I have a confession to make.
As confessions go, it’s a boring one, so don’t get excited. I’m not about to admit that I’m secretly an ATF agent or that I do strange things with lace-clad armadillos. But there’s definitely something I haven’t been telling you.
It’s about the very mundane (albeit often hair-raising) matter of home improvement.
Lately, as I’ve written about house projects, there’s been some tsk-tsking among the Commentariat. There’s been even more amazing generosity — both of money (I don’t know how I’d have gotten that roof fixed without you!) and of spirit and goodwill. But definitely some tsk-tsking, too.
There’ve been implications that I’m doing things all wrong. Implications that I’m spending crazy amounts of money on hired work when (this being Backwoods Home and all), I should be pulling together crews of hearty neighbors or milling lumber from trees harvested on my own property or … oh, biting 2x4s down to length with my bare teeth or something. Better yet, all of the above!
Anything but spend “too much” money fixing this old house! Anything but (gasp!) hire people to do the heavy lifting.
This is partly my fault. I’ve unintentionally given the impression that after several years of projects, the old place is still practically falling down around my ears and I’m spending buckets of money merely to keep it together.
What I haven’t told you is that I’m not where I was last time I wrote a lot about home improvement projects (not in that old house in the immigrant neighborhood).
What I haven’t told you (and this is my big, boring confession) is that last year I bought a different house. For $10,000. Yes, ten thousand dollars.
On nearly an acre of pretty land on a hill.
So — to all the tsk-tskers — please know that, even with all the rotted floors and walls needing skilled repair, even with segments of roof in peril, even with floors that sag and entire rooms that lean in interesting directions, this alleged “money pit” has still cost a pittance.
Oh it definitely feels like a money pit, right this minute. Because unlike a more intact house, its cost isn’t being measured in 30 predictable years of mortgage payments (there are no mortgage payments) or in a one-time purchase or building cost, but in immediate needs and minor catastrophes. (And again … where I’d be without you, I don’t know.)
But rest assured, this “money pit,” even with the recent oopsies, remains and will remain a very shallow “pit.”
So what’s the story?
Well, I did want to get out of that noisy, chaotic neighborhood. I also wanted to get on high ground. And in that place I was improving a couple of years back, I had both a (seller-carried) mortgage and upgrade costs. So each month I’d look at my budgets and shake my head. Something wasn’t making sense.
In December 2012 I first stepped inside this little nightmare of a house. It looked like this:
It smelled worse. Mold covered walls in every room; some rooms were absolutely black with it. The real estate agent who showed me the place walked in the door — then turned around and walked right back out, refusing even to breathe the air.
The roof leaked in three places. The enclosed porch sagged seven inches on one end. I could go on, but you get the picture.
The house wasn’t even cute or well-built. It didn’t even have heat. There wasn’t a single closet. The only things it had going for it were: enormous, nearly new vinyl windows; plumbing and electric that actually worked (more or less); and the glorious bit of land it sat on.
The bank (because of course this was a foreclosure) was asking $35,000 at the time. No freakin’ way. The house was closer to a tearer-downer than a fixer-upper. Still, it was … interesting. Especially because of its location.
Over the next two months, the price dropped. To $25,000. Then to $17,000. Still no takers. Few people were even looking. Then it dropped to $9,900 — and on that day a bunch of vultures who’d been watching the place jumped in.
I bid $10,000 — and lost.
I forgot about it and moved on. I looked at some bare land and at a metal pole building that had the prospect of being an interesting conversion. But nothing was affordable, not when all the other costs were considered.
Then two months later, my sharp-eyed real estate agent called. “Get over here right now. That house is back on the market.”
It turned out that the winning bidder had spent nearly two months jerking the bank around. Somehow he managed to get extension after extension out of them and never even sent them his earnest money. He’d even gotten them to pay for a septic test (which, remarkably, it passed), all while giving them zero. The bank’s asset manager was now livid — and desperate to get rid of the place.
They accepted my $10,000 offer — on the condition that I close in one week. Which, thanks to desperate scrambling and a rapid loan from one of my clients, I did.
Not long after, I was able to sell the other place. I paid back my wonderful client and came away with a little cash to spend on the most urgent repairs (including, most immediately, the three active roof leaks; I wasn’t surprised — though I was dismayed and not prepared — when more roof problems showed up this year).
The first months I spent almost entirely on cleanup. My buddy L. gave me the world’s most appropriate housewarming gift — three giant bottles of bleach from Costco. Furrydoc contributed surgical masks. I scrubbed. And I tore down. It required two months and much opening of windows and positioning of fans, just to get rid of the mold reek.
I moved in shortly after concluding that the air wouldn’t rot my lungs. Slept on a cot in the living room because I wasn’t trusting that (one and only) bedroom.
Since then I’ve drywalled and insulated and painted and trimmed and shingled and planned — and yes, hired experts to do the heavy lifting and do the “keep the floors from collapsing” parts. And if anybody wants to dis me for not DIYing enough, go ahead and dis. I’ve been too busy and I’m too old for biting those 2x4s into shape.
Now parts of the house look like this:
Other parts of it are still … scary. I’m still not trusting that bedroom and I use the bathroom only because it can’t be avoided.
Now I am tapped out and (having quit JPFO when it was sold out to SAF and therefore being back to my usual state of finances) am without prospects for any more major projects. The roof — which you guys mostly paid for — was the one and only big-big-biggie. The only “superproject.” From here on, it’s one small thing at a time, year upon year, even if some of the “small things” are 24-foot floor beams
“Money pit”? That’s in the eye of the beholder, of course. But despite the recent excess excitement and full understanding of the work ahead, I’m still thinking not.
And anybody who thinks I haven’t DIYed enough for BHM and my reputation … is welcome to their own opinion.