Ask Hannah Holmes

Hannah Holmes

Home Rx

Realtor/science writer/self-proclaimed “house geek” Hannah Holmes on smart real estate investments, what a seventh-grader can teach us about deer deterrents, and more

Illustrations by Christine Mitchell Adams

Have a question for Hannah?

Send your Maine home or garden conundrum to [email protected] and we may feature it in an upcoming column.

How do you keep deer away from a garden without putting up a fence?

HILARY WARREN, BLUE HILL
How do you keep deer away from a garden without putting up a fence?

My first suggestion would be to eat the deer. The main reason they are munching your garden is that humans eliminated wolves and cougars, two of the deer’s natural predators. Now deer roam the suburbs in unnaturally high numbers, noshing their way across the landscape like woodchucks on stilts. But, of course, eating deer doesn’t appeal to everyone. Because they have to jump over so much garden fencing, venison can be tough meat.

For other means of deer control, we must survey the science. My own survey began with a prize-winning science project by a Pennsylvania seventh-grader named Chelsea. Her experiments demonstrated a number of problems with the standard odorous deterrents: deer aren’t impressed with human hair clippings; they’re not spooked by bottled coyote urine if there aren’t coyotes in the area; and you cannot test your deterrents on gala apples, because the deer “played with them using their noses.” Most research reaches the same conclusion Chelsea did, more or less: some deterrents work, somewhat, for a while.

Unless you have access to a wolf or cougar, then fencing is the bottom line. Woven wire barriers at least eight feet high are recommended, and ten feet high is better.

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What are some lesser-known towns where you would recommend investing in real estate?

ELIZA GRAY, BRUNSWICK
What are some lesser-known towns where you would recommend investing in real estate?

Three clichés come to mind: Location, location, location. The rise in real estate value follows the rise in human economic activity. It’s easy to spot a hot spot that’s already booming. But spotting it early enough to catch a big wave requires close and sustained attention to the economic activity of an area.

Which brings us to the next cliché: Invest in what you know. Your life experience has probably given you familiarity with certain types of real estate. You may understand land speculation better than commercial office buildings. You may have been the landlord of a 20-unit building or a single-family home. Mashing together these two clichés, a rural spot where a massive fish farm is being constructed may be a better place to buy apartment buildings than land at the edge of town.

The last cliché is, “Invest in things you use every day.” Because human behavior is unpredictable, investing is risky. But putting money into your own home can pay multiple dividends. It keeps a roof over your head, for starters. It raises the value of an asset you’re very familiar with. In a down market, it doesn’t hurt you much to hold onto it. And ideally, it lifts your happiness index on a daily basis.

I am considering a house heated with kerosene. What should I know about this fuel — is it expensive? Efficient?

LAURA GIVAN WILSON, WESTBROOK
I am considering a house heated with kerosene. What should I know about this fuel — is it expensive? Efficient?

Kerosene distinguishes itself from its petroleum siblings by its cold tolerance. Heating oil starts to congeal at low temperatures, so it has to shelter in the basement in winter. Kerosene can survive outdoors.

We tend to find kerosene tanks outside two types of housing. One is the mobile home, which, lacking a basement, often relies on kerosene-fired heaters. The other is a condominium, or sometimes a house, that suffered a bad romance with electric heat. Following the 1970s oil shortage, a slew of housing was built with electric baseboard heat. Then the cost of electricity spiked. Lots of homeowners opened one too many scary love letters from the electric company and broke off the union. They installed heaters that you will see generically referred to as “Monitors” or “Rinnais,” the dominant brands. Adaptable to kerosene, propane, and natural gas, the heaters are compact, low maintenance, and very efficient. So while kerosene is a bit pricier than heating oil, the lower fuel consumption offsets the cost.

Of the two grades oil dealers carry, K-1 is cleaner and advised for indoor uses like temporary space heaters and camping lanterns. K-2 contains more sulfur, smells accordingly, and is used in burners that vent their exhaust to the outdoors.

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What do I need to know about composting toilets? Are they difficult to maintain?

DIANE DEMETRIADES, BOOTHBAY
What do I need to know about composting toilets? Are they difficult to maintain?

Since humans eradicated most of our natural predators, we — like deer — exist in excessive numbers. Our manure piles up. Being the most intelligent of species, we arrived at a plan: We would cleanse and filter water until it is pure enough to drink. Then we would excrete in that pure water and flush it away.

Some humans argue this overcomplicates the pooping problem. Never mind the water waste. Excrement is fertilizer. Why squander it? Other humans argue that poop contains infectious microbes and smells horrific. The composting toilet is a compromise. You keep your smelly feces contained, stir in air and sawdust (or some other drying material), and allow bacteria to reduce the mixture to powder. It takes a while, but a vent pipe and an electric fan push the odor outdoors.

State law requires a permit for installing a composter. And the local code enforcement office may have additional stipulations. If your property is in a homeowner association, read the covenants: You may be sh*t out of luck.

Hannah Holmes is a real estate broker at Keller Williams Realty Greater Portland and the author of four science titles, including The Secret Life of Dust and Suburban Safari. A veteran renovator of old houses, she blogs about humans and their territorial issues at geekrealtyblog.com.


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