How to Make Your Home Easier to Maintain
Homes Can Require Too Much Work for Older People
We've all seen it or heard about it: homes that gradually become run down and shabby when their aging owners find them too difficult to maintain. Such a home can be a real burden both to its owners and to their children when the owners eventually move out. When I bought my current home in 1992, I had plenty of youth and strength to keep it up, but over the years I began to realize it would eventually become more work than I could manage. I began to think about it in terms of creating a home in which I could live comfortably and easily in my old age.
My kitchen needed a complete overhaul. One problem was an intermittent leak under the sink that no plumber seemed able to locate. A neighbor told me that two of my predecessors had complained about that leak for more than 30 years.
Another problem was the outdated ceiling and lighting. My kitchen had an old drop-ceiling consisting of a metal framework on top of which were laid opaque light-diffuser panels; above the panels were several pairs of fluorescent light tubes--you know, the kind you see in movies when they're depicting old, creepy buildings with flickering lights. They were run off old-fashioned ballasts, which were expensive to replace when they wore out. It could be scary, too, as happened once when my sister and her husband were visiting me; I turned on the kitchen lights and there was a loud pop followed by a buzzing and sparks arcing from a ballast. The electrician told me, as I wrote him a hefty check, that the whole lighting system and its wiring were decades old and should be replaced.
As if that wasn't enough, there was another problem with the ceiling that turned my kitchen into an Amityville-style horror. There were small holes that led to the attic. Every year during May and June nights, the Miller moths migrate west from the plains to the mountains, and they found my attic a good place to sleep during the day. When I turned on the kitchen lights, some of the moths would come out of the attic and fly around the lights, beating against the diffuser panels as they did so. Some years the migration was light and this wasn't much of a problem, but then there came a year when hundreds of them came swarming out of the attic and created a drumming sound against the panels that was actually frightening. I became unwilling to turn on the lights, which made the kitchen pretty inconvenient for evening use. The moths were gone by the end of June, but I decided I wasn't going to risk having to live through that the following year.
A third problem was the cabinets. They were cheap and old, and the ones under the countertops were hard to get into; I was often on my knees, reaching way back into one of them to haul out a heavy stock pot or sauce pan. Cleaning those shelves was a real pain, too.
Once I began to think in terms of creating an easier-to-maintain home, I knew the whole kitchen was going to have to be replaced. I was fortunate to find an excellent contractor to handle it for me. He began by tearing everything out: ceiling, lights, wiring, bright yellow formica countertops, cabinets, sink, and plumbing.
He built a new ceiling and installed recessed can lights positioned to cast bright light on all of the countertops. Instead of having to take down those awkward diffusion panels and clean them, and replace the fluorescent light tubes, all I have to do is screw in new light bulbs--easy! The contractor also sealed the ceiling and lights so the moths couldn't get in.
He replaced the old countertops with Corian®, which is much easier to keep clean and new-looking than formica. He installed new, custom-made cabinets; the bottom ones had well-constructed pull-out shelves that made it easy to get to anything stored in them, and were easy to clean as well. The cabinets above the countertops were shallower than the old ones, which made it easier to reach everything in them and reduced the impression that they were looming over my countertops.
New plumbing eliminated the mysterious, decades-old leak under the sink, and the one-piece Corian sink was easier to keep clean than the old stainless-steel one with its rims and borders. My kitchen is now much easier to use and to maintain.
Next I turned my attention to the flooring, which was a hodgepodge of vinyl and old, worn carpet. I wanted something that would be attractive, easy to care for, and long-lasting. I considered carpet throughout the house with a different solution for the kitchen, but though it's my personal preference, the fact is that carpet just doesn't last. It has to be replaced every 10-15 years, which is expensive and inconvenient, and it must be regularly steam-cleaned, along with occasional spot removal. I was looking for an easier, more permanent solution. Next I thought about ceramic or porcelain tile, which is permanent and will stand up to just about any wear and tear. What I didn't like about it is that it's as hard as concrete and can feel unpleasantly cold in the winter. I also thought about hardwood, which is beautiful and adds value to your home. However, it's quite expensive, shows scratches and dents, and has to be refinished every few years. Finally, after seeing it in my brother's home, I looked into wood laminate, which turned out to be less expensive and more durable than hardwood, warmer on one's feet than tile, and very easy to care for.
So here's what I ended up doing for flooring: wood laminate for all of the rooms in the house except for bathrooms and bedrooms. I left the vinyl in the guest bathrooms, since it was fairly recent and holding up well. I put top-quality padding and carpet in the bedrooms, since they get less traffic than the rest of the house, and I like the coziness and warmth of carpet. I put porcelain tile in the master bathroom. I had had vinyl in there originally, but the radiant heating I had selected made the vinyl lift up around all of the edges--very annoying. But radiant heating made the tile nice and warm, and I put down thick rugs to get around the hardness problem. I'll have to reseal the grout every year, but that takes about 10 minutes; otherwise, my bathroom floor is comfortable, attractive, maintenance-free, and permanent.
My floors now look beautiful and require much less care than in the past. (By the way, for information on getting wood laminate installed, see this excellent hub by Pcunix: http://pcunix.hubpages.com/hub/Wood-laminate-or-carpet.)
All of the work on the interior was very satisfying, but I hadn't yet addressed the aspect of a house that can require the most maintenance: the exterior walls. My house is rectangular; two of the walls had wood-siding exteriors, which meant they needed to be painted every few years. A great friend came to visit me from Texas and offered to paint the house one summer; when it was over, he said, "If I ever volunteer to paint your house again, shoot me." The other two walls had foam exteriors, something of which I'd never heard. A foam exterior looks like stucco (that's what I thought it was when I bought the house), but it's much softer (or at least the kind my house had was). It has to be painted to match the new paint on the wood exterior, but it had an even worse problem: birds. Birds found the foam easy to peck through, and over the years they drilled holes under the eaves that allowed them easy access to the attic (I'll bet they were after the moths).
After researching various types of exterior wall coverings, I decided to go with stucco, which would never have to be painted and was hard enough to discourage birds from trying to peck through it. (My contractor also made it harder for the moths by sealing every opening he could find on the exterior walls and roof. I see three or four moths in moth season now, but they just serve as an excuse for my cats' joyous pursuit of them through the house.) Just about any color is available, and I'm happy with the result. What a relief to know I'll never have to get the house painted again!
Improved Appearance and Less Maintenance
It cost me a lot to make all of these improvements, but my house now looks much nicer and takes considerably less work to maintain. I intend to live here as long as I can, and the less maintenance the house requires, the longer I'll be able to stay, knowing that my home will remain sellable and a pleasure for me to inhabit.