Saturday, September 6, 2008

2 Years of Homesteading

Two years. We've just hit the two year anniversary of when we moved into our house. I would say it's been a wild ride - which it has - but that also seems to be par for the course for Eric and me. We are worker bees -- always in need of a project. But, in the last two years, the number of projects we have taken on all at once has hit a new high. I know I've written about it before -- but, I'm about to again. This blog allows me to chronicle where we've been and where we're going - and I really like that. I used to be a big journaler. Starting after my car accident when I was 12, I became an avid journal keeper. It was my way of processing life. But, those journals were the journals of a distressed teenager trying to deal with all the emotions and turmoil of growing up. I stopped journaling when I was about 21. I didn't need that outlet anymore -- I had a good sense of myself and where I was going and how I was going to get there. And I didn't miss it. But, now I have this blog - which I started for the sole purpose of keeping friends and family informed about our pregnancy and Kailey's adventures. However, now that I have it, it's become a tool to keep track of what we've done. I'm especially glad I've had it this year because this year has been insane. A year I don't want to repeat, but I also don't want to forget. So, it's nice to have the journal.

I don't want to forget all that we've done since we got this house, either. I think buying a house kicked us into overdrive. Well, the house and then the impending arrival of Kai. It was really Kai that kicked us into overdrive. But, long before we'd decided to have a baby, we'd come up with a blueprint for the house. We had conversations about everything you could do to the house in the 11 days between our first viewing and the time when the ink dried on the papers committing us to this massive undertaking. We knew we'd be redoing the kitchen. Obviously. When you buy a house without a kitchen, you're committing yourself to building a kitchen (well, one would think that would be true... of course, this house was built in 1925 and no one in the previous 81 years had seen the need for a kitchen). But, there were many projects beyond the kitchen. We could paint the living room and add lighting (it is nice to have a light or two in the room where you spend most of your time). We could remodel the bathroom and add a bathtub. Landscape the yard and build a wraparound deck. Remodel the garage and add a second story that would serve as our office/guesthouse. Add a deck to the upper yard and a hot tub (now, why was this not our first project?!). Make the closet in our bedroom more functional. Convert the basement into something else. We had a lot of ideas; although, we were a bit short on the other two essential ingredients for massive remodels: time and money. But, we'd figure it out. We always do.

We were warned when we bought the house that we shouldn't just dive into the projects. We should live in it awhile and think about what we really wanted to do -- so that we didn't end up regretting any of our decisions and have to circle back and redo something. That seemed like sage advice, and so we moved into the house with no kitchen, no lights in the living room, depressing tannish walls, a backyard that encroached on the house making it feel like we were living in a cave despite the fact that we were up a big hill, a moldy bathroom, and a whole host of other issues. We moved in and started planning. We started visiting kitchen and bathroom showrooms and appliance stores; went to open houses in our neighborhood to see what others had done with their homes; talked to architects. real estate agents, builders, plumbers, electricians, and designers to get their advice on our space; created a blueprint of our house (here I use the royal "we" since I am not one for drawing things, particularly if they need to be to scale); and talked and talked and talked and talked about what we should do.

After all that talking -- we started working. And, I want to try to capture all that we've done in these first two years. Feel free to skip this -- it's really for us. I just want to chronicle it all before I forget.

Winter 2006
The only project we took on that first winter was the wedgewood stove. The house was advertised as having a wedgewood stove - as if that was a selling point! As soon as we moved in, we started talking about how to get it out. First of all, it was enormous. It was 46" wide, I remember that for some reason. Our house is cozy (aka tiny)... who wants a stove that is nearly 4' across in a house that is shy of 700 square feet? And, it leaked gas. A lot. In fact, about 8 weeks after we moved in, I was home alone on a Sunday. Eric was at work and I was trying to watch TV or some such thing and decided I was TIRED of smelling gas. So, I called the gas company and told them it smelled a bit of gas and wondered if they might be able to come fix it. Yes, right away, they replied. And boy, did they mean it. 15 minutes later there was a gas guy at the house. On a Sunday. I guess having your house smelling of gas is not a good thing. I didn't mention to him that this wasn't exactly a new smell. He came into the house with his little gas detector and flipped it on and the thing started bleeping and spurting -- it sounded like it was yelling "emergency! emergency!" The closer he got to the stove, the more the little gas-o-meter worked itself into a frenzy. I was promptly told that we would no longer have a functioning stove. He capped it and asked me how to get into the basement, at which point I got a little nervous. I didn't really want him turning off our gas completely. It was winter and it was cold, and the house was heated by a (very, very old) gas furnace (which was precisely why I didn't want to go in the basement). But, I didn't really see how I could keep him out of the basement, so downstairs we went and as soon as we got inside, his little meter started going insane again. He threatened to turn off the gas and I turned on my helpless female charms (you do what you have to do in some situations) and begged him to fix it, which he ultimately did.

