Starting Work on the Exterior

You know that feeling you get, like if you oversleep by accident or get stuck in terrible traffic, and then you spend the rest of the day chasing that time you missed out on?

Yeah. That’s pretty much how the cottage renovation started out.

I woke up the morning of the closing with a fever and popped some Tylenol. I’d been in this pattern for about four days, and I guess I might have been more concerned about it if I wasn’t also in the thick of buying a condemned house, helping renovate a friend’s bathroom, trying to work on my own dining room, trying to procure an insurance policy for the cottage before closing, wondering why my Check Engine Coolant light never turns off, wishing I had a bagel…you get the idea. Generally feeling a little bit crazed, which is more or less how I (dys)function always and forever. Works great.

Admittedly, feeling this way before embarking on another major renovation probably should have served as some kind of warning, but whatever. I signed all the papers and handed over all the money and bought that house! And then the next day I found out my mysterious fever was actually Mono.

I turned to my primary care physician, WebMD, which informed me that everything was about to get worse, maybe for weeks, maybe for months. Then I mentioned having it on this blog, and among the well-wishes and get-betters were horrific stories of 6, 8, 10, 20 months-long ordeals with the affliction of which I had recently been diagnosed.

This was such bad news. Buying this little condemned house sort of felt like buying, I don’t know, a baby. Like I bought a helpless, defenseless little thing with the promise and understanding that I’d take care of it, and then my body was basically like “NOPE. You will go to sleep indefinitely instead!” So that’s what I did, more or less, and it super sucked, except for the part where I watched all the TV.

Luckily the worst of it was over within about two weeks, which brought us to mid-September, when I declared that the first day of work would officially begin on the cottage. I’d been up on my feet a few days and it seemed like it would be OK to, you know, ease back into things. Just get my feet wet a little bit.

Then I proceeded to pull weeds and vines and pick up trash for eleven hours straight. Why? Because I am dumb. And I really wanted the painters to be able to access the house to start prepping. Mostly because I’m dumb.

Anyway, hopefully this is the last you’ll hear me complaining about mono because it won’t come back and everything will be terrific forever. Fingers crossed. I’m trying to be good about not pushing too hard. It’s going moderately OK.


Lest we forget, here was the state of the front yard before (standing at the house, looking toward the street). It’s sort of crazy seeing this kind of thing in a fairly densely populated urban area…I’ve noticed that even empty lots don’t look like this in Kingston, let alone ones with houses on them! Bananas.

ANYWAY. The name of the game with this yard is pretty much to start over. There isn’t really anything except the bluestone hardscaping that can be salvaged, and I guess the fence posts are in OK shape. The super overgrown shrubs along the front and the large (but poorly located and very ugly due to some old aggressive pruning over the years) Catalpa tree will have to get removed professionally, but I figured I could save a little money by handling pretty much anything that didn’t require a chainsaw by myself. People have suggested keeping the huge evergreen shrubs in the front for privacy, but I sort of feel like it’s important for the street for this house to be seen, since it’s going to look all spiffy and whatnot. Removing the shrubs should also bring more light into the main floor, which would be nice!

I’m really, really excited to say that I’m teaming up with my friends at Lowe’s again (they also worked with me on our laundry room) to get this exterior into shape! The team at Lowe’s was as excited about the project as I am, and have been completely dreamy to work with. I pretty much do all of my shopping at Lowe’s in general (I love the employees at our local store! So much!), so I’m all-around super thrilled to be doing this with them by my side! They’ve given me complete creative freedom with this, by the way, and—as always—all opinions are my own.

My basic strategy was to start at the perimeter of the house and work my way out, clearing space for the painters first (who, achem, didn’t end up coming that day) and then worrying about everything else. I essentially just threw everything in a large pile…it’s really too much to be wrangling into individual yard bags. Kingston’s Department of Public Works has a program where yard waste can be brought to a place nearby, where they chip it into mulch, so the plan is to borrow my friend’s pick-up and do that. You can actually rent a dump truck for a weekend for $50 for this very thing, which I guess they drop off on a Friday and pick up on a Monday, but my understanding is that the entire city basically shares one and so that option only really works if you’re not on a deadline. The other cool thing I learned is that once everything is chipped into mulch, any Kingston resident can take it! As much mulch as you want for free. So cool! I only mention this stuff because it all seemed to novel to me and maybe other people are missing out on similar fun and exciting municipal services.


So part of the trouble with the yard being SO overgrown and unruly was that it was a little hard to even tell what was going on with the exterior of the house. Everything looked more or less OK, but so much of it was obscured by plants that me, the inspector, and everyone else may have missed a few little details.

Like, oh, the front of the house sitting below grade. Nice.

As I went about my weed-pulling, I started to notice that under all the overgrowth was a massive amount of dirt. There’s something around 30 feet of front yard between the house and the sidewalk, and the whole thing is graded super wonky, like there’s a big hill in the middle and about 3-4 feet of soil build-up behind the fence that’s pretty much just being held in by a couple of horizontal 4×4 posts and the root system of those evergreens. It’s really strange. As it stands, the whole thing basically needs a retaining wall. It looks like I have a lot of dirt-moving in my future. Maybe it can come to my backyard? Somehow? Hmmmmm.

ANYWAY, a consequence of the crazy dirt situation and the crazy grading is that the bottom course of clapboard was basically completely buried, meaning the bottom part of the exterior sheathing and the sill plate (that thing between the studs and the foundation, which holds up the house) was also sitting below grade. YIKES.


I mean, HOLY SHIT. The entire front of the house is resting on that rotted out disaster. To me it kind of looked like termite damage more than regular wood rot, but there weren’t any signs of an active termite infestation, so at least that’s good. Anyway, a little quick evaluation told me (and then, later, my go-to contractor Edwin told me) that the whole thing needed to be replaced.

Ouch. Ouch Ouch Ouch. This is not the kind of information you want to get on DAY 1, FYI. Basically we’d have to figure out a way to support the whole front of the house from collapsing (easier said than done without a basement under this section) while we took out what was left of the existing sill plate and replaced it with new pressure-treated lumber. The whole thing sounded horrible and potentially astronomically expensive and I basically could just picture that emoji I’ve grown so fond of using—that one with the wad of money flying away with its set of wings.

