Tag Archives: renovation

the post everyone wants to read and i don’t want to write


House woes.

I haven’t written any house stories in awhile for lots of different reasons. Mostly frustration, but also a fair share of caution in being careful about just how much I share here that’s still floating up in the air, undecided.

When we started the process I warned that it would likely be a long one, but I didn’t anticipate it being quite this long. I thought that it would be fun to share the process, but it was also sort of exhausting to do it. I admire people that share these kind of renovation stories as they go. I also know that they do it as their job, and I have another full time job plus about a half dozen serious side gigs that keep be perpetually busy.

The biggest reason for my silence was disappointment. I wanted things to go smoothly. We worked our tails off to ensure that. If I were to add up the hours of time spent and the thousands of dollars spent on drawings and models and engineering and site work, etc. I would probably cry. I have cried. On two occasions, in epic fashion. The first was on my birthday last year, when we met with our first contractor to discuss the lack of subcontractor participation and skyrocketing construction costs and packed schedules. I didn’t actually cry in front of him, but I did later, when I let myself sit in that disappointment. I had glued myself to a chair and a laptop at our dining room table for nights and weekends too many to count, and it felt like an impossible project at that point.

Contractor #1 proposed a new idea – a collaboration with contractor #2, with more availability, less expensive overhead, and the opportunity for contractor #1 to do all the finish work that he’s exceptionally skilled at. Hope again, until that crashed and burned. Contractor #2 had less luck with sub bids, and the summer and early fall felt wasted to us before he got back to us and confessed that the project was out of his comfort zone. That was the second big cry.

In the meantime, we considered a few other houses in our zip code. Several of our favorite houses (from the outside) were listed over the past year and a half, and we’ve made appointments to see four of them on repeat occasions. Three moved to heavy consideration phase, and one recently moved beyond that stage before the owners changed their minds and decided not to sell. The entire time we remained conflicted about leaving our current house, a place that has quite literally been built on sweat and tears and love. The girls enjoy looking at other houses, but remain firmly in the current home / forever home camp. They want to build the addition and carriage house so badly, and that’s the hardest part of the whole thing. Time is flying by, and I worry that we’ve missed our window. I worry about that a lot.

We regrouped in the late fall and winter, and streamlined the entire set of drawings in order to reduce cost in three areas that seemed out of control. We re-engineered everything, and again I chained myself to the work most nights and weekends. Contractor #1 wanted another go at it, and had more time to devote to it this year. We handed our revised set over in early March, and then I got to relive my birthday disappointment  yet again this past April. Better, but not good enough.

In really basic terms, here is the issue. We have a tight, narrow lot, that makes everything more complicated.

See me here in the early 2000’s – hand digging out bricks to create this lovely blank slate for construction? If only I could just build the whole darn thing myself. (Joking.)

We’re drastically changing our house with this addition, but the overall footprint of the addition is not large. So the square foot cost of the work is really high. We have to work within a range of values dictated by the future value of the house post-construction. Our neighborhood has so many different housing types – apartments, two- and four-family flats, single family homes – it’s one of the things that I love about it. There’s a place for everyone. Other neighborhoods in our zip code (think Lafayette Square or Compton Heights) have a much higher ratio of single family (very large!) homes, where property values can soar to twice the highest value of single family homes in our neighborhood. The bank can consider comps in both of those neighborhoods when assessing the value of single family homes in our neighborhood, but there’s definitely a lower cap on values where we live that you don’t see in some of these adjoining neighborhoods. So we keep hitting this over-improvement ceiling on our house. It makes us nervous and cautious, and it turns the bank off completely.

Our single best asset in this whole thing is the ability to construct a separate living unit above the garage. I go into detail on why that’s a great thing (and a rare opportunity) in this post. So we have that going for us. BUT. We have to build it to see the future value of our house support the improvement costs. So we can’t just build the addition now and do the carriage house in a later phase. And we can’t build the carriage house first and do the addition later – we’d be completely landlocked at that point. So it’s all or nothing, and at the moment we’re still nothing.

