The enthusiasm gap

I went into the home inspection nervous about what we would find. The house was lacking in all possible “curb appeal,” which brought down the price to what we could afford, but was it structurally sound? The home inspector, an old guy nearing retirement, was almost universally positive. I pointed out areas of concern — plumbing? Fine. What about the siding, which looks terrible? That stuff lasts forever. Boiler? Practically new! (It is about 20 years old.) And the roof? Seems to be in good shape! This is a great house, he kept saying, you’re going to do well here.

Pleasantly surprised (and a bit confused), we addressed a few small inspection issues with the seller and obtained a closing credit towards some future repairs, and moved forward with the purchase.

It needs some work

After moving in we called in a respected contractor in the area that specializes in restoring old homes. The team of two brothers took us through the entire house, jumping on floors, poking and prodding, making lots of notes. They asked us what we wanted and what our ideas were, and took a copy of the inspection report. They came back with a proposal that was slightly jaw-dropping in price, but comprehensive. They found old knob-and-tube wiring which needed to be replaced, recommended upgrading to 200 amp service, pointed out problems with floor joists and old plumbing. They recommended re-siding with Cedar Impressions and replacing the windows with high quality Anderson 400s. They included pricing for a gut renovation of the kitchen (as we had discussed), moving a few walls, and relocating a bathroom. If we had the money, we would do it all.

I called up a guy who does siding and windows for a second opinion. Sight-unseen he told us that we couldn’t paint, but needed to re-side (he had given a paint quote for our house to the previous owners 2 years ago). After a bit of prodding he came by and gave a price for painting and vinyl replacement windows, but no written proposal. I’m still waiting on something more solid that includes re-siding and new construction windows, and I’m still unclear on why he quoted paint on a house that can’t be painted.

Third, fourth, fifth opinions. Contemplation. Should we do smaller projects? What can we tackle ourselves? What is critical, and what can wait? What will make us happiest?

One ugly kitchen

Last night a fascinating man came by. The name of his business includes a Don Quixote reference and he looks a bit like Santa Claus. We wanted to talk about radiator covers and custom cabinetry, but instead he started wandering around. He asked us what our plan was, and we mentioned re-siding and replacing the windows. He frowned. He started tapping things and rapping them with his knuckles. He opened and closed windows, poked at the siding, and examined the plaster walls. And he started talking. And talking. And talking.

This is red cedar shingle, with proper care this siding could last another 50 years. These windows are original, I can install jamb liners and teach you how to re-glaze broken glass panels and get you new storm windows. Not quite as energy efficient as new windows, but cheaper, and you get to keep these beautiful originals. Plaster? Look at these wonderful rounded corners, I can create a metal tool that you can use to restore them, and teach you how to skim coat, if you’re interested. Do you see how this trim is set? How it overlaps, and is installed proud? New trim isn’t installed this way, everything is flush, and over time as the wood moves things stop lining up. This is craftsmanship, this is classic New England. This is a great house. Look at this attic, nice pine floors. All this wood downstairs can be sanded and oiled, you have a project every three years, but it looks fabulous. You can do so much of this yourself, and I’ll teach you how. I charge hourly, I don’t mark up materials. We will have fun with this house. What a wonderful house.

I don’t know what to think. I was sure I wanted modern siding and efficient new windows and new trim work throughout. I didn’t see a lot of charm in the old house — no fancy built-ins or detailing — but this guy sure saw the appeal. And he made suggestions for how we could liven it up. Traced the profile and load-bearing walls and talked about how the house must have been expanded over time. It was, dare I say it, a bit magical.

But where does it leave us? Even more confused, certainly, and unsure of what path to take. But positive, nervous, excited about the future, and about the adventure that is owning an old house.

5 replies on “The enthusiasm gap”

  1. That guy does sound fun… The classic New England restoration approach may make it a bit tougher to fit in your brushed-stainless-art-deco decor, though.

  2. If you want to save money then this guy is right (and you are lucky to have found such a resource, esp. if he really is willing to mentor). From someone who has done some very expensive upgrades with modern contractors I can tell you that 5 and 2 years into a bathroom and kitchen remodel respectively, I do wish I had had a bit of what this guy is offering. Two year old trim in the kitchen has already shrunk and has gaps at many joints. Wife wanted new trim even after I had pulled all the nails from the old; still wish I had insisted on installing that (they don’t make Southern yellow pine like they used to 80 years ago).

    I could go on with many details about what should/could have been done differently if I had had a guy available like this one. One recommendation if you are not sure how you feel about his approach – join the boards at This Old House and post some queries to that effect, with some of the details you mention here. You’ll get lots of other homeowners recommending solutions (and if you are lucky one of the contractors will also chime in with thoughts).

    Welcome to the home owning adventure.

  3. That’s interesting. So far Meghan hasn’t been willing to stand projects left unfinished, even for a week, so I need to soften her up before I can try and tackle a bathroom or kitchen on my own (or with help). I’m pretty conflicted on the siding/windows issue, but short-term financial considerations may dictate that painting and repairing is the way to go. I’ll check out the TOH boards. I’ve been spending enough time on other parts of their site anyway…

  4. We’ve been mid remodel of sone sort since we moved in 3 years ago. Even had no shower for about 3 weeks due to unfortunate circumstances. Stuff takes a lot longer if you’re doing it yourself but it can definetly be done. We find the people at hone depot pretty useful for figuring out how to do things.

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