The Downstairs Bathroom.

After a couple months of stalking the listing online, the price on our house finally dropped and a few days later I worked up the nerve to call the listing agent to inquire about it. “It’s a great house,” she told me, “it needs some work, and the one big thing is that it does need a new furnace, but otherwise it’s a great, solid old house!” It was a nice chat. I set up an appointment to view it a few days later, and we were about to hang up when I asked. There isn’t really a delicate way to initiate these kinds of conversations, but I had a hunch that had been building for a while. “So,” I said, “did somebody die there or something?”

She paused, and then sighed. “Well, yes, the previous owner did die in the house, but it was of natural causes. He was old—it wasn’t anything violent or anything like that, I can assure you. It’s a really great house—I think you’ll like it.”

I suppose it’s possible that the death might have scared off a particularly superstitious potential buyer or two, but it seems rather unlikely. By today’s standards it might be a little alarming, but before the 1950s or so it was very common for people to both start and end their lives in their own homes. More than likely, he wasn’t the first person to die here—just the most recent. Sad? Sure. A little eery? I guess. But hardly cause for alarm. It was one of those details that stayed in the back of my mind, but I didn’t really fixate on it.

It was clear from our first walk-through that the house needed just a tad more work than the listing agent had let on during that first conversation. Little things like the roof and the unusable kitchen had apparently not been worth mentioning, not to mention the downstairs bathroom, which appeared to have had some kind of plumbing issue that left it literally crumbling, the tiles shedding from the walls like concrete from the Tappan Zee Bridge. For some reason it looked like the door, which was lying its side in the living room, had been ripped from the frame and forcibly removed.

before

“You’d want to redo this bathroom anyway,” she told us. “That back wall is shared with the laundry room, so you could knock it out and double the size. You’d have room for a walk-in shower or whatever you wanted!”

Obvious plumbing issues and cosmetic details notwithstanding, I loved this bathroom just as it was. It’s teeny-tiny—which I think is perfect especially for a downstairs bathroom—and the 1930s tub, sink, and toilet were all in relatively good shape, especially given their age and the condition of the rest of the room. It’s one of the spaces that I couldn’t wait to renovate and make usable again. It’s going to be so beautiful someday. Really. I promise.

One day the real estate agent called me with some good news. “I found out that the plumbing in that downstairs bathroom is fine, as far as we know. I spoke to someone from the clean-up crew and it turns out that the missing tiles were removed by them because they were unsightly.” Unsightly. I’ll never forget that choice of words.

“Is unsightly a euphemism for, like, covered in blood and human remains?”

She only laughed.

“OK, that bathtub has got to go,” Max announced when I told him about the conversation.

“Well, we don’t know that he died in the tub,” I explained. “He could have just, I don’t know, fallen in the tub, but managed to make his way back out again, or, well…we weren’t there. Anything could have happened. It’s a nice tub. I like that tub. They don’t make tubs like that anymore.”

“Yeah, but he probably died in the tub. We can buy a different old tub that someone didn’t die in.”

“But you’d never really know that nobody died in that tub, either. Somebody could have died in pretty much any used tub. How about we get it re-glazed and call it a day? It’s really the perfect size for that bathroom. We can’t just stick any tub in there.”

“I swear, I will never use that bathroom.”

“Fine. It’ll be my bathroom.”

“We’re not keeping that tub in the house.”

“We’ll see.”

This, by the way, is a fight that we haven’t stopped having for a year.

Knowing about the tub bothered me only slightly more than knowing about the death in the first place—which is to say, not very much. As far as causes of death go, dying in a bathtub is relatively unremarkable. The bathtub came up again once or twice more with our plumber during inspections, but otherwise nobody really mentioned it again until after we’d bought and moved into the house.

That’s when our neighbors began to introduce themselves. Apparently lots of people knew about the bathtub, or at least about the death, and Max was quick to forge fast alliances with whomever would listen about my plans to keep the tub. With the exception of maybe 2 people that I can think of, this news has been met unanimously with shock and disgust. “Well, it’s too small to really take a nice bath in, so it’ll really just be for showers,” is my general refrain. Historically, this has helped a total of nobody feel more comfortable with the idea.

“I’ve been an EMT for coming on thirty years, and I’ll tell you—when they opened up all the windows to your house, well, I’ve never smelled anything like that in my life. I’ll never forget it.” This was our neighbor Karen, who came by shortly after we moved in. According to her, the body had been there for a while. Maybe a month, by her professional estimation.

Once, as a teenager, at the height of the popularity of the CSI franchise, my twin sister and I attended a two-week summer class on forensic science. It was there that we learned about the Body Farm, a 2.5 acre plot of land in Tennessee dedicated to the study of the decomposition of human remains. Depending on the conditions and circumstances, lots of different things can happen to corpses over time: in hot and arid climates, for instance, a body left outside will essentially dry up and mummify, but in general they tend to decompose pretty much the same way. In essence, they liquify. In the case of our particular corpse, some percentage probably evacuated itself through the plumbing while the rest stuck around and marinated, waiting to be discovered—by who, we still don’t know.

When we first got to the house, my idea of a significant and readily available improvement to the downstairs bathroom was re-hanging the door, so that we could more effectively ignore it over the ensuing months and possibly years. We have a functioning bathroom upstairs, so there wasn’t any major rush to get it up and running.

