The Best Bargain Around

13 thoughts on “The Best Bargain Around”

  1. I agree. I also have noted the dull (but actually solidly built and insulated) ranches and Cape Cods tend to be filled with renters now in most parts of the country, but in certain parts people are discovering they are a sweet spot that can be improved in just about any gosh darn way one pleases (other than turning them into Richardsonian Romanesque). And this is being done when the areas inward and outward are too expensive —- and that is, after all, EXACTLY how it often happens in historic downtowns: two parts of a historic town regentrify, and then the space between follows suit.

    Something eventually occurred to me when I moved my mother into the ugliest house on a block of handsome pre-war homes: her cape-cod with dormers built for a whole 1950s family would make for GREAT retirement housing for downsizing older northeasterners (if they could either look past all the Al siding or have someone take it off for them. (And it is amazing what wrapping a porch all around them does — suddenly it looks like a historic House near the Bayou)) and then something else occurred to me: the madness of some of the folks in the Tiny House movement for fighting city hall and building brand new tiny homes in areas where they could actually get a small house with infrastructure and LAND, and if the house still isn’t tiny enough and they aren’t feeling enough like pirates, they can buy a Cape Cod with a detached one-car garage and turn that into a tiny house with no need for a site permit at least, and they could tiny house it up with propane and composting plumbing and solar panels or whatever — and rent out the 1500 sq. foot main house to pay for it all. If they live somewhere where they might get halted, all they have to do is move back into the ranch/cape cod, where they can tear out some walls, open the floor plan… all it takes is a little imagination and for-oneself thinking, and one is sitting prettier than all the “to the next suburb!” Or “back to downtown” people. Of the later, I bought my first downtown structure (3 unit brick Italianate in Albany, NY) when I was 20, and I learned the hard way 2 things: don’t be “too early”, it can be worse than being a little late, and, related, poor governance often trumps geography and lifestyle advantages and opportunity often trump abundant beautiful built environments (if this wasn’t true, more people would have moved to Kraków or St. Petersburg during the 20th Century)

    The Quomo-type people are still running NYS, and no matter how much top-down public investment they throw at things, the only vampiric prosperity will contue to be the areas where they Hoover up money from the rest of the world around Wall Street, or where the planner philosopher-Kings Hoover money from them and NYS’ shrinking middle class and decide to put it. Buffalo is getting a billion dollars, not because anyone thinks it’s a good investment, but because of old fashioned NYS Democratic Party patronage. This was sustainable when places like the South had even worse political/cultural problems, not to mention the rest of the world, but things have changed, people are discovering that even former backwaters like TN are at least as beautiful as the North east or much of the West, have abundant resources, and other advantages like abundant sunshine and water.

    1. The historic buildings and neighborhoods of Albany and Troy are magnificent and worthy of restoration and re-population. I do understand your frustration regarding government policies that work against anything sensible. Believe me… I really do. But don’t assume that Republican “pro business” policies are any less f-ed up than anti-business Democratic policies. They’re both just as dysfunctional in their own ways.

      In my experience the Tiny House movement is most active in very high cost areas where even a really crappy “cheap” house in a mediocre location is still impossibly expensive. I own rental property in Sonoma County which is arguably the birth place of the whole Tiny House thing – and there is no way anyone on less than a stellar income can afford squat in the area. so the Tiny House was born as a work-around.

      Places like Tennessee and Kentucky have their charms. I agree. They may be the perfect compromise at the moment. It all depends on who you are and what you want.

      1. I guess I spoke in a political shorthand. I like many democrats, esp in purple states like Colorado and Virginia. I even prefer Jerry Brown (first man I ever voted for) to many of the more corrupt and/or deluded of the Dems that lead many northern tier places. Terry M., in spite of his corrupt nature, may be our best Governor for business in Virginia memory.

        My point is that Syracuse is not competing with Scottsdale so much as with TN, and, as much as I am bullish about a mild transformation of Cincinatti, it is likely that, even with Cincy’s head start, Nashville will have it’s first subway line first, if current trends continue.

        Who we are and what we want…. Loaded and complicated. My wife wants to live in CO. I prefer Vienna or Switzerland. We will likely settle for Staunton, VA, maybe Asheville, NC (maybe eastern TNor Port Townsend, Washington if we ever cash out of Richmond.

