Sippican Cottage



A Man Who Has Nothing In Particular To Recommend Him Discusses All Sorts of Subjects at Random as Though He Knew Everything

Here Comes The Honeydew

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]

11 Responses

  1. Rather frightening post especially with temps in 3 digits here south of Boston. A point you made hits home here. Of the three carpenters in town that have graced my home over the years with their skills and stories all are over 50 and all complaining of bad knee's and shoulders. There just seems to be no kid carpenters! Maybe the kids all became community organizers, dunno

  2. Criminy, man. I'm going to be house-hunting in or near the swamps shortly. I'm terrified; somehow, I doubt that any amount of reading (now matter how quality the source) is going to prepare me for the reality that I don't have a clue what to look for in a good house.

    I wonder if there's a saint for that?

  3. I've bought houses with dry rot fruiting bodies strung around like net curtains and so active that being armed was a safer bet….I love buying them.

  4. As the schlepper of many fine foreclosed homes,I have seen much of this "mold" and the only problem it poses is that the lending banks are as misinformed as the author of the article. One look at a photo from the appraiser with a little mildew in the corners and the lenders flee as if they are in the kill radius of the Fukushima reactor, leaving the home unoccupied for another few months until the real stuff can take hold.

    In my experience, the bad mold is readily apparent when you see it. It is long and feathery and reminds me of something out of a fifties sci-fi mutant flick. Viewing it actually sends chills down my spine. It appears to grow visibly and the possibility of it slamming and bolting the door, wrestling me to the ground, then quickly replacing the viable cells in my body with black fungus leaving me to walk the earth transformed into a creature without feeling or compassion, just like the rest of the realtors out there, seem very real while in its presence. And the music…you can tell when the bad mold is present in a home by the creepy minor chord music emanating from the basement as you enter the front door.

    A little bleach and water, then a coat or two of good stain blocking primer takes care of most of what people think is "The Killer Mold".
    (Que music)

  5. Maybe it is simple mindedness that causes me to respond to your post with this:

    people need houses and houses need people.

    That thought comforts me for some reason.

    Now, about the photo of the crestfallen house … what are you waiting for, man? Hoist the joists and get busy. It must be saved and you are the very super hero to do it!

  6. Hi BrettonPoint -Thanks for reading and commenting.
    Unemployment in construction is never like the ordinary economy. It's always double regular jobs. A large minority, if not a majority of construction workers leave the industry permanently in every big downturn. The next building boom will need an entirely new crew.

    Hi Julie-Trust your innate good sense. I bought a perfectly good wreck of a house for less than 25 grand.

    Thud puts things right. That's why we love him. That, and the fact he's populating the world with good-looking children.

    Westsound – It's the mushroom-looking stuff that gives me the willies.

    Hi Katharine- "People need houses and houses need people" is about as apt a way as it can be expressed.

    There's also a kind of shadow world of a society. Buildings are the physical manifestation of its institutional memory. Houses are like the citizens of a sticks and bricks country. They matter. They mean things. I love them.

    That house in the picture actually was in Maine, IIRC. About a hundred years ago, subsistence farming in the Northeast disappeared and enormous tracts of farmland were abandoned, and farmhouses like this one, too. All those farms are now forests. There are a lot more trees in North America than there were a hundred years ago, because fewer people farm.

    I would have loved to fix that house. But no one would have wanted it.

  7. Your supposition that houses will always be worth something leaves out the premise that they will not be worth as much.

    Housing has not hit bottom, and may not for 3-5 more years.

    Housing will soon only have the value that cash money can buy, as lenders will not lend long term on a depreciating asset, will they?

    And housing is still depreciating; a fall that will only accelerate when the Federal money from Freddie and Fannie dries up completely.

    And the bank owned homes will be the first to fall. A house to the owner is not an asset to be liquidated; it has a value as shelter that creates a primary value. When the cost of that shelter becomes more than its worth, it becomes a drag on the budget, but never is an asset.

    But the bank has to liquify the asset; they deal in liquidity, not in real estate.

    And when the banks own a sizable percentage of the real estate, that liquidation will be costly to home values.

    Mold? Mold maybe the saving grace for housing values, forcibly reducing the available housing stock.

    Mold and Copper thieves are helping to salvage the housing market; one newly vacant lot at a time.

  8. "..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"

    Bravo Sipp! I feel your rant!

  9. Flashy new technology has caused us to lose common sense and stop using older, better and cheaper technology. We humans seem to think that anything new is better and it's even better if you can put a motor on it.

    I built a cottage a few years ago and had plenty of time to rediscover the old rules:-
    -use gravity, overlaps and overhangs to keep out rain.
    -if you are using caulk to seal anything, you have made a major error somewhere.
    -likewise if you are using glues. Indeed, I became suspicious of glue based materials like OSB and glue-lam beams. I use even plywood with trepidation. Metal, stone and wood.
    -air moves, and that is good.
    -there are triangles everywhere for a reason.

  10. Hi Fred- Thanks for reading and commenting. That's all very sound thinking.

    Hi Ed Redneck- Thanks for reading and offering such a thoughtful comment.

    Hi Mike- Thanks for reading and commenting.

  11. I am presently in the first house I bought after more than 9 years of condo life. It's more of less the house I was looking for: old but well-made. A 1908 brick bungalow that hasn't had much more than cosmetic changes since it was built. Egads, the lumber available then is simply amazing, but the simple design and high quality workmanship will ensure that it will last another hundred years. Of course, here in Denver mold is off the list of concerns.

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