Remember what I said about this bathroom sharing a wall with the laundry room, though? Well, that’s thrown kind of a kink in the plans. While we don’t particularly need a second bathroom, we really want a laundry room. The extent of our renovations elsewhere means a whole lot of dust and debris and general filth, and not being able to do laundry in our own house has quickly become incredibly annoying. We generally show up to the laundromat once every couple of weeks with four IKEA bags stuffed to the gills with dirty laundry, and the whole affair is just a big, moderately expensive hassle (those machines aren’t cheap!). The house came with a busted-up washing machine attached to some leaky exposed copper supply lines, but it wasn’t terribly useful since we didn’t have a hot water supply on the main floor until the installation of our boiler in November. Then, of course, the machine promptly died. There was never a dryer, and lacking the necessary electrical circuit and receptacle to install one (not to mention a dryer vent), we’re pretty much starting from scratch. Including having to run new electrical and plumbing through this bathroom wall. “Easy,” I told the plumbers. “I’ll just demo out this bathroom wall and we can get on with things.”

salvageable

This got me more excited about renovating the bathroom someday, because there’s already so much great stuff in it! Check out that hook! Check out that toilet paper dispenser! The sink is also really cute (it’s a little rusty in spots, so we’ll probably have it re-glazed). Normally I wouldn’t really think twice about replacing an old toilet with a new, modern, efficient one, but this one is so pretty that I even want to clean it up and keep it. There’s a painted-over transom window over the door, which I can’t wait to strip. I even love the medicine cabinet! I don’t know if I’ll keep it as a whole cabinet or just harvest the mirror, but I do quite like it. I think the radiator will probably go just because the room is so extremely small and I’d rather do something wall-mounted that could double as a towel warmer and free up the floor space just a little. The window is small but works in the room and has really beautiful textured glass that I didn’t take a picture of. And, of course, the corpse tub. Having all of this beautiful old stuff already here, combined with the tiny size (small room = fewer materials!), makes me feel like we could probably renovate this room fairly inexpensively, even with new plumbing and electric.

ANYWAY.

Picking up where the Crime and Trauma Scene Contamination crew left off, I donned some work gloves and a respirator and started to peel back and dispose of the old tiles surrounding the bathtub and the drywall underneath.

clapboard3

Whats that now? Clapboard? Peekaboo!

So, apparently this used to be an exterior wall. Which made very little sense to me, considering where this room is located. Here I will refer to my floor plan:

FIRST-FLOOR-BEFORE

The bathroom to which I am referring is #10 and highlighted in pink for ease of identification. The laundry room is #9. The wall I am talking about is what divides the two.

At first I thought the laundry room was just a later addition, but then I realized that didn’t make any sense because the clapboard I was uncovering was the exterior, not the interior. Huh.

clapboard4

Further excavation revealed that the wall was definitely clapboard. The walls—which were partially drywall but mostly the same lightweight “beaverboard” used elsewhere in the 20th century “improvements”—were hanging on old 1×2 furring strips which were nailed to the clapboard. Well. Isn’t that special.

Something tells me that this will not be a great strategy when we renovate this bathroom for real. Old furring strips nailed to really old clapboard is probably not going to be so great or so safe for holding up hundreds of pounds of cement backerboard and tile. I kept moving…

demo2

Turns out, the whole room is clapboard, except for the actual exterior wall that the window and sink are on. Underneath the beaverboard ceiling is a tongue-and-groove beadboard ceiling!

I have deduced, therefore, that this bathroom used to be a small porch. Nifty! It occurs to me that this is probably why the upstairs bathroom actually has older fixtures (like that amazing sink, and the toilet that we unfortunately had to tear out on our 3rd day in the house)  than the downstairs one—because it’s older! The top of the toilet tank has a date stamp from 1935, which makes a lot of sense. We know that the house was originally split up into two units in the mid-30s (the Great Depression did that to a lot of houses, and we’ve found newspaper listings for the second floor apartment from 1938), so it was then that they enclosed the porch, then basically built a whole room inside the porch, and BOOM—bathroom.

You can’t really tell from these pictures, but all of this was also covering up an old doorway opening from the kitchen onto the porch. Crazy! Obviously, I think all of this is super cool. Like uncovering a time capsule.

clapboard

bricks

Unfortunately, because these are originally exterior walls and this is my house, it also means that underneath the clapboard, the walls are stuffed full of bricks and mortar. Yep. This is called “nogging” and is how our whole house is “insulated”—I put it in quotations because it has an R-value of less than 1. It was done in a lot of houses especially in the northeast in the 19th century, both as a primitive form of insulation and as a way to keep mice and rats from getting into houses. Normally nogging is composed of “garbage bricks”—like ones that were broken or misshapen or not fired at the correct temperatures. It fell out of practice toward the end of the 19th century. It’s not structural, so it can be removed, but obviously access is pretty much impossible without ripping down all the plaster on interior walls or all of the clapboard off the exterior walls. This is why I just laugh when people try to talk to me about doing blown-in insulation, like I’ve never heard of the concept. I KNOW IT’S A THING. IT IS NOT A THING FOR US. 

nogging

Obviously, this also makes it impossible to run new electrical or plumbing through the walls, which is sort of important in modern bathrooms. So basically this means that all of the stuff nailed to the clapboard has to come out, then the clapboard has to come down, and then the wall cavities have to be emptied out. Yikes! I’m not sure I can totally wrap my mind around carrying and transporting this literal ton of bricks, but at least I am young and strapping and willing to pretend that my home renovation doubles as an acceptable exercise routine, since I can’t seem to make it to the gym.

