This (not particularly) old house…

A couple of weeks ago, I posted an open call for readers to “Ask Me Anything.” One reader asked what projects I’d tackled around the house since moving in. This post is my best effort at describing what was, what’s been done, and where we’re going in the future.

Anyone who has ever owned a house knows that home ownership isn’t so much a state of being as a state of doing. Over and above the normal cleaning tasks, there is, literally, always something that needs some kind of attention – a leaking toilet, an overflowing gutter, filters to clean, driveway cracks to patch, trim to touch up, brush to haul away, or mulch to lay down… and that’s just the basic upkeep work that goes in to keeping a house from falling down around your ears. Sure, I know that people can go months or even years without doing any of that stuff but in addition to a place to live, home is an investment and it’s one I’d like to make sure pays off when it’s time to hang up the for sale sign.

I’ve been in this new house of mine for a little over two years now, which means I’ve lived with it long enough to have found a number of its personality quirks. Some of those quirks are tolerable – like the section of kitchen floor that’s just enough out of level that it will try to trip you if you are tempted to shuffle your feet instead of picking them up when you step. The basement window that let in a small flood every time it rained for more than 15 minutes was one of those that was less quirky and more demanding of an immediate fix. Mercifully that hole in the ground is now relatively dry and my paranoia about returning home after a rainstorm to find an indoor swimming pool has begun to recede. In the garage, I’ve removed the wheelchair ramp that occupied an entire bay when I moved in. That space is now occupied with set of steps cannibalized from parts of the ramp, a proper work bench, a bit of shelving, and a Jeep.

The work that never ends continues outside, where so far I’ve pulled out or cut down two score trees and shrubs of varying sizes, stabilized a muddy mess of a hillside that washed across the driveway in the slightest fall of rain, and filled in a badly designed flower bed with sod. As far as I can tell, most of this work is in compensation for 5-7 years of maintenance deferred by the previous homeowner. Adding a permanent generator sized to meet all possible power needs of the homestead was a personal priority of mine that felt like an extravagance… right up until the point where the power was out for the better part of 24 hours this past winter. After that, being assured that life can continue uninterrupted by weather or falling trees has come to feel like something essential. The last (I hope) significant outdoor project was adding a “rustic” fire ring in the back yard… since “burning brush” is frowned upon by the local home owners association, but having a fire pit is not. Two birds with one stone, that.

I’m sure there will be more to do, because there always is. I can’t even blame the honey do list on anyone else since mine is entirely self-generated. I want to move a few light switches and add a few electrical outlets, which (probably) I can do on my own. Unfortunately I’m also reaching the point where many of the things I want to do are beyond my level of technical skill and expertise. The master bath is badly in need of a walls-in renovation. Four rooms and a hallway need new carpet. I despise the laminate counter top in the kitchen. Seriously. That was a crap place to cheap out on the original build back in 2000. There’s also a 10×8 foot alcove in the living room that’s crying out to be floor-ceiling book shelves.

So the list of things to do never really gets any shorter with me adding one or two new things for every one that gets ticked off. I figure that at the rate I’m going, by the time I’m ready to sell the place off in eighteen years I’ll just have finished up everything I wanted to do with it.

A happy place to hide…

Last year on this day I wrote that I was amazed a year had gone by and that “feels like there’s been some part of the place under construction for most of that time; not to mention an ever-lengthening list of projects yet to come.” As much as I would love to say that the second anniversary of buying Fortress Jeff finds that to be less true, of course it isn’t. The place is still a near constant construction zone (though fortunately this year’s efforts have been less dramatic) and the project list has only continued to grow.

It’s taken a while to get to a place where it feels like I’m not walking into someone else’s house that just happens to have all of my stuff in it… but I’m pretty much there now. Except, of course, for the occasional discoveries of little things that leave me wondering the logic behind why things were done a certain way when they built the place (like mystery light switches) and the perplexing rational behind not putting this place on a full basement.

All things considered I think I can be happy hiding from people here for a good long while.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Doing it on the cheap. I’m assuming that the plastic mailbox pedestal you’ve installed proudly in the front yard is supposed to look like stone. I’m sure you’re trying hard to ape the style of the big houses up the hill. I’m sure someone in your house, maybe even you, thought it looked good. That assessment was incorrect. It’s tacky as hell.

2. Jet noise. Local news out of Anne Arundel County reports that residents near Baltimore-Washington International Airport are upset because they’re hearing jet noise. Let’s recap: 1) You bought a house near the airport; 2) Now you’re upset that airports are noisy and want the county to make the FAA do something about it. In summation: You’re an idiot.

3. Wind and the failure to plan for it. Every trash can in the neighborhood blew over last night. Since the weather reports were all calling for a dramatic change in weather following a fast moving system of thunder storms, high wind overnight shouldn’t have come as a surprise. But it did, because of course it did. Now, those overturned 60-gallon rolling trash barrels have spewed paper products and plastic bottles into every gutter and wood line, leaving our little corner of the county looking like some kind of 3rd world shithole. Somehow I don’t expect the doctors, lawyers, or Indian chiefs in my hood will bother themselves it make it right. All for the want of a few $2 bungee cords.

1000% over budget…

The first tool I bought on my own, as opposed to scavenging away from one of the parental workbenches, was a 12 volt DeWalt power drill. For most of its life it stayed in the back corner of a closet, or later on a garage shelf. I needed it about once a month and as long as I gave it some time on the charger it fired off and did its thing admirably… or it did until this weekend when the last of its batteries finally gave up the ghost.

Now I don’t think these 17+ year old batteries owe me anything at all, but the timing couldn’t be more inconvenient. There’s a three-day weekend coming and here on the homestead that almost always means taking on some project that I can’t jam into a regularly scheduled weekend. The one I’m looking at for this weekend is definitely going to need more than a black and yellow paperweight.

