Wednesday, March 9, 2011

FS Housing – Round-up theme

This week’s State Department blog round-up is being hosted by Shannon at Cyberbones and her theme is housing. It’s an interesting and important theme, as one of the big challenges of moving overseas is having NO clue where you will land! You know, most times, when people move, they check out the area first, tour a bunch of homes, ask around, etc. Not so for us. You are not likely to have any clue, whatsoever, about the house you’ll be spending the next 2-3 years in before arriving in your new host country, with family, pets and suitcases in tow. Your house is picked out and waiting. Ta-daa! Like it or not. You might present a housing request to post, in advance, with some basic wants and needs, and I truly believe that posts do try to accommodate your list as much as possible, but it comes down to availability. Not available, you’re not getting it. You get what you get. Hopefully Shannon’s round-up will give new FS folk a good overview on the pros and cons of post housing.

When we first arrived in Amman, we were told that our place was one room too small for us and that it was one of the oldest in the inventory… BUT… it was a ground floor apartment. It did have 3 bedrooms, so that was good enough. I have an actual disability with my knees (not just age ;) !) and requested ‘no stairs’, so see, post worked with us to meet this request. On the downside, our laundry room is outside our apartment, in the common basement, in our locked storage room. At least I have the choice of using the stairs or an elevator, depending on how the joints are behaving. It works.

I’ll start with the cons of our place:

UGLY – This apartment has, very VERY obviously, been maintained and repaired in a slap-dash, cheap as possible, manner for many, many years. It’s typical, I guess, for homes with such a high turnover rate. Ours has been turned over too many times. It’s truly past due for a real make-over. 

Typical ‘detail’ found throughout our house…
It was probably fairly nice when new, but the paint has been glopped on haphazardly… it’s on the rock walls, tiles, on the cabinets, tops of ceiling fixtures, etc.
Very sloppy. Door hardware and windows also have paint everywhere. I’ve thought about cleaning it up… but that just ticks me off. I didn’t do this sloppy work, painting neatly really isn’t that hard(!), and there is so much mess that just starting the job of fixing it up annoys me. So does looking at it. If we were to actually buy a place like this, I would be working on it from the get-go. But, this place is temporary. By the time I got it all done, it’d be time for us to move, and they’d be back with the paint buckets and careless painters to slap on another coat for the next tenants.
Some tile is old, dark, ugly, and out of date. I am generally NOT that picky about such things(!) Seriously… I can deal with temporary housing and ugly tile… but I have two bathrooms in this house that can and will make anyone say ‘ugh!’.
The flash on my camera (above) makes this bathroom wall look MUCH cheerier than it is in reality. To add to the prison look of this tiny dark room, check out the window… These bathroom windows are HIGH up, open from the top (our maid can’t even reach the handle) and are screened on the outside. We can clean the inside of the windows, but the outside is just about impossible.
The kitchen has the same tile, but fortunately, it’s a much bigger room so it doesn’t make you feel like you’re in a moldy, mossy grey cave.

I’ll spare you a photo of the master bath. Color dating of the tile puts it at, um, maybe late 80’s… I think? Sand and sea foam green. Better than 70’s colors, but not by much. I’d be happier with the tile, whatever the color, if it didn’t actually look 30 years old. Bleach and scrubbing will only help so much.

The kids’ bathroom is big, bright, and has half-way modern tile, but the radiator is yellowed and rusty (like most in the house), one wall is all glass block tile (not bad, if you ignore the cracks) but they put the sink in front of that, and suspended a cheap mirror on even cheaper aluminum rails, in front of it. Kind of a ‘what were they thinking??’ sort of set up. Doesn’t the exposed wiring just pull the whole look together?
NOTE: Again, when I say that I am generally NOT picky about the superficial looks of temporary housing, I’m very serious. Honest. I’ve been doing this ‘moving from place to place’ for many years, a lot of which was to notoriously bad military housing. Looks are usually far down on my priority list when it comes to housing. I think, what really irks me the most is, of all the other houses I’ve visited here at post, ours is truly the ugliest and most out of date when it comes to structure and maintenance. Most of the other apartments I’ve seen here seem so much newer and modern… they’re actually.. pretty. It doesn’t help that I was raised by a carpenter/handyman, and so these crappy, piddle-y little details are truly glaring to me.

