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Wall: a home-improvement saga

In the spring of 2013, I bought a house for $10,000. Foreclosed. Leaking. Full of rot.

You can imagine it caused many adventures. You’ve already heard some of them. But today I have the story of a single wall. A simple wall, that’s it. Not even a particularly large or long wall. Not a fancy wall. Not a complicated wall. Not even a particularly attractive wall. Not a special wall in any way.

Just a wall that it took four years of hard work to find amid all the bizarrities of the home I dubbed Ye Olde Wreck.

Here is that tale.

Grafted onto the northwest corner of Ye Olde Wreck was this strange growth I dubbed the Not-A-Garage. Photos don’t begin to show how terrible it was. The mud floor. The rain that poured inside it. The deck your foot would go through if you weren’t careful. Above all, the crazy roofline. Look at the goofy roof on that thing!

LOTS of pix here, so I’m being merciful and giving you thumbnails. Click to embiggenate. (And I hope you will; the transformation is pretty awesome.)

Look at BOTH crazy rooflines, actually. The monstrosity was tied into two separate existing roof structures without a trace of rhyme or reason.

Worse, the ghastly Not-A-Garage was the only functional entrance to the house. You had to go through all this to get to my kitchen door.

How’s that for a grand entryway? Greetings, guests. I’d ask you to come in out of the rain, but it’s raining harder inside than out!

And again — look at that insane roof structure! What demented mind would even conceive of such a thing?

It wasn’t even useful for anything. Couldn’t park a car in it because there was only a walk-in door. Couldn’t store anything because of that little indoor-rain problem. Couldn’t use it as a laundry room because the plumbing for the washer and dryer was in the living room.

Naturally, the Not-A-Garage had to go. But that was no easy task. Getting rid of it took three years.

First year:

Second year:

Although most of the structure was gone, it was impossible to get rid of it all because of the insane ways it had been grafted onto the roof. Roofs, plural. Making it go away would involve not only re-roofing, but re-designing rooflines. Oh, the nights I spent lying awake trying to figure out how to do that. Oh, the days I looked at that hideousness and wondered if it could even be done.

(And yes, in the above photo I appear to be living like the sort of person who is the product of generations of first-cousin matings. At times I felt like that, too. I’m increasingly convinced that the people who built the house fit that description. Maybe they even married their sisters.)

It didn’t look any better close up, but at least I finally got rid of the old water heater beside my oh-so-welcoming door.

For many years my home has been the gem of the neighborhood:

But … progress. I figured out how to re-shape the roof and some people smarter than I figured out how to translate my sketches into a structure that wouldn’t fall down on us.

Even after the not-a-garage was gone and the roof re-shaped, the west wall (the wall about which this entire saga is actually being written) was still a mess, though. It felt like it was going to be awful forever.

Naturally, when we (the Wandering Monk and I in one of the first jobs he did for me) ripped off the remaining bits, we found rot in the west wall. It was manageable, but for a year after that I lived with a patchwork wall covered in the Dreaded Tarpaper. Even as we began the final work this May, the west wall continued — and continued to continue — to look like hell.

May, June, July … pure ugliness. There was progress, of course. In the pic above of the Monk tearing off the corner you might notice the foundation has been replaced and raised. But not until this month did walls begin to look like walls.

When that happened, I didn’t get a lot of in-progress pictures, because when things finally began to come together, the west wall went from ugly to decent in about three hours. And during those hours I was minioning, holding up slabs of siding in the 90-degree afternoon sun and thinking only about getting done and cooling off.

That was a week ago. The Monk left and since then it’s been up to me. I’ve been hard at work. Nailing up edge flashings. Caulking. Priming. Painting. Stretching window screens. Caulking and painting some more. And finally measuring, cutting, and putting up trim.

As of this morning …

We have wall.

After four years of feeling like a tarpaper hillbilly, four years of labor, expense, splinters, trips to the landfill, brain-beating anguish, and hating the sight outside my kitchen door … I now have a simple, ordinary wall. Nothing fancy. Nothing complicated. Nothing out of the ordinary in any sense. Just a wall. A wall like the wall of any other house in town.

Except for the detail of having the side of a screen porch in it. That’s special. In a good way. Otherwise … it’s just a plain old unremarkable wall. That it took four years to find amid the rot and rubble.