BUT. It wasn’t that bad. Really. The house sat like this for a few days, which made me crazy anxious for some reason, but then we got to work. There was also a section of sill plate that was rotted out at the back of the house near the kitchen (due to a damaged gutter…gutter maintenance is important, people!), that needed replacement, and Edwin quoted $800 + materials (which ended up costing about $200) for the repair of both. So…not cheap, but not totally decimating the budget either. OK. Deep breaths and stuff. We’re still good. Luckily the rot hadn’t extended up into the studs or past the sill plate into the joists, so that was good news. I was a little worried the whole house was like this.


This is what the entire front of the house was resting on! It’s sort of a wonder the whole thing hadn’t collapsed? I mean, damn. It’s basically a toothpick!


But, we fixed it up! The process involved supporting the front of the house very temporarily (like 10 minutes) with 2x4s and sliding two new 2 x 8 pressure-treated boards into place, which were sistered together with a framing nailer. So fresh and so clean! Then the front wall was shockingly easy to move back into the correct position, and the studs were re-attached to the sill plate with the framing nailer at a few different angles, inside and out. Solid as a rock. This isn’t how houses are built today, but it’s worked here for many decades and now can continue to work for many more! HOORAY.


After the new sill plate was in place and secured, we shimmed the whole thing out another inch to match the thickness of the original sill.


Then all we had to do was cut a piece of 3/4″ pressure-treated plywood to create the sheathing. I had the plywood leftover from my failed attempt at fixing my own box gutter, so the material for this part at least was free.


After the sill plate was replaced and the new sheathing was installed, we opted to add 14″ high aluminum flashing to help keep water away from the new sill plate and foundation. A few courses of new clapboard will be installed over top of this (the old stuff wasn’t salvageable), and everything will be OK. The house will be solid and more equipped to handle water and stuff than it was before. Excellent.


Throughout this ordeal, we realized that the existing sidelights and door were framed in COMPLETELY incorrectly…no header, no real support…the whole thing was a mess! Rather than trying to work with the existing crappy job as we were installing a new front door and jamb, we made the quick decision to rip it all out and re-frame the entire thing. It cost me a couple hundred bucks in extra labor hours and materials, but it was entirely worth it. The front of this house is not going ANYWHERE.


The new header meant that the old sidelights had to be cut down a bit to compensate. I’m seriously debating these sidelights. They’re REALLY not very old and REALLY not very nice, and a ton of the panes are broken, and I think I could just replace them with something nicer and new for about $200. I’m really tempted…I have so much window restoration on this house already, and this is one of those things that I can make a little bit easier and a little bit nicer for a little extra money, and it kind of seems worth it. I don’t know! For now, the old ones went back in place (with temporary stops, so I can easily remove them for restoration and paint), but we’ll see. I’m not married to them. They’re really pretty bad, believe me.


Anyway, look at that fancy framing and that fancy new door!! AHHHH! Finally the house has an actual LOCK, and I can stop being super paranoid about people coming in and stealing my tools. Obviously in this picture we still have to add back the sidelights and trim everything out, but it’s already and improvement. I changed the direction that the door swings, and I think it makes a lot more sense this way.

Oh, about the door! I’m super happy with it. I went to a place called The Door Jamb nearby, which basically sells overstocked or slightly damaged doors and windows at great discounts. This door is solid wood (not stain grade, though, so I’m planning to paint it), really nice, and only $95! That’s super cheap for an exterior door. I wasn’t really planning to find anything I liked that was new production, but I think this door suits the house super well, especially when I put the first floor casement windows back in place (I took them down for repair/painting…the windows in the picture are just the storms).


One of the things about there only being one of me is that I can’t be in multiple places at once! I’ve spent a lot of time running back and forth to Lowe’s to pick up more supplies—more lumber here, more paint there…I’m typically there like 1-3 times a day, which means sometimes I miss things back at the ranch! I casually mentioned to my contractor that I was planning to put new beadboard up in the arched area above the door (which was totally rotted/eaten by animals), but I never planned for him to do it for me! I guess the installation must have been easy since he banged it out in about 20 minutes, but I missed the whole thing! This is just tongue-and-groove breadboard wainscoting that comes in a pack (I bought 4 foot lengths, and I think this took a little more than 1 pack), attached with 2″ finish nail. It looks so good. I thought for a second about trying to stain it, but I think it’s getting painted like everything else. I don’t want it to look glaringly new, you know?

Is that enough progress for one post? It’s hard to know when to stop! Even though a lot of this stuff was a little bit unexpected, I’m really glad that we got it resolved quickly and properly (and relatively inexpensively) and can move forward with the beautification process and start seeing some non-invisible changes around here!

By the way, I’m sorry about the (in)frequency of posts in the last couple of weeks! I promised more and then you did not get more! Obviously this is a big project, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t going through some growing pains right about now…trying to manage all the work and keep everything moving and also have time to blog about it and eat and sometimes sleep and pay my bills and all of that is proving a little tough. We’re only a couple weeks in, though…I’m trying really hard to strike a balance and figure out how to make this work a little better. Just FYI.

Totally unrelated, but I had this kooky idea…continuing in the grand tradition Martha Stewart’s New Old House, I thought maybe it would be fun to maybe end these posts diary-style. It’s all well and good to see a bunch of progress in one post, but I always sort of wonder what the day-to-day looks like. I skipped over those sections the first time I read Martha’s book (which is amazing and totally insane—I love it), but reading through it the second time was sort of amazing…the entries are informative but also reveal her neuroses and anal-retentiveness in a really adorable Martha-y way. So why not? Fun? Let’s find out.

Day 1: Bought new front door.

Day 2: Yard clearing. Took a break to purchase some supplies. Uncovered structural issue on exterior and worked on solution with Edwin. Used Edwin’s truck to buy pressure-treated lumber to replace sill plate.

Day 3: Cleaned up around yard and interior of cottage while Edwin started prepping clapboard for paint.

