Tuesday, February 23, 2010


I'm not sad that I'm childless (at least, no more so now than usual). And I don't have a friend who has just announced a pregnancy (having written those fateful words, I will receive news today that someone I know well, who is a biological male, has been exposed to deadly levels of radiation, is asexual, and hates children has just learned that s/he is expecting triplets). I am sad about "my" house.

Our friend wrote us with his analysis. He's an engineer and has flipped houses, so I can't criticize his expertise. But I am tempted to think that some of it doesn't really apply to me. If you flip houses (especially in a high-priced area like Arlington, and before the crash - which is what he did), and you're honest, you do everything to spiffy and lasting quality, and you do it to the most mainstream taste. And as you all know, that means granite.

Anyway, his thoughts were: it will cost $80-120k to get this house done properly. You should subtract that number from what the house is really worth, which is some $60k or so less than the asking price already. And thus, the bottom line: this is not really a good gamble.

I want to be prudent and living in a money pit - and not just a money pit, which would be fine, but one with a bottom line that we cannot afford - is an unimaginable nightmare for me. But I am heartbroken. I have been sad for days. I can't imagine wanting another house instead. This one is far from perfect. But we love this town. We want to live there. There's nothing else for sale that's not either modern or tiny. Our realtors even sent a letter to other residents to see whether anyone wants to sell (no). And other houses I've seen, even if I could transplant them there...well, often they don't have the magic of this house. There are a lot of things I need to fix with it. I wish like anything that it had radiators. I'd certainly accept another bathroom. I wouldn't mind at all if it were connected to a city gas line. But the first-floor layout is perfect. I can just see it as my home. I want the corner that will fit my square grand piano (and by "my," I mean, that I will buy).

I can't buy into a disaster. Especially when, even without disaster, it will tie up so much of what we make. But I would be so horribly sad without my house. I've looked for other options; there's always another option to fall in love with, right? There isn't, though. (The little yellow house in Kensington that was so cheap sold in a week.)

I know I need to be prudent. But...but some of my friend's line-items strike me as erroneous. For example, the house now has heat registers and baseboard heat. He doesn't like baseboard heat. Neither do I, but mostly because it provokes mourning of the former radiators. I do love radiators. Anyway, he suggested ripping all the baseboard heat out, for $15k or so. But he conceded that it's totally harmless. If I were flipping the house, I might invest this money for aesthetic reasons - maybe. But as it is, it really seems like a waste.

He pointed out that the windows were old (beautiful old casement windows!), and leak heat, and would cost well over $10k to replace all of. Yes, well. I don't want new windows. I might, at some point, buy new storms (I know that's a few thousand). I might well buy those expensive heat-insulating curtains. But nobody is taking my antique windows.

He pointed out that both bathrooms have wooden beadboard wainscoting. (This is a decor item in the house that I particularly like.) He said that the stuff is a pain and usually has to be replaced a few years down the road. It looks like it's been there for a few decades, now. So I don't foresee a lot of problems. I have done some research and found that wooden wainscoting in bathrooms has to be sealed over 100% of its surface, front, back, and sides. So if they didn't do that, I will indeed replace it in a few years. With...more beadboard wainscoting. Also, he said that the replacement would cost $5000-10,000 per bathroom (they're small bathrooms). I've checked on the price of wainscoting panels at Home Depot. It will be less than five hundred dollars if I do it myself (which I would, absent underlying wood rot).

He also said that the kitchen would be $20k-30k to update completely. There he's being fair, because your standard maple-cabinets-granite-countertops-and-stainless-appliances job would cost at least that. (It is a small kitchen, which would help.) I want none of those things. I think I like the cabinets as is, though I would sand and repaint them all (from white to nicer white), turn one pair into a plate rack, and maybe replace the top doors with reclaimed windows, for glass fronts. I could, if I had money to burn, be tempted by shaker-and-bead-board cabinet doors, nicer than the ones it has now. But I don't need them.

The rest of what I want to do with the kitchen is: knock out the archway to the laundry alcove and reclaim that (no new cabinetry needed, though). Rip out the low-quality wood floor and replace with slate. (I've found it for a great price.) Rip out the two countertops and replace one with butcher block (from ikea - cheap) and one with soapstone (pricey, but I've found a place that sells remnants and I could get it for less than $1000). Have a plumber move the dishwasher to the other side of the sink. Have a carpenter fix the former location with cabinetry. Then, if I have extra money and energy, put in a tin ceiling.

