Art of Proprietation

Friday, February 24, 2006

A Place to Start

I don't think I have any lock on what will and what won't work in this business. But I can describe my own situation and the things I have learned from it. I think I can say there are some things that make it more likely to work well.

My basic premise is that by combining resources, my residents and I are able to live at a higher standard of living. I am selling them the ability to not worry about the details of keeping the household going. It is my responsibility to anticipate the needs of my residents and manage the resources in a way that is sustainable.

My house is a large Victorian farmhouse. It was built in the common style of a Mainhouse (about 2500 SQF), a Barn (about 2500 SQF) and an Elle (about 1000 SQF) that connects the Mainhouse to the Barn. All of the rented bedrooms and common areas are contained in the Main house. The Elle has my own bedroom and some private rooms for myself and my fiancee. The barn was converted from a horse barn long ago and now provides unheated storage and private workshop space.

In general, here needs to be enough space for everyone included in your household. Kind of like chickens, people require a certain amount of space per person to prevent squabbling. I don't know what that square footage is, but a private room less than 10x8 (80 SQF) is probably not enough. That's just enough room for a single bed, dresser, door swing and an aisleway between. People like a little more than that in terms of a private refuge to call their own. Here, the smallest room is about 10X12 (120 SQF). It's small and it takes a special kind of person to be happy there. The other two rooms are more like 15X16 (240) and that is a large comfortable room.
There needs to be adequate shower facilities to serve the household. I have found the choke point is the available showers/bathroom time in the morning. Some people take longer in the bathrooms than others, but I have found the minimum is about 20 minutes per person. The math is that if you have 1 bathroom for three people, that means someone needs to be getting up as much as an hour and a half before they need to leave the house. If people can leave the house at staggered times, that can help a lot, but you can't always depend on that. I have found that three people is about the comfortable limit on a bathroom. If there is an extra half bathroom (no shower) that can help a lot.

Utilities, the household has to be up and running before residents move in and after they move out. I have found it is easiest to include heat and electric utilities in the rent. I have limits and a cost sharing arrangement kicks in if the usage goes beyond the limits. This arrangement rewards residents for conserving energy, allows me better plan my business and agrees with my conservation ethics.

Parking. It may sound like a minor detail, but adequate parking is important to prevent conflicts. If parking is in perpetual short supply, that is going to control the moods of residents as they arrive home and set the tone in the household. I have found that there needs to be an extra parking spot for about every four people to allow for visitors. We live in a rural area and public transportation is not available. Access to a bus or train system would be a significant plus and might lessen the importance of parking.

Common areas are disputable. In most situations, there is going to be a necessity of common hallways at least to provide access to rented bedrooms. Having more than a bedroom to hang out in goes a long way to change the situation from hotel like to home like. There will be all sorts of factors that control if access to a kitchen or laundry is included. If access to kitchen facilities are included, a great deal of economy and comfort go along with them. There might be some people willing to rent a room without kitchen facilities, but the pool of renters will be much smaller. The other problem is renters may bring in hot plates, mini refrigerators, etc if they don't have some other access to kitchen facilities. In my own situation, I don't want any cooking going on outside the kitchen, and I don't like food storage going on elsewhere, either. I give my residents access to my kitchen with dry and refrigerated food storage to avoid having them store / prepare / eat food elsewhere in the house. It also makes the kitchen the center of our social environment. Having common living areas really changes the environment from a motel to a home like environment and many people like that for an extended stay.

Another variable is furniture. There is less investment when furniture is not provided, but the liability of having furniture moved in and out of the house with changeover of residents can easily outway the investment. A furnished household tends to attract people who are looking for a temporary situation and don't want to take on extra details. People who are looking for a permanent home often have their own furniture they would like to bring with them. My preference is to provide a furnished household for my residents. I am very conscious that the more they move in and out, the more opportunities there are for damaging the house. I also prefer temporary people over long term. It does mean that I occasionally have to turn away someone who comes with a household of furniture and appliances. I just find it less disruptive to the household to limit how much people move in with.

