Houses, Disasters, Insurance…Oh My!

October 31st, 2007

Our previous house was almost two hundred years old. It was a fixer-upper, albeit a small one, and we really never had any problems with it. At least none that every required us to use our home owners insurance. And as much as I wished one of the huge pine trees that surrounded our house would blow over during a wind storm and take out the kitchen, they never did. So for eight years we paid our insurance premiums and never filed a claim.

Then we bought our new old house and had our insurance through the same company. We closed on the house and moved in. I was 14 days away from giving birth to my daughter, so to say I was a bit emotional, over tired, and well, tired would not be an exaggeration. I got a phone call from our insurance company that they were dropping us. The reason? The assessor had driven by and said the house looked like it should be condemned and it was a “piece of junk.”

If I hadn’t been so pregnant and overwrought I might have laughed since this condemned house had just appraised for a boatload of money, certainly more than a piece of junk would cost. We were faxed a list of things that were found wrong with the house. Areas of peeling paint. Yes, I fully acknowledge that the house needed a paint job, but that is a reason to drop an insurance policy?

We ended up scrambling to find a painter to paint our house within the two week period the insurance company generously allowed. One who came, walked around the house and said to do the house right it, so it would look good up close would cost $30,000. I asked if how much it would cost to do it wrong and have it look good from across the street, while I squinted and hopped up and down on one foot. And that was the paint job we went with.

In the end we got to keep our home owners insurance, as required by our mortgage company. And we have dutifully paid it monthly asking nothing in return other than for it to be there should we ever need it, which knock on wood we hope not to.

The House and I
posted about insurance:

But it goes to show: you never know where danger’s gonna come from.

You don’t. You don’t know. But the insurance companies sure as hell do. They have whole fleets of boring people whose job it is to run the numbers on just this sort of thing.

And so she has written a ten step proposal: How All of Us Can Live happily Without Costing Anybody Anything.

1. Wherever you live, it’s a danger. Move.
2. Take nothing with you. Your things are just a burden on us all.
3. When you get there, hunker down. Bad times are coming…

You’ll have to go to her blog to read the rest of the steps in her proposal. How often can you laugh about insurance? And I don’t mean in that hysterical I am having a breakdown sort of way.

Teresa at Blog By The Sea has an excellent post up about re-homemaking after a disaster.

I thought it might be helpful to some people if I would share some thoughts about rebuilding, shopping to replace items, and accepting help from others after a catastrophic disaster loss. These are based on my experience after the Oakland Hills Fire and the experience of other people I knew. This is not a post about surviving, but rather an honest post for people who have replacement cost insurance. It is about about things like negotiating with your carrier, replacing lost collections, and buying new furniture

She also offers some suggestions for gifts if you know people who have just been through a catastrophic disaster.

Our very own Grace Davis has posted an Evacuation List of things you should take with you should you need to evacuate your home in a disaster situation. It is a great list and the comments left by other people might give you some ideas also. I am not overly attached to anything in my house, other than my laptop and photos. And of course my children I’d make sure to bring them with me.

I never would have thought of photographing my house for insurance purposes. Nor would I have thought to grab bills or the checkbook. No, I would be the one with a van full of Legos my children couldn’t leave behind and an odd assortment of snack foods I grabbed on the way out the door after scratching my head and walking around in circles for as long as was possible.

Lists like the one Grace posted are what I need to really think about the things that I would need to have with me.

Burdened by Chemicals

October 25th, 2007

I read this report a few days ago about a family that underwent “body burden” testing which looks at the presence and levels of industrial chemicals in people. This is the first time that a nuclear family has undergone testing together. The results were pretty shocking.

…tests revealed that their children — Rowan, then 18 months, and Mikaela, then 5 — had chemical exposure levels up to seven times those of their parents.

Truly I am at a loss for words over the idea that a little person who has only been alive for 18 months could have levels that surpass that of his parents by several times. What does that say about the toxic substances that our children are exposed to on a daily basis? And what are those toxic chemicals and how can we get rid of them?