HAZARDS – Ugly is annoying, but I would have refused to stay in this house if we’d had little kids. Either that or we’d have had facilities here making massive safety alterations.

Tower of terror – right in the central hallway of the house, between the children’s rooms, behind two flimsy access doors that lock unless you pull hard, is the central access shaft through the center of the building.
That shaft goes all the way through, basement to roof (I believe it goes to the roof). Not sure an adult could get into that hole, but a small child could. Pets could. And god only knows what might crawl out of it…  Fumes from the generators (for hot water and radiators) in the basement can be smelled in this area sometimes.

Ledges of death – Our patio ends with 5 steep steps leading down to a lower garden (with the trees, on the left) and a gate to the basement apartment on the right. At the far end, you see a wall with a spiked fence on top… pretty sure that most kids would not be able to scale that… good thing too, as there’s a pretty good drop to a garage underneath the garden. Then, we’ve got these cute little planter boxes on the right, with eye-high pointy plants in them. You’re definitely NOT going to keep little kids, or clumsy dogs for that matter, off of these…
It is what’s on the other side of those planters that is of real concern…
yep… much down-ness, with concrete to break your fall…
We have another balcony on the house with a similar, not even knee high, planter box as the only barrier to an even steeper drop in the front.

There’s also a 4ft high ledge on the edge of our garden, which is not too dangerous… it’s likely that the thorn-filled rose bushes would grab a speeding toddler before they hurtled off of this, although I did trim them back… ah well, it’s muddy down there. It’d be a softer landing than concrete.
For watery fun, we have two of these…
unsecured, deeeeep dark water tanks under the building. Right there on the back patio. I often put one of those heavy cement blocks on the lids (they get moved back all the time), but it would only slow a determined child, not stop them. I’ve had little kids over before, and let me tell you, even with numerous adults as supervisors, I was worried the whole time. Ledges, pits, nearly every other plant covered in thorns… I trust my kids back there, but if they were any younger… no.

Lack of basic safety features – Two bedrooms have bars in the windows that do NOT open. One of these rooms opens out over a 2nd floor drop so even if you can squeeze through the bars, you’re still in trouble. No shutters over the glass doors of our safe haven. Yes, facilities is aware of this. It’s an old house. Our car is parked next to the guard shack, but is not in a gate or garage. Every door to the outside locks with a key. Meaning, they unlock with a key. Every flippin’ door is keyed separately too. It’s confusing for the kids. They can manage them now, but couldn’t when we first moved in.

Lack of Storage – Anybody have a linen closet? How about drawers or cabinets in the bathrooms (you know, for your towels, extra TP, etc.)? We do not. Not a single one. How stupid is that?? I don’t think we own a huge stash of towels, blankets, sheets, extra pillows, etc. but, like most people, we have SOME spares… and it sure would be nice to have a decent place to store them! I have a plastic laundry basket for towels in the master bath (classy, I know, but it’s not like it hurts the looks of the room at all – ugly on ugly – it matches). I found an aluminum, 3 tier, wheeled shelf/cart for towels in the kids bathroom. Sheets and things are stored in upper cabinets, over clothes closets (none of which have shelves), that requires a step ladder to reach. Oh, and it would also be really nice to have a decent place to put the vacuum cleaner, mop, broom, etc. We use the cave-like washroom as a storeroom. It’s already cramped and icky, so what the heck…  I put a curtain under the counter (where there are NO drawers!) and hide the vacuum cleaner under there.

Pests – we have ants. They come in through the walls, usually the electrical sockets. I do not trust most poisons around kids and cats, so I wage a constant war with cleansers with bleach, and 409 with orange scent (they hate that!). We have NOT had issues with roaches or black fly as I hear others have. All of our windows are screened, so we do not have much trouble with mosquitoes, and with three cats, we have no rodents. I cleaned droppings from corners in the bathroom when we moved in, but none since. Having cats inside means rodents stay away.

Have I trashed the place enough yet? Ok, here are some ‘pros’. These are the reasons why, although I am usually too embarrassed to invite folks over, I don’t want to move.

