Friday, February 26, 2010

Household amenities…or the lack thereof

Americans expect certain amenities in their houses, expectations that apparently are not shared by the majority of house-buying South Africans.

For example, I think most Americans would shy away from a house that had no sink in the kitchen, even if there was a huge, state-of-the art sink in the very next room. And central heating…Americans pretty much expect central heating in their houses unless the house is of a certain age and has not been remodelled to add it. But there are things that are just accepted as “normal” in South African houses that would amaze, amuse, and dismay an American home buyer.

Windows…most modern American homes have aluminium window frames. Often they are clad and require little or no maintenance, and they have channels built in for screens. South African houses mostly have wood-framed windows…unpainted wood-framed windows, at that. They are varnished and require yearly sanding and revarnishing in order to stay in good condition. And there aren’t any screens. In fact, you cannot buy, beg, borrow or steal screen doors or window screens in this country! The only window screens I have ever seen here were at a home show, and they were for blocking the sun, not keeping insects and other little nasties from sneaking into your house. You buy a house in South Africa and want screens on your windows, be prepared to import both the screens and the windows from the US, because you simply will not find them here!

Burglar bars…I don’t know about where you live in America, but where I lived, if you saw a house for sale and it had burglar bars on all the windows and doors, you would immediately assume that the area has a serious crime problem and you would pass on the house. South Africans take a totally different view…if the house doesn’t have burglar bars, high masonry walls with spikes and electric fencing on top, CCTV cameras and monitors and an alarm hooked to a private armed response company, people walk away! I have gotten so accustomed to barred windows that the only time I really see them is when I want to take a photo out the window and the blasted bars mar the view…the camera lens can’t blot them out of the picture the way my brain can. Sometimes the problem you are fencing out, however, is not human…my mother-in-law lives in Durban and she had to put up electric fencing to keep the vervet monkeys out! These are the cutest little creatures, but terribly destructive if they get into your house…think raccoons but diurnal and with prehensile tails!

Heating…every American house I lived in from 1975 onward had forced air heating, including a heat vent in the bathroom. One even had an electronic thermostat that would allow you to program it to turn on the heat just before you awoke in the morning or got home from work and could be zoned so you wouldn’t heat the guest bedroom unnecessarily while you were warming up your bedroom and bath. Nothing in South Africa even comes close!

We are not looking in low-rent districts nor are we looking at cheap houses. Our hunt encompasses larger, finer homes, places you would expect to have the finest in creature comforts….like heat. But, despite this being the 21st century, South African homes are still being built without heat in the rooms…a fireplace in the living room and/or family room is about the best you can hope for. It’s not because it is so balmy here that heat is unnecessary…no, it gets pretty cold in the winters and even occasionally snows here in Joburg. But even in Cape Town the winters are chilly, so much so that the local shops make a pretty good business of selling space heaters of varying design. So, in an elegant home costing millions of bucks you will find cheap, ugly little space heaters tucked away to heat the rooms.

And the bathrooms? Suck it up…not only is there no heat in the room, there aren’t any electrical outlets to plug one into…or for a hair dryer, curling iron, or the chargers for your electric toothbrush or shaver. Not only that, the light switch for the bathroom is outside the bathroom! So, except for the wiring to the hole in the ceiling into which the light is wired, South African bathrooms have no electricity!!

This isn’t where the peculiarities of South African bathrooms end, however. Back in the early ’60s my father and stepmother bought a modest new tract home in Southern California. The master bath had a sink, shower and toilet, the main bath had a tub, sink and toilet. American houses have evolved since then, and in most houses built after that time, the main bath (“family bath” in South African) has a shower over the tub. Sometimes there is a shower curtain, sometimes there is a sliding glass door, but there is invariably a shower to accompany the tub. Well, that’s practically an unheard-of concept in South Africa. Around here, if a bathroom has both a tub and a shower, most likely the shower is a separate unit from the tub…and just as likely, it is only big enough for an extremely thin child to turn around in comfortably. Even in new homes or freshly remodelled bathrooms, the showers tend to be tiny little affairs tucked behind a door or stuck to the foot end of the tub. My last house in California had a large walk-in shower (easily big enough for sharing with my generously proportioned husband) in the master bath and that house was built in 1960!

