A Home Inspector’s Weblog by Frank Schulte-Ladbeck

exploring homes and the lives in them around Houston

Archive for January, 2008

A trip through the New Chinatown in Houston

I thought that in celebration of the Chinese New Year, I would take you on a little trip through Houston’s New Chinatown. It would probably more accurate to describe it as Little Asia, since you will find many nationalities here. Alright, let us begin.

I will begin my journey on the corner of Beechnut and the Beltway 8. You will find quite a few new commercial developments along the Beltway, but this location is pretty well developed. I should start you off with two phrases which mean thank you: gom ahn (Vietnamese) and shay-shay(Chinese). The sternest face will break into a smile with this phrase. Start your trip in the Vietnamese market called Viet Hoa. You will find good prices on your standard fruit and vegetables, but look into the exotics. My son is not afraid to ask another shopper what something is, and no one has ever turned down his request. One warning- do not buy an entire jack fruit unless you have had one before. I ended up eating most of one alone, just because it was difficult for the kids to eat. Check out the seafood section. Live frogs anyone? In the same shopping center, you will find two other stores that I would recommend: Tea Cup Cafe for bubble tea, and Kho Bo Houston for jerky and “candy”. My son likes the smoothies at the Tea Cup, but my daughter will drink the bubble teas with me. They also have good light lunch/snack type food here. At Kho Bo, they will happily explain what the candy can be used for, and they do give out samples. My son will go after the cuttle fish jerky, while I go after some preserved fruits. My one year old girl just goes up and down the aisles saying whoa! Check out the other shops too. There are some nice finds.

Alright, we can move down the Beltway 8 a little outside of the main Chinatown area for our next stop. You will have to go down West Airport to Jebbia Lane to find the Chung Mei Temple. This is a Buddhist Temple that also houses a museum, gift shop, library, meditation room, and a small cafe. The grounds also have a garden of Chinese sculpture. The main shrine is beautiful. On Sundays, they have classes to learn Chinese, calligraphy, and kendo. Take a look at the kendo. My son is a fencer, and he wants to do that.

Move on over to Wilcrest heading north. We are going to go back up to the main Chinatown area. When you get to Bellaire turn left. When you come to Boone road, pull into the parking lot for Lee’s Sandwich Shop. This is my favorite place for a Vietnamese sandwich. If you do not like spicy, be sure to tell them no jalepenos on it. The store offers various treats, so look around. There is a style of Vietnamese twinkie made fresh at the front door. It is cornbread with a custard filling. Take a look at the shops in this strip. I really want to go to the Chinese Herbalist. I think that would be an adventure. If you go across the street, you can explore more shops and the Hong Kong Market.

Drive along Bellaire here, and you will find a monument to the fallen soldiers in the Vietnam War. There are many shops to see. If it is getting later, why not try a restaurant. I love Chinese food, and it abounds here, but are you familiar with Vietnamese fare? Go to any place with the word “pho” written on it. I was told that this word is pronounced “fah”. If you are a soup lover like me, this will be the meal for you. There are other dishes available, but I just love this one.

Well, that is a quick introductory tour, which can be done in less than a day. Vacation with your kids here for the day to let them experience something new. If you go down Harwin towards downtown you will pass the Chines Cultural Center, but there are some other shops and restaurants at the intersection with Gessner. I like go into the Parisian Bakery here for my bread rolls. The Vietnamese learned to bake from the French, so you can get some good bread at a good price.

Your Houston home inspector,

Frank Schulte-Ladbeck

Back To Nature: A craft project for kids

I have been looking for fun activities that are free for my kids. Houston has a lot to offer kids, and in future posts, I will list some places that have some free time events to keep kids busy. I was thinking that there should be a good way to have my kids enjoy some of the nature around the Houston area, so I created an activity for them.

I was inspired by a “passport” that I found when cleaning my desk. This was from a few years back, and I am sure that they still have this, but while at the Arboretum, the had a brochure that the kids could obtain stamps from different locations around our area. I thought that maybe I could turn this into a craft project though. The kids could collect some item from different parks that we could press. We can then make a Houston nature picture from the pressings.

A press is easy to make. You could just use phone books and newspaper. Place the flower, leaf, or your find between sheets of newspaper, and then leave them in between the phone books for several days. I made a fancier version with some boards, bolts, and wing nuts. I drilled holes through each corner of two boards (drill the boards at the same time to align the holes). Use the bolts to press the boards together. I let the kids paint it to decorate it, so it built up the excitement for using it.

Now we are going to travel around the area to collect foliage and such for our press. It makes going to the various parks and natural areas around town fun. There are quite a lot of these spots; you just have to look a little.