Before anyone tries to get in my face about preserving the clapboard, ask yourself this: do you want a clapboard-covered bathroom? Like, really, in real life? No you do not. We will, however, save the salvageable clapboard, which may come in handy when we get to work on the exterior and rip off the vinyl siding. We’ll also save salvageable bricks, which I have lofty ideas about repurposing when we get to work on landscaping. It’ll be great.

floor

Oh! And I pulled up the hideous faux-terrazo linoleum and the plywood underneath it, and look! The same hardwood flooring (which we think is fir! not oak, as I had originally thought…) runs into the bathroom, too! I wasn’t really expecting that, but it’s kind of cool. I have no idea if this floor will end up being worth salvaging (there are some areas of rot and holes from old plumbing and a million nail holes from the plywood, and the total floor area is super small anyway…), but it does make me think about putting a wood floor in the bathroom instead of tile when we eventually renovate. Stained black? I like the idea of that. It feels a little less sterile than tile, which I think is nice for the main floor.

demoafter

This has to be the most grueling bathroom demo in the history of mankind. It’s gutted, and now it essentially has to be gutted AGAIN. And then the BRICKS. MADNESS.

It’ll be worth it if we get laundry, though. Eyes on the prize.

Home Buying Moment: Oh No, What Have We Done? The First Year of Owning and Updating an Old House.

I am blogging on behalf of Trulia, but the views expressed here are solely mine, not Trulia’s. To learn more, visit: http://on.trulia.com/postcards.

I was raised primarily on a diet of HGTV and TLC, back when TLC used to produce shows like Trading Spaces, where for $1,000 and the chance to be on TV, a stranger might give you a tasteful new living room or intentionally pour bags of sand onto your basement floor, depending on the episode. Later in life I became enamored with the endless teachings of the Sovereign Queen Goddess Martha Stewart. At some point I discovered the Internet and found all of these kooky people blogging about their home renovations online. I casually studied architecture in college. And…that’s pretty much the start and end of my qualifications to own and renovate an old house. I grew up in new construction, and aside from some things I’d picked up here and there, I had no idea what I was doing. 

Now that we’re coming up on a whole year of homeownership (that just flew by, didn’t it?), the folks at Trulia asked me to take part in a series they’ve put together about the most defining home buying moments—from making compromises to finding the right neighborhood to making an offer. For me, one of the biggest moments maybe wasn’t even really a moment at all, but more a sense of panic and impending doom about how little we knew in relation to how much had to be done. Both before and after we bought the house, there was just so much we didn’t know. It was completely terrifying. I had no idea how people bought houses. I had no idea I needed a lawyer. I had no idea what a boiler was. The thing I kept having to remind myself (and keep having to remind myself a lot of the time) is that knowing that you don’t know how something works is usually way scarier than finding out. This stuff isn’t rocket science. Once the mystery is removed from so many aspects of homeownership—from financing to renovating—they generally become way more approachable and easier to handle.

With that in mind, I thought I’d put together a more comprehensive post about some of the things I’ve learned in the first year about upgrading an old house, and maybe offer up some suggestions that we’ve taken advantage of (or tried to) to make it a little less daunting both mentally and financially. We have a ton of work ahead of us and I don’t think the learning process will ever end, but the house is still standing and we aren’t completely broke (yet!), so I guess we’re doing OK. Every house is different and comes with a different challenges, but a lot of what we’ve done in this first year is pretty typical of older homes. Let’s dive right in, shall we?

house

BEFORE YOU BUY

Our “house-hunting” story is so short it’s laughable. We weren’t looking for a house, or even thinking about buying one. But then we found one—on a weekend away from Brooklyn while staying at a house that our friends had rented around the corner in the Hudson River Valley city of Kingston, NY—and became completely obsessed with it in a way that’s honestly hard to describe. For us, this was never about buying a house—it was about having the opportunity to take care of this house, specifically. I loved everything about it: the original layout of beautifully-proportioned rooms, and all of the original features like moldings and doors and windows and plaster walls and radiators and even a beautiful marble fireplace mantel. And, honestly, I was attracted by how much work it needed. It was split up very awkwardly into two apartments, and we felt passionate about restoring it to a single family home and renovating it in a way that would be careful, deliberate, and respectful of its history. And even though the attachment I felt to the house was completely absurd and illogical, and that we didn’t really feel like we were in any position to buy a house, we both felt like we had to at least explore the option. If we never took that first leap to find out and it had eventually sold to somebody else, I honestly believe that I’d still be obsessing over it now. And probably five years from now. Maybe ten years. Maybe forever. I was in love with the house from the second I saw it, and immediately felt responsible for it even though it wasn’t ours. I know that might sound like overly-romantic nonsense, but it’s the truth.

All of this was basically driven by insanity is what I’m saying. But with old houses, that’s kind of important. Upgrading and renovating isn’t easy—emotionally, financially, socially, you name it—and I think you need to be a little nuts and a little obsessed to feel, at the end of the day, that you’re doing the right thing. And that you need to keep doing it.

Still, we weren’t complete idiots, and it certainly wasn’t as easy as just wanting it a whole lot. We had to think carefully about whether we were up for the challenge, and whether it seemed like a sound investment. If things went horribly awry, could we put it back on the market and walk away relatively financially unscathed? Could our relationship and lives sustain such a big upheaval? We felt like the answers were yes, but at that point there was just a lot of gut-trusting, blind passion, and leaps of faith. Those types of questions don’t really come with easy or simple answers. They still don’t some days, but that’s a whole different post.

While the process of buying the house was, as usual, incredibly stressful and time-consuming and intense and full of surprises outside of anyone’s control, it actually wasn’t as horribly difficult to navigate as I thought it would be. Our real estate agent was also the seller’s agent (the “seller” was an estate, the members of which all lived elsewhere…the previous owner of our house passed away a couple of years prior). She gave us lots of support and guidance throughout the process, and was invaluable for recommending home inspectors, local contractors, local lawyers, etc., and taking us through all the steps of making an offer, securing a loan, contingencies, and all of that. This is the part of the process when you receive the most support and guidance, so use it! Ask TONS of questions about anything you’re unsure about. Agents are smart people. They know lots of things.

