The housing update

I’ve been in my house for just over eight months now, and have been living with a housemate for nearly five months. Overall, my housing situation is satisfactory and I’ve felt like I’ve made good decisions in both purchasing a house rather than continuing to rent, and taking on a housemate to increase my income.

While I had some trepidation about sharing a bathroom with a housemate, it’s worked out well. I had thought it most likely I’d be sharing my house with another woman, but the first confirmed booking I got was a young man just starting his first professional job. I think sharing a bathroom with a man is actually easier since they tend to do less fussing while getting ready.

Since I rent a fully furnished place, that means he has full use of my kitchen equipment (pots, pans, plates, cutlery, small appliances, etc.) and he’s been very good about not breaking things. He’s good about cleaning up after himself in the kitchen and bathroom, and our work schedules are complementary so there’s no problem with disturbing each other coming and going. I do the regular housecleaning myself (with the exception of his room), but he pitches in on things like rolling the trash cans to the curb and has helped me move some furniture when asked.

Although the reservation is through mid-April, he’s found an apartment that will work for him and I’m going to let him out of it early. He’s been a great person to live with and I wish him success. Last night he introduced me to one of his colleagues who is interested in finding a better place to live and we toured the house and generally eyed each other up. She seems like a nice young woman, but even if she doesn’t move in, I’m sure I’ll have no problem finding another short-term renter.

There are some downsides to renting out my second bedroom. I think the biggest one is that I have no room to host friends who are visiting the area. Last weekend my San Francisco friends were in town for the marathon, and I was regretful that I couldn’t offer them a place to stay. If or when I have any of my Chicago friends visit, I can only offer an air mattress on the living room floor as accommodation.

The only other issue I’ve run into with having a housemate is the occasional struggle with juggling the bathroom schedule. That happens pretty rarely, though. I just had gotten spoiled living in a house with three bathrooms for so many years.

The extra income has cushioned the impact of my higher housing costs and allowed me to painlessly afford the higher veterinary costs for my aging dog, as well as enjoy some luxuries such as a meal kit delivery service, and restaurant meals a few times a month. It’s also slightly softened the blow of having to buy new clothing to fit my expanding body size; I may be unhappy about the weight, but at least I don’t have the additional challenge of figuring out how to rebuild a professional wardrobe on a tiny budget.

Some of the extra income has been used to defray house repair and maintenance costs, too. While this house was well cared-for and in very good shape, it’s expected that some things will need fixing now and then.

In December I had to replace the control panel on the heating/cooling system. For some reason, it just started smoldering. My clue was the scent of burning plastic wafting through the heating ducts. With labor and shipping, it cost just under $800 to replace what looked like a pretty simple circuit board. I also replaced the laundry sink in the garage. The original, cast iron sink is very cool, but the capacity was too small for a load of laundry using the highest water setting. The plumber had looked at it back in July and said it wasn’t possible to increase the size of the drain pipe from 1.5-inch to 2-inch (the current standard) without trenching into the concrete garage floor. My only option for being able to run a load of laundry larger than a medium was to get a laundry sink with a larger capacity. (I’m saving the small cast iron sink for a garden sink; I understand it’s very valuable.)

Other maintenance/improvement expenses so far have been limited to some small handyman jobs like replacing the noisy ventilation fan in the bathroom with a quiet, properly vented one, and lawn and yard care. I don’t have a lawn mower and this house has quite a bit of lawn right now. I’d like to change that, but for now it’s less of a hassle to pay someone to do the grass cutting, edging, pruning, and fall leaf clean up than to invest in the cost of equipment and upkeep. (Not to mention the time I’d need to spend on cutting the lawn and cleaning up the leaves from several trees every year.)

I have some larger house expenses coming up this year. The trees in the back yard desperately need pruning, and I think one of them needs to come down. I had priced this work out last August, but never got it done. Now that the winter rains have slowed way down I think it’s time to get schedule that job before the tree starts putting out a lot of leaves.

