My last basement dig out post was June 3rd. With the dumpsters and excavator gone we stalled out and decided just to hire the rest out. The concrete contractors we talked to gave us some very reasonable quotes and we were just waiting for the plumbers to get back to us. We finally got a couple plumbing quotes, but they’re really, really expensive.

We’re basically looking for three things from the plumbers: (1) replace the old clay sewer line under the basement floor with an overhead system plus rough-in for the basement bathroom and floor drains to an ejector pit, (2) replace the old lead water service with a new copper line, and (3) install an interior weeping system (aka drain tile) with a sump pit. The new water line in particular involves either excavating pits and horizontal boring or a trench across the yard and the street, so it’s the biggest line item, but the sewer work is pretty pricey too.

We’re going to try and get another couple quotes in hopes of a less expensive option, but time is getting short to get this work done before the cold weather sets in. In the mean time, we’re going to tackle the weeping system ourselves. While it’s the least expensive item on the list, it’s the only one we can realistically do. Even though it  won’t bring the plumbing costs down by a lot, we’ve got to do everything we can if we want to move forward.

Before we can put in the weeping system we need to level the subsoil in the basement. When we dug out the basement with the mini-excavator, our limited experience meant the end result wasn’t what you’d call perfectly smooth. Because it’s all clay, making it flat is extremely labor intensive. We’d held off leveling it until we’d talked to the plumbers because we weren’t sure if they were going to have to dig up the existing sewer and water lines. Now we know that’s not the case and we can get started. They’ll only need to dig a hole in the front corner, and over by the soil stack.

Not level

Not level

The first step was to dig out the corners where we couldn’t get the excavator in close, then go around with a pressure washer and clean up the stone footings. Once everything was cleaned up I used the laser level to measure how close to level the subsoil is. I started working from the front bay window toward the back of the house, focusing on one four foot square at a time. I quickly discovered there’s a gradient of clay consistency from one side of the house to the other, requiring different techniques to level out.

Level line

Level line

On the North side of the house the hard-packed clay is the consistency of old, dried fudge. It’s so dense you can’t slice a shovel through it and I have to use the mattock to chip it away. As I move to the other side, it gets gradually softer, which is why a lot of that side is actually dug too deep. So, I take all the clay shavings from the one side and dump them on the other, then use a block of wood and a hand-held sledge hammer to pound it flat. I thought about using a plate compactor or a lawn roller, but everywhere I need to compact the clay it’s sticky and would make a huge mess. As much as I don’t want to do it all by hand, it’s probably the only way. I drew a line on both the shovel and my block of wood to check my progress as I went, as well as a longer board that I could use to check larger areas. Basically, everything needs to be 6″ below the laser line.

Progress is very slow. I often find myself adding up square footage in my head and breaking it down into percentages, since while the digging is physically hard and time consuming, it’s also mind numbing. Each 4×4 section is averaging me nearly half an hour. I’ve only done about 300 square feet so far, to the back of the first column footing, but just that has been a huge pain over several days.

I’m planning to get the leveling finished over the long weekend, but there’s a lot more work to the weeping system. My hope is that by doing this portion ourselves, we can save enough money to still move forward with the basement this year. After getting excited about our reinvigorated timeline, I don’t want to get derailed out of the gate.

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Original window

We bought our new basement windows over six months ago, and I’m finally getting around to installing them. When we bought the house, one of the very first orders of business was securing the exterior from rats, weather, and intruders. The two windows on either side of the bay in the basement were in terrible shape so we just boarded them up and they stayed that way until we had the tuckpointing done. We had the tuckpointers put in new concrete sills on the bay windows, but on the two sides we still needed to replace the lintels and add a tier of bricks to either side.

Dean came over and helped me mortar in the bricks on either side of the windows and position the new lintel. There’s no brick above the lintels, since the windows are at the top of the basement wall, but there is a floor joist that rests on the middle of the window, so I wanted to make sure it was supported by more than the buck.

Dean brick laying

Dean brick laying

Because we added the bricks, the already not 100% square opening was made less so, so when it came time to build the bucks we wound doing a lot of careful measuring and shimming. The finished openings were a bit smaller than anticipated and I had to make the sides of the bucks out of 1″ instead of 2″ pressure treated lumber. I secured it to the brick with Tapcons and filled the gaps with backer rod, sill insulation, and canned spray foam.

The windows are Newtec R-5 triple pane. We chose casements for the sides so we can direct airflow into the basement. The center window will be a fixed picture window. They’re vinyl, unlike the fiberglass windows we put in the first floor, but they perform better and cost a lot less. The basement windows aren’t especially large, so I’m not too concerned with the vinyl expanding and separating from the glass.

After Dean helped me install the first buck and window last weekend, I installed the one on the other side of the bay on Wednesday and got everything caulked and sealed. I missed one spot on the right window with the Great Stuff that I’ll catch when I’m doing the next one. For now we’re not installing the middle bay window so the opening can be used by plumbers and concrete guys. I’m planning to switch to 2×8 bucks instead of 2×6 for the remaining windows so that they will be flush with the inside of the wall, which will simplify framing and trim later.

