If you're pondering buying mountain property, you probably know what you want: location, views, closet space. Here are 10 less obvious considerations to help you make a smart choice.
1. The site is more important than the building-you can always change the building, says Jim Edgcomb of Edgcomb Design Group in Warren, Vt. Is the house oriented to the view, at the expense of solar gain? That may not be a problem in July, but it could be in January. Also, he warns, "You get cabin fever in snow country. If the bedroom's on the south, and the kitchen's on the north, that might not work that well." Cold, north-facing sites may be alright for the occasional ski weekend, however they probably aren't a wise choice for a primary residence.
Another consideration: "Can you get up there in winter?" asks Rich Siemer, a designer with Craig Hoopes & Associates in Santa Fe, N.M. He cites subdivisions in nearby Taos in which no one is responsible for road maintenance, leaving some winter residents to hike home.
2. A flat roof is stupid, right? "Actually, in snow country a flat roof can make the most sense," says Eric Brandt, a Sedona, Ariz., architect who has worked for more than a decade in and around Telluride, Colo. "But you've got to put up a really bomb-proof roof."
A good flat roof doesn't shed snow on your plants and sidewalks, doesn't drip, and drains through heated internal downspouts. A bad one possesses enough slope to drain slowly off one side. Freezing water forms damaging ice dams along the eaves, which you wind up shoveling in February.
Traditional gabled roofs demand smart design. "The biggest problem with snow," says Aspen architect Harry Teague, "is one, it stays on the roof, and two, it doesn't." If snow stays up top it can melt slowly, then freeze along the eaves, creating an ice dam that holds meltwater, backing it up under shingles and possibly leaking inside. "You wind up with an 800-pound block of ice on the roof."
How about heat tape? "Bad solution," Teague continues, "although you see it even on brand-new buildings." It draws lots of juice, doesn't last, and drips water where it will freeze-say, on your expensive shrubbery. Best solution: a cold roof. If internal heat doesn't radiate, the snow doesn't melt much. Cold roofs are achieved by major insulation (up to about R-60) or proper ventilation, allowing winter air to circulate beneath the roof.
Avoid roof clutter. Those nice copper gutters and downspouts may be ripped off when the snow does slide.
3. Where does roof snow go when it finally sheds? If it piles up against the side of a building, what is that wall made of? "You've got to think in terms of freeze-thaw, and something that's going to hold up there," says Doug Rand, a Bozeman, Mont., architect. He recommends that exterior walls facing this problem be made of stone or exterior stucco-not wood. Also, does the snow shed onto or away from sidewalks, the front door, the garage door, your doghouse? Make sure the entryway is covered by some kind of gable-otherwise, entry and exit can be a crap shoot, with the roof threatening to unload as you pass by-a situation that has actually killed people in Alaska.
4. Decks sure are great-until you have to shovel them. Again, does the roof shed on them? Are they raised above ground level, so you can push snow off, rather than lifting and heaving? For that matter, is there enough gap between the bottom rail and the deck itself to slide snow underneath?
If the deck is wooden, are the slats oriented in the same direction that you'll be shoveling? (Sounds trivial until you hook the blade of your shovel and walk into the end of the handle.)
5. Radiant heat is considered the best way to warm a home, because it's comfortable and economical. It does well in vaulted rooms, because you can comfortably maintain ambient air temps about 10 degrees cooler than with forced air. But radiant heat has drawbacks, too. It is very slow to respond. The most efficient application is with a bare stone floor; wood or carpet overlays insulate the radiant elements from the room. Any leakage of a radiant heat system, although unlikely, is usually catastrophic.
Beware of electric baseboards, which tend to cost four times as much to run as natural gas, and twice as much as propane. Some houses employ central forced air heating, with a humidifying element that adds moisture to heated air. Good in principle, this feature can require a lot of maintenance, particularly in mountain areas with hard water, which tends to gunk up the works.
6. If your home will be used by large groups of people all wanting hot showers at once, an on-demand water heater (in which water is heated by a flame as it runs through the pipe) is a better alternative than a hot water tank, which runs out and must be kept hot while you're absent. One caveat: If you choose on-demand hot water, you should also have modern faucets with good mixing valves, or you may suffer from hot and cold shocks.
7. Check the insulation (you may need an inspector to do this). Minimum accepted standards tend to run around R-35 or R-40 for roofs, R-25 for walls. As a rule of thumb, calculate R-3 per inch for fiberglass, R-4 per inch for blown-in cellulose, and R-5 per inch for rigid insulation.
If the house is tight and well insulated, a heat exchanger (which transfers the heat from exhaust air to incoming air) is a good idea to bring fresh air in efficiently. "Particularly when a house is tight, 'makeup air' for woodstoves and fireplaces is really important," says Edgcomb.
8. Uncontrolled air infiltration in log homes can be problematic, since they settle, says Rand: "A log will shrink in its width a lot more than its length. If there are posts in the corners or frame walls, and they haven't allowed for slippage, you can get big spaces between the logs. It's not that common anymore, but it's something to know about."
Look for a vapor barrier, and make sure it sits against the inside layer of the wall. If it's on the outside, as it is in some older constructions, moisture from warm interior air can condense against the cold barrier, soaking insulation and rotting and rusting fasteners.
9. Single-pane windows have an R-value of only R-1, leading to a lot of heat loss (double-panes manage R-2). But modern, multipane windows can achieve R-values as high as R-8, which can make an immense difference in comfort and heating costs. Also, older-style aluminum frames on windows and sliding glass doors conduct enormous quantities of heat out of the building. Condensation can accumulate inside frames and in the tracks, freezing doors shut. Wooden frames are better.
10. Does the house have a mudroom? "It's a no-brainer, but it's amazing how little it's accommodated," says Teague. A smart house has at least two entries, including one through a mudroom that contains a place to sit down, hard floors (but not too slippery-remember, you're wearing ski boots), access to closets and washers and dryers, and even cubbies for your house slippers.
By The Numbers
Beware of electric baseboard heat, which tends to cost four times as much to run as natural gas, and twice as much as propane.
Got a question for SKI Mountain Property editor Hal Clifford? You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.