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Learning, Sharing, and Teaching => Ask a Mustachian => Topic started by: mrF on May 30, 2014, 11:30:12 PM

Title: How to avoid the albatross?
Post by: mrF on May 30, 2014, 11:30:12 PM
Greetings, all.

I recently (as in last week) purchased my first home.  I thought I had done a lot of due diligence ahead of time (researching prices, having #s to estimate any work that would need to be done, etc..), and I picked up a place that was $300 less per month than my rent would have been for the upcoming year.  My already low 18% housing costs dropped down to 10%.  Go me.  :-)

I felt good about this, as the place was old and a bit dated but in what looked like good shape.   Some sweat equity opportunities seemed to be right in front of me. 

Now that I'm in there, I'm wondering if I made a mistake:

At this point, I'm feeling more anxious than pleased.  While I see some potential in this place, I made the decision to buy with a certain kind of financial calculus in mind: buy low, put in the sweat and time, and hopefully profit a little bit.  Now, I'm concerned that not only might I not profit, but that I'm going to have an asbestos-covered albatross to deal with. 

I'm sure others on here have gotten into similar binds.   How do you deal with the stress, or the sense of disappointment that a plan or idea may not work out as well as you expected it to? 

One thing I find myself thinking about is that this is distracting me at work and making me less effective.   I can buy this house because I've changed careers and have a job that pays me a decent wage: maybe being okay with letting the money flow out will help me to earn more in the long run?

Not being so emotionally focused on money would be a very attractive place for me to be.. if I can only figure out how to get there.
Title: Re: How to avoid the albatross?
Post by: worms on May 31, 2014, 02:48:57 AM
All property issues can be sorted, with time, money or sweat.  The most important thing is don't rush into making expensive mistakes - live with the problems for a bit and an alternative way of skinning the cat often turns up.

You also need to learn more about the psychology of change.  Read some of the Change Management resources on the web.  You have been through a big change, and it is absolutely normal for enthusiasts for change to go through a period of depression that the benefits of the change were not as great as their idealised image had made them.  Understand the psychology and you will understand the tricks that your head is playing on you.

Relax and enjoy those reduced costs!
Title: Re: How to avoid the albatross?
Post by: deborah on May 31, 2014, 03:24:31 AM
You sound like you have started with a bang.

When I got my first house it was a dump. I wanted to be safe, so I got it rewired (the wiring was old, had been done illegally and could have caused fires). But that was all I did at first. Then I waited until I had a bit of money, and did one room at a time. I figured we could easily live with one less room, and I could usually close the door on the room I was working on, and the rest of the place was livable. This meant that there wasn't a constant mess driving me mad, and making me depressed.

When I was retrenched I did the bathroom, because I didn't think I could face being unemployed and having such a terrible bathroom. Everything did get done. It took years, a bit at a time. It was a marvelous house when we had finished. It was better than it would have been if we had rushed and done everything when I bought it - I did things after I knew the house properly. And I only did another part when I had the money for it. I would still be living there today if I hadn't had health problems, and needed to move.

I recommend fixing the things that are unsafe, and then relaxing, getting to know your place, and thinking about it. Wait until you are certain about what you want to do with the area you are fixing up. That way you avoid mistakes, and end up with something that really suits you.

Title: Re: How to avoid the albatross?
Post by: Gray Matter on May 31, 2014, 04:41:47 AM
You've already gotten good advice, but I'll chime in anyway.  We went through something similar with our current house.  When we bought the place, all I saw was the charm.  After we moved in, all I could see was everything that needed to be done.  Everywhere my eye landed, something needed to be repainted, repaired, or replaced.  We weren't frugal back then and we had really stretched to buy the house (near the peak of the market), so I was worried about money as well (which is sounds like you are, too, but for different reasons).

We also had a lead paint issue, which only occurred to me in the middle of the night when I bolted upright and thought, "I wonder if all this construction dust we've been breathing for two months has lead in it?"  Sure enough.  I was beside myself, because I had a two-year-old and was seven months pregnant at the time.  I had to move out with the kid(s) for 10 days while the entire place was cleaned by pros--more money we hadn't planned on spending.

It was completely overwhelming (and that's an understatement). 

Definitely focus on the things that are unsafe first, but I would also consider doing just one thing that is really bothering you every time you see it, walk through it, or use it.  Then settle in.  You really stop seeing all that's wrong with it after a short period of time.  It also helps for me to think of my house as a home, not an investment, but that's just me and I know you went into this with a different mindset.