  2. Your comment on the mediocre school system hit an important point. It is the same point that Elizabeth Warren made in her book “The Two-Income Trap” — that the presence of good (and bad) school districts drive a lot of the price differentials in neighborhoods. What are your thoughts on the general issue of school flexibility, such as vouchers, school choice, etc., as a way to open up cheaper housing to families that still want a decent school for their kids? I feel like this would certainly improve property values, and raise property taxes, in those neighborhoods, although I don’t know if it would raise taxes across a metropolitan region.

    1. I’m familiar with Elizabeth Warren’s observations about how middle class families impoverish themselves in order to buy their way in to better public school districts. I think she gets it just right.

      School disparity is a permanent feature of the American cultural landscape. As soon as a remedy is devised to even out the quality of all public schools the culture will find a new way to create good and bad schools. Trying to fix this problem is a complete waste of time and energy.

      For example, when the federal government forced towns to integrate underfunded black schools with prosperous white schools the white families pulled their kids out of the public schools entirely and enrolled them in makeshift private Christian Academies. Then the local (white dominated) local governments drastically cut funding to public schools which became overwhelmingly black and run down. That was a stop gap measure until new homes were build out on the edge of town where white people could live in geographically segregated school districts with their own separate tax bases. The Feds then responded with forced busing between school districts and the white middle class just moved even farther away – often to other counties or states.

      Here’s another example. The public schools of Philadelphia’s inner city Queen Village neighborhood (the South Street area) had always had open enrollment when Philly was at its run down worst. In recent years Queen Village has experienced significant gentrification and the local Meredith school suddenly implemented barriers that filtered which kids could attend and which couldn’t. Guess which kids get in and which are squeezed out? Think hard now…

      Vouchers, charter schools, school choice… It’s all a shell game.

      1. This describes PART of the history of PART of the country. It is a good shorthand for what happened in Richmond, VA, for example. But there are two issues that are rarely discussed: 1. In many parts of the country, class didn’t break down in such “black/white” lines, but the urge to get away from the “wrong element” (usually by zip code and not private education) was at least almost as strong throughout much of the country. 2. Any fair description of the problem has to include not merely the perception but the reality from the point of view of the parents. Parents raising children, no matter how much the Left wants them to sacrifice for a project that will bear fruit in a generation or three, are living in the now and when they see the quality of classroom experience go down (whether it is due to new class and racial tensions leading to an increase in fighting, bullying or even small riots, which is what happened in the Richmond area (I’ve heard stories from older African Americans that it was very hard for both whites and blacks when they were the newly minorities in populations (on both sides) where parents had age old hostilities and different norms.) or a lowering of standards generally. It is often not just the fear of it happening, but the experience of watching it happen.

        Yet, the obsessive messianic meddlers from New England were far from perfect either— they are a stand-off-ish group that is not merely reserved like Swedes or Japanese but seem to much more frequently wait for little class “tells” to add up to discover whether your kids are good enough for their kids. The private schools there tend to be at twice as expensive as comparable schools in the South, perhaps for this reason, perhaps not. I just met a real estate investor that owns multi families in Boston that has recently moved to Richmond. As we met by accident in one of the Richmond region’s many “mixed” neighborhoods (my block is 50-50; both our adjacent neighbors have African descent) this guy (who is Jewish) asked me for some basic crime/quiet information, and then volunteered what I have heard a thousand times from other NYers (who volunteer information more freely than the occational guy from New England, who seem to stay put up there more) that the “African-Americans seem a lot more friendly down here.” I said it must be true, since it is so often commented upon, but I am still trying to figure out why. — It may be that people are just more friendly in general in this part of the South (I don’t want to over generalize, there seems to be strong differences even when you go from Savannah, GA to Charlston, SC, which I recall being only about an hour away. SC seemed less friendly, and I am pretty ignorant of the more violent frontier-during-the-civil-war Faulkneresqe areas of the South. New Orleans is certainly it’s own planet in many ways, as is Charleston, for different reasons; it has a snobbishness among many whites that rivals New England, but with a tinge of inferiority complex.

