All posts tagged: plumbing

The Great Radiator Shuffle!

There’s this hip new dance in town called the Radiator Shuffle, which involves multiple strong plumber men removing century-old cast iron radiators. Then, once they’ve all left, a small nice Jewish boy pushes said radiators around into different rooms with all the strength in his arms and legs because he’s an anal weirdo.

It’s really fun.

So this is what happened.

pipesbefore

You might remember these heat pipes that went up the corner of our dining room, next to the now-removed non-original closet. You probably don’t. But you MIGHT because many (like, probably at least 3) commenters brought up that I should consider removing the pipes when they appeared in photographs in earlier posts. The long and short of it is that the radiators were probably installed around 1900, and our house was probably built around 1840, and so almost all of the radiator pipes serving second floor radiators are exposed throughout the house because the whole heat system was retrofitted. It doesn’t really bother me—it’s part of the history, and they’re not all that obtrusive—and these were particularly out of the way, so I kind of disregarded the idea of trying to get them removed. What a hassle. I hate hassle.

JK, I love hassle. My whole life is hassle, and finding ways to create more hassle. I thrive on it.

So when my plumber mentioned that while the pantry was gutted anyway (oh yeah, remember how I’m supposedly renovating a pantry, too? How’s that going? Shut your goddamned mouth. That’s how.), it would be pretty easy to remove the unsightly-ish pipes and have them buried in the wall.

I hemmed and hawed very slightly, but going ahead with this relatively simple and relatively inexpensive change affords multiple benefits.

1. The pipes aren’t terrible looking but the room would look better (and more historically accurate) without them. So there’s that.

2. The pipes had to be messed with anyway because one of the pipes actually branched off into two pipes above the ceiling level. One pipe fed the radiator above, and the other one went straight up to a big holding tank in the attic from when the system operated differently than it does now. The holding tank was removed when the boiler was replaced, but because we still had a dining room ceiling then, the pipe had to just be capped about a foot above the floor on the second floor. Not a cute look. So that pipe had to be disconnected and capped at the joint under the floor, which is easier said than done. I have no idea if this is making any sense. Bear with me.

middlebedroomradiatorbefore

3. This is the radiator the pipes were feeding (the pipe that goes straight up is the one leading to the tank in the attic). Note how it is sitting on a weird white wood platform instead of on the floor. I really don’t know why this is. A leak might have rotted the floor boards at some point, leading to them getting cut out and this piece of wood artfully put in its place? I don’t know. I don’t really care. Removing the radiator would give me the opportunity to feather in new floor boards to cover this area, which was very appealing. It would also give me the opportunity to move the radiator over a few inches to center it on the wall (between the corner and the door to what used to be the upstairs kitchen, which is frustratingly right out of frame), which I like. I like centering things.

4. Our heat system originally relied on steam, and at some point it was converted to hot water. I’m glad this was done, whenever it was done—there are more options for hot water boilers, I believe it’s more efficient, quieter (steam radiators “knock” as the pipes heat and cool), and I find the heat a little nicer (steam radiators get hotter—ours are never too hot to touch but they work EXTREMELY well regardless). ANYWAY, steam radiators require quite large pipes, since they have to transport steam. Hot water radiators, by contrast, need much smaller pipes—I believe 3/4″ is standard. Since our system was converted but the pipes were never swapped out, this essentially means that we are wasting energy (and money) heating a bunch of hot water to fill these huge-ass pipes when we could be filling very small pipes and saving a lot of energy. Even though I’m really pleasantly surprised by how low our heat bills were this winter (especially when compared to our friends with oil-powered systems—YIKES YIKES), the idea that we could be doing better by exchanging some of the huge pipes for little pipes was appealing. The new pipes will be run with Pex, which is a relatively new type of flexible plastic piping that is much cheaper and easier to install than copper, but seems to be just as good (if not better, since copper pipes tend to corrode around the joints after many years, and burst easily if they freeze).

SO. DECISION MADE. LET’S DO IT.