Most Americans haven’t heard of body burden testing, but it’s a hot topic among environmentalists and public health experts who warn that the industrial chemicals we come into contact with every day are accumulating in our bodies and endangering our health in ways we have yet to understand.

The list of chemicals that are hidden in products we use every day is daunting. It is easy to avoid some of the obvious things, but the phthalates (which are used to make plastic soft) hiding in shampoo, nail polish, and soft plastic toys have been shown to cause reproductive defects, obesity and early puberty in lab animals. It makes you want to throw your hands up in the air and swear off bathing, grooming and give your child a stick and rock to play with.

PBDEs, the chemical that makes things flame retardant, has been shown in lab animals to cause liver, thyroid and neurological damage and yet go to any store and you will find flame retardant pajamas on sale for children. Isn’t that just what you want to have touching your child’s skin for 12 hours out of each day? Why in the off chance that your toddler takes up smoking and falls asleep in his crib with a butt hanging out of his mouth?

Bisphenol A, makes plastic hard, and is commonly found in water bottles and baby bottles. It has been shown to cause an increase in female reproductive disorders. PFOAs, found in non stick pans, has been shown to cause liver problems and developmental disorders. Most troubling is that it is not easily eliminated from the human body. PCBs were banned in the US in 1970 but still are ever present in older appliances, are a known carcinogen.

So what do you do? Aside from living in a bubble, which probably would be made of soft plastic and therefore be laden with phthalates as well. Some offer easy solutions like replacing your baby’s bottle with a glass one or not putting him in flame retardant pajamas. And throwing away those non-stick coated pans.

But soon the choices become less obvious. Tear up your wall to wall carpeting and install hardwood flooring, but make sure that it is from a sustainable forest, because you know the environment is hanging in the balance too. After awhile you can make yourself a bit crazy, or crazier, as the case may be.

If you are like me you are probably sipping your fair trade coffee and thinking, ‘I already buy hormone free milk, organically raised beef, eggs from free range hormone free hens, chickens that were raised with love, hand fed, and coddled like pets until the fateful day they had their heads chopped off. I clean with vinegar and water, and wash my sweatshop free, organic cotton clothing in all natural soap that leaves my clothes just as dirty as they went in the low energy-low water usage washing machine. And now I have to worry about this too?’

Well, yes you do. But it is important as in all things to keep it in perspective. Even taking small steps can limit your exposure. Take baby steps eliminating one thing from your life at a time. Then it doesn’t seem like an insurmountable burden.

I will go on record here as saying I love bleach. I love it and it’s bacteria killing abilities. I love how it cleans the mold and mildew off of my bathroom grout and makes my toilet bowl sparkle. And honestly, I can not imagine giving it up. I joke that the tree huggers will have to pry it out of my cold, dead, yet thoroughly sanitized hands.

I tell you this bit of information to let everyone know that I do not hold myself out as some sort of example to follow. I am also struggling with information overload just like the rest of you. And where we go from here is a question for all of us to answer.

(cross posted at handipoints)

It’s not easy being Green(ish)

October 19th, 2007

Monday was Blog Action Day. If you aren’t familiar with this it was when bloggers all across the globe blogged about a single cause, this year it was the environment. So what do our intrepid bloggers have to say on this topic as it relates to home renovation?

232 Green Street writes 10 Ways to be Green (Cheaply)

I’d like to think we’re fairly “green” as new homeowners go… but truthfully we’d like to do so much more. I would love to put solar panels on our roof, replace our aging hot-water heater with a nice tankless unit, put down renewable bamboo floors, and insulate our house to the point where not a single watt of energy is wasted. But practically speaking, that will never happen. Just as with most new homeowners, we find out budgets and our wits stretched to their end just trying to keep up; an unfortunate reality is that to be green means you have to spend money. Or does it?