Still needs a few finishing touches, some of which won’t be done until next year. I can live with that.

Now, I am off to conquer the north wall!


  1. Shel
    Shel August 16, 2017 7:16 pm


  2. Claire
    Claire August 16, 2017 7:20 pm

    Thank you, Shel. Astounding feels like exactly the right word.

    Or possibly relief. For getting from there to here.

    Or perhaps stupidity. For even making the attempt. For not realizing what I was getting into.

    But I made it. With a lot of help from my friends. I made it.

  3. Fred Muller
    Fred Muller August 16, 2017 8:15 pm

    Claire I have been following your adventure for the past 2-3 years. I cheered with your in your triumphs and commiserated with you in your setbacks. I pictured you neighbor and handyman and cheered him on when he had time to help you, and I felt your excitement when you reached some goals. The pictures really bring into sharp focus what you have been writing about during the past few years. I now know what the Monk really looks like; I can finally see the original lime green exterior color that has been transformed into a beautiful sunbonnet yellow. Now you are moving into phase 2 of the project and we’ll follow your ups and downs…but eventually you will be successful in the end, and will have a nice, comfortable home. Thanks for sharing, and best of luck!

  4. Pat
    Pat August 16, 2017 8:16 pm

    Truly remarkable, Claire.

    “And they said it couldn’t be done.” Has your neighbor (or neighbors) ever expressed what they thought of your moving in and trying to fix up that house rather than tearing it down and starting over?

  5. rochester_veteran
    rochester_veteran August 17, 2017 4:49 am

    Good job, Claire! It looks great compared to before!

  6. Brad R
    Brad R August 17, 2017 4:52 am

    Well, I was once advised to “buy the worst home in the best neighborhood,” because you can always improve the home. (A.k.a. “location, location, location.”) You seem to have taken that advice to extremes, but with truly amazing results. And I’ll bet your neighbors are delighted with the improvement.

  7. Claire
    Claire August 17, 2017 7:14 am

    Thank you Fred M, Brad R, Pat, and RV for the encouragement and cheer.

    As to the neighbors … that’s interesting. Of the two neighbors I know the best, one works at the lumberyard so he thinks it’s cool, and the other is the widow of a man who made his living taking on “crazy” house projects. So she’s totally on board and understands.

    Also, he recommended The Wandering Monk to me and the Monk now also does small projects for her after my recommendation.

    Since it’s happening on a back corner of the house, the particular work I blogged about is visible only to one neighbor, a polite young family who have (oddly) said not a word about it the entire four years — though I’m sure they’re glad to see it get this far. I’m sure glad to finally stop subjecting them to the constant sight of chaos, as they are very tidy sorts who keep their home and yard impeccable.

    I think no matter what happens, everybody was glad when I replaced the notorious Crazy Dick as the owner of that house. Bad as it’s been, they at least know it’s getting better, not worse.

  8. Swami Rabbitima
    Swami Rabbitima August 17, 2017 7:17 am

    You bought it in 2103?

  9. rochester_veteran
    rochester_veteran August 17, 2017 7:20 am

    I have to wonder why whoever built that useless addition onto the house?

  10. Claire
    Claire August 17, 2017 7:20 am

    Swami Rabbitma — Ooops.

  11. Claire
    Claire August 17, 2017 7:43 am

    RV — “Why” is a question I’ve learned to stop asking about this place.

    I actually have a source for at least hints as to “why” because the great-grandson of the builder also works at the lumberyard. He’s quite familiar with great-grandpa’s place. But basically, the ultimate “why” is because old gramps was a bootlegger who may have been too fond of sampling his own product.

  12. rochester_veteran
    rochester_veteran August 17, 2017 7:46 am

    But basically, the ultimate “why” is because old gramps was a bootlegger who may have been too fond of sampling his own product.

    That makes sense of that addition! 🙂

  13. Bob
    Bob August 17, 2017 7:48 am


  14. Comrade X
    Comrade X August 17, 2017 8:17 am

    Good job!

  15. laird
    laird August 17, 2017 9:51 am

    “Astounding” is the only word that fits. I would never have taken on that project, and if I had bought the place would have torn it down and built from scratch. My hat’s off to you, both for the courage to try and the perseverance to succeed!