Location – we live in an older neighborhood. It’s full of trees, and is pretty quiet. There are some stupid drivers using our road, but not too many. It’s pretty and peaceful. The neighbors are nice. We can open the windows at night and we hear… nothing but the breeze in the trees. Birds in the morning. It’s very pleasant.

Windows – They’re ugly. Leaky. They have bars over them and paint on them. The window treatments are old, bland, worn out and ugly. BUT. We have lots of big windows. LOTS of windows. On ALL sides of the house. I can open it up and let the breeze blow through! We get such a good breeze through the house that I actually have to use door stops to keep interior doors from slamming. Nature’s AC! Plus, sunlight and greenery! We have walls and trees for privacy, and that also works (somewhat) as a shield against dust. (older neighborhood means lots of trees to screen the dust!) Windows are a true luxury!!!

BIG open floor plan – We do not have an office in which to hide computers, file cabinets, (whatever office stuff). We were not even provided a decent desk. But we have space off to one side in the main living room to set office things up on a long folding table. I do not have an office in which to set up a sewing corner, so I took a corner out of that living room… it looks cluttered and squeezed in, but at least I’ve got a corner, it’s even out of the way. That same big room holds our formal dining area, art stuff, full sized electric piano, and off to another corner, two sofas and a TV/game center, as well as a treadmill and weight bench (which is currently converted into a day care for all of Honor’s dolls) … and what the hey… it’s not like the place looks nice enough for formal entertaining anyway, so why not spread out and PLAY?! This older post shows several photos of the big room, before we received our HHE… and also shows off the lovely light from the many windows!

There IS room to PLAY inside! That’s just pure awesomeness!

There is also room to play OUTSIDE. Not a huge amount of grass, and there are the ledges and thorns to worry about, but we have an outside. It is a blessing.

APPLIANCES! – We have REAL appliances! Not a mini-oven that means Thanksgiving chicken rather than turkey, no, we have a REAL oven. We also have a full size fridge and upright freezer.. IN the kitchen. There’s no dishwasher here, although there’s a place to put one if we’d wanted to buy one. I rather like having clean dishes with one wash though. The last 3 places we lived, with dishwashers, we had to pre-wash dishes, run the dishwasher, and check and wash the dishes again when we took them out. Hand washing is not my favorite chore… but I sure like the results. What a concept… clean dishes with one wash! We have a full sized washer and dryer too… they’re down in the basement, which is an inconvenience, but not a big one. My kitchen is big, fully equipped, I have lots of counter space, and TWO sinks! One is a double sink for washing dishes, the other is a single. Good for food prep, and it also has a RO water filter built in. I also have windows in the kitchen (I posted about them here) – better than the real appliances, is natural light!

Heat and AC – It gets cold here, and very, very hot. We have radiator heat, which is effective. The house is leaky and drafty, but we keep warm. The AC, provided by 4 split pacs, is also very good in our house. We have a sitting room attached to our kitchen, which means we can actually have AC in the hottest area of the house. Those who have a kitchen that is cut off from all the other rooms know how miserable that can be. We do not actually like the house to be too warm, or too cold, but it is very nice to have the proper, functioning(!), appliances to make needed adjustments. We had to fight this issue in Cairo! Here, it’s been much easier. We have a number of ceiling fans as well… on high ceilings, which is safer for us tall people.

Marble floors – just the sound of it seems luxurious, doesn’t it? The reality is, wood is much more expensive in this part of the world, so tile, stone, and marble are the common building materials. Wood would be the luxury! Fortunately, I like plain white marble, even though, again, ours is old and looks very dated/worn. I can live with it, no problem. I am a teensy bit jealous of the more modern and pretty look of newer tile styles in friends’ homes, but only a teensy tiny bit. It’s so easy to keep clean, it is cool in the summer, and it gets warm in the winter because of the hot radiator pipes underneath. It is SO much nicer than cheap wall-to-wall carpet or fake wood flooring!

Store room – we have a storage area in the basement, so we actually have a place to keep our luggage, Christmas tree, decorations, etc.  This is a HUGE, usually unseen, bonus of any housing, that most take for granted… until they do not have it.

