House from Street House Model Exterior

“What are you doing?”

For anyone visiting for the first time or if you just want a succinct overview of what we’re trying to accomplish, this is it. Sarah and I bought a two flat in Logan Square, a neighborhood of Chicago. It was built in 1896 and over the 115 years prior to us buying it, had gotten into pretty bad shape. We’re fixing it up and turning it into a big single family home, doing most of the work ourselves and with the help of friends and family. We’re gutting everything down to studs and building a beautiful new home.

Before I tell you what what we’re doing, let me tell you what we started with. When we bought the house it was full of cockroaches and rats. The kitchen cabinets were molding and rotting away, the toilets weren’t attached, and the whole house stank of animal urine and mold. The previous tenants were hoarders and they had giant fish tanks, which meant the humidity caused mold everywhere. Sagging floors, leaking roof, moldy basement, and rotting structure. The rats had made nests everywhere and chewed through studs. Nearly everything that had been done to the house by the previous owner was done cheaply, incorrectly, or both. The new windows were the wrong size, they leak, and many were broken. There vinyl siding lets water in, the roof was redone recently in hilariously wrong fashion, and the newer garage was amateurishly expanded.

“Why did you buy this place?”

We bought the cheapest house in the area. It’s a beautiful neighborhood that’s full of cool shopping and restaurants, big trees line the streets, the neighbors are friendly, it’s close to the train (both the El and the Metra), it’s fifteen minutes from downtown, and an easy train ride to get to O’Hare Airport. The freeway is about a mile away, so it’s just situated really well. The house has ten foot ceilings on both floors, a full basement, a decent-sized lot and yard, and did I mention it was cheap? In the year before we bought it only one house sold for less in the area and it was less than half the size.

After the housing crash we realized we can’t depend on appreciation to increase the value of our home. We didn’t want to float a huge loan and couldn’t afford a really nice house, and we figured the best way to have a nice home to live in and raise a family in was to just build it ourselves. Buying a duplex works well because you can live in it while you remodel it and still have a working kitchen. We’d watched a lot of home improvement shows and decided that we could do it too. We’d both done smaller projects in the past, our condo is small, and kids were on the way, so with interest rates so low we figured it was time to take the plunge.

“What’s the plan?”

It’s a monumental undertaking for us, and bigger than anything we’ve done before. In order to wrap our heads around it, we’re breaking the project into phases. Here’s the game plan:

Phase 1: Make it livable – We bought the house, now where do we start? The plan is to move into the upstairs, but before we can do that we need to make the house livable. This phase encompasses everything we need to do in order to move in. Everything we’re doing is temporary, so the focus is on cheap, quick, and fast. The sooner we can move into the second floor, the sooner we can rent out our condo and not pay two mortgages.

Phase 2: Sweat Equity –  In the second phase we do all our planning and preparation. We gut the basement apartment so we can figure out the structural issues, figure out a floor plan that we like, and then get an architect to put together drawings and plans for the new house. We select the contractors we need and get our permits. Then we demolish the first floor, removing all the plaster and lath and taking up the floors. We tear down walls, put in new windows and exterior doors, replace the beam in the basement and the bearing wall on the first floor so that we can open up the floor plan. We install a new boiler and hot water heater so we can remove the old chimney, replace the subfloor, the stairs, and frame new walls. Then we clear out the basement, demo the garage and the back porch, and dig down the basement to gain 8″ of ceiling height. Then we can update all the underground plumbing (sewer and supply), put in drainage and pour a new radiant-heated slab. We’ll frame the basement walls and stairs, and once we have a working bathroom down there we move from the second floor down into the basement.

Phase 3: Contractors – There’s a time crunch, since we’ll be living in the basement. We demo the entire second floor, remove the “bump out” on the side of the house, and replace the second floor windows, subfloor, sister new ceiling joists for the attic floor, and frame the new walls. Then contractors take over for a bit to put the whole project on fast forward. They’ll install the ducting, plumbing, and electrical throughout the house, build the new front porch, replace the roof and siding, and spray foam the exterior walls. The first and second floors get drywalled and the bathrooms and kitchen cabinets and fixtures are installed. We’ll also have them build the new back porch and garage. We’ll finally be able to live on both floors of the house!

