Consumed with home projects

I’ve remained consumed with home-improvement projects. It’s cut deeply into my time for photography or thoughtful commentary — it’s all projects, all the time, as I prepare to put my house on the market.

I took up the worn-out carpet in the hall, crossing my fingers that the hardwood floor below would be in good enough shape to leave it be, as it was in the two other rooms where I previously took up the carpet. It wasn’t. And I neither want to refinish it myself nor pay someone to do it. Fortunately, this isn’t a high-class neighborhood and perfection isn’t required to sell a home here. So I put down rugs and moved on. Did you know you can order runners in almost any style and length from Amazon? They were here in two days.

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I have spent the bulk of my time painting. The previous owner painted every wall and ceiling a yellowy beige just before I moved in. Except for the criminally lousy job they did patching nail holes, it looked good enough and I never bothered to change it. But after a decade it was looking shabby, so I bought paint and broke out the rollers and brushes. I chose a more neutral beige, and I painted the ceilings white. This is my office, where I write this blog. It’s actually the house’s dining room, but my table is too big to fit in here so I stuck it in the eat-in portion of the kitchen, which is surprisingly spacious.

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The last room to paint was the living room. Here’s a glimpse of that yellowy beige, which I was busy covering up.

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I also painted my front stoop, as the concrete was mottled and pocked and unattractive. I filled the holes I could see with concrete patch but still missed several. Did you know you can buy paint with grit in it to provide a non-slip surface? It works great. This stoop now feels like 120-grit sandpaper.

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Finally, the faucet I put in the bathroom sink during Operation Lipstick on the Pig several years ago proved to be cheap and crappy. The finish wore off it and the metal was oxidizing. So I bought a new faucet and installed it. Removing the drain, I twisted the trap ever so slightly and it crumbled apart in my hands. I made four trips to Lowe’s before I finally got the right replacement part. Lowe’s is 15 minutes away, so a job that should have taken 15 minutes took about 2½ hours. Lesson learned: take the worn-out part along so I can match it precisely.

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One job I’m not going to get to is to replace the original 1969 aluminum storm front door. I had hoped I could pay Lowe’s or The Home Depot to install it, as hanging doors is not my forte. But they either won’t respond to my calls or are booked through the Second Coming. So I bought a jar of aluminum polish and am applying elbow grease. It’s not giving me the good results I hoped for, but the door is original to this 1969 house and is quite pitted.

A handful of smaller jobs remain, including recaulking the bathtub, washing the surprisingly dirty front gutter and soffit, and fixing a noticeable problem with the back storm door. But now the major work is over, and perhaps I’ll have a little more time to write the kinds of things I normally write around here!


Life, Stories Told

Spending quality time in my crawl space

We’ve had a lot of rain lately. Days on end it has fallen. Inside my house, it was strangely quiet.

It should not have been. My sump pump should have been running, and I should have heard it.

Dagnabbit — that meant it had pumped its last.

The old, failed sump pump sitting on my deck. Which tells you where this story is going.

I’m not deeply experienced in the ways of sump pumps. My last house had one. It was there when we moved in, and it pumped faithfully for years. The crawl space was always a little damp, but that pump kept it from being wet. That wasn’t enough to satisfy my wife, so we had a perimeter drain dug, an additional sump pump sunk, and the whole place encapsulated. Holy frijoles, was that ever expensive. Point is, however, that I never personally had anything to do with our pumps. I didn’t even know what one looked like.

When I was deciding whether to make an offer on this house, the crawl space was the biggest point of risk. A lot of insulation was lying on the ground, having fallen out from between the joists. The vapor barrier looked pretty ratty. And there was no sump pump. But there was also no evidence the space had ever been wet, and the price was very right on the place. So I rolled the dice.

What I didn’t consider is that a crawl space that has been wet to the joists shows little or no evidence. A foot of water might leave a line on the foundation’s cinder block. But water to the joists leaves no such line.

