Barnes and Noble and Amazon are having a price war over my book. Buy it now for only $8.60]