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$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!


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