Housing

Location: 
Silicon Valley
Topic: 
Housing

Although this chapter has been placed under the Silicon Valley location, much applies to the rest of California and some to the country in general. But you can't ignore that Silicon Valley belongs to one of the most affluent locations in the country. If you think other places look more wealthy, it may be because house prices in Silicon Valley reflect the scarcity of dwellings close to the technological epicenter with price levels unheard of in most of the country.

Many houses are heated by hot air circulation. It can make individual regulation of the temperatures difficult; you can turn down the temperature by closing the duct, but you can't turn up in individual rooms. Compared to radiator heating, hot air makes a lot of noice when it is moved around in the ducts and the fans rotate. The upside is, obviously, that it can heat a room very fast and you can connect an air condition unit to the same system and cool the house down in the summer.

An other major difference is the 110V in the electric outlets where the holes are rectangular and usually there isn't an on/off switch, the outlet is always live. If you come from a 220V country you can kiss all your kitchen appliances, toaster, coffee grinder, kettle, blender.... good bye. Your vacuum cleaner, power tools, telephones, and everything electric also needs a new charger or to be replaced. We have a single converter box that I used for my sewing machine once every two years. We brought some lamps with us when we moved the furniture over and they all have new plugs but most can use the local light bulbs. Bulbs also have to be made for 110V - otherwise they can only be used as night lights.

For the most part, washing machines take in cold and hot water as it comes out of your pipes; they don't heat up the water. Hence, the water is either cold (5C/41F), as hot as you have set your water heater, or a mix of the two. Forget thermostats. The upside is that when the machine has taken in hot water, it takes 30 minutes, not two hours, to finish the wash.

I have yet to meet thermostat regulated faucets. You have to learn by doing where to position the handle. Remember that water is a scarce resource and many shower heads will reflect this.

In spite of the water scarcity, it is still unusual to see toilets where you can chose big or small flush. Some public buildings have started to install water saving flushes - I have even met a type that time how long you have spent on the throne and regulate the amount of water accordingly. And that was more than enough said about this subject.

In California most of the water comes from the melting snow pack of the Sierras. It doesn't contain much calcium (like ground water often does) and consequently there is not the same need for decalcifying water heaters and adding salt to the dish washer. Where ground water is used, it is common to install a central salt filter on both or just the hot water pipe to clean out debris that otherwise might clog pipes or gaskets.

Most houses are made of wood. Stucco may lead you to believe that they are made of brick or cinder blocks but normally it is a wooden skeleton covered up in plywood and sheet rock. In an earth quake you will appreciate the difference. The wooden structure will easier move with the rolling motions in the ground where a stone structure is more likely to break. Obviously, if you house has survived a major earth quake, you may not find two parallel walls and installing cabinets or hanging pictures can be a little tricky if the floor or walls are not level. You can get quite queasy if the cabinets are mounted correctly but don't follow the contours of the room. Hanging a door when the opening doesn't have straight angles can also be a challenge. Remodeling, however, is quite easy in a wooden construction when compared to brick or cinder block walls.

When you look at some of the luxurious villas in the very affluent neighborhoods, it is amusing to remember that the fancy garden walls may well be 2"x4" timber posts covered in tar paper, chicken mesh and stucco. A truck driving into one of these walls might pass right through it.

With wooden houses you need more fire stations and hydrants. The little blue reflexes in the streets mark the position of a fire hydrant. You will often see the big fire engines in the street. Fortunately the fire fighters may just have been out for lunch or inspecting alarm systems in an office complex, but they are also first responders when you call 911 and will show up at car crashes or other medical emergiencies.

When you live in a wooden structure, termits are not welcome. The termit itself is like a big red-brown ant with very long wings. It lays its eggs in the wood where the larvae will eat the wood and damage the structural strength of the building. You know you have visitors if you find what seems like sawdust in stange places. Smaller infestations can be freezed out with nitrogen injections; in many cases the house needs to be tented and all perishable food, plants, pets, and inhabitants must be out of the building for a least three days. It is said that it is not a question of if but when you will experience an infestation.