The problem with power tools, as I’m finding in my research, is that half the cost seems to be in the batteries. While I could buy a pair of replacement batteries, by the time I get them here, I’m into it for half the price of buying two more powerful modern batteries, a charger, and and a new drill. Like so much of the other stuff that comes into this house, it turns out power tools are just another disposable commodity – more cost effective to replace than repair. Plus, since it use to run off the same set of batteries, I get to replace a circular saw too.

Somehow by the time it’s over, my $50 project for the garage is going to end up running about 1000% over budget. There’s got to be a lesson in there somewhere, right?

Flowing just fine…

After the first couple of torrential rainstorms last spring showed some of the design and execution flaws that went into making Fortress Jeff something less than watertight I went on a bit of a spree. Almost the entire back yard got subtly regraded to direct water away from the foundation. We buried a five inch line and routed a hidden drain and two downspouts into it in an effort to manage water flowing off the roof and sidewalk. I bricked up and waterproofed a basement window to eliminate a window well that did double duty as a retaining pond. With those changes, water management in the back yard has improved significantly… or it had up until this spring.

That’s when I noticed the in ground drain was starting to back up under the heaviest of downpours. Hundreds of gallons of rainwater dumping directly against the foundation is not my idea of a good time. Until today, most of the heaviest rains took place when I was away from the house or asleep. A few hours ago, a torrential downpour caught me at home and I got to see first hand the water shooting out the side of one of the standpipes.

Being on the sick list today, some people might have opted to look into the situation later. My particular brand of “fix it right the hell now” obsession doesn’t lend itself well to that kind of deferred curiosity. It was pouring down rain. My fancy drain system wasn’t working. I wanted to fix it or at least satisfy myself why it was off the rails.

I was soaked to the bone before I’d even made it halfway across the yard. Did I mention it was absolutely pouring at this point? Armed with a couple of sections of extendable probe and a shovel, I sloshed through the yard and down through the woods to where the drain reaches daylight. I could have saved myself the time and effort of carrying tools, because as soon as I tapped the edge of the plastic drain cover, the pressure of water behind it sent the cover skidding between by feet… to be followed immediately by a 5-inch diameter tube of rancid muck that was serving to plug the drain. How exactly it expanded from that 5-inch diameter to cover me from mid-chest to toes over a span of two feet, I will never understand. Just one of the many wonders of water pressure.

My best guess is this conglomeration of mud and muck was obstructing just enough of the pipe that it let a light rain or the sump discharge drain more or less unimpeded. Once under pressure, say from a 100-foot long column of water behind it, the foul-smelling stuff expanded to block off the drain completely and sent the overflow looking for the next easiest outlet. At least that’s what I think it was doing before it blew up all over my face.

The good news is that the drains are all flowing just fine now. The bad news is that I may have contracted ebola, zika, cholera, typhoid, or ghonoherpasyphilaids from whatever foul substance came flying out of that drain. If this is my last post, at least now you’ll know how it ended.

Dreams and wishes…

With all respect to Dr. Freud who argued that dreams are and exercise in wish fulfillment, I’m afraid I have to go out on a limb and beg to differ. I woke up in a cold sweat this morning near enough to 3AM in the aftermath of a dream in which I (for some unknown reason) was sitting on the back porch watching the back yard wash out all the way down to the bottom of the foundation. I can assure the good doctor that I in no way have any wish to do that kind of excavation work. Ever.

Maybe the most entertaining part is that Dream Jeff was completely uninterested by the every growing chasm that was appearing where his dream yard was supposed to be. I can only assume that the entire thing was just a bad reaction to too-late-in-the-evening meatloaf sandwiches and spending too much time obsessing about a dry basement.

I’d like to think the couple of hours I allocate to sleep are supposed to be a restful time. Fortunately last night is largely an exception to that rule. Even so, it’s yet another of the many reminders that sometimes inside my own head is a very strange place to pass the time.

Under construction (again)…

It’s springtime here at the homestead and that means the year’s big improvement projects are about to kick off. Fortunately this year’s points of main effort don’t involve the evisceration of the back yard as I’ve opted for two smaller and slightly less invasive projects this year.

Phase 1, getting underway at or around 8AM calls for removing and disposing of three relatively large white pines that are encroaching a bit too far towards the house and front yard. Bringing these guys down should improve some soggy yard issues on that corner of the house, but mostly getting rid of them was an esthetic decision. Opening up that side of the yard will dramatically improve the house’s “presence” as seen from the street. More importantly, perhaps, it will give the front two bedrooms an unobstructed view out to the stand of oaks currently hidden behind the pines. It’s nice to see that not every project on my list has to involve major feats of engineering.

In Phase 2, we move inside to brick over the basement window that has been the source of constant consternation and aggravation since I moved in. A little excavation, a little block cutting, half a dozen new cinder blocks, and a whole lot of exterior waterproofing and backfill should at least get me to the point where there isn’t a readymade pit for the water to build up in. In theory, removing the pooling water should go a long way towards remedying the problem. There are a lot of other ways we could have gone after it, but doing away with a below grade window that served absolutely no purpose felt like a no brainer. Once the basement is closed off and the window well filled in, whatever water falls should follow the new path of least resistance which is out towards the back yard instead of down towards the place where a window use to be. Not being a hydraulic engineer, that’s my operating theory anyway. Once we get the first good rain, we’ll see how well that theory pans out under real world conditions.

So that’s it. I’ll have contractors crawling all over the place tomorrow and then have two of the three big projects for the year finished. After almost a year in residence, it’s starting to feel like I’m putting my own stamp on the place.