The heavy rains this winter have also exposed the need for some more costly work. There is a drainage issue on this property and it could lead to more serious issues with the house. This past winter we went through periods of non-stop rain for up to 5 days at a time, with rainfalls averaging at least 2 inches a day. The soil on which the house sits is very heavy clay which absorbs water slowly. Despite using long extensions on my downspouts to direct water well away from the foundation, there will always be some rain that falls outside the gutters and saturates the soil near the house. With such heavy rain and soil that resists quick absorption, I had standing water next to the foundation in some areas. One particularly low spot accumulated so much water that it nearly reached the ventilation opening into the crawl space. The concrete pad on which the heating and air conditioning unit sits was also nearly flooded.

The lawn maintenance guy helped clear out a trench that ran to the year of the yard and seemed to be meant for channeling rain run off. I then dug a mini-canal along the side of the house where the water was pooling to connect with this trench. That helped avert disaster, at least.

I was too anxious to open up the access hatch to the crawl space to see if there was any seepage. My crawl space has a dirt floor and is very low and tight. The soil composition is almost certainly the same as the yard — heavy clay — and I noticed that the inspectors and electrician had quite a bit of damp soil clinging to them when they had to crawl under the house to work last July. I also noticed that even in the summer the house always felt sort of damp, despite this area not being known for humid summers. These are all indications that the drainage and dampness issues didn’t just occur because of an unusually wet winter.

The most likely scenario is that I’ll need to have french drains and a sump pump installed to keep water away from the foundation next winter, and to help keep the soil the house sits on more dry. I’ve been running a dehumidifier pretty much constantly for about a month and it’s amazing how much moisture has been extracted from the air, and how much more comfortable the house has been. During a rainy day I need to empty the dehumidifier twice a day; now that we’ve had no rain for a week I’ve only had to empty it about once every 30 hours. That still seems like a lot of moisture for a little 1100 sq ft house, especially when we’re very good about running the ventilation fan in the bathroom and over the range when cooking.

With a big project like this approaching, the extra income from renting the second bedroom takes on more importance. Just knowing that money will be regularly coming in gives me confidence that I can afford to maintain and improve the house and property without a lot of financial stress. I have other plans that aren’t cheap, too: adding some storage solutions to the garage, getting a new washer and dryer, putting in some xeriscaping and vegetable beds, and adding a closet organizer to my closet, among other things. There’s always something to do around a house.

With all these expenses, I still don’t regret buying a house instead of continuing to rent. It’s likely that I won’t be able to claim the passive loss from renting out 50% of the house this year since my income has increased in the past few years (yay!?), but the mortgage and property tax deductions are still a big help. My mortgage payment alone (principle + interest) is the same as I was paying in rent. And, these expenses will be fixed for the next 29 years; renting can’t guarantee that benefit.

Of the “extra costs” associated with owning — property taxes and maintenance — at least one is tax deductible and reduces my tax load. Using this tax savings calculator, my tax savings in 2016 will be over $5,000, and my after tax rate for my mortgage is just under 2.5 %. (Hat tip to Grumpy Rumblings blog for the link to that calculator!)

Even without the tax advantages, it seems like I’m getting a pretty good deal for a place roughly 300 sq ft larger, a better kitchen, covered parking (if I can just get the storage situation sorted out, that is), and a much bigger yard for the enjoyment of me and my four-legged friend. Bay Area real estate is crazy expensive, but as long as the market doesn’t plunge, I’ll be doing OK.

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The eye update

It’s been a while since I’ve written about my right eye. I just saw the local ophthalmologist yesterday for a work up, so now seems like a good time to do it. After seeing the doc I felt like I needed a big warm hug, which is a clue to me that my brain is trying to process through the possibilities we discussed. Writing usually helps me with the process, so here goes.

Way back when I was first diagnosed with I.C.E. Syndrome in October 2015, I thought I would need to have eye surgery within just a few months. In my usual, efficient mind-set, I was thinking I could just slot it in while I was recovering from my hysterectomy in December 2015 and not have to take any additional time off than the 6 weeks I was already scheduled to be out on short-term disability.

That didn’t happen, and in hind sight it was a good thing for several reasons. While it took me many months to adjust to the challenges caused by the corneal swelling and to find a medical regime that worked to keep my intraocular pressure (IOP) in the target range, I probably couldn’t have dealt with another health issue at the time. As it turned out, it was better for me to focus on getting my hormone replacement right, and to deal with the gut issues that kept taking me out of commission.

