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.


How I spent my tax refund

My house was constructed in the early 1950s. It’s an updated type of Chicago bungalow called an English Tudor, and while it looks pretty small on the outside it’s really quite big on the inside. On the first floor I have a small entry foyer, a large living room, a large dining room, a medium-sized kitchen, a full bathroom, and two bedrooms: a small one, and a medium-sized one. The first floor is where I’ve been living and sleeping since the fall of 2009.

Before that, my ex-husband and I slept in a very large bedroom on the second floor. This was one of the bedrooms I began renting out after the divorce to bring in extra income. The second floor of the house also has a full bathroom that we had updated in 2005, a smaller bedroom with a walk out porch, and a lot of built-in storage and closets. The smaller bedroom had been “decoratively painted” by the previous owners of the house at some point. (I also rented this bedroom out and the two different guys who lived there over two years didn’t seem to mind that the room had a flower stenciled on the closet door.)  Other than that bathroom update in 2005, however, the upstairs has remained untouched since I first moved into this house in 2001.

Since I was divorced in 2009 and took over sole ownership of the house, I’ve used my tax refunds to do some sort of work on the house every year. In 2009 it was a kitchen remodel, in 2010 it was outdoor stuff (tree trimming and landscaping updates), and in 2011 it was a bunch of external/internal maintenance things (spot tuck pointing, internal wall repairs, as well as sewer rodding and cache basin cleaning). With this year’s tax refund, I decided to freshen up the second floor with new floor coverings, paint, and light fixtures. I also had the stairwell connecting all the floors in the house freshened up, too, with new carpeting and paint.


Small bedroom before remodel

Smaller bedroom before remodeling. Note the “decorative paint” and the stained carpet. The first tenant messed the carpet up, but it wasn’t very pretty from the start.


Smaller bedroom after remodel

Fresh paint, new laminate floor, and new light fixture.

Isn’t it amazing what some paint can do for a room? And here’s the real “after” on this room, now that B has it set up as his studio.

Guitar row in the studio

Guitar row in the studio.

Production space

Production space for editing/mixing videos and music.

The big bedroom presented a few challenges. There is some infrastructure in the room for the first floor heating (why they put radiant heat in the ceilings during the 1950s and not the floors is beyond me!) and the cooling system (a high velocity A/C system installed back in 2003). Before the refresh, this room had two small, built-in desks in the corners. One of the desks covered the heating pipes, while the other was there just for balance, I guess. The desks were installed in December 1967. I know this because one of them was dated and signed by the builder/original owner of the house, a contractor by the name of John H. Neil.

How do I know that was his name? He put his name up in lots of places in the house. Like this one at the top of the stairwell.

Top stair landing

John Neil (J.H. Neil) painted his initials on the wall before adhering paneling.

Before, top floor landing

The same location with paneling and old carpet still in place.

Despite his proclivity to slap his name on everything, I have nothing but fondness for John Neil. He built a solid house and raised five daughters here. The poor guy must have been frequently hounded to put the seat down. Maybe that’s why he put a bathroom on every floor of the house.

Anyway, back to the big 2012 remodel.


Big bedroom

The big bedroom at the front of the house. Built in shelves at right are actually re-purposed doors.

One of the built-in desks, added in 1967. This one covered the return line for the radiant heat. The silver “tubes” are A/C ducts for the first floor.

Big bedroom ceiling

The ceiling in this bedroom is full of odd angles because it follows the peaked roof line. The dark stained wood accents were there when I moved in.


Big bedroom updated

Same room, different look. The shelves were removed to allow for more flexibility.

Uncovered mechanicals

I have to figure out a way to cover the pipes while still having them accessible for maintenance.

Big bedroom ceiling

The dark wood was primed and painted to match the rest of the walls and the light fixture was updated.

I still don’t know what to do about that heating/cooling infrastructure that sits in a corner of the big bedroom, but I’ve used up this year’s tax refund (plus a bit more) and I don’t want to spend anything on custom cabinetry at this point. I’ll figure something out. [BTW, the wall colors of both bedrooms are exactly the same. The big bedroom looks more yellow in some of the photos, but I think this is because of the way the light changes throughout the day.]

Oh, and that stairwell area signed by J.H. Neil? After the update it looked like this.

Stairwell after remodel

Stairwell after new carpet and paint. Touch up needed on the stringers, as they got a bit messed up from carpet install.

Total cost of this refresh has cost $8,122 to date, and I’m still not completely done. That ended up being about $1,000 more than my combined state and federal tax refund this year. The hallway connecting the two bedrooms still needs to be painted, but I can do that myself. I just wouldn’t have been able to prep and paint the big bedroom and stairwell, with the soaring ceilings and crazy angles. Nor could I be sure to replace all the flooring with such skill. (Really, zoom in on that shot of the flooring placement around those mechanicals in the big bedroom. Those flooring guys did amazing work!) So I feel like this was money well spent. The hallway connecting the two bedrooms still needs to be painted, but that’s something I can do myself. I’ll need to pick up some more paint, so there will be a bit more cost involved besides my time, too.

To view a slide show of all the before, during, and after photos I took, go here.

So what do you think? Does it look good? If you have any ideas for how to cover those pipes in the big bedroom, be sure to leave a comment! I’m thinking of fixing up that big bedroom like a hotel suite and renting it out through Airbnb; if you have any ideas on that, I welcome them, too.