Thursday, August 20, 2009

promises, promises

First of all, my step-grandfather has apparently rallied (my younger sister, my informant, is out there for the wedding and to visit him in the hospital with my stepmother and father). The prayers of bloggers are powerful!

Second, as I said I would, I have pictures of this house. I'm not the best photographer and neither the lighting nor the social conditions of my photography were remotely ideal. But the resolution is good enough that you're going to get a good strong impression of what I saw. And what I saw almost justifies invoking the Lord's name, because the forces of this world would not be enough to persuade a healthy adult with access to a sledgehammer not to raze this house to the studs. I want a fixer, and just this week I said that I wanted a really ugly house, to ward off other buyers - just no structural problems. (Mr. Realtor, husband of Mrs. Realtor, conveniently had no earthly idea about any element of the home's condition - roof, water heater, furnace, wiring, plumbing, and foundation were equally a mystery to him, and he showed no special interest in finding out. So I can't include that information in my calculus at this point, except to note that everything I could observe was sorely neglected or, worse, updated by an idiot.)

However, I don't know that I was psychologically prepared for something this ugly. You see, I can understand neglect, a la house #2 (the Virginia-side Victorian with the weird land lot situation and the elderly couple who hadn't updated anything ever, except the furnace and water heater were new - and they get lots of credit for that). What I apparently have no patience for is that a nineteenth-century house should have had all its visible features fabricated by an amateur in the benighted 1960s - and not touched since then.

Without further ado, I proceed to the scary photos. Let's start with the kitchen:

First of all, yes, that paint is toothpaste green. Second, that is faux brick on the wall - and it's not even the good faux brick, it's very thin plastic, plus, again, it's painted light green. Don't get me started on the lamp in the corner of the frame. Obviously the formica countertops go - that's not offensive, just par for the course. But what you can't see are two large problems that have me stumped. First, the cabinets are all at goofy angles and have flat fronts - clearly put in by an amateur carpenter, probably the culprit for the rest of the house's carpentry (brace yourself). In other words, not even the boxes can be salvaged. And since I don't think I have snooty taste in cabinets (I just want white ones, OK?), I wasn't expecting to redo boxes. Second, the stove (which you can see - it's actually surprisingly un-terrible), the sink (of which you can see the corner), and the fridge (out of the frame) are in a straight line. And there is nowhere to put one of them to form a triangle.

See, this is the wall opposite the one with everything on it:

Should we buy this house, this space will get my antique-buffet-with-white-paint-and-butcher-block-repurposed-as-kitchen-counter/island. (It's about 4' wide.) Don't know what to do about overhead cabinets there - I'll think of something. The opposite side of that wall does have a laundry sink, so a sink could go there, which would create a triangle, but then the sink's not under a window. Fridge or stove would be too deep for that space. I'm stumped. This doesn't happen a lot.

Also, the homeowner, who is a sadist, mentioned that there had been an old cast-iron sink there - which they threw out. Now, I don't hate stainless steel sinks such as this place has, but a cast-iron farm sink? Like this one:

It could do a lot to redeem this wretched space (if it's redeemable at all). And they threw it away. Because they hate me.

Then there's this wall, which shows off the level of carpentry skill pretty well:

The wall is wider than it looks, 4 or 5 feet. So it wants a big early-American hutch - the right depth for the wall, will store lots of dishes, I don't have to install cabinets, helps the overall look - all good things. I note that storage in the kitchen is actually not a problem - my buffet and hutch would obviously help, but there's also a decent-sized pantry behind the door in the corner in the lamp-and-table picture above. The problems are counter space (a little) and layout (good grief).

OK, moving on. Because I have to punctuate that with some good news, here's the laundry room:

What's the good news? It's a really good size. I'd put a deep freezer in there instead of a second fridge (and what a convenient place for one!), but it has plenty of room for that, the laundry sink (lower right corner), a w/d, and my green Shaker cabinets of earlier serenade.