Housekeeping. House keeping is a basic piece of maintenance that helps prevent excessive wear and tear as well as giving it a more attractive appearance. There's a lot to do and it would be nice to have everyone in the house participate, but I have not found that realistic. I do give everyone the opportunity to participate, though. I ask that each person keep track of one thing, maybe a bathroom or keeping the kitchen swept. But I generally find it is not worth my time to police them. I generally pick up the slack where ever necessary rather than push people to do some thing that doesn't come naturally to them. Trying to force people to do it just sets an uncomfortable tone is generally more work than doing it myself.

Maintenance. No matter what the situation, every house is going to need maintenance. A newly built home may not need as much maintenance as an older one initially, but there are always going things that come up that need regular maintenance or repair. In our 100 year old farmhouse, I have a regular schedule of maintenance for the boiler and water heater. I have to keep up with the drains. But the exterior is the biggest issue. Keeping up with the paint and other systems that keep the wood dry are the most important to me. Keeping the proper humidity may be the single largest factor in longevity of a home. Although I ask my residents to let me know of any maintenance issues they notice, but I deal with all the issues.

So, the structure needs to provide private space, access to amenities, included utilities. The structure needs to be clean and maintained to provide an attractive and safe environment. And there need to be adequate outdoor facilities like parking. There are more details, but I'll elaborate on those another time.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

All About Me

I got into the business of providing public accomodation when a variety of factors came together to make it possible. I needed a place to provide it, a market to provide it to and the confidence that I could carry it off.

Through family, I ended up owning a large Victorian farm house in northern New England. When I aquired it, the house had two kitchens, three bathrooms and nine bedrooms. It had a long history in the area (built in 1893), but was much more house than I needed personally. I knew going into it that I planned to occupy the whole house and rent rooms in my home rather than subdivide it.

Growing up, I lived in a large household. I had four brothers and sisters and my grand parents lived with us in their later years. My parents' work involved people who basically apprenticed and they sometimes lived with us to make it work. My parents also took in a young woman from the community to give her a chance to finish highschool when her parents needed to follow work elsewhere. From the time I was fifteen until I was twenty three, I worked in summer camps which meant living onsite with a new set of strangers every year. In college, I lived in a large (40 guys), self governed cooperative household. These experiences installed an acceptance of living with a variety of people, even non family members. It also meant that everyday life was an excercise in cooperation and balancing resource needs. "Strangers" living in our household and becoming non strangers has led me to make positive assumptions about people until they show me otherwise. This has given me the confidence that I can find people who I can safely and enjoyably share my home with. I always had an interest in systems and how they work. This led me to a career as Mechanical Engineer and has exposed me to a wide variety of electrical and mechanical controls, prinicples of construction. This has given me the confidence to tackle most home owner level repair and renovation / home improvement tasks.

I didn't have a lot of direction in the begining, I just figured that I would put an add in the local paper and find someone who wanted a room. Over the years, I have found there is a market and a mix that I prefer. In general, I find that people who are temporary are the easiest to work with. When I know how long someone will stay, there is a light at the end of the tunnel if not all their habits are perfect. Temporary people generally have a household somewhere else, and they will spend some of their time in that other household. A temporary person tends to use much less of the household resources as opposed to someone who is semi perminent. On the other hand, someone who is semi-perminent is a known quantity, has learned the rules and systems that allow the household to function. Someone who has been around awhile has time to build up a level of trust. I do like temporary, but the few longterm people I have had were also good to me.

I have to admit, it was easier when I was younger, though. As I age, I find I have higher expectations for pople. I also have more invested in my home and more at risk. My fiancee and I are starting a family and that has meant significant changes. For the first time in my adult life, I have a dog to look after, and soon we will have a child. And having my fiancee move in has added a new dimension to the dynamics I manage to keep the household afloat. But I still enjoy it and think it is a viable way to keep my wonderful big old house.