Day 4: Edwin continued to prep exterior for paint. Painted sample of siding color on clapboard for review and approval. Debating how to paint trim, window sashes, and doors.

Day 5: Went to Building Department to apply for building permit while Edwin and crew continued to prep for paint. Edwin and I brainstormed exactly how to replace sill plate. Lack of basement makes things complicated.

Day 6: Bough caulk for painters. Went to Lowe’s for 2×4 lumber to reframe door and sidelights, aluminum flashing, and Sawzall blades. Edwin and Edgar worked on replacing sill plate—almost complete by the time I got back. Edwin and Edgar moved on to removing old door and sidelights. Painting began on underside of rafters and trim. After workers left, cleaned up site and met with tree service professional, Armin, about removing larger trees and grinding stumps. Quote seemed reasonable, nobody else has returned my calls—hired!

Day 7: Went to Lowe’s to buy plants (before they are out of stock), new cedar siding, more flashing, and exterior paint. Changed painting plan slightly—$550 mistake on my part. Edwin and Edgar re-framed doorway and put back old sidelights. Edwin installed beadboard wainscoting over entryway. Edwin installed door, threshold, weather-stripping, and new locks.  Ran back to Lowe’s to buy 2×6 pressure-treated wood to replace upper portion of trim and 5/4″ x  6″ for trim pieces around door to match original 1″ thickness, which will be installed next working day. Rain in forecast tomorrow.



This post is in partnership with Lowe’s!

The Second Floor of Bluestone Cottage


Alright, so we’ve seen the exterior of the little condemned cottage-house that could, and we’ve taken a walk through the first floor, so if you’re still here and haven’t abandoned ship for some nice blog you might actually get a decent Pin out of…want to go upstairs?

Too bad. You have to. My blog, my rules.

It’s slightly less bad than downstairs.


I’ve talked before about how cute I think the staircase is, so here it is from the top! So cute! I love the natural wearing on the pine treads from so many years of use—I think the plan is probably to just sand and seal them, unless the stains are really bad and they need to be stained really dark or painted. Anyway. There’s potential with these stairs!


There are two really sweet little casement windows in the stairwell (one at the bottom and one at the top) that I’m really hoping I can repair and put back. Fixing the windows is a pretty slow and labor-intensive process, so I think I’ll just have to do one by one over the course of the project.

Here is where I ask for a little help and guidance in the off chance that there are any very savvy hardware specialists reading: all of the casement windows in the house still have the original hardware that allow them to open and close (the casement stays, those funny things at the bottom) BUT almost all of the stays are missing the little knob that keeps the window in place if it’s opened or closed! The hardware can definitely be stripped down and reused, but not without replacement knobs. Anyone know of a way to buy just the knob, without having to buy an entirely new casement stay? Buying new stays is an option, but at about $35 a pop, I really don’t want to do that! Thoughts?


To help you orient yourself a little, the stairs run in about the middle of the house. At the top, there’s sort of a landing zone which is right over the dining room.  Then there’s a bedroom directly over the kitchen and at the other end, a larger bedroom essentially over the front half of the house. Make sense? Alrighty then.


This first bedroom is way cute and a really nice size. I love that five-panel door, too!


In the corner, there’s this kind of awkwardly-placed closet that maybe I’m dying to tear out. I know that might be a tough sell, but it just feels…so recently added and out of place here, right? Unless closets are original (or more seamlessly added), I much prefer the alternative of using freestanding furniture to accomplish the same thing in old houses.


The other side of the room looks like this. The two little double-hung sash windows let tons of light into the room and are in relatively good shape…a little restoration and they’ll be just fine. I’m weirdly excited to get my hands on all the windows in this house. Restoring old windows is such satisfying work.

I have no idea why all of the walls in this room are covered with 3/8″ OSB, really. I took it all down already and it was concealing some holes (which didn’t seem to be an issue in, uh, the rest of the house?), but mostly the walls are fine? Who knows. Like the rest of the walls in the house, the drywall is in such bad shape and so poorly done to begin with that it’s SO not worth trying to salvage. Down to the studs!


Back at the top of the stairs and outside that bedroom door, there’s a nice little landing kind of space and doors to two rooms: the current full bathroom and the larger bedroom. To the right, there’s this non-original wall that really just needs to come down, but the placement of it actually makes a lot of sense to me. Allow me to explain!


Here’s a better, blurrier view of the wall. It basically bisects this generous landing space and creates what the listing referred to as a third bedroom.


Here’s the chimney, which I still think might be fun to expose for a little texture and character.


This “third bedroom” is a disaster. I have no idea what’s going on with the walls, but it doesn’t really matter. The room is really only big enough to wedge a twin bed and a side table into so I don’t really feel like it’s worth maintaining as just another room.

You know what it could be, though?


A totally good bathroom. Right? I mean, if we’re doing all new plumbing and electric and stuff anyway, it’s not like it makes a big difference to put the bathroom somewhere else.


So since that will be a bathroom, I can rip this other bathroom out completely. This bathroom is truly horrifying. I’ll spare more photos (FOR NOW), but there’s really nothing in here worth salvaging at all (the tub is fiberglass, don’t be fooled). This picture makes it look like maybe it just needs a little cleaning, which is funny. There’s literally a dead animal in the vanity. Total hoarder-style flattened mummified thing. I can’t even identify it. It might be a ferret.


The advantage of ripping out this whole bathroom is two-fold:

1. See how that wall at the end of the shower is built out? Well, there’s another little window behind that! It took me a while to notice since you can only see if from the outside of the house, but it’s there and intact and it’ll be nice to uncover it from this mess.

2. Also, this bathroom really cuts into what would otherwise be a very large, lux bedroom!


Check it! This bedroom could be SO nice and fancy-feeling, right?


I love this bank of windows in the front, which faces the front yard and the street and lets in a ton of light. On either side of the windows are these closets, which I think are a nice use of space here.


I suppose this is probably the wall you would put the bed on, which is nice and long and stuff.


