Last spring, I met with a real-estate agent and listened while she told me about the kind of house I should buy. A new house, she advised, with all new appliances and the latest innovations in wiring, plumbing, and heating — maybe even a condo. My horrified expression stopped her mid-sentence. Actually, I explained dreamily, I’m looking for an older home with charm and quirky character. I want big windows, hardwood floors, and a garden.

Better Basics for the Home:
Simple Solutions for Less
Toxic Living

By Annie Berthold-Bond
Three Rivers Press,
400 pages, 1999

And that’s what she found for me. I bought an old Seattle farmhouse, built in 1911, with lots of windows, original hardwoods, and a beautiful yard, full of huge rhododendrons, magnolias, peonies, and fruit trees. The heat? Electric. The appliances? Ancient. I settled in and began a jolting ride up the homeowner’s learning curve.

I found helpful companions in Better Basics for the Home and the Consumer Guide to Home Energy Savings, books that target typical, American homeowners like me, providing sensible, sound advice on creating a healthier household that is both economically and environmentally efficient.

Better Basics for the Home is a compendium of recipes and instructions for using simple, eco-friendly ingredients to do basic tasks around the house. Author Annie Berthold-Bond begins with a heartfelt explanation of her many reasons for wanting to create a less toxic world, high among them her own chemical sensitivities, triggered by her exposure 20 years ago to a gas leak and pesticides.

Drawing on knowledge acquired from her previous work as editor in chief of Green Alternatives for Health and Environment and author of Clean & Green and The Green Kitchen Handbook, Annie Berthold-Bond provides more than 800 easy solutions for less toxic cleaning and household management. “In the old days, a household recipe book would be passed down from mother to daughter,” Berthold-Bond writes.

Since buying my house, I’ve come to realize that it’s just as well my mother didn’t pass along her household recipe book. While my mom is a gifted artist who considers herself an environmentalist, her creative resourcefulness does not run past the canvas and into environmentally conscious household management. Like many Americans, I grew up playing on floors coated in toxics, bathing in tubs filled with synthetic soaps, and running through our neighbor’s lawn-doctored yard. Initially, I began running my house the way my mother ran hers because those routines were all I knew. But soon I began questioning some of my mother’s practices and looking for safer alternatives.

Not only has Better Basics answered my questions — it has inspired me to examine my entire household and change my toxic ways for the health of the environment and my own well-being. Plus, it’s fun. I already have many of the necessary ingredients in my kitchen cabinet. Guests to my home will be able to wash their hands with homemade soap, enjoy an ant-free picnic (thanks to my soap-and-salsa anti-pest spray solution), eat non-toxic food (prepared in my oven cleaned with baking soda), and maybe even spend the night in my guestroom, whose wallpaper has been safely stripped (with hot water and baking soda) and painted with homemade milk paint.

Each of the main chapters — “Housekeeping,” “Skin Care,” “Whole Body Care,” “Gardening, Pets, and Pest Control,” and “House Care and Hobbies” — is full of intriguing recipe ideas. Just perusing the table of contents is fodder for endless project planning. The book also has a helpful glossary of ingredients as well as background information on the dangers of toxic chemicals. Better Basics is a great resource for anyone interested in making the home a healthier place.

Consumer Guide
to Home Energy Savings, 7th ed.

By Alex Wilson, et al
American Council
for an Energy-Efficient Economy,
230 pages, 2000

The 7th edition of the Consumer Guide to Home Energy Savings, by Alex Wilson, Jennifer Thorne, and John Morrill, is another useful reference source for homeowners. The book, illustrated with simple line drawings and packed with detailed instructions, begins by outlining steps for insulating the structure of a house. Following chapters take the reader inside the house, focusing on how to save energy and money and reduce environmental impact with appliances, lighting, and heating and air-conditioning systems. Charts list and compare the most energy-efficient appliances and equipment.

Written for both amateur homeowners and seasoned veterans of the energy conservation effort, the Consumer Guide addresses basic concerns and questions but at times delves deeper into more technical issues that may leave some readers in the cold and dark (literally). However, the book is conveniently chock-full of contact information for organizations that can dispense technical help by phone, email, or snail mail.

Though my real-estate agent warned me, I didn’t fully understand the energy cost implications of buying an older home with electric heat until I got my first bill. I still love the windows, even though they aren’t sealed, and I’m glad I pursued my dreamy notion of living in an old farmhouse. But I’ve learned from the Consumer Guide that there are behind-the-scenes projects I can do to make it a “newer” house in terms of energy efficiency.

So while I’m saving up to convert to gas and purchase a recommended furnace and other new appliances, I keep my hat on and an extra pair of wool socks handy while I follow the book’s easy instructions for working on windows, insulation, and various other energy conserving projects to button up my house.