And extractor fans? A fan to suck out the steam and thereby keep mildew down and afford you use of the mirror? Unheard of. The only bathroom I have ever seen that had an extractor fan was in the cottage at my rental property…and I had that installed when we renovated the cottage!

I’ve touched on some of the peculiarities of the South African kitchen, but there’s more. While a South African bathroom probably doesn’t have an extractor fan, a South African kitchen probably does, in the form of a stove hood. Unlike their American counterparts, however, these extractors do not vent to the outside. This came as a great surprise to me in my first South African house. I opened the cupboard above the extractor, expecting to find the big vent tube leading up to the hole in the roof, and found nothing! It had a fan, the fan had filters…but no ducting to the outside. I still have no idea how (or even if) it worked. The next house had a stainless hood with a long tube that went up the wall and into the ceiling. It wasn’t until a couple of years later that I discovered it, too, did not vent to the outside, but vented into the attic crawl space!! Why don’t they vent these things outside? I shudder to think of going into that crawl space…the house was built in 1972…can you imagine the kind of sticky crap hanging around up there? eeewwww!

South African houses seldom have laundry rooms or even a laundry area in the garage (and basements are pretty much non-existent here). There are no “mud porches” either, although a good number of houses have a scullery. So where do you do the wash? Well, in the absence of a scullery or a laundry room, you do it in your kitchen. Yup…In the space where you or I would put a dishwasher, the South African housewife has a washing machine. A dryer? Oh…it can be anywhere in the house since most dryers sold here do not have a vent hose to the outside. Nope, they have a peculiar perforated ring around the dryer door that allows the hot, damp air to be vented right into your house!

Dishwashers are not terribly popular here, but they are starting to show up more and more in recent years. The house I live in now has space for two appliances in the scullery with water hookups for both of them…but no place for a dryer, despite the fact that it customarily rains every afternoon here, so clothesline drying is frequently not an option.

Garbage disposals are pretty much unknown here, too. I had one for so long in America, I had to reach back in my memory to my grandmothers’ houses to recall what to do for food prep with no disposal to toss the peelings and trimmings into. I particularly miss the disposal when I find something disgusting mouldering away in the back of the fridge and can’t just dump it down the sink and flip the switch to get rid of it! But the fact that in most homes all sinks and tubs drain to an open drain outside and from there to the sewers, would make a garbage disposal unwise…the pulverized foods that cling to the inside of the drain and the pipes would be a feast for the local insect life and I have enough bugs to content with, without inviting them over for a feast every time I turn on the disposal!

Oh…and you know those convenient little sprayer thingies on the sink, the one you use to rinse stuff down the drain, clean the sides of the sink of scouring powder, rinse shampoo off the Yorkie or use to fill pots or buckets too big to fit under the faucet? Unknown here. Completely and totally unknown, both in practice and in concept! When I remodelled the last kitchen I found a faucet that the head could be pulled out (on a tube) and if you pushed a button the top of it, water would spray. But it was a rather wide-angle, high pressure spray that pretty much sprayed everything within a metre’s diameter, so it was not the optimum solution. I think when I remodel my next kitchen, I’m going to send to the States for my kitchen sink and taps!

When was the last time you say a house without a closet? My parents bought an Eichler-style house when I was in the first grade…around 1952…and this house had closets with sliding doors. Apparently built-in closets are relatively new in South Africa, as it seems to be a feature people find worthy of including in their advertisements. “BICs” the ads read, like they were some kind of new, fabulous invention and this house has them. Well, they are crap.