In the intervening time, I’ve been (mostly) quietly dealing with the progression of this eye disease. There are two doctors involved in my treatment: a local ophthalmologist, and another one in San Francisco who is a glaucoma specialist. The local eye doc is wonderful and can medically manage my condition; the specialist is primarily a surgeon and gets final say on when I’m at a point where surgical intervention is necessary, and which surgical procedure would be best for me.

Once I got the all-clear from the local eye doc, I had an optometry exam and got a new prescription and progressive eyeglasses. That’s helped a bit. One of my challenges, however, can’t be helped by eye gear very much.

My pupil is distorted in my right eye and can’t adjust as much as needed to changing light conditions. This means that moving from darker to lighter environments (or vice versa) is uncomfortable for me. Anytime I’m in brighter light conditions, I feel like my eye is being bombarded with light. (Because it is.) If you’ve ever walked into bright sunlight after being in a dark movie theater and had that “white blindness” feeling, that’s close to what I experience when I move from a dim indoors to outdoors, even on gloomy days. I got the types of lenses that darken in the sun in my eyeglasses, but that can’t take the place of a pupil that can properly dilate. Moving in the opposite direction (light to dark) has its own set of complications.

Cosmetically, the pupil distortion is visible, too, so I sometimes refer to my right eye somewhat jokingly as my “goat eye.” Not all people with I.C.E. Syndrome have visible changes in their iris, but the type of disease I have (Cogan-Reese) does have that result. The iris in my right eye looks darker and more blotchy. I have one dark brown spot in it, which my local eye doc says is actually not eye pigment, but is the actual muscle in my eye; the iris pigment has been completely worn away in that area.

I’m currently on three different eye drops (actually, it’s four meds since one drop is two medications combined in one) and my local eye doc tells me that I’m nearly at the end of the medical management options currently available. I’m going to try using one of the drops three times a day instead of twice a day to see if it reduces the IOP a bit, but that’s the absolute last option open to me medically. None of these meds are cheap, and it’s my bad luck the one he’s suggesting I increase to three times a day is the one that is the most expensive. It was $92 to refill it last time, and that’s with my insurance coverage. Yikes! (Yes, I did ask about a generic option and there is one, so I may start experimenting with it when my next refill is due.)

I had a thorough work up yesterday, including a visual field test and imaging of the optic nerve in both eyes. I’ve had the same tests done in October 2015 and October 2016, so we now have a chart showing how well my vision has been over time. It’s not terrible, but it’s trending downwards. My glaucoma is progressing, and since I’m still “fairly young” (just a few months away from 50) the doctor’s goal is to slow the progression as much as possible. He defers to the glaucoma specialist on making the decision about when to have surgery, but when he sends his notes and the summary of my tests, my local eye doc is clearly going to be suggesting surgical intervention at this point.

The eye doc and I talked over a few other issues and ideas yesterday, too. I asked about other treatments that would get straight to the root of the issue: the abnormal endothelial cells on my cornea which are causing the drainage issues in my eye (and, therefore, the glaucoma). He allowed that while there are surgeries to replace the endothelium, that’s not something that he sees as an option for me, but he’d ask the glaucoma specialist to weigh in.

Another option that the glaucoma doc will need to advise me on is whether it may be worthwhile to try anti-viral medications. While there hasn’t been a lot of research into this disease due to it being rare, some studies have suggested that EBV or HSV may play a role. Local eye doc says these are viruses that are present in most people, however it may be that sampling the eye fluid for them and then treatment with an anti-viral medication is something I can ask the glaucoma doc about.

One more issue the local doc wants the glaucoma specialist to express an opinion on is whether I should start using some eye drops in my left eye, too. I don’t have I.C.E. syndrome in that eye, nor do I have issues with the drainage angles, but I am showing some peripheral vision loss in it. Earlier this year he explained to me that the”cup to disc ratio” in my left eye suggests I’m more likely to develop glaucoma as I age, and since I’m already slowly going blind in my right eye, preserving the vision in my left eye as much as possible is his goal.

I see the glaucoma specialist in about a month, so I’ll know more about next steps then. In the meantime, I’m doing my best to deal with all this info and that I’m likely facing yet another surgery this year. I medicated myself with pizza and wine last night, but I’m thinking that I may need to find a local therapist soon. I’ve been doing my best to remain positive and resilient through all the health issues I’ve faced in the past three years, but sometimes it’s necessary to find professional help.