Monday, February 20, 2006

What to do when you wake up in the Dark

I was on my way home from a week of consulting last Friday evening. I called the house to leave a message for my fiancee to let her know when to expect me. My first indication that something was wrong was the answering machine didn't pickup. Finally, Bob, one of my residents picked up. He let me know there was no power at the house and there hadn't been for most of the day.

In case you didn't hear, the northeast was hit with high winds last weekend, widespread power outages expected to be followed by a mean arctic front with below zero temperatures. I had visions of cold nights and frozen pipes. I knew the house would hold heat for most of the day and into the night and the refrigerator would keep things cold for up to 24 hours. But I didn't know how long the outage would last and it was better if I took care of things in the daylight.

I got to the house at dusk, but I would have to be working in the basement. Luckily, I invested in some small LED lanterns and rechargeable batteries over the summer. The LED lanterns (12 LED open pattern) aren't bright, but they turn a dark room into one that can be navigated. You can make out a printed page by their light. They don't present a fire hazard like emergency candles. And best of all, they run for about 250 hours on a single charge. I was able to hand out lanterns to my residents and not have to worry they would burn candles. The were a little pricey, $10 or $12 a piece, but I was happy to have them and they are handy in non emergencies, also.

I have a small generator, 1750 watts, about 15 amps. Gravity and thermal expansion send steam to the radiators, but the oil fired steam boiler has a large motor to power the blower and fuel pump and there is a an igniter that provides a spark to light the fuel air mix. I had tried it in the past and it has just enough juice to power the steam boiler. But the generator can be finicky and it's easy for the carb to get clogged by the varnish that distills out of old gas. Since I use the generator rarely, I have to cross my fingers every time I pull the rip cord. This time I got lucky, and it started easily, even though it was stored in the cold shed behind the barn. I disconnected my house from the grid (so I don't zap the lineworkers by back feeding electricity into the grid) and isolated the circuit for my furnace so there would be enough energy to run the blower. It spun weakly at first, but it kicked over and the igniter caught. It took a while for the large capacity boiler to warm up, but eventually, I heard the familiar sound of air being pushed out the radiator valves by the rising steam. I set the thermostat a little high to give myself a bigger buffer zone and let it run.

Now I had light and heat. After I got the house up to temperature, I tried for refrigeration. But this time, I was stymied. I shut down the Boiler, but I was unable to get the refrigerator going. I suspected the problem was that the generator wasn't able to create enough current to reset the breaker for the refrigerator. Looking at it now, I realize the refrigerator and Boiler breakers are right next to each other. This means that they are on opposite legs of the 240 volt supply, they alternate in the circuit breaker bays in the panel box. That means that if I am powering the boiler, I can't reach the Refrigerator circuit. The house has 240 volt power, 120 volts on each of two legs. I was connected to one of those legs with my 120 volt generator, the refrigerator circuit was on the opposite leg.

Luckily, the power came on a half hour later, and the frig started on power from the grid. That's what usually happens during a power outage. It is rare that we are without power for more than 12 hours. But it was nice to know that I had the parts necessary to prevent real damage to the house. Frozen pipes can ruin your day.

In retrospect, I'd look at these areas. Pros: a generator and my maintenance (using Extends fuel stabilizer in it) provided a way to power the house. Having the lanterns on hand provided safe lighting for an extended period. I already had the wiring in place to be able to hook up my generator for the boiler and isolate myself from grid. Cons: I had to go out and buy gas, my usual supply for the snowblower was exhausted. I need to figure out a circuit change that will allow me to power the refrigerator. I had the generator hooked up in the bulkhead to the basement, but the cover opened a few inches was not enough to do a good job allowing the exhaust to escape. CO2 and CO are heavier than air and do not carry away well with just convection. An exhaust pipe that leads directly outside is in order. I also think I need more lights and batteries. I really worry about my residents making a mistake with a candle.

