Buy a Condo? Probably Not

Published at 10:37 on 21 January 2024

Having been granted permanent residency in Canada, I will be selling my Bellingham condo soon. This whole move north has in some ways been fortuitous: there are not many condos available in Bellingham, and what is available is generally carpeted and with clauses in the deed requiring carpeting for its soundproofing qualities.

The problem with carpet is allergies; there are two types of carpeting:

  1. Old carpet full of dirt and allergens.
  2. New carpet that outgasses toxic chemicals.

I began my ownership with the condo in the first state, and two years ago invested in bringing it to the second state. I did a significant amount of research in trying to select carpeting that outgassed less. It didn’t matter: it still outgassed to an excessive degree. Fortuitously, it was about two years ago that I got my job offer in Canada, so I never had to deal with what to do about the whole situation (absent the job offer, there were no good solutions).

Now, there is an excellent solution: Just sell it. Pristine carpeting will be a selling point.

That begs the question of whether or not to use the proceeds to purchase a condo in the Vancouver region. The answer is probably not, at least not now.

It’s sort of ironic, as the big problem with condos in Bellingham is not so much of an issue here; carpeting just isn’t as popular in Vancouver. I think this has to do with the high proportion of immigrants in Vancouver; carpeting is not as popular outside of North America, and the market is simply catering to overall demand.

Alas, there are other problems with the condo market here.

Money is probably the biggest one. If you divide the list price of a condo by the yearly rent of an equivalent apartment, you get about 29. The rule of thumb is home ownership seldom makes economic sense unless that ratio is 15 or less.

So absent a strong economic case, some other case must be made. Several possible cases exist:

Stability in general
It is hard to be evicted from a property you own. Unfortunately for this argument, British Columbia has strong tenant protection laws: it is hard to be evicted from a rental. Easiest way for my landlord to push me out would be if he wants to move into my unit himself or move an immediate family member into it. My unit is so small that he and his wife are unlikely to want it. It contains stairs, so it is unlikely to be appealing to an elderly parent. In other words, I am likely to be able to stay here indefinitely long.
Price stability
On top of that, one of those tenant protections is rent control. By contrast, Canada lacks long-term mortgages, for the simple reason that the federal government here has never taken the sort of policy to create them (long-term loans like 30-year mortgages are something a market will never create on its own. So any financing I undertake will be limited term, and have to be renewed (typically, after five years), possibly at a much higher interest rate.
My current rental is a so-called laneway house, a small, detached dwelling unit behind the main house. I share no common walls with anyone. I am in a completely residential area on a quiet side street. The only way to do as good as this with a condo would be to find one in a cottage development, but such developments are extraordinarily rare here.
Ham radio aspects
It would be nice if I could erect a few antennas. I have done that in other condos by hiding antennas in the attic space. Another alternative would be a penthouse condo with a roof I could climb up to from my deck. Both of these are in the strict sense forbidden, but if one is discreet about it, one can in my experience get away with it. The sort of tower developments popular here mean only a minute fraction of units are top floor units, and that those units sell at a disproportionate premium. (Being on the top floor is also critical from a quiet standpoint; I have lived under simply too many people who apparently keep a pet rhino that they attempting to teach how to tap dance.)

The bottom line is that a condo purchase could make sense if I find something reasonably-priced on the top floor with some sort of roof or attic access. Such units do exist, but they are almost always in older buildings, and these have several problems:

Before the 2000’s, it was unusual for condos to restrict smoking. Condos are not airtight. Have a smoker as a neighbour and it is likely that their stink will intrude your unit. In my case, this raises allergy issues.
Older condos tend not to have in-unit washers and dryers. I am allergic or sensitive to most scented laundry products, which makes wearing clothes washed in shared machines problematic. Yes, even the residue from a previous usage can make clothing effectively unwearable to me, causing itching, rashes, and migraines. This has caused me significant issues when I have had to contend with shared laundry facilities, to the point that the only reasonable conclusion is that having my own private laundry facility a must.
The exterior building envelope
There was a huge spate of shoddy condo designs built in the late twentieth century in British Columbia, to the point that the leaky condo crisis has at times been a significant political issue here. Buying an older condo that has not already been renovated to correct this issue is taking on a significant risk.

