Skip to main content

$Monday: The Race to Keep a Roof Over Our Heads

The American Dream in 2020 is to not be homeless. This summer, up to 40 million of us are on the verge of losing our homes due to an inability to make rent or mortgage payments. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are already homeless, which is too many on a perfect day. During the pandemic, it has become suddenly impossible to safely house the usual, insufficient number of people in existing shelters while homelessness has become a much bigger public health crisis than it was before.

Most people who struggle to stay in their homes find somewhere else to go and don't experience true homelessness, at least not for long, but forcing people to bounce around among inadequate living situations has serious health and economic consequences. Putting down roots in a safe and healthy habitat is one of the most important determinants of future success.

This is always true, but during quarantines, personal space and privacy aren't luxuries so much as basic necessities. So do whatever you can do to obtain and maintain healthy, safe housing--apply for every source of financial help. Swallow your pride and accept charity. Take out loans if you can. Sell your stuff, hustle, learn to DIY, cut expenses, and get proactive about keeping that roof over your head. My husband and I have done all of the above. It hasn't been easy, but it has been worth it.

Two new opportunities that 2020 has brought include lower mortgage rates and some unexpected free time and money, for those of us fortunate enough to already own homes and still have jobs, to swap vacation plans for home improvement projects. For those of us in a good yet precarious position, it's time to invest in home projects that will not only add value to our real estate but also to our daily lives, while saving us money in the long term. Investments that lower our daily costs of living keep us more secure in our ability to cover future mortgage payments and home maintenance. 

Housing security makes everything else possible--health, productivity, and wealth. Having a solid foundation allows us to show up for others in our communities in a variety of valuable ways, helping to stabilize the fabric of society. Wins all around!

It makes the most financial sense to prioritize home projects in a logical order of most to least urgent. Exceptions can be made--for example, my family has decided to hold off on all non-emergency projects that require an outside worker to enter our home before we have a Coronavirus vaccine--but I have outlined some helpful guidelines for determining when to allocate resources to each item on the to-do list.

Your first priority should be taking care of cost-saving repairs and maintenance--think leaky pipes, broken windows, and roofing issues that will cost more and more money--or even create financial disasters from water damage--every moment that they are neglected. Get on top of that stuff immediately; waiting until it's an emergency almost always makes it more expensive. All homes need regular repair and maintenance, just like all motor vehicles. The cost of ownership includes the cost of maintenance, so make sure that is always in your budget. Whenever possible, leave your home better than ever after a repair. Replace materials and parts with better-quality things that are built to last longer or save on utility costs in the future.

A few years back, my family replaced the aging shingles on our roof before they had sprung a leak. It cost us a lot less to replace only the shingles rather than the whole roof, which was still perfectly good underneath. We were able to afford nice-looking, 30-year shingles that should last us until we're about retirement age. If we had waited for a roof leak, the job would have been far more expensive, even if we had opted for cheap shingles that would fail much sooner. Being proactive can save tens of thousands of dollars.

Your second priority should be making upgrades that immediately start saving money or generating value in your life in some other way. Cost-saving upgrades include improving your home's insulation and upgrading appliances to more energy-efficient models. Sometimes there are even rebates and other incentives for the up-front costs of purchasing newer, better things. 

My husband and I recently took advantage of a sale to upgrade our dishwasher and refrigerator to models that function better on only a small fraction of the electricity it took to run the old ones.

Years ago, we installed a wood stove in our downstairs fireplace to supplement home heating, cooking, and clothes drying during the colder months. We prefer using our natural gas-powered radiant heat system most of the time, because it doesn't require hard work and doesn't generate delightful-smelling-but-still-polluting wood smoke. However, we like building fires when storms are coming so that if and when the power goes out, we have a pleasing and romantic way to stay warm and cook meals rather than having to go without or use a generator. Old-fashioned, gasoline-powered generators are noisy, smelly, and incredibly expensive to run, and despite being awful, they are also popular targets for thieves. Even nicer, newer, natural-gas-powered, hardwired generators cost a lot more to run than our wood stove. 

This may not be true for everyone, but where we live, we never have to purchase fuel--it's always entirely free and abundant. Neighborhood trees are frequently trimmed or cut down by people who are happy to give us logs, and we live close to many wild areas where we can forage a virtually infinite supply of firewood. If you aren't sure about using wood heating, Pip Magazine offers a useful overview of how to choose and use wood heaters.

A wood stove can be a cost-saving solution in some households, or it can be a value-generating feature in terms of creating joy for those who like to use them. A value-generating upgrade can be anything that helps you to be more productive, healthy, or happy living in your home. This could mean making changes to your kitchen that allow you to more easily cook nutritious meals. Or it could mean creating a comfortable space to exercise, or fine-tuning the ergonomics of a home office. If you plan on staying in your home for at least a few more years, tailor your home improvements to your own household's needs, tastes, goals, and best habits.

Your third priority should be making those finishing touches that make your home feel special. If you plan on sheltering in place for the long haul, get personal, ignore trends, and feather your nest however it pleases the people and pets who live inside your home. If you like to entertain guests, think about the tastes and love languages of your favorite visitors to come up with ideas for welcoming decor and creature comforts that will turn your home into the ultimate hangout spot.