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When we switched to doing things The Right Way™ a big part of the reasoning was that it would simplify the project and save time. By moving into the basement we would be able to completely demo the second floor in one step, and nearly all the work done by contractors could be done at the same time. That last part will translate into some cost and time savings, but it has the unfortunate side effect of putting all the big-ticket items into one big chunk. We’ve paid for the project out-of-pocket so far, but we’re looking at a rapid succession of plumbing, electrical, HVAC, spray foam, new roof, drywall, hardwood floors, cabinets, and appliances. Simply put, it’s not in the budget. At the same time, we’re at the point where we want to get the project finished and not spend the next twelve years picking away at it.

The other option is to take out a loan. While these big-ticket items are a year or more out, we’re also looking at some big expenses with the basement, so I figured if we’re going to have to take out a loan anyway, why not just get it now? I looked into a Home Equity Line of Credit (HELOC), but after talking to lenders it seems the only way to borrow against the house is if it doesn’t need any work done. So I found a second option, a HomeStyle loan (which sounds like a breakfast side), where they appraise the house based on the completed state and pay out as inspections verify the work. That sounds like it would work for us, but there’s a couple catches. While it’s possible to get a HomeStyle loan that allows you to do the work yourself, most of them want contractors lined up and ready to go. Because it’s based on the completed state, the house has to actually be complete when they’re done, and finally, the process can’t take more than seven months. With all the work we’re still planning to do ourselves, there’s no way we could get the whole house done in that time.

Instead we came up with a modified approach. We’ll pay for the basement work out-of-pocket, as well as the demo, framing, and windows on the second floor. When that’s all done and we’re to the point where all those previously mentioned big-ticket items are looming, we take out the loan and get everything else done. We’d leave the attic and basement unfinished, as well as a lot of the trim and finishing work, but the rest of the house would need to be livable, meaning drywall, bathrooms, and kitchen. In fact, while we’re at it we’re hoping to get a few other big-ticket things done too, like the front and back porches, the siding, and the garage. The result is that the project gets put on fast forward.

We have a lot of things to figure out to make this happen, and a lot of work to do before, during, and after this process, but the idea that we might be able to get the house so much further along so quickly (relatively) is exciting, even if it means we’ll have a bigger loan to pay back. If everything goes to plan (caveat: it almost certainly won’t) then we could be living on both floors of the house in just eighteen months. Since we’ve been living in the house for four years already, that’s pretty amazing. Now if I could just get some plumbing quotes, we’ll be on our way!

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For the first part of the year, almost the whole first half, we were going like gangbusters on the house. After we returned the mini-excavator and the last dumpster was hauled away, we kind of ran out of steam. We’d go down to the basement and putter about for a little while, digging up the rest of the disconnected sewer pipe to the catch basin, hauling out some of the remaining dirt piles, breaking up the landing outside the back door, but for the most part, a sense of dread and just being overwhelmed took hold. Digging by hand in the clay soil is just terrible and with our dumpsters gone we didn’t really have anywhere to put it. A series of over-tonnage charges came through on the dumpsters that added up to a lot of extra money. We basically got screwed on the dumpsters and should have gone straight to the hauler instead of using a service.

There were some also simple realities of life going on: our son Derek is going to speech therapy twice a week in the evenings, which occupies a decent chunk of our work time. Until she got a new job a few weeks ago, Sarah was working at a temp job that put a lot of uncertainty into our house budget. As for me, I was just sick of the basement. It’s summer, there are all kinds of things to do, and our weekends were more often than not full of fun activities with friends and family. In short, not much got done on the house.

Now that Sarah’s permanently employed, we’re back to hoping we can move into the basement before winter sets in. The only way that’s happening is if we hire out a big chunk of the work: namely finishing the dig out and pouring the new concrete floor, and the sewer plumbing. So over the last month or so we’ve been in contact with a few concrete contractors, a GC, and a couple of plumbers. We got a couple quotes on the dig out and the floor, as well as the new exterior back steps, but getting a plumbing quote has proven elusive. The GC we met with first said he would give us a quote but he never did, plus a lot of what he said really didn’t align with what I understand code to be, even though he said he knows all the inspectors and does it all the time.

Then we met with a plumber that gave us a whole different idea for how to do the sewer plumbing. We were planning on having our sewer pipe run underground, gravity-fed, with a backflow preventer (since Chicago has a combined storm system and high rain can lead to sewer backups). The plumber told us that the city now has additional requirements for backflow preventers that makes them difficult and expensive, and to instead use an overhead sewer line from the main stack to the front of the house. The basement fixtures would drain into an ejector pit that pumps up to the overhead line. The advantage is that it’s unlikely there would ever be a backup because it’s much higher up, and even if it did it would just back up to the ejector pit. Better still, we could run the whole thing in PVC instead of cast iron (which the City requires for below grade sewer). As a result it would be cheaper as well as a performing better. The disadvantage is we would have a bulkhead along the outside wall, but I think we can make that work. Unfortunately, he also said we’d have to have a trench for the new water main, since the city inspectors want to be able to see that it’s one contiguous pipe.

Unfortunately they still haven’t gotten us a quote, and now they want to come back out next week since their “outside guy” missed the last appointment. Needless to say I haven’t gotten a quote yet. We have another plumber coming out on Saturday morning. Hopefully they’ll both get us quotes; after wasting most of the summer, now we need to get moving on this project, but without quotes we can’t plan or budget.

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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