In the Zone VII: Under the Gun

You’d be surprised at how time seems to crawl by when you’re trying to find someone to rebuild your foundation when your house is literally sinking under your feet and your door frames, window trim, and walls are visibly splitting at the seams. Even when the cost of your project has the potential to exceed what you paid for the property itself (or 1.5 years of tuition at Harvard or roughly .0002% of what Elon Musk shelled out for Twitter, depending on your frame of reference) there is so much competition for contractors’ time and talent nowadays, you’re lucky to get one to pick up the phone and tell you to piss off, much less listen to your voicemail, return your call or email, or submit a proposal.

Case in point: When I started calling foundation folks at the end of summer 2021 in hopes of setting something up to commence in the spring or summer of 2022, one guy said they’re only doing new construction for the time being, while another said they’re only doing poured foundations. Just our luck we needed a block foundation for an existing home. On the bright side, I thought, if we wait long enough, the house will eventually collapse into a heap, at which point we’ll be looking at new construction with a poured foundation.

Still, one of them was kind enough to refer me to two companies that build block foundations and, of course, I reached out to them both right away. One of them ignored my calls and emails, as well as the note I left on their Facebook page. Now that’s what I call a trifecta. The second called me a week after I left a voice mail and said they’d be out within 2 weeks but didn’t come. Five weeks later, naively hoping they had simply lost my contact information, I called again. To my surprise, they answered on the second ring and told me we were next on their list for an estimate but six months later they still haven’t showed up.

I doubt it’s anything personal. I’m sure it’s just the current market. Though I’m also sure there are some out there who will blame Antifa.

By March of 2022, just as we were on the brink of despair (and, frankly, wondering if we should move all of our household goods to a storage locker and appeal to the goddess Tempestas to send a devastating tornado) the Jarhead came upon a truck owned by a business that specialized in basement and crawlspace repair.

“Check it out,” he said, more or less, as he read the content on their webpage later that day. “These guys will dig a moat around the house, jack up the sagging walls and joists, rip out the old foundation, pour new footings, install some new support beams if we need them, AND build us a nice new block frost wall.”

Ok, but will they return my calls?

Cynical? Maybe.

Because even if I hadn’t already been burned, it sounded a bit too good to be true. Especially when “Joe” returned the Jarhead’s call within 24 hours. I mean, who does that? In 2022 no less?? No one. Literally. NO. ONE.

Was this a scam? Or was it something even more sinister? Like sexism.

Had all those other folks ignored little old me because they assumed a woman wouldn’t have the money to pay for a new foundation? Did they think a woman wouldn’t know a crack from a hole in the ground?

So in addition to being somewhat suspicious I was also hypothetically outraged. But I knew better than to complain. At least out loud. And definitely not in print. At least not until the work was well underway. Even I know better than that.

A-N-Y-W-A-Y within a week we had an appointment. (What?) Within another week we had an estimate. (Are you KIDDING me??) And within two weeks we had a contract and a list of tasks we had get done before the foundation crews could break ground in four weeks (CREWS? As in more than one?? Is this a fairy tale???)

Meanwhile, you’d be surprised at how quickly time speeds by when you have only four weeks in which to get a house ready to have its foundation replaced—especially when those four weeks span the entire month of April, the temperature keep dipping below freezing, and it won’t stop effing snowing. Because it’s Wisconsin.

Despite these challenges, we managed to tear off the decks on the south and west sides of the house. This was a mixed blessing to me since less than a year ago I had power-washed and painted the one to the west. The Jarhead had tried to con me into power-washing and painting the one on the south side back then too, but I somehow managed to have other more pressing chores to do. Thank heaven for small favors.

(Below are two images of the west side of the house. On the left is how it looked when we first bought it. We took out the window in the corner when we had to rebuild that wall due to its bad foundation. The image on the right shows yard with the deck removed so we can replace the rest of the foundation.)

(Below are two images of the south end of the home before (left) and after (right) the deck was removed.)

We also managed to get the windows, doors, stairs, hot tub, decking, and wiring out of the sunroom. The hot tub wasn’t working anyway, and the floor beneath it was plywood over dirt, which tells you there is more concrete in our future.

We also got the front patio slab broken up and hauled away, and the area prepped and framed so the crew could pour us a bigger and properly pitched one. We also got the bottom rows of siding off the house, and the well, septic tank and drain field marked to reduce the likelihood of anyone driving over them with a backhoe, dump truck, or skid steer.

Of course, by ‘we’ I mean the Jarhead, since I have arthritic hands, zero upper body strength, and lack the ability to operate a tractor, a sledge hammer or a cement saw. I did keep him fed and watered, though, and gave him lots of praise, reminders, and opportunities for conversation and headshaking.

Hey, we all need to do our part.

In the Zone Part VI: Pause and Effect

What do you get when you cross a two-bedroom mobile home with a poured slab ranch featuring vaulted ceilings and two fireplaces, and nestle it in front of a stand of stately pines?

As the co-owner of just such a combination, I can clearly and emphatically state, that depends.

If the folks combining said structures have the skills, tools, expertise, and supervision to do it properly, you SHOULD get a gorgeous, unique hybrid home you can enjoy for the rest of your days and then pass on to your children, grandchildren, or a qualified buyer when you’re gone.

If, however, the folks combining said structures are unfamiliar with terms like plumb and frost wall; have never seen, owned, or used a level; and/or like to play it fast and loose with building codes, what you get is a big house that photographs well but which up close has more cracks, gaps, crooked lines, and shady weirdness than a cubist portrait of Tucker Carlson painted on a crumbling sidewalk.