  16. Joel
    Joel August 17, 2017 10:09 am

    Wonderful! Thanks for posting those pics, I’ve really wanted to see the thing in sequence.

    And that was just the one wall. Not the rotten interior, not the designer ceiling, not the rooms falling off the building falling off in an unsanctioned manner, not the emergency roof, not the things-built-crooked-to-match-the-crooked-room. Seriously, I’d buy the book in hardcover.

    Love what you did with the screen trim. And many congratulations on your triumph, you’ve certainly earned it.

  17. Kristophr
    Kristophr August 17, 2017 10:15 am

    Just wondering … would it have been cheaper to set it on fire, and replace it with a double-wide?

  18. jed
    jed August 17, 2017 10:48 am

    Yes, “astounding” is one word that’s wholly applicable. “Stupefying” also comes to mind. 🙂 But then, you’ve already explained much about the previous “builders”. Just wow. I think you haven’t previously posted those original photos. I remember some of the mold pictures. But those roofs, and that mudroom? Yes, suggestions regarding convenient conflagration do seem more realistic.

    Mad props to you, Claire!

  19. Claire
    Claire August 17, 2017 11:18 am

    I admit I’ve looked at those pictures about 10 more times since I posted last night, and “astounding” and “stupefying” seem more right every time I realize how far the place has come — and that I somehow, with help from my friends, made it happen.

    I sympathize with those who’d have set the place on fire or had it knocked down with a wrecking ball. Had I known what I was getting into, I might have just walked away.

    But I’d never have replaced it with a doublewide (or anything else), even though you’re not the first to suggest it.

    It’s not only because I can’t stand manufactured homes (though I can’t). But believe it or not, the economics of keeping and rebuilding the place actually made sense. Let me give you the comparison.


    • $10,000 upfront to buy the place (at which point I’m broke)
    • Thousands of dollars in demolition/haulaway costs (somewhat less if the fire department burned it down as an exercise)
    • I’d have had to pay to live somewhere else while that was done
    • A decent doublewide would have cost — what — $50-$70k or more? And I’d have had to finance that, paying interest. (The county does not allow new installations of mfg. homes/mobile homes that are more than seven years old, so I couldn’t have bought something older.)
    • The county would have forced me to install an engineered septic system for another $20k (at least)
    • Plus permits and plumbing and electrical hookups and heaven knows what else.


    • $10,000 upfront to buy the place (at which point I’m broke)
    • About $1,000 for partial demolition and haulaway
    • I lived (and still live) mortgage-free and rent-free while all the work is being done
    • I could spend on projects as funds were available — as little as $2,500 some years, as much as $8,000 other years; that was a huge issue
    • No need to replace the existing septic tank
    • Although all the plumbing and most of the electrical eventually was or will be redone, again it’s over time. And no permits/initial hookup costs required.
    • No interest paid on anything except 2% still to be paid to the friend who loaned me money for this year’s projects

    I estimate the total cost by the time I’m done will be about $50,000. For a 1,000-square-foot house on nearly an acre of land in a good neighborhood. With no mortgage, and total pay-as-you-go except for that one low-interest loan.

    With teardown and doublewide, the costs would have been more like $70-$100,000, plus interest, and I couldn’t have gotten the bank loan necessary to do it, anyhow.

    There were other benefits, too. Like creating something cool and individualistic. Like scrounging wonderful plumbing fixtures, doors, and cabinets for $0-$5 apiece rather than having to pay more for the conventional ones that would have come with a doublewide. Like the sheer adventure of it all — though I do admit that’s been a mixed blessing.

  20. Claire
    Claire August 17, 2017 11:26 am

    “Seriously, I’d buy the book in hardcover.”

    And I’d buy your book, Joel. I’ve enjoyed, cheered, and marveled at your adventures in scrounging and neighborly trading in the cause of building your Secret Lair.

    Yes, it’s harder to re-do than to do from scratch (especially when you live in the proverbial Crooked Little House). But look what you did on nearly nothing!

  21. DistOne
    DistOne August 17, 2017 3:43 pm

    Fabulous! Speaks volumes about your determination and will. When good people refuse to give up, the inspire the rest of us to do better. Thank you.