The pipes came out. The radiator was moved out of the way a couple of feet. I lifted up that little platform under the radiator  so I could start thinking about how to repair the floor.

holeinfloor

So, this is not so great, FYI. Because so much of the subfloor had been cut out, the plumbers were actually surprised and amazed that the radiator had never come crashing through the dining room ceiling. That would have been really bad, considering these things weigh several hundred pounds and I do NOT like surprises that weigh several hundred pounds.

holesindiningroomfloor

Removing these pipes obviously means that I have to do some floor patching in this room, which got me thinking about moving the dining room radiator.

diningroomradiator

Here’s a bad picture of it in its original location. It was sort of an awkward spot because there’s already so much going on with this wall, between the window and the archway to the bay window. The radiator covered a lot of the molding, which just looked sort of bad and lame.

diningroomwallbefore

Lurking in the back of my mind for a while had been moving this radiator to this wall. This is the back of the wall where I’m installing the faux-fireplace in the library, and at some point in time I’m almost certain there was another mantel here with some kind of stove for heat. When the mantel was removed, the baseboard was patched in pretty poorly, and it just seemed like a good location for the radiator to live to hide that.

Typically radiators are installed under or at least near windows (for good reason—the radiator is supposed to warm the cool draft coming in from the window before it alters the temperature of the room), but my plumber assured me that moving the radiator to this wall wouldn’t make any appreciable difference for how our heat would disperse and that I should do whatever I wanted.

Nobody should ever tell me that, btw. “Whatever I want” is usually a recipe for disaster and devastation.

So out that awkwardly-positioned radiator went, out went the big pipes in the basement leading to it, and over I shimmied it to the opposite wall (on some furniture mover things, which are pretty amazing if you need to move heavy shit alone).

diningroomradiator-moved

Here it is, freshly shimmied. I like this location for a radiator—after all, it’s the location of an original heat source, and I think it just looks nice. Anyway. Whatever.

diningroomradiatormoved

Removing the dining room radiator had the added benefit of revealing some interesting information about how the house was finished originally, or at least around the turn of the century when the radiator was presumably installed! That’s not wood (or poop) you’re seeing on the moldings—it’s actually faux-painted to look like wood. The moldings themselves are made out of wood, obviously, but often this was done in houses of this era to make the actual lower-grade wood look like nicer wood. I’ve never considered trying to strip the woodwork in this house (except occasionally when it’s really bad, but even then only to repaint it), but this pretty much confirms to me that the woodwork was never not painted—whether it was this faux-finish or various shades of white and beige.

originalwallpaper

This wallpaper was also lurking behind the radiator, right over the original plaster. You can’t really tell, but the dark lines in the pattern are actually a gold metallic. Fancy!

ANYWAY.

Moving that radiator in the dining room led, naturally, to me wanting to move another radiator—the one in the foyer. You know, while we’re having so much fun.

hallwayradiatorbefore

Maybe it looks OK in pictures, but this radiator, while beautiful, was also rather strangely located. It’s in the center-ish of the entire space, which makes a certain degree of sense, so as to diffuse throughout the entry/hallway evenly, but this space between the stairwell and the wall is only 3 feet wide. Add in a radiator that sticks out 10-11″ from the wall, and you’re left with a passageway just about 2 feet wide. It made the hallway feel unnecessarily cramped and strange, and impossible to move large objects through. Additionally, the area of the hallway/entryway that gets really cold in the winter is by the door. Even with more effective weather-stripping, I think this will pretty much always be the case, whereas the middle and back of the hallway seem to get enough heat from the surrounding rooms to be pretty comfy. My plumber concurred with all of this.

So out that radiator went, and moved closer to the door. The foyer space before the stairwell is really quite large (about 6′ wide), so it feels much less obstructive there, and it’s SO nice to have the hallway next to the stairwell restored to the right width.

hallwaysansrad

Once those pipes are gone and the floor is patched in, it’s going to be awesome. I love this change.

