On the house project scale of refresh—remodel—renovate—rehabilitate, we fall squarely in the renovate category. We’re not ripping everything down to the studs but we have to do pretty much everything just short of that. We’re certainly well beyond a remodel.
When you take on a renovation project, you know you’re in for a wild ride. There’s the stuff you can see before you start. And then there’s the stuff you can’t. You know there will be surprises—that’s a given. You just don’t know what they will be, when they will turn up, and how much it will cost. In my experience, those surprises are usually must-be-addressed issues, not optional ones.
I call it Renovation Roulette. The ball is in play. It will land somewhere. How much you lose is the unknown.
If these walls could talk
In the case of our little shit show, over the last couple of years, we’ve learned more about its history. As far as we can tell, it’s probably been a rental for most of its 49 years. That means it hasn’t been molested, as my dear man puts it. In other words, it hasn’t had a lot of ridiculous “personalized” things done to it by previous owners that need to be undone. But the rental mentality also means that any maintenance that has been done has been the cheapest, most minimal fix possible.
As a result, it has a lot of little quirks and it’s clear no one has ever invested in this house. It’s never been loved. It’s been a place to live, not a home. You have to have a lot of vision to look past all of its shortcomings—like the ancient cat-piss-rancid carpet, failing stucco, paint-splattered fireplace brick, mismatched doorknobs and kitchen cabinets, missing door hinges, barely-functional windows, built-up grime, and general disrepair—to see what potential this sad little house has.
Knowing that all those little, visible issues disguise bigger problems beneath, you brace for impact when you begin to inspect below the surface. Anyone who has taken on a house project knows the drill—you begin a new project only to discover all sorts of new (i.e. expensive) problems.
Part of that discovery process means becoming a renovation detective to understand the history of events and repairs. Because sometimes why previous repairs were done leads you to even more discoveries and informs your path forward.
Some of our discoveries so far include:
Major bathroom leak
A large section of rotted subfloor was hidden beneath the nasty old carpet we ripped up. We knew there was a substantial bathroom leak that had been repaired in the typical unloved-house way so the subfloor wasn’t really a surprise exactly. The extent was certainly an unknown. We just added that project to the to-do list. Fortunately the decking is still solid so that project doesn’t seem horribly onerous.
Knowing how this house has been treated, it does mean we need to be extra diligent about inspecting the previous plumbing repair to make sure it was adequately addressed before we seal walls back up post-renovation.
Furnace closet encasement
The furnace closet lacked proper encasement in the ceiling. That creates a negative pressure scenario that pulls in air from the attic. No bueno.
Sewer line failure
Not long after we moved in, our sewer line stopped draining. Let me tell you, that’s a true code brown moment!
Turns out our old pipe had collapsed some years past near the sidewalk. After the renovation forensics realization of “Oh, that’s why there’s a sunken sidewalk section!” we moved on to being horrified thinking of how long raw sewage had been seeping into the ground here.
Several months and many, many (did I mention many?) thousands of dollars later we got that resolved and enjoyed flushing with peace of mind again.
Too much water pressure
I know that’s hard to imagine. I’ve never lived in a place where you had to manage too much water pressure before. The implications for pipes, faucets, and appliances was a new-to-us phenomenon. The short version is that too much pressure causes these crucial house-bits to fail. We were already seeing the effects in the existing hardware so we decided to be proactive and install a pressure regulator well in advance of replacing faucets and appliances.
Sewer line failure—part 2
Tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick. Do you hear that? Why yes, renovation roulette strikes again!
In the process of digging up the water shut-off valve to install the water pressure regulator, we discovered a hole in the sewer line and a horribly leaky joint. So what started as a small proactive project turned into an unexpectedly large repair involving replacing yet another section of sewer line. This is the curse of renovation roulette.
The laundry facilities had been moved from the kitchen to the garage somewhere along the way. And, of course, poorly. They were simply swapped from the inside kitchen wall to the garage but with the layout of the house, that means two big honkin’ laundry machines sit right at the garage door entrance.
I don’t know if you’ve ever measured the depth of laundry machines but if you have, you know a standard machine is about 27 inches deep. Add in room for hoses, cords, and walking space to access the machines, and we lose half of the entrance width of an 8-foot door making the garage completely unusable for any vehicles.
You might have noticed we have two motorcycles and a big-ole sidecar that need the garage. So yes, we’ll be moving the washer and dryer back into the kitchen.
That’s not a roof, that’s a sieve
It appears roof leak stains had been embraced as a decor choice by previous owners. It was the dry season when we bought the house and we had no way of knowing which were still active.
Cue an epic monsoon season and we certainly found out. We attempted fruitless spot repairs to buy us a little time since any roof budget had been eaten up by the pricey sewer line repair. Eventually we had to just bite the bullet and do a full replacement.
The swamp cooler was an old piece of shit just like everything else in the house but it was functional. Until it wasn’t. Its failure coincided with the roof replacement during which we discovered that the cooler jack—the vertical sheet-metal duct the unit rests on—was too short. It was installed with one side of the cooler resting on the shingles. It would have to come down to address the roof replacement.
Since it suffered a catastrophic failure at the exact time it had to come off the roof anyway, it was sort of good timing. But piling on the mega-bills all at once was super un-fun.
When we ripped up the afore-mentioned nasty carpet, we found that about a third of the subfloor had been replaced in the bedrooms on the south and west sides of the house. What hadn’t been replaced still sports some epically vintage 1970s linoleum. Classy.
There was also an awkwardly placed floor joist across the crawl space access that was clearly not original to the house. With the help of a contractor, we were able to piece together a history of water damage that he assured us was repaired adequately.
Our detective work came to full enlightenment when the monsoon season began and we saw just how much water pools up on the east side of the house. Let’s just say it’s a lot and explained the need for such extensive repairs. So we’ve added gutters, swales, and French drains to the renovation plan to manage the substantial drainage issues that have never been addressed properly.
But wait, there’s more!
Later we noticed that the master half-bath door was a bit off-kilter. There was a normal amount of space at the top and close to an inch at the bottom. After poking around and even removing a large section of drywall to inspect for unaddressed rot, we discovered that in the water damage repair, no one thought to re-anchor the exterior wall to the foundation. No shit—we could wiggle the exterior wall.
It’s not all bad news. When we closed on the house all the utilities had been turned off for at least two years that we’re aware of. That means we had no idea if the appliances were viable before buying the house. That was one of the risks we took.
We got lucky on that one, though. They all worked. Mind you, they completely suck but they function at an acceptable level for now. That saved us from having to buy new appliances right away and keep them from getting damaged through the renovation. We’ll certainly take one small win in this whole process.
Of course there will be be more surprises but we’re chipping away at this massive project. So far we’ve made it through an electrical service upgrade, exterior window and door replacements (with the exception of the front door), re-stuccoing, re-anchoring the exterior wall, and reroofing without anything catastrophic rearing its head. Expensive, yes. Catastrophic, no.
The specter of starting any new portion of the project still looms large, though. Even though we know the renovation roulette game, we still have to mentally prepare for the unknown. It’s a brace-for-impact scenario and we have to be sure we’re in a good position to handle the surprises.
What we’ll tackle next, I’m not quite sure yet. Stay tuned.
Keep moving forward, friends!