Looking ahead can save a lot of heart ache and angst, so I'll take these lessons to heart and make some changes this summer. I do believe in preparedness, but I don't have the resources to take myself off the grid. There is a balance there, being prepared to limit the damage of calamity, but not living for one. I can't promise my residents that we will have all creature comforts no matter what, but being able to keep the house warm and provide refrigeration in spite of an extended outage seem appropriate. In the 9 years I have owned the house and 12 years I have lived in the area, I have never seen an outage that lasted more than a day, so I think my measures are adequate.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

What is it all about

To get things rolling:

For nine years, I have owned and operated a rooming house in my home, an 1890's Victorian farmhouse in rural Northern New England. Through family ties, I ended up alone in a large farmhouse in my twenties. Going into it, I had the intention of occupying the entire house and renting living space to individuals in my own household. I grew up in a large extended family. In college, I lived in a large self governed cooperative household off campus. Summers from the time I was fifteen, I worked jobs that meant living onsite in common housing. I was used to living in shared housing arrangements, comfortable tackling renovation and maintenance tasks and confident I could find safe people to share my household with. Youth does have the illusion of invincibility. My definition of a rooming house is a housing opportunity where the residents rent a bedroom in a furnished household with some access to common areas of the house (baths, living room, dining area, etc). A rooming house generally does not include meals, but it might include access to a kitchen. The rooming house can be an attractive alternative for it's social nature, frugality, enhanced opportunities, or comfort for both parties.

I try to provide an inexpensive, comfortable, flexible living arrangement where the details are taken care of. In addition to a furnished bedroom, my residents also enjoy access to my equipped kitchen, laundry, wireless broadband connection, furnished common areas of the house and our library. I take care of all the maintenance, utilities, provide furnishings, common items in the in the kitchen like condiments, eggs, milk, flour, butter and sugar. I try to present a home like environment that someone can move into with their personal effects and be comfortable.

Over the years, I have found that I fill many roles, household manager, maintenance guy, accountant, cleaning staff, career councilor, network engineer, computer tech, therapist, social engineer, etc. In general, I enjoy it an find it personally fulfilling. But it is a lot of physical and clerical work, the financial rewards are long term and many people could not justify the sacrifices. I am giving up a great deal of privacy and taking on responsibility for providing housing to other members of the public. I have to adjust my own routines and needs for the benefit of the household, often un-recognized by others. But I get to meet a lot of people on my own terms. And I get the satisfaction of giving some of them access to an opportunity that is a stepping stone to a better life for them.

I put a lot of thought into engineering the household. I try to anticipate the needs of my residents, but occasionally need to react to their activities. To do this, I have found I needed to develop marketing, people skills, knowledge of local and state regulation, accounting, housekeeping, maintenance, construction, property management, psycho-therapy, career counseling, network engineering, computer maintenance, etc.

I have found that the work of running the rooming house is divided into several areas.
Physical maintenance: All the tasks required to keep the building from falling in on it's self. Everything from keeping paint on the exterior to keeping the interior clean to minimize wear and tear. Keeping the household full: Finding good advertising outlets, writing and monitoring advertising for openings, interviewing potential residents, calling references. Maintaining relationships with current residents: Keeping contact with current residents to make sure their expectations are met and monitoring their compliance with our housing contract. Following up with any issues that are identified to ensure they are resolved. Maintain household accounts: Keeping track of various household expenses, rents collected, payment of taxes, etc. Ensuring the household is obtaining the resources to remain an ongoing concern.

In an ongoing effort, I try to keep touch with all these areas. Although the household could probably consume all the energy I could put into it, I find I can keep things going with about one day a weeks efforts plus occasional weekends spent on major renovation projects. In general, I need to keep a routine of housekeeping tasks and pay bills weekly. I follow up with my various advertisements on the internet daily and interview new potentials as they arise. There is always something that could be done, the challenge is not allowing anything fall too far behind. For the past nine years, I have managed to keep it going in addition to my regular job.

In this blog, I'll try to give introductions to these areas, lessons I have learned, resources I have found and the interesting stories that I have lived through to gather it all.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

The Art of Proprietation

This is my new blog about running a roomming house. I have been running the roomming house in my home for the past 9 years. I am working on the art of it. I am The Proprietor. I'll get more elaborate latter, just want to get the blog up for now.