This is the backside of the bathroom—remember, the whole thing is going! Instead of one little window in a weird little nook, this wall will have three nice windows letting in even more light and looking really charming and lovely. It’s going to be such a nice room.

So, I know the upstairs maybe doesn’t look like much, but I might be even more excited about it than the main floor! Want to know why? I’ll tell you why.

Much like the main floor, the ceilings up here are only about 7.5 feet high. The difference is…there’s no attic in this house.

Ohhhh yeahhhh. Let’s vault them! Let’s vault all of the ceilings! This upstairs is going to be SO GOOD. Bright and light and architecturally kind of interesting…I’m really excited for it. I’ll be working together with a contractor to figure out the best way to do it without compromising the structure of the roof, but it shouldn’t be too bad. It’s sort of a similar to my plan for the old upstairs kitchen in my house, so maybe I’ll even learn a thing or two doing it here first! I love the idea of doing sort of a paneling (or faux-paneling) treatment on the walls and ceiling and then painting it all out bright white. I see it. I see it in my brain. It’s awesome.

So, about that window hardware…

The First Floor of Bluestone Cottage

I don’t really think of myself as a criminal—maybe the odd speeding ticket now and then, that one time run-in with the police in a national park when I was a teenager, that other time run-in with the police in Washington Square Park as a freshman in college—but all things considered, I’d say my record is pretty clean. That is until a couple of days ago, when I found out I am a habitual trespasser. I put it in the present tense because I have both been trespassing for over a month and, apparently, will continue to trespass.

Evidently, once a house is classified as condemned by the city, entering the premises becomes illegal. This makes a lot of sense, I guess, but I guess I never really thought about it too hard. I especially never really thought about it too hard when the person entering the property also happens to be the owner, which is the funny position I find myself in now. That’s right: I am not technically allowed to enter the cottage, despite the fact that it’s in my name. I’ve been assured that the condemnation can be lifted as soon as the building permit is approved (hopefully today or early next week), but until then, I’ll be routinely breaking the law.

Don’t tell anyone.

The first time I trespassed, allegedly, was the day I set up an appointment to walk through the house with the listing agent. It was a Thursday. We were supposed to meet at the house at 2. I stood around outside until about 2:10, at which point I gave him a call. He picked up. He sounded sleepy.

“Oh yeah,” he told me, “so, the house is condemned. It’s really in bad shape. Feel free to just walk through it, and call me back later if you’re still interested, but it didn’t really seem worth it for me to come over since there isn’t really that much to see.”

“So, you’re not coming? At all?”

“No, no, that’s right, I’m not. Sorry to have misled you. It just doesn’t seem worth it.”

“OK, this is off to a good start. Is there a way for me to get inside?” I guess I expected a hide-a-key.

“Oh, yeah, so if you go up to the front door, and just push on it, you can walk in.”

“So, the door is wide open?”

“Well, there’s a door, but the lock doesn’t work. So yeah, take a walk around, feel free to call me later if you’re still interested.”

It later turned out he lived in California. He was in California. No shit he wasn’t coming. He was in California. Long story. Not worth it.

So that’s pretty much how the first viewing went. Me and Max, walking through this empty vacant condemned house, which was wide open to anyone who decided to walk up to the door and come up with the novel idea of pushing on it. Cool.

To my credit, I was more or less cool with this. To Max’s credit, he was scared shitless and just wanted to leave the whole time. Yin, meet yang.

So this is what we saw on the first floor.


When you walk through the front door, you’re inside this funny little room with the weird cutout niches in the wall. We’ll call it the niche room. It’s a weird space—the whole interior of the house is a little over 15 feet wide, and this room is only 8 feet deep. Everything was apparently carpeted at some point (the tack strips are all still in the floor). The floor is in really rough shape, but hopefully nothing some refinishing can’t take care of! I think they’re fir, but it’s sort of hard to tell.


Here’s the other side of the room. The baseboard radiators have been removed from both this side of the room and the side facing the front, leaving only the aluminum part that mounts to the baseboard that the cover attaches to. It’s OK—it’ll all get scrapped and a brand new heat system will take the place of this mostly-missing one.

That sliver on the right of this photo is the last of those casement windows in the front! There are three large windows that open out to the front yard, which is going to be so nice someday! They let a ton of light in, which is great since the key to making this house feel bright is mostly going to be the light that comes in from the front and the back.

You might be wondering why there are so many enormous holes in the wall? I might be wondering the same thing? I really don’t know. Apparently the previous tenants just totally trashed the house (and then, once evicted, trashed it more and stole half the copper), but to me that doesn’t totally explain the holes? Was it just…fun to be kicking huge holes in the wall?

The holes honestly make things a little easier, since I could see more what was going on during the walk-through. That’s the exterior sheathing you’re seeing beyond the drywall, and outside of that is the clapboard, meaning there is ZERO insulation in this place. It’s also helpful to see so much of the sheathing, since it’s actually in very good shape and doesn’t show signs of water/insect damage. Anyway, all of the drywall (walls & ceiling) are going to get demo’d out and replaced. There’s really no sense in salvaging what’s here, and having everything open will make running new electric and plumbing soooooo much faster and easer. I’m a jerk about saving original plaster walls whenever possible, but I don’t think there are even any left in this house. Drywall is no big deal to tear out, so I’m hoping for a pretty fast demo.


Past the niche room, there’s another room. We’ll call it the garbage room. Same sort of deal: it spans the whole width of the house, but this one is about 11.5 feet deep. My big plan is to remove the wall between the rooms (it’s not load-bearing), which will create the new living room. Since that will leave a very large room (sort of too large for this house, in my opinion), I think that should give me enough space to comfortably carve out space for laundry, a little closet space (there’s very little storage space in the house), and a half-bath. I’m still playing around with schemes to make all of this work in a way that makes sense and doesn’t feel awkward. I have a little bit of time before I really dive into the interior to figure it out.


As the name implies, this room has a lot of garbage in it. Evidently people were throwing trash through the broken window. Whilst in the thick of having mono at the beginning of the month, I stupidly took myself over to the house, boarded up this window, cleaned up all the trash, and then felt like I was going to die and took myself home and slept for four hours. Mono really threw a kink in the beginning of this renovation, but what are you going to do? Sometimes the timing is bad, and sometimes the timing is really bad.