We’re much closer than we were last April to that magic number, but we’re still not there. We met with contractor #1 in early July, and we’ve petitioned our lender again for some leniency, but to no avail. It’s frustrating to know how to do something and be able to afford to do something, and still be told that we can’t do something. We have another hybrid plan that we’re trying now, and I want to be optimistic again. But I’m guarded about it. I’m not up for that third ugly cry anytime soon.

This isn’t a great story. It involves a lot of disappointment and long stretches of sadness and regrouping. We’ve continued to knock off some of the interior projects on the existing house as we go, and those are good things that we enjoy. The fireplace might be at the top of that list. We’ve helped my sister on her new house, and that’s been exciting and also a little hard to watch. We’ve seen friends plan and implement their own renovations and we’ve wondered how we’ve managed to have a project that nobody wants to do when everyone else seems to be able to line up help and expertise with no sweat. It’s not a place of jealousy where I write this, just a place of sadness that we haven’t been able to complete this project with our girls. I want them to be a part of it because we’ve included them in the process so much already.

They love our home, and don’t want to leave. I’m with them.

Here’s tiny F next to giant scaffolding during our last major project phase. She’s nine now, and three times this size, so we’re overdue another overhaul. It’s good for the soul, a little dust up, I say. We’ll take all finger crossing you can manage our way.

garden inspiration

It’s starting to thaw out a bit here, and the days are stretching a few minutes longer each day. I’m ready to be back at the garden on Wednesday mornings – we draw the line at temperatures in the thirties or below. I don’t mind a brisk walk, but it’s also been nice to linger in coffee shops with F for an hour or more in lieu of our garden strolls. Much warmer too!

But I’ve got gardens on the brain, specifically our own. Our yard has been really neglected for ages – it’s just not something I’ve wanted to invest too much in once we knew that we wanted to add onto the house. And things are looking hopeful for that this year (please, fingers crossed, everyone together now), and so I’ve been collecting my thoughts on it while the weather is still cold and gray.

Our new front gate was delayed in production, but I received word on Monday that it’s done, and installation of the gate and missing panel should be happening next week! Other than the long lead time, so far we’ve been really pleased with Classic Metal Craft. I had one of the owners come out last week to measure the sides of our front yard so that he could work up a quote for replacing the sorry looking chain link fences there. Our plan this summer is to remove the front boxwoods, erect scaffolding for repairs and repainting, install new windows, and then we’ll have a blank slate in the front yard.

Before we implement a landscape plan there, I want to install those side fences, so it’s nice to have a quote in hand.

And then we’ll have our rear yard as a blank slate too, once the construction is done. I want continuity between the two spaces, and I want to also green as many spaces (even vertical ones) on the house as possible. Because our yard is small I’d like to keep it simple. Greens and whites and silvers against a backdrop of charcoal and existing brick. Some purples as well. Pea gravel and salvaged brick in areas for walking or sitting.

The roof gardens will be a good opportunity for some vegetable growing, and a cutting garden as well. I see those being a little more colorful, and will likely take awhile before we get them laid out and planted. They are listed as “future” on the house plans, and we just might be broke and exhausted before we get there.

Having a “new” courtyard garden with a nice fence on two sides and a glassy dining room on one end and carriage house on the other is beyond exciting to me. It feels like we’ve been dreaming about this for ages. My patience is waning. I wish it was here, done, ready for weekends of playing in the dirt.

For now there are pictures, lush and green for a gray January day. A few more months – I can do this. I think.

sad gate / happy gate

We’ve been knocking out a lot of smaller to-do lists on the existing house while waiting for the bigger project to start. One of those nagging items was replacing our front gate. The photo above was taken during the first full summer we lived in the house (2001) – look at that pitiful mansard and sagging dormer, yikes. You can see two of the four original fence posts in that photo, along with a slightly sagging front gate. The rest of the “fencing” was a temporary wire fence that had been put in place to keep out animals? Look nicer than no fence? Who knows.