They offer 10 ways that you can reduce your footprint without spending money and expending little effort.

Over at Beach House, they write about their environmental impact:

We’re still trying to do our part to save the planet but I have to say that since we moved from Europe I feel that we’ve become a lot less environmentally conscious.
For example, in Belgium we sorted all our garbage. We had to as the law changed to mandate it. We were forced to buy separate garbage sacks for household rubbish, bottles, cans and cartons, paper and vegetable matter. Everyone grumbled because the sacks weren’t cheap and the price varied from commune to commune but there were fines for non-compliance and eventually people got with the programme….

They write about the things they are doing, but overall how they feel they are failing on the environmental front. And after reading so many other people I have to wonder if this is because each individual thing we do seems so small and we wonder how we, as one small person, can make a difference by carrying our groceries in canvas bags or sweating without air conditioning.

There is a feeling of hopelessness. Especially when you are toting your canvas bags and carrying the extra groceries in your hands and look over at the person asking for her plastic bags to be double bagged and please only one item per bag. It’s enough to make you throw your hands up and and cry, “I give up!”

Georgetown House echoed this sentiment, in the post It’s Not Easy Being Green:

I put off writing all day out of guilt, and then it dawned on me that that’s what I’ll write about: Not letting “oh I’m not doing enough” stop you (ok, not you, ME) from doing the little things that you can do, and improving on them in at least baby steps.

It’s just hard to not slink into the corner when you read about folks who have completely eliminated their use of paper products (I even know folks who use rags and bidet-type things instead of toilet paper) , who never eat anything that’s not produced/grown within 100 miles of their home, who don’t own a car and bike everywhere, who bake all of their own bread in a wood-fired oven in the back yard, and who sell electricity back to the power company because of their solar panels or windmills or whatever.

However, I’m not one of those people.

I am not one of those people either.

My philosophy on recycling is not to bring it into my house to begin with. That means I buy things that have little to no packaging whenever I can. I drink water from the tap, like everyone before our water bottle obsessed generation did. I am still alive and perfectly well hydrated. Seriously, why are you people all so thirsty all the time that you can not venture out of the house without a bottle of water in your hand? Oh, but that would be a separate topic.

I do get the plastic bags from the grocery store, but I use them as garbage bags. And no they aren’t too small. There are nine of us living in this house with one still in diapers, yes disposable, and we do not fill a standard sized garbage can weekly.

Old Stone House writes about how they have saved 70% of their heating bill by following a practice called localized heating.

As such, we’ve changed our focus from conservation (how we could waste less heat) to consumption (how we could require less heat) and decided to follow the practices of generations of families before us and now depend on localized heating.

Localized heating is exactly what the names states – heating that is meant to serve only a small/isolated area – a local area. If you only need to heat 10% of your homes volume because that’s all the space you use, there are obvious savings to be made.

We do this at our house. After our first winter here when we saw dollars flying out the windows, doors, and floors in heating bills, we decided to purchase and install a wood pellet stove in our family room. It heats the back part of the house where we spend the majority of our time, to a toasty warm level. We keep our oil furnace set to 62 degrees. Yes, it is cold in our bedrooms and other parts of the house. But that is why god invented down comforters and slippers.

That’s A Cute Little Farmhouse
links to an article from their local electric company’s newsletter, How to save energy with incense, a light stick and a dollar bill. Intrigued? I was.

Our Tiny Oak Park Bungalow offers tips for living greener, from live smaller…why buy a large house when a small one will do, to install a rain barrel for watering your gardens.

Renovation of 1906 Brooklyn Row House writes an excellent post, Saving the World: Black Pixels and Termite Farts, which provided some much needed levity and perspective on the topic. Because, man, I was getting depressed.

Summing up, it would be nice to dump that fat-arsed SUV you don’t really need. You should invest in higher-efficiency appliances and tighten up your home. But hybrid cars, CFL light bulbs and black pixels are just a sideshow. We need to realize that no matter what political stripes we might wear, we’re all fighting the same survival clock, if not for ourselves then for future generations which are counting on us to fix what they didn’t break. This isn’t a liberal/conservative issue or a democrat/republican issue. It’s a smart/stupid issue.