The bottom line is that the available facts seem to indicate that owing my home simply does not make much sense in this region.

This may change in the next five years or so, however. A number of of zoning changes have been made or are underway that make it reasonable to suspect that a batch of smaller condo developments are about to be built in residential areas, and that some of these will take the form of accessory dwelling units (like the one I currently inhabit) being offered for separate purchase. That would change the calculus significantly. Such changes are, however, at this point only theoretical.

So unless I really get lucky, the best answer for the time being is almost certainly to continue renting.

Mouse Update

Published at 11:35 on 22 December 2023

When I wrote this, I had not, in fact, caught all the mice.

Signs of mouse activity quickly resumed. Then began the game of strategically redeploying traps in an attempt to catch the other ones. A week later, I caught one in a trap baited with a piece of a walnut. Then began a further week with continued high mouse activity and no caught mice.

Eventually, the idea to try a different sort of bait occurred to me: something savoury, greasy, and meaty. I had heard that sometimes mice go for such things, so I borrowed a handful of dry dog food from a friend and left a piece of kibble out in an area of the kitchen with particularly high mouse activity. Within four hours, the kibble was gone.

So I promptly re-baited two traps with dog kibble that had been baited with Tootsie Roll (of which I had read can attract mice, but which these mice showed approximately zero interest in). The traps were ignored. So I made a trail of kibble bits leading to one of the traps. The mouse ate the trail and left the trap alone. So I left another trail, this time ending closer to the trigger. The same thing happens. Try a third time, this time ending under the trigger, since that type of old-fashioned snap trap can be tripped by lifting the trigger as well as depressing it. The trail gets eaten except for that last little kibble bit under the trigger.

It was at this point I nicknamed the offending mouse “Einstein,” because it had apparently managed to learn how mousetraps work. I complain to the landlord and get him to redouble his efforts at sealing off all entrances, and to seek the services of a professional exterminator.

A few days later, I get the idea of swapping out the bait in another trap in another area with high mouse activity for a piece of dog kibble. This is also wooden snap trap but it has a wide plastic trigger instead of a traditional metal one. Because there is no easy way to tie bait to this trigger with a piece of wire, I just place the kibble atop the trigger. Einstein promptly steals the bait, leaving the trap untripped.

So I try again, this time hot-melt gluing the bait onto the trigger. If you have ever observed a small rodent eat, you will notice that they prefer to do so by standing on their hind legs and holding the food in their front paws while they nibble on it. I figure the mouse will want to do that, which will lead to tugging on the stuck bait and a hopefully sprung trap.

And at long last, my newfound optimism at a new strategy is borne out. The same night that happens, a second mouse visits one of my other traps baited with walnut and gets caught by it. So I go from a week with no success to two dead mice in a single night.

That was now a little over a week ago, and there has been no sign of any new mouse activity since then. So I now feel reasonably safe concluding that my mouse problem is probably over, at least for this season.

Some takeaways:

  • Peanut butter is not always best. It is reputed to be the best bait, and virtually every source out there about dealing with mice recommends it highly. Well, these mice showed exactly zero interest in peanut butter. If, after a few days, you have no success with peanut butter, it is probably best to start considering other bait types.
  • Watch what they nibble on. One of my catches was in a trap baited with granola, since I had noticed an old, reused granola bag get nibbled on by a mouse.
  • Try similar baits. Peanut butter never worked, but that got me to try another type of nut butter (sunflower). That didn’t work, either, but it led me to try walnuts. Half of the mice I caught were in traps baited with walnut pieces.
  • Try dog food or jerky. Some mice like meaty, savoury things. A mouse that showed zero interest in any other type of bait came for dog food.
  • Multiple traps are good. Anywhere you see signs of mouse activity is a good place for at least one trap. No area with signs of mouse activity should be more than a few feet from a trap.
  • Multiple types of trap are good. These mice never came to any of those newer-style “improved” plastic traps, ever. The only traps that caught mice for me were old-fashioned wooden traps. Of those, Victor makes some with a new-style wide plastic triggers. Those were by far the most successful type, catching three of the four mice. I would have never learned this, and would probably still be struggling with a mouse infestation, had I not been willing to try different trap types.
  • When using old-fashioned wooden traps, leave nothing to chance. The disadvantage of these traps, and the motive for most improvements on them, is that if the mouse approaches from the back and sometimes the side, it will evade the kill zone even if the trap goes off. Such traps must be placed inside a little box, or between objects arranged so as to guide the mouse into the kill zone, to maximize their chance of success. Likewise, solid baits should be affixed to the trigger by gluing or tying with fine wire to promote tugging and minimize the chance of bait theft.
  • Incrementalism can be helpful. I never caught Einstein until I first baited a trap with a new bait and did not secure the bait. This probably taught the mouse the lesson that it was possible to steal from a trap of this design with this bait. On the second visit, when the mouse’s guard was down, the bait had been glued to the trigger. No more easy lifting. Snap!
  • Exclusion is key. I do not think it is a coincidence that I caught two mice in one night right after the landlord redoubled his efforts at closing all possible avenues of rodent ingress and egress. I believe this trapped two mice inside, and once they realized they could no longer go outdoors to feed on garbage (I have been meticulous about cleaning up crumbs), there was no ready food source left for them save the bait on my traps.

