Have you ever seen a problem, thought you could help be part of the solution, and accidentally magnified the problem you set out to solve? I have. If you haven’t had the pleasure, I’ll give you some insight: it feels fucking terrible.
I bought my house in Kingston in the summer of 2013. By that I mean the house that I live in, the one we talk about a lot on this blog as I try (and try, and try, and try) to renovate and restore it inside and out. As anyone who’s renovated an old house with even some level of care will likely tell you, it’s a huge undertaking. It’s a strain on everything—emotions, finances, time, creativity, motivation, muscles, relationships. Your whole life, pretty much.
So I’m 23, and I now own this once-beautiful house in this once-beautiful town. That’s harsh: both the house and the town retain a lot of beauty and much of their original character, but the passage of time has not always been kind. Periods of economic hardship have brought neighborhoods to the brink, and the rebound has often taken the form of absentee landlords picking up houses on the cheap, putting minimal money and care into them, and collecting their rent checks. If my house had needed less work just to get it operational, I have zero doubt that’s exactly what would have happened to it.
If you hear “small city in Upstate New York” and think rolling hills and small town charm, Kingston is likely not what you’re picturing. There’s a slice of that, but it’s not the whole picture. It’s got some grit. It has its problems. It’s not a wealthy city and there aren’t nearly enough jobs. The rent is too damn high. The litter is out of control. There are a lot of houses with a lot of problems. And it’s where I decided, fairly quickly, that I actually wanted to make my life—not commuting between here and Brooklyn, not trying to make ends meet with AirBnB income and constant hustle and jobs I’d never want if not for needing the money to support $22,000 a year in rent. And I saw something here that I wanted to be a part of. Not that Kingston is a problem to be fixed, but it’s a place where one person can get involved, get things off the ground, and make a difference in a tangible way. There’s community. I felt good here. At home here. It’s exciting and a little scary to put all your eggs in one basket that way, but I’ve never regretted it. This is where my life is. And I really want to do right.
Fast-forward 14 months. I’m still in the early renovation stages of my house, trying to figure out this whole how-do-I-make-money-in-this-place-thing. I had…this blog that had the traffic and available content to probably do really well if it were correctly managed. I had…some renovation ability, and the hope that I could convince people pay me to make their houses nice. I had…a home address in a place where houses still sold for the price of a mid-range SUV, and the unique ability to potentially offset renovation costs with sponsors who could provide materials, funds, or ideally both.
Remember what I said about some grit? While my own house is largely surrounded by multi-family apartment houses (some better managed than others), it’s a slightly different story just a couple of blocks down. This block had 3 condemned houses on it…out of 10 total. Of the seven habitable structures, only one was owner-occupied. In the summer, it was routine to look down the street and see the flashing lights of a police siren from my bedroom windows, either speeding toward or parked on that block. The neighbors related stories of hearing gunshots at night that woke up and scared their children.
Tucked into a little 23-foot wide lot was this wee house, set back from the street and obscured completely by overgrowth, with a condemned sign posted on the front door. It had recently been listed for sale by owner online but didn’t have a sign out front or anything, and when the real estate agent didn’t show up for the walk-through, he instructed me to just let myself in. Because the door was unlocked. And oh right, he was in California—a detail you’d think he might have mentioned when setting the appointment in the first place.
Nonetheless, an idea was born. If I could secure some financing to buy it and cover some of the renovation costs, I could use my Powers of Blog to cover various expenses through brand partnerships, which would in turn bring in more income that I could reinvest in the project or use to float myself financially through the several months of not getting a regular paycheck while I dedicated myself to it. At the end, this sweet little house would be nicely renovated on a street where it otherwise likely didn’t stand a chance (which also happens to be RIGHT BY my own house—which couldn’t hurt my own property value). More than that, it would be occupied—and as long as it made reasonable financial sense, by a new owner. This cute, nicely maintained house, now joining the other owner-occupied house (also very nicely maintained) would bolster the whole block—hopefully inspiring other prospective buyers to see the street in a better light and consider giving the other two condemned houses the type of care and attention they deserve. Maybe one of those prospective buyer could be me, doing it all over again. Neighborhood stabilization has to start somewhere, and who was in a more privileged position to get the ball rolling than me? I could be part of a solution.