The major ceiling sag situation above the window is right below the downstairs bathroom, so I’m sure there was some impressive leaking happening there to cause that. I’m hoping the damage is mostly cosmetic and won’t have affected anything structurally, but it’s one of those things where I sort of need to hope for the best and expect the worst. Even the worst shouldn’t be such a big deal…might just have to sister in a couple new joists or something.


Here’s the other side of the room! More destruction! I guess whoever removed a bunch of the copper pipes also decided to stack all of the baseboard radiator covers here, which is sort of considerate. It makes my scrapyard run slightly easier, maybe?

You might be noticing by now that the ceilings seem awfully lowwww. That’s because they are! When I first looked through the windows of this place I assumed the ceilings had been dropped at some point, but nope! They’re about 7.5 feet high, which somehow sort of works in this house, in a weird way. I swear, it’ll really just feel quaint and adorable and not like a basement when all is said and done. BELIEVE ME. I can work those low ceilings. I actually like them here.


Moving right along…the dining room!

I love this room. Seriously love it. Look how cute those tiny casement windows are. They are SO cute. The cutest, you could even say.

Like, so, so cute.


Oh, and did you notice? TIN CEILING. In a house that’s had a lot of original detail stripped over the years, I love seeing this ceiling in here. The pattern is so pretty, and it has this nice egg-and-dart detail around the perimeter. Who wouldn’t want that in their fancy dining room? Aside from the peeling paint, it’s in really good condition and should restore nicely.


My favorite part of the dining room, though, is the staircase! It’s SUCH a cute staircase. Yes, there is carpeting clinging to the first couple of risers. Yes, it is very filthy and gross right now. BUT! The rest of that curved bottom step is hanging around somewhere, so I’ll put that back, and then there will only be about 8,000 other things to do to make it so nice! With some paint and refinishing, it’s going to look like a million bucks.

But seriously, the newel post is super cute and the square spindles are super cute and that casement window is so cute and everything about it basically is very cute except the obvious filth and not-cuteness. You’ll see. You’ll see.


Oh, there’s the missing tread! On the floor in the bottom of this picture. Told you it was somewhere.

The dining room is currently pretty open to the kitchen, which I guess is nice? It sort of seems like half-wall was an attempt to do a bar area, but not executed super well…I’m not honestly sure what will happen with that yet. I’m also not very confident that the openings are going to be properly framed, since this wall is definitely load-bearing and that looks like a very not-pro renovation job. But we’ll see when we open it up.

Oh! And there’s a brick chimney behind that pillar thing. I’m not one of those people who always thinks exposing brick is a good plan, but I think it might be nice in this house! Bring in a little character and stuff.


OK, so, the kitchen! Things, uh, don’t improve much in the kitchen. The kitchen is pretty bad.

BUT. The kitchen is about 9 x 15, which is a great size (especially when you think about the size of the house!), and the layout kind of makes itself what with those two sweet casement windows almost-symmetrically placed with space for a stove right in the middle, am I right? This could be SUCH a good kitchen. I’m really a fan of this kitchen. Also, I still have my old kitchen fridge, so that’ll probably go in here (there’s nothing wrong with it), and the cast iron sink we took out of the upstairs kitchen, which is REALLY adorable and will look so cute and save some money, besides.

So basically the kitchen renovation is free is what I’m saying.

It’s so weird looking at these pictures…for some reason I just sort of never noticed how there are like a million paint colors happening in this house? It’s probably the intense smell of animal urine distracting me when I’m actually in it. Anyway, I sort of dig the color of that baseboard. Just saying.


It’s *possible* that there’s been a grapevine growing through this window for a while, allowing some moisture to get into this corner of the kitchen. Maybe. Hard to say.


On the opposite side of the kitchen is an exterior door and another window. The door is missing a mullion and is really damaged…I’m not sure if it’ll be salvageable or easier/better to just find a suitable replacement.


The most upsetting part of the kitchen is the basement access, which is literally a large hole in the floor. When not in use it can be covered by a large, heavy piece of plywood with 2x4s screwed into the bottom. Yikes. Horrors. I think it’s like this because the kitchen is an addition, so originally this stairwell would have been right outside the back of the house.

Honestly, if this were to all get redone, a clever trap door situation might be kind of cool, but unfortunately there’s no way for it to pass building inspection without a banister built around the opening, and that would effectively eat up about half of the kitchen. So that’s not going to work. The plan right now is to install new basement stairs that will run underneath the existing stairwell, and seal this over completely.

I’ll spare you a tour of the basement.

Sooooo, actually looking at and writing about these photos is making me feel mildly insane about this whole thing, just FYI. Like I’m still sane because I do have the wherewithal to look at these photos and feel crazy. That’s how it works, right?

But hear me out: believe it or not, there’s something almost easier about this house than my own house. First of all, it’s smaller, but there’s also less to try to save and restore. All of the walls can come out, which makes new electrical and plumbing fairly easy to run (electricians and plumbers generally bill time + materials, and nothing is a bigger time-suck than trying to fish things through finished plaster walls), then everything can be insulated and put back together. And because this house is so modest and quaint, it sort of demands a sweet and simple renovation—nothing flashy or too fancy materials-wise, which definitely helps keep costs down.


Introducing Bluestone Cottage: The Exterior!

OK, FIRST THING IS FIRST, PEOPLE: thank you so, so, so, (so) much, a gazillion times over, for all of the incredibly kind, excited, and extremely supportive comments, emails, tweets, instagram comments—all of it—over the past couple of days. I know I’ve said this before, but I really can’t express how grateful I feel to have such a wonderful bunch of people reading my blog. You guys make this such a pleasure, and I don’t take for granted for a second how lucky I am. Hugs for everybody!

