Quick Hitter: Extreme Make-Over Home Edition

I stumbled across a post by Peter Enns, which basically uses more or less the same analogy I tried to use when I talked about Bob Villa.  Great minds think alike, I suppose, which would put me in very good company.  In the comments section to the post, a number of people took the analogy offered by Enns for a spin and tried to tell their faith stories in terms of home renovation projects.  In that spirit, I figured I would tell my own story of my old house and my new house.

I had a very old family house.  Despite its age, it had been lovingly taken care of, so that it didn't have nearly as many structural problems as some of the houses that Enns mentions.  In particular, the internal structure of the house--the foundation, the walls, the floors, etc.--was very solid, or at least that was what the home inspectors who came in told me, and they seemed thorough, so I believe them.  And the house had enormous charm, things you couldn't find any more in any new house.  I loved that house very much.

There was, however, one massive problem--it was filled to the brim with asbestos insulation.  The conventional wisdom with asbestos is that you should leave it alone.  Asbestos particles are damaging to lungs when they are in the air, so the process of removing it is dangerous because it releases particulate matter into the air, whereas allowing it to remain as it is creates a much smaller risk of releasing damaging asbestos fibers.  The problem, though, is that the presence of the insulation that you can't touch makes it impossible to do any repairs on any other part of the house.  It becomes a viscous cycle--I want to do repairs, but I can't because if I try to make a repair, I risk disturbing the insulation, and if I disturb the insulation I threaten to make the house a toxic, lung-destroying death trap.  But, at the same time, the fact that there are these unrepaired walls are themselves risking disturbing the asbestos.  My ability to maintain the house to the high standards of those that owned the house before me was impaired by the fact that every contractor brought in to look at it wouldn't touch any project, for fear of disturbing the insulation.  So, I was stuck.  And, I was beginning to hear stories of the way this asbestos insulation was making other people sick in similar houses, and I wanted the house to be in good shape for visitors, friends, family members, kids I hope to have some day, etc.

Eventually, I came to the conclusion that the right thing to do was to bite the bullet, hire one of those asbestos removal companies, tent the whole house, and rip out all of the asbestos insulation.  As Enns mentions, in the course of doing that work, it started to seem reasonable to make a few other improvements while we were at it, but if all we were able to accomplish was to rip out the asbestos, I would have been OK with that.  Except, at this point I discovered something that I basically knew but hadn't really internalized the significance of--I didn't own my house free and clear.  I can't just unilaterally tent the house and rip out the asbestos.  You see, I have a complicated deed that only grants me ownership in the property in fee simple subject to a condition subsequent, which is a legal construct that no one ever uses anymore, but my house is old and I inherited through a long line of ancestors.

The bottom line is, and this is clear in the deed, that the folks that hold the remainder interest in the property could prevent me from making the renovations I want to make.  And those folks were absolutely adamant that no removal of asbestos was necessary or desirable, because it would damage the historical character of the house.  And they said a bunch of weird things when I raised the issue, such as that asbestos can't be that bad since it didn't kill your ancestors, or that maybe the idea that asbestos causes cancer is a conspiracy by homebuilders to convince folks to move into new homes.  The more they talked, the more convinced I was that this asbestos had to go, but we were at an impasse.  Some people counseled patience--"I hear there is a new head of the historical society, he might be more willing to consider your renovation plan, but he needs time to move the priorities of the board."  And I tried that, for a while.  But I could see the backlog of repairs piling up, and it became increasingly clear that something had to give.  I thought the removal needed to be done immediately, and the people who had the power to stop me from doing that insisted that the work would not be done.  Waiting around felt more like hoping for some deus ex machina than prudent home ownership.

In the end, I had to do something I never, ever thought I would do--I decided to sell the old family house, and bought a house across the street.  It turns out that this new house is very, very similar to my old family home--far more than I thought it was when I looked at it from across the street.  It's not quite as old as the old family house, but it has almost all of the historical features that I loved about the old house.  But it has two absolutely essential differences.  First, I own this house in fee simple absolute--I can decide what I can do with the house and what repairs need to be done.  And second, the house has recently been through precisely the same asbestos removal project that I wanted to do with my old house.  It wasn't peaches and roses, that project--they had to fight a different but similar group of historical preservation folks that I was dealing with.  But that's basically done now--all the asbestos is gone in the new house.  The new house is where I thought the old house needed to get to, and where I wanted bring it to if I had the ability to actually make the repairs.  Which I did not.

I am scheduled to close on the new house in June.  

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