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What to do about the existing housing stock?

iLikeDirt | Posted in General Questions on

Many of the articles and the focus here concern new construction, but this is an aging country with a mostly sufficient existing housing stock that dwarfs the new construction market by orders of magnitude. And these houses have the kinds of problems that make informed builders like you guys cringe.

I’m visiting my cold midwest hometown for the winter and noticing all kinds of things about the houses here I didn’t see as a child so many years ago. Houses here are large but have extremely poor levels of insulation. Many have been retrofitted with can lights everywhere. Countless additions have low-slope cathedral ceilings with nothing but fiberglass in them that leak and get condensation. Many attics are full of thin layers of asbestos. Nearly every house has a wet and moldy basement with a dehumidifier running 24/7, and some have humidifiers in the air handlers that pump moisture into the rest of the house to make up for all the drafts. Every house is peppered with two dozen or more 80 year-old wood double hung windows that are inoperable in summer and leak air like crazy in winter. These houses are saved from backdrafting, mold, and indoor air quality problems by their high rates of air leakage.

These are beautiful old houses with features like solid masonry walls, lovely interior plaster, and breathtakingly beautiful, irreplaceable details that are just not made anymore, like exotic solid heartwood doors, trim, and flooring likely harvested at gunpoint from the lands of now-exterminated indigenous people halfway around the world.

Nobody is going to tear down these homes anytime soon and replace them with OSB-and-vinyl McMansions with defined air barriers and ICF foundation walls. And the cost to bring these houses up to spec by air sealing, insulating, adding mechanical ventilation, replacing windows with architecturally appropriate modern versions or adding high-quality storms, fixing combustion problems, and replacing the mechanicals with smaller, more efficient units would be staggeringly high with little payback from the perspective of the average homeowner who wants pretty finish materials and high square footage. Most retrofit contractors are clueless or unable to suggest fixing problematic elements like can lights that homeowners won’t get rid of. So what’s the solution here?

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  1. wjrobinson | | #1

    I always say that in your example Nat there are much larger bills to pay compared to the heating bill and so no action is taken.

    What is their property tax costs compared to their natural gas costs. I'll guess....taxes are way more than the annual fuel bill. Can you post your parents home numbers?

    Near me, our local city has the same old beautiful homes. The taxes are past $10,000 for the larger ones and the natural gas bill might be $2,000 max. So the gas costs are minor compared to the taxes, and things like a quality exterior painting at $10,000.

    IMO there is no easy answer. These homes get owned by those that can afford them, or they get cut up into apartments and someday some will come down and some will be retrofitted slowly overtime to keep with the times.

  2. iLikeDirt | | #2

    Your numbers are almost dead-on, AJ. Their property taxes are like $11,000 for a 2,400 square foot house and their gas bill is about $1500 a year. They're being driven out of the house by the high taxes, as are many of their friends and neighbors who are moving to just outside the city limits into old renovated farmhouses.

  3. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #3

    I agree that there is no simple answer. The fact is, these homes are occupied and cherished because the owners can afford to heat them. If energy ever gets so expensive that few owners can afford to heat them, this type of home will become less desirable.

  4. STEPHEN SHEEHY | | #4

    As the owner of a 200 year-old house, with very high taxes, I can say that the real killer is the very high cost of keeping these old houses from falling down. We've owned the house for 21 years. Given what we've spent on replacing trim, bits of siding here and there, rotten window frames and sashes, etc., installing a heating system, replacing the septic system, etc., We positively would have been financially better off if we'd knocked it down and built a new house. Even though we've been scrupulous about regular maintenance and repairs, the house still has a rubble foundation, little insulation, inefficient layout and so on.

    As far as the planet is concerned, I suspect the energy we'd have saved would have made up for the impact of dumping the demo debris. Not every old building should be saved.

  5. user-1072251 | | #5

    Start with the basements - which should be dried out, and the walls and floor insulated. Once the house has "dry feet" and is airtight, the house will be more comfortable. Sealing the cracks could be a relatively do-able cost, then they should tackle the rest of the issues. But drying out and sealing the basement is the first step, and is usually ignored.

  6. iLikeDirt | | #6

    ...Or done incorrectly. In this house, the basement was "finished" years ago by "sealing" the brick walls and painting them, and then laying down carpet. No insulation or air sealing anywhere. Needless to say, this did not stop water infiltration during heavy rains or excessive moisture all the time, and has resulted in mildewy carpet.

    I took pity and have decided to do as much air sealing work as I can while I'm here. The articles on this subject that I've found here have been invaluable, especially

    Thank you, Martin!

  7. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #7

    You're welcome -- and good luck.

    You may also be interested in:

    All About Basements

    Air-Sealing a Basement

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