All of that is a long way of saying that our first house project was ridding the house of the leaky gas smell. Our second project was getting rid of that wedgewood stove, which was no small task given where we live. There are 35 steps winding their way to our front door. And, as if that's not enough, the steps are uneven and take a couple of turns. It is not the easiest house to move things in and out of -- particularly 46" wide wedgewood stoves that weighs about a ton. We tried selling the thing on craigslist, and got no takers. Then we tried giving it away to anyone that would get it the hell out of our house. We had many people interested in that offer, until they came to the house and saw what would be involved. No one actually took the stove.

It was clear we were going to have to get the damn thing out ourselves (and, as you are probably used to by now, when I say "ourselves" I am including myself as a supportive observer... or, in this case, the terrified non-observer who was hiding in the office waiting to hear a gigantic crash as the stove entered the roof of our garage). Eric got the thing out single-handedly (well, nearly single-handedly) by hoisting it onto a dolly (I helped with that), wheeling it out the back door, setting up a belay system with his rock climbing gear and this pulley thing he bought, and hoisting it down the hill one agonizing click at a time. It was working beautifully until we realized the pulley system was meant for a straight-away, but it was not so good at corners. We had the stove suspended in the air, just past the first turn it needed to take and we had just decided to cut the rope and let the stupid stove go tumbling down the hill when our neighbor came up the stairs and offered to help Eric wrestle it down the rest of the way. It was a scary day -- but the stove was out!

Spring 2007
By spring, it felt like we were never going to get out of the planning phase with our house projects. We needed to start! So, in February of 2007, we decided to start small. Sort of. We decided to paint the living room. Which is to say, initially we decided to paint the living room. And then we decided that as long as we were at it, we should add lighting. And baseboards. And reroute the thermostat to the hallway because it looked ugly on the wall in the living room. And get rid of this old alarm system that had been installed into one of the walls and served no purpose. And paint the bathroom and install the bathroom fan because, well, because we needed to. It really had nothing to do with the living room. Our simple paint job became a more complicated project to transform the living room walls completely and also work on the bathroom.

Before we got started on our first, real project!!, we needed to decide on a lighting plan. Back to the planning!! We started visiting lighting stores. We visited so many lighting stores. Numerous times. The poor people that worked at the lighting stores that we visited most frequently thought we were insane. They just started ignoring us when we came in to have the same conversation, once again. Did we want recessed lighting? Wall sconces? Those cool lights that hang down from the ceiling? How many lights did we want? Where should they be placed? We would show people our plans, they'd give us advice, and we'd be back the next week to bother them again with the same questions. They hated us. But, the planning was important, if infuriating. We almost went with recessed lighting. I'm so glad we didn't. After many (oh so many) weeks, we finally decided on wall sconces. And then we took it a step further and had them custom designed and picked out hand-blown glass. Our little $200 paint job had just gotten ten times more expensive.

And that was when it became clear to both of us how these house projects were going to proceed. We would plan (endlessly) and devise a budget that we would swear we would stick to, we would start small and make sure that we only took on as much as we could finish, especially given that we'd be doing nearly all the work ourselves. And then we'd start planning and it would, indeed, be endless. And then we would derail. As soon as we got past the planning phase and into the implementation phase, we'd blow the budget, pick out the nicest things because you only remodel once, expand each project into several projects, and be completely crunched for time and panicked to finish the damn thing before the rains, baby, earthquake (fil in the blank!) hit.

So, we blew the budget on the living room and got really nice lighting, but we did manage to finish the actual work of the living room in about a month, which was consistent with biting off what we could chew. That was the last time in our adventures in house remodeling that we managed to finish our project within our timeline without some mini-disaster striking first.

By the end of the spring of 2007, we had a new living room. Well, a new color and new lights. And, we've been enormously pleased with the result in the living room. The bathroom is another story. Picking paint colors is a bit of an art - an important art. We've now painted four rooms in our house (living room, bathroom, kitchen and Kai's room) and I love all of the rooms EXCEPT the bathroom. The bathroom glows the green we picked is so bright. We thought that would be good... brighten it up a bit. We were wrong. Luckily, we will be redoing the bathroom one of these days and painting again in the process. Next time we'll pick a better color. But, the heater/fan that Eric installed in the bathroom is awesome and has prevented the odd fungus plant that was growing out of our walls from reemerging. So, the bathroom work was not a total waste.

These pics show the lights and the wall color pretty nicely:

Summer and Fall 2007
In the summer of 2007, we started debating what project to take on next: the yard or the kitchen. The kitchen seemed the obvious project. After all, it had been nearly a year of living with no cabinets or counters... and our food budget was out of control with all of our dining out. But, by the same token, we'd made it nearly a year without a kitchen and it was summertime! Why do an indoor project in the summer when we had so many outdoor projects to do, we reasoned. So, we decided to tackle the yard and undertook Operation Move the Backyard into the Front yard. Seriously. That was our idea for the yard. Not a bit of landscaping or weed pulling. We wanted to literally move the backyard into the front yard. Bucket by painful bucket.

