Realtor/science writer/self-proclaimed “house geek” Hannah Holmes on insulating attics, Colonial renovation strategies, and more
Illustrations by Christine Mitchell Adams
It seems that attached garages are relatively rare in Maine, at least where we’re looking or perhaps in our price range. Are there tax or home insurance implications related to having a garage, attached or not, in Maine?
JANE HARVEY, CHELMSFORD, MASSACHUSETTS
This is only partially relevant, but it’s totally interesting: There was a fashion in New England during the 1800s to hook the ox team to your scattered barns and sheds and drag them into a line. People rearranged buildings on a whim back then, so that wasn’t novel. The trendy part was connecting them so that, according to some theories, you could do your chores without going outdoors in winter. The flaw in this scheme was that if one of your buildings caught fire, all your buildings would probably burn down together. The fashion passed.
Is this danger reflected in Maine’s shunning of the attached garage? Jeff Lee, sales director at the Amy Alward Allstate agency in South Portland, says the cost to insure an attached garage might add a couple of dollars a month to your bill: Hardly prohibitive. Two likelier explanations: Much of Maine’s housing predates the automobile. And while “carriage barns” did become “car barns,” those structures were often neglected and lost. Second, our economy has rarely encouraged frivolity, and when choosing between a garage of any sort, or a bigger house, many Mainers have prioritized people over cars.
How do you keep chipmunks from digging holes in your lawn?
LYNDA SHEEHAN, MOUNT VERNON
Wait, whose lawn?
You may as well try to stop robins from flying over your lawn, or cicadas from burrowing under it. Their ancestors have used “your” territory for thousands of years. A new fence or strip of garden edging is not likely to alter their understanding of ownership.
That said, my ongoing campaign to attract chipmunks to my lawn may work to your benefit. Chipmunks dig multiple tunnels because they need shelter nearby when a cat turns up. I’ve attempted to make life easier for the local chipmunks by building them rock piles to hide in. It’s possible that if you provide first-class accommodations like this, you can lure them away from your favorite parts of the territory. But consider why they leave their tunnels in the first place: They have to find food. They may be commuting to a bird feeder or a seeding tree. Each trip risks their lives.
Sure, you could try to remove these food sources, but doesn’t it work out best for everyone if you just deliver meals to the chipmunks?
What is the best natural way to battle weeds?
MARY MURPHY WOOD, OLD ORCHARD BEACH
If the definition of “weed” is a plant growing where you wish it wouldn’t, then the simplest solution is to change your mind. The “freedom lawn” movement presumes that plants know where they belong, and if we just mow periodically, they’ll sort themselves into a diverse tapestry. The resulting lawn will be drought tolerant and attractive to the little creatures that birds eat.
Weeds in the flower garden and masonry paths are another matter. An organic purist, I’ve been hand-pulling the same Japanese knotweed, garlic mustard, soapwort, and wisteria for a solid 20 years. I have not won; I can’t even say that I have made progress. My most effective strategy is to plant so densely that weeds are shaded out.
For paths, I’ve tried vinegar spray but found that the weeds fake death for a few days, and then come roaring back. It’s more satisfying to wrench them out to die definitively in the sun.
Our architect recommends we do closed-cell foam insulation to enable us to have vaulted ceilings. I’ve heard mixed things about using this method in old homes. What is your take?
ELOISE M., PORTLAND
As you try to squeeze more square footage out of an old Maine house, the attic beckons. But an old attic is a delicately balanced ecosystem. Northern attics generally have a “cool roof.” When the sun bakes a roof, you want cool, outdoor air to flow into the attic at the eaves, pushing hot attic air out through a vent. Air circulation also dries out any household moisture that rises and condenses in the attic during colder weather.
Foam insulation quickly transforms attic space, but it interrupts that healthy ventilation. Now the shingles get hot and stay hot, likely shortening their life. And if household moisture finds its way through the foam to the wood, it can get trapped there and support mold. So kitchen and bath vents become more important. (Fans that detect humidity and turn on automatically are a lovely invention.)
Attic foaming is new enough that research is scant. But in our increasingly airtight homes, it can’t hurt to install a ventilator that swaps clean, outdoor air for stale, indoor air, recapturing heat in the process. Due to the math involved in choosing the right machine, that’s a job best left to the HVAC pros.
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.