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About that alleged money pit

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.

Mea culpa.


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.


  1. Pat
    Pat September 21, 2014 8:33 am

    Yay! No more pink cabinets. I’m fascinated by that green wall; not a shade one usually sees in the L-R! Good job cleaning it all up. And the sun-table has a place of prominence, I see.

    I thought your tree-falling photo didn’t look familiar, there were more trees around than I remembered from previous photos, and have wondered where that loud music guy lived in the latest pics. Another location explains all that.

    I’d say you were ahead of the game here, in spite of the roof.

  2. Claire
    Claire September 21, 2014 8:42 am

    Thanks, Pat!

    Yeah, I really felt bad keeping all this a secret, but I was having some privacy fears about the old location at the time I made the move and needed to keep mum.

    The green? Yeah, it’s … um, vivid. But I wanted something so cheery that even the worst winter gloom wouldn’t dim it. I just recently painted that section and now I need to change the paint in the kitchen to harmonize better.

    The green bit isn’t the living room, BTW. It’s “officially” a dining room, but it’s my sunroom and sometime work area. The LR is nice, too — and much, much bigger than that. But sort of gloomy.

  3. Jim B.
    Jim B. September 21, 2014 8:43 am

    At that price, it was always going to be a fixer upper. From what you said, it sounds like you got the structural stuff taken care of and the rest is mostly cosmetic, which is the way it should be done.

    At least you’re adding value to the house for the time if you ever need to sell.

  4. Claire
    Claire September 21, 2014 8:48 am

    Yep, Jim. B. Mostly true. There’s still some structural stuff to take care of, but it’s in the the foundation in the part of the house I’m still not using yet (or using only for storage) and it can be fixed slowly over time. Other than that, the heavy lifting is all done.

  5. MJR
    MJR September 21, 2014 9:16 am

    Hey Claire,

    I have been reading your laments about the house and the troubles that seem to be never ending, I had the feeling that something had changed. That’s why I kept my gob shut. 13 years ago I finished building our home and I still remember very vividly the trials that went along with it. I’m glad that you have had the smarts to call in the pros when needed, it is not a good thing to wake up and think that the skylight overhead is wonderful then remember your home hasn’t any.

  6. Curt S
    Curt S September 21, 2014 9:54 am

    Good for you Claire!!! The house I live in, while not as bad as your’s was but close. Little by little things are getting done. No, I do not own the place my nephew does but he lives miles away. Years back I was one of those that owned a “house in the suburbs”. Well, I found out what I had was a money/mortgage pit. something one throws money in monthly. Stupid! the house i’m living in came from a ghost town originally. It was taken apart and skidded down the river to where it is now. I found out one does not need a huge house to be content. One does not need the latest or greatest. Sad that today damm near everything has to be better or at least as good as the neighbors. Damm commercialism! It used to be that folks bought a house so they had something to retire in or to. Not something to act as an “investment” to resell. Yes, location is important but this thing of say, a neighbors house affecting your property value???? BS! True, no one wants to live next to a garbage pit bit other than that….. all these HOA’s and stuff….they can go straight to hell as far as I am concerned.

  7. Joel
    Joel September 21, 2014 10:02 am

    So what are you doing about heat?

  8. Claire
    Claire September 21, 2014 10:17 am

    Joel — Electric space heaters and a ventless propane fireplace. The electric heaters are barely adequate but allow me to heat spaces selectively as I use them. The little propane stove warms the whole house in about two seconds flat, but is unfortunately pricey to run, so I compromise and dress warmly.

  9. Claire
    Claire September 21, 2014 10:19 am

    MJR — “it is not a good thing to wake up and think that the skylight overhead is wonderful then remember your home hasn’t any.” LOL, I know that feeling. But may none of us ever experience the reality.

    Curt S — A ghost-town house! Now that’s really something. I hear ya about HOAs and keeping up with the Joneses …

  10. Karen
    Karen September 21, 2014 10:36 am

    I think it’s amazing what you’ve done! And you, better than most probably, know there will always be critics, no matter what you do or don’t do. If you were actually biting 2x4s down to length with your bare teeth someone would criticize you for ruining your teeth because we BHM preppers all know how important dental hygiene will be if TSHTF.

    Sometimes hiring the pro is the only sane thing to do and sometimes DIY is supremely rewarding.

  11. rose kelley
    rose kelley September 21, 2014 12:34 pm

    Claire, I admire your grit and stanima, you go girl.

  12. jed
    jed September 21, 2014 1:39 pm

    Well, now. I’d say that’s damn fine! Despite the work ahead, I’m actually envious. I’d rather be doing that than renting. And next time someone tells you to chew down your 2x4s, hit ’em with one! 🙂

    As much as a DIYer as I am, I’d still hire out certain work.

    I’m sure the electric heaters and propane work better than tea candles in flower pots too.

  13. MamaLiberty
    MamaLiberty September 21, 2014 2:35 pm

    Far be it from me to ever criticize anyone for not doing things themselves enough – as I do very little. 🙂 And I distinctly remember at least some of us advising you to hire professionals, or at least someone with a strong back from time to time. 🙂 You’ve done a wonderful job, judging from the pretty picture, and should certainly be proud of yourself. I’m thinking that was an amazing price for the place, even if you’d had to tear it down and start over!!