Caught the Mouse

Published at 14:11 on 30 November 2023

For about the past fortnight, there has been an unwanted house guest living on my first floor.

Late this morning, returning from an errand, I finally was greeted with the sight I have been hoping to see for all too long: a sprung mouse trap with a dead rodent in it. As luck would have it, part of the errand was procuring a live-catch trap (since I was having zero luck with the snap traps, and have read that the live-catch traps have a higher capture rate).

Regarding the latter point, this mouse evaded capture in a snap trap not once, not twice, not thrice, but a total of four times. I guess the critter finally let its guard down enough to let one of my traps catch it.

At least, I sure hope I caught the mouse. I.e., that there is not more than one furry little home invader to deal with. The new morning ritual of cleaning up the mouse poop has gotten very old. I am going to play it safe and hold off on returning the live-catch trap unused until at least a week passes with no sign of mouse activity.

On a related note, I have finally stopped getting nothing but the silent treatment out of the various job applications I have been sending out. Hopefully catching the mouse is a good sign that my luck has turned and I will catch a job as well. We shall see. It won’t ruin my life for this to be false optimism; I have enough saved up to be able to go without a job for a while, and the time off will be a good way to recharge.

New Honeywell Round Thermostats Suck: Do Not Buy

Published at 13:48 on 21 October 2020

I ordered one to use as a mechanical, low-voltage thermostat for my electric heating after I converted it to low-voltage control. It came up on my Amazon product search, and had what seemed to be a decent rating of 4.2 out of five stars. That, plus the appearance of familiarity with the product (I have lived in homes with older versions of them before) prompted me to choose it.

Big mistake! Turns out it’s not a mechanical thermostat at all; it’s an “intelligent” (I use the term very loosely here) electronic one, complete with a printed-circuit board hidden inside. It’s just disguised to look like a traditional mechanical thermostat.

If Honeywell had properly engineered such a design, there would be no problem. But they did not. Look at the actual written reviews for it on Amazon’s product page and you will see something unsettling: a large number of one-star reviews, with those bad reviews rated as being the most helpful.

For further amusement, go to the HVAC-TALK site, feed “Honeywell CT87” into the search box, and you will be rewarded with some archived discussions of this model by HVAC professionals. The general consensus is that they are junk and should not be installed.

The main problem is apparently how the firmware emulates a traditional mechanical thermostat’s anticipator (a tiny electric heater inside a thermostat that “anticipates” the tendency for heating systems to overshoot past the set temperature). It assumes a fixed and unrealistically rapid rate of temperature increase when the heat comes on. It works OK if it’s barely cold enough to need to run the heat, but as the outside temperature drops, it gets less and less accurate; you have to set the thermostat ever higher to get the same inside temperature. This has apparently even caused frozen and burst pipes for some homeowners!

To make a shitty product even worse:

  • They have an internal, undocumented lithium battery that will die within a decade, degrading performance further.
  • They have an undocumented power-stealing design that is incompatible with some systems.
  • The case design, in contrast to the traditional Round case, has poor air circulation which makes for poor sensitivity.
  • The temperature-sensing thermistor is mounted directly on the circuit board, making its sensitivity to air temperature worse yet.
  • Their circuitry is unreliable and prone to failing entirely within a year or two.