We've been here 10 years and have done a lot of work during that time, but there is a lot more to be done.  I still get overwhelmed at times when I think of the work that remains, but I remind myself one step at a time--the house has stood for 127 years; it's not going to fall down today if we don't get to everything immediately.

The other thing that helps, though it's probably not a Mustachian mindset, is that I think of myself as a steward of this house.  I love old houses, and feel sad when they fall into disrepair or are remodeled with no sensitivity to their history/architecture, or even worse, when they're razed so a McMansion can be built on a city lot (just wrong!).  So every time we fix something or bring something back to life, i feel good about helping the old girl.
Title: Re: How to avoid the albatross?
Post by: forestbound on May 31, 2014, 07:50:30 AM
I recommend fixing the things that are unsafe, and then relaxing, getting to know your place, and thinking about it. Wait until you are certain about what you want to do with the area you are fixing up. That way you avoid mistakes, and end up with something that really suits you.

I bought a place that was essentially a gut job. Take a deep breath and take your time. There is no schedule except the one you make. I did wiring first as well. My house was never updated, and it was built in 1912, with cloth wiring which can easily catch fire. DO THIS FIRST! Then really think through the bathroom, one thing at a time. One of the most impressive redos was the floor, which once the wood floors were redone, I feel like I was home. (Electrical updates aren't as exciting!)
Title: Re: How to avoid the albatross?
Post by: chasesfish on May 31, 2014, 08:43:36 AM
Yes - I'm three months into a similar situation on a 1949 house.  I have many of the same issues and went through the floor replacement that had a slight amount of asbestos.

Fix the things that are unsafe and fix the things that are important to you.  Value should come with time, but when its your home you care about different things than a straight investor. 

Thats my 2 cents for what its worth.
Title: Re: How to avoid the albatross?
Post by: mrF on May 31, 2014, 11:15:04 AM
First, my acknowledgement and thanks to you all for your suggestions and constructive support.   I appreciate the can-do and positive attitude towards these potential obstacles that I see on this forum, and it's part of what compelled me to put this up here.

It's definitely the truth that I do struggle sometimes with this kind of change.   I have been thinking about owning a place for years, and in my mind I had a certain expectation of the work and kinds of effort I would be putting into it.  As things have come to pass, I'm recognizing a certain sense of disappointment and letdown around the fact that my expectations don't line up with reality at this moment.   That's okay, but there's definitely an emotional response that I have to work with to really accept.  These life changing events become a flash point for the anxiety I carry around with me from day to day.  I have to learn to recognize that and keep my brain in order.

Thinking about this from another angle, I'm very fortunate to be in the position that I am of being able to buy a place.  I'm fortunate to actually have the cash on hand to deal with these problems.   My 20s were spent toiling in a profession where I was earning very little and constantly struggling with anxiety and burnout - my anxiety level was so high that I even passed out on a couple occasions.   I'm now in a different career where I earn a decent income, feel generally competent at my work, and am valued as a contributor for both my skills and insight.   This is what has even put me in a position to be able to buy a place, and long after the scarier issues are resolved, I'll still be earning a decent income and hopefully have a nice place as well.

Going into this, I chose the place I did because it seemed like a well-enough maintained property: old, but in decent shape.   I was willing to spend more on a house, but wanted one I could make my own.   This one (at 100K) is significantly less than I was ready to spend.  My hope was to put in around 15K, live here for a few years, and then either sell or rent it as I moved towards something that I liked even better (my tastes run modern).    After speaking with a chimney sweep today, it's seeming more and more like 15K is a pipe-dream.   In addition to finding out the gas inserts upstairs contain asbestos, it turns out the furnace flue is unlined.   I'm looking at 2-2.5K to handle the four fireplaces and line the flue. 

I appreciate everyone's advice to deal with the safety issues first: no repair bill is going to be as bad as a health issue or attorney's fees.   I am in agreement with you all on this, and just need to figure out how to prioritize those: the asbestos tile is basically good shape, and could be covered up.  Removal probably wouldn't even be financially onerous.   I'm less confident about the plaster issue - I can't imagine every house that has asbestos in the plaster gets abated and replaced walls?    I'd guess that the 1920s art-deco building I lived in down in florida had asbestos, as did the 1930s townhouse I rented, as does the 1950s apartment complex I currently live in.   

I have partial knob and tube wiring, and partial romex.   The panel is a fuse box.   The electrician I met with yesterday said that he would suggest leaving the K+T in place, as there's no insulation covering it and it's only powering the lights.  Another electrician suggested I that using LEDs would further reduce the issue as they would place less draw on the circuits.   All agree that the outlets in the kitchen and bath really need to be switched out to GFCI.