Aside from the expertise of your real estate agent, the most informative aspect of the pre-sale shenanigans is the inspections. You’ll probably get lots of inspections.

Because we felt very serious about the house, we hired a home inspector to come for our first walk-through.

I should note, I suppose, that all of this basically goes against traditional wisdom of home-buying. The seller’s agent, by definition, has the seller’s best interests at heart, and showing up for an initial walk-through with a home inspector basically lays all of your cards out on the table: we want this house—badly. But for us, I think it was a good thing. The seller’s agent was clearly excited about us and our evident infatuation with the house, and I truly believe that the genuine relationship we built with her really stacked the deck in our favor as we moved forward in the process.

ANYWAY—back to inspections. Typically realtors will have recommendations for a good home inspector, who will walk through the property and take note of any visible problems. Ours cost about $500. Inspectors are a great wealth of information, and should be able to answer all sorts of questions, bring up and discuss issues that they see, and even give ballpark estimates of how much certain repairs might cost. Of course, you should always verify these estimates with contractors, but it’s helpful to get a sense of whether the property is even worth pursuing further. The home inspector should prepare a detailed written report, which will not only be helpful for your own reference, but will often be essential information for insurance companies and banks. If the inspector notes things that were not disclosed or noted by the seller or seller’s agent, these might be helpful points to negotiate on the price. Based on what we gleaned from our home inspection and how long the property had been on the market, we felt comfortable submitting an offer of about 20% below asking price—which after some back and forth as various estimates came in is exactly what we ended up paying.

Assuming the home inspector’s report doesn’t leave you running away screaming, you’ll want to have a few more inspections and estimates to get an idea of what you’re looking at financially. In addition to a pest inspection to check for wood-destroying insects (which homeowners should ideally have done annually—I think it was about $100) which came up clean, we also walked through the house with both a locally licensed plumber and a locally licensed electrician. Both of these contractors should also be able to point out causes for concern, and help you formulate a list of probable repairs and upgrades you’ll need to make after closing. They should then provide written estimates for the anticipated work. For us, it was helpful to talk through best-case and worst-case scenarios with both of these contractors and get estimates for both. We also had three roofing contractors come to give estimates on replacing the faulty roof. All of this was free, and we’ve since used both the plumber and the electrician for all of our work—they’re great guys, and they’ve been with us since the beginning.

You may want to do additional inspections for radon, lead, and asbestos. This is kind of personal and kind of based on the house and location. Our house is almost 200 years old—it definitely has lead-based paint, and it does have asbestos in the typical places (like around some of the heat pipes in the basement), so testing for them was sort of a pointless expense. Both lead and asbestos do not present a hazard as long as they’re left undisturbed and intact, so there isn’t really any reason to invest in full-on lead or asbestos abatement in most cases.

Again, all houses are different, but at this point everyone should have a fairly comprehensive idea of what the house needs. You’ll have to figure out a loan and insurance and go back and forth endlessly on whether you can really afford it and there will generally be a lot of freaking out for weeks or months on end. You’ll sign a lot of things and feel like you’re throwing large amounts of money around willy-nilly and it will be insane and scary…and then you’ll get the keys. The whole team of people who helped you get to this point will give you a pat on the back and congratulations and then they’ll disappear into the ether and you have to start really figuring stuff out.

GENERAL UPGRADES

Aside from the fun and exciting cosmetic stuff that makes for entertaining blogging fodder, there were a few things that we needed to take care of ASAP:

1. Locks! If the existing locks are nice and new-ish, you can have a locksmith re-key them. We replaced all of ours with new, very secure ones. Prices obviously vary based on quality and whatnot, but our lock upgrade was about $120 per door, including the labor of the locksmith.

2. Security! While a home security system certainly isn’t mandatory, it gave us a significant amount of peace of mind to have one installed. Again, prices will vary based on what company you go with and what kind of equipment you use, but our system was about $800 in equipment, plus a monthly service bill which is about $60. Installing a central station security system and smoke detectors (meaning that if they trip, the police department or fire department are automatically called) also got us a nice discount on our homeowner’s insurance. Home security systems come in both wireless and hardwired options now, so it isn’t horribly expensive or invasive to have one installed if the house isn’t wired for it!

3. Smoke/Carbon Monoxide Detectors! Our house came with one smoke detector and one carbon monoxide detector. That’s not enough! At least in New York State, residences must have one smoke detector in each bedroom, one in each common area on every floor, and one in the basement. There also needs to be a carbon monoxide detector in the basement and on any level where there are sleeping areas. Unless you are building new construction or doing significant renovations like completely gutting a house, battery-operated or plug-in smoke/carbon detectors are OK. Nicer smoke/carbon detectors are about $50 each.

THE ROOF

 roofbeforeafter

It’s often said that the roof and the foundation are the most important parts of a healthy house, and it’s true! Our roof was kind of a mess—a mix of sheet metal and metal shingles, all covered in layers of tar. The age and condition of the roof can make securing a homeowner’s insurance policy and a mortgage difficult, and basically we had to have it replaced ASAP. We got three estimates months before, but estimates are generally only valid for 1-3 months, so we had the same companies come back to give us new quotes after we closed. The new quotes were much, much higher than the original quotes, for lower quality materials no less! It was awful. I resented the companies so much that I didn’t even want to try to negotiate and work with them. I did find out some good stuff because of it, though!

