Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 12, 2011

House of Blue Tarps

There’s something you should know when you come to shop for your house in Los Angeles. (You are planning to move here, after the winter you’re having, aren’t you?) Of course, there are several things you should know, but I’m assuming that you know about the high food prices, high energy prices, high sales taxes, unemployment, dysfunctional state government and the ever-present danger that you might run into Mel Gibson. No, I mean something else.

When you shop for a house in Atlanta or Cincinnati or Dallas, you carefully scope out the city and the surrounding areas to assess where the good schools are, what the commute will be like to your job, whether or not property values have been holding steady or declining, whether your in-laws can park their RV on the street when they visit and so forth. Granted, there are always certain things that, unless you know the area well or have, god bless them, an honest realtor, it’s more difficult to determine: has the City Council been paying themselves a million dollars a year under the table, putting your local district on the edge of bankruptcy, is your prospective neighborhood the site of a former cadmium processing plant, and so forth. The one thing you rarely think is necessary to consider is the weather. Atlanta? Hot and steamy in the summer and mild in the winter (except this winter, that is). Cincinnati? Hot and steamy in the summer and something between slushy misery and frozen tundra in the winter, depending on the year. Houston? Hot and steamy in the summer and the winter, except there’s no baseball in the winter and you have a team called the Texans who have never won a game in the NFL.

L.A. is, of course, as we are in all things, different. Let’s start with my neighborhood. It’s January 11th. The temperature at 9 p.m. is 55 degrees. Tomorrow during the warmest part of the day it might be 68 or it might be 75. Next August, though it’ll be 110 degrees here. That’s the funny thing. Downhill from us about a mile, by Los Angeles Harbor, it’ll be 80 degrees on that same August day: maybe 75. And about three miles up over the crest of the Palos Verdes Peninsula, it might be fogged-in and 68 degrees with a chill wind blowing in off the Pacific. This place is the world center for microclimates. Why is it so expensive to live near the beach, you wonder as you house-shop? Is it the view? No. A total of 57 houses have an actual view of the ocean, and those cats are not selling. It’s the temperatures. Cooler in the summer by ten or fifteen degrees than it is inland, and warmer by ten or twenty degrees than it is up in the foothills during the winter. There are also those fires and mudslides and other advantages of southern California living, and those just happen to be associated with some of the priciest, most view-blessed and out-of-the-traffic places there are to live. You pay a price to live there — not in dollars, but in risk.

The whole place is a crazy quilt of different temperatures at different seasons, various exposures to or obstructions from ocean breezes, Santa Ana winds and, god help us, things like Med Fly infestations, which we won’t get into here.

By the way, if you’re looking for housing in Beverly Hills or Brentwood or Pacific Palisades, none of this applies to you; you’re in a different class of housing altogether, and all the bad things have been eliminated from those places by strictly enforced ordinances. If they could only get rid of Mel, they’d be set.

All this came to mind today when I was trading e-mails with Surf Boy, who lives down by the beach in Hermosa, where the weather is always mild and the surf is always chest-high and glassy. He recalled the first winter after he and Surfer Girl bought their house, and discovered that they had bought what is referred to locally as a “strainer,” referring to the way the rain ran through the roof. That’s another thing about buying a house here. If you buy the place any time between April and November, you probably will have no way of knowing whether the roof will shed water or merely serve as a sort of minor inconvenience before the rain runs down into the inside. And if it’s a dry year, heck, you might go through one entire year and into the next winter before you get a reality check. In normal climates, there are regular tests provided for roofs, called “monthly precipitation.” As rain comes and goes on a regular basis, you have a way to check if the water is mostly going off the edge of the roof, or down onto the ceiling. Here, there can be a long, long time between rainstorms. And, given the nature of the rain we DO get, when it comes, it typically arrives several inches at a time in torrential downpours. A canny seller of real estate can seal and paint over some water stains, sell the joint in May, and be sipping a Stumptown Coffee in their new digs up in Portland months before you know you’ve bought a strainer.

The first winter I lived in Los Angeles was extraordinarily dry. There was, essentially, no rainfall whatsoever. I spent that year freelancing, didn’t have a lot of interaction with many people, so I was uninitiated into all the myriad details of regular life that one picks up from interactions, including things about the weather. By the following winter, though, I had landed my job turning the crank at the mill, in a building occupied by about 400 new colleagues. One day, it commenced to rain, as the old folks would say. The building emptied. Everyone headed home to see if their roofs (why don’t we say “rooves”?) had developed any leaks during the previous 18 months of broiling under the sun.  I found this darned amazing. Back in Ohio, and everywhere else, you get regular roofing tests, as described above. Here, there’s no way of knowing what might happen until that big 2 or 3 inches of rain falls in about 4 hours.