Moths are also unwelcome, less serious but more pervasive. Most homes will have at least one piece of furniture lined with cedar for storing clothes. Moths don't like the smell of cedar. And when you get a new piece of furniture you have to agree with them - the smell is pretty obvious for a while and the windows stay open. You can find cedar hangers, blocks, and shoe blocks, all for the purpose of having a little cedar smell in your closets and there is a big assortment of plactic storage containers for your clothes. How to store a fur coat? Don't even bring it to California. It may be cold enough in the mountains but it is not considered politically correct to wear more fur than what you grow yourself.

The plastic containers may not only protect your clothes from moths, it will also reduce the amount of dust landing on your wardrobe. With a rainy and a dry season the air can contain dust and pollen that will happily circulate through your open windows and into your built in or walk in closets. Most of the year the weather invites you to have open windows (covered by mosquito netting). So the clothes that is not in season will likely get dusty unless you store it in appropriate containers.

If you suffer from allergies you may find that they disappear here - or you may not have been prone to allergies and suddenly find yourself sneezing from redwood, acacia, or eucalyptus. Palo Alto is nicknamed Allergy Capital of the World, perhaps because of the many Golden Amber trees lining the sidewalks. They give beautiful shade and make the city very green but they also leave a mess of dust - and small, spiked seed capsules that you will not appreciate stepping on. Local honey should give some tolerance for local flowers and can be found in the Farmers' Markeds popular around the area. I don't know if it works, but the honey is delicious.

Dust not only settles on your clothes, it will also circulate into your garage. As few houses have cellars or attic storage space, most garages are home to - dusty - camping gear, earthquake supplies, suitcases and the like. The only things you will rarely find in garages are cars. Most are filled up with the afore mentioned items, old refrigerators, and things people should have gotten rid of long ago.

Hence the term garage sale when people do clear out their excess possessions. I don't know how common they are where you come from, but they are incredibly more common around here than where I come from. The weather probably has something to do with this. You can generally plan on sunshine regardless of when you want to have a garage sale in the summer and then you can put everything out in the driveway. If you are not comfortable with your neighbors and total strangers picking through your belongings, you can donate almost anything to Goodwill, a non profit organization that has manned containers parked on many locations. They will issue a receipt so you can write off your donation on your tax return.

If you don't like saying good bye to your things, you can keep them in a self storage facility. For a monthly fee you can rent a smaller or bigger room.(You can even rent storage for a boat or an RV, recreational vehicle, a second home on wheels.) Some people use this option if they have a hobby requiring some space. Perhaps you are restoring an old car and don't have room for doing that in your garage (because it is filled up with refrigerators and pinball machines?) Perhaps your relatives left you a full dining room that you just can't part with even though you don't currently have room for it? Perhaps your child lost his job and moved home during the economic crisis? Remember that the price for renting a unit very soon may top the value of goods stored and check your insurance.

Pest control don't only chase termits, they also take care of other unwelcome guests. As we live along one of the valley's many creeks, we have had rats. Fortunately, they are not big, ugly sewer rats (frankly they remind me more of cute guinea pigs). But they can still make quite a mess - not the least because they like chewing on electric wires and nest under your hood where the engine makes is warm and snug. Your breaks work best if there are no holes in the break fluid tubes. Although I normally see myself as a tolerant and nature loving person, I really don't like having rats indoors so I do use rat traps. Pest control will also help you with raccoons - for mountain lions you call the police.

Solar power is getting increasingly popular as are electric cars. It takes quite a lot of solar panels to power an electric car but the technology now has a common feature in Tesla's new power wall, a huge battery for storing solar power to use at night. If you drive electric, remember to get the reduced night rate from your power provider and "tank up" when consumption is otherwise low.