The lead paint issue is a concern, but I'm confident that with good protection (purple filters, booties, lots of plastic, that soy-based stripper) I can mitigate where necessary.  Most has been covered up already and the windows were replaced so it's not an issue there.  Mainly the closets and doors need some attention, as they are either uncovered or some abrasion is happening.

I suppose really the question is what do I need to do to make this a safe place to live, and then how to prioritize getting those things taken care of.   After that, I can begin to make some improvements along the way (and hopefully not feel like I'm endangering myself and anyone who comes to visit me).   

I'm fortunate to be in a position where I can afford to do this without feeling like I'm going to go broke.  I have ~8K in cash that I can comfortably spend on this (I want to make sure I have at least 20K for a real emergency), and then another 15-17K in stocks I was originally planning to liquidate when I was looking at buying a more expensive property (I have more stocks than that, but I don't want to end up house-poor!).   I'm also fortunate to have a resource like this forum, with creative and positive-minded folks who think outside the box and have some experience in these matters. 

Title: Re: How to avoid the albatross?
Post by: Greg on May 31, 2014, 12:18:32 PM
Asbestos in the plaster walls won't harm you unless you sand, scrape, chip or otherwise turn it into dust.  So be careful when cutting any holes for outlets etc.  Otherwise just leave it intact.  Fresh paint if you're worried.

The same applies to lead paint.  If it's undisturbed and you don't have kids chewing or gumming it, it's not going to harm you.  Areas of wear should be resealed. 
Title: Re: How to avoid the albatross?
Post by: Argyle on May 31, 2014, 05:22:20 PM
Also -- maybe the place is okay without a walk-in shower?

Those small walk-in showers are kind of outdated now anyway.  The big trend right now is huger walk-in showers without a door.  That requires a big bathroom.  But maybe you can just shower in the tub as usual.  That technique has worked for decades.  I know it's cool to have the latest bathroom luxuries.  But maybe they're not a good ROI -- maybe they're the equivalent of buying a new SUV.  Maybe better to keep the economic used Toyota, or its bathroom equivalent, instead.
Title: Re: How to avoid the albatross?
Post by: Thegoblinchief on May 31, 2014, 07:38:14 PM
Only do what you can afford, and remember that unless you DIY, the absolute best you will do is a negative 20% ROI. Most remodels are closer to negative 50%.

When it comes to radically altering a layout, I find it helpful to relabel walls/cabinets with obscene amounts of sticky notes or index cards and leave it for a few months. Take your time and make sure that the change is actually going to improve workflow/feng shui/whatever.
Title: Re: How to avoid the albatross?
Post by: mrF on June 01, 2014, 11:35:11 AM
My continued appreciation for all of your contributions on this thread.  :-)

Greg - I think that what you say is probably true - as long as I don't go ripping into it too much, it's probably not going to be a huge issue.  I'm sure that there are ways to contain the damage if I need to hang cabinets/shelves (I have a great shop-vac w/ a hepa setup) or my headboard.

As a kid, I actually got paid one time to scrape up what was probably asbestos containing mastic off a floor with a heat gun.   I also knocked down a couple walls and no-one ever tested them.    I suspect that the health risk is limited, especially now with the hepa vacs and p100 respirators, other precautions.   

That said, I am concerned about what to do with the ceiling in this place.  I'm going to take a test of one, but my assumption is that they are all the same plasterboard material.  Most are covered by pretty nasty dropped ceilings, so I want to get rid of the dropped ceiling but need to figure out what to do with what's about it.   It seems like furring strips + drywall might be the most efficient way to cover things, and might provide some opportunities to run wire that might otherwise not be run.   If I can somehow have the abatement (if necessary) become an opportunity to ditch the rest of the knob and tube, I'd be okay with that.  ;-)

GoblinChief-  My hope is to DIY basically as much as possible.  But I draw the line with the asbestos containing materials.   I'm just not that into demo, and I don't think I work clean enough to do it right.

Otherwise, my plan is/was to handle most of these tasks myself and hopefully I still will be.   I'm fortunate to have a girlfriend who enjoys projects as much as I do, and who is willing to pitch in just for the experience.   

Argyle - I'm inclined to agree with you.   Replacing the vanity/sink/toilet would be much less of an undertaking than redoing the whole shebang, and probably would have about as much impact on the appearance of the place.   I do care about ROI, as I don't intend to live here toooo long.

Astatine - thank you for sharing your experience with me.  It is helpful to know others have gone through this and are doing okay.  I'm fairly handy, but my talents are in making things and putting things together, not controlling dust/waste.  It's odd, because in my day-to-day life, I'm very lax about cleaning.   Right now, I'm definitely a bit over-fixated on it at the other place.

I'm sure I'll have more questions later, but right now I'm off to go try and clean up mysterious gunk off the oak floors in the living room and dining room (it doesn't seem to be mold per se..  no odor, just gunky).   

Title: Re: How to avoid the albatross?
Post by: Argyle on June 01, 2014, 01:36:13 PM
Just because you may have scraped some asbestos as a kid and are still alive doesn't mean the health risks are minimal.  Here's some further info on risk factors:

"1. The amount and duration of exposure - the more you are exposed to asbestos and the more fibers that enter your body, the more likely you are to develop asbestos related problems. While there is no "safe level" of asbestos exposure, people who are exposed more frequently over a long period of time are more at risk. ...
3. Age - cases of mesothelioma have occurred in the children of asbestos workers whose only exposures were from the dust brought home on the clothing of family members who worked with asbestos. The younger people are when they inhale asbestos, the more likely they are to develop mesothelioma. This is why enormous efforts are being made to prevent school children from being exposed.

Because each exposure to asbestos increases the body burden of asbestos fibers, it is very important to reduce and minimize your exposure."

Note that the risks of asbestos -- asbestosis ("There is no effective treatment for asbestosis; the disease is usually disabling or fatal"), lung cancer, and mesothelioma -- take years to develop.  The fact that you haven't developed them yet doesn't mean that you had no risky exposure.  "The symptoms of these diseases do not usually appear until about 20 to 30 years after the first exposure to asbestos." (

And note that they are more likely to develop if you expose yourself to further asbestos.

I wouldn't mess with it myself.  I would get professional remediation.  If that's not persuasive, note that if people who buy your house later on develop asbestos-related diseases, they might sue you for inaccuately reporting the asbestos safety of the home.  But that's not my primary concern -- my primary concern is that you don't mess with asbestos for your own health.
Title: Re: How to avoid the albatross?
Post by: CommonCents on June 01, 2014, 02:27:30 PM
Also, to emphasize the asbestos issues, I worked two summers for a law firm, drafting medical statements on people with asbestos related diseases, including mesothelioma and cancer.  Mesothelioma is particularly nasty, fast moving disease, where people die in about 9 months from my recollection.  You don't want to mess with it.
Title: Re: How to avoid the albatross?
Post by: mrF on June 01, 2014, 02:53:51 PM
Thanks for your concerns and comments, Argyle and CommonCents.

Just to clarify, I'm not suggesting I would DIY any asbestos removal.  Just the complexity of the disposal piece of it is not a place I want to be investing my time and energy.  I might be confident to remove some shoe molding with lead paint on it, as the RRP rules seem much less complex than the abatement rules.

I might consider the floors, but I think I'd sleep better knowing it was handled professionally once and for all.   I'm saying that I don't think hanging a shelf poses a major health/exposure risk.   At least, I hope it doesn't.

As much I would like to be a jack of all trades, I know that my experience with this kind of stuff is extremely limited - the result of apartment living for the past 15 years.   I'm hopeful to learn and figure things out as I go, but I'm not 100% certain it's always going to be best to DIY.

Title: Re: How to avoid the albatross?
Post by: NewStachian on June 01, 2014, 03:07:52 PM
It sounds to me like you got a great deal on your house, but at the end of the day you get what you pay for. Keep prioritizing and knock things off 1-by-1. DIY where you're comfortable and find yourself some good contractors that come recommended for the rest. In the long run, if you DIY where you can, you'll probably come out on top.

Some things to keep in mind: If your mortgage payment is $300 less per month, you also have to factor in the home mortgage deduction you're getting and the fact that about 1/3 of your mortgage is just a direct transfer to an asset. So, if you factor that in, you're probably netting a lot more a month than renting. Put that money toward your renovation fund and rationalize it that way.
Title: Re: How to avoid the albatross?
Post by: mrF on June 03, 2014, 11:40:58 AM
thanks, newstachian.  you raise some good points.

the past few days have been slow: this back injury is definitely preventing me from making as much progress as I would like.  I've net with a couple of chimney sweeps and fireplace guys, each of whom has their own opinion about what work I need to get done.   one thought I need to line the flue (from the furnace exhaust) but two didn't think it was very important.

spoke with asbestos guy and he told me that  unless I'm doing demo, that he wouldn't be very concerned with the plaster.  apparently what is a concern are the two old Taylor burners in two of the fireplaces.  so, I may need to get that handled, but its not nearly as overwhelming.