Bottles in the Garden

You may think I am joking, but I drink for my garden. Not heavily mind you, but I raise a toast to the benefit of my plants. Then I save my beer or wine bottle for a bit of recycling that you may not have considered.

Being a Texas German who loves to explore old homes, particularly ones from my community, I came across a unique garden edging that was common among the Germans here. The tradition started in Germany, and you may find it still practiced in some gardens there, but there are a few of us here who carry on this recycling trick. There are two uses for a beer bottle once you are finished with it: garden edging and snail trap. Garden edging, you gasp. Yes. Here in Texas, we mainly use bottles from Shiner beer. You will find historic homes with this edging throughout the German belt of the state. I clean the labels off of the bottles by soaking them in water. I have used other bottles to create designed looks. Square bottles every so often create a visual break, but I have also used bottles of different colors for patterns (three green with two brown). Beer bottles are not the only ones to use. I replace broken bottles with new ones, but no one has been hurt, if you have this fear. My children have played around this edging all of their lives. For a snail trap, simply leave a pool of beer for the snails to drown in. I pick up the bottles every couple of days when I do use this system, to throw them away. Alright, maybe I should recycle the glass, but I do not know of an easy way to remove all of the snails.

I have used the wine bottles as edging too. I find that bottles from Becker, Messina Hof, or Llano work well. Any bottle will do, but why not plug some Texas wine. A more interesting use for the bottles comes from the African American community though. A tradition brought over from Africa used bottles to scare away or capture evil spirits by hanging the bottles from trees or poles. Now the tradition lives on as an art form. I am in the process of making a bottle flower. An old pole stuck in the ground has green bottles hanging down. Blue bottles are being placed up as a flower.

You never know what might work as a garden edging. You will be surprised how elegant some of these edgings can look when you put in a little effort into the design. You can even be creative with some art projects for the garden. I made bottle neck flies from wine bottles for a wall decoration.

Your Houston home inspector,

Frank Schulte-Ladbeck

Comparing Apples and Oranges: A Problem for the New Green Consumer

I make plans for my home with each new year. Much of these plans is an on-going project to improve my home’s energy efficiency and water usage. I read posts from others proclaiming their financial savings, and I think back to a homeowner who contacted me last year. Where were his savings?

Some of you may be hoping for extra money in your pocket each month by installing features that will make the home more green. You may then be disillusioned to find that you appear to have no savings. What happened? A little investigation is needed. Pull out your utility bills from last year. In Houston, we had several rate increases in our electricity bills. The fluctuations in price can be dizzying. What I found was that even though the usage has been reduced, the cost of what was used went up. If we compare what might have been your bill to what it was, you can see that steps taken did save money. With energy costs going up again, you may find that more reduction in energy use is needed to keep the bill at the same amount.

Water is also becoming a precious commodity, and municipalities are starting to charge more accordingly for it. We had no big raises in price, but there is a little twist for people who are starting to use graywater systems, but did not see the cost go down. Take a look at your water bill. There is a charge for water and then sewer. All cities that I am familiar with include trash removal charges under sewer, but the remaining amount of this charge is from the water going back into the sewage system. How does the public works department determine how much water you are putting into the system? Is there a meter? Probably not, but there could be. Most homeowners forget that the city uses a simple formula to charge you, water in equals sewage out. With a graywater system, that formula becomes inaccurate. If you do use such water again, you should contact the city to find out about metering the sewage. I knew of one homeowner that did have this done, and it saved him on his water bill.

Do not be discouraged if you do not see immediate savings by going green. You might be, but you do not even know it.

The Wired Home

I am intrigued by how our homes are changing with new technologies, which have also caused us to change the home. The entertainment value offered by computers, gaming systems, and the internet have caused us to divert our focus from the exterior towards the interior. Home gardens are shrinking as the luxury of space becomes our most sought after goal. With ever increasing television sets, why should we go to the movies? Can you remember when a 26” or 28” set was considered large. Now 36” is looked upon as small.

My brother-in-law is a journey man electrician, who has been updating his home with security cameras, audio equipment, and now computer networking cabling. I see the effort that he is taking, and I point out to him some common mistakes when it comes to securing this wiring. I have an acquaintance who is providing wireless systems for small offices, and this just may be the next phase for the home.

I am an early adopter with some technology, but other advances I shirk away from. I wonder is it worth it updating your home, when so much of the hardware is updated along with the software. No sooner than when you buy your hi-def equipment, and you find out about Blue-ray. I also wonder if so much emphasis should be placed on interior space. Will our children continue to gain weight if we focus more on the yard?

