Monday, July 26, 2010

Dominoes Falling

My friend Lime has been blogging recently about some once-and-future home-improvement projects over at her house. Which, as it turns out, is a fairly current topic at our place, too. But of course, first you get the history lesson ('context setting', dontchaknow). . . ------------------------- We bought our current house a bit over ten years ago. At the time, we had lived in our previous house for 17 years, and the two of us, with seven kids, were just a bit much for 1400 square feet. We'd tried all manner of space-saving and space-multiplying expedients - I built a loft so that three boys and all their toys and clothes could more-or-less fit into a 12x12 room. Jen and I had even taken to sleeping on a hide-a-bed so that our 'bedroom' could function as the kids' play room during the day. I was just about to draw up plans to add a second story to the rear addition, and possibly even carve an office for myself out of some 'third-floor' attic space. That fall (which, coincidentally enough, was just after 7M's accident), the two of us went on one of our infrequent getaway weekends to a bed-and-breakfast Up North. We had a great, refreshing, relaxing time, but Jen was saving the real point of the weekend (at least, as far as she was concerned) for the drive home. "We need a new house," she said to me, very matter-of-factly. I started to explain about my plans for expanding on our then-current domicile, but she just shook her head and waved me off. Our older kids, by then, were in high school, and she was envisioning the day in the not-too-distant future when they would be marrying and having children of their own. "Our house simply isn't big enough to have any kind of extended-family gathering in it. We can add bedrooms, but the dining room will be just as tiny. It won't work. We need a new house." I couldn't argue with her logic, but I countered with the positives of our situation. Living, as we did, walking distance from the kids' school, and even from church, made for some nice efficiencies, which I didn't really want to give up. So I told her that if she could find a house of at least 2000 square feet (since it would hardly be worth moving for anything much less) and four bedrooms (five would be better), walking distance from school and church, for a price we could afford (I did some quick mental math to arrive at a dollar figure), I would buy it. But, I added - I didn't think she could (yeah, just call me Mr. Supportive). I should have known better than to throw that kind of a challenge down in front of my wife (or, you know, maybe I was dumb like a fox). Within less than a month, she found a 2300 square-foot house, four blocks from both the school and church (we had been two blocks away, but four was well within 'walkable' distance), with four bedrooms, and a little efficiency apartment carved out of the basement (which wasn't even counted in the square footage), for the exact price I had specified. The only thing that remained was to sell our old house, which presented a whole separate obstacle, both real and psychological. We had owned another house previously (the one whose neighbors were burned out, if you recall), and that house had nearly broken us, trying to sell it. It took two years to sell (in the mid-80s), and we ended up dumping it for a loss, just to get rid of the monthly payment. So I was not looking forward to selling another house. But lo and behold, in the year or two leading up to our latest need to sell, the real estate market for our part of town underwent a small boom, and we ended up selling for a fairly substantial profit. Which was a good thing, because our new house was a definite fixer-upper. The house had been abandoned to the government for unpaid taxes (and HUD was the mortgage-holder). By the time we saw it, it was the middle of winter, and abandoning a house in mid-winter does not do kind things to the house. It had hot-water heat, with the old-style cast-iron radiators. But the water had been left in the system, and all the radiators had cracked, leaking water all over the floor. Which was not as bad as it might have been, since the water mostly froze. So our first order of business was to install a new heating system. With a little research, we found that a new high-efficiency forced-air furnace was sufficiently cheaper than replacing the hot-water system, that we could also install central air for the same money. The house was also badly insulated, so we spent some more on tightening up the insulation, and upgrading some of the older wiring. By the time all was said and done, we ended up plowing all of the profit from the sale of the old house into improvements on the new house. ------------------------- Which is a really cool story, all by itself, but it's mostly just a long, elaborate lead-in to the story I started out to tell. . . When the cast-iron radiator in the living room of the new house broke, it spilled rusty water all over the living-room carpet, so that, by the time we bought the house, the carpet was badly rust-stained. Which was low-enough on the priority list that we ran out of fixing-up funds before we got to the carpet. So we just threw a nice area rug over the rust stain, and Jen was content enough with that arrangement. For ten years, anyway. This summer, one of Jen's friends (who is obviously fussier about her carpets than we are), decided to take the carpet out of one of her rooms. It was still fairly new and in good shape, and she offered us her lightly-used carpet, which was just slightly bigger than our living room. So Jen jumped at it, and I came home from work one day a month or so ago, to find all the living-room furniture moved to other rooms, and the carpet torn out. Strike while the iron's hot, and all that. Then, while she was considering how the room would look with new carpet in it, Jen thought to herself that, having taken the old carpet out, this was really the best time to paint the living room, while she was at it, so she went and got color samples, to work out the best shade for matching the new carpet. Good thinking, sweetheart. Then came the coup de grace, which requires a bit of explanation. Virtually all of the old houses in our neighborhood (which are anywhere from 80-120 years old) have lovely old woodwork in them - oak, walnut, cherry, maple; beautiful stuff. In about half of them, that beautiful old woodwork has been painted over (particularly if the house was ever a rental). And ours was one of the 'painted' half. Which might not have bothered us too terribly much; we could always just tell ourselves that it was pine, and not worth our trouble. Until one day, one of the kids, in one of those absent-minded bits of fidgety destruction that kids are wont to have, idly picked away at some loose paint on one of the door frames, uncovering some really beautiful old hardwood. So Jen and I sighed, and went ahead and stripped that one door frame. Which is quite lovely, but it has stood as a taunt to us that, look, all these other door frames and windows, and baseboards are just sitting there, at least as lovely as I am, and you know darn well you're gonna end up stripping them, too. . . But you know, raising eight kids just never quite seems to leave enough time to take on a decent woodwork-stripping project. But this summer, things are different - Jen tore out the carpet, so she might as well just go ahead and paint. And if she's gonna paint, she might as well just go ahead and strip the woodwork in the living room. Thus do the dominoes fall. So, for the past few weeks, Jen has been spending her days stripping in the living room (which, yeah, I'm not above grabbing for the obvious cheap laugh, so go ahead). And it looks really nice. And it'll look even nicer when it's painted. And when the new carpet gets laid. In the course of our married life (which is now closing in fast on 30 years' duration), I have greatly benefitted, on multiple occasions, from my wife's very high energy levels. Which, in conjunction with her occasional penchant for impulsivity, can end up getting some really nice stuff done, which might never get done if it was up to me to sit down and plan it all out. . . ------------------------- And just for the sake of setting the full context, while we were in the midst of full-destruction-mode on the living room, the garbage disposal gave up the ghost. Well, as it turns out, the disposal was OK; the ground-fault outlet it was plugged into died (which was actually a pretty nifty bit of trouble-shooting all by itself). So, as a short-term fix, we plugged the disposal into a surge-protected power-strip on the floor, and she was using the reset switch on the power-strip with her foot; sorta like a pedal-operated garbage disposal. Pretty neat. Then, last weekend, while I was out riding my bike, I heard a *pop*, and suddenly, my handlebars were all loose and floppy. I was able to finish my ride, but, without 'fixed' handlebars, it's hard to do the rhythmic, out-of-the-saddle climbing that is demanded by a few of the stiffer hills in our area. So I had to grunt up 'em in a low gear, which is decidedly less fun. And then I had to take my bike in to the shop for a new stem. And then, the brakes on my car started making a nasty-sounding grinding noise. Again, it's not that big a deal to get my brakes done, but with Jen fully-engaged in refinishing the living room, such a simple expedient as running the car in to the shop for brakes is considerably more disruptive than usual. (*sigh*) In the immortal words of Gilda Radner, it's always something. . . ------------------------- As a sort-of post-script-in-advance, I should mention the built-in china cabinets in our dining room, which, like all the other woodwork in our house, have been painted over. Ever since we first discovered that we had some seriously nice woodwork hiding beneath all that paint, we have known that, in the fullness of time, we would want to strip and refinish those cabinets. But it was just too daunting to think about all that wood, and the work that would go into bringing it to the light of day. But now, having successfully attacked the living room, which is a fair bit smaller than the dining room (at least, in terms of woodwork to refinish), we have a better idea of what-all would go into doing the dining room, and it's not quite so scary as it once was. So - this summer, the living room; next summer, the dining room? It's actually pretty cool to think about. And it just reinforces what I've known for years. . . I love my wife.