SO, now that we’ve gotten that mushy stuff out of the way (sorry! I have feelings), let’s get to know this new house a little better! I loved reading all of the name suggestions for this new house—because we’ve gotta call it something—ranging from “Anne of Green Gables” to “Ramona” to “Brian” to “Gay Chalet” to “The Treehouse” to lots of “Cottage” variations, and after thinking long* and hard** I think we’re going to call it…Bluestone Cottage! The Cottage, for short. Kingston is sort of known for its widespread use of locally-quarried bluestone, and what I love about this house is its cozy, cottage-y vibe in the middle of all these big houses around it, so there it is.

*not all that long.

**not all that hard, either.

I shared a couple of exterior shots in the last post, but I figured it warranted its own post before we dive inside (which, if you think the outside looks rough…you’re in for a time!). Partly because I like the dramatic build-up, and partly because I didn’t get my act together and draw up floor plans, and partly because the exterior is where we’re starting!

With a project of this scope, it’s sort of hard to figure out where to even start, but a couple of factors went into this decision. First, this house desperately needs a paint job, and there’s a limited amount of time before it gets to too cold to paint and get some plants in the ground. Second, first impressions are important, and if I’m going to sell this place, the longer it at least looks good, the more interest I’m hoping I can generate from early on. Third, because this house has looked terrible (or, uh, not even much like a house at all from the street!) for so long, it’s important to me to at least get the exterior cleaned up and looking fresh ASAP. It’s important to the neighborhood, and it’s important for the house. Vacant/condemned/falling apart houses become targets for all sorts of bad stuff, and fixing up the outside will go a long way. I’m so excited to make this cute house cute again.


So here we are, standing on the sidewalk right outside. One more step down the street and the house would be completely obscured by the enormous overgrown shrubs, and one more step back and it would be blocked by the house next door. I told you, hidden! This picture doesn’t really reflect how much trash there was in the yard, but it was…a lot. I spent Day 1 working on clearing a lot of the yard, and I filled 3 contractor bags with garbage. This is part of what I’m talking about—I don’t want people treating this property like a public dump anymore! Hopefully a cleaned-up exterior will help out with that.


The side of the house (and the back) is similarly insane. The lot is only 23 feet wide, which leaves about 3 feet on one side and about a foot and a half on the other side. I’m not sure what this vine is (not poison ivy, thankfully!), but it’s really taken over this whole side of the house. The clapboard survived the overtake just fine, which is good. Anyway, the gate is just a piece of rotted plywood attached to some rotted 2×4 lumber, and theoretically would have latched to a bunch of scrap wood nailed directly to the clapboard on the house. Getting the gate open and getting to the backyard for the first time was…really intense. It’s literally like walking through a jungle.

The huge oil tank on the side is actually only a few years old, but its days are numbered. First of all, it totally blocks the pathway to the back of the house, and obviously it’s ugly. Additionally, the majority of the copper pipes in this house are missing, so now is a pretty good time to switch to a more efficient, cleaner, and cheaper heating set-up. Plumbing and HVAC is where I expect the majority of this renovation budget to go and I’ve quoted all the work, so hopefully there aren’t any huge surprises there.

This reminds me! I have to call the plumber today to try to set up a pressure-test for the gas line. The gas service has been disabled for over two years, so this is required by the utility company (luckily, they were OK with switching on the electric so we could operate tools and stuff, which is equal parts miraculous and a little scary…I make sure to switch off the main breaker at the end of every work day, but still). There’s no point in turning on the gas service right now anyway, but now would be a good time to know if a bunch of the yard is going to need to be dug up to run a new line. Let’s all hope that does not need to happen! Luckily Central Hudson, the utility company, has a program in place that would make running the line essentially free. So it wouldn’t be a big deal financially, but I don’t want to destroy new landscaping if we end up having to do that! Thinking ahead and stuff.


ANYWAY, let’s talk about what’s good here! I love the sunburst detail over the door, and the sweet entrance in general. The sidelights need a lot of repair but are salvageable. Obviously that arched part above has been eaten away/rotted, so the plan is to replace it with new beadboard. The front door and jamb is really damaged, and the door is pretty ugly to begin with, so it’s all getting replaced. Oh, and there’s a lot of missing crown molding around the top of the roof line of this little overhang, so there are definitely critters getting into the roof here. The crown molding is nothing very special (I found an exact match at Lowe’s!) so the plan is to remove it, add a proper fascia, and then put up the new crown and paint everything.

The light fixture stays.

Kidding. It also goes.


I’m a sucker for old windows, as we know, and one of my very favorite features of this house are the old casement windows! The house has both double-hung sash windows (similar to my house, so the top and bottom sashes can both move up and down and are counterweighted by big lead weights inside the wall), and these charming casement windows (like the window above the sink in my kitchen), which open outwards. Can you imagine this house in the summer with the windows thrown open and the breeze coming in? ADORABLE. They need a TON of repair work…there’s a lot of rot and broken panes all over the place, but I have a lot of hope that they can all be salvaged. Those middle two panels are going to be a special little challenge because the mullions are missing on the bottom! I’ll figure it out.


Remember when I got a picture of our own house from the city assessment records? Well, the quality of the photocopy my friend gave me wasn’t so great, so I marched my butt down the to the assessor’s office to see it in person. This was a day or two after I found out that this house was for sale and was already obsessed with fixing it, so I asked if we could pull the file for the cottage as well! Total aside: all the city workers I’ve met throughout this ordeal have been such a pleasure. The Department of Public Works, the Tax Assessor’s office, the Code Enforcement Officer, The Building Safety Division…all super nice and helpful people. I think they all think I’m half insane for doing this, but they all want the best for Kingston and our neighborhood. It’s so nice to feel like they’re on my side with this.

Anyway! This photo was taken in 1950 (so, like my house, the house was already kind of old at this point, although I’m not sure how old…), but look how cute it is! I think the clapboard was a light blue in this photo and the trim and windows were white. I like the contrasting sidelights and door…it’s been oddly challenging figuring out how to paint this place, so seeing what somebody did here is nice. Anyway, I’m not really trying to restore it to this appearance, necessarily, but I love seeing the house at a time when somebody clearly cared about and maintained it.