If you hope to sell your home in the near future, go in the opposite direction and shoot for an impersonal, neutral look that falls in line with the character of your house's architecture and neighborhood. Make your spaces shine with neat, tidy, simple design choices and finishes that look fresh and new but aren't too aesthetically or financially risky. Don't outspend the ceiling value of your home based on location and neighborhood comps, because you won't recoup the costs of overspending on what amounts to lipstick on a pig.

When my husband and I were house shopping, we came across some truly bizarre renovation choices, mostly involving fancy marble countertops in new kitchens that were perched atop crumbling foundations. What good is that high-end faucet if the whole house collapses into the earth and kills us all? Hard pass. Shoot for tidiness and cleanliness, but don't bother with anything more dazzling if top-priority issues have not been addressed first.

If you are ready to put your house on the market soon, give more attention to outside curb appeal than interior upgrades. Giving your home's front a cosmetic makeover is usually easier, cheaper, faster, and more effective at attracting potential buyers than making inside changes that nobody will see if they don't get past your shabby front door. In short, curb appeal has a higher return on investment than interior decoration.

When you take good care of your home, it takes good care of you. When you feel secure in your home, you have more mental and emotional energy, time, and money to spend on achieving your dreams and helping others along the way. Tend your own garden, as the saying goes, so that you can be a strong anchor in your community--and also throw some gorgeous dinner parties for your neighbors and loved ones when quarantines can safely end.

Have you completed any home improvements already this year? Feel free to post pictures and ideas in the comments!

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

35 Great Things About Turning 35

The prime of life starts at 35! It's the best-kept secret from younger people, but your 35th birthday is a major cause for celebration. For mine, I have made my own listicle of 35 reasons why experts agree that 35 is the best age to be: You get to say, "I'm 35." The number 35 carries so much more gravitas than 30, but you're only a few years older. At 34, I've started fudging my age--by adding a year. People automatically take me seriously, and if they don't, at least they tell me I look young for my age. (Eye roll, hair toss, "whatever.")    35-year-olds DGAF. Inner chill reaches new heights at 35. Despite its #2 status on this list, it's the #1 response I hear about what's best about hitting 35. My gorgeous friend Nerlie was beautiful and resilient and wise beyond her years in high school, but now, at age 35, she gets to fully enjoy being herself on her own terms. She writes,  "I've survived so much that I don't

$Monday: Corona Summer Self-Care

Nobody wants to hang out in a waiting room at the height of this pandemic summer. One of my friends just dodged an outbreak by procrastinating on having her cat's claws trimmed. Now everyone who's been to that vet during the past few days is supposed to do the two-week quarantine routine. Now on top of copays and the usual discomforts of obtaining care for our furry friends and our human selves, there's the risk of catching the cooties. Definitely go and get any treatments that you need, but it's great to not need as many office visits. I'm doing what I can do at home to take care of my own health and have all of my stupid, silly summer fun in relatively safe ways--like having a redneck pool party in the lawn with my daughter and husband. Here are some other ways I'm staying healthy, safe, and sane while maintaining social distancing and a spark of faith that my kid might somehow be able to go back to school next month: keeping active with silly st

$Monday: Bog Witch Style on a Budget

Autumn in a pandemic is the perfect time to tap into your inner bog witch with wild hair, cozy clothes, forest rituals, creepy cats, fire, books of spells, and Dark Cottagecore home decor mood boards on Pinterest . You don't have to live in a literal swamp. The word "bog" comes from a Gaelic term for "soft," and it sounds nearly identical to Slavic words for gods or divinity with Proto-Slavic roots that refer to earthly fortune. Bog witches burrow into the true goodness of life nestled beneath all the hustle and polish and show of making a living. They focus on soft wealth and spiritual power. The vibe is slow, earthy, comfy, moody, sneakily seductive, maybe sticky, wise rather than smart, preferring old things to new, charming rather than impressive. It's about harmonizing with the natural environment, blending, melting, enveloping, and sinking into earthy, downward energy. Bog witchery vibes with hygge, friluftsliv , and the indigenous earth wisdom of whe

TBT: Full House

Remember when co-housing, roommates, and multi-generational family homes were good ideas? Those living arrangements still have their advantages, but during a pandemic, it is much safer for individuals, romantic partners, and caregiver/dependent units to have their own spaces, amenities, and entrances. I miss the days when that wasn't so. I hope that one day soon, this pandemic will end, and the Great Recession-era post below will once again be relevant... at least for some people, at some times in their lives. I'm sure it is still relevant on well-governed, geographically isolated island nations such as New Zealand and Iceland. Oh, to be in one of those nations at this time! I sure do miss hanging out with my friends and having overnight guests, but in this very particular moment, I am grateful to live in a single-family home with only my husband and daughter and to enjoy the ability to stay put in it most of the time. I sure did not see an out-of-control pandemic coming