But then I had another idea. The radiator in the dining room, in its new location, looked a little small to me. The radiator in the entryway, in its new location, looked a bit large. Additionally, the dining room is a much bigger space that we actually live in, whereas the entryway is comparatively small and functions as a pass-through to the other rooms. And the plumbing needs to be re-run anyway, so what if I just swapped the two? It’s literally no extra work.

The radiator from the hallway? So. Fucking. Heavy. Even on furniture movers, it was almost impossible to budge. But I did it because I have a lot of determination and a lot of self-doubt and needed to just to see how it would look.

hallwayradindiningroom

It looks awesome. I feel like the size is just right.

radiator-in-entry

And the old dining room radiator works really well for the entryway, I think! My plumber actually wants me to move the radiator even closer to the entry door, but I’m stubborn and I like it where it’s sitting now—closer to the doorway to the library. I think closer to the front door would feel a little crowded and sort of take up the entire wall, whereas in this position we still have the option to add some coat hooks to the right of the radiator.

Oh yeah, I might have stripped down the front doors. The house looks more shanty than ever! Awesome.

I didn’t rush to have the new plumbing run and the radiators reinstalled because having them disconnected means it’s a pretty swell time to have them sandblasted to remove all the layers of old paint and caulk (yes, caulk) and garbage that has been layered on over the years. Cast iron radiators lose efficiency the more times they’re painted, so not only will stripping them down make them look super fancy and bring out the intricate patterns on them, but they should also work better. It was with this terrific plan in mind that I asked the plumbers to also disconnect the awesome corner radiator in the library (which is extra caulk-y)  in the hopes that I can just get them all done at once (and by “all,” I really mean 4—there are 11 in the house).

Once the plumbers left, it suddenly felt like pressure was ON. I mean, ideally these rooms (hallway/foyer, library, and dining room) would be DONE by the time the radiators return and get re-installed, so they don’t get damaged during the ceiling installation and all of the wall repair and painting. Which means I really want these rooms done(ish) by…late September?

It’s the end of July, FYI. I might be overly ambitious. But I REALLY want those rooms to be functional and finished looking. It’s about time! I’m tired of having so many spaces under construction and actually living in so little of the house. I need to spread my wings and fly. And also get some of the furniture and art out of the upstairs kitchen, basement, and garage. It’s piling up and I feel like a crazed hoarder.

Bright-ish spots:

1. The sandblasters are currently BOOKED BOOKED BOOKED and said I couldn’t get any of my stuff in until late August-early September. That’s actually OK—it buys me some time to figure out what to do with the radiators, exactly. Which feels largely reliant on what we’re doing with the floors, which is the subject of the majority of my inner turmoil nowadays. Stay tuned for some whining about that another day. Anyway, it also gives me lots of time to consider renting a sandblaster and doing it myself in the backyard, which seems like a bad idea all around but one that I continue to think about. A lot. Someone talk me out of it. Or INTO IT.

2. Originally I thought that having the radiators out also meant that the pressure was on to refinish the floors before the radiators needed to be reinstalled. I met with a floor refinisher the other day, though, and he said this was not the case. Which makes a lot of sense, since obviously not everyone who has their floors refinished also removes all of their radiators in preparation. ANYWAY, he said that since they’re out already, he might as well rough-sand the area underneath where they’ll go, just to make things a little easier, and then we can refinish the floors for real when everything is done-done, but any pro floor refinisher should have the necessary equipment to sand and refinish around radiators. So that takes a little of the pressure off, I guess, although definitely makes the DIY floor refinishing idea seem even more complex and impossible. Anyway, even though I’m really excited to refinish at least some of the flooring (on the first floor, only the dining room, library, and hallway have hardwood, so it isn’t a big job), the more responsible move is to wait until more of the house is done so I don’t have to panic over every paint drip or scratch or joint compound puddle or whatever. Renovating is tough on floors, even if they’re protected with paper and dropcloths, so I definitely want the bulk of that stuff out of the way first. Floors might end up being a 2015 or 2016 or 2030 project. Sighs.