    I’m just grumpy this week because I discovered mice in my pantry and, astonishingly, in my office the other day. What a mess. So I’ve had to suspend almost everything else and move everything out of those rooms so I can clean thoroughly. I HATE mice. And now I have to figure out where the little monsters got in. sigh

    The silver lining is that the pantry looks gorgeous for the first time in years. 🙂 The office is going to take a little longer. LOL

  14. Bear
    Bear September 21, 2014 5:41 pm

    “I HATE mice.”

    You’re just not using the right seasonings.

  15. Ellendra
    Ellendra September 21, 2014 6:32 pm

    I was wondering where the apple tree was in relation to those pictures. Now I know 🙂

    I will never criticize someone for realistically knowing their limits and getting help when they need it.

    If that acre has room for a garden, I could send you some seeds.

  16. Jim B.
    Jim B. September 21, 2014 9:55 pm

    A good old fashioned mouse trap will work, so will the new iteration where the bait is covered will work too. Now ask me how I know. ; )

    Never seen any more since then.

  17. naturegirl
    naturegirl September 21, 2014 11:55 pm

    I can no longer claim to “know” someone who has a pink/mauve kitchen LOL.

    I connected “nearly an acre” with the price tag and sounds like you scored even if it has taken you on a rehab journey of epic hell proportions. Even if the house fell down completely, you’d still be ahead. The “old house with character” description applied here is a real stretch, hehe, but the beauty of that is it becomes YOUR house right down to the very bones of it…..

    And yeah, what Rose Kelley said 🙂

  18. MamaLiberty
    MamaLiberty September 22, 2014 6:49 am

    Thanks, MJR… might just try that bucket thing. I did put down some bait in isolated corners, but am terrified that my dog might be harmed if he finds the dead or dying mice. I did find one and got it with my “reacher” thing and flushed it down the toilet, but this looks a lot better. If I can figure out how to build it, of course. I’m not all that handy with tools. I can take down and reassemble a gun in short order, but if I need to use a hammer and nails… let’s just say you wouldn’t want to live UNDER anything I might hammer together. LOL

  19. Matt, another
    Matt, another September 22, 2014 7:50 am

    Great place and great deal getting it! Obviously just needed a little TLC. It is the kind of fixer upper my parents have bought over the years. I learned all about fixin upping from those houses. The one thing I truly learned is when to call in the proffesionals!

    Folks bought the place next to them when the owner died. His kids wanted nothging to do with it. Paid 12k total for it. Immediately sold the junk metal and old cars for 3K. Traded the derelict mobile on the back for fencing materials. Paid my daughter to do the cleaning and painting inside. Paid proffesionals to do the roof. The place was huge, but renovated, poorly, to be a 6 bedroom bed and breakfsast arrangement. Lots of fun figuring out plumbing and electrical.

  20. Paul Bonneau
    Paul Bonneau September 22, 2014 8:19 am

    [Yes, location is important but this thing of say, a neighbors house affecting your property value???? BS!]

    I agree. I always prefer to find a town that has an occasional dead car in the streets. That way you know the town has not been taken over by the “improvers”, and there is more liberty there. I hate HOAs too.

    My parents, in their sixties, bought a shithole in a slummy part of Tacoma. My sister bought a dump from a crazy cat lady right next door (I got to help her clean it out – urp!). Both places turned out nice, and the neighborhood even got better. Keep plugging away, Claire. It’s good not to spend too much on housing (which was the natural condition of human beings for millenia).

    As to mice, it is impossible to keep the little bastards out. You just have to keep trapping them. I tried some of those bucket traps but they never worked for me. The best things are the old cheap traps you find in grocery stores. The newer plastic ones (which you don’t have to touch the mouse with) work well too but seem designed to self-destruct in short order. You could always get a cat, Susan! 🙂

  21. samantha
    samantha September 22, 2014 8:46 am

    For the mice…I TOO hate mice and you would think finding dead mice would be preferable to seeing one scurry across the floor…and you would be wrong. Any mouse is bad. Poison is okay..unless you have children or animals who might get into it. Try this: Peppermint oil. It is pretty cheap anywhere you can buy essential oils, including probably your local feed store. I put a couple of drops on a cotton ball and put them in the under the sink cabinet and back of the pantry and anywhere else I thought it might offend the mice population…and it worked. Apparently the menthol type quality hurts their lungs and they run for the hills. An added bonus is that your house smells pretty great too.

  22. Claire
    Claire September 22, 2014 10:13 am

    “If you were actually biting 2x4s down to length with your bare teeth someone would criticize you for ruining your teeth because we BHM preppers all know how important dental hygiene will be if TSHTF. ”

    LOL, Karen. Truer words were never spoken on the Internet.

  23. Claire
    Claire September 22, 2014 10:16 am

    Ellendra — Well, FWIW, there still is an apple tree in relation to this house. Not a very impressive one, but it’s here. And yes, not only room for a garden, but a small slope that someone long ago terraced to serve as a garden.

    Thanks for the offer of seeds! My hope is that by next spring I might be ready to plant some veggies, blueberries, and fruit trees.

  24. Claire
    Claire September 22, 2014 10:18 am

    Thank you, rose kelley and naturegirl!

    Really, although there’s certainly been a lot to do and a lot still to do, it hasn’t really felt all that epic or hellish until now.

    I’ll feel a lot better once a contractor comes out to analyze the extent and nature of the problem with the crushed roof section and bowed walls.

  25. Hanza
    Hanza September 22, 2014 8:33 pm

    HOAs seems like are run by Little Hitler’s on power trips.

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