Don't get me started on the subject of contractors. Fortunately we can use a hammer and are not afraid of a broken nail, but when it comes to electricity and gas pipes we pass. You need permits for most remodeling projects, even fairly minor ones, but that doesn't stop many contractors from offering their services without telling the city - or without knowing what they are doing.

Our new neighbors had a major remodeling project shortly after buying the house. One day we noticed the police parked in front of the house and then nothing happened on the project for the longest time. When the windows were ready to be installed, the neighbors got a call that the windows had not yet been payed for. If they still wanted the windows, the company would like to see some money otherwise the windows would be handed off to another customer. The contractor confessed that he had used the money for other purposes. "So sorry, if you pay me more money I will be happy to finish the house." Obviously, they got another contractor to finish the project - but the windows and who knows what else were paid for twice.

Two houses further on the new owners were ready to make a minor change when they found so serious termite infestation that the whole house had to be torn down. When the city officials came to inspect the new house, it didn't pass inspection in so many areas that they, too, had to hire a new contractor. So don't go with the cheapest bidder; ask around before you sign a contract.

You can check Better Business Bureau on the internet, although there are rumors that they can be influenced to take down negative reports, or you can subscribe to Angie's List or Yelp, online customer feedback sites. You can also check when the company was licensed. If the owner lets the company go bankrupt every 5 years, a 15 year guaranty is not worth much.

Before we moved in, branches from the garden's big trees had been to close to the roof for too long and although the trees had been pruned back, the roof was not healthy in some places. We learned that when the rain started to seep through the ceiling. After patching up the hole to stop the rain, we tore parts of the roof off the next summer with the help of a local friend who had worked his way through college roofing.

Shake roofs are basically layered tar paper. The paper keeps out the rain. On top of the paper are wooden shakes, protecting the paper from sun damage. Unless you on a regular basis remove leaves, acorns, pollen (and at times racoon droppings), the shake will rot and the paper disintegrate in the sun. Acorn and other seeds can take root in the mulch collecting between the shakes, and leaves in the gutters will make the rain seep up under the edge of the roof. I used to go on the roof regularly to blow off the debris, but then I got allergic to oak pollen. So after 10 years we got the whole roof professionally replaced with something that requires less maintenance.

More and more roofs are now covered either in pseudo shakes, made out of concrete or metal to reduce the fire hazard, or a composite material cut to look like shake. Good shake is expensive to come by and new shakes are treated with fire retardant. Some insurance companies will not insure your house if you have a shake roof. Or they will give you a reduced rate if you have less fire-prone materials.

Many houses have a fireplace. We have converted our fireplace into a gas burning unit with ceramic logs. When I moved to California, I swore I would never get that artificial but when you live in a wooden house you really don't like leaving burning embers overnight. The concept of wood burning stoves, that have replaced open fireplaces in many other countries, is not well known in California.

An alternative to dealing with embers is to buy logs. A log is an (also artificial) product made of some oil base and sawdust or coffee shells. They are made to burn for 2-3-4 hours but they really don't smell that good. Rather than having the smell of petrol in the living room I caged in to the pressure from other family members with fire-philia. The upsides are that we have a nice, cosy living room when the central heating has turned down for the night, and it works even when we have a black out and the fans for the air heating system don't work.

On Spare-the-air-days, where you are not allowed to burn wood or charcoal in the BBQ, you can still burn gas or propane. Spare-the-air is declared when it has been very dry (no rain washing the air) and with no wind for a while. Then the Valley is covered in a thick, yellow layer of dust and pollution and burning firewood will only make it worse. Unfortunately these weather patterns are common around Thanksgiving and Christmas when everybody longs to use the fireplace. In the event of an earth quake so grave that the gas has to be shut off, we can - if the chimney is still standing - remove the ceramic logs and take some firewood from the back yard. It is not for the lack of wood we use gas.