Thursday, August 25, 2011

Heat: a Minnesota necessity

The monstrosity of a heating system in the basement was a barely-functioning forced-air unit in our home.  Not only that, but the whole unit and its ducting were covered in asbestos.  We were warned of this fact before the final sale.  No matter; Mark already had made the decision that he'd like to install radiant heating on the main level.  We'd forgo heating the half story upstairs to start because we had plans to expand the upper level.

Contractors are notoriously challenging to work with.  We invested in a subscription to Angie's List to help us identify those that were highly rated by satisfied customers and avoid those with many complaints.  In spite of our best screening efforts, we still ended up with a few contractors over the last several years that we wish we had avoided.  Our heating contractor made the list of those we should have avoided.

We interviewed a couple companies who installed Wirsbo/Uponor radiant heating systems, and chose the one that would be open to having Mark do some of the work himself.  The installation of our new system was a major undertaking.  Because we didn't want to pull up our existing hardwood floors, the contractors installed our water pipes beneath the floor joists.  This method is less efficient than installing above the subfloor, but is still workable if you can place insulation throughout the floor joists.

The first task on the list for our contractors:  asbestos abatement.  We were happy to let someone else complete this task.  They had to remove the ducts, being careful with the asbestos tape around the ducts, and remove the actual heating unit that was completely covered in asbestos - caked on like plaster of paris.  The suits they had to wear reminded us of astronauts aboard the space shuttle.

As is often the case with projects, our heating system installation took longer than we expected.  There were days that the guys didn't show up, days when the necessary materials weren't delivered, and mistakes that had to be corrected.

Mark has high expectations for quality work and was disappointed that the guys drilled more holes in our floor joists to run the pipes than were necessary.  Whenever a hole is drilled in a floor joist, its strength is compromised.  Mark wanted to make sure that the joists could withstand a second-story addition.  He also emphasized to our contractors that  our new boiler needed enough BTUs to accommodate our possible expansion.  Our hope was to finish our basement and maximize the height of our ceilings and the use of the square footage, which Mark thought he had stressed as a priority with our contractors.  However, some of the end pipes were run under the floor joists instead of through them, which would require an eventual ceiling to have a soffit to cover the piping.  This suggestion was not acceptable to Mark.  The pipes needed to be rerun.  Also, the fresh air intake ducting for the boiler that led to the outside was placed on the wrong side of the steel I-beam that ran through the center of the house.  This placement made it challenging to eventually maximize the use of the space in our basement.  Mark's primary frustration with this issue is that he was just upstairs at the time and the workers could easily have asked him where he'd like the ducting placed before they installed it, if they were uncertain.  Once the hole was drilled through the external wall, little could be done to change it.

The stainless steel exhaust duct to vent the gas outside was on backorder, which also held up the progress of this project.  The contractors insisted that all the other pieces of the system were installed, but they had to wait for this part to ensure that the fumes from the natural gas that heated the water running through the pipes would be vented outside.  In the meantime, they didn't anticipate the next issue:  that there was no electrical outlet in close proximity to power the boiler.

We were headed into Fall when we would need to start using our heating system.  I recall one week in October when the overnight temperatures dipped into the range when most homes would have their heaters running to keep their occupants warm.  Lucky for Mark, this particular week had him traveling to a customer site for work and staying in a nice warm hotel room.  Unlucky for me, I was home in a house with no heat, trying to stay warm with warm blankets and extra layers.  The argument we had over this situation wouldn't be the last regarding house projects.  Until writing this blog entry, I didn't know that Mark, in solidarity, turned off the heater in his cozy hotel room and opened the windows so that he, too, could feel the pain of an October night without heat.

In an effort to get our system working despite the lack of an electrical outlet, our contractor agreed to use an extension cord to connect our system on a temporary basis until we could get a proper electrical outlet installed.  This temporary fix probably wouldn't have won the approval of the city inspectors, but it met the need for heat until an outlet could be installed.

Soon after, our system was working and we were enjoying warm hardwood floors and a comfortable room temperature, something that most people in the US and the developed world take for granted.  Radiant heating systems are complicated and challenging to install, but the benefits of warm floors, less noise and lower heating costs are worth it to us.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Wallpaper and paint

The house was built in 1947, the time just after the war when people built basic homes with little of the 1920s charm that the majority of homes in our neighborhood featured.  As a result, we didn't have any guilt when thinking about what to keep and what to change in the renovation process.

Next door was our home's architectural double, but it was easy to see that our neighbor's house (and its yard) had been well-maintained and cared for, in sharp contrast to ours.  The advantage for both houses is that they each sit on a 1.5 lot, meaning that we have a large yard (and plenty of room for expansion) compared with typical homes in our neighborhood.

One of my immediate priorities, after functioning appliances, was removal of the wallpaper in the bathroom.  Its whimsical 40s-style design, featuring shampoo bottles, combs, toothbrushes, and other bathroom essentials; and including catchy little grooming phrases such as, "Prevent the wrinkles or your true love might crinkle," and "If you want the girls to rave please don't forget to shave," was one of the few charming aspects of the house, but it was dingy and peeling.  It had to go.

I tried using a wallpaper scoring tool to remove the paper.  It didn't work.  The drywall clung to that paper like they were one and the same.  I used Dif solution for my next attempt.  With both of these products, I would get small pieces at a time, but it would have taken many hours to get all the wallpaper down in that tiny bathroom.  My coworker recommended a palm sander.  It was messy and noisy, but it got the job done.  The wallpaper was out and the painting could begin.

One of the bedrooms also had wallpaper covering the walls.  Removing this room's wallpaper was a different challenge.  We learned the hard way that the wallpaper was applied to bare drywall, without any paint or primer.  Not good.  Trying to remove this wallpaper without destroying the drywall proved unsuccessful for us amateurs.  We ended up replacing the drywall in order to remove the wallpaper.  After these challenges with removing wallpaper, I don't think I will choose to decorate with wallpaper, at least not for a long time.

The paint color that the previous owner chose for the living room and hallway was a dull gray that reminded us of cold, dark Minnesota winters.  We had to make a change.  We opted for a bold, bright, Spanish-style orange that has earned us many compliments over the years.  The color still brings a smile to my face when I see it, though I must confess I was skeptical about using such a bold color at first.  I'm glad I relented.  When you live in Minnesota, you need to maximize sunshine, or even the illusion of sunshine, in order to cope with the long winters.

Free time was minimal during these early days of updating, correcting and improving the little white house, but we enjoyed spending time getting our new space to suit our tastes.  Little did we know how much more it would take before all the projects would be crossed off our to-do list.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Our first priority: The leaking roof

As promised, Mark got straight to work on replacing our shingles.  Because he had plans to add on to the house, and would likely need to replace the roof again, he decided to go with the cheapest shingles he could find.  As luck would have it, one of his customer sites rented nail guns and his contact there was willing to let him borrow a few to redo our roof.

Mark, with his friends Andy, Micha and Nick, started pulling off the old shingles early on a Saturday.  I was in charge of coffee, sandwiches, water, and emergency hardware store trips.  Midway through the morning, it became apparent that a wheelbarrow would be necessary to haul shingles.  I headed over to 54th and Penn to pick one up at our local hardware store.  The guys, who had already started to recognize me as a repeat customer, showed me two types of wheelbarrows:  those that are already assembled, and those that require assembly.  We agreed that the former would be better.  However, the assembled wheelbarrow wouldn't fit in my Honda Civic.  No problem.  The guys said they were just headed to lunch and would drop it by the house on their way.  I quickly gave them my address, and within 20 minutes, we had a fully-assembled wheelbarrow delivered free of charge.  Did they win my loyalty that day?  You betcha.

The shingle-removal process was more time-consuming than we anticipated.  The hot sun made the work even more challenging.  Day two of replacing the roof came and went without  finishing the work.  Mark decided to take Monday off work, and asked Andy to do the same, so they could finish it up.

I didn't get up on the roof of the house much, but I did work with Mark to replace the shingles on our detached garage the following weekend.  I looked forward to checking this project off our list, so we could focus on the interior of the house.  First stop:  1940s-style bathroom wallpaper!

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Moving in and getting settled

July is a great time of year to be in Minneapolis.  Residents, knowing what winter will bring in a few months, don't want to waste a minute inside and make every effort to enjoy the beautiful weather.  But on our moving day in July of 2004, it rained.  Thankfully, the contents of a one-bedroom apartment didn't take long to move from the west end of Lake Calhoun to our new home.

Mark and his friend Andy transferred most of the furniture and boxes while I worked on scrubbing the paint off our living room floor with my new discovery:  Goo Gone.  The red oak hardwood floor had not been sanded or sealed for decades.  The former homeowner did the floors no favors by painting the living room and bedroom walls without using drop cloths.  Paint splatters could be found all around both rooms.  Another immediate chore I assigned myself was washing down the walls, which reeked of cigarette smoke, with another newly-discovered cleaning product:  Soilax.

The house was in such bad shape that Mark had difficulty convincing Wells Fargo to give him a loan.  He also struggled to get homeowners' insurance due to the condition of the house.  He went back and forth between the two and convinced them to provide a loan and offer insurance.  Mark, in return, promised to replace the roof within the first month and work through the other issues identified in the inspector's 44-page report.

Not long after we moved in, my parents and siblings came for a visit.  Mark thought we'd make pizza for an easy Friday night dinner.  I put the oven on preheat, but it didn't heat up.  That explained why the oven was as clean as new.  Plan B involved cooking the pizza on our Weber charcoal grill.  Here's a tip:  if you want to barbecue pizza on a charcoal grill, don't use Matchlight charcoal.  Your pizza will taste like lighter fluid.  A new stove would be a priority.

A new washer and dryer became an early priority as well, after my first load of clothes came out looking rusty.  The dryer wasn't getting clothes dry, either.  I mentioned in the first post that the harvest gold dishwasher, circa 1975, did not work.  Were we going to have to replace all of our appliances at once?  We lived without a dishwasher for a while.  The refrigerator seemed fine, but we found that food would spoil sooner than we expected.  Add a refrigerator to the growing list of major purchases that we'd likely be making in the near future.

As we invested time and money in this house, it started to feel more like a home.  Soon after we moved in, the annual National Night Out potluck gave us the opportunity to meet nearly all of our neighbors.  We felt truly welcomed and looked forward to many more chances to get to know them and feel a part of this urban community.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The beginning

My husband, Mark, had a plan:  he wanted to buy the worst house on the block in a great location.  Mission accomplished.  After an entire year of searching, and narrowing down the geographic area of interest to a small area near Lake Harriet in Minneapolis, he found what he was looking for.  The house was owned by an older man who had a reputation in the neighborhood of being an alcoholic and someone who didn't take good care of his home or yard.  Oh, the stories we've heard.

Mark and I were not yet married and he was determined to buy the house on his own, so I wasn't involved in a lot of the details of this major purchase.  In fact, I hadn't seen the house before he committed to owning it.  I had toured other homes with him, but there was some miscommunication with the real estate agent on the showing for this house, and he had to dash over to see it without me.  In 2004, the housing market in Minneapolis was hot.  So hot, in fact, that if you found a home you wanted, you better be prepared to make an offer on the spot.  Mark knew right away that this house was the one and made his offer.

My first opportunity to see this house was at the inspection.  The realtor, Judy, and I trailed Mark and the inspector through the house and exchanged horrified glances at what we saw.  The cracked tiles in the kitchen, the paint splattered on the worn hardwood floors, the non-working harvest gold Kitchenaid dishwasher, the massive archaic heating unit in the basement, and the screened-in porch off the back of the house that had certainly seen better days.  The thought that kept going through my head was, "What has he done?"

The inspection turned up some serious issues with the house.  It would need a complete overhaul of electrical wiring (all outlets were two-pronged and many were not grounded), a new roof as soon as possible, and probably all new plumbing, among other updates.  It was just what Mark wanted.  His plan involved updating and repairing the house to fit in with the neighborhood, and possibly installing a couple dormer windows in the half-story upper level to make it more livable.

Though I wasn't as eager about this 'project house' as Mark was, I did look forward to sprucing up the place and creating a home of our own.  After years of living in apartments, I was excited for the opportunity to paint walls a color other than white or beige.

Mark grew up in rural Australia and was raised by a man who found it rewarding to build his home from the ground up.  His hard work inspired both Mark and his brother Dave to buy homes with the vision to improve and expand them.

When Mark arrived at the house on the day of closing, he (and his realtor) were shocked to find that the homeowner had not moved his few belongings out of the house.  Apparently, he did not believe that the transaction would go through and had no plan for where to live after the house was sold.  There was some scrambling, whereby some of his possessions were moved to the detached garage temporarily until he found a place to keep them.

Through all the challenges of finding and purchasing this home in the highly-sought-after neighborhood of Fulton in Southwest Minneapolis, we found great reward in meeting our new neighbors and becoming familiar with the walk around Lake Harriet.  We anticipated a great deal of adventure to encounter as we began to settle into this new home.