Moving the world to newer, safer forms of energy and putting ourselves on an energy diet in the interim is one of the toughest challenges we’ve ever faced. It will require visionary leadership committed to its success, not more sock puppets telling us what we want to hear and only what they want us to know.

This message was written using recycled, old-growth ASCII characters.

After reading all the blogs I decided to stop beating myself up for not being perfect and focus on the things that we are doing right. And there are many more things that we are doing right than we are doing wrong. Right now almost all of our lightbulbs are the energy efficient kind, the exception to this is our dining room with it’s fake candle lightbulbs. But we rarely use that room anyway. Last year at this time, we still were using regular bulbs everywhere.

It might not be easy being green, but it is getting easier.

Picky Eaters? It Really Is Your Fault.

October 14th, 2007

I have always been a somewhat picky eater. It drove my mother crazy when I was growing up. Likewise it drove me crazy that she kept cooking foods I hated and wondered why I wouldn’t eat them.

She was from the Depression Era, a time when there was no such thing as being a picky eater. A combination of not enough food to go around and constant hunger meant that she did not have the luxury of being picky. Faced with the alternative of starvation, people will eat anything. Nowadays most of us are not willing to starve our children into submission, though it can be tempting some days.

When I was growing up I was forced to eat whatever was on my plate. The food I refused to eat would be wrapped up, put in the fridge, and served to me cold at the next meal. Food was always an issue. And I swore that when I had children I would not make an issue of it.

I read this article last week which discusses the findings of a study led by Dr. Lucy Cooke of the department of epidemiology and public health at University College London, that was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in August.

Researchers examined the eating habits of 5,390 pairs of twins between 8 and 11 years old and found children’s aversions to trying new foods are mostly inherited.
The message to parents: It’s not your cooking, it’s your genes.

For an interesting twist in our family, my husband is not a picky eater at all. The only thing, and I do mean only thing, he doesn’t like is raw onions. Everything else he will happily eat. Though he doesn’t like sweets. That means cakes, cookies, pastries, pies, chocolate can all sit there without tempting him in the least.

I have one son who is exactly like him. A child who will pass up treats and ask for carrot sticks; a child who piles his plate high with vegetables and salad. I know…who is this child? And you know if he were my only child I would feel smugly superior, but alas I have others who keep me humble.

Researchers have found:

Most children eat a wide variety of foods until they are around 2, when they suddenly stop. The phase can last until the child is 4 or 5.

Based on my experience with my children I have definitely found this to be the case. Most all of my children were open to foods while they were young toddlers, and then suddenly when the terrible twos hit in full force and they have wills of their own, they begin asserting themselves in all areas, including what foods to put in their mouths.

There is an infamous photo of me as a toddler eating a hot dog. This would explain to my mother why I ate that when I had just turned two years old and yet refused to each and every time afterward. That would include now 36 years later. I have never liked hot dogs. Granted, now as an adult I seldom gag and throw myself on the ground crying when offered a hot dog, but don’t think I haven’t thought about it.

The beauty of having many children is that all these parenting issues quickly become clear. I realized long ago that I can not take the credit for this child’s good eating habits and more than I should berate myself for the picky habits of my other children. It’s just how they are.

The researchers say that this phase passes eventually. You just have to ride it out like a hellish storm. Don’t become emotionally invested over whether they eat or not.

I can tell you that as a grown up I eat a wide variety of foods now, only held back by food allergies. And my soon to be 13 year old, who used to be extremely picky, now that he is in the throes of puberty and growing like a weed, he will eat anything and everything in as large of quantities as he can get it. Some nights he will look over to his younger sibling’s plates at dinner and say, “Are you going to finish that?”

(crossposted at handipoints)