Also adjoining the kitchen is the dining room. Here's a shot looking in from the kitchen:

Those? Those are cupboards. They were lovingly built by the owner's late stepfather. Also, the ceiling is covered with lime green trellis wallpaper - the first time I have ever lamented a high ceiling. It's nice to have built-ins in the dining room, but those are not built-ins, they are penance for my many sins. And whoever buys this place, I am confident they will be gone within hours of closing. I will note that I like the old fixture. The room is a decent size, though not as large as the dining rooms in houses 1, 2, and 3.

Through the dining room, you can see the living room. Below is another shot of it. It does have a nice windowed nook (looks out onto the lovely wraparound porch). Of course, two sides of the room have double-wide doorway openings and the other two have large windows, and the room is not large; so there is nowhere to put a couch. But who needs a couch? Anyway.

Here is the room they are calling the library. And I will tell you why. Because the usual suspect, in a premeditated act designed to cause me grief lo these many years later, lined several of the walls with bookshelves. Now, I haven't done nearly as many home improvement projects as he evidently did, but I can say with confidence that I would not have put up bookshelves that are uneven, sag, lean, and have nothing to recommend them aesthetically - because once I observed that this was so, I would hire a carpenter to fix them, even if I had to forego food for a year to cover the cost.

Close inspection confirmed what you already suspect about the fireplace: those bricks are real, but they are not nineteenth-century. I expect another 1960s culprit (though at least they are solid and even), but I would just paint them white and consider it a mercy. With regard to the mirrors - the less said about them, the better. (Unfortunately, the homeowner did not know this, as he took credit for their installation in the presence of witnesses.) I will grant that these fixes are relatively straightforward. It's nice to have a (working) fireplace. It's very nice to have a library, and though the room is fairly open, there's room for quite a few shelves on the walls. My DH and I also discussed the possibility of reversing the living room and library, an idea which has some potential (though the current living room has fewer places for bookshelves).

Now, for another reassuring interlude: to the left of the library is a decent-sized sun room that I think has considerable potential. Specifically, I would put a few more bookshelves in it (of course we'll have overflow) and a nice pull-out (maybe a Chesterfield!) so it could double as a guest room, or someplace to have breakfast. It also contains (to the left) one of the few pieces of furniture in the house I like.

Because the house's previous tenants have not left off the torment theme, apparently the double doorway between sunroom and library once had French doors, which the owners, in their wisdom, ripped out, and gave away. The homeowner went so far as to tell me that they did so with regard to all the double doorways in the downstairs (three in all).

In a fit of optimism, I have decided that this is an opportunity to install pocket doors between the library and dining room, such as above. Incidentally, the downstairs does have one transom, but I forgot to take a picture of it.

Oh yes. There's a downstairs half bath off the sunroom. This shot captures the stunning decor. The bad news is that we'd have to redo fixtures, floors, and walls - everything in it. The good news is that the toilet and sink are clustered on that one wall; the majority of the space is empty. I first thought of a corner shower and was discouraged by the two windows - no way they could survive the moisture.

But when I got home I realized a 4' clawfoot (with a shower curtain all the way around if we wanted to do showers) would take care of that. Sadly, I forgot to measure the width, but even if it were under 4', the clawfoot could go in at an angle, like so:

Obviously, that bathroom is a lot bigger, but it's an idea, right? OK, let's move on to another happy interlude. The front door opens onto a foyer (which is always nice) with a stairwell:

It has some structural resemblance to this one, right? I think I could do something here.

The upstairs bathroom is a full bath. It doesn't even have one nice original fixture - the tub is acrylic so old and ill cared-for that it's yellowed. I'd say knock down that little wall, replace it with a clawfoot (of course), ditch the vanity, maybe keep the wall tile and the toilet. Also, beyond the sink, there's a door into a closet (square inside, with a hanging clothes bar). Hasn't been cleaned or painted in decades, floor is uneven, unfinished boards. But a good place for a closet (or a separate shower if one wanted - but this closet will come up again later).

