Vol 1:1 Home Stewardship: Helping Your Home Help You
It is with great pleasure that I launch the inaugural edition of my real estate blog. I love what I do and am passionate about home stewardship from every possible angle. I'm open to feedback and enjoy discussion, so if my article fires you up in any way, I invite you to be in touch.
I am currently between homes but have owned 5 in my life so far and can say, with gentle regret, that while I loved each and every one of them, I was not truly the good steward of any of them. As the late Maya Angelou said, however, when we know better, we do better, and so I believe there’s hope for me yet.
Each time I bought a house, I stretched myself to the absolute max to afford it. My partner was gifted in home renovation so there was no shortage of loans and remortgaging in order to upgrade and renovate, but not once did it occur to me to set aside in my monthly budget a maintenance amount (as condo owners do). Nor did it occur to me to project the costs of future upgrades and amortize that into a monthly amount to be set aside for the time when it would be needed (again, like condo owners do).
The result? Every time something cropped up, needing to be taken care of, sometimes urgently – that new furnace or hot water tank or screen door that needed replacing – I had to scrounge the money together and it usually meant robbing Peter to pay Paul, as the saying goes. I can say with certainty that I did not spend that money with a song in my heart and a smile on my face. Instead, I often felt victimized because I was never ready for these expenses. They were unexpected but they shouldn’t have been.
And that’s to say nothing of all of the maintenance that I simply deferred. No single repair was a big deal in and of itself – at least not at the original time of deferral – but when it came time to sell, those deferred-maintenance chickens would come home to roost with a vengeance, creating a mad scramble of activity that took an already stressful situation and ratcheted it up several notches.
Not once, by the way, was selling what I had originally planned to do in the timing in which I did it, which is an important point, because I hear this often from clients, too. Half the world is populated by unplanned pregnancies and half the real estate market is fueled by people who weren’t expecting to sell so soon, if ever.
Having dealt hastily with deferred maintenance as best I could with the time and resources available to me, I would stand back to survey my handiwork. I was never really able to catch up on all that I had left for “later”, but I would inevitably marvel at what a difference that new coat of paint made or how great the baseboards looked now that they were finally installed. And I would feel little bit sorry that all of this was going to be for someone else to enjoy.
I am not alone in this pattern of experience.
It is often the case, after I have guided a listing client through basic preparations and done some simple “staging”* – trading this piece of furniture for that, hanging some art, deep cleaning in places that we normally overlook, changing a paint color, harnessing unused spaces, etc - to witness my client experience a similar regret and hear them fervently vow that the first thing they will do in their new home is what they left for last in their old.
(* “Staging”, as I mean it here in this context is, I will admit, less in the wheelhouse of maintenance and more rightly in the province of aesthetics, but I intend, in a future article to demonstrate how stretching the word “maintenance” to include basic attention to aesthetics makes so much sense. Or, failing that, to find a different word entirely that will encompass both elements.)
My experience as a Buyer’s agent is also telling. In the some-odd 250 houses I have inspected with buying clients in 2017 alone, accumulated deferred maintenance has been more the rule than the exception. So much so, in fact, that when we do happen upon a home that has been beautifully maintained, it holds such a persuasive energy that clients have been sorely tempted to purchase it even though it does not truly meet their needs in some key way or another.
And so, to bring this article full circle, I am, in preparation for the day when it is once again my privilege to own a home, cultivating a new mindset on the back of these many experiences, one that will support me in doing better in the future than I have in the past.
First off, I will no longer use my lending institution’s formula for deciding how much of a mortgage I can “afford.” It used to be mortgage payment, insurance, property taxes and utilities that were the inviolate expenses. Not anymore. I’m going to start thinking like a condo owner and add to those a monthly maintenance cost and contribution to the reserve fund (for future upgrades).
My hypothesis is that if I expect and plan for the maintenance and upgrades, I will a) undertake them in a timely fashion and defer nothing, unless doing so is somehow cleverly strategic and b) pay for these with gratitude in my heart - and perhaps a little pride as well – which is a much better prize than the gnarly, stressed, victimy energy I used to hold around paying for maintenance and necessary upgrades.
It is also my intention to marry maintenance with a commitment to a basic aesthetics sensibility such that I groom my home to live in it as if I were grooming it for its next owner. No more of this next-owner-getting-to-enjoy-the-new-baseboards thing. Yes, I want the next owner to enjoy those baseboards, but me first!
Another benefit of grooming my home in this way as the new standard-Wendy-protocol, is that it also preserves my home’s value at the upper end of its range - when it comes to pass that I need or want to sell it, I will be able to do so quickly, with little fuss or muss, and a lot less stress than I have in the past.
I have begun to regard what I have just described as a form of self care that pays itself forward on both my behalf and the behalf of others (as all self-care does, I suppose.) To my mind, this is an idea far more dynamic than that of home ownership, so much so that it requires a different word. The one that comes most readily to mind, especially when I consider that every home I have ever “owned” existed before and after me, and in fact, was co-owned by the bank (and the crown), is stewardship.
Home stewardship! Now there’s a phrase that feels as though it has broad enough shoulders to carry both a maintenance and an aesthetic sensibility. I am quite smitten with it , actually – it’s far juicier an idea than that of being a responsible homeowner just for the sake of being responsible.
I googled “home stewardship” in preparation for writing this article, thinking for sure that I would find that much has already been written about it, that it would be a “thing.” It wasn’t an exhaustive search by any means, but I essentially found nothing. Color me surprised. Am I truly the first to declare this a “thing”? I’m not sure how that can possibly be, but ok, fine with me – I don’t mind going first.
And if you are feeling drawn to this idea of home stewardship as well, I will leave you with an easy way to determine your own level home stewardship. All you have to do is answer one question:
If you found out today that you had to move, how quickly could you have your home ready for market?
If your answer is "next week" then bask in the glow and carry on sipping umbrella drinks while you watch the leaves change color and fall.
If not, then my best advice is this: start where you are, use what you have, do what you can and be kind to yourself as you do. The occasional umbrella drink wouldn’t be a bad idea either.
Up next: It’s fall and that means it’s your last chance to address exterior upgrades and maintenance that just won’t be possible once the temperature drops. Yeah, sure, you could leave it for spring, but if life throws you a curve ball and you have to put your home on the market before then, your home’s curb appeal is going to take a hit (which means that its perceived value is going to take a hit as well.)
The first thing my buying clients and I do when we inspect a home we are interested in is perform an exterior audit. In my next blog article, I will walk you through one so you can assess your home as a buyer’s agent would.