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.

Mill Street Blues: Pros and Cons

We didn’t recognize them as such at the time, but there were a few of clues that renovating the wing and gable farmhouse might be a bad idea.

The first came in the form of the blizzard that hit three days before the previous occupants were scheduled to vacate the premises, forcing them to choose between shoveling 22 inches of snow and walking repeatedly through 22 inches of snow to retrieve all of their belongings. Care to guess which option they chose?

The second clue came in the form of all the crap said occupants left behind—in the basement, in the garage, in the yard, and in the fridge. One might assume they got tired of trudging through the 22 inches of snow they had refused to shovel. Then again, they got the important stuff—like the washer and dryer that, legally speaking, were supposed to stay with the house.

The third clue came in the form of two teenage boys who, two days after we took possession of the house, jabbed all four tires on the dump trailer as it sat in the driveway filled to the brim with several tons of what used to be the roof. Although we took little comfort in learning that the dump trailer was just one of almost 40 vehicles that the little dickens vandalized that night, we took a great deal of comfort in justifying the amount of our restitution claim in court eight months later—and even more pleasure in depositing the check a few weeks after that.

The fourth clue came in the form of a note that was slipped to the Jarhead at a local builder supply store that warned us against working with the sketchy-looking guy who was assigned to hang the new gutters.

Yep. All those signs and still we persisted. Like those idiots in Poltergeist who stayed in their McMansion even after they retrieved Carol Ann from the TV or wherever she was. And the morons in The Amityville Horror who stayed in their Dutch colonial even after the walls started to bleed. And the dumbass nurse in The Skeleton Key who stayed in the plantation home in Terrebonne Parish even after it was clear that the place was replete with bad juju.

Starting to see a common theme? It’s okay to admit that you’re questioning our intelligence. We have questioned it, too. Many, many times.

Like when we looked under the sink and discovered that someone had used an empty tube of lotion and a metal clamp to terminate an old water line. And when we learned that three different plumbers had decided to leave all three generations of water piping in place when it came time to put in the fourth.

And when literally every single gutter on the house began to leak and it became clear that the sketchy gutter guy had much to learn about installing gutters. And when the roofing crew forgot to safeguard the structures around the house before tear-off and the gas meter suddenly had to be replaced.

And when their leader became enmeshed in a feud with the power company after one of their reps had the audacity to suggest that his folks should be a bit more careful in the future. And when he got into an argument with the building inspector and ordered him off the property. And when he called the police when the inspector refused to leave.

Having already racked up more visits from local law enforcement in the eight months since moving to Weyauwega than we had in the entire 8 years we had spent in Oshkosh (where our one and only encounter with the police was the night they mistook the Jarhead for a burglar) I was no longer questioning the wisdom of renovating this house as much as I was questioning whether we’d chosen the right people to help us do it.

That sense continued into the summer as we waited for three weeks for the stairs to be put back together because dude could not find the app that would calculate the run and the rise. In fairness replacing the stairs was added to the scope of work when we realized that the studs and stringers holding them up had been reduced to charcoal by a fire at some point in the distant past. On the other hand, I’m the type of person who would not have taken down the old stairs until I was ready and equipped to put the new ones right back up.

But that’s just me.

Anyway, dude eventually found the app and, eventually, we had stairs. Unfortunately, we then had to wait for the upstairs doorways to be rebuilt. It seems that rebuilding stairs also means bringing them up to code, which means making them less steep and, thus, longer. And making the stairway longer would have left the upstairs bedroom doorways suspended a few feet above the middle of the stairs, which is apparently dangerous and, therefore, not cool. Unless, of course, you’re into strains, sprains, and compound fractures. Which is fine. I’m not one to judge. And I don’t know your life.

I don’t know how much longer we would have waited for the rest of the work to be done after the doorways were framed and drywalled, but I do know this: When we determined that the snow was likely to fly again before dude and company would finish the reconstruction so we could start painting and installing flooring and fixtures, we decided we would rather do the reconstruction ourselves than wait any longer.

Now I don’t know about you, but when I pay someone to build or fix something, I generally expect it to turn out better than if I had built or fixed it myself. Clothing, for example, should look and fit better when I buy it at the store than if I had sewn it myself. I can hem slacks, re-attach buttons, and even make simple things like curtains and blankets, but I SHOP for the clothes I wear because I don’t want to look like the lady who stands at the end of the Walmart parking lot holding a can and a cardboard sign.

Car repair is another example. I could—theoretically—change my own oil, rotate my own tires, and replace my own air filters and spark plugs. But even if I were willing to get all dirty, dusty, greasy and sweaty just to save a few bucks, no doubt I would not do as good a job of tightening my lug nuts and connecting all those grody engine parts to the other grody engine parts as Colton does at my local Tires Plus. (I would have cited a local dealership here, but the last time one of their guys worked on my car they forgot to reconnect the clamps on my engine air filter, and the poor thing shuddered, sputtered, then died as I was heading home. So, there’s at least ONE person in the Fox Valley who isn’t a better mechanic than I am.)

Of course, there are some exceptions. For example, I haven’t found a chef on planet earth that can make bacon and eggs exactly the way I like them. Or guacamole.  But by and large, the people who do stuff for a living should do that stuff better than the rest of us can.

So imagine my surprise when dude had this to say after the Jarhead and I decided our relationship with him had run its course:

Dude: I know we haven’t gotten things done as quickly as you’d have liked, but I hope you’ll keep us in mind for future projects.

Me: I don’t mean to be unkind, but it isn’t just the timeline I’ve had a problem with. To be honest, the quality of the work isn’t quite what we expected.