Not much to say about the bedrooms. Of course the decor is awful, but that's really just paint and rugs. Here's the master:

Hard to tell from the picture, but it's an OK size. Would fit a queen bed (what we'd like next) and a dresser. Has a double-wide closet - that and a wardrobe would probably be enough. There's no place for a master bath to be added. There are two more rooms, one quite small, each with a closet. Same general idea. The only real comment is that there are only three bedrooms - and no build-out potential (I was sure this house had). First, there's only half a basement. The realtor discouraged any idea of finishing it with the point that it will flood in heavy rain (isn't that nice). I can't disagree with his general impression:

So no future finished basement. Oh, and the attic? Doesn't have fixed stairs. I don't think I can countenance having anyone sleep in an attic without fixed stairs, in case of fire. The realtor thought the floor also wasn't designed to take the weight of an adult, which is hogwash. (It's tall enough to stand in, and not a bad size.) The problem is that the structural members may have been inadequately maintained, but that could be repaired.

I looked long and hard at the downstairs staircase and figured out that if a staircase to the attic were installed right above it (yes, I understand this would be extremely expensive), the staircase would the bathroom closet. That could actually work. But, a really huge undertaking. After I got home a simpler idea hit me. I could buy a one-piece metal spiral staircase and put it in that closet. A carpenter would have to steady it and put the appropriate hole in the attic ceiling (and railing and whatever), but that wouldn't require any real engineering or reconfiguring of space. I think that would be OK in case of fire (some homes have metal spirals as their only staircase). Tricky to get furniture up there, but we're clever.

So I guess there's a little expansion potential. It also has a 1-2 car garage (with an attached lean-to that appears to be made out of scraps from the junkyard, is an eyesore, and should be removed immediately. Why the realtor tried to suggest its useful features is beyond me).

Bottom line is, the house has less real space than any other we've looked at. There are several rooms in the downstairs but none is large. It only has three bedrooms and none of those is large either. Neither the basement nor the attic could easily be finished. The kitchen isn't tiny, but none of the ones we saw was any smaller, and this one has the least potential (that I can see now) for a good kitchen layout. It needs cosmetic work on every surface in every room. It may also need considerable structural work - we have no idea. There isn't even a gas line in the street to hook up to (the realtor did mention people install propane tanks to allow natural gas heat and ranges, which is an idea). On the flip side, the location is not to be matched. Really. But if we're willing to make these sacrifices, we could have the Virginia-side house with no basement (how is that worse than a basement that floods?), a smallish attic with fixed stairs, four decent-sized bedrooms, and a bigger living room. Or my recent pet house with the Thomas Jefferson tea nook - that has four bedrooms, a big attic, a large basement that doesn't flood, and probably less structural and cosmetic work to do.

Here's the twist: DH loves this house. He points out that we could fix this house up so it was lovely, sell it for a profit (if we wait a while), and then buy a bigger one in the same town. I see the logic. And I want to be clear that I adore this town too. And I wouldn't mind buying one of its nicer houses that are not for sale and we can't afford right now anyway.

But for less money I think we could get a better house, with fewer things that truly frighten me (and I think I'm pretty scare-proof with this old house stuff). And I want a house in which I can imagine having everyone over for Christmas. I don't know whether this house is big enough. It's definitely not big enough bedroom-wise if we had more than two children (plus it would be under construction for several years). That's not likely to happen, of course. But it's something to think about. And I think my DH's patience would (contrary to what he believes) immediately wear thin if the house weren't presentable even for dinner guests for months (or years).

I've been enjoying this process, but now I'm lost. What should my real priorities be here? I feel completely at sea.