  1. We had an addition put on our house 5 years ago just to avoid the whole moving process! We've lived here 20 years now and have 'redone' every room at least once. The master bedroom is about due again, but the previous owners painted over wallpaper and I'm sort of dreading the whole 'what should we do about it?' question.

    You should post some before and after photos if you have them!

  2. Oh, Lord, what a read. I am very tired from just hearing about the work, so I can imagine that you're likely to be exhausted upon completion of it. You should take a nap. That's what I always do when the urge to improve something strikes me. By the time I wake up, the urge is gone and I can resume my sluglike existence without any guilt.

  3. it's kinda like the "i you give a mouse a cookie" books. if you give jen a carpet she's going to want to paint the walls. if she decides to paint the walls she's going to want to strip the woodwork...

    having lived in an old house like that i know what you mean about the gorgeous...sigh....

    oh, and i LOVE how she rose to your challenge. jen rocks!

  4. I have to be honest. There's a basket of clean, folded laundry up in my bedroom right now that's been sitting there for three days, just waiting for me to put the few items in it away. I've been feeling too lazy to do it, so I think I want to ask Jen to swing by between all her other tasks and take that one on, too!

  5. Cocotte - As you can see here, I am very familiar with the whole 'let's add on so as to avoid moving' line of thinking. Which doesn't always work. . .

    We never think to take the 'before' pix. When we remodeled our kitchen, it was really nice, but if you could see the 'before' photos, it was spectacular. . . (*sigh*)

    Suldog - Well, if a sluglike existence is what you aspire to, 'guilt-free' is definitely the way to go. . . ;)

    Lime - She not only rocks, she's been known to roll, as well!

    And she is the perfect complement for my more, um, cautious and (*cough*)lazy(*cough*) tendencies. . .

    faDKoG - I hate to dash your hopes, but part of how she makes time for things like stripping woodwork is to make the kids do their own laundry. . . ;)