Dude:  Well, let’s not forget that when we bid the project, it was going to be a flip.

Me: Personally, I would have expected quality work regardless of what we were going to do with the property. I mean, no offense, but when I hire someone to do a job, I expect it to look better than if I had done it myself.

Dude: Well, I never said we were professionals.

And here I thought a professional was someone who performed a service in exchange for money.

Silly me.

 

Mill Street Blues: Hunting & Blathering

Fans of HGTV are familiar with the House Hunters series and its progeny, House Hunters International and House Hunters Renovation.

For the uninitiated (and those for whom the title is a bit too cryptic to decipher) House Hunters involves one or more people—usually, but not always, a couple; and usually, but not always, attractive—looking for a home in a specific geographic area aided by a local real estate professional. Over the course of thirty minutes (minus 8 or 9 for commercials) the parties view and assess three properties, each one ticking off some—but never all—of the boxes on the parties’ wish list.

Yep. Three. No more. No less.

As if choosing a place to live were like The Dating Game.

“So, house number one: What is your idea of a nice romantic evening?”

“Great question. I think my idea of a romantic evening would be lying down beside you on my deep orange textured shag carpeting, where I’d gaze with you winsomely upon my velvet avocado wallpaper and show you what seven thousand dollars below budget feels like.”

“That sounds, uh, interesting. House number two: same question.”

“My idea of a romantic evening is sitting with you before a roaring fire under my vaulted ceiling with exposed beams, surrounded by real linen blend wall paper and sustainable bamboo hardwoods, eating ramen soup and hot dogs.”

“Wow. You must really like ramen soup and hot dogs.”

“No. That’s just all you’d be able to afford after paying the mortgage and utilities.”

“I see. And house number three?”

“Well, I can’t offer either velvet or linen wallpaper, but I am in a good neighborhood and right on budget. That being said, a romantic evening to me means taking you to my kitchen, showing you my huge peninsula…”

You get the idea.

And if only it were that easy.

We could make it even easier, I suppose, by posing it like that age-old philosophical question: If you were marooned on a deserted island, what is the one thing you absolutely would have to have with you?

Only in this case, it would be, if you could live in one place and only that one place for the rest of your life, which place would it be?

It would be a tough choice—especially for me and the Jarhead, who have moved so often our friends and family probably think we’re in witness protection. Or on the lam.

In case you’re about to check Google or the FBI website for our names and photos, let me save you the trouble: The only thing we’re guilty of is criminal indecision.

And in case you were going to check Google or the American Psychiatric Psociety website for a list of psymptoms of psychological disorders, let me save you that trouble, too: What we have is a type of addiction where you can’t live in a house without modifying it in some way, and also a form of hoarding where you are unable to sell a house you’ve fixed up without first living there—if only for 385 days, like our last one.

And if you believe that, I have a lovely bottle of windmill noise cancer pills to sell you at a good price.

Seriously, though. If we had to choose a home from a pool of just three, it would be like having to choose only one cat from the shelter (as in, next to impossible) or asking my friend Von to select a piece of chocolate from a Belgian sampler (meaning, delightful or deadly, depending on the odds of finding a piece that contains cashews, almonds, or coconut.)

Fortunately, we aren’t forced to choose a project from just three pitiable properties. UN-fortunately, that means we can end up touring five, ten, sometimes fifteen houses before finding one that can be saved without spending more money fixing it up than can be made when it’s time to sell it. And if we’re outbid by another buyer or can’t put together an offer that’s acceptable to the seller, then we’re right back at square one. I’m not suggesting what we’re doing would make for a bingeworthy TV series, but there is plenty of drama.

And just for the record, we’re not going through these homes whining about laminate countertops, popcorn ceilings, or carpeted floors like many folks do on House Hunters.

Some of these people truly could use a lesson in perspective, come to think of it. Perhaps HGTV should develop another program called Get Over Yourself, where the participants from House Hunters tour three properties whose occupants are barely keeping a roof over their head so these jerks can understand just how effing good they have it, and maybe learn not to be so glib and condescending when talking about their own tastes and preferences.

Just sayin’.

Nor am I walking through our prospective projects in four-inch heels, false eyelashes, and a Brazilian blowout, and screaming at the mouse droppings in the kitchen, the chickens roosting in the garage, or the dude sleeping on the pile of clothes in the back bedroom. To be fair, the mouse droppings are the only item from that list that I, personally, have run across while touring a home, so it’s probably not fair to judge Christina until I’ve walked a mile in her designer platforms. But I like to think I’d know enough to shut my mouth and slip back out the front door so as not to get us shot or shanked.

Even without the chickens and the squatters, some of what we’ve run across during a tour or a remodel would still give you pause. A basement filled with rotting clothing and garbage may not shank you, but it will make you stop and think about the date of your last tetanus shot. As will the carpets covered in cat, dog and human waste; the rusted-out razor blades you pull out of the furnace vents, and the long, thin lines of sticky yellow-brown liquid that adorn the walls with bits of fuzz trapped in and around it like bees suspended in fossilized tree resin.

And let’s not forget about the graffiti, the freezers filled with rotten food, the cat litter clogged toilets, and the wobbly outline of a child’s hand drawn repeatedly in colored marker next to the scribbled words “Natalie’s time out hand” that you hope was written by a living, breathing child named Natalie, and not by a vengeful spirit come to haunt her.

Wow. That sure took a turn toward the dark and surreal.

If you’re not afraid to find out what’s around the next corner, be sure to tune in next time for Mill Street Blues III: Love It or List It.