One major benefit of being in an older house, is that most of the ‘bugs’ you get in new construction have already been worked out before you get there! For the most part, our plumbing works, our electricity works, etc. We’ve had some age-related issues, but they’ve been easily fixed. It’s much easier to re-caulk a pipe that’s leaking because the old caulk has rotted away, than to fix a leak that it caused by poor new construction behind a wall or under the floor. It’s much easier to replace an old broken switch, than rewire a socket that was installed completely back-asswards with no ground wire, etc.

One other thing to note about housing, any housing, is that it doesn’t hurt to ask questions. We did NOT have an AC in the sitting area attached to the kitchen when we moved in. It’s our main TV room and where the kids do homework as I’m cooking dinner. It was HOT in that room… because of the oven, but mostly because it’s cut off from the rest of the house where there was AC and it simply gets very hot here in the summer. I asked, and Facilities installed the AC. Simple. I wanted more light in the corner that I commandeered for my sewing machine… facilities could not provide wall mounted light fixtures, but they did install the ones I purchased. I’ll leave them there for the next tenants. Despite my saying that I do not want to fix that icky paint work, I probably will. Rather than buy the materials though, I’m going to ask for them through facilities first… I think it is an appropriate maintenance request. I’ve got to have them come in and repair some cracking paint on the ceilings in a couple of rooms anyway. It’s completely understandable that facilities should NOT be regarded as Home Depot, and they are NOT at our beck and call for simple silly things, but they do have the tools and the local know-how. I try to always be respectful of the workers here, and work with them. For example, I don’t believe in calling for help changing light bulbs, in general… BUT… when I have trouble with an odd light fixture… rather than break something, I’ll have them come show me how to deal with it properly. That’s a win-win for both sides. No matter what the issue, it doesn’t hurt to ask.


Jill said...

Oh how I LOVED this ... your photos, your descriptions, everything! I totally get it too ... having been in 5 different houses at 3 different posts. The lack of attention to detail gets me sometimes ...

Housing definitely seems to be one of the hardest parts about some of these postings. If you don't love where you live, it can make for an awfully long, frustrating tour. I should know... I've moved twice - at 2 separate posts because of it. :)

Connie said...

We haven't had to move yet... it was getting close to that in Cairo but they finally solved our AC problem. I swear, when you can go outside in summertime Egypt to cool off because your house is too hot.. that's a problem! It really is a matter of figuring out the pros and cons and weighing them carefully.

Camille said...

GREAT post! Thank you :)

Connie said...

Thank you Camille! :)

Shannon said...

It is time for the Weekly State Department Blog Round Up and you are on it!

It is found here:

If you would like the links to your site removed (or corrections are needed) please contact me. Thanks!

Expat Mom said...

Those ledges are something else! I KNOW Dante would fall off one . . . and he would likely get into those water tanks, too. :)

Kristen said...

I loved your post and all the info! It really helps us newbies to reign in our expectations! And the video of the cats was great. I've never seen a cat play fetch before. They play better than my Jack Russell! :) Thanks again for this post!

Connie said...

Expat Mom - Seriously! There's a certain age where kids think they can defy anything, even gravity, and win. (I think it's 4 and 18yo... anyway... ) Those ledges are crazy!

Connie said...

Thanks Kristen - Shannon picked an important topic. It's hard enough to move to a new place KNOWING the area, the language, whatever... and KNOWING what sort of house you're moving into because you chose it. Moving to a new post sometimes means you are moving to a place you know very little about, may not know the language, and you will very likely have no idea, or choice, about the house you land in. Pros and cons are easier to accept if YOU make the choice to accept them, but that's not the case... so, you just have to make your mental checklist of good and bad things AFTER you move in, and reset your attitude on the fly. (on top of culture shock, new job, new school, and all that...) As Shannon pointed out, when a place you're moving to is described as AMAZING, without an honest accounting of the bad points as well as the good.. well, that just makes the 'cons' hurt twice as much when you find out the truth! Honesty is best.

btw - the cats are actually much better fetchers than the video shows. They were catching, but not returning, the toy. They get confused when two play at a time. When it's one-on-one fetch, they get obsessive about it. Pixie especially will actually try to put the toy in my hand if I try to ignore her when she really (REALLY) wants to play. They're fun!

junglemama said...

Connie I loved this post. Thanks for giving us a look at the details strange as that may sound. :)

Connie said...

Christine - the housing IS different than what we are used to. Glad I could share :)