3. The electricians are DONE (for now) AND we passed electrical inspection yesterday! This is VERY exciting, since it means we can now drywall the ceilings! AHHHHH! Considering we took down the ceilings back in December and January, I’m SO ready to have ceilings again. The ceilings are pretty much holding up everything at this point—there’s no sense in doing a ton of wall repair when there’ll just be a ton more to fill in the crumbling areas between the old walls and the new ceilings. I want ceilings bad and I want them now. Or yesterday.

4. I’m still debating whether to do the ceilings myself or not. On one hand, I met a semi-sketchy dude who wants to help me with them and says he has lots of experience, and it wouldn’t cost a lot to enlist his second set of hands. On the other hand, this isn’t something I have any experience with, and because our house was built pre-industrial revolution, our beams are not at all level—meaning wonky drywall unless the beams are properly and carefully shimmed out. I met with a contractor (this is #4…all the others were either super pricey or I didn’t feel comfortable with them…) who I really liked, so I’m waiting for his bid…if we can afford it, this is one thing I’m inclined to hire out. After redoing the office I feel comfortable doing all the necessary wall repair and skim-coating—and there’s a lot of it—but the ceiling isn’t really something I want to gamble with. Also it sounds like the opposite of fun as a DIY.

I’ll stop rambling now.

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!

Hooray, Heat!

There was a pretty dark period this fall during which nothing was working out and everything on the home renovation front was, generally, totally shitty. We tried to get our roof replaced and ended up with some new roof, some old roof, and a whole mess of rot and messed up box gutters. We tried to get some electrical work done (details forthcoming!), and ended up with a super disorganized electrician who took weeks to finish a few fairly simple jobs and was very non-committal and vague about when he might decide to come back. Then, there was the heat situation.

In case I haven’t established this enough: old houses are complicated. I think they’re completely worth the headaches, but the point is that there are headaches. We knew when we bought the house that we needed to address the heat system, but I had no idea that trying to get hot water running through our radiators would take the better part of two and a half months and make me want to be dead.

radiator1

A little background:

Our house was probably originally heated with wood-burning or coal-burning stoves, which were later replaced by hot water radiators (most of them are made by the American Radiator Company and are the very ornate “Rococo” design, and were probably installed around the turn of the century). Basically, a machine called a boiler has to heat all that hot water to distribute to the radiators. The hot water runs from the boiler through an elaborate system of pipes to the radiators, then through the radiators and back to the boiler to get re-heated. Hot water radiators provide really nice heat—they’re silent, extremely effective at heating up a space, and just all around very pleasant. I was told that our century-old radiators are actually more efficient than more modern baseboard radiator-style heating. I’d never consider replacing the radiators with a forced air system or anything else——I consider them a huge asset to the house, even if they aren’t 100% original.

ANYWAY. There was an existing boiler in the basement, but unfortunately it was probably from the 1930s or 40s and was super scary. It ran on oil as its fuel source, which was supplied by two enormous oil tanks that were buried in the yard. When the house went up for sale, however, the oil tanks were removed and abated (old buried oil tanks are NOT something you want to deal with as a new homeowner, so I’m glad they were gone!), leaving a lifeless ancient old boiler in the basement. While I suppose it’s possible we could have gotten a new oil tank and gotten the existing boiler up and running, there wasn’t really any point in that: oil is very expensive, and the old boiler (if it even still worked) would have been incredibly inefficient and potentially unsafe. The house was seriously overdue for an upgrade.

We’d planned all along to switch to natural gas to power the heat system, meaning some new gas lines would have to be run in the basement to a new modern boiler, all of which a plumber would have to install. Pretty straightforward, yes?

