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.

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.

Lost productivity…

The good news is that a scathing, but entirely accurate comment card submitted to the Enterprise Help Desk gets a bit of attention. That’s basically where the good news stops – unless you count my diagnosis of imminent hard drive failure being proven correct as good news. I feel like that one could go in either column.

The bad news, because of course there’s bad news, is that as of the this afternoon, the local help desk has been tinkering with computer for 10 hours. When I left today there was no sign or signal that I’ll be getting it back any time soon. That basically means I spent the day staring at the ceiling, doing some long delayed shredding, and throwing away post it notes I no longer need. It doesn’t exactly fall into the productive work category.

By my rough math if they hang on to the damned infernal machine until at least noon tomorrow the cost just in lost productive time would be sufficient to purchase a new replacement computer. That of course isn’t how we do things. Uncle, as is his way, has a completely nonsensical way to measure costs and benefits.

I forecast that getting my computer back tomorrow is probably wildly optimistic. Wednesday is slightly more likely, but far from guaranteed. It’s infuriating that this is the standard way of running the business. It’s disheartening in the extreme. I know I do good work… when the damned policies, procedures, and relentless pursuit of mediocrity don’t try to trip me up at every available opportunity. I’m sure I’ve had days where I’ve been more dispirited about the state of my chosen profession, but they’ve been few and far between.

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.

Plumbed…

Every time I hire a plumber I’m struck with a moment of wondering why I’m paying good money to have someone do things I could do myself. Then I generally remember that I’ve probably tried, and failed, to do the work myself and that’s why I called the plumber in the first place. Yes, they’re expensive. Yes, they disrupt the household. Yes, there are other things I’d rather be spending my money on. Then again, I do like indoor plumbing so there’s the rub.

With time and practice, trial and error, I don’t doubt there’s any system in this house that I couldn’t eventually learn to repair in its entirety. While I have many skill sets, though, plumbing and electrical aren’t currently among them. Maybe they should be, but they’re not.

In most cases it boils down to the value of time. Some small things are easy enough, can be whipped out in an hour and life can return to normal. Others, well, that’s when it pays to know what your own time is worth and be willing to farm out the jobs that are going to eat up too much of it.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. I have an exercise bike I’ve used pretty consistently since I lived in Tennessee. It was my one concession to coming home from siting at a desk all day and then sitting down at home and sitting in front of another monitor for three or four hours. Since I moved to the new place here, it’s been a dust collector. With the yard demanding less attention and slowly gearing up for the part of the year when I don’t want to be outside, I though it was high time to get it our of semi-retirement and get back into the routine… which would have been good except for the electrical system that fried somewhere between here and there. As per usual, due to planned obsolescence the repair parts commonly available don’t quite fit, so the whole things is sitting in pieces in the back bedroom waiting to see whether it gets repaired, replaced, or if I just say the hell with my head nod towards exercise.

2. Every afternoon I pass a deli that offers steamed crabs in the summer. They’re good crabs. A few times I summer I’ll stop on a Friday night and pick up a dozen with a six pack. It’s hard not to like that kind of dinner. The thing that annoys me is the enormous sign that says “CRABS!!! EBT Welcome!!!” People end up getting food assistance for all manner or reason, but there’s just something about a taxpayer subsidized steamed crab dinner that makes me twitchy. With a bushel of #1 jimmy’s running upwards of $200 in mid-summer, it feels like an extravagant thing to even advertise. Paying for the essentials is one thing, but using public assistance for what by any assessment is a pure luxury feels wrong. If that makes me sound like a judgmental prick, well, ok. Maybe I’d be less annoyed if someone else was paying for my blue crabs.

3. I’ve seen several articles this week where robots are taking the place of flesh and blood workers. I’m not sure why anyone would be surprised by this. With the push for a $15 an hour minimum wage I suspect we’ll see a lot more people replaced with technology. Those jobs that can be automated, will be automated. Gaining operational efficiencies like that will be the corporate solution for paying $15 an hour to people doing work that can’t be effectively automated. No business that wants to stay in business is going to stand quietly and take it in the bottom line. They’ll find their cost savings somewhere – and with the biggest expense of many service oriented businesses being personnel costs, none of us should be surprised where they go to find those savings. It’s what happens when we pass laws without consideration for second or third level effects. Whoops.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Greece. What’s the problem? You ginned up a mountain of bills and now suddenly don’t want to pay because it’s too hard. It’s unfair. The big countries are picking on you. God it sounds so familiar – like exactly what happened when so many people in this country found themselves in homes they couldn’t afford “through no fault of their own.” Except see, there is fault. There is definite fault when you spend other people’s money without any reasonably expectation of ever being able to pay it back. Putting your financial house in order is painful. It sucks. All the free stuff people thought they were entitled too is suddenly not free – or not there because you can’t afford it. And the only way the economy keeps on working is if people who loan money can expect to get that money back. It’s a loan, not a gift after all. I feel ever more strongly that the US is headed in a similar direction to our Greek friends. $18 Trillion in loans aren’t going to pay back themselves – and they’re certainly not going to get paid while we continue to add more debt to the pile. If Greece’s gnashing of teeth is any indicator of the howl that will go up when the US realizes we can’t afford to be all things to all people, we’re in for one hell of a rough ride.

2. Negotiating with terrorists. According to the US government it’s now OK for our fellow citizens to negotiate with terrorists. While I won’t pretend to imagine the nightmare that is having a family member or loved one in the hands of ISIS, I can tell you that I wouldn’t want my family to be responsible for providing aid and comfort to the enemy in the form of a substantial cash donation on my behalf. What I would like, on the other hand, is for the armored fist of the most powerful nation in the world to come crashing through the terrorist’s front door in an effort to a)rescue me and b) eradicate the terrorists who believe kidnapping an American citizen will end well for them. If Option A and Option B are mutually exclusive, please feel free to exercise Option B with as much lethality as necessary to get the job done. And then drop a few more 1000-pound bombs just to stir up the dust and make the rubble bounce a bit for good measure.

3. The joys of home ownership. Don’t get me wrong, I love the house. It crossed off just about every feature I had on my list. Having been in it now for three months, though, some of its warts are showing… and by warts I’m referring to the perpetually moist basement / piss poor foundation grading and drainage / sieve-like window well combination that I’ve been fighting since spring time turned into Maryland’s version monsoon season. Between the landscape contractors looking at fixes to my own modest efforts at improving the around-the-house drainage situation trying to get a grip on the underside of this not so old house has become something of a second job. Now I know it’s mostly just a function of sealing up the window well, correcting the drainage, and adding on a secondary source of electricity to keep the pumps chugging along… but just now, with another couple of days of rain in the forecast, my patience – something never know to be in vast supply – is wearing even more thin than usual.