I crapped out. Shortly after I moved in, a very heavy rain flooded the crawl space. I cleared it with a borrowed portable pump. (And got the worst case of poison ivy in my life. Read that story.) I promptly paid to have a pit dug and a sump pump installed.

Unfortunately, the lowest spot in my crawl space was under my bedroom, and so that’s where the pump had to go. I slept ten feet from it. And it roared like a diesel engine every time it cut on. WHAAARRRNNNNsplooooooosshhhhh, over and over, all night. When it rained hard I had to go sleep in the family room.

Last week we got a ton of rain. After the first night I knew there was trouble under the floorboards, because I awoke refreshed from a good night’s sleep.

Thank God for YouTube. Everything you ever wanted to know how to do is there, usually shot by some random dude on shaky mobile-phone video. This video showed me how easy it would be to replace the pump myself.

It took me two hours to do the job, including a run to The Home Depot for the pump and associated supplies. Not bad, right? Except that I had to do it in two feet of water. Cold water. Cold, dirty water. And immediately upon entering the crawl space, I slipped and twisted and suddenly cold, dirty water met my nether regions. That will take a man’s breath away.


I emerged sopping wet. I sloshed my way into the garage, where I stripped and dropped my soaked, dirty clothes into the washer. I grabbed a quick shower. And then as I was dressing, I noticed the quiet.

It should not be quiet! Was my new pump even working?

I looked out the window and saw water gushing out of the exit pipe. I listened more carefully, and realized I could actually hear a slight tinkling sound coming from below — the sound of water running gently through the pipe. That was it.

Silent sump pumps are a thing?!!? I had no idea. If I had known, I would have replaced that sleep-depriving old pump years ago!!


On enhancing a home’s appeal

It’s funny what house problems a person will adapt to and not notice anymore.

My brother lived for years with a bare wire sticking out of the wall over his kitchen sink. He kept meaning to install a new light. But the kitchen’s ceiling light lit the room well, and other more urgent jobs kept claiming his time. And soon he didn’t even see that wire anymore, even though it was a foot from his face when he washed his dishes. But then he got the itch to move. Facing putting his condo on the market, he decided it was time to deal with that wire. One thing led to another and he ended up remodeling the whole kitchen. New cabinets, new appliances, the works. He barely got to enjoy it all before he moved out!


Near the end of the bathroom remodel

I’ve done a lot to improve my house in ten years. Still, I’ve never addressed a couple things that I hardly notice now, but which you’d notice the second you set foot in here. The previous owner did a criminally lousy job of patching holes in the walls before painting them all (and every ceiling) a sad, yellowy beige. Before painting the kitchen, they stripped off some (but not all) of the wallpaper. And the carpet is obviously 20 years old.

When I moved in I had to immediately fix a couple serious problems. I removed a closet to make one tiny bedroom big enough to hold a bed, a job without which this house wouldn’t have worked for us. I also did a quick and cheap remodel to make the bathroom not frighteningly awful.

I also removed some ugly bricks the previous owner inexpertly and inexplicably used to widen the end of the driveway. The asphalt driveway badly needed resealed, and the deck badly needed re-stained, so I did both jobs. (Both need it again already.)


Hardwoods in my home office

I feel good about the work I’ve done here. Repairing and remodeling some things that truly badly needed it make a bad, boring paint job and worn carpet seem acceptable somehow.

I did finally take up a little of my carpet. My now-departed dog loved to lie in my home office, and thanks to the problems of being elderly she stained the carpet in there so badly it finally wouldn’t come clean anymore. So out it went.

I’ve spent plenty of money on this house: new sump pump, new heat pump, new storm windows, roof repairs, connection to the city sewer, and removal of 21 dead ash trees. The total bill exceeds my equity. But except fot the ash trees, all of this is invisible.

Now that my wife Margaret and I are moving toward living under the same roof, it’s time to make strong progress getting my house ready for sale. I need to make visible improvements that make the house look better.