1. Big-box hardware stores such as Lowe’s and Home Depot subcontract all sorts of work to local contractors (siding, windows, etc), including roofing! The difference between going through a place like Lowe’s and directly to the contractor might seem insignificant, but it isn’t: the big box store pricing is regulated, so they can’t arbitrarily jack up the price just because they think you can pay more. Even if you don’t end up hiring them, I highly recommend getting an estimate from Lowe’s, if only so that you have a baseline idea of what a fair price is for the job. The estimate is free, and I found them great to work with. I could easily dedicate an entire post to roofing (maybe I will—are you interested?), so I’ll move on…

2. Because roofing is significantly expensive, bigger roofing companies often offer financing plans for the job—so even if it’s more expensive than you were anticipating or have cash on hand for, you may be able to work something out directly through the company. Additionally, Lowe’s offers a consumer credit card with low-interest extended payment plans, and they’ll work with you to increase your credit limit to cover the cost. Roofing prices vary drastically by the size of the house, the materials, and the scope of the job, but the point is this: get lots of quotes, ask for references, and remember that you don’t necessarily need to have $10,000+ in your pocket to pay for it. Even if you have a great home loan with a comfortable renovation budget (or just a bunch of money in the bank), you still may want to consider financing stuff like this separately if you’re comfortable taking on another monthly payment, especially if you have lots of work ahead of you. Surprises (like rotted box gutters!) happen!

ELECTRICAL

Admittedly, electrical issues are one of the most intimidating parts of even thinking about buying an old house. A lot of people think that they need to have every last bit of wiring removed and replaced immediately, but in general that isn’t the case at all! Knob and tube wiring is generally considered a real hazard and should be removed, but “newer” types of wiring are often in fine shape, even if they’re very old. Even if the outer casing on old wires looks cracked or frayed inside an electrical box, remember that the ends have been exposed and messed with since their original installation, and the stuff going through the walls is probably in much better condition. A good, honest electrician should be able to give you a sensible evaluation of the age and condition of your wiring, and the urgency of replacing it. The advice from our electrician was basically to replace what we could, when we could—but no hurry. Still, there are some things to know…

1. Outlets! Lots of old houses will have ungrounded two-prong outlets. Obviously the modern standard is 3-prong grounded outlets, and having two-prong outlets everywhere gets annoying really fast. Consult your electrician about upgrading the outlets—in many cases, two-prong outlets can be swapped for 3-prong simply by grounding the new outlet to the metal box, or replacing it with a GFCI receptacle. GFCI receptacles are fairly expensive (about $30 each), but a basic grounded outlet is really cheap—like $1, a bag of grounding tails is something like $7, and a receptacle tester to make sure everything is wired correctly is like $3-4. This kind of thing is within the abilities of any normal homeowner with a little research, or your electrician might charge you $10-$20 an outlet to do it for you. Not a huge deal.

breakerpanel1

2. Main Electrical Panel! Lots of old houses have scary old service panels. Both fuses and circuit breakers are pretty much equally safe when operating effectively and wired correctly, but your electrician and home inspector should know which types of panels to watch out for. Our house was split into two apartments, so there were 2 separate breaker panels. One was fairly new-ish, and the other was an old Federal Pacific panel with Stab-Lok circuit breakers—which has pretty much been a known fire hazard for about 30 years because so many of the breakers were defective. Yikes! Luckily, replacing a service panel isn’t a huge deal, either. Existing wiring can be removed from the old panel(s) and tied into a new one. Along with a few assistants, our electrician had the whole job done in less than a day, and it cost $1,400.

service

3. Service to the panel! A very, very typical upgrade to old houses is actually increasing the overall amount of electricity running to the house—usually from 60 or 100 amps to 200 amps. As times have changed, as have our electrical needs, so many old houses are just under-electrified and not equipped to handle all of the things that we expect to use electricity for (appliances, computers, lighting, A/C units, etc. etc.). Included in upgrading the panel was also upgrading our service from 100 amps to 200 amps—meaning that not only do we have a new huge panel with more space for new circuits than I think we could possibly ever use, but enough electricity running into the house to power it all. It all runs through a fancy new grey PVC pipe, through a new meter pan, and into the new breaker panel in the basement.

servicedrop

3. New Service Drop! The electrician is only allowed to work on electrical from the point of attachment (where the power line attaches to your home) downwards, however. So even after we had our panel and the wires feeding it upgraded, the wires from the pole to the house were still ollldddd. I think we were the last house on the street still rocking uninsulated triplex wire! I called the utility company to find out how to get that wiring replaced, and it only took them a couple of weeks after the electrician submitted some paperwork for them to come out and replace it. As far as I know, in most places this is a free service, assuming the utility company also deems your service drop outdated and in need of replacement.

PLUMBING

 plumingdisasters

1. We dropped about $1,300 right off the bat on fixing various plumbing issues: buying and installing a new toilet, replacing leaky valves and a large section of the waste line—that kind of thing. The house had been drained while it was vacant, but extreme temperature changes are still very hard on old plumbing, even when there isn’t water in them. Cracked sections of cast iron pipe can be patched in with new PVC. Where we’ve had to replace plumbing, in general we’ve replaced with PVC for waste lines and PEX for supply lines, which is much cheaper than copper (and, supposedly, lasts longer and is less prone to damage).

boiler

2. New Boiler! The biggest plumbing issue (and headache…) we had to deal with was the heat system. The house had a very, very old oil-powered boiler, but the oil tanks had been removed and remediated by the estate prior to sale (note: if there are oil tanks on the property, those should also be inspected for leaks prior to buying. You do NOT want to deal with remediation!). The cast iron hot water radiators seemed to be in fine shape, but they would need a new boiler to make them actually radiate heat. Because natural gas is much cheaper and cleaner than oil and natural gas boilers are more efficient, we decided that the smartest thing we could do was to convert our heat system to natural gas. Luckily, Central Hudson currently has a gas conversion program specifically for homeowners looking to convert from oil to natural gas, but do not have current gas service. Running gas from the main to the house is essentially free (you do have to pay a $500 deposit, but it gets returned after your equipment is installed), but would normally cost a few thousand dollars without the program. I’m guessing this sort of program is happening in a lot of places, though, so definitely check with your local utility company if you’re interested in doing something similar!

