I’ll Be Your Handyman: A Photo Essay
This is my house. It didn’t always look this nice. The former owners painted it white, gray, and another gray, as seen below, which is a sinful thing to do to a Victorian house.
The key to understanding my house is knowing that it was built in 1870 (by the man our street is named for–he built the first 3 houses on the street, for himself and his children), and in 2006 we bought it for roughly 60% of the median home price in our town. For you renters, that means it’s going to need a lot of renovation.
Here’s my biggest problem area. The area in the center of the picture is a small shallowly sloped roof above our entry hall. For years the area had improper drainage, which led to structural damage. Beneath the green trim piece parallel to the guttering, a stud had rotted through at the bottom. Worse than that, beneath the window seen in the left of the picture, the foundation beam had rotted out, as seen here.
The estimate to repair it was over $1500, so I called my friend, Lance, we jacked up the house in that spot, cut out the rot, and slipped in a box beam constructed of 2×6 lumber (easily spotted in the picture below). Total cost, including jack rental: ~$70. I paid for the labor cost by helping Lance do some work on house.
Of course the bad drainage had also rotted the wood siding, so I replaced that as well, which also allowed me to improve the insulation and add house wrap.
Last year I had new gutters put in, taking care of the poor drainage problem. But the other, more serious, problem is that there has never been any insulation under that roof, so rising heat melts snow, the water flows down until it hits the colder roof above the eaves, where it re-freezes and creates an ice dam, which then causes meltwater to back up under the shingles where it pours down into the wall, damaging wood and weakening plaster. Pre-existing repairs in our entry hall tell us that this has been an on-going problem, and we’ve experienced it several times ourselves, including a severe case this year that left plaster barely clinging to lath. It was time to replace it, so my daughters got to have the rare pleasure of smashing the walls with mom and dad’s approval.
This necessitated removing all the wood trim on the walls, window and doorway. Not that we should have had to remove the plaster from around the door, since that’s nowhere near the leak, but because of the way the lath was structured, when you tear out this section, it forces you to tear out the next section, which forces you to tear out the next section… This is how things work in an old house, and I’m glad that I was at least able to save the opposite wall. But here’s how our entryway ended up.
All this will be replaced with drywall. I’d love to replaster it, to keep the character of the old house, but that’s cost-prohibitive. Maybe if my income was what people tend to assume it is…
But with all that water coming into the walls through the years, there has to be wood damage, right? Right. Here’s the beam at the top of the wall.
As bad as that looks, it’s an easy fix. Just support the rafters, cut out the rotted part with the sawz-all, and put in some new lumber.
It’s just like what we did with the foundation beam, but I didn’t even have to jack up the house. And I had enough scrap lumber on hand that I didn’t need to buy any. Sweet, eh?
Ah, but in a case like this you never know what damage lies beneath the surface. Once I cut out that section of beam, I could see all the other damaged wood. The ends of the 2 rafters and 2 joists you see in the picture above are rotted out, as are the fascia behind that beam and and the sill plate plate underneath it, along with the roof sheathing above it all. And just like that, this little job turns into a major reconstruction project.
So in a couple days I have some guys coming to give me an estimate. I’m guessing around $2500-$3000, most of which will be labor. So I may yet do the work myself. Here’s how it would work.
- Rip all the shingles off that whole section of flattish roof;
- Rip up the rotted sheething;
Tear out and replace rafters, joists, sill plate, and fascia;
Lay new plywood sheething;
Put a snow and ice membrane on top of the sheething to keep water out of the walls in the future.
Re-shingle the section of roof.
Materials costs–wood, membrane, and shingles–shouldn’t be more than a couple hundred bucks. Skill level required: moderate. The real issue is time and timeliness–I can’t pause for a few days midway through (or weeks, months, or years, as I tend to do on these jobs) because of the risk of rain. So I’m uncertain at this point whether to do it myself. It may depend on whether my friend Lance is available–he’s more skilled and works more quickly than I do.
I also think about absolute and comparative advantage in having a professional do it. But one thing you absolutely cannot buy with cash is the satisfaction of having done the job yourself. And I really value that satisfaction.
When that work is done I’m going to insulate under the roof before I have the drywall guy set to work (I’ve done drywall, but I can’t get a professional finish on the mudding). Between that and the membrane, the 140 year-old problem of leakage should finally be fixed, and that part of the house ready to last another century or more.
And then I’ll have to replace all that woodwork, and we’re going to cap it all off by replacing the sheet vinyl flooring with ceramic tile. Hopefully this all gets done before the in-laws come in July.
And maybe next year I’ll spend the $3500 to repair the hole in the foundation, big enough for a kid to fit through, below this wall, because, yes, the drainage problem damaged that as well. And modern code requires that you dig down 3 feet below ground level to put in a concrete footer for the brick foundation. A good idea, just a costly one, and one I’ll happily pay somebody else to do for me.
Keep all this in mind if you’re thinking of buying an old house. You have to like renovation, and particularly you should like the idea of taking something old and leaving it in better shape for the future than when you got it. You also need either some moderate skill or some disposable income, or both. The revolving loan at the credit union has been indispensable, but even so, each time I tap into it I have to remind myself; 60% of the median home price, 60%. But we’re still ahead financially, and it’s an adventure and-perhaps most importantly–a source of stories.