Fixing My House (or Maybe Not)

I was standing outside this morning, looking at my driveway, and it got me thinking about the nature of suburban property and the new realities we all face. My driveway, you see, needs to be replaced. It was resurfaced years ago with a thin layer of asphalt that was all the cheap bastard that owned the place before me would pay for. That layer is cracking off, the layer under it is dried out and fragmenting, and perhaps most critically the house has settled over thirty years and a portion of the apron near the garage now grades back toward the foundation. If you’re a homeowner, you know why that’s bad.

My house also needs new bay windows. Bay windows are a bad idea. Any boat builder will tell you that if you go to the trouble of building a watertight box, you ought to be very reticent about cutting big holes in it, and even more reluctant to hang cheaply-built wooden structures off of those holes. But that’s what bay windows are, and mine are rotting and need to be replaced. The list doesn’t end there. We need a new furnace, new windows, some interior drywall work to correct the effects of settling, a fix for a foundation crack, regrading in the back yard to fix a drainage problem, a new front porch and landscaping, and a thinning out of the many trees on the property so we can grow grass and stop our dogs from rolling in mud and wet leaves whenever it rains.

Our house sits on an acre of suburban land in northwestern New Jersey. Since moving in ten years ago we have already replaced the roof, the air conditioning system, the deck, and the garage doors. We’ve landscaped, planted grass and watched it die, and painted everything at least twice, inside and out. We’re on our second refrigerator, our third dishwasher, our second washer/dryer combo, and our second microwave oven. I have stopped counting toaster ovens and coffee makers since the numbers are large enough to be unwieldy. During that ten years, in addition to sloshing joint compound and paint on every vertical surface approximately as fast as my children could smash into those surfaces with hard, penetrating objects, I have fixed all three toilets at least four times, and put hundreds of dollars into minor plumbing, electrical, and carpentry projects.

Over the years I imagine I have spent $30-$40k on the place, and I could easily, and I do mean easily, dump another $50k in without even trying hard. The questions is: why should I? For a long time those of us who purchased single family homes in the suburbs viewed them as a form of wealth. Put in the money for maintenance, and the value of the property would increase and ultimately help pay for your kids’ educations and your own retirement. Like the stock market, gain was all a matter of appreciation. Like many of the public companies whose shares are traded on the market, my property doesn’t earn a dime. On the contrary, it costs me several thousand dollars a month in mortgage payments, utilities, maintenance, and the property tax payments by which I rent the right to stay here from the township we live in. If the value of my property doesn’t increase, then I’m never going to get a return on everything I’ve put into it.

And frankly, it seems unlikely to me that the value will increase. I was born in 1960, and my wife and I represent the very end of the baby boomer generation that bubbled into existence in the twenty years after World War II. We’re in our mid forties and early fifties, and our kids are either out of high school, or a year or two away from that milestone. As my generation passes into retirement, where will the families come from to drive demand for all the suburban single family homes that will be available? How can we expect the values of our properties to increase? It’s hard not to think that the great suburban land boom is over for good. And perhaps this should not be surprising. That boom, which largely consisted of people purchasing more land and more housing than they actually needed in order to gain better quality of life, could only have been sustained on the back of rising middle class incomes.

But middle class incomes have stagnated for well over a decade now. At the same time costs continue to rise at a steady few percentage points every year. It’s a game of economic water torture that can only end with exhaustion. I’ve got a few thousand bucks put away, and as I was standing outside this morning entertaining these thoughts, it suddenly seemed clear to me that the stupidest thing I could possibly do with that money is convert it into a new driveway and bay windows, or something to add “curb appeal.” It’s a fairly nasty Catch-22, because when you don’t put in the money to maintain a property, the decline in value only accelerates. Ultimately all you can do is hope to sell before the bottom, but in our neighborhood we already have one vacant place behind us that the bank can’t get rid of, and this is one of the more desirable areas in a state where the real estate market has always had a lot of resilience.

Faced with these realities, the possibility of a “Detroit-ification” of the American suburban landscape seems all too plausible. It would be nice to follow that statement with a prescription for what to do about it, but I have no idea what to do about it. We need a vigorous economy and rising middle class incomes. That should do it. How do you get back to those things? No idea here, or, I guarantee you, in our national capitol or any of the fifty state capitols. If we’re waiting for the right politician to pop up and rescue us it’s going to be a grim vigil. About the best I can suggest is to have a plan for either selling your property or making some money with it. Plans I have entertained include: starting a microbrewery in my basement, converting my attic into a shirt factory, and simply knocking down the house and landscaping the acre in hopes that, some day, a rich guy will want to incorporate it into his growing estate.