Finding the Multi-Tool House

June 13, 2018
Summer 2018
This online-only article is a supplement to the Summer 2018 print edition of Home Energy Magazine.
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What do you think about when you want to buy or rent a home? This article shows the difference (as well as the similarities!) between the considerations that a designer and a seasoned homeowner have when viewing and selecting homes for purchase. These considerations include the reason for searching for a home in the first place, what the house will be used for, what qualities you are looking for in a house, and how or why to upgrade the performance of the house you choose. These considerations serve as insights on the thought process of potential homebuyers for readers starting out in construction and allied fields.

The following discussion describes searching for a multi-tool house—that is, for a house that can serve different purposes. While the guidelines here will not pertain to every situation, they shed light on some general considerations that would be useful in looking for a home that could appeal to both owners and tenants.

This is an example of a smaller starter home that is suited as a rental. It is relatively small at about 800 square feet. Though visually it is a charming home, for our purposes for long term living or retirement it was not suitable.

So let’s get started then. Can you describe yourselves a little for the readers? Who are you?

Ken: My name is Ken and I am an architectural planner. Over the past ten years or so, I have worked on a number of building research and design projects in situ with a particular interest in microhousing. However, this is the first time I have looked at homes as a personal place to live myself, rather than as a professional consultation or research venture.

Jay: I am a retired military officer who moved numerous times and bought several houses over my career. Many were used as rentals after I received new assignments. This highlighted the need to visualize a house for its appeal and utility to different types of renters and buyers.

What prompted the whole endeavor of searching for a home?

Jay: I bought a home in Florida while stationed in the military. It was an average price for a family of four and would serve us or another family well due to location, cost, school access, parks, and businesses. I did not expect orders, but we moved only one year later. Converting it to a rental (comparing rental income to mortgage expense) was a logical option. I also thought I might return on subsequent orders or retire there.

Ken: For me, I graduated from college with my doctorate and was able to become employed in a stable, long-term position in an area that I greatly enjoy.

This is an example of a stately home that would be interesting to own but was most likely out of our price range. The brick entry and detailing show time and effort was taken into building the structure.

Jay: I have thought of property as having the value of a multi-tool—that it can do more than one thing. Eighteen years had passed since we purchased the Florida house. It was clear it was only a rental; we would not return; and we had retired in another state. The equity would be more useful elsewhere—closer to family. The idea of a rental property in the town where my sons were students made sense in several scenarios. It could serve as their home, as a rental, or later as my home in retirement.

Let's start off broad. What context do you use for looking for this "multi-tool house"?

Jay: Recognize that my rationale for buying the original house was as a home. It was not as a business decision to generate rental income. It was converted to a rental because I relocated for my work. Over time having the rental in Florida was no longer practical and we decided to sell the home and buy in Virginia. Since family or personal use was a possibility in the future, I wanted a house in a family-type neighborhood, close to the university, businesses, services, schools, and parks.

Ken: I had always been interested in living in, retrofitting, and upgrading small-scale older plantation homes or farmhouses that have a very rich character. For me these houses are “multi-tool” in that they have already often gone under extensive renovation to add utilities that did not exist when they were built and continue to have rich character and a history.

What did you keep in mind as you viewed houses together?

Jay: It’s important to be pragmatic as you are looking at houses. Being blinded by a really attractive feature can result in buying a house with issues that future renters or buyers won’t be interested in. It is all a calculated decision, but trying to envision various scenarios will help you to avoid problems later. It’s vital to keep a list of the factors you believe are important for you, as well as for the next buyer. I mentioned the quality or proximity of the schools; imagine that the renter or next buyer has young children. Being able to play in the neighborhood or a nearby park, having a yard that children or pets can use could be strong factors in making the future sale, even if you don’t have children or pets yourself.

This was an interesting example of a custom designed home. This home is directly across the street from the previous brick home.

Ken: Because much of my research is in building performance, and you use a home all year round, I enjoy seeing the house and the terrain across all four seasons. If possible, visit at different times of the year. For example, one house was near the bottom of a steep hill in a neighborhood of many rolling steep hills. This might be fun in the summer but treacherous or even isolating in the winter, especially for an older person or one who was not able-bodied. The house was also below the road, which meant that heavy rain might flood the garage.

Jay: Yes, there were also several ranch-style houses with finished basement apartments.

