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.

The drip…

I spent some time this morning, like I do on most pre-dawn Sunday mornings sitting at my desk, reading over the wires, paying a few bills, and drinking coffee before getting the day started in earnest. Somewhere, about 14 feet above my head one of the skylights is dripping. I know this because the mortgage statement I happened to have sitting in front of me suddenly had three distinct water marks appear on it. It was precisely three and now I’ve been sitting here for 30 minutes waiting on the next one to fall. But it hasn’t. Which means I’m going to end up doing exactly the kind of thing I didn’t want to do this weekend… break out the ladder and go searching for of a one-off leak in the damned skylight. This is how it suddenly turns into Sunday night and I’m left wondering where the weekend went. All because of three damned little drops of water and wanting to stop them from turning into a flood.

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.

A year later…

As most of the rest of the Western world is busy celebrating Easter, I’ve mostly spent this Sunday morning trying to wrap my head around the idea that one year ago almost to the hour I was sitting down and signing my name on 37,361 pieces of paper that allowed me to borrow a horrifying sum of cash and move into a far better house than I imagined possible. I won’t say that the year has been all sunshine and roses – it 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.

Now with that being said, and despite the general pain in the ass of being a homeowner, this place ranks among the better decisions I’ve ever made. Good bones, good neighborhood – and neighbors I can’t even see for three seasons of the year – it’s a hard place not to like. The longer I’m here, the more I change to suit me versus suiting the last guy to live here, the more I like it.

I’m already struggling to imagine that a year ago I was standing in the middle of a totally empty house wondering what the hell I’d gotten myself into.

Improving the margins…

With the budgets set and deposits for the major (planned) home improvement projects for 2016, I’m having to satisfy myself currently with making small improvements around the margins.

The big ticket items are easy enough to find – gutting the master bath back to the studs and putting it back the “right way,” pulling up the laminate countertops in the kitchen and replacing them with something more formidable, new carpet in four rooms, reworking the front yard a bit to improve grade, add deer-resistant plantings, and correct a few spots prone to erosion. All of those find their place somewhere along the grand 10-year plan. That’s not accounting for other general maintenance items – like the inevitable new furnace, air conditioner, or new roof. The joy of home ownership, right?

So yeah, knowing were I want things to go over the next 3,500 days, I’m trying to find and enjoy the quick hits where I can. Last week I added a few fire extinguishers – not sexy, but nice to have if you happen to need them. This week I added a battery backup to my a few of my key critical electronic components. That was a spur of the moment add after several round of the power not quite going out, but going out just enough to turn off all the computer gear. In the coming weeks I hope to see a few hanging tool racks and maybe a new work bench in the garage. Then there’s time allocated to make the basement more than a slightly leak prone but otherwise empty hole in the ground.

I’m pretty pleased with the improvements I’ve been able to make here less than a year after taking possession – even though they’re largely invisible unless you know what you’re looking at in the first place. All the little things – the nitnoid $50 improvements – go a surprisingly long way towards improving what you could call the quality of life. Given the length of the to do list I’m pondering, I figure I’ll have the last of it crossed off just about the time I’m ready to retire and let this place be someone else’s problem.

My 18th century so-called life…

One of the reasons I popped on Casa de Jeff 2.0 is the fact that it had a sun room that seems almost purpose built to be a home office. With the slope of the yard the room is just about eye level with the bottom of the forest canopy. The birds, squirrel, and occasional deer are a bit of a distraction, but otherwise I’ve found it ideal for reading and writing – although at this time of year, the room seems to be basically uninhabitable between the hours of 2:00-5:00 PM. I like that it’s a separate, self contained space, but not jammed in a corner at the far end of the house. When I’m not tinkering around on some other project, it’s usually where you’ll find me.

I only mention it now because I noticed for the first time as I sat down to write this that we’re already starting to lose daylight in the evening. We’re racing towards the end of July, with more of the summer behind us than in front of us. I like the long summer nights maybe more than I thought. Even though they’re still mostly here, I miss them already. That’s not to say that I’ve taken maximum advantage of them in any real way. There haven’t been any epic road trips – no vacation days to speak of that didn’t involve meeting a contractor to talk about some much needed repair or much desired alteration to the new homestead. In fact I’d wager I haven’t been more than 20 straight-line miles away from the house since I bought the place. Me and my 18th century so-called life.

It’s all been necessary, of course, but none of what I’ve been up to feels like what summer should be about. I’m not at all satisfied with that state of affairs, though I’ll grudgingly accept it as the current (and theoretically temporary) cost of doing business.

Learning acceptance…

Even with the afternoon and evening to go, I can feel Monday’s grinding maw approaching. One look at the list of things I was shooting to have finished by the time the curtain fell on the long weekend tells me there’s no path to get there from here. I hate that feeling. I also, just a little bit, hate that I care quite so much about it.

It wasn’t an exciting list, including such fun-filled activities as flushing the well filter, getting the mulch out of the front yard and back into the planting beds, wiping down baseboards, and giving the dog’s room a good scrub, and going on from there. Some of the things god crossed off. More of them will spill over onto next week’s already growing list.

It’s probably a character flaw, but I wish I could quiet down my head just a little and let more of the “small stuff” just be. I’m not wired like that. I thought briefly about trying to catch a movie this afternoon, before grudgingly admitting I wouldn’t get any joy from it as long as things were left undone or out of place on the homestead.

I do wonder sometimes if I might be a more sane person if I could somehow manage to learn acceptance – or at least come to an accommodation with whatever in my head urges me on to use every available hour to get one more thing off the list… Though with my own small mental quirks notwithstanding, I have to admit I’ve got this old house looking damned good. I wouldn’t eat off the floors or anything, but I’m pretty sure the casual observer would give the place passing marks. That’s something, right?

Now if it would just dry up enough outside that I could cut the grass and do some trimming we’d be all set.