I've priced the stuff needed for all of this. I can do it for $4000-7000. Yes, I found great prices for things, and I plan to do a ton of work myself (did you know you can cut and mill soapstone with woodworking tools?). So at most, if it were a disaster and I needed some professional rescue at the end (not for things like a tile floor - I can definitely do that), it could be $10,000, but that's no emergency and can be put off a year or more. And, I could do it one project at a time.

The big unknown is the basement. It does have standing water (just 1/4 inch and just in one corner, though). Always. And it already has a sump pump. The realtor wants us to put in French drains. I loathe and abhor them, and would literally rather have standing water - or no house. I know basement water can be a bottomless pit of expense, but since I am already wary, I will look hard for personal references for a waterproofer. My great terror was that the yard's own private creek (the realtor pitches this as "adorable!" Yes, I suppose so...) was the source of the water. Should this be so, no force on earth could keep it from flooding. My friend said that it could be the cause, and it would be hard to put a cap on how much water remediation might cost.

I did some more research on the internet. There are different viewpoints (motivated, I think, by companies' desire for profit), but there are success stories. Two things seem to be needed. One: removing pressure from excess water. Buy a few hundred dollars' worth of dirt, they say, get some shovels, and grade the yard away from your house, so surface runoff doesn't head straight for the basement. Don't over-water plants right near the house. Make sure the gutters are in good repair, and the roof, and that they empty at least five feet from the house. If you live by a scary source of water (i.e., there's a hill above you - or a creek), dig a big "swale" next to that side of the house for the water to head into.

We'll definitely need to buy some dirt and re-grade the lawn near the house, and repair the gutters (maybe the roof?), and extend the downspouts. If the creek is the problem - maybe a swale...?

The other thing you need to do is seal the basement from the outside wherever there are cracks (though there are some who say that you can seal effectively from the inside. The outside just logically sounds like a better idea to me). If there are cracks, even if there is no excess water around your house, the ordinary water in the soil will find its way in.

I noticed something when I thought back to the water in the basement. It's all in the corner on the right as you come down the stairs. But the creek - is to the left of the house! And that side of the basement isn't even damp. The creek is very small - maybe 20' away from the house, and so shallow that it didn't even melt the snow on top of it. It may flood in the spring (we'll probably find out in a few weeks), but in its default state, as far as I can tell, it's not putting any water in the basement!

What else did I notice for the first time when we were looking with our friends? There was a big old crack in the basement wall near where the water is pooling. A crack can be fixed! From the outside, for a few hundred or a thousand dollars (says the internet. The internet says that the real key is finding out where the water comes from. This can cost a lot if it's a true mystery, but I already know where the crack is; if it's the crack, and I fix the crack for $1000, I could be done. Then I can always look out for other sources of water).

I am still trying to argue my realtors into helping me get the utility payment history. They have already given me three arguments not to do this, and ignored my question. For the rest of you: no, the utility company will not answer if you randomly call and ask about your neighbor's heating bill. But if your neighbor gives permission, then they will. My realtors cannot understand this; fortunately I am certain beyond a doubt that it is true, so I am not giving up. I need to know how much the heat costs.

I am also going to call the buyer of the white house down the street (which I am using as a comp - it's the only truly comparable sale), and ask what their inspector said, and what up-front repairs they budgeted for, and how they arrived at the price they paid. I've been treating these facts as unknowable, but they aren't! I want to know if that price took account of some major expensive repair problem or not.

And then I may, or may not, try to persuade my husband to pay a water engineer to look at the basement (and roof and gutters?) before putting down an offer. I think that would be a good use of money - right?

I've also been debating whether something has happened to my taste. I've always loved ornate Victorians. Lately I shy away from crazy-ornate furniture ('cause it wouldn't work in my house!). I looked at thisoldhouse's best old house neighborhoods of 2010, and there were beautiful huge stately Victorians. There's nothing I can afford like that in a three-state area, so it's not like I can just change my mind and go that route. But my house doesn't look like that (though it's of similar age). It's much more rustic. Am I betraying my own preferences? Why do I love this house so much? Are my daydreams so lurid they are outweighing my better judgment, and blinding me to how it will really be to live in that house?

I don't know. But I can't just let my house go...


  1. I say it again, when you love it and are realistic about the needs of the house, I say it is worth it to live somewhere you love instead of always wishing. You're being smart and investigating things.