It seemed like a great idea at the time. Famous last words, if you’ll excuse the cliché.
I made a mistake. I can see that clearly now. In August, I’ll have been living with that mistake for 5 years—an amount of time I couldn’t even fathom when I truly believed I could do this in six months.
What went wrong? A lot went wrong. And as much as I either hated to or couldn’t admit it at the time, a lot of what went wrong was me. It’s kind of the story of my 20s, and weirdly, it’s mostly laid bare in blog format. I’m hoping being aware of it leads to change. That owning these choices—and seeing them as choices rather than things that simply happened—will help prevent me from making similar ones in the future. It’s the kind of personal work I expect to be doing my whole life—but now, as I approach the big THREE-OH (stop laughing, I’m trying to get something off my chest!), I think I’m starting to see it a bit more clearly.
I overcommitted—problem number 1. Thinking I can take on WAY more than I actually can has been a life-long struggle that I used to play off as cute and plucky, but really isn’t anything to be celebrated. All it means is that you’re miserable. All it means is that you’re not doing anything well, including the things that matter the most because there’s just too much going on. I should not have taken responsibility for a second house a year after diving into a huge rehab project of my own. Some people manage this type of thing well, although exactly how remains something of a mystery to me. Having a partner to do it with, I assume, helps enormously—but that’s a lot of pressure to put on a relationship if you’re not both 1,000% into doing this kind of work. We weren’t. And soon we were done, and I was alone—two dogs, two houses, and a single, unreliable and variable income.
Things started out, by most standards on a project like this, fairly well. I tackled the exterior first, in large part to signal to the neighborhood that things were changing for this little eyesore and community hazard. That went mostly well, although we ran out of cooperative weather. We gutted the interior, too, which normally I’d consider overkill but the house had undergone at least one previous renovation and there was next to nothing worth preserving. We re-framed every interior wall according to plans I’d drawn up on the computer, since the layout was also not worth preserving.
Various members of neighborhood were so excited to see something being done, at a very good pace, with this guy—me—at the helm, who really seemed to give a shit. That guy—me—was giving people work. He was friendly with the neighbors, and sympathetic to their understandable dismay over the condition this house had been in for so many years. He’d chat with Miss Margaret from next door while she waited for her ride over to the grocery store or the doctor, and programmed his number into her flip phone with instructions to call if she ever needed anything (she did, once, and he was there in minutes). The pastor of the church down the street was ecstatic about the progress, and soon one of her volunteers was walking through the house, dreaming of buying it and starting her family there when the renovation was complete. One of the owners of the owner-occupied house had her sister by—she was getting older and looking to downsize and be closer to family; it was a perfect fit. The guy who lived below Miss Margaret allowed us the use of his hose at no charge, since there was no running water on site. Someone started dropping off pies from the grocery store—cherry, blueberry, apple—on the front stoop with notes of encouragement.
And then, as quickly as work began, it halted.
I screwed up in myriad ways. I thought I could manage a rag-tag crew who desperately needed the work, and I could not. I placed trust where I absolutely shouldn’t have. I naively put myself, my investment, and my things at risk—luckily, only the things saw any lasting consequences, although having various expensive items you rely on for your livelihood stolen by people you trusted even briefly is a real punch to the gut.
I thought I could make the blog thing work, but I couldn’t. Not at the time, anyway. I didn’t figure out how to make the time to actually create the content that would further increase the traffic that would drive the sponsors that would make the money. I’ve never been a professional blogger and I was, basically, flying by the seat of my pants. I should have asked for help. I should have done…something. I didn’t know where to start, or what kind of help to even enlist. Just having decent site traffic does not a living income make.
Worst of all—and impossible to admit at the time, but easier to stomach now—was that, frankly, I didn’t even really know how to renovate this house. I thought I did. The basic strokes, sure. But let’s remember: I have no formal training in this stuff. I’m self-taught. I was young, and had never taken on an entire home rehab like this—not even my own house qualifies, which I’d barely scratched the surface of anyway. And now I had a completely gutted shell I had to put back together, and I had a really hard time wrapping my mind around all the many, many ins and outs of making that happen. This is, in part, evidenced by my initial design decisions, wherein I didn’t include any plumbing chases despite plopping a bathroom in the center of the second floor. Or thought we’d heat the house with a forced air system, in spite of having no space for ducts or air handlers.