If you’ve been following this column—which isn’t difficult since I tend to post at a pace well below that of a high-speed chase—you know which of the two outcomes we’re dealing with at our place. And in case you haven’t been following this column—feel free to catch yourself up. I’ll wait.

Fortunately, we got the pool put in the ground before the foundation issues came to light, or I may not have been able to spend the past two summers acquiring the mother of all sunburns. Then again, maybe I would have, since the Jarhead likes himself a nice sunburn, too. Preferably with a nice cold beer.

If I had needed to plead my case, I would have politely reminded him that his two hunting properties would still outnumber my swimming pools by one, and that his convertibles already outnumber mine by two, since I have none. At that point he would probably have pointed out that they were both pretty old, at which point I would have pointed out that we were too.

We could have played that game for days. Eventually, I would have been forced to play hardball and remind him that my cooking, cleaning, and bookkeeping skills exceed his by a factor too big to calculate, even for people who don’t suck at math, and that without a pool, I might forget everything I had learned about everything, including how to bake a delicious chocolate zucchini cake. (Aren’t hypothetical arguments fun?)

In any case, the pool was a done deal when the foundation issues came to light, at which time—as luck would have it—all other related work had to be put on hold. You can just sense my disappointment, can’t you? I exude it like sunscreen oozes from an overheated tube in the hot summer sun…

Seriously, though. You don’t want to replace even the oldest and crappiest windows with fancy new energy efficient windows only to have them crack when the foundation experts jack up the walls to lay your fancy new concrete blocks. Likewise for the doors, shower tile, and bathtub. Unfortunately, I’ve already tiled the master bathroom floor, so who knows what will happen in there once the excavators have had their fling. Same goes for the new ceiling in the family room.

Anyway, with the windows, doors, decks, and landscaping all off limits, we could only putter around with things that aren’t situated in or just outside rooms where the walls are sinking.

Like the living room fireplace surround, which was covered in soot the likes of which I had never seen. Having never entered into such a battle before, I figured I was going to lose. Big. Still, I wasn’t going to walk away from the fight. Those rocks couldn’t turn out any worse, I figured. Although I knew there was every chance they could. But, to my surprise, they didn’t.

I started with vinegar and a kitchen brush. And I sprayed and scrubbed, and sprayed and scrubbed, and sprayed and scrubbed. For about four hours. Then I let it dry for a day.

The next day, I mixed some Dawn dish detergent with some backing soda, grabbed an old toothbrush, and scrubbed. And scrubbed. And scrubbed. For four more hours. I won’t say I won the battle, but at least I didn’t lose.

After that, I decided to test out the new color scheme we have planned for the exterior after the walls are fixed. Being at least a bit smarter than I look, I tested it on the shortest wall on the place, which is protected on two sides from the insane winds that tear through our yard. This turned out to be a lucky call since—being also somewhat dumber than I look—I decided to start this project in October…

Meanwhile, as you can see from the wider view of the porch, below, the Jarhead replaced the old split rail fence along the driveway with new cedar-toned split rail fencing. Now, you may be saying to yourself, “Who would replace that nice old rustic looking split rail fence? Why, it was doing its job just fine.”

Now personally, I’ve got nothing against weathered split rail fencing myself. Or the mint green lichens that live on it. Or the skinny PVC tubes that the previous owners had used to mount the exterior lights on top of the old fence posts. It’s just that, well, water-stained cedar siding goes much better with cedar-tone fencing than it does weathered gray fencing. Or mint-green lichens. Or PVC tubes.

More importantly, cedar-tone fencing goes much better with gray siding and white trim. Which is what we’ll have when we finish painting the rest of the house. That is, IF we ever finish painting the rest of the house. We still need to find a contractor to fix the foundation, after all, and it doesn’t make any more sense to paint the exterior walls just to have them scraped by backhoes and shovels than it does to replace windows and tile just to have them crack when you jack up your exterior walls.

Anyway, so we’ll keep plugging along on other things.

Like more fencing. Last fall, the Jarhead put up cedar-tone split rail fencing around the garden plot (because cedar-tone fencing goes better than barbwire fencing with cucumber and squash plants and the deer that like to eat them—obviously.) So, this spring he plans to install a gate, put wire fencing on the inside of the cedar-tone fence, and probably do a fair amount of swearing.

As for the fireplace, there’s still work to be done there as well. The plan is to paint the gold trim around the fireplace opening (seen here without the lovely green throw before I went to work on it.)

You may find this hard to believe, but before I started cleaning it, I had asked—nay, begged—the Jarhead to tear down the rock and start over again, and the answer was a resounding “why?” In the *conversation* that ensued I learned that it would cost more to rebuild that rock surround than the time it would take to clean it was worth in US dollars, Canadian dollars, Euros, Bitcoin, and even the lowly Russian ruble (that line would have been far less funny if Russia hadn’t invaded Ukraine, so thank you Putin, you effing lunatic.)

Ultimately, I was glad we decided to keep it. And there’s absolutely NO way we’re taking it down now. Not after all the time and effort I put into cleaning it. Nope. Unless it falls apart on its own, that baby is staying right where it is.

But we are converting the fireplace itself from wood to electric. And in a recent *conversation* I learned there are solar panels in our future, which I also learned will make the electric fireplace and other appliances more cost effective and ecofriendly.

I am going to do my best to stay positive here, but since nothing in this place ever goes according to plan, I foresee even more swearing in our future.