Phase 4: Finishing – With the contractors done, we’ll still have a lot to do. We’ll finish the attic and the basement, install trim and molding throughout the house (and a coffered ceiling in the first floor), tile the bathrooms and kitchen backsplash, do all the landscaping, and generally put the finishing touches on the house.

That’s it in a nutshell. A lot of the bits and pieces are glossed over, but that covers the essentials. Things will probably get mixed up and changed as it makes sense. We’ve already rearranged things a few times as we go, and this plan is not the same one we started with. The nice thing is that we won’t wind up living without a kitchen or a bathroom because it’s a two flat. There are problems, though, like temporary radiators on the second floor, moving the water heater while we dig out the basement, and everything taking longer and costing more than we’d hoped. We’ll figure it out. We were initially hoping we could pull this whole thing off in five or six years, but between having two kids, Sarah going to grad school, and life in general, it may be more like ten.

“How far along are you?”

We got moved in (Phase 1) in August 2011, after a couple months of work. We completed Phase 2 five long years later in August of 2016. As of September 2016, we’re living in the basement and starting on Phase 3, where we’ll demo and re-frame the second floor.


6 Responses to The Plan

  1. Iain says:

    Just wanted to say I loved your blog, you are doing some great work.

    I am doing a similar thing to you but not quite the same scale!

    I am trying to add 260 square feet to my single story house which means removing part of the roof and a bay window etc. This is my blog…

  2. Matt says:

    Glad you’re enjoying it and good luck with your own project! I’ll check out your page.

  3. Carl Wiberg says:

    Hi Matt

    Have been reading through your blog for some time now and I am thoroughly impressed by the work you and Sarah are doing!

    Me and my wife recently bought an old 2 flat in Logan Square (from 1896 also, coincidentally) and will embark on a similar journey to yours. It would be very interesting to see in person all the work you have put in and the results! Not sure if you would be open to meeting? Either which way we’ll keep following your progress on the blog for inspiration!


  4. Adam Fryer says:

    Hi Matt,

    I too will be converting an old two flat to single family in the near future. I’ve rehabbed two flats in the past, but never into a single family. This blog has been priceless to read. One of the few things I’ve never done but will need to do in this new rehab is excavate the basement. Do you have a rough estimate of the cost of excavating the basement (including the cost of the retaining wall, sump pumps, new water service, moving of gas/electrical/water/boiler and cement floor – but excluding all finishings like plumbing, flooring, framing, dry wall, etc.). This is my biggest concern from a budget standpoint as I can see this cost adding up very quickly.

    Thanks, Adam

  5. Matt says:

    The basement excavation was easily the most expensive thing we did. One thing to consider is the beam and columns, assuming you’ve got one. We had to excavate new column footings and replace the wood with steel. The quotes I got for that started at 15K and went up from there. We wound up doing it ourselves for about $2,500. The excavation quote we got, which included the floor, the weeping system, insulation, etc, was 35K. We did everything but the concrete ourselves and paid less than 8. The plumbing is the biggest line item we actually had to pay out, but they included all the finishing work. Our water main is on the opposite side of the street, so the new supply line, relined sewer, canceled catch basin, ejector pit, and new interior work came to $33.5K. Then the city said we had a damaged sewer connection that we had to repair for another 10K. If we hadn’t gotten the sewer relined and instead had run PVC above the floor and tied into the existing sewer, we had a different company quote that at 23K, plus 25K for the new supply.

    Best of luck!

  6. Robert says:

    I hope you had a one way valve put on the sewer line to keep the cities problems out of your house.
    thank god for freedom. I have no need for permits, inspections, or city headaches. Mine didn’t have bathroom fixtures, stairs, central air, or even a front door.
    The hardest part was the stairs, with steel I-beams construction, finding a path to run them. Finally had to take away part of the kids bedroom, so his 32ft x 29 ft room had to give up 6ft for stairs and hallway. Ran stairs next to I-beam using 2ft of garage for hallway.
    I picked up a single wide mobile home parked it 200 feet from house, and lived in it as I fixed it up.
    I don’t know how you financed yours, must have been before dodd frank law. I had to pay cash, banks wouldn’t even take cash as collateral on loan. Imagine my shock that it cost me $200 for closing costs to buy house. There is your ripoff when buying houses with a mortgage.
    Next year i’m doing brick siding and elevator shaft for my old age.

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