As my first rainy season progressed, an interesting phenomenon was on display: the roofs of L.A. turned blue. Hundreds and hundreds of houses had blue tarps stretched over them to hold off the rain until new roofers could be shipped in from somewhere else. Portland, maybe. (Editor’s note: for our readers in foreign lands not familiar with the term, “tarp” is short for “tarpaulin,” a waterproof cloth, although today they are more typically large sheets of blue plastic.) At that time, southern California real estate prices were severely depressed. Many homeowners were “upside-down” on their mortgages, meaning that there hadn’t been much investment in basic house repairs. It was cheaper to buy a big tarp at Home Depot than a new roof in such circumstances.

This year has already been one of heavy rains here. You probably read about it or saw footage of a little mudslide out in Malibu on slow news days wherever you are, before some really serious floods in Australia bumped us off the airwaves. Remembering that earlier time, I kept an eye out, scanning the hundreds or maybe thousands of houses I can see as I drive to and from work or drive around on weekends. There are no blue tarps. Not one. Everyone’s house is waterproof. What’s made the difference? Easy. From about 2000 ’til 2007 or so, housing prices skyrocketed here in southern California. In most neighborhoods of any reasonable desirability, a house doubled in “value” during that time. In my neighborhood, there are a few original house owners from when the suburb was built in 1955. For those individuals, the house for which they paid $11,000 was worth maybe 70 times as much. Some people sold, or, if they weren’t ready to sell, they refinanced, took some of that money and made improvements. No better improvement than to replace a 30 or 40 year-old roof! Everyone has new roofs, or at least repaired roofs. No blue tarps. If this means another dip into deeper recession because tarp manufacturers have to lay off workers, we don’t want to hear it!

I would be interested to hear from anyone who knows of other cities where geography causes noticeable variations in local weather. Feel free to click on “comment.” This offer even includes readers from Cleveland and Buffalo and probably Chicago who feel compelled to address the vaunted “Lake Effect!”

© 2015 Brad Nixon


  1. Well, I was all set to make some comment about buying blue-tarp-futures but now you say no one is buying them in LA? Drats! My next best idea is still to corner the market on pre-filled sandbags for worldwide floods.


    • Let me know before you boost the supply of pre-filled sandbags. I’ll want to add to my holdings in shipping companies.


      • Blue tarps may be the trendy thing for you Angelinos, but they are definitely passe here in Orange County. (For those not familiar with California political subdivisions, “O.C.” as it is known, is the county directly south of Los Angeles County.)

        Unlike L.A. County, O.C. is the land of “P.U.D.s” (planned unit developments), and P.U.D.s are governed by yet another acronym: “CC & Rs” (a declaration of Covenants, Conditions & Restrictions that is an officially recorded instrument stating the rules and regulations that govern a given P.U.D).

        I should point out that almost no one, except nerdy lawyers perhaps, ever bothers to read the CC & Rs governing their little slice of heaven here in the O.C. So when our area was being blasted over several days by La Nina (El Nino’s younger sister of a really BIG storm) a few years ago, I got out a blue tarp, too. (I lived in L.A. before moving to the O.C., so I guess the blue tarp thing never quite got out of my system.)

        My ignorance of the CC & Rs was dutifully corrected by the CC & R police patrol, who issued me a written notice to cease and desist from such unsightly tarp displays. (I actually thought the blue tarp went quite well with our house, which is painted light blue with white trim.) Anyway, I was compelled to remove the temporary blue decoration and allow the rain to penetrate the roof at will.

        It should also be noted that because in Southern California tarp use, rather than roof repair, is the preferred method of dealing with the occasional downpour, finding a good roof repair company is very much a doubtful adventure. I have tried several, with little success when the actual event occurs (i.e., real rain). Hence, my backup protection is now entirely interior: towels in the affected areas.


      • Are they at least blue towels? Boy, you’d better find a roofer AND a lawyer 🙂


  2. My first thought upon seeing the Blue Tarp headline was that you were heading for the “termite treating tarping” done here in Southern California. I hadn’t experienced that sight back home or elsewhere, perhaps it is done nationwide now, except in Northern Maine. Some 3 t companies use varicolored tarps, they are very decorative and brighten up the neighborhood.


    • Those termite co. tarps look like circus tents. True, they would brighten up the neighborhood. But here in P.U.D. land, we don’t dig bright roofs or stiped tarps. Colorful roofs may work in Old Europe (think, Burgundy, France), but not in the O.C. Better use only earth tones on your roofs here, or be prepared to get cited, buckaroo!


  3. Getting away from blue tarps, and back to your weather question, Cape Town has rather variable weather due to the mountain in the middle, the mountains around the edge, and the fact that the sea water on the west side is about 10 degrees (centigrade, naturally) warmer than on the east., I don’t think it has quite the effect you describe, but certainly has impacts on wind speed and direction, humidity levels, and rain quantities…


    • Nick, thanks for that international/intercontinental perspective. Thomas Pynchon places action in two of his novels in Cape Town, and weather plays a key role both times (he mentions the chronic fog in “V” and miserable rainy winters in “Mason & Dixon”).


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