Honeywell Round thermostats didn’t used to suck; in fact, they used to be the most popular thermostat out there, and would last decades. That was when they were mechanical. But that design used mercury switches and ended up getting banned*. Instead of choosing to go with a mechanical magnetic snap design, Honeywell chose the electronic route, and badly botched it.

* For good reason. Mercury is toxic, so old mercury thermostats should be recycled. Instead, they generally end up in the trash, causing toxic waste problems.

What’s infuriating is that this has been a problem for most of a decade, and Honeywell is still selling these defective-by-design pieces of junk, apparently because I am not the only one suckered by their retro appearance into believing they are simple, mechanical, and reliable.

Caveat emptor!

Converting a Line Voltage Thermostat to Low Voltage

Published at 13:04 on 8 September 2020

Holes in wall, with wires coming out of them, during upgrade to low-voltage thermostat.
During installation.

Completed installation, showing new thermostat, cover plate, existing heater.
After installation.

Thermostats come in two basic kinds: line voltage, for control of electric heaters, and low voltage, for everything else.

I have electric heat, so my condo naturally came with line voltage thermostats. That has allowed me, over the past heating season, to be reminded that line voltage thermostats generally suck, for two basic reasons:

  • There is not as much a market for them, so their makers basically don’t care very much about quality and accuracy. If you have electric heating, you probably have line voltage thermostat, and you are stuck with the limited selection of generally lousy options. Sucks to be you.
  • Electric heaters draw a lot of current, and that tends to make line voltage thermostats heat up after they close. A thermostat that heats up will tend to open and cut the heat off before the room has reached the set point. How much, depends on the wattage of the heater and how much heat loss there is (i.e. how cold a day it is).

You might think that a line voltage thermostat rated at 22A could easily switch 14.6A of current (which is what the 3500W of heating in my main living space draws) without appreciably heating up, but revisit Point No. 1 above. Neither the one that my unit came with, nor the one I replaced it with, could properly do that.

It was so bad I had to crank the thermostat all the way up to its 90°F setting just to prevent the heat from cutting off prematurely on frosty cold mornings. Once I left fairly early and that day I ended up wasting energy and money heating my home summer-hot for a few hours because I forgot I had turned the heat all the way up. So the status quo was not just annoying, but wasteful as well.

Naïvely replacing a line voltage thermostat with a low voltage one will lead to failure at best and catastrophe (i.e. a fire) at worst. Thankfully, there are combination transformer/relay devices like this which enable one to use a low-voltage thermostat to control electric heating.

I had done that at a previous home where this issue plagued me, but there I had the benefit of a crawlspace with a large electrical box to bolt the thermostat relay onto. Not so here. Initially, I gave up, because the electrical box the existing thermostat was mounted on was too small for me to bolt the relay onto, and I didn’t want to replace it with a double-gang box, because that would make for a large, ugly double-gang cover plate.

Then I realized that the thermostat and one of the heaters shared the same inter-joist wall space, meaning it was possible to remove the 12/2 cable running from the box to the heater, replace it with 12/3, mount the relay on a spare knockout on the heater enclosure, and use the extra wire to feed the switched current back to the box (where I could then connect it to the other heater).

Of course, with existing construction, nothing is ever as simple as it seems. In this case, there was a staple on the old cable which at first prevented me from removing it, resulting in my lying on my back, sticking my arm most of the way up into the inter-joist space, and probing around blind with a pry bar until I could locate and remove the pesky staple. Then there was the unexpected structural member inside the wall. I could only assume it was load-bearing, so as much as it would have simplified my life to cut a notch out of it, that was an absolute no-no, and the resulting extra bit of fiddliness caused by the unexpectedly tight clearances easily added another hour to the project.

No matter; it’s done now.

P.S. Yes, I used a simple, mechanical thermostat, not a fancy computerized one with lots of setbacks. Why? Two main reasons: 1) I don’t work a regular schedule, so don’t really have any sort of regular thermostat program that makes sense, and 2) I prefer to keep it easy, simple, and un-computerized; complicated systems tend to be unreliable and unpredictable systems.