We aren’t talking a sliding door closet, here, we are talking cupboards…cheap white melamine cupboards in most cases, like closet sized el cheapo kitchen cabinets screwed to the bedroom wall. Cupboards with doors that sag within a year or two, and with both hanging space and shelves designed to supplant your dressers. Since when is a shelf that you cannot see to the back of better than a drawer you can pull out and see what lurks in the back? I hate these things…they are ugly, cheap, and don’t do half the job a simple walk-in closet would do! And even in the expensive up market homes you find them…although they are probably clad in a faux woodgrain covering so they don’t look quite as tacky as the white ones.

South African houses, for all that they look very much like American houses from the outside, seem to lack much of the amenities that Americans take for granted and are, therefore, glaring in their absence. There is one South African amenity, however, found in here homes both modest and grand, that Americans seem to overlook when building or remodelling their homes: the built-in pub-style bar. This just boggles me…perhaps it is that Puritan streak deeply buried in my American consciousness sticking its disapproving head out, but I would be mortally embarrassed to have such a thing in my house! I would expect people to think perhaps I had an alcohol problem…indeed, if you drink so much beer that you have a professional tap setup and you can kill a keg before it goes flat or stale, I’m thinking you probably do! Aside from the fact that it would seem to narrow your sales market (every time we see a house with one of these, we start calculating what it will cost to remove it and restore the room back to normal…always too much!) these things are just huge, cumbersome and ugly. I have actually seen three houses with kitchens that desperately needed an infusion of cash and decent design that had, instead, well-appointed bars with plumbing, refrigeration, cabinets and shelves for a broad array of liquors and glassware, and even expensive sound equipment. What kind of message does it send to any kids living in the house… “my parents can’t afford to fix up the kitchen but they spent thousands on a professional pub in the family room…guess I can tell which is important!” No piddling kegerator here…nope…a real pub-style bar that will seat four to eight people and keep them supplied with the poison of their choice for hours…even days…on end!

I don't expect to find an American home here...I really don't. But it seems to me when someone is selling a beautiful, expensive home, some basic creature heat...would be part of the basic amenities! But I know better and will be satisfied with a house that has a footprint that can be massaged to accommodate the installation of my most precious creature comforts, which is turning out to be a bigger job than expected. I am starting to feel like this house hunt is going to go on forever!


  1. Usually I enjoy reading your blog but right now - we get it - you're not impressed with the standard of housing in this country. But, strangely, you may find that you are NOT living in America now and so complaining about the state of the architecture is not going to help one little bit.
    We are a HOT country with LITTLE water - central heating/cooling has not been an issue until recently. Our infrastructure has not been several hundred years in the making because countries eschewed us and would not share technology because of our political practices. And then there are the greedy developers who feel that we should be grateful for the S***T they try and sell us... All that aside, find something good to say about a house and I think you'll be amazed at the next place you see. Right now all I see is negative energy which breeds more - and as you're at the centre of your own energy...
    Don't think of SA/USA as a Coke/Pepsi advertisement. We are different - embrace the difference and life could change.

  2. There is a difference between pointing out differences and negativity. I know the difference, please don't read things into my posts that aren't there.

    We have hot weather here...we also have VERY cold weather, cold as Silicon Valley where ALL houses have heating built in. Space heaters, which do a brisk business here, are an expensive, inefficient and sometimes dangerous way to heat a room. And they negatively impact our limited electricity supply. Programmable central heating would be safer, cheaper, and kinder to our Eskom bills.

    Different isn't necessarily worse or better, it is simply different. And pointing out those differences...and my own surprise at some of no indication of negativity, either. Perhaps you could re-read the post without filtering it through an expectation of criticism and see it for what it is: my discoveries of the differences between houses here and in California, and my surprise...and occasional dismay (open drains??? unsanitary at the very least and home to the roaches that used to plague my Cape Town house) some of those discoveries.

  3. Actually, I am rather enjoying hearing about your house-hunting quest--and one of the things I am enjoying most is hearing about all the differences between S.A. homes and American ones.

    I say Rock On Sweet Violet! And good luck with the house hunting!


