Tuesday, March 16, 2010

How to Improve and then Ruin a House

Imagine if you will, that you are a husband and wife, but not just any husband and wife. You are both architects with backgrounds in contracting and environmental advocacy. You even have your own firm together.

So one day, about 6 or 7 years ago, you buy an old, dilapidated bungalow style house in Berkeley and fix it up. You make all the right decisions in the reno. You restore the built-ins and push-button light switches to keep the old charm, but you add sky-lights and a modern energy-efficient kitchen. You make some of the counter tops out of recycled glass and the rest from an oak tree that fell on your lot. In fact, the small kitchen is so well done it gets a 2 page article in a magazine (read here and here.)

Next you put solar panels on the roof so that your average electric bill for the year is $5. You manage to effortlessly squeeze in enough large and usable closets that somehow the house feels larger inside than out. You even restore the original central vacuum cleaner system. Then you sit back and relax in your newly modernized, green, charming old house with its 2 bedrooms, 1 bath, office nook, and laundry closet.

But then something happens. You can’t stop. You’re architects! Working on projects for other people is never as satisfying as working on one for yourself. Besides, the house isn’t quite your dream house. It’s not as green as you wanted, or as modern. It is just an old bungalow.

Fortunately for you it sits all the way over on the left side of your lot, and even though the lot is too small to be legally subdivided, you decide that you know better than the bureaucratic city planners and start eyeing that large driveway and garage area you have.

First you plunk an old APL storage container along the back of your property line, cut it in half, connect it in an “L” shape, add windows, and turn it into an office/storage shed that you can run your firm out of. Then, once you’ve moved all of your crap out of the garage into there, you doze the garage, rip up the driveway, and somehow shoehorn a long, narrow, boat-shaped 2-story ultra-modern house next to your old bungalow. (PDF Map of the property)

You move in and separate the old house off with a fence, but do you run that fence down the middle of the property all the way to the back bisecting the lot in two? No, of course not. You want the large backyard for yourself. So you leave just enough room behind the old bungalow to lay down some finely manicured gravel and squeeze in an outdoor table and chairs. Then you put up a low fence with lots of gaps between the slats to provide little or no privacy such that now the view through the nearly floor-to-ceiling windows in the bungalow’s back bedroom is of your plush backyard, hammock, and office/storage shed that you go in and out of all the time as you run your firm out of it.

Now that no one with children or dogs will want to move into the bungalow or anyone with any interest in gardening, you know that your new neighbors will never spend much time outside annoying you. Hopefully someone with xerderma pigmentosum who will keep the blinds drawn all the time to keep out the large amounts of light or an exhibitionist couple who will keep the blinds open all the time and satisfy your voyeuristic addiction will move in, depending on your predilections. Just as long as they never look out the windows that face your property and see into your living room, kitchen, or second story bathroom shower, unless you like being watched.

Then, rather then rent out the bungalow, you cleverly have the two units declared “condos” without any HOA fees (because you were smart enough to keep all the utilities separate) and try to sell the bungalow for $500k.

I’ve just never seen someone do so many things right and then do so many things wrong. All they needed to do was give up another 6-10 feet of their backyard, just enough for a strip of grass or a garden, put in a better fence and some landscaping to block the view of the rest of the backyard and their architecture firm, and they could have sold it for so much more money. As it is, why would anyone want to spend half a million dollars to feel like they're living on someone else’s property? Which essentially, they would be? Who wants to feel like a renter in the house that they own?

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In 1789, the governor of Australia granted land and some animals to James Ruse in an experiment to see how long it would take him to support himself. Within 15 months he had become self sufficient. The area is still known as Experiment Farm. This is my Experiment Farm to see how long it will take me to support myself by writing.