There was a leak in the gas line that took the utility company 8 months to repair because of the winter and the frozen ground. Somehow at the time I couldn’t fathom a way around that—the house was freezing cold, and without a heat system (which will run on the gas), there wasn’t really any reason to move forward with a plumbing rough in, and without that I really shouldn’t have the electricians in, either, and both of those things would hold up insulation and finishing work, and really the flooring should go in between the heat system rough and actually installing the radiators, since I can’t install flooring AROUND a cast iron radiator. And OH RIGHT now I have to source and procure a house-worth of cast iron radiators because I simply will not do baseboard radiators and the fact that forced air isn’t really an option is news to me, and this will hold up the plumbing rough-in because they need to know how big each radiator is to get the pipes in the right place.
So I read up on sizing cast iron radiators (there’s science and math there, it’s not just whatever fits the space best) and gathered them from far and wide. Two came, actually, from a reader. One came from my house. A couple came salvaged. The plumber who was going to do the work disappeared. The house was freezing. My relationship was ending. I was failing at the blog stuff. And this block of time—during which I thought I was going to be working on this house and, hopefully, recouping the money I had into it—was quickly expiring. And I had a shell. With an unfinished exterior, nothing but framing inside, and a collection of antique radiators with no plumber to make them actually do anything.
This entire plan, essentially, hinged on everything going basically right. On me knowing what to do when they didn’t. And it didn’t go right. And I continued to not know. While I had the financing available to renovate the house, I wasn’t making nearly enough to live off of while I did that. And girl’s gotta eat. And pay bills. Adult things. So I took a little freelance job that spring, thinking with the weather back on my side I could totally do this freelance house, continue the more pressing work on my own house, and really dive back into Bluestone. At the very least, I’d make myself a little bit of money from the gig, and at least be able to support my shit through the next phase of work.
That little freelance job turned into the beast that was Olivebridge Cottage.* It was a job we’d budgeted 8 weeks for, and when all was said and done it took almost two years of my life and resulted in, essentially, a brand new house that I was responsible for designing and building. The workload was immense, the pay was not enough, and it took over my life. Finding the time to blog regularly was incredibly hard, and site traffic steadily decreased accordingly. Hell, finding the time for much of anything was incredibly hard—work at my own crazy house slowed to a stand-still, and any illusions I had about being able to work on Bluestone at the same time as this gargantuan project were sorely misplaced. It’s a time thing and a logistical thing and an energy thing. Not enough hours in the day. Various tools are at another jobsite. No energy, mental or physical, to put in long hours at two construction sites everyday. So it sat. And it sat. And it sat.
*The Olivebridge project will come back around on the blog at some point. For now, the owners have respectfully asked me to take down posts about the house, lest it’s unclear to somebody reading about it that all the many problems we uncovered were resolved. I don’t necessarily share the concern but I do respect their wishes—it is their house, and they shouldn’t have to feel uncomfortable with what’s out there about it. Blogging is still not my full-time job, and those posts in particular take hours upon hours to put together—which is the same time I have to write other posts that, basically, I’d rather be writing.
One of the other condemned houses got picked up for pennies at auction. In short order all the exterior rot was inelegantly covered in aluminum flashing, some work was undertaken on the inside, a For Rent sign went up in the window, and the newest absentee landlord on the block began collecting his rent checks. And I can’t even say a damn thing about it, because my piece of the block is still just sitting there, waiting. An empty shell.
Eventually, a plumber was successfully enlisted to perform the work of the rough-in. A deposit of 50% on the single biggest line item in the budget was handed over. It should have taken a week, tops. The first day got cut off by some emergency call, if memory serves, but it went well. The next day, he’d be back. That day turned into a week. Which turned into a month. Which eventually turned into 14 months of hounding, and them coming for a few hours, followed by more weeks or months of hounding, until the rough plumbing work was mostly complete and able to be inspected. Then he was unceremoniously let go. That piece of shit.
On the bright side, I love the new plumber. So there’s that.