We had a gas line running into the house from the main on the street, but we’ve never actually had gas running into it. That’s partly why we switched to an electric stove when we renovated the kitchen—partially because we already had the stove, but mostly because we weren’t sure how long it would take to get gas service up and running. Additionally, because our house was split into two separate living units that we’re restoring to a single-family, the upstairs and downstairs were on two separate hot water heaters (which supply the hot water to sinks and tubs and the (broken) washing machine). There wasn’t anything particularly wrong with this setup, except that the hot water heater that supplied the second floor ran on electric and the main floor heater ran on gas…meaning no hot water in the kitchen for the first six months in the house. And of course it wasn’t like we could just turn the gas on. Because our house had been vacant, the gas meter had been removed by the utility company, meaning we’d have to request new service. And if we requested new service, they’d want to see what we were running, and our hot water heater was installed with a whole mess of code violations, so they wouldn’t have turned the gas on anyway. See how fun this stuff is?

Luckily, the utility company, Central Hudson, has been running a terrific Gas Conversion Program, which basically incentivizes homeowners to switch to natural gas for their home heating systems. Basically, they subcontract to a company who comes to the house for a free consultation, evaluates your needs, and puts together a couple of different potential packages depending on the necessary equipment. They also offer a number of financing options, which made the whole thing very appealing. We knew the approximate cost of all this stuff before we even bought the house, so we were prepared financially, but I liked the idea of financing the whole thing separately and saving our cash for other projects, so I set up an appointment.

This was at the beginning of September. The guy from the utility company came out, took one look at our existing gas line, and immediately said that Central Hudson wouldn’t give us gas for two reasons:

1. The existing gas line was too old, and no longer to code. Awesome.

2. Because the house was vacant for a while, it was more than likely that the line running into our basement had been cut at the street anyway, rendering it completely dead. Therefore, they’d need to dig up part of the street, the sidewalk, and part of our yard to run a completely new line from the gas main.

The great thing about the Gas Conversion Program is that getting this new line run is basically free——you pay a $500 deposit up front, which gets returned to you once your equipment is installed and activated. Without this program, that type of job would easily run about $5,000, so that was the good news. The bad news was that getting the new line run would take 3-4 weeks, meaning we wouldn’t even be able to install a new boiler until probably early October. The other semi-bad news was that in the caveat of taking advantage of the financing options was that we’d need to use a plumber supplied by Central Hudson, not our own plumber. Having worked with our plumber a couple of times for other stuff, I felt a little bit badly about taking the business away from him, but to pay off the new boiler over 7 years? Seemed worth it.

So I wrote my $500 check and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

4 weeks turned into more like 8 weeks, at which point the gas company engineer finally came out to the house and decided that there actually wasn’t anything wrong with our existing service—meaning the last 8 weeks (which brought us to early November, when things were getting very cold) had been a total waste of time. In that time, we also weren’t approved for the financing, so we were back to square one. At that point, I decided to just forge ahead with the gas company’s plumber, since that seemed like the easier route than backtracking and dealing with our own plumber, who’d still have to deal with the gas company to get the service turned on once everything was installed. The gas company said they could schedule me for the big install within the next week or so, so things seemed to be looking up.

And then they didn’t schedule me. And one week turned into two. And I was so frustrated and so sad. And the roof stuff was going on. And we were freezing. And everything was terrible.

On the eve of the weather going below freezing for the first time, I was very nervous. We had a couple of space-heaters running and had left the taps on a very slow drip, but I was starting to descend into a fit of paranoia about our pipes freezing and bursting and all being lost. Why was this so hard? Why couldn’t I seem to give these people thousands of dollars to fulfill my simple request of not freezing to death in my home?

Then, out of nowhere, my plumber texted me. Not the one who we’d hired through the gas company, but our plumber. It was maybe the best text message I’ve ever received. Turned out, he was worried about us. I guess I hadn’t effectively communicated that he wasn’t doing the job, so he’d already ordered the equipment and was ready to pick it up at the suppliers. He could come at 9 a.m. the next morning. My heart swelled with hope. It was beautiful.

Early the next morning I called to cancel the other plumber (dick move, I guess, but they still hadn’t managed to schedule me and sometimes you have to do what you have to do!), and called my guy to report that we were a-go.