  4. Thanks, Melinda...I kinda figured readers in other countries...American readers in particular...would find the differences most interesting. I wouldn't expect most people to judge SA negatively because the houses are different but rather take it from an informational and entertainment approach, as you are doing.

    I would find something similar, comparing American homes with, say French or British homes, quite fascinating, especially if written from the perspective of a fellow Yank!

  5. I really enjoyed hearing about the houses in S.A. and would not really have expected them to be anything like American ones. There are not too many places in the world that have homes like ours. My husband and I watch House Hunters International all the time - it has been quite the education. We acknowledge that we are very spoiled here. It sure got me over thinking I'd like to live outside of the U.S. Creature comforts maybe, but I'm too old and too spoiled to give them up!

  6. suZen, I hear you. My first winter in Cape Town was was SO cold I was wearing sweaters in the house and hands and feet were blue! When I asked my husband where the thermostat was, because I wanted to turn it up, he looked at me like I had two heads. "Thermostat?" he said. "This is South Africa...we don't have thermostats." This is when I discovered my house, made of brick and with no insulation, had no heat in it. Once the cold got in, it was like living in a refrigerator! (He was cold, too, though...he grew up in Durban, which is like Miami!)

    Cape Town weather is much like Silicon Valley, just a little cooler. Joburg, however, is like the Great Plains...violent thunder showers almost every afternoon during summer but without the winter heavy snows.

    I go into houses now with a mental check list...some things I cannot live without and I just have to note to myself to add the cost of my little luxury to our total cost of buying the house. It IS different here and I am the "spoiled American" my husband teases me about being, but I would never go back to the US to live. I love it here too much.

  7. Hi SV,

    Well my last comment disappeared into the Blogger ether, but I hope this one makes it! I had a couple of comments. Screens are not just unheard of in South Africa. Screens pretty much don't exist in Europe and most of Asia either. I always thought basements were a distinctly mid-west American thing, so I wasn't surprised to hear SA homes don't have them. Washing machines are actually still a rarity in most of the world. In Seoul, Korea, my relatives are pretty well-off middle class professionals. Seoul is one of the most expensive modern cities in the world, but I seem to remember that my relatives had laundry machines in the kitchen, no dishwasher, no central heat, no central air, no insect screens, a bathtub with a hand held shower, and the bathroom also functioned as a scrub room with a drain in the floor. When I was little, my grandmother rented out a single room in her house to a family of four. They had no bathroom, only a scrub room with a faucet and a drain. Their kitchen was a couple of portable gas burners. Their toilet was a chamber pot that got emptied directly into the sewer. Gross? Yep, but that was life for millions of people who were not as fortunate as my relatives and honestly, they had it better than quite a few.

    I did laugh at your description of well-appointed bars and vents that don't vent.

  8. Hi SV- a simple google search found this:

  9. Hi Anonymous and thanks for the link. Did you go to the site and look at the products? Perhaps you took a look at the windows the screens were on. If you've never lived in South Africa, you may not realize that part of the window screen problem is the kind of windows here. Note in the photos that the screens must be removed (or opened, if the screen is hinged) in order to open or close the window. That is how SA windows are constructed...they are a casement-style window that requires you to thrust your arm outside in order to open or close the window...and that means removing the screen.

    South Africans seem to prefer chemical means of controlling mosquitoes and other flying insects...we have all manner electric diffusers that plug into the wall and emit a chemical mist to kill the little buggers as we sleep. Breathing this crap and having it coat our skins and furnishings seems to be preferable to coming up with windows that accept screens easily.

    Who knows...maybe this product will catch on, but it doesn't seem to make sense to open the screen at dusk to adjust the windows and let a gazillion skeeters in at the same time!!

  10. PS Anonymous...

    Americans expect certain amenities in their homes and effective, passive window screens are one of those things we consider basic.

    South Africans, on the other hand, do not expect screens of any kind in their houses...they are not an amenity that is even on the South African home buyer's radar.


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