It’s a modest home. Its modest neighborhood gives people of modest means a way to put their kids into a still-desirable school system. It has that going for it. But in ten years I’ve seen signs of slow decline here. Several homes have gone into foreclosure and a couple have been outright abandoned. More homes are rentals now, probably one in four. Several properties look shabby: chipping paint, sagging gutters, weedy yards. It’s not surprising that home prices in other nearby neighborhoods recovered faster from the housing crisis than those in mine. According to Zillow, for what that’s worth, my home became worth what I paid for it again only about 12 months ago.

So it doesn’t make sense to dump tons of money into the house. I won’t get it back in the selling price. All I want to do is increase curb appeal and remove obvious reasons for buyers to say no.

I actually started work last year, focusing on landscaping. Thanks to the sewer and ash-tree projects the yard was a right mess, full of bare spots. Seed worked in some spots but not in others. So I laid about 70 rolls of sod.

Wagon Full of Sod

Wagon full of sod

One great thing about owning a small, battered station wagon with north of 180,000 miles on it is that I don’t much care how dirty it gets. I had no idea how much sod I would need, so I brought it home one wagonload at a time until I’d completed the job.


Sod freshly laid in the back yard

For about six weeks this autumn I came home every Tuesday night with another wagonload of sod and laid it. Then I watered that spot twice a day until the next Tuesday.


Bordered front bed – thanks Mom!

Also, thank heavens for my mother, who’s old enough to have a 49-year-old son but is in good shape and loves to work. She’s done a lot of jobs small and large around my house. Two summers ago she scrapred, reglazed, and repainted all of my exterior windows. Last summer she cut and placed spare landscaping timbers to create definition around all of my front beds, and did a fair amount of planting and replanting in my beds. Everything looked fabulous during blooming season.

And now she’s asking me what jobs I want done around here this year. The first project: scrape my interior windows and get them ready to be painted.

Weighed down

Weighed down

I got one other job done last year. I’ve never liked the giant overgrown evergreen bush/tree right outside my front door. The thing had to be 20 feet tall and it looked terrible. It was trussed up inside to keep it from splaying under its own weight. It did splay every time we got a heavy snow.

While I stopped seeing my yellow-beige walls and my worn carpet, I noticed — and grumbled under my breath about — that tree every time I exited or entered my home. The only good thing about it was that it blocked the view of my front door, hiding any packages UPS or FedEx drivers left on my stoop. But I’ve always wanted that tree gone. But it looked like such an ugly job to remove it that I kept putting it off.


Going, going…

And then one day last summer when I was working from home, someone knocked on the door. A fellow covered in what were obviously prison tattoos, weilding a chainsaw, wanted to know if I had any trees I wanted removed.

I almost never hire people who knock on my door looking for work. I appreciate their eagerness and drive, but I don’t like the risks. What if they get injured or damage my home? There’s no way they’re bonded and insured. And what if they’re quietly casing the joint while they work? No, I’ll research and find an established contractor or company to do any needed work, thanks.



But I thought this might be my chance to be rid of that tree at a good price. And it should be a straightforward enough job, and it’s not like felling that tree could cause it to land on anything valuable. I decided to take the risk, and we quickly struck a deal.

He husled hard and within 30 minutes had the tree down, cut into pieces, and loaded into the back of his truck. I was thrilled to hand him his cash and watch him drive away.


Filling in the space

I wondered what I would put in the empty space until I happened to be at the Home Depot one day late in the autumn when they were clearing everything out of their garden center at fire-sale prices. For next to nothing I picked up three little bushes that ought to grow in a couple years to fill this space and even probably hide the old tree’s stump.

I think I’ve done enough on my home’s landscaping. There are a few jobs left to do out front, including fixing some serious cracks in my driveway and resealing it, and painting my front stoop to hide its surprisingly unattractive concrete.

But otherwise, it’s time to turn my focus to my home’s interior. It’s finally going to get that coat of paint and a few other cosmetic improvements.

