The road to recovery, and a few FAQ’s

So my last post terrified a few people. That post’s after pictures showed my demolition debris under control, though certainly not gone. I’ve been chipping away at it slowly. I’m also finalizing how to deal with the roof, insulation, electrical, and chimney work. There’s not much to see this update. You may be discouraged. I am too, but I’m inching towards that wonderful phase when everything starts to come together. In the meantime, I’ve regained my bearings and figured out how to move forward. I figure that means this is a good time to answer a few frequently asked questions. After that I have a couple photos to show you of a bit of house history, scary old house problems, and half-assed solutions that I ripped out. If you don’t feel like reading skip to the bottom.


Q: After all this, why didn’t you just knock the house down?

A: Haha. Believe it or not, it’s still costing me less. I’ve dealt with some complications dealing with old materials, and it may have been easier to rip out more and start with a clean slate, but I didn’t want to trash everything. Old houses are built out of dense, old growth wood that is not available today at any price. Bring in a wrecking ball, or start an insurance fire, and you’re not going to end up with something as solid as you started with. Then there’s the woodwork. I have two different styles, but they’re both unusual and I have great old flooring. On the outside, I have all the original marble lintels and window sills. More important than this, my house is narrow, only 14 feet wide. That includes fireproof walls on the property lines, so the living space is only about 13. My stairway and upstairs hall are each about 26 inches wide, or 10 inches narrower than what code requires. Redo them, and you’re legally required to take away 20 precious inches of living space from the dining area, the bathroom, and three closets. That double sink in my bathroom, say goodbye. My upstairs hall is cramped, and it doesn’t meet code, but that non-conforming wall is worth its weight in gold.

Q: Why did you rip all that plaster and stuff out? Couldn’t some of it have stayed in?

A: Probably. But my living room ceiling was three layers thick. There was poorly installed drywall exposed, and original plaster. In between were 12×12 ceiling tiles that remind me of Sunday school classroms, stapled onto wood furring strips. This took a couple inches away from my ceiling height, and I hit my head going up the stairs a few times, so every inch matters. The visible layer of drywall was uneven, and if you pushed on it, it would flex and you’d see little dimples over every nail holding it in because the ceiling tiles underneath are soft. Then the original plaster had some really old water damage (which probably explains the old ceiling tiles), nail holes from the drop ceiling all over it, holes cut in it from all the renovations since the ceiling tiles went in around 1965, and old wallpaper that I’d have to strip off. It was the plaster that made the worst debris, but restoring it would have been a lot of trouble, and covering over it would not maximize head clearance around my stairway. Then, I have some amazing old growth random width pine subflooring upstairs. This was never meant to be a high end floor, but by today’s standards it’s special. Only problem is there are some really bad creaks, so now I can glue plywood to the bottom of it where it creaks, and that will hold things together enough to quiet it down. Also, all this made the electrical work easier. In the kitchen, I’m going to leave the ceiling joists exposed to take advantage of the interesting, handmade materials that went into my old house, and this required ripping out the severely water damaged plaster in there, along with the drywall covering it. In the back bedroom, I tore the ceilings out partly to raise the ceilings.

Q: You’re starting things here and there and making quite a mess. Why don’t you go through the house room by room?

A: My house is over 100 years old. The plumbing that came with the house was rusting away, and the wiring was obsolete. Recent work was done incorrectly, and some of it was spliced into the old wiring without even putting the splices in boxes! I carried pieces of the original cast iron waste pipe out of the house to give it to scrap metal scavengers (an honest, low-wage line of work for which I have a lot of repect) and when I broke the larger segments, they flaked apart. I stand by my decision to get the utilities running through my house into excellent working order; they were at the end of their life cycles. Yes, it was more than I bargained for, but this is not the place to nickel and dime the budget. Then there were the small bedrooms and the tiny, 12 inch deep closets. Turning 3 bedrooms into 2 is going to be a huge improvement, and after I’ve gone through all the expense and aggravation of replacing the plumbing and wiring, it was worth the extra expense to move things around. My next steps are roofing and insulation. Even though the house has had a few water issues in the past, including a leak in the bathroom some 50 years ago and some moisture around a few windows, there wasn’t any mold or anything because the house is extremely drafty. I have to skip around yet again because I want to bring in a professional who will do the insulation right. I don’t want to create moisture problems so I want it all done by professionals who know what they’re doing. And this means doing the whole house at once.

Now my big expenses for this house were the plumbing, the wiring, the roof, and the insulation. The last of these has very generous financing available through the PGW EnergySense program. I was worried for a while because I had previously been enrolled in EnergyWorks, which expires in September,  but now that the gas company took over the program, I’m not going to lose my low interest loan. That means that to a point, I can relax now. I need to fix my chimney and roof, and level the floor in the extremely crooked back bedroom before the insulation can happen. I’m hoping to reinstall the old pine flooring in that back bedroom, so I’m going to be coaxing it out very carefully. This doesn’t mean I’ll succeed, but I’ll let you know how it goes.