  22. Claire
    Claire August 17, 2017 8:21 pm

    Thank you, DistOne. Now, if only I were as motivated to doggedly pursue “causes.”

    (That’s grammatically supposed to read “… motivated doggedly to pursue …” But doesn’t that sound stiltedly silly?)

  23. larryarnold
    larryarnold August 17, 2017 8:51 pm


    I just wish you could have known my father-in-law. He was past-master of the “put something up, then see where the next part fits” technique.

  24. Claire
    Claire August 17, 2017 9:14 pm

    Oh, yeah. I could have learned from your father-in-law, all right. And no doubt enjoyed watching him.

    Thank you for your salute. I’ve unfortunately seen both the good (creative) and the really bad (OMG, now what?) side of that technique on this house. Have a plan? How dull! Besides, it would have been tossed out the first time the known hole in the floor turned into the eight feet of rot in the walls.

  25. firstdouglas
    firstdouglas August 18, 2017 8:06 am

    These images only make the story more incredible–and your picture posting is NOT, NOT getting old. Am agreeing with Joel that this would be a little book worth buying.

  26. Fred Muller
    Fred Muller August 18, 2017 8:41 am

    “Big” book worth buying!

  27. Comrade X
    Comrade X August 18, 2017 10:40 am

    “Big” book worth buying!


  28. Mark Leigh
    Mark Leigh August 19, 2017 7:48 am

    I ended up putting a doublewide on a lot instead of building the house I wanted to because regulatory costs and time requirements made building impossible. I concur with your route Claire. Finding and renovating an old house eliminates most regulatory barriers and if you absolutely must have a house of your own design in the end if one stick of the old house is still included it is still the old house.

  29. jc2k
    jc2k August 19, 2017 11:16 pm

    Congratulations on the milestone Claire. It’s been a long slog. Thanks for bringing us along for the ride.

  30. terrapod
    terrapod August 20, 2017 9:50 am

    Congratulations on tackling and overcoming the challenge.
    I don’t know where you are located but that “shack” (I think that might even be a generous descriptive term) that you purchased would not have met code in any way where up here in the Midwest.

    That and you have extremely patient and tolerant neighbors.

    It is now a house and home – again – congratulations!

  31. Roland Deschain
    Roland Deschain August 20, 2017 5:33 pm

    WOW! I have been in the construction business for 40 years, and I am still amazed at how people put things together. No, not you, of course. I admire your tenacity in completing that project. In the business it is inown as a “runaway train”. It just keeps on going, damaging everything in its path. Congratulations on a job well done. I always loved my work as you can stand back at the end of the day and say, “I built that!”

  32. Claire
    Claire August 20, 2017 5:34 pm

    “That and you have extremely patient and tolerant neighbors.”

    Ha. They were so glad to have anybody sane here after Crazy Dick left that they’d have forgiven me anything. It helped that they could see I was gradually improving the place, even if “gradual” was actually “glacial.”

    And code. Um. Yeah. I don’t think there were many inspectors hanging around, or many permits granted, when this house was young.

  33. M
    M September 15, 2017 3:02 pm

    I’ve watched your project with interest…And not a small bit of dread as to what I might find next in my own “project.”

    I did go the mortgage route, but that’s left me with a nice oak post & beam structure on two acres. While the “bones” of the house are good and have let me avoid the mold and rot issues you’ve seen, nothing but the structure itself could be left how I purchased it.

    Just in terms of junk removal, I’ve gotten rid of easily 10,000 lbs of trash and debris, construction and otherwise, as well as almost the same of scrap metal. Demolition of one of the “closets” inside the house – a small, triangular thing behind the woodstove and only just attached to one of the main posts of the house – took me an entire weekend and left me with four or five dozen pieces of wood, none of which were standard dimensional lumber, and close to 7 lbs of nails. 🙂

    I’m glad to see the progress. Feels good, doesn’t it?

  34. Claire
    Claire September 16, 2017 5:21 am

    I’ve watched your project with interest…And not a small bit of dread as to what I might find next in my own “project.”

    Sounds as if you’ve already had enough “interesting” turns on your own project. Seven pounds of nails to put together a small closet; makes me wonder if Jim Beam and Jack Daniels went bi-coastal. But yeah, doesn’t it feel good when you get through all that?

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