The story we were told was that the original fence had been stolen. This was not uncommon in these old neighborhoods where properties stood vacant and architectural relics were worth good money. There’s a street on the southern end of our neighborhood called Cherokee Street that was known as Antique Row, and it was a really booming place in the nineties and early 2000’s. So if you were missing something on your house, that was the first place to check. (I wrote about the structural stars in an old post here.)

We used to spend a lot of time in these stores, looking for old doors and hardware or mantels or other items we needed during those early stages of renovation. I was digging around the courtyard area of one place, and I saw these really beautiful old fence panels leaning up against the fence. After measuring how many linear feet there were – and getting the price for the panels (only $300, which seems crazy cheap to me now, but was really expensive at the time), we bought them. We contacted Eureka Forge and met the head blacksmith there, Todd Kinnikin. He made two new intermediate posts in that long run of fence, and divided the salvaged fencing into three equal sections for that area, plus one smaller section to the left of the existing gate. The tops of the salvaged fence were bent over and pretty beat up, but he straightened everything out, cleaned them up, painted, and installed them. He also made our steel front porch, and the post details there match the intermediate posts on the fence.

It looks really pretty in the snow.

But back to that old gate. You can see how junky it looks next to the fence. It leans, and those hinges are rusty and shot. The rusted chain is a good look too. There’s this pipe that sticks out of the ground to provide a place for the gate to latch, which makes the whole gate look like a cobbeled together afterthought. It doesn’t swing out anymore, and gets caught in odd angles when swinging in. We’ve tried several times over the years to get Eureka Forge to make a new gate for us, but Todd has passed away, and his son runs the business now and they are always swamped with work. It just never seemed to be a huge priority.

But this summer one of the brackets gave out on the shorter fence panel to the left of the gate, and M took the whole panel off to make sure that it wouldn’t “walk away”. So it looks really bad now with the missing fence panel and sad sagging gate. It was the kick in the pants we needed to get this work done.

I contacted two ornamental iron companies, and after a few weeks I received quotes back from both. They were pricing the repairs to the brackets and installation of the missing panel, and we also asked for a newly designed gate that would match the details of our existing fence. Both quotes were pretty similar (and both left me longing for those 2001 fence prices!), but we went with Classic Metal Craft because they had the most detailed quote and also didn’t look at me cross-eyed when I asked for shop drawings. The catch was they were 14-15 weeks out on their schedule, so we’ve been looking at this eyesore for months.

Two weeks ago they picked up the missing panel, and did final field measurements, and last week I received the first round of shop drawings.

It was pretty exciting to see just how GOOD the new gate was going to look compared to that old one. They had done what we asked – matched the details of the existing fence for the gate design. But when we looked at all the other wrought iron fences/gates on our street, we noticed that all of the gates had something different that helped to distinguish it as an entrance – an arched or pointed top. Since we have an arched top window detail on the house, I sent back this sketch with a revision idea. I also noted that their drawings were missing the bottom detail of the fence.

They revised the gate drawings and they look amazing.¬†We inquired about the need for a cross brace, and they showed it on the drawings, but they said there are enough welds on the gate to prevent sagging over time. But we’re going to leave it there as an insurance policy. It’s a detail on most of the gates on our street.

Look how good the gate looks in the context of the rest of the fence. I can’t wait for it to be installed.

I optimistically bought the pine roping this year for the fence. We might go ahead and install it on just the long part of the fence for now, but I’m hoping that the gate and missing panel might get installed before Christmas. We’re planning some projects for the front of the house next year – historic replacement windows and erecting scaffolding to repaint the trim. It’s been sixteen years since we last did that, so three cheers for good prep work and paint! We’ll have to rip out the bushes, and so I’m also hoping to get a landscape plan in place for what I want this front yard to look like. I’d also love to remove the neighboring chain link fencing and install a simple black iron fence on the sides at the same time. It’s a snowball thing, I know, but I can imagine how much it will enhance our curb appeal, and how good it will look for our Thursday night blues gatherings when it’s done.