The Mind of James Donahue

No Lumber

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Home Building Materials Priced Through The Roof


By James Donahue

July 2005


Not long ago my wife and I shared a hobby of buying older somewhat dilapidated homes and restoring them.


I guess I realized what could be done because as a child I watched my parents do it with an old Michigan farmhouse that they lovingly turned into the family homestead.


That old brick house had no indoor plumbing, barely had enough wiring to light a few lights dangling from the centers of the rooms, and had but a “crawl space” for a basement. That meant you dropped down through a trap door into a dirt-floored space so shallow you could not stand up to get around in it. The top floor was an unfinished attic full of cobwebs and dust. Two wood or coal burning stoves on the main floor were the only source of heat.


I watched and had a hand in helping my parents turn that structure into a magnificent two-story four-bedroom country home with a modern kitchen and bathroom, dining room and large spacious living room with a fireplace set behind a beautiful limestone face and solid oak hearth. Later Dad added a two-car garage and entrance-way with a second floor for storage.


It seemed natural then, after I was married, to take advantage of a fantastic buy on a two-bedroom older house while living in South Haven, Michigan. I remember that we had to have the city shut off the power right away because we found the meter running with nothing turned on inside. That meant there was a short somewhere that threatened to set the place on fire. The house needed wiring, new plumbing, was infested in one corner with termites, and was full of old furniture.


I had a friend that sold wholesale electric supplies, and another friend that was an industrial electrician by trade. Both agreed to help me rewire that house. I bought a book on wiring, another on plumbing, and went to work.  We planned what we wanted to do with the house, I tore open the walls, began stringing wire, and before long had the entire house equipped with a wonderful new wiring system complete with plug outlets on every wall and a 100-amp modern service. Those were the days when local building inspectors stopped by to give advice and encouragement.


We treated the termite problem and stopped any further damage. The damaged floor boards were replaced. We then began redoing the rooms. I replaced windows and added new all-weather Anderson storms and screens. I poured a new concrete front porch. All of the rooms got new drywall or paneling. We dropped the ceilings and installed fireproof acoustical tile. The floors were all covered in new carpeting or linoleum coverings. Everything we did was fun as we watched our home turn into a dream house.


In those days we discovered that our costs averaged about $200 a room to refurbish that old place. It was not a restoration job, but rather a modernization that was relatively quick and dirty. We later sold that place for $15,000 and actually saw a cash profit for our labor.


Those were the days when $15,000 bought a pretty nice house.


We did about five more houses over the years before we decided to quit owning homes and go on the road. After settling back down again we frequented a few apartments until getting involved with our children in yet another older home.


And wouldn’t you know it, everybody wanted to carry on the family tradition. Aaron, especially, is deeply involved in the restoration . . . not renovation but restoration . . . of this 150 to 200-year-old eight-bedroom three-story Victorian.


So once again my wife and I are living with sawdust in the air, wiring sticking out of new sockets in the walls, and stepping over building supplies piled up on the floors. We have been down this road many times before.


But now we find our eyes popping and our jaws dropping from the shock of what inflation has done to the American economy and especially the housing market.


What is different now is the extremely high cost of the materials. The project is going slowly because the things we want are either out of stock, or so costly we sometimes sit down and rethink if that is the way we want to go on this project.


Aaron, however, has remained undaunted in his love for this old mansion. He seeks to restore it to its original grandeur. And it was a grand home in its day, for sure. Built in the days when lumber was plentiful and cheap, and home heating costs were not a problem for anyone with means, the house sits on a hill with rows of other old Victorians peering down over Lake Superior.


Fortunately the old wood is still to be found in the floors, woodwork and even on the exterior of the house. The original siding is still intact, covered by a more modern and quite ugly skin. Layers of paint cover some, although not all of the interior door and window frames and tall mopboards. Floors are covered with linoleum tile and moldy carpet. Ceiling tile is being removed to reveal the original plastered ceilings, nearly all intact. The old iron radiators and the hot water heating system is still intact and working although everything had to be taken apart and cleaned after years of being filled with calcium and other minerals from the local water supply.


The point is, that our old house is slowly being restored to its natural beauty because all of the parts were still there. If we would have had to custom order these things, the cost would have been so astronomical it would not have been practical. Things like solid oak boards for woodwork are nearly impossible to find now, and if found, perhaps they would not be for sale.


That is because the world has stripped most of the good trees from our forests. What is left is secondary growth and that is quickly being slashed to make paper and cardboard. Building materials are being manufactured from plastics, or from sawdust glued into framed shapes to become two-by-fours and planks. Plywood, layers of junk wood products glued together and covered by a thin veneer, is being used for everything.


The cost of all of this imitation wood is costly. The cost of asphalt roofing shingles is out of reach. Roofers in the area are replacing roofs on homes like ours at cost ranging from $15,000 to $25,000. And that involves low grade roofing, which means the roof must be replaced in about 15 to 20 years.


Everything is in short supply. As tornadoes and hurricanes rip through the Midwest and Southern states each season, much of the available lumber for reconstruction is getting shipped to these disaster areas. That means folks like us, who want just a few boards and a few nails for our home projects, sometimes have to wait until the stuff is available again.


A roof repair project got stalled last summer, for example, after we bought the roofing, but then couldn’t find an inch of roof edging in the state. Roof edging is one of the first things you put on a new roof. It guides the water safely from the roofing into the eaves troughs and keeps it from working back up into the roof boards and seeping back into the house.


This is the reason the price of housing is going through the roof these days. You can’t build a new home for less. Other problems with home ownership now involve the rising cost of home insurance. Not only must we insure our buildings for greater potential loss, but local assessors are putting higher appraisals on them, thus our property taxes are rising to unheard of levels.


People of moderate income are literally being priced out of home ownership in America.

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