From there, it was a matter of installing the new boiler—which, thankfully, ended up doing double-duty as our tankless hot water heater for the whole house. It’s worked out great, by the way. This is another very expensive upgrade, but prices vary significantly based on the type of equipment used, the plumber, and the size of the system (our house is about 2,400 square feet and we have 11 radiators). Our upgrade came in at just about $12,000—which is a whole lot of money. But at least in New York, there are rebate programs in place for installing high-efficiency equipment, so we actually got about $1,500 back after our plumber submitted the paperwork.

But, again, this isn’t necessarily something you need cash on hand for. Central Hudson’s gas conversion program has its own financing, and local banks and credit unions also often offer home heating loans. Additionally, New York State has NYSERDA—the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, which is geared in part toward helping homeowners understand and finance energy-efficient upgrades to their homes. I didn’t find out about this until it was too late (impending winter really put a deadline on the boiler replacement!) but it’s a great program: starting with a free home energy assessment, working through the program may qualify you for cashback incentives, special financing, or even grants to help pay for the upgrades. I definitely plan to get an energy assessment through NYSERDA soon, and I’m hoping it helps us make other energy-efficiency upgrades more affordable!

PHEW. I could probably go on and on and on forever, but those are the major things we’ve encountered and had to learn alllll about in our first year of homeownership! It’s not all flowers and rainbows and fun, but that’s OK. Even in moments of panic and uncertainty, I still completely love our house, I love Kingston, and I’m really happy that we’re doing this.

If you’ve bought an old house, I’d love to hear what you can add to this list! And if you’ve bought a house at all, what are some of your most memorable home buying moments? If you need to jog your memory, cheek out all the home buying moments postcards!

I Love Lorde and I Don’t Care That Everyone Else Does Too.

lorde1

Over the summer, Max became obsessed with all of the different music streaming services available and spent hours endlessly comparing and analyzing the relative benefits of each. A side effect of comparing the services was actually using them to listen to music, and because we spend a lot of time in the car driving back and forth to Kingston, we’d end up listening to his new discoveries together until I’d make him turn them off. I’m grouchy when it comes to all sorts of things, but music especially, and once I’ve decided I’m not into something, I’m really not into it.

Things were different when Max “found” Lorde last summer, though. I guess she was already doing pretty well on Spotify but had yet to get any radio play, and from the second he started playing The Love Club EP, I was pretty much in love with this girl.

I know it’s kind of completely ridiculous now to sit down and write anything about a now mega-famous, super successful, and broadly loved teenaged pop star, but Lorde is so…different. So much writing—whether it be essays or song lyrics—tries so hard to be “universal” that it ends up just becoming incredibly generic, and I feel like that’s what so much pop music is: generic, vague, disposable, and boring. Lorde doesn’t necessarily sing about what everyone else is singing about, though—her writing is so beautifully specific and personal. She’s not writing about being a 16 year-old girl; she’s writing about how it feels to be living her life as herself at a particular moment in time, and she renders it beautifully. That might seem like the same thing but it really isn’t—whether or not the listener relates to or understands exactly what she’s saying is completely secondary to telling her story in the way that she wants to tell it.

Back in September, my birthday was spent alone in Kingston. Max had to stay in Brooklyn for some reason, the dogs were curled up by themselves somewhere, and I was spending the evening trying to manage all of the construction debris and garbage and clutter that had accumulated in the front parlor room after the destruction of the vestibule wall. By some amazing coincidence, Lorde’s first full-length album Pure Heroine had also come out that day, and I remember listening to it on repeat while I was trying to wrestle sections of vestibule into contractor bags, frequently going back over to my computer to replay certain songs and turn the volume up even higher. I know birthdays are supposed to be exciting, but I always tend to just get really angsty and sad, and matters aren’t exactly helped by being alone and surrounded by trash with the pressure of trying to procure a new roof and a new boiler before winter sets in weighing on you. Something about listening to that album over and over again helped, though, and made me feel OK. Almost 7 months later, it still sounds fresh and new and exciting to put on. It’s kind of a perfect album.

lorde2

Max and I went to see Lorde at the first of her three shows at the Roseland Ballroom on Monday night. I loved her performance at the Grammy’s but I don’t think she sounded all that amazing—I’m sure she was nervous—and I was kind of expecting her to be good. Not spectacular, not bad.

WELL. This show? Incredible. We had general admission tickets and we were pretty much right in the middle of the crowd. Normally, this makes me sort of frustrated and anxious—I don’t like being trapped and surrounded by tons of people, and I always feel really short and like I can’t see anything, and the people around me are always pissing me off in one way or another. But there was just a completely different vibe at Lorde’s show. We basically got to know everyone around us between the opener and when Lorde’s set started, and it was fun to feel like we were experiencing the show with all of these people instead of just trying to block them out. We were packed in tight but nobody was pushing or shoving or making enemies. We were on each other’s team.

Digression: the one thing that totally detracted from the show was the broad use and overuse of cellphones to take pictures or record video. I get that people want to capture the moment and I don’t really see anything wrong with taking a few pictures, but when people hold their phones a foot above their heads and record video of entire songs, it’s is just so rude and obnoxious. There’s a whole group of people behind that person whose  view is completely blocked by the dumb phone, just so that they can capture a crappy low-quality piece of footage that they’ll never watch again. It makes me crazy, and I really hope my generation figures out that this is not OK behavior, or conducive to enjoying live performance. Don’t do it, people. 