Ken: This is fairly common around here, but the geology of the area requires radon ventilation units that often look like a roofer installed a downspout upside down. For this type of basement unit, natural light, fresh-air ventilation, and moisture control will be made easier by having walk-out backyard access and taller windows rather than window wells.

Jay: Once I realized that a common rental structure was a single story with a finished basement, and that this would be suitable as a rental or a home, I wanted to consider additional factors. I wanted to minimize the need for yard work and I wanted easy maintenance. This simplifies the requirements for the owner, for tenants, or for a retiree (should I decide to move there). An established neighborhood allows you to see how much effort owners make to maintain their houses. With roadways developed, you know how quiet or busy your street is, the traffic patterns, and access to the main thoroughfares. City planners can tell you the restrictions on the number of renters permitted in a dwelling so that the character of the neighborhood is maintained and owners who occupy their homes are respected.

This home is another example of a nice starter home that would be useful for a young family or as a rental, but would quickly be outgrown.

So a house is not only the thing, but also a place. Any interesting stories about the homes you saw?

Jay: Several houses had examples of personalization, maintenance issues, or niche features that limited one or more of the scenarios we envisioned. One house was personalized with several brick planter boxes in and outside the house that made it less enticing to the average person. There were a lot of cooking odors that had penetrated the housing materials. For a person who had remodeling skills and lived nearby, this could be a bargain.

Ken: Speaking to the house just described, as a designer, the personalization was interesting and engaging, but as a renter I felt that I would be living in someone else’s customized home.

Jay: Another house was actually custom-built, well designed, and attractive. Easy to imagine how “cool” this house would be. However, the same custom features can limit the prospective renter pool and the house was relatively expensive compared to the others we viewed that day. Reminding ourselves of the fundamental reason for selling one rental house and buying another, we soon realized that this was a vacation house or a retirement house. As a rental, the pool of renters would be very small.

Ken: There was a unique feature—a ladder to a crow’s nest tree house, which I enjoyed. It also had a detached garage with a lofted space that would have made a wonderful studio, but the neighborhood had steep hills and winding roads, which made it difficult to navigate even on a clear day.

So, to close, what are your thoughts on upgrading or renovating homes?

Ken: It’s essential to have a comprehensive home inspection done before you decide to buy. The buyer needs to know the quality of the structure beyond the visible and cosmetic parts. If you know what needs to be done, and the life remaining on particular parts of the home, such as the type, condition, and age of the water heater, air conditioner, heating unit, windows, and insulation, you can prioritize upgrades from there. For example, you can weatherize a structure with blow-in insulation or you can install Energy Star appliances if existing appliances need replacement.

This is an example similar to the home we looking for. From the road it presents itself as a standard ranch house, however the side driveway provides access to the walk-out basement apartment. Its orientation was also directly elongated on the east-west access for excellent solar exposure.

Jay: Consider the materials and quality of construction, and the impact that they will have on maintenance. You want materials that are durable in an area with harsh winters. Factor in the cost of a new roof, paint, or shutters that need to be replaced to bring the house up to the standards of the neighborhood. Look at newly built houses in the area to get an idea of additional costs that would be expected updating a home: tree planting, landscaping, closet and window treatments, and so on. These represent time and money that the homeowner invests over months, but the renter expects to have these things all up to date at move-in

Ken: It also depends on how long you plan to live in the home, and if you ever intend to sell it. I probably would not renovate until something had reached the end of its usable life cycle, and even then, I would install something that I enjoy, but that is fairly common or well received, with a good track record. Personally, I believe that homes should be net positive—that is, they should produce more energy or water or whatever than they use—but that depends on the location and a variety of other factors.

Jay: That is all I have.

Ken: Me too. Every house is unique, but we hope this discussion can help others with the process of looking for a home.

Kenneth Black, Ph.d is an Architectural Planner at Virginia Tech. His current work is in planning and development for Virginia Tech in the implementation of its 2017 Master Plan as is relates to Architecture, Landscape, and Transportation topics. Prior to this he has spent roughly 10 years in architectural design, higher education teaching architecture, and performing building research in-situ. Jay Black is a retired Navy Captain with 12 tours and 36 years of active duty which resulted in buying and renting numerous homes on both the east and west coasts. Several homes were converted to rentals and/or subsequently sold due to follow-on orders and relocation.

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