I’ll definitely try to replicate some things from this photo if I can, though. For instance, at some point somebody erected that weird fence around the whole front. I actually have a plan for most of it, but I think I’ll just remove the part that goes from front to back on the left side and try to put back some bushes that can grow into a hedge, like it is in this picture. Way nicer than a fence built a foot from the neighboring house, which has created this void of terror that’s impossible to maintain (and therefore overtaken by trash and vines and general horror). Technically the land the hedge would go on isn’t mine, but I’m going to go ahead and guess the landlord of this building isn’t going to complain if I clean up a little of his property, too.

The little arched trellis is so cute, right? I don’t know if I’ll try to do something similar or not, but it’s totally adorable and charming here. I almost wonder if something more substantial, with kind of a bungalow-modern vibe, should go back here. Hmmmm. Probably not for now, but maybe more toward the end of the project.

So see that  bluestone path leading from the sidewalk to the door? That’s why I put bluestone in the name—all those slabs are still there! They go from the sidewalk all the way to the back of the house, and there are also some big slabs in front of the door. You’d never really expect it, looking at the house the way it is right now, but it’s exciting to have all that material just sitting there, waiting to be seen again. That much bluestone would be SO pricey to put down today, so it’s very cool. At least to me. I am thrilled by odd things, admittedly.

We’ll go inside next, I promise!

The Next Big Thing.


When we closed on our house last summer, one of the big lingering questions in the back of my mind had to do with how much our decision was motivated by our total infatuation with the house itself versus how much we actually liked Kingston. At that point, we’d only spent a few short days in Kingston—we didn’t really know anybody here, and honestly we didn’t have a great sense of our neighborhood or the city as a whole. So we took a gamble: we felt like we had a good enough handle on the local real estate market that if it turned out we’d make a huge mistake, the purchase price of our house was low enough that even if all we did was go in and make a few improvements, we could probably unload it at a profit or at least break even. So we went for it and hoped for the best.

What we’ve found here, though, has surpassed all expectations or predictions. We quickly had more close friends here than we ever did in Brooklyn, and almost immediately felt like part of a community in a way I don’t think I ever have, anywhere. I love living in Kingston, and I’m not sure I’ve ever felt that way about anywhere I’ve lived (yes, including NYC…maybe especially NYC). The Hudson Valley is so beautiful and full of such amazing history, and Kingston itself is so charming, has so much going on, and really feels like a place where things are happening. We live within easy walking distance to Uptown Kingston, and the number of new shops and restaurants and stuff that have opened even just in the time we’ve lived here is pretty heartening. There’s a certain energy here that feels very inclusive, and interesting, and exciting, and it’s just…good. We made the decision a while ago to try to really make a go of living up here full-time. We still have to commute into the city sometimes for work, but given that a lot of what we do can be done remotely, it’s manageable so far. We’ve sub-letted the apartment while we give this whole thing a shot…so it’s still there if it’s really just not working out, but I don’t think we’ll hold onto it much longer. I really want to be here to stay. It feels right.

SO. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about, well, all sorts of things. What I want to be doing. Where I want to be. How what I’m doing right now fits or doesn’t fit into that. How I have this really pretty amazing platform as a blogger and how that must be good for something other than chronicling the renovation of my own house. Blogging is a strange, funny thing. I’m so lucky to have readers, and people interested in what I’m doing. I’m also really lucky that I’ve been able to turn this blog into something that generates income, especially because—at least here—I get to combine so many things that I love to do and present it exactly how I want to. Not many people get to say that about something they get paid for.

Blogging has also provided a lot of opportunities, some of which I’ve taken advantage of and most of which I haven’t. In case you don’t read a lot of blogs or just aren’t quite sure how it all works, the long and short of it is that a lot of companies want to be part of blogger content, sort of in the same way they’ll buy a full-page ad in a magazine or something. A typical sponsorship transaction for me at least generally involves the exchange of free product (which I then use and feature in a blog post) and an advertising fee for featuring said product. I always disclose when a post is sponsored, I only work with companies/products that I truly like and use, and I try my best to be as transparent about all of it as possible. Ultimately, I want my sponsored content to be a good thing—alerting readers to products or companies that they might not know about but could make their lives better. Isn’t that the point? And of course sometimes I can even convince a company to do a giveaway to pass some of that swag on to someone else.

Especially since buying the house, though, one of the big questions I’ve had to face is how to balance my want/need to make money from my blog (and, by accepting products, ease our own renovation costs) with still being a real person and stuff. Because I get it: I read blogs too, and it’s hard to relate to a project when parts or all of it are being paid for by a company. Consequently, I say no much more often than I say yes, and—truth be told—when I do say yes, it can feel sort of selfish just funneling that money and those products into my own house.

So, like I said, it’s made me think a lot. Isn’t there a way that I can take this amazing platform, and these opportunities, and put it toward something that doesn’t just benefit…me? What if I could get involved in a whole different project—something where I could take advantage of what I can offer as a blogger but in a way that benefits the community in a broader sense?

So that’s where I stood. Thinking. Considering. Dreaming.


And then this happened. And I’m very excited. Let me tell you all about it.

So here’s the story: this sweet little house is about a block down the street from my house. The block is filled mainly with fairly large Victorian-era houses (almost all multiple apartments now), but this house is much smaller (about 1300 square feet) and set really far back from the street. It literally took me about 9 months to even notice that there was a house here—the lot is only 23’ wide and the yard is so overgrown that you kind of have to be looking for it. Once I noticed it, though, I trekked through the yard and looked in the windows and read the big “CONDEMNED” sign on the door, and maybe that house grabbed hold of a little part of my heart. I sort of joked with Max that someday, I’d figure out how to fix it up if nobody got to it first.


Then, a couple months after that, I was casually looking at real estate listings on Zillow because a friend of ours is looking for a house. And there was the little house down the street, up for sale in as-is condition. Asking price: $20,000. Now, yes, that’s a lot of money—but for a whole house? Stuff like that doesn’t really exist much in Kingston…even the stuff that needs a ton of work is usually around the $100,000 mark, if not more (we kind of got the deal of the century with our house…we paid a good deal less than that, but that’s not really the point).