Digressing from my digression: how does anyone take halfway decent concert photos with an iPhone? I barely even try to take pictures at concerts anymore because my photos are always, without exception, awful—even when I’m standing close to the stage. It’s like my special power.

Aside from the phones, though, the crowd was great. And Lorde was great. She sounded amazing vocally, and the performance was just completely enchanting. There wasn’t anything technically very flashy or interesting about the production (the lighting and her costumes were very well done, though), but that understatement suits her. When she wasn’t singing, she was personal, humble, incredibly charismatic, and just so cool. I do wish she had played a couple more songs off of the EP and done an encore and played for 7 more hours and come to give me a hug and let me take her out for coffee and let me join the tour and allowed me to play with her hair and tell her my secrets and become her BFF, but other than that it was a perfect concert. She’s going to be around for a long, long time, and I’m so glad we got to see her so early in her career. She’s incredible.

New Yorkers—if you have any way to get yourself to the third and final night of the show at Roseland Ballroom tonight, DO IT. You can usually scalp tickets around the venue or look on Craigslist. And here’s the list of her upcoming US tour dates! And if you don’t know what I’m talking about at all and need to be initiated, go do yourself a favor and download Pure Heroine.

How To Build A Simple Floating Desktop + Shelves!

shelvesdesk1

If you saw the big post about my office a couple of weeks ago (indeed, I am still talking about that…), you may remember that I promised a little tutorial for how I built the super simple floating desktop and shelves! I’m really proud of how these elements of the room turned out—they were very easy to construct, pretty inexpensive, and look and function exactly how I wanted them to. There isn’t anything particularly fancy about them, but I sort of like that—they’re clean and modern but still look a little homespun and handmade, which I think is kind of nice and appropriate for this modest room.

The basic construction of the shelves and the desktop is exactly the same: cleats underneath, a 3/4″ thick board on top, and a 1″x2″ piece of lumber glued and nailed to the front edge to give it the extra bulk, which serves both to hide the cleats and make them look a little more substantial and finished. See? Simple! Now I’ll make it complicated for you.

steps1

The most difficult part of the project is probably creating and securing the cleats onto the walls. Because I wanted the 1″x2″ board in the front to conceal the cleats, I had to make my own skinny little 3/4″ thick cleats to support the desktop and shelves. If that’s confusing, it’s probably because wood dimensions at the hardware store are a bit misleading—a 1″ thick x 2″ wide board is actually 3/4″ thick x 1.5″ wide. So, because only 1.5″ of wood would cover both the edge of the 3/4″ thick desktop and the cleat, the cleat could only be an additional 3/4″ without peeking out the bottom.

I probably just made that more confusing. Lesson: wood is smaller than the label says it is. Measure it if you’re unsure.

STEPS:

1. I used some scrap 3/4″ thick pine lumber and cut it into 3/4″ wide strips with a circular saw for the cleats. A table saw would have made things a little more precise, but I don’t have one! Then I used a miter saw to cut them to the right lengths. For the desktop I only made two cleats—one for either side, since I didn’t want to drill into the wallpaper. For the shelves I made 3 cleats for each shelf—both sides and the back. I made three equally-spaced pilot holes with an 1/8″ drill bit in each cleat, and then went back with a 1/4″ drill bit just to enlarge the top of each hole so that the screw heads would sink below the face of the wood (allowing me to fill and paint the holes later).

2. I used a level and a pencil to mark where I wanted the top of each cleat, and aligned the cleat with this line. I inserted a smaller drill bit through my pre-drilled holes and into the wall a bit, just to give myself the most accurate guide for where to drill my pilot holes for my anchors.

3. After drilling my three guide holes in the wall and setting the cleat aside, I went back to the guide holes and enlarged them with a 1/4″ drill bit, which was the size required by my plastic anchors. This will obviously vary based upon what type of anchor you use, but normally the package will specify what size drill bit is required.

4. There are lots and lots of different anchors on the market for different weights/applications/wall materials, but for plaster I generally find that regular plastic anchors work very well.  You should be able to insert the anchor into the hole nearly all the way with your hands, and then you’ll want to tap it flush with the wall with a rubber mallet or hammer.

screws

The anchors come with their own screws, but because the screw had to go through 3/4″ of wood, I needed longer screws to make up for it. Plastic anchors like these will interface fine with other types of screws, but you do want to make sure that the screws are the same (or a bit bigger, even) thickness. These #10 wood screws were as thick as the screws that came with the anchors, but the 2″ length gave me the length I needed to go through the wood and the anchor.

Note: obviously screwing directly into studs would give your project the most strength, but that isn’t always an option for applications this small. It can also be difficult to find studs in plaster walls because spacing may be non-standard and stud-sensors generally do not perform well with plaster & lath. Anchors such as these are typically rated to bear a certain amount of weight, so read the package and use your best judgment. These cleats are more than secure enough for shelves this small, even if they were loaded with books.

steps2

5. Insert the screws partway into the cleat with your screwdriver, then hold the cleat up to the anchors, align it, and drive the screws all the way in. Once all three screws are in, the cleat should be very securely attached to the wall.

6. This wasn’t really necessary, but I chose to patch over the screw holes with Ready Patch, sand, and paint the cleats with the same paint as the walls. It didn’t take very long, but I do think it looks a bit more finished to have the screw heads concealed and the cleats a bit more camouflaged.

7. Then it’s time to cut the shelves! I used 3/4″ thick x 12″ wide boards for the shelves and 3/4″ x 18″ wide for the desk. These boards were the big revelation of this project:

aspenpanel

I did not know that these existed, but at a magical land called Lowe’s, you can buy these fancy pants panels in all these different dimensions for cheap. The largest pine boards available are usually only 12″ wide (which is really 11.5″, remember…), and I really wanted the desktop to be a continuous surface rather than multiple boards butted up against each other with seams. These panels are really just a few pine boards joined together to make a bigger pine board, which isn’t necessarily all that fancy, but they do feel and function as a single piece, which is exactly what I wanted. I know that it’s obviously possible to join wood on your own, but I’ll leave that kind of woodworking time/effort/expense for someone else. For this, these panels were an absolutely perfect solution.