Now for the photos: Image

In this photo you can see the floor that needs to go from below. The floorboards run parallel to the joists in this part of the house, which means that those little strips of wood are what’s holding the floor up. It’s a bit creakier and bouncier than in the rest of the house. Then you can see that the floor is cut out where the bathroom used to be, but that there’s water damage beyond it. If I can save this floor, I have to cut it down to remove the damaged parts, buy some more that matches, and then re-lay it over a plywood subfloor. I can get old flooring that’s a good match.

Image

A closeup of my old pine flooring, with some old newspaper stuck to it. A previous owner nailed thin oak strip flooring onto these pine planks, and now I’m planning to trash the oak to use the pine. The newspapers give a clue about the age of the oak. The pine is original to the house, cira 1905.

Image

And to end on a good note, a photo for the workmanship wall of shame. I took out the radiator under this window, and you can see here that the plaster behind it was damaged. Instead of repairing or replacing it, the “contractors” who fixed up the place screwed new drywall right over the awesome but beat up old woodwork. My next door neighbor said that the previous owner never brought in a legitimate contractor but hired crackheads to save money. Things like this make me believe him. This is also why I’m having reproduction woodwork made instead of trying to save what came with the house.

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11 thoughts on “The road to recovery, and a few FAQ’s

  1. Ethan Giller

    Looks awesome, and those wood floors would look incredible if they were refinished (especially if you put in some proper subfloor), but that’s going to be quite the time sink. Do you have a (realistic) ETA for move in? Six months?

    Also, are you keeping the old boiler unit, and radiator heat? If it were me, and all of the walls were exposed, I would run ductwork now. Even if you’re A/C is not in the budget yet, at least put in a new forced air heating system? Maybe this was mentioned before and I missed it.

    Do you have any problems with next door noise from the exposed brick? I was planning to do that with my place only to find out that there was only a *single layer* of brick between the two properties… definitely not up to current code. Ended up putting in sound deadening sheetrock instead.

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    1. chadscrookedhouse Post author

      I can hear the neighbor’s kids every now and then but it doesn’t bother me. My brick walls are pretty thick. My neighbor soundproofed the bedroom wall already, so I’ll call it good enough. The stairway is so narrow that I honestly wouldn’t want to frame the wall in and lose any more space. The floors are only coming up in that one room. On the rest of the second floor they’re really solid (7/8″ thick) and only creaky in a few spots, which I can take care of from below. We’ll see how well they come up in the back bedroom.
      As for the boiler, it’s only 7 years old and all the radiators are in working order, so I was going to keep the cast iron system. The people I know from childhood who have cast iron radiators LOVE them. And with the long windows (which I wouldn’t think of changing) the walls where the radiators are are almost useless anyway. Plus, the walls aren’t as open as you think. The wood framed back bedroom walls don’t give me access to anything; that portion of the room is cantilevered over the back yard. The front end of the living room has a large air space between the plaster and the brick but everywhere else in the house the walls are solid. There are no interior walls below the bathroom that go all the way to the ceiling, so I’d have to build awkward soffits, which would be ugly, or go above the upstairs ceilings, which would be really inefficient. To me the soffits that most rehabbers build to cover ductwork are a deal breaker, even if they throw dozens of can lights all over them.

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  2. Ethan Giller

    I think that if you get a new high efficiency unit it won’t be more expensive to run. Also, removing the radiators will give the rooms a bit more space, and allow you to easily hook up an A/C compressor either now or in the future. There are also some programs through PA (maybe even the one that you’re already using) which offer very good financing rates for that type of upgrade. It would be a $5K hit to your budget, but there’s a good chance you would get that back if/when you sell the house, and it would be cheaper to do it now with everything already open.

    Just something to consider, and one of the major problems with rehabs (well if I’m doing all this work anyway, I might as well just totally ignore my original plan…)

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    1. chadscrookedhouse Post author

      I thought about it. I also thought about getting a high efficiency boiler, but the payback time would be really long, and I can use the financing for insulation and windows, which are far more important to me.

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    1. chadscrookedhouse Post author

      Well once I pulled the drywall off of it there was this line cutting across it at the angle where the edge was. A lot of what came down split when I removed it, and although this came off intact, I’m putting two windows where the one is currently. Between that, the new closet doors, and the woodwork that was already replaced, I don’t have enough for the whole second floor. At first I thought I’d just replace some rooms and keep what I could original, but then I found this: http://www.taguelumber.com/moulding-profiles/tl-600/ It’s not exact but it’s awfully close.

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  3. Eights&Sevens

    I think it does scare people when they see everything getting much much worse before it gets better – but as you pointed out when you rip everything out at once its the perfect time to renew the integral systems. When you have finished you’ll know it is structurally sound with good utilites, and you’re not just racing to pretty. Our house was built around 1904 so snap!

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