        I have veered off-topic, but I am returning to it—– there is a THIRD factor that is neither touched on in this essay: the perennial ability of some groups to make the most of very little, education-wise. I had a friend in grad school that took pre-requisites, like me, at a school with rather limited prestitige, but unlike my experience with mostly working class upstate NY whites as my cohort, he found himself rubbing elbows with a cohort of extremely focused and competitive Jewish young people whose families were less prosperous than the contemporary NY stereotype. All over this country, in every time (read about the history of the original “Yellow Peril” in 19th century California, there are echoes of this in NYC today) there have been groups that have been able to do very much with education with very little, and if they don’t self-segregate somewhat, they often get a fist in the face from whatever majority they are sharing a school with. That certainly occurs in Philedlphia today, and it doesn’t even limit itself to race or class— in DC it occurs between certain African immigrant ethnicities and African Americans. If you strive for excellence, expect resentment and not admiration from those who don’t, even if they superficially look like you. Likewise, if you don’t value striving for self improvement and control, don’t expect the parents who do to want to send their kids to your kids’ school — it is often as simple as that, esp in this new era of putting so much focus on the bottom 10% of every class. I know people who have pulled their kids out of good, well functioning, even “sweet” public elementary schools because they felt that too much focus was on the bottom performers (which is a problem when the classes are a bit over-crowded and you are a parent with high expectations or have a really motivated (often female) child.

        One more thing. “Education tourism” has become popular with a lot of policy types looking to import best practices (usually form Finland), but the ORIGINAL education tourism actually came HERE, not so long ago (often from Asia)’ because we had, due to our high level of educational freedom vis a vis other developed countries, we had the world standard in educational laboratories and many pockets where thing we’re working off-the -charts well, as well as abysmal failures to learn from too, if one was so inclined.

        The most famous example? A group of education leaders imported a concretized method of teaching math to their small Islamd nation that became known as “Singapore Math”

        Why more Americans who care don’t try to emulate Americans who are successful instead of looking abroad is beyond me. If they want to import Scandinavian ways, they have to import, and enforce, the importation of the whole culture, or else the enforced equality will tend to bring the average down more than up. Some wouldn’t mind this. I would.

  3. I’ve been fantasizing about trading in my modest suburban Portland ranch ($120k mortgage) for a similarly modest house but with at least an acre or two on the outskirts of town. It’s very possible to finagle it to where I wouldn’t have a mortgage, or at least, a very small mortgage ($20k-/+). After reading this blog and listening to people like Nicole Foss talk about the catabolic collapse of civilization within a relatively short time frame, it IS tempting to set up my own little Doom-stead somewhere maybe 45 minutes-1hr away from the city….but I do love my neighbors and I just planted 15 fruit trees on my little 1/4 acre property and have made so many improvements! Hmmmm, it’s a conundrum….

    1. Yes and no.

      I’m a big fan of Nicole (had dinner with her a couple of times while she passed through California – once in Oakland and once in Sebastopol.) What she’s describing isn’t the end of civilization. Instead, she’s describing an economic crisis followed by a long slow stair-step shift to a lower energy future. It’s more like the collapse of the Soviet Union or the end of the British or Ottoman Empires. Life goes on. Institutions change.

      I’m about to do a follow up on this exact tract house with a different twist. I recommend you stay where you are if it’s possible to pay off your existing mortgage. You’re better off closer to town on the quarter acre so long as you carry no debt. Social capital (good neighbors) are important. See if you can liquidate other paper instruments like stocks in order to convert them to useful tangible assets like a mortgage free home with a productive garden. And perhaps you can rent out a spare room or a backyard cottage for added income.

      If you do chose to move farther out, be sure to locate within a walkable/bikeable distance to a small town instead of way out in the sticks. You don’t want to trade off a bigger garden for a completely auto-dependent location.

      1. thanks for the advice, Johnny. Well, I don’t have any other debt other than the mortgage, and i’m currently chucking an extra $300 on top of the monthly payment to have it paid off in 15 years…Although, according to interviews I’ve heard with Nicole Foss, we don’t even have that kind of time before the shit hits the fan. I have about $50k set aside but was intending on building a small art studio in the backyard and fix up this other existing little cottage as a rental. In light of all the dire predictions out there, spending money on an art studio seems like just about the stupidest thing a person could do, but it’s my dream…plus I wouldn’t have to spend any more rent on my existing studio.

        1. Don’t let another person’s apocalyptic predictions prevent you from making an art studio. Those predictions are often premature at best (remember peak oil? Malthus? Spengler?). Let your individual finances,,goals and priorities guide you. Many of the things that make an investment seem stupid (or genius) after the fact are pretty hard to predict and are more often far more local than, say, the last housing crisis.

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