House hunting and FM reception: An unlikely hurdle to finding the perfect home

pexels-photo-106399We’ve all seen the house hunting shows on TV.  Often, potential buyers balk at gaudy paint colors or dated shag carpeting.  While those can easily be changed to suit the new homeowner, there are many things in a new home that affect a DXer that are permanent, forcing the DXer to do their homework before signing an offer.

I am currently house hunting and in the process of moving out of the home that I have lived in since 2002.  I hope to do so within the next few months.  I plan on staying in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC, and I do not foresee moving in closer to the local FM transmitters, which would adversely affect DXing capabilities.  However, since I have been in the house hunting process since late last year, I thought I’d share my findings as to what it is important to look for in a home as a DXer while moving.

Ideally, as a DXer, one would move into a home where they can erect a huge antenna array on par with the great one seen at DXFM.com.  Unfortunately, for most of us, having a roof antenna at all is a dream.

ROOF ANTENNA ALLOWED OR NOT?

If you have a lot of leeway with your budget, it may be wise to find a home that either doesn’t have a homeowner’s association (“HOA”), or one that isn’t intrusive.  In the United States, FCC rules allow homeowners to erect an antenna on their roofs and HOAs cannot force you to take them down, or fine you for having an antenna.  In my current townhouse community, the HOA bylaws say nothing prohibiting antennas for this exact reason.  Even so, an otherwise lenient HOA may give you lots of grief if you have a tall mast and a huge antenna array atop your roof, so be forewarned.  What I’ve done in the past 15 years is mount my antenna just below the roofline so it is only visible from the back (woods-facing) portion of my house.  My HOA hasn’t said a thing about it.

The issue, however, comes when one lives in an apartment, condo, or are renting a room from someone else.  The aforementioned FCC rules only apply to those who own their roof.  In an apartment or condo, the homeowners association, condo association (“COA”), or equivalent entity, owns the roof and can legally forbid its residents from installing antennas.  Many even prohibit antennas from being seen on balconies, and will dispose of them without notice and at the owners’ expense.

Beware–at least in my area, townhouses may actually be condos, marketed as “townhouse-condominiums,” meaning that although they are, for all intents and purposes, a townhouse, but instead of having an HOA, they have a COA that owns the roofs of all buildings and forbids external antennas.  As a house hunter, it is your responsibility to find this out before closing on a new home.

If your budget forces you to live in a home where you cannot erect an antenna, then you will have to use indoor antennas, which often means DX won’t be as good as if you had a roof antenna.  Unfortunately for me, I fall into this category.  However, since I live at the bottom of a hill with severe signal attenuation, I will probably have equal, or better, reception at a new home with indoor antennas.  For example, when I travel and only use dipole antennas indoors in hotels, I often get better reception than I do at home with a better antenna.

 HEIGHT ABOVE SEA LEVEL

The first thing you want to do, before your realtor shows a home to you, is plug in the address on Google Earth to find out the property’s height above average sea level (“ASL.”)  Compare it to several other homes in the area that you are searching in to get the average height.  If your house is at the bottom of a hill or is, otherwise, surrounded by land 50 feet ASL higher than the home for sale, you may want to look elsewhere since that could spell certain doom for the dream of having great DX at that home.

For example, my current home is 50 feet ASL.  Indoors, my local FM signals 20 miles away are staticy and difficult to hear in stereo, let alone HD.  A mile away, homes are 180 feet ASL and a few miles away from there, homes in the 300 feet ASL range are normal.  If I could choose, I’d pick a home in the 180-300 ASL range.

TESTING RECEPTION BEFORE PURCHASE

If you can install a roof antenna on the potential new home, then all you really need to do is do a dial scan in your car near the house.  Compare the results to what you get when parked at home, and you should be able to determine if you would get good reception with a roof antenna at the new home.

If you are forced to use indoor antennas, then this is where it becomes tricky.  Of course, the easiest way to test reception would be to lug your expensive radios and antennas with you, setting up shop in the potential home when the realtor shows it to you.  Unfortunately, this is likely impossible to do and it may be embarrassing, since realtors (and most people, for that matter) have no idea what DXing is, nor would they care to know if explained to them.  The realtors are usually also in a hurry as the property may have other potential buyers scheduled to see it, or the sellers are waiting for you to leave so they can return.

Use a portable radio with a headphone jack, such as a walkman, to do a quick dial scan while at the home.  Pretend to use the restroom and do the dial scan while inside.  Or, if you are house hunting with a spouse or friend, have them get the realtor’s attention while you run into another room and do a dial scan for a moment.  Compare the reception to what you have indoors at your current home and you should know if the house would be a good purchase, DX-wise.

Use of a portable radio indoors can also alert you to any potential radio-frequency interference from your neighbors–a huge concern if living in a multi-family dwelling, such as an apartment building.

DECIDING ON WHERE YOUR SHACK WILL BE

So you find the perfect home and your offer is accepted.  Where will your radios be located in that new home?  If you are able to install a roof antenna, this is a non-issue, since you could run a coax wire from the antenna to any room in the house.  But what if you were unable to install a roof antenna?

In my travels, I’ve always found the best reception is right next to a window on the highest floor possible.  If you were on the top floor in a high RF area, such as by a coastal area, then this may not matter, as many signals will beam in through the ceiling.

WINDOW DIRECTION

From 1997-2002, I lived on the third floor of a four-floor condominium building situated at the top of a steep hill a few miles away from my current house.  All windows at this home faced south-southeast.  Understandably, I received phenomenal reception to the south, southeast, and east while living there.  I did get northward signals, but they weren’t anywhere near as strong or common as those to the south, and southward signals often drowned out weaker signals from the north.  One thing that you have to also consider when house hunting is the direction of windows in your home.

This is a moot point for those who can have a roof antenna, since you can turn the antenna in any direction you desire.  This is, however, a big issue for those who don’t have this ability.

First, you want to look at a map to determine where your local IBOC-blasting FM signals are located, as well as any land masses, or oceans, that would affect reception in certain directions.  Here in Northern Virginia, facing east and west would be the worst, since the Atlantic Ocean is 116 miles to the east, and the Appalachian Mountains are 60 miles to the west, respectively.  Facing north is not good since all of my IBOC locals are to the northeast.  The south is the best direction to face.

This may be something that you simply can’t control–all potential houses in your area may face the local FM transmitters or the least-desired direction.  It is also important to note that during strong DX events, window direction may not even be an issue–if a huge, strong Sporadic E opening is blanketing your area, you’ll likely get results regardless of which direction your antenna is pointed toward.  This is just something to keep in mind while house hunting.

HOME CONSTRUCTION

Generally speaking, if you have to resort to indoor reception, wood construction is the best.  Steel beams or other type of construction can attenuate signals to where only the strongest ones get through.  Keep this in mind if this information about your potential property is known.

OVERALL

The home buying process is stressful–often be more stressful than having a child or losing one’s job, according to many online news articles and surveys.  You have to worry about a multitude of things, and realizing that there are many factors that could make or break your DXing hobby based on the mere selection of a home is something that may be a hard pill for some to swallow.  By being a smart buyer in tune with what is needed to ensure favorable reception conditions in a dwelling, you will have years of DXing enjoyment in your new home.

Advertisements