ANYWAY, so I emailed the listing agent asking for more information. I had to know what was so super wrong with it that taking it on would just be way too stupid and expensive and insane.

He described the house as a “total gut” but assured me that it had been cleared as structurally sound (hey, it’s a start!) AND, despite its condition, actually had a nearly-new roof on it. We set a date to walk through the house so I could evaluate the condition and see if it was worth looking into further.


This post is already getting long, so it’s maybe not worth getting into the whole crazy process of buying this house, but it was basically sketchy from start to finish. I used the same real estate agent who sold us our house (Nan Potter—if you’re looking for a house in the area, she’s great!), and the same inspector, the same plumber consult on the plumbing—so I felt like I was in good hands, but it was totally weird. Turns out the “agent” wasn’t actually an agent, so the house was only posted on Zillow. No For Sale sign out front, not listed on MLS…my real estate agent had no idea the property even existed. All of that aside, the information about the roof and the structure appeared to be completely true (this was backed up the Kingston building inspector who condemned the house—turns out it was just because it was vacant and in such poor shape, and the city wanted to deter squatters and stuff, but structurally the house was fine), and the title search came up clean—no outstanding mortgage, leins, or back-taxes. All good things. So yeah—CLEARLY needs a ton of work, but nothing totally insane or prohibitive that would just make it totally stupid as an investment. They agreed to take $19,000 for it. So we closed. And it’s mine, kind of.

So, let’s talk about the financial stuff, since I’m sure by now you’re probably thinking something along the lines of “what the hell?”. This is not the kind of house that banks are really inclined to give loans for, so this all panned out pretty differently than my house. What I really needed to make this work was an investor who could see the potential in the house, had some money to put up, and had faith that the financial risk would pay off and that I could do it. “So Mom,” I asked, “want to go into business together?” As a reader and frequent commenter on my blog and pretty much my biggest advocate, best friend, and supporter in my life in general, it didn’t take much to convince her that I was capable of taking on a project of this scope. The financial side of things took a little more convincing and lots of back-and-forth, but she agreed that the whole thing seemed to make good financial sense, and with the help of a lawyer, we worked it all out.

So here it is:

  1. We decided to roll $10,000 of our remaining renovation budget and savings for this house into the new house. It’s a lot of money…so long, refinished floors. See ya later, sandblasted radiators. Adios, renovated bathrooms. Check ya later, side porch tear-off. And so on. I feel like we’ve gotten our house to the point where we can occupy a lot of time on the cheap stuff (skim-coating, painting, that kind of thing). The house is very livable, and with the addition of the dining room, the soon-to-be pantry, the soon-to-be library, soon-to-be entryway/hallway, a bedroom that just needs a skim-coat and a paint job, we’re in OK shape. The more expensive projects can wait.
  2. My mother, bless her, decided to buy a $10,000 equity share in the house. In simple terms, this means that she has 10K tied up in the property, and how that breaks down percentage-wise (so, what percentage of the property she owns and is entitled to when it sells) will be determined when the renovation is complete.
  3. Additionally, my mom is providing a high-interest loan (technically, 10-year, 7% fixed) to cover some of the renovation costs. So basically she’s making more money loaning the money to me than she would with it accruing interest in a bank account, and it gets to go toward something awesome in the meantime.
  4. Because I’m acting as general contractor and managing the entire project, we agreed that it was fair to account for my man-hours as a way to build my own equity in the property. Additionally, any sponsorship deals I can bring in as a result of the blog will also help build my equity (so if a company provides, say, a toilet, the price of that toilet factors into my equity share).

SO. That’s how that’s working.

One thing (out of a million) that makes this project very different than my own house is that, obviously, I’m not living in it or planning to live in it, meaning I have carrying costs to deal with, meaning I have to get this thing done. I’m aiming for about 8 months. We can all point and laugh later on if I totally blow that, but I think it can be done.

So what’s the plan with this place? Originally I was thinking it could be a rental property, providing a little bit of supplementary income every month, at least until the Kingston real estate market picks up a little. Really, though—I don’t really think I want to be a landlord, and I think I’d feel so much better about selling it to somebody who will love and appreciate it as much as I do. Which I guess would make me a novice flipper, but that word has such negative connotations that I’m very hesitant to use it. I bought this house because I love it, and because it’s on my own street and having vacant, condemned, falling-apart homes like this isn’t good for anybody in the community, and because I was worried that somebody else would buy it and just continue to pay the taxes and let it fall further into disrepair. And I felt like I could do it, because of all the stuff I talked about earlier, and moreover that I wanted to do to it and I think it’s a good thing. I’m going to put a lot of blood, sweat, tears, effort, and love into this place, and if that can be appreciated and maintained by some young cute family buying their first home or something like that, I’d be beyond thrilled.

So what does this mean for the blog? Well, for starters, more content! I’ve pretty much accepted that I don’t think I’ll ever be capable of being the kind of blogger who posts everyday, but the pace of this project will hopefully be pretty fast and furious, and there’ll be a lot of ground to cover. I’ll also still be working on our own house (although the pace of that is probably going to have to slow down quite a bit for a while…), and sharing a freelance project every now and then…I guess it’ll basically be Manhattan Nest on steroids.

As I mentioned earlier, this will also (hopefully, god willing, because I am counting on it) mark something of an uptick in sponsored content here on the site. I know lots of people (rightfully, often) have reservations about sponsored content on blogs, and the only thing I can really say is that I will continue to be as transparent as possible, and I will continue to be selective about who I work with. I’m never going to agree to something just to make a quick buck. At the end of the day, I want Manhattan Nest to be entertaining, of course, but I also want it to be a high-quality, trustworthy resource, and I don’t want to do anything to compromise that. It’s not worth it.

I’ll come back in a couple of days to talk more about the house, show lots more pictures, talk about alllll the work it needs, etc., but I think it’s too much to get into all of that now! It’s going to be so great, though, and I’m so excited and happy to be able to do this. As always, I hope you’ll come along for the ride. It should be wild!

PS—Oh yeah, we need a name for this place! I keep calling it “the other house,” but let’s come up with something more catchy.

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