Because the walls are old and wonky, each shelf required its own special dimensions and finagling. I could have really gone all-out and made templates of each shelf and scribed everything and cut them to the exact crazy irregularities in the wall, but that just seemed like way too much effort to put into these little corner shelves that would be covered with stuff anyway. Once the 1×2 is nailed to the front, the fit really does look perfect and precise. After the shelves were in place, I nailed them into the cleats from above just to give them a little extra security.

supplies

8. To finish off the build, I just had to affix 1″x2″ select pine boards (I tried to buy the prettiest/straightest ones I could find at the store) to the front edge of the shelves/desktop. After cutting them to the proper lengths, I applied a line of wood glue to the 1×2, and held it up the the edge of the shelf with one hand and nailed it into place with the other.

I’d highly recommend a pneumatic nail gun for this part. It may not be totally necessary, but it does make it much easier to keep everything flush and positioned correctly. I have a Craftsman Evolv Air Compressor with 2 inch Brad Nailer, which is OK for stuff like this. I really liked this thing when I first got it about 6 months ago, and in all fairness it’s seen quite a bit of use in that time, but for some reason recently the PSI won’t go above 60 (which is the minimum working PSI)! I can’t seem to figure it out, other than to say that it just probably isn’t a very well-made piece of equipment. If all you’re ever doing with it is installing a little crown molding and base shoe it’s probably great, but I’m sure I’ll end up investing in something heavier-duty down the line—both because I’ll probably need bigger guns for bigger nails (and higher PSI) and because this one already seems to be failing, unfortunately. It is cheap, though. I’ll say that much!

ANYWAY. Once the 1×2 wood is attached, all you need to do is fill the nail holes with a little wood filler, wait for it to dry, and give it a little sanding, paying special attention to the wood filler! The panels and select pine should already be pretty smooth, but it doesn’t hurt to give them a few passes. I also drilled a 1.5″ hole in the back corner of the desktop for lamp/computer cords and sanded that smooth as well.

Then I just wiped everything down with a damp lint-free cloth and sealed with a satin water-based polyurethane! I have to say, I ALWAYS seem to get lazy and skimp on poly (or any finishing coat, really…), but I am publicly pledging to not do that anymore. I did 3 coats of water-based poly (sanding lightly with 220 grit sandpaper in between coats), and the finish feels so nice and smooth and durable and has a very pleasant sheen. I used water-based both because it dries fast and cleans up easily and because it won’t yellow over time. I really wanted to preserve the pale tone of the pine rather than risk yellowing it with an oil-based product.

deskafter

That’s it! The desktop and shelves probably cost all of about $85 in materials, which is just fine with me.

Cheap! Easy! Fun! Functional! Stylish! Huzzah!

I Wrote a Thing!

Anthology

Writing is more or less what I studied in college——mainly non-fiction——and what I really love to do. But actually writing? There’s a lot of fear that comes along with that. There’s the invitation for constant rejection and judgment, the small or nonexistent paychecks, the uncertain future, the inherent narcissism of feeling that anybody should care at all about the words you manage to string together. I’ve become far less shy (thanks, in large part, to this blog) about letting people read things that I write, but despite the encouragement of many professors, friends, family, and readers here on this site over the years, I’ve been a real shithead about actively trying to do anything with my writing. I seem to operate on the idea that someday I’ll get around to it, but not today. I feel like I spend a lot of my life these days hustling from one thing to the next and just trying to stay afloat and make it all work, and as a consequence I tend to worry a lot about whether I’m losing sight of my actual goals. I worry that I have no real idea about how one goes from Point A to Point B, and that my life doesn’t reasonably allow for the possibility of figuring it out. I suppose these are pretty common feelings for 20-somethings (or everybody, really) to feel, but still. I can’t escape the constant nagging that I’m doing everything wrong and backwards.

I want to change that. I want to write stuff. So I wrote a thing: the “personal history” essay segment for Anthology Magazine‘s Winter issue. And it felt really good. Working with Anh-Minh Le, the editor, was so great—she gave me loads of creative freedom and feedback and then patiently allowed me to be annoying and picky about details and editing as I reworked and tried to whittle it down to an acceptable length. It was stressful and hard and scary, but I’m happy with my work. It’s just 3 little pages——nothing crazy——but I learned so much in the process.

And now, here it is! Something I wrote, printed in a really pretty magazine, on really nice paper, with illustrations! Anthology is a really beautifully produced publication, and this issue——also featuring my cyber-friends Lisa and Clay, the multi-talented Fabulous Beekman Boys, and lots of other great folks——is no exception. It’s packed full of inspiration and beautiful pictures and good writing and interesting stories, and there I am, wedged into pages 43-45. It’s so cool to be a part of it.

So if you ever wondered what happened to the previous owner of our house or whether our house is haunted or why the Internet is a crazy place or how I feel about it all, I’d appreciate if you’d pick up a copy! Here is a list of stockists who might have the current issue if you’d like to buy it in person, and it’s also carried at Anthropologie stores nationwide and online.

Huge thanks to the team at Anthology for taking the leap on me and to the very talented Christine Rösch for the fabulous illustrations of my piece! I’d be hugely pleased if you read it.

P.S.—the Hygge & West giveaway is still open and accepting entries, so if you haven’t thrown your name in the hat for some beautiful wallpaper, get to it!

Life
Tagged:
Back to Top