Warehouse K
Housing Dilemma
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Home Building Materials Priced Through The Roof


By James Donahue


Not too many years ago my wife and I shared a hobby of buying older somewhat dilapidated homes and restoring them. We joined a national movement of self-home-improvement nerds who discovered they could buy these older places on the cheap and with a little sweat and elbow grease, turn them into good homes of value again.


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 as I grew older, 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. My father dug out a full basement and installed a modern heating system. Later he added a two-car garage and entrance-way with a second floor for storage.


It seemed natural after I married to take advantage of a fantastic buy on a two-bedroom older house that needed a lot of loving repair when we lived in South Haven, Michigan.


In those days we discovered that our costs averaged about $200 a room to refurbish that old place. Building materials were relatively inexpensive, there were many how-to books on the market to guide us, and all it took was some hard work on our part.  It was not just a restoration job, but rather a modernization that was fun to do. We later sold that place and saw a cash profit for our labor.


My wife and I restored about five more old and dilapidated houses over the years before we decided to quit owning homes and go on the road. After settling back down again we lived in a few apartments until getting involved in fixing up yet another older home.


So once again, now in our retirement years, my wife and I found ourselves living with sawdust in the air, wiring sticking out of new sockets in the walls, and stepping over building supplies piled on the floors. We had been down this road many times before.


But his time we also found our eyes popping and our jaws dropping from the shock of what inflation has done to the American economy and especially the housing market.


Changed has been the extremely high cost of building materials. Lumber is in short supply, costly, and what we find is not the good quality we once readily used. This final project went slowly because the things we wanted were either out of stock, or so costly we sometimes were forced to sit down and rethink the kind of work we want to do on this house.


Fortunately, our house this time around 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 original wood is still to be found in the floors, woodwork and even on the exterior of the house. The wall studs are made of two-by-fours that actually measure two inches by four inches, and they are located eighteen inches apart instead of the wider twenty-four inch center used in newer homes.


The original siding was still intact, covered by a more modern and quite ugly skin. Layers of paint covered some, although not all of the interior door and window frames and tall mopboards. Floors were covered with linoleum tile and moldy carpet, but lovely wood flooring was found once this stuff was removed. Ceiling tile was removed to reveal the original plastered ceilings, nearly all intact. The old iron radiators and the hot water heating system remained intact and working although everything had to be taken apart and flushed after years of being filled with calcium and other minerals from the local water supply.


The point is that our old house was and still 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, would be too pricy.


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 high. The glue used in its manufacture is filled with formaldehyde, a toxic chemical known to be a carcinogen. The fumes from the formaldehyde in the fake wood products, the carpeting, plastics and other household materials used in modern homes leaches into the air to be inhaled by everyone that lives there.


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 medium grade roofing, which means the roof must be replaced in about 15 to 20 years.


Everything is in short supply. As floods, tornadoes and hurricanes rip through the Midwest and Southern states each season, and fires ravage the west, 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.


This is one reason the price of housing rose so high just before the market crash. And even now that banks are foreclosing on homes all over the nation, the price of houses hasn’t fallen as much as one might have expected. 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 property taxes are rising in spite of the owner’s inability to pay.


People of moderate income were already being priced out of home ownership in America but didn’t realize it until the crooked bank investment schemes were exposed, the balloon payment demands forced millions of families into foreclosure and the magic economic bubble popped.


We know this will be the last restoration project we will ever do. My wife and I now occupy our partially finished home, grateful to have a roof over our heads, and watching the nation’s housing disaster get worse with each passing day.