TBT: Fast-Forward Fashion

This blast from the past is funny, because my personal style and shopping habits have evolved quite a bit since my 20s--in fact, full circle to the advice in the first paragraph I wrote, which I went on to reject at the time. In my 20s, I enjoyed extremely silly fashion. I'd look at Vogue magazines and then imitate designer looks in ridiculous ways. I tried to anticipate near-future trends, which I nailed in the first picture here, where I've "put a bird on it" before the meme was born. Yus! ...But. Now that I am a fully fledged adult with a more relaxed budget, I hardly ever shop for clothes or accessories, not even at thrift shops, where I am now more afraid of picking up bugs. I still have a lot of clothes, but I rely heavily on swaps and hand-me-downs from friends and family. Occasionally I browse garage or church sales in communities I trust to sell clean garments. The world is now drowning in excess clothing, so it's easy to rake in quantities of barely-wo

$Monday: We Can Rise Above Death Cult Capitalism

Mmm, doesn't the smell of a bonfire make you feel punkin' spicy? Growing up, I internalized the United States cultural values of hard work as its own reward, high scores, and monetizing everything. From the age of 13, I scrounged for paltry wages (childcare, tutoring, arts and crafts sales, retail and food service and office temp jobs) while earning high grades at expensive private schools. I learned to feel guilty about "wasting" time relaxing without multi-tasking or enjoying a hobby with no intention of turning it into a hustle . I didn't have enough time to eat or sleep properly, and it made me sick and tired all the time. I was curious and drawn to new experiences, but I always felt ashamed of spending any time or resources pursuing an interest that offered no clear path to a paycheck or an award that would reflect a flattering glow upon my forebears. I had a healthy rebellious streak, but I learned to justify my transgressions with proofs of respectability a

$Monday: Testing a New Kitchen Design Before Renovation

My husband and I planned to renovate our worn-out kitchen this year, with my dad's help. And--oop!--we all know what happened to everyone's plans for 2020. There is no way I can keep my family fed properly through the pandemic in my designed-circa-1990, tacked-together, corner-cut, stingy-cheap, crazy, nailed-it-wrong kitchen nightmare that has been crumbling, grumbling, rotting, rusting, and breaking since we bought this house in 2008. We have to do something, so we turned a setback into an opportunity to slow down and beta test some of our new kitchen ideas with temporary staging. It might look insane, but who cares? We won't be having the queen over for tea anytime soon, so we can take time to play with space and function before we commit to building permanent structures and finishing surfaces. For example, open shelves are not practical for everyone. They don't hide clutter or protect things from dust. However, I spend a lot of time in the kitchen and prefer

$Monday: Can You Breathe?

You can't earn or save money if you can't even breathe. One reason why "it's expensive to be poor" is that people who live in lower-income neighborhoods don't get enough clean air to breathe . I've demonstrated that " You can't afford a poor diet ," and it's even more obvious that you can't give up oxygen to save money. Poor air quality destroys productivity , and the terrible costs of air pollution are mainly borne by the individuals who suffer health conditions, disability, cognitive impairment , and premature death due to their lack of access to clean air. Before the pandemic, air pollution caused mostly by fossil fuel burning was killing about 200,000 Americans a year , and now it is accelerating American Covid deaths by over 15% . Meanwhile, cries of "I can't breathe" draw our attention to escalating police brutality and our federal government militarizing Brownshirt-resembling forces against its own citizens who a

TBT: The Best Free Medicine (Hint: Not Hydroxyclean)

It's not Hydroxyclean. Or any kind of disinfectant. Or hydroxychloroquine. It's not anything hocked by our joke of a president. But it is jokes about that and anything else that makes you laugh instead of rage. Humor has become more important than ever to my family's mental and emotional health during this global crisis. My tastes may have matured (or... something) since my days of watching Sacha Baron Cohen movies--now I prefer watching YouTube shows Trixie and Katya Save the World (WOWPresents) and I Like to Watch (Netflix) and following @knee_deep_in_life on Instagram. My husband and I laugh so hard we cry over a well-timed fart joke. Our nine-year-old daughter is a bit more sophisticated, but she shares the dark side of our sense of humor; we all adore Christina Ricci's iconic portrayal of Wednesday Addams. The news is, as usual, full of horror that isn't funny. Right now, the two main themes seem to be pandemic tragedy and racist violence. My husband and

TBT: Buddhist Meditations

Zen meditations! Inspirational quotes! Sick burns! Buddhism offers them all. As many American college students do, I enjoyed studying and practicing Buddhist rituals in college. As a recovering Catholic from a weirdly fundamentalist, Germanic-ish family tradition, I found the "bells and smells" of Buddhist temples familiar in a comforting way and the anti-dogmatic edge of Zen exhilarating in a refreshing way. I learned that extreme prayer and self-control are not owned by Christians, nor is smug superiority. What valuable lessons for a young person to learn. So valuable, in fact, that in our late 30s, my husband and I are still paying the bills for our private college educations. Can you put a price on ancient wisdom? Is that a koan? In my earliest adulthood, I took solace in the meditations below. Please enjoy them here on the Magic Nutshell, free of charge. Buddhist Meditations The Buddha sought a middle path between asceticism and materialism. All over the world, people a