But a couple big jobs loom. One is to repair a water-damaged spot in my bathroom floor and put down a new floor covering. Another is to do something (I’m not sure what yet) about challenges with my tub and surround, some of which led to the water-damaged floor. I jury rigged a solution to prevent further damage, but I need something permanent and attractive. Finally, I would like to strip the painted wallpaper off the kitchen walls, re-mud, and repaint.

I have my work cut out for me. Fortunately, my mom and Margaret both are waiting for instructions from me about when and where they can pitch in.

Stories Told

A place to start again

Buying a house felt like the last step in reaching a new normal after my divorce. Looking forward to some permanence after three years of transience, I started looking at houses as soon as I was financially able. I wanted to live near my children, in their school district if I could.

We had made our home in the old northwest suburbs. These homes had been a few miles outside the city limits until Indianapolis merged with the county in 1970. Lots are large, up to a half acre. The houses, mostly brick ranches of up to 2,000 square feet, are set well apart. Most have attached two-car garages, but the cars that park outside do so under wide maples, oaks, ashes, and cottonwoods. Homeowners cut the grass on riding mowers and relax afterwards on their decks or in their patio enclosures. This was luxury suburban living for the 1950s middle class when they started to flee the city. The original owners did have to get used to hardships such as walking to the curb to get their mail, not watering their lawns lest they drain the well, and being careful of what they put down the drain so they didn’t foul the septic tank. Even though most of these neighborhoods still lack city services, a strong school system keeps the homes in demand. To make it work, I was going to have to find a three-bedroom bargain, even in this depressed housing market.

On my budget, I kept seeing smaller homes that lacked at least one major feature, such as a second bathroom. Many of them would soon need major updating because they had their original windows or the original furnace from over 50 years ago. Several houses needed real work with fallen gutters, sagging floors, wet crawl spaces, and cracked ceilings. A few were basket cases, like the house with hardwood floors squishy from water damage, the odor of mold so strong that I got dizzy. Looking at these strange and sad cases, I felt like a gleaner picking over the harvested field.

After several months, I found a 1,375-square-foot brick ranch on a quarter-acre lot. It had been on the market for more than a year, probably because the furnace was 38 years old, the carpets were stained, the master bathroom was finished in fake brick and glued-on marble-look laminate, the kitchen lacked a dishwasher, and the third bedroom was teeny tiny. But the house was solidly built, the crawl space was bone dry, the family room had a fireplace, wood floors lurked under the carpets, a deck overlooked a wooded back yard that overlooked a golf course – and, most importantly, the price was right and it was less than a mile from my children.

I almost walked away because of the third bedroom. I wasn’t sure a twin bed would fit in it! But my brother suggested that if I gutted one of the room’s two closets and turned it into an alcove for the bed, it would work.

My son\'s room

So I made an offer, and after some challenges that found the seller drilling a new well, we closed. I went right to work on the bedroom. My brother helped me gut the closet, but I did the rest of the work alone, including repairing and mudding drywall, building shelves, painting, and tearing up carpet. I’ve never considered myself to be terribly handy around the house, but I pulled this project off very well, if I do say so myself.

My son\'s room

While I worked on the bedroom, I started to assemble what I would need to live. I didn’t get much furniture in the divorce settlement – a bright blue futon, my old mahogany dresser, and too many end tables. I bought everything else I needed via Craigslist, Goodwill, and deep clearance sales at Target and Meijer. I carried all my purchases, including a dining room table and six chairs, home in my little station wagon. Some friends and a straight truck helped me move everything else.

Family Room

I wrote last year about my first apartment and how I finished growing up while I lived there. I’m making a new start in my little house, and who knows how I’ll grow while here. But already I have discovered that I’m far handier around the house than I ever thought I was, that I love my house being filled with my sons hoots and hollers as much as I love it when I’m all by myself reading quietly, and that there’s great peace and pleasure in sitting on the deck with a cold drink while golfers hook their shots into my yard. I keep telling my boys we ought to sell the lost balls to pay for the inevitable broken windows!