Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Location, Location, Location?

You've heard that phrase before.

The rebel yell of real estate agents everywhere.  This plaintive cry applies to everything from starting and keeping a business running to buying a home.  The 'three L's', you will be told, are of the utmost importance.  When it comes to a business endeavor, location has more to do with traffic, visibility and accessibility.  A residential location on the other hand, has other equally important concerns in regards to location.  Common on the homeowner wish list are preferring that your future home is in a good enough neighborhood that it doesn't require steel bars on all your doors and windows, vicious dogs in the yard...and possibly a moat..., low traffic and noise level, proximity to good schools ( if you have kids),  non proximity to schools if you don't (See: noise level) and of course, being in plausible walking distance to at least three Starbucks in any given direction.

If you are thinking of buying a home, building a new one yourself, have plans for resale, or embarking on a remodel project of an existing home, this is one of the most important decisions you will make.  If you're a new home buyer or building a new one, does the home site have everything you want?  If you're remodeling or selling, does the surrounding neighborhood justify the expense of a remodel or touch up? Will you get your money back in a reasonable amount of time or are you overbuilding for the area?  (If you intend to live in this house  until the day you die - disregard the overbuilding clause and do whatever you want.  Hey, it's your house and your money, live a little...)  If you're on a budget, I believe the real estate mantra is 'Buy the least expensive home in the best neighborhood you can afford'.  The rest is a no brainer.  Or is it?

I would like to suggest an addition to this verbal pantheon.

Exposure, Exposure, Exposure.

And no, I am not referring to the ability to flash your neighbors at will. (and you shouldn't be even thinking about it unless you've got the body of a Greek god, or Pamela Anderson...)

I'm referring to the exposure of the building to its surroundings, sun orientation and such.

If you are building a new home from the ground up, you will want to pay attention to your site plan.  It is extremely important to make sure the house plan you fell in love with is a perfect match with the lot you want.  Nothing is more heart breaking than building your dream home, only to discover after it's built that it has all the sunlight of one of those long, deep, dark, South American caves where bats like to hang out.

If you have the opportunity and you are not in a hurry to build, track where the sunlight falls on your lot during each of the four seasons. You will want to have some idea where the sun will come streaming in through the windows in each room.  This equally applies to remodeling and home additions too.  While on a remodel, most of the existing house plan and orientation will remain, it's where you choose to put your new windows or how you open up the space that will make the difference. And don't be afraid to think outside the box.  Try to envision what an existing room could be, not what it is now.

Example:  Do you have a formal living or dining room you never use, yet your adjacent kitchen is a dark little warren the size of a gum wrapper?  Think about opening up the two rooms to create that open floorplan gourmet kitchen you've always wanted. You can make an existing bad floorplan great with a little vision and creativity.

In new construction, you have the option to flip the floorplan, move rooms around, or use a new floorplan entirely to better suit the lot.  Do as much pre planning as you can on paper.  It is far cheaper and easier to change things on those recycled and pressed wood chips than it is to do so while in the painful throws of the actual construction.  (Future Post: Design As You Go - or - How to blast your budget into the 'on your knees and weeping, just shoot me now' stratosphere...)

Do you like a sunny morning kitchen?  East facing windows are a plus.  Do you live in a hot climate and dislike the feeling that your main living area has been set to 'broil' while you self baste in your own juices in the summer afternoon sun?  Then avoid windows facing west.

Southern exposures usually make everyone happy (unless you're already in a really hot climate even during the winter months).  The sun will be low on the horizon in the winter, bathing south facing rooms with light and warmth, but high over the roofline during the summer months when you don't want the heat.

Besides catering to us light freaks, don't underestimate how sun exposure can contribute to 'Green Design'.  A sunny exposure in winter not only results in sunnier dispositions, but it also means sunnier rooms that require less heating costs.  Add tile floors to that sunny exposure, and you'll have some passive solar heating action working for you too.  The opposite holds true in the summer in hot climates.  North facing windows in a bedroom will keep those rooms cooler, most of us preferring colder temperatures to sleep comfortably- which translates to less air conditioning and cooling costs. Ditto on a two story home with bedrooms on the bottom floor,  building part of the home into a hill, or rooms with cathedral ceilings and operable transom windows, etc.  Heat rises, keeping those rooms naturally cooler.

Other things to consider too: How do you operate in any given space. Will the sun be streaming through the windows right where you intended to place your flat screen TV?  You won't be able to watch it due to the intense glare unless you leave the blinds drawn all day long.  I once lived in a place that had so much sun in the kitchen that I literally had to wear sunglasses to bake Christmas cookies.  There is something to be said for 'too much of a good thing'.

Room placement, sun exposure, ceiling height, cross ventilation, skylights, transom windows, low E glass, finishing materials, etc, can all help control light and temperatures in a room and contribute to a home environment with Green Design in mind.  Going into those options in detail is a post for another day, but do consider them if you're planning a building project.  Their inclusion can impact your heating and cooling bills immensely as well as your attitude.

Example of what NOT to do...

I currently live in mountain country.  Long on winter, short on summer, homes often surrounded by tall pine trees and plenty of snow; any home here with a bright, southern exposure and year round sunlight is a much sought after commodity.  So a few years ago, a series of contractors and speculators chose to build a row of townhouses that did the exact opposite.

It was at the height of the housing boom, where properties for sale were scarce in the area and demand was high.  When this happens, you can just about bet money that there will be a lot of 'slap 'em up' building going on. The assumption is that buyers are so desperate, they'll lap up just about anything that's on the market.  As a result, very little thought or consideration is usually put into the building on any level. Location, sun exposure, layout, traffic pattern, finishing materials...ummm, can you get any furniture in it and actually live in the place? (Another future post: Architectural interior space planning - or complete lack thereof...) 

Hey, fuhgedaboudit.

Unfortunately for the speculators, contractors and banks, the housing market here took a tank before they finished building the units.

With the exception of a few small bedroom windows, note in the above picture how the garage is the only part of the house that gets all of that wonderful southern exposure, warmth and light...while the main living areas are all north facing. (That's great if you're an Orc of Lord of the Rings fame and eschew the light of day all year round.  For the rest of us?...not so much...)  Those rooms will always be dark year round, and VERY cold come winter, requiring you to continually nudge that thermostat up. Another consideration in this particular area is snow-pack.  We get a lot of it.  It's not uncommon to get a 4 foot dump in one night. In a heavy snow year, you can count on those bottom windows in the main living area being completely covered by January unless you're constantly out there shoveling it. North facing?  The white stuff won't be melting off until June...
Now you really are living in a cave! Bright spot?  Your kids will just love sledding down their own personal icy (but dirty) Matterhorn squatting semi-permanently in your backyard like a frozen Jabba the Hut. (You're laughing, but I've actually seen this happen!)

But it gets better! These buildings also have all those northern exposure windows of the main living areas facing an unobstructed and marvelous view of...

-wait for it-

one of the seediest trailer parks on the entire north shore.

I'm told the inhabitants of said trailer park have a penchant to party 24/7.  Exacerbate that with the typical  building speculator bare minimum, 'cheapest building materials, insulation and windows money can't buy', and the noise level reaches aggravating levels.  Those who have rented the townhomes complain of never getting a moments peace.  They move out soon after.

Asking price for a two bedroom? Between $320,000 and $350,000.  Are they kidding me?
Needless to say, the properties still haven't sold after several years and are now owned by the bank.

This is me being surprised....

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