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.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Lawn (work) envy. If there was ever a single sound that could get under my skin, it isn’t nails on a chalk board or the hi pitched whining of small human beings. The most awful of sounds is the sound of lawn maintenance happening somewhere next door when I’m working from home. No, I’m not mad that they’re doing it. I don’t feel interrupted or put upon at all. It’s mostly just a rising frustration that they’re able to get out there and do it while I’m stuck being more or less responsible and not able to take advantage of the good weather to do the same thing myself.

2. Calls from unknown or 800-number. By now you’d think your fancy algorithms would tell you that I’m not going to pick up. I never do. But I admire your hope-spings-eternal persistence. If you want to have any hope of getting my eyes on your product or service, try send me an old fashioned letter. I’ll at least scan the first line of that before shredding it… and every once in a great while I’ll read the pitch if you’ve got a good hook up front. Otherwise, feel free to continue going to voicemail. It’s entirely your choice.

3. Showing restraint. There’s really nothing worse than being forced by social convention to sit politely and try not to smirk when the person on the other side of a conversation so richly deserves being grabbed by the throat and pummeled against every flat surface in the room. No matter how much asshats like that deserve a bit of rough treatment, I’d be the one who ended up in jail for handing it out. Talk about living in an unjust world.

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.

A little grass…

I’d forgotten what a lesson in patience waiting for grass to grow is. As good as it was to see the first shoots coming up yesterday I’m ready for the process to be over. I’m ready for the muddy paw prints to be a thing of the past. I’m ready to not have enough clay to open a pottery store clinging to me every time I need to go from one side of the yard to another.

The virtue of starting a lawn from seed is that it’s cheap and relatively easy – assuming your not the type to obsess over soil conditions, watering schedules, and average sunlight. I really, really thought hard about going with sod. Roll it out, give it plenty to drink, and *poof* instant yard. If it hadn’t been another budget buster in a project that was already suffering its share of overruns it would have been a no brainer.

I’m trying to remind myself that this is the kind of thing that pays off in the end when you do it right. That’ll be an easier lesson to remember once i’m done scraping the clay off my shoes for the 3,756th time in the last two weeks.

My lying eyes…

As much as I’m a fan of crowing my successes, I’m not shy about calling my failures into account either. In this case, it’s a failure of whatever part of my brain is in charge of understanding spatial relationships. I just spent half an hour looking at a piece of the sidewalk that I was absolutely convinced was angled the wrong way (i.e. draining back towards the door). I wouldn’t quite say I obsessed on it, but I may have stomped around the yard checking it from all angles and becoming more and more convinced that it just wasn’t right.

I would have gone to bed tonight ready to pick a fight with the contractor tomorrow if I hadn’t remembered that I have a perfectly good level sitting out in the garage that would tell the real story. I’m glad my brain can be counted on for at least that much, because my eyes obviously lie. It may be ever so slightly sloped, but the walk does, in fact, drain the way it’s supposed to.

The stone edging and grass seed come in tomorrow and then all we need is a bit of rain to see if the effort and expense were worth it in the end. Despite my lying eyes, I think we’d be hard pressed to have made anything worse. Intellectually I’m sure we’ve made things much better. But I’ll feel better about the whole thing when I see it work… and once I’ve got more grass than dirt in the back yard.

Breaking eggs…

Today was largely the part of the project where we shatter the eggs in hopes of making an omelette at a later date. Lots of concrete came out. Lots of shrubbery went away. The air conditioner is, somewhat precariously, perched a foot higher waiting on the backfill to arrive tomorrow. The window well is cleaned out and ready to be reset. Basically three guys did in eight hours something that would have taken me three months to plow through a few hours at a time. Is it worth the cost? Probably. But that doesn’t make it any less humbling.

Tomorrow the real digging is going to start. Trenching will crisscross the yard in an effort to redirect every possible drop away from the house. Combined with the improved elevation that should theoretically resolve most of what ails this particular side of the house. For the time being I’ll be satisfied with that – even while knowing there’s at least that much work to do in the front at some point.

Still, I’m willing to call the first day a success… even if the actual heavy lifting is yet to come. All in the name of a dry basement.

The must haves…

Because I like lists and I’m feeling much more lazy than usual this evening, you’re getting a brief glimpse into the things I’m thinking about while I’m laying out my ideas for the back yard. Since they’re going to be shoving around a respectable amount of dirt I thought it would be helpful to go ahead and spell out exactly what I’m expecting out of this little project – especially since I’m looking for bids from three or four different companies. It’s only fair that I evaluate them using the same basic list of must haves versus wants. It’s certainly helped clarify my own goals… especially since I haven’t started assigning a dollar value to anything yet.

So far, the list looks a little like this:

Must haves:
1. Re-grade yard to drain away from house in the garage/porch area – add piped drainage if sufficient negative slope can’t be achieved
2. Remove mulched bed around a/c condenser – replace with sod/grass. Note this is a future zone for placing a backup generator so finish will need to support eventual placement of poured concrete pad
3. Remove boxwood shrubs at back porch steps, transplant to empty bed in front of house if feasible
4. Remove and dispose of “sticker bush” shrub at rear of house
5. Reinstall/replace sidewalk in existing area – all hardscape to be flush with surrounding ground/crossable with riding mower

Nice to haves:
1. Hardscape patio in current location of step down from porch – approximately same size as existing porch
2. Ramp/shallow steps from porch to ground level
3. Cut and haul away pine tree nearest house in front yard
4. Install privacy screen/surround for a/c condenser unit and similar screen for trash and recycling containers

The must have list is the bare minimum that’s going to have to be done regardless of cost… the rest, well, I’ll stretch the budget to allow for as many of them as possible… if there’s any budget left once the main effort is accounted for that is.