My name is Mary. I’m an aging person with an aging house. I’m going to tell the story of transforming my house from something I don’t want into something I do.

A decision is considered rational if the returns justify the investment. But decisions can be rational in the short term and not so rational in the long term, or they can be rational in the long term but not so rational in the short term. This is the same distinction that made my decision to tear down and rebuild my house a long-term rational one, despite my reservations.

When I first bought the house from Joe Keiger, I wanted only to renovate it.

(Mary McCutcheon)

The basement was mostly just a crawl space, and I would have had to dig it out to expand it. What would that take? Excavating underneath the existing house? Why not?

(Mary McCutcheon)

I wanted a second floor too. What would that take? Creating a good support and building up? Again, why not? I also wanted the walls to be well-insulated. So just stuff in some foam or something and make the best of it.

This would have been a rational short-term decision. I would have recycled almost all of the structure. The cost would not be great.

The more I learned about insulation and structural problems, though, the more convinced I became that long-term efficiency would be gained by getting rid of the floors and the roof and the entire west-facing wall. And that didn’t leave much. In fact, removing that much and leaving so little made the project no longer technically a “renovation” at all. And this put me into a different bracket when applying for a building permit.

And then another problem... The original house was built 6 feet from the north property line and 20 feet from the street on the east side. These two setbacks are sub-minimal for my R-6 zoning designation in Arlington County. Any new construction requires 8 feet on the side and 25 feet on the front.

(Mary McCutcheon)

Building a mostly new house on top of the existing foundation would require a variance to get around this rule. I’ve sat in on several variance hearings and my impression is that variances like mine are not difficult to get. So my architect, Peter VanderPoel, and I went down to the county office and confidently filled out the application. I left him to take care of the initial meeting with the zoning staff and I came home.

It came as a shock later in the afternoon when he phoned to tell me that the staff advised him to forget about getting a variance; the application would certainly be denied. I still don’t know why, but at that point we were up to the deadline for the May Board of Zoning Appeals meeting. Getting the application in later and running the now-high risk of getting denied would have put us up to the June meeting — at that point three months away. It began to make less and less sense to go through the motions simply to preserve the foundation of the house.

And then came the discovery that much of the foundation was terra cotta bricks and not likely to hold up well.

(Mary McCutcheon)

Okay. So this meant that the entire house was coming down and an entirely new house was going to be built “by right” 8 feet set back from the north property line and 25 feet from the street.

The estimate from Demolition Services came in at just around this time. This is the company that removes what we don’t want in an environmentally conscious way and recycles as much as possible. The concept appealed to me a lot and the stuff that can be resold allows a nice tax deduction since the company is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. The amount of recyclable material in my house was tentatively estimated to be about $30,000 and the total cost of demolition would have been a little more than $21,000. I would have had to hire an appraiser to satisfy the requirements of the IRS, which limits a non-monetary charitable donation without a formal appraisal to $5,000. Such an appraiser would cost another $1,500. Now that I’m retired, my tax bracket is too low to make the $30,000 deduction worth it.

Ed Gill, my contractor, is now trying to demolish the house and recycle the materials as much as possible. This will cost me under $10,000. The metal can be sold to the metal recyclers, and the things like windows, doors and cabinets can be donated to multiple nonprofit places (like Community Forklift or Habitat for Humanity ReStore) where the values will each be under the $5,000 limit. I’m sure that we are not doing as much as possible to reduce the volume of structural material that ends up in the landfill, and this disappoints me.

Here I am shrugging my shoulders and resigned to demolishing a house and reconstructing a new with an almost exactly similar footprint. Is this rational economically or environmentally? Well, maybe not in the short term, but over the long run, I’m hoping so.

Previously: Heating and air conditioning.

A visit to Amicus Green

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