  2. I'm so sorry your friend had bad news for you, but delighted you have such a good and honest friend.

    Praying all afternoon for you and your dream house, that God either makes it work or helps you to let it go.

  3. To me it sounds like you should amend his estimate according to your tastes and then re-evaluate. It might still be a gamble, but maybe not as much as it looks like from his specifications. I'm so sorry that you're feeling sad for your house- it seems to me that what you hope for the house is different (and less expensive) than someone trying to turn around and sell it right away.

  4. ugh. so not what you wanted to hear.

    i love everything about old houses, the charm, character, craftsmenship (usually), but not the repairs or aging. our old house in houston was great until we started having to replace things that were breaking....

    sit on it... it may be a more prudent decision to go ahead with it if you really intend to stay for a long while in the house....and when you know it's your house, you know.

  5. I think as well intentioned as your friend the engineer was at putting that analysis together for you, it's really not according to your plans, so I would just use it as a price resource for the things you actually want. When we bought our house this past summer, we had a number of things that we wanted (and needed) to do. We got estimates from contractors and the cost varied greatly between them, so just because your friend says something will cost 20k doesn't mean it really will. Perhaps when he was flipping it would have, but the market was obviously different (as evidenced because he was flipping) so now it could be significantly less. Plus, not everything needs to be done right away and, like you said, certain things you can do yourself.

    I suppose if you want a water engineer specifically, then yes, that would be a good use of your money. However, you will have an inspector in there as part of the process and if he comes back with red flags on his report, you can back out and get your earnest money back or you can notice the seller and try to get them to pay for it. That's what we did and we got another 5k from the seller to correct some issues that our inspector found. (And we determined the 5k amount from contractors we had come in and give us estimates, all while we could still back out with no loss of money).

    Anyways, just thoughts from someone who's been there (and recently). Good luck!

  6. Once you adjust some of his line items to reflect your taste & preferences, how does it look? Still doable? I know you know this, but just realize that your friend has different standards and being in his business, is trying not only to flip a house, but to do it quickly which means making it palatable to the masses. If it is not still doable, then by all means keep looking. Your house will come. I think the more houses you actually visit, the more confident you are when find “the one.” I’m not sure how many you’ve looked at in person, but we stepped foot in more than I care to count.

  7. It's obvious that you are 100% in love with this house. I think that your friend (although knowledgeable and honest) has given you good advice, you also have done your own research. Your renos can be done more economically and really, if the bones of the house are good and you're going to live there forever, you can space out the work that you need to do.

    I think that getting a water engineer would be a good idea. Basements can be quite costly and you want to know what you're getting into before putting in an offer.

    This is going to work out for you, I know it will!

  8. I'm not much of a DIY person when it comes to big projects. You've taught me that I can never buy an older house or it will cost me a fortune when I want to renovate it. :) It's too bad. Older houses have such charm. I love them. Except for the crack in the basement, the one you're describing sound nice. You didn't mention any major structural problems, so I'm assuming most of the change you would need to make - eventually - are aesthetic. Good luck with this!

  9. I think it's a blessing that you have a friend that could be honest with you...you have to realistic and it sounds like you are. Like the others said...way it all up...add what you think fixing things will cost against your friend's estimates...and see how it adds up. How would you feel if you bought the house and discoverd that it was way more than you could handle financially? Are there other issues that you may not know about? Can you get the priced reduced even more?

    Water in the basement is not good. It can cause mold...and other things. That would be a fixer. Sounds like you are totally taking that into consideration. You are knowledgable...alot more than I ever could be. Pray about this and see if all the risks and expenses are worth it. God Bless.

  10. ack, i love old homes but not the work and money that they need. what you mentioned about the basement is a big cause for concern, especially. (mold - we're dealing with the same problem in our current home and it's becoming a drain on our wallets.)

  11. I am sorry that the recap from your engineer friend brought up some less than desired info, but hopefully better now than later! As many of the commenters above have mentioned, you should just take the list and assess where you would need the "cadillac" of home improvements, or where you can live with the "grand prix". (And I have a grand prix and I think they are still great.) I hope you get some clarity after you have mulled it over for a bit. God Bless!

  12. I am a realtor. I read through your post and have some interjections. When you say flipping does this mean that you are buying the house and it needs alot of work so that when you have to resell, you can get a good price for it? Maybe I can help.