Home Improvement The Rural Way

There’s a whole lot of remodeling going on in rural areas. Affordable housing is in short supply and housing stock is aging. And out here we tend to stay in the same home longer than the national median tenure of 13.2 years. So rural folks are building additions to accommodate growing families, accommodations to allow aging in place, and features that make the homes we’re in more livable. 

Living in the midst of home improvements is tough anywhere because something always goes sideways. But in the city, folks have fully stocked home improvement stores close by. Out here, a flying trip to town (there’s always something you need right now) takes longer. Lots of rural people DIY their home improvements because finding someone to hire can be even more challenging than DIY. And you can just about count on spotty internet when you really need to stream YouTube to figure out how that (expletive deleted) thing is supposed to go together. 

So if you’re planning improvements (big or small) for your rural home, here are some things to keep in mind.

Is it worth it? Make a realistic assessment of the foundation, electrical systems, plumbing, structure, mold, and roofing before making decisions. Our old farmhouse needed all new wiring, insulation, windows and siding, an addition if we were ever to have code-compliant plumbing, drywall to replace flammable fiberboard and paneling, flooring, an HVAC system, radon mitigation in the basement, and kitchen cabinets and countertop. When we did the math on a complete remodel, we were two-thirds of the way to the cost of a new modular home. So we went that route instead. Twenty-two years later, our new home isn’t new anymore, and some things need to be replaced or renovated. But those tasks are more straightforward compared to the old farmhouse, where the start of every project felt like we were opening the portals of Hell.

Choose resilience. While planning home improvements, look ahead to what your life may be like in the future and prioritize long-term livability over short-term style. In addition to considerations like wheelchair or walker accessibility, consider how you can improve resilience in other ways. For example, summers at 45 degrees north seem to be getting hotter and more humid. When my husband and I built our house, he installed radiant baseboard heat instead of a forced air furnace, so we didn’t have ductwork that could be used for central air conditioning. In 2022 we decided to install a ductless mini-split air conditioner. We used it a lot in 2023 when smoke from Canadian wildfires drifted south and settled over us.

Hire or DIY? In our old farmhouse, any project we tried to get done by hiring a professional might get as far as someone coming out to take a look. Then we never heard from them again. Can’t blame them: Estimates for remodeling old farmhouses are hard to write because something always goes wrong. It’s easier to hire out jobs that don’t come with flying bats, a separate fieldstone foundation for every room that was added on in the previous century, and fun surprises like cascades of Styrofoam bead insulation flowing out of the walls when replacing windows. We hired out the installation of the mini-split last year. But this year, Bill did the installation of new vinyl plank flooring in our bedroom. We’re still working with original parts body-wise, so DIYing seems to take more ibuprofen and more time to puzzle out instructions. But we have more time than money, so we’ll DIY what we can and save up to hire out jobs like the new roof that’s in our future.

Dollars and sense. Winter is a good time to explore options that might be available to help pay for home improvements before you begin. For example, the USDA Section 504 Home Repair program provides loans and grants to very-low-income rural homeowners to repair, improve, or modernize their homes (loans) and to remove health and safety hazards (grants). Very-low-income Native Americans may qualify for home repair, renovation, replacement, and new housing grants through the Housing Improvement Program (HIP). Military veterans and service members may be eligible for loans and grants to help pay for home improvements, including grants that can help buy or modify a home for independent living or make medically necessary changes like wider doors or accessible bathrooms. Weatherization and energy efficiency programs can help rural homeowners make improvements that save on heating and cooling costs. Keep in mind, though, that websites and ads claiming to offer “free money from the government” for home repairs and improvements are often scams. People who need a bit of help identifying and navigating legitimate options might find it at their county Social Services or Veterans office.

Paperwork. There will be paperwork involved in some home improvements. In zoned areas of my county, for example, a building permit is required before construction begins on any building, addition, or other structure – including porches and decks. Certain small accessory structures with less than $1,000.00 assessed value (such as small storage sheds) are exempt from the permit requirements but still must comply with setback and other requirements. Contact your county land records department to confirm whether/what permits are required. And remember that even if you hire someone else to do the work and they get the permit(s) on your behalf, it’s still the property owner’s responsibility to ensure that all necessary permits are obtained and work complies with county regulations. It can take weeks to get permits approved before construction can begin. So if you’re planning to build an addition or other home improvement next summer, look into getting your permits lined up this winter to avoid potential delays.

Make a plan. This winter, we’re going to make plans for the projects we need to complete next summer and the following year. And when I say plans I mean more than a wish list. Actually, we’re going to practice applying principles learned in incident management training we’ve had with our volunteer fire department. We’re going to treat remodeling in our corner of the yonder like an expanding incident. That means setting S.M.A.R.T. goals and objectives, identifying hazards and risks, assessing resource needs and availability, assigning responsibilities, and reevaluating as needs change. A plan can be flexible. But in home improvement, piecemeal decisions and emergency repairs tend to be expensive. Last-minute changes tend to be really expensive. And stressful. Trust me, it’s easier to go into the really stressful phase of a project feeling like you’re on the same page as the person who crawls into the other side of the bed every night while your home is a construction zone.

Clear the way. Another thing I want to do this winter is declutter to minimize what has to be moved before our summer projects can begin, and make a plan for where to put things temporarily during those projects. Bill and I managed with kitchen cupboard contents on a card table in the middle of the living room for a day while he shimmed out those cupboards to fit a new range hood. But I once saw a marriage sorely tested when the microwave was moved for a DIY kitchen remodel that led to a bathroom remodel (because why wouldn’t you deal with that plumbing first?) and disruption of the morning routine for getting off to work was stressful for months instead of weeks. 

Get ready for a mess. Tearing out whatever needs to be replaced always seems to be the worst part of a project. Have a plan for the disposal of debris. It may not reflect well on me since he was the one on his knees laying flooring, but I considered murdering my husband when he took the kitchen garbage can for flooring debris and I made a mess tossing bloody butcher paper where the kitchen garbage can should have been. With a bit more planning, we can do better before starting our next job. And we need to be on the same page regarding clean-up at the end of the day during a project. Sometimes I know it’s better for him to walk away from his frustration, even if the clutter is making me crazy. What’s not negotiable is making sure fire hazards are minimized during construction, fire extinguishers are accessible, and exits are clear. It’s wise to unplug power tools and work lights at the end of the day, remove trip hazards, tape over any breakers that need to be left off, and make sure family members are fully aware of what’s temporarily different or off-limits. 

Take the help. When I was a kid and my dad was working a day job besides farming, his dad would show up with a toolbox and do projects Dad couldn’t get to. My parents did that for Bill and me when we had a business that was open seven days a week spring, summer and fall, leaving little time for us to do home improvement projects ourselves. A friend from the fire department came to make a roof repair to help us get by until we can replace it.

Family and friends who pitch in to help with home improvement can be priceless. And it’s hard sometimes to know what kind of thanks is appropriate. You can offend a rural neighbor just as easily by offering to pay or not offering to pay. Offer. But if the offer is declined, be prepared with an alternative like a gift card mailed in a thank you note, or a pie. Show up with a snow shovel after the next big storm. Show up when they need you.

Pay it forward when you can.

Donna Kallner writes from Langlade County in rural northern Wisconsin. 

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