You guys. He WERKED. IT. OUT. I love my plumber.

plumbers

What I had been told by the gas company was a simple one-day ordeal was actually a four-day, four-person exhausting saga of crazy plumbing insanity. Even just getting the old system disconnected from the ancient boiler was an enormous undertaking. The image above is three large men with a 4-foot pipe wrench (and a large section of cast-iron pipe slipped over the end for extra leverage) yanking on century-old cast iron pipe joints. Each joint had to be blow-torched for 5 minutes before it could be forcibly loosened by these hulking gentlemen and prepared to be tied into new plumbing. I can’t even describe how crazy it was to watch all of this unfolding, but trust…it was intense. Particularly since it was taking place in my very scary basement.

boiler

BUT OMG, LOOK AT ALL THAT GORGEOUSNESS. I mean, can you even? I can’t.

That right there is a very incredible high-efficiency gas boiler. We had a choice between a regular-efficiency boiler and high-efficiency, and we chose high-efficiency for a number of reasons. Even though high-efficiency equipment is more expensive up front, it’s obviously more environmentally friendly and is less expensive to operate over time. Additionally, high-efficiency boilers can vent directly through the side of the house, whereas regular-efficiency boilers have to vent through the roof. Since our only available means of venting was an old unlined chimney, the added cost of lining the chimney wasn’t worth it anyway.

This thing is incredible. First of all, it’s tiny (replacing something roughly the size of a Buick). Second of all, it’s suuuuuper quiet——you can really only hear it running if you’re in the basement. Third of all, it turned out that we couldn’t get the old gas hot water heater up to code, but this thing is so cool that not only does it run our entire heat system, it can also act as a tankless hot water heater. And because of the crazy ordeal of getting this all up and running, combined with our customer loyalty, our terrific plumber tied all of the water lines to the boiler, allowing us to do away with both of our inefficient/inoperable hot water heaters. For free. So all at once we had a working heat system and hot water on both floors of our house.

hotwaterheaters

So yeah, that itty-bitty thing replaced both of these massive hot water tanks AND a huge ancient boiler. Technology, man. So cool.

I know I might be the only person who’s at all excited about this, but looking at that fancy new system all set up makes me really happy. The first time I felt our radiators all toasty and doing their jobs, I cried. Nay, I sobbed. Literally. For nearly an hour. It was pathetic.

After so many months of things going really slowly or really badly and feeling generally like garbage, this finally felt like we’d done something really, truly good for this house. This is a huge, huge improvement and step toward bringing this place into the 21st century——preserving the original character but with a modern, safe, and effective infrastructure behind it. It might sound cheesy, but feeling those radiators come to life (and, miraculously, all in perfect working order) and the house heating to a comfortable temperature really felt like feeling the house come to life for the first time. Magic.

nest

We splurged a little and went for the Nest thermostat, which has also been amazing. Since we aren’t at the house all the time, it’s great to be able to set the temperature much lower when we’re not there, and even tell it to heat up when we’re en route to Kingston. I feel like it’ll pay for itself over time with energy savings, and it’s also just really fucking cool. Zero complaints.

Here’s some potentially helpful hints if you’re looking at old houses or are looking at replacing a heat system:

1. Always find out what the existing heat system is. If it runs on oil, find out when the boiler or furnace and oil tanks were last replaced. Insist on having the oil tanks inspected. If they are leaking, the seller should have them removed and abated and have documentation to prove it. EPA regulations around this stuff are intense, and you don’t want to mess around.

2. If you do need a new system, get written estimates for the job before you close. This is a costly upgrade, so you’ll need to have an accurate picture of the projected cost to plan your financing accordingly.

3. If you want to switch to natural gas for your home heating system, it’s worthwhile to see if your utility company offers a similar program to Central Hudson’s Gas Conversion Program. I really don’t know enough about whether other utility companies are doing stuff like this, but I’m guessing they are.

4. Some banks and credit unions are offering home heating loans specifically for this at low interest rates. If you’re interested in upgrading your system but don’t have the cash up front, this might be a great option, even if your utility company doesn’t have a program in place.

5. If you’re in the Hudson Valley and need a great plumber, feel free to email me.

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