  1. It'll definitely take some work, but I love the brick in the kitchen. Good news about your step grand-father too!

  2. Okay, that first picture is hilarious. Is that the microwave just stuck on top of the vent hood over the stove? There are quite a lot of weird, ugly things about this house, but it seems like there is a lot of potential. And it looks like there are lot of big windows, which is great. Is there really no way to expand the house from the first floor? Or build out over the garage? It's hard to tell without a floor plan, but if you were serious about the house, I'd think about bringing an architect along for some advice.
    And, by the way, my parents had 4 kids in a 3 bedroom house. We moved into a bigger house when #5 was born, and since there were 6 of us total eventually, we all learned to share rooms :). It's really not so bad...

  3. i admire anyone who would even CONSIDER such a project! my completely liveable house almost drove me crazy while we were having our basement finished -- a basement that i only needed when i did laundry.

    sometimes i wonder what homeowners are thinking when they do work on their houses. our very builder white house was only painted in the master bedroom (salmon orange), and wallpapered in the bathrooms (ugly, stripey paper that two out of three have been rid of).

    i'm so glad to hear that your step-grandfather is doing well. you're right, prayers from the bloggosphere do work!

  4. First: "those are not built-ins, they are penance for my many sins." LMAO. Truer words were never spoken.

    Hmmm... I think it's not just the money, it's the time and energy. It's living in a construction zone for months and months (esp if you're doing a lot of the work yourselves). The last few years of the real estate market should be an indication that you can't always flip a house easily, or wind up making a profit. With a fixer, you're lucky if you break even (unless you're very skilled or a contractor). And in the meanwhile, you have to live there, and in chaos.

    We redid almost everything in our house ourselves, and it was a disaster for nearly a year. I mean, there's a toilet in the living room type disaster. It was exhausting. We didn't have other options in our price range, so it was the best solution for us, but I wouldn't recommend it lightly.

    But if your dream is to save a remuddled house, then that's a different issue.

  5. Wow...I don't know what to say about house five accept it would be alot of work and time! It seems like there's plenty do comestically however...I wonder what an inspector would find? A basement that has flooding potential or has been known to flood (hence, the reason the realtor told you to forget about doing anything down there) would be a big enough red flag for me to move on. I guess if the bones of the house were good, the price is unbeatable and you have the time and maybe a good place to tackle head on...however if you have doubts or feel a somewhat uneasy...hmmmmm????? There's a fabulous house out there waiting for your TLC and can be ready by Christmas. Good luck with the house hunting and that is good news about your stepmother's father. Prayers are powerful!

  6. shinejil - when I was growing up (a teenager) my father failed to remodel an older house. the only competent work was done by my sister and me (this is really true. I repaired plaster, and we both painted. things go better when you stay within your skill level), and we had a toilet in the hallway for MONTHS. also, the only other toilet had an interior piece break - don't ask which one, I don't do toilets - and my stepmother tied a stick to the lever with string and balanced the stick on the tank. this works as a flushing mechanism, in fact, but...well, yeah. anyway, I understand EXACTLY what kind of disaster you're describing.

  7. what does the exterior of the house look like? do you have a picture?

    the microwave on the range hood is classic. are you sure you aren't interested in that yellow lamp? maybe they could throw it in as part of your contract.. could be great negotiating piece :) yikes.

    the house has potential, but would be a lot of work.. how long would you plan on staying in the house once it's done?

    we have a propane tank.. sounds so country. our neighborhood is seven miles outside a smaller city, and we have city lines for everything but gas, so everyone in our neighborhood has propane tanks, but they are buried underground which is nice and not an eye sore.

  8. I'm not the best person to give house-buying advice. But I will say this: if you have any doubts about space-issues, I'd be careful. We bought our house at the peak of Seattle's bubble-real-estate market, and fell into heady love with this house at first glance, even though it was smaller than we wanted (700 square feet on the main floor). It was just cute, old, and had historic character. Now I"m REALLY wanting more space, jonesin- for a bigger kitchen, a real dining room, all that stuff - and it's been two years since we bought the house. Having a big kitchen is important to me and I wish I'd thought of it sooner when we first bought the house.

    ANYWAY. On the other hand, if your DH is loving it and you have other good gut-instincts about it, the space issue can be dealt with, I'm sure!