I didn’t leave the Olivebridge project with a lot in my pocket, and at the tail end of it I all but destroyed my house in a fit of pent-up I-MUST-MAKE-SOME-PROGRESS-ON-THIS-HOVEL-BEFORE-I-LOSE-MY-MIND—another hideous error in judgment and delusion about how much I can pile on in a given period of time, not to mention the money it cost. Olivebridge was brutal. Then what I did to my house was brutal. What this did to my depression-prone brain was brutal. Plumber at Bluestone still being a garbage human. No progress over there. Everything was terrible, and I felt so stuck.
I’ve talked before about the anxiety-avoidance cycle I’m prone to fall into if I’m not careful. And it happened with Bluestone. How it starts:
I begin to look away when I drive by it. I don’t go over nearly enough to tend to the yard, where the weeds grow increasingly thick and tall. I don’t like to go inside, so I don’t. When I walk over, the neighbors ask where I’ve been, or what’s going on, and my answers are unsatisfying at best. I don’t know what to tell them. The time has gotten away from me. And I don’t really know what’s going on.
The guy who used to drop off pies drops notes instead, asking me to call him. He wants to buy it—not even in a predatory way, just in a let-me-take-it-from-here kind of way. He’s disappointed but kind. Everybody is disappointed but kind, really. I tell him honestly how much money has gone into the house, which doesn’t surprise him but does make the price rather high on a property that no bank would approve a loan for. It breaks my heart that I don’t even know what I’d do if he came to me with a check. I don’t want to abandon this project but I also wish it would go away.
I stop by less and less frequently. I look away more and more. My own house still feels terrible. That house, sitting down there, feels like death. It gets broken into during the winter, but I don’t find out until months later from the landlord next door. He is inexplicably nice to me. I would not be this nice to me—not even close. He tells me a lot of people were in the house. He and his son re-secured it so it wouldn’t happen again. He was surprised I didn’t know. Inside, a small fire had been set in a cast iron sink I’d set aside years before—with so much optimism—for the half-bathroom. They’d used lath as kindling. The sink was destroyed but nothing else—a miracle I don’t think is appropriate to describe as “small.”
It was devastating. Imagine if something happened. I sobbed. I felt sick. I’m precisely the problem I set out to solve. It’s a dark, dark feeling. The worst that I’ve ever felt about anything in my life, I’m pretty sure. Every part of me felt awful. And by association, so did Bluestone. It became the physical embodiment of Daniel, The Spectacular Failure. And it’s right. fucking. there. Inescapable. Unavoidable.
Miss Margaret died. I found out from the guy who let us use his hose. I’m quite sure seeing the house next door to her apartment get renovated was not her dying wish, but that she never got to see it reborn still makes me sad. The pastor has moved away, and her volunteer with dreams of a family did buy a house, somewhere else in town, where she now lives with her husband and their new baby. I get the sense she dislikes me now when we pass each other in the grocery store and whatnot, but I could be projecting. Or I could be right, and frankly, she has every right to. Even Methodists have their limits.
The third condemned house sold, a large Victorian divided a few decades ago into four apartments. Now, it will again be four apartments, just altered. They slapped a coat of paint on it, ripped out all the windows, ignored clear structural deficiencies, enclosed a porch, tossed the radiators, and removed the rafter ties so the second floor could be vaulted all the way into the attic space—so basically the roof might collapse with a heavy snowload now. The owner is an “artist” who lives…somewhere else. And, once again, I can’t say a goddamn thing about it, because at their pace he’ll be collecting rent checks before Bluestone has a working toilet, let alone a certificate of occupancy. And it’s my fault.
A year ago, I wrote this post. I wanted 2018 to be better than the prior few years. I needed it to. I needed to figure out how to get myself out of this mess and this cycle—of taking on freelance work I don’t necessarily even want that overtakes my life, of deluding myself into thinking I can do it all at once, of allowing this project—now a hazard unto itself—to get pushed off again and again.
I didn’t solve all my problems in the space of a year. But I was better. I know I was better, in ways measurable and not. I wrapped up one big freelance job, did another, and started a third that didn’t require as much of my time (still far more than I expected and/or quoted for, but that’s a whole other story). I asked for help with managing the blog stuff and, briefly, got some (although that’s also a whole other story, but I’m giving myself some credit for trying). I got my hair cut 10 times, and even though I missed two appointments it was still a personal record. That’s neither here nor there, but it was a 2018 resolution so I’m inclined to mention it.
Mostly, I hunkered the fuck down. I worked my ass off, from winter to spring to summer to fall and back to winter.
The lion’s share of this ass-that-got-worked-off, admittedly, was closer to home. Specifically, at home. It was a big year for my house—essentially, one of rebuilding. At the start of the year, it felt like ruins. Various spaces were gutted. No laundry. No kitchen. No pantry. Not enough heat. Incomplete exterior work. And just a phenomenal mess—too much stuff in too few rooms, disorganized, and plain dirty. There wasn’t really a choice but to roll up my sleeves and step up my game, so I did. I worked, and worked, and worked, and worked. I reacquainted myself with my own things, trying to remember what I’d loved and valued about them before they became dusty obstacles cluttering my life. I cleaned. I rearranged. I spread out—which sounds weird, since I live here alone, but I still catch myself feeling like this space isn’t entirely mine. Like I have to keep myself contained, small, hidden. I made hundreds of lists. Did I mention I worked a lot? And slowly, but not that slowly all things considered, it started getting better. Creating a laundry space made it easier to really care for my stuff again. Getting the kitchen to a point of basic functionality allowed me to reclaim my living and dining spaces and actually start cooking again. I made some solid progress in the backyard, and spent months wrapping up the restoration of the south and east sides of the house. I constantly had to remind myself that big progress can only be accomplished through a thousand small steps—like building a stone wall, there’s no shortcut. You just have to keep stacking stones on top of other stones. As it happens I also built some stone walls and the metaphor was never far from my mind. That’s all any of it is, really—stacking stones, one by one, on top of other stones until something satisfying emerges.
I got a lot done. I didn’t get Bluestone done, but did get the electrical roughed in, which is another big step toward completion. I took better care of the yard. I stopped turning away when I drove by. I began—for the first time in a long time—to allow myself to think about finishing materials and how I want this house to actually look and feel. It’s looked and felt so bad for so long, but having a clearer picture of the end goal helps.
Something happened several months ago that you may have picked up on, which is that Lowe’s came a-knockin’ with a proposal, basically to do various sponsored projects over the course of several months. While I’ve worked with different brands on sponsored content in the past, I’ve never done anything more than a one-off kind of project—which has always been part of the challenge with monetizing blogging for me, because I might do one sponsored thing and get a decent little paycheck, but I can’t play financial roulette and turn down non-blog work and risk that there may not be a next sponsored thing with a decent little paycheck, so freelance work just ends up feeling more like a sure thing. The trade-off is that it keeps me away from things I’d rather be working on, including working on blog posts and responding to emails from potential sponsors that might make the blog thing actually sustainable. This is why I need help.
But this was Lowe’s—a team of people I’ve worked with on and off in the past, with a retailer that I probably spend the most time and money at of any other in my life (I have the Lowe’s/Synchrony credit card debt to prove it, folks!). I couldn’t ask for a more perfect fit. The way this works—both normally and in this situation—is that the content creator (that’s me!) pitches ideas to the sponsoring brand, they select their favorite ideas and the ones that align best with their budgets and editorial goals, and then I tell them the supplies I need to get it done and those materials are provided. I get paid both in the form of materials (which typically are either things I’d be purchasing anyway, or at least want to) and in the form of actual money for my time doing the project and producing the post and, of course, promoting it through this dog and pony show you see before you.
Anyway. I entered into this agreement with both trepidation and intention. I’ll come back to the intention part. Trepidation for two reasons: whether I was truly up to the task I thought and Lowe’s seemed to think I was up to (I’m trying to be more careful with my commitments, like I said!), and how it would go over with you, my DEAR READER. Because I like you (at least, I assume I do) and of course I want you to like me, and trust that I’m being honest with you, BECAUSE I AM, and this kind of sponsored set-up was a real departure from how I’ve been bopping around in this world for the past 8+ years. Because I know sponsored content is lame sometimes. I’ve skipped over it on other blogs, too. See how cool and relatable I am? I know right.
I think there’s an impression that when bloggers do sponsored content, it’s less real than their un-sponsored content. Or that the blogger is, like, greedily raking in the dollars for putting some dumb thing in their house and taking some photos of it. And while I’m not saying those things don’t happen, I can say this: these projects have been intense. In part because there are still various other things going on in my life, but in part just because all of these sponsored projects have been a ton of work. These bloggers that do this stuff on the reg and still manage 5 posts a week? I literally don’t know how they do it. In typical fashion, I way overshot on pretty much every single project—committing myself to more work than time really should have allowed for, and honestly more than was really necessary to pack into ONE blog post. Even after all this time, I still find it very difficult to predict how a post will actually pan out until I’m writing it, and I worry about it not being enough…and the idea always sounds like less work than it is. Always. Every time. And I wanted to do a really good job. I don’t know what the future holds for that partnership in particular—I would love for it to continue—but either way it’s been an invaluable insight into what pro blogging might look like for me. I’m not really an affiliate-link-the-shit-out-of-everything-on-Wayfair kinda guy, if you haven’t noticed.
The intention part was basically this: that this opportunity, at least for these few months, is maybe the beginning of me crawling out of this tangle of weeds. That this enables me to work on the projects I want/need to work on (BLUESTONE), and provide some stable income so I can, actually, pivot energy and attention onto this blog. Essentially, all I’m saying is the thing we kind of know to be true but forget: that the sponsored content isn’t just the sponsored content; it also supports the un-sponsored content. It’s a huge thing I’ve had a hard time totally grasping for myself all these years (no trouble understanding it for anyone else—what’s with that?), because I feel like I “should” be blogging more simply because I like it—but liking it or not liking it has never been the issue. The issue has always been the time it takes vs. the time I have because I’m wrapped up in all this other stuff.
(OK, sometimes I get dark and spooky and exceptionally anxious for weeks or months that the whole world hates me, and then I also don’t tend to blog. But usually it’s the other thing.)
So. I’m learning how to do this. It’s challenging, but a good kind of challenge. The kind of challenge I actually want.
Many of the projects I proposed were for Bluestone. The projects were selected and approved over time, not all at once, so it was a little hard to predict where I’d be headed next. A couple of projects I initially wanted for Bluestone, but my house ended up being the more practical or reasonable option for various reasons. AND THEN.
Lowe’s approved the Bluestone basement. The basement laundry room! Which is the whole basement, by the way. At first I was like…well that’s a weird way to start this renovation, but it’s actually kind of perfect? It gets me back in there. It’s subterranean, and 200 square feet, and a great little winter project I can do myself with a propane heater and the right supplies. It also started as the most disgusting, terrifying little space, so that makes any improvement feel extra good. Taking on this project prompted me have some of the bad work from the old plumber fixed—just sloppy stuff I probably would have ignored and then regretted ignoring down the line—which lead to wrapping up the un-done work upstairs, and that feels so much better. The electricians also returned for some outstanding items we didn’t need to pass inspection but should have been done. And it’s starting to look like something down there—like something rather nice.
It’s been a very long time since I spent this much time in this little eyesore o’ mine—since the beginning of it all, really. And it’s kind of a strange thing, to go back to a place that you never really left, but look at it with fresh eyes. Look at yourself with fresh eyes. I’m different than I was when I was 24 and had this bad idea. As much as I’ve groaned about this job and that job and stuff I did in my own renovation that made Bluestone feel impossible to really work on, I also learned what I think neuroscientists refer to as a fuckton through those experiences. They have all felt challenging because they were really fucking challenging. And that’s how trial by fire feels. That’s how learning the hard way feels.
And this, I think, is how moving forward feels. I don’t know how to resolve my guilt over the neighbors and probably the answer is that I don’t need to. I can apologize. I can feel guilty about what’s happened because what’s happened has been shitty. I can, at the same time, do what needs to be done to make the future different. And better. I know how to do this now. I’ve done it before—not this exact task, but I’ve done a lot. And I keep doing stuff, and I keep learning stuff, and I am—as of this writing—more capable than I have ever been before of taking this on. You probably are, too, with whatever thing you might have going on. Think about it! Tomorrow, you’ll be more capable. Because we are learning beings that, in spite of our flaws, have made it this fucking far.
One foot in front of the other. One stone on top of the next. That’s all any of it is.