Now Congress has weighed in on the matter, and they wish to see affordable homes with the wiring in place for all of this new age of the wired home. With companies trying to control cost and energy prices staying high, telecommuting will become a common place work form. Our homes will be wired.

How can we maintain a home to meet new technological demands? Wiring in the attic is possible for the homeowner, but it might not be the best option if the cabling needs to be changed, or added onto. We also want to make exterior walls more thermally dense for energy efficiency. I was attempting to think of a solution to such issues, when I looked down upon my baseboard. Moving the board away from the wall will create a space for cabling, which could be changed out easily. Actually this procedure of removing the board to place a backing block to hold it away from the wall would not be too difficult. With a larger base board system, PEX tubing can be run for water with cabling and wiring for equipment and receptacles. In this way, systems can be worked on, added onto, and updated by removing the baseboard, instead of the wall covering material.

Connectivity may become the “in” word for the home. However, I am going to wait a while to see which technology will be affordable and permanent (or at least with a lifespan of twenty years).

A Financial Reassurance

A short post today is in order. I have written before that new homeowners should consider setting money aside for repairs in an investment account, and considering the market of late, I thought that I should write a little reassurance.

I invest each month a small amount no matter the market, because I am looking at the long term. Too many people focus on short term gains, instant gratification, or the feeling that they need it now. This can be the worst thing for your finances. I know someone who was planning to start her own vegetable garden, and she thought of all the food that she was going to can. In one weekend, she went out to buy everything to create her garden beds, and all of the equipment for canning, drying, and vacuum packing her produce. The garden turned out to be too much work for her, and she thought that maybe she could go to the farmer’s market with me to buy items there for canning and preserving. She never did. The beds have reverted to grass, and the equipment was given away. The excitement of the moment has passed.

Investing can be thrilling when you first start, and you see those gains. When I began, I was on the hunt for a fast rising stock, and I thought that I found one. I placed my bet, and watched as the stock rose quickly over the next two months. I knew nothing about the company, but I had seen good reports about it from analysts. Then one week, the stock lost half of its value, and it was going down fast. I sold as quickly as I could, before I lost any more. It turned out that the firm had been cooking the books, and an audit had revealed that fact. That is why I suggest to new investors not to go after riches. Invest in a good bond tracking stock like Lehman’s AGG fund, and to place other money in a stock tracking the S&P500. Yes, the S&P stock is down now, but the bonds are up. You should not be using that home repair money, unless there is a real need, so do not panic about the stocks. They will eventually rise again.

A Shard of Pottery

On my desk is a two thousand year old shard of pottery. It is a small thing, about 1/4” by 1/4”. It would be useless to a museum, but I have held on to it for thirty years now. I picked it up at an archeological site in Mexico while I was with a professor from the University of Mexico. I thought it was just a piece of gravel, since that is what it seemed we were walking on. I look at this fragment every so often thinking about what was the daily life like for its owner.

I take a look around my own home, and I could ask what will someone find from here. David Macauly has a great book on that matter called Motel of the Mysteries. I do not think that I will be wearing my sacred collar soon (the toilet seat- an image from the Beatles Hamburg days comes to mind though). I wonder if this house will even last into the next century. Light frame constructed houses can last for two hundred years when maintained.

All of this makes me wonder in which direction homes will be going. Two competing trends are in the housing market. Large, spacious homes are dominating some areas, but energy efficient homes are coming to the fore. Green building fits with the energy efficient model. Anything with the term green attached is a key buzz word for marketers. But is this just a fad? Is green the term of the moment?

Our current means of supplying our energy needs has a while before it runs out, but high fuel costs will drive more investment dollars into developing cost effective fuel alternatives. Fuel Cell technology will probably come into the home. I think that will be seeing a better understanding of what is environmentally responsible, and that idea or way of living will become more common. Review documents or sites from different groups advocating the environment, and you will see that at this time there is no consensus on what this lifestyle could or should be. In the end, we cannot ask homeowners to give up the luxuries that have come to be such a part of our lives. Environmentalism should not be about giving up our lives, but changing them for the better.

The real growth industry will be providers of items that could retrofit a house to be more energy efficient. There is an interesting project documented on Openarchitecture.org about making an older home more efficient. I would like to see their solutions. The green and organic debate will go away, but I think that somehow finding ways to have our homes more in tune with their environments will become a standard building practice. Part of this will be energy efficiency. I suggest looking before you leap with your own home. Some technologies are not proven yet, and some technologies need improvement. Evaluate if what you are doing will be a benefit to you. I also think that you should check your local codes to find out if changes need to be made. I just read a post about water from rain does not belong to the homeowner in Colorado. They are prohibited from collecting it. They can also not use gray water for the same reason: ownership. I imagine this may be the case in several states.