Why? Well, we live in the middle of a steep hill, which used to mean that when you walked out our backdoor you were faced with, well, a hill. A large, unlandscaped hill. It felt like it was closing in on us. We have this beautiful window in our living room looking out to the backyard, but when we moved in all you could see was a retaining wall overfilled with dirt. We wanted a view, even if the view was only of 5 more feet of space. So, we decided we needed to bring the hill down and away from the house. Over the course of the summer, Eric and I would recall, many times, the meeting we had with our inspector prior to buying the house when he told us, "you could do a lot with this place... you just need to get a couple of shovels." As it turned out, a couple of shovels was insufficient. We also needed a pick axe. And a bucket. Or, in phase one of the project, a 32 gallon garbage can and, in phase two, a wheelbarrow.

We spent every weekend of the summer of 2007 pick axing, digging, filling the can or wheelbarrow about halfway full, and then lugging it down the steps (or hill) to the front yard, dumping it out, and repeating (and this time when I say we I mean it. I lugged every can and helped to dig every hole for those retaining walls). Over and over and over again -- I have no idea how many trips we made. We broke some of our concrete steps, we went over them so many times. We raised the front yard up about 4 feet all the way across. We also cut back the roof that covered our back porch, to bring in more sunshine and make the yard feel more open. We will probably cut it back even more, but we've had other priorities in the yard.

Of course, all that digging also meant that we needed to build some walls to hold in our new front yard and hold back our new backyard. By the summer's end, we had built the retaining walls in the front yard, which was no easy task. When you build a wall, the goal is for it to be straight and sturdy. To do that, you want to draw a line, squared to the house, that marks where the wall will go and then dig holes at 3 foot intervals about 4 - 5 feet down, which you will later fill with posts and concrete in order to hold up your wall. Sounds simple, if laborious. But, when you have a massive oak tree in your front yard with roots going every which way, it is much harder to dig those holes. We would start digging and get about 2 or 3 feet down and discover a new root, and have to start all over again. We reset the line a few times. We spaced the holes a little unevenly. We probably dug about 20 holes to get the 11 we needed, but eventually we got a row of post holes dug down and finished our first walls.

By the time we got the front yard walls built, the summer was over and the yard was far from complete. We still had a lot of digging to do in the backyard and some very important retaining walls to build before the rains started in order to keep the backyard hill from washing into our house. So, by September we were a little panicked and then we found out I was pregnant, meaning I would no longer be able to help out to the same degree as before. And then, to top it all off, the rains came early. When the first rainstorm hit, we had just finished digging the postholes for the two retaining walls we needed to build in the backyard. Those holes were insane -- we had used an auger to drill about 5 feet down, and when the rains came, they filled up with water. Eric had to rush home from work and spent the afternoon steeped in mud, using the hose to siphon out the water (and getting a good bit of it in his mouth). After that storm, we got the posts in place and then bought a massive tarp (it was twice the size of our house) and covered the entire backyard and our roof. I wish I had pictures of that thing. It was amazing. We got the rest of the walls us before the serious storms of the season hit -- but, it was stressful.

The yard still isn't done, but by the beginning of winter of 2007 it was secure and we had made a lot of progress. Some before and after shots.

The front yard before:

The front yard after:

The backyard before:

During the backyard dig (before the walls went up):

Building the backyard walls:

Winter 2007 - Spring 2008
Once the rains started, we decided to move our work indoors and start on the kitchen, which meant pulling out the ten thousand designs we had started back in the fall of 2006 and picking one. Or, drawing another ten thousand designs and, then, picking one. We spent December with our IKEA software drawing design after design. Should we move the bathroom? Pop out the house? Get rid of the backdoor? Put the living room at the back of the house and the kitchen at the front? Move the front door to the side of the house? Bulldoze the whole thing and start over? We were getting crazy... and the clock was seriously ticking. Thank goodness I was pregnant - who knows what manner of craziness we would have taken on had we believed we had unlimited amounts of time. But, with the baby coming, we knew we needed to be reasonable and stick largely to the current blueprint.

The other thing we (royal we) did while plotting out our new kitchen was clean out and insulate the attic. Our first winter in the house has been COLD. We live in California. We used to live in D.C. where it gets seriously cold. So, we know cold. OK - we know D.C. cold. We don't know New Hampshire cold. Or Minnesota cold. But, whatever -- we knew that California was, by all accounts, warm and yet our house was ICY. We needed to insulate the attic, and so while I made design after lousy design for the kitchen (lousy because the design we ultimately went with was not one of mine), Eric spent his nights and weekends up in the attic battling spiders and all matter of debris. That was a nasty project. I know it was nasty because Eric would come down from the attic covered in dust and grossness -- I never went up there. Here are some photos of his attic project:

With the attic insulated and a design selected, we dug into the kitchen. I've written at length about our kitchen remodel here, so I won't go into the details again. But, as you know, it was all manner of craziness.

Summer 2008
And today, nearly two years after we moved in, we were back out in the yard digging back into the digging (ha ha... I crack myself up). We're hoping to get the digging finished before the rains start, so that we are ready to build the decks come spring. And, this winter, if we're feeling ambitious (and aren't we always?), we'll turn to the bathroom. Kailey needs a bathtub, after all.

No comments: