Four years ago, on a sunny day in June 2011, Sarah and I bought our house. She was three months pregnant with our son Derek. I changed the locks still wearing my dress shirt and pants. We had just sunk a large portion of our savings into a moldy two flat that smelled so bad that just walking through it made you want to take a shower. Everything was sticky, as in everything. You couldn’t touch a door knob, a wall, a bit of trim, or the floor without feeling like you were contaminated by roach droppings and a pervasive, cloying, humid funk.

Our inspector had told us that he would normally recommend not to buy this house, but we seemed like we knew what we were getting into. Before we bought this house, I had never seen an actual rats nest. I’d never used a shop vac to suck them out of wall cavities, or dug them out of the dirt under a concrete floor or had to dispose of a rat carcass. I’d never pulled back a piece of trim and had to stand back so I didn’t breath in the shower of dead roaches that fell out. In that sense, I’m not sure that we did know what we were getting into. We didn’t know how much having two kids would complicate home improvement. Most importantly, we didn’t understand that knowing what needs to be done is not the same things as knowing how long it takes to do it.

The past four years we’ve learned a lot, done a lot, spent a lot, and we have a long way yet to go. Going in we hoped this would be roughly a five-year project, but I think we’re only about 25% done. If we want the remaining three-quarters to take less than twelve years, we’ll have to hire out a fair bit of what’s left. Even so I’m sure we’ll be working on this thing for a long time yet, but I also hope that our current basement plan helps us get the inside of the house to a (mostly) completed state in the next couple years. As daunting as what’s ahead is, keeping the goal in mind keeps us going. It also helps to remind ourselves how much we’ve already done.

We’ve removed about 75 tons of material from the house, no small part of which was rats nests, roach bodies, and layers on layers of laminate flooring. By weight, most of it was concrete and dirt with a fair amount of plaster, but in there was a purging of all the awfulness that the house embodied when we bought it. The house was cleansed, not just in the literal sense, but in a spiritual sense. While it’s still ugly on the outside, with its cheap vinyl siding (over cement-asbestos siding over wood siding), Picasso-inspired window flashing and comically bad roof, it’s slowly become ours. We demoed the whole basement and first floor, ripped out the raised cinder block garden in the back yard, took down the chimney brick by brick, tore down the old back porch and garage are gone, and dug down the basement.


Structurally, we have a new steel support beam and columns in the basement on new concrete footings and we have a new LVL beam and columns in the first floor. The first floor has a new level subfloor and is completely framed, including new doors and windows and a front staircase. Mechanically, we have a new high-efficiency water heater and boiler and the start of a new hydronic heating system. We have new electrical service and panel and new wiring and lighting in the basement.

The next big step is new sewer and supply and an interior weeping system so we can get the new basement floor poured. Once that’s done we’ll focus on getting the basement livable: bathroom, temporary kitchen, stairs, and walls. We can move down to the basement and demo the whole second floor. This is our goal for the next six months. It’s ambitious, and historically we haven’t made our deadlines, especially the ambitious ones. Worse, we haven’t gotten much done the last few weeks; it’s so easy to lose momentum. We’re going to try just the same, and I really hope we can do it. We wouldn’t have gotten this far without the extraordinary help of our family and friends, and knowing how much effort they’ve put into our project, how much they’ve given us, makes me all the more committed to seeing it done.

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One Response to Marking Time

  1. Sarah says:

    Can I just say, thank you for your honesty. There is so much hype about a quick renovation, and flip sales, that it is easy to forget that with a young family involved, and all the expenses, plus working, it is really a long term project for most of us. Thanks for the reality check!

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