Saturday, February 25, 2012

Step 3 - Batten Down the Hatches

As I've mentioned before, people regularly stop by my projects and ask how I do what I do.  They tell me that they'd like to buy an old home to fix-up themselves or that they've dreamed about having a similar project of their own for years.   

There are steps I find myself repeating progressively with each Pig's Ear I buy.  As I have explained previously the first thing I always do before starting a project is take pictures (Step 1 - Pictures, Pictures, Pictures!).  However, after I take ownership I'm mindful of the need to make the buildings secure.  I make certain doors shut tightly and install my own locks if necessary.  I board up any broken windows and brace them or sliding glass doors so they can't be opened from the outside.  I don't want children from the neighborhood coming inside.  I don't need teenagers hanging out, having a party, and maybe making things worse.  And I'd prefer that curious folks in town come to see what things look like on the interior when I'm around to lead the tour.  

Besides people, I want to keep four legged visitors from coming inside as well.  In the past, I have found the remains of various wild and domesticated animals on my projects.  I never forget to keep in mind how intelligent animals are.  They know and remember where they can go to get dry and rest and I've had more than a few pets wander thru that seem just as curious as the people in the neighborhood.  Once, I neglected to seal the hole for the dryer vent and a friendly cat paid a visit in the middle of the night before it made itself at home and curled up in a ball at foot of my bed until morning.  So, make sure all openings in the exterior perimeter walls (large or small) are secure.

Now, it's obvious (yet worth mentioning) that if someone wants to get in badly enough they will.  That's why I don't stock the house with valuable tools and material on day-one.  I typically feel comfortable leaving behind equipment needed for interior cleanup and demolition such as shovels, my sledge hammer, a wheel barrow, ladders, and basic hand tools.  However, that's about it.

So, after you take pictures, mow and clean up the yard (see Step 2 - After the Pictures, Clean Things Up).  And once you become the property's owner, button things up immediately to discourage people (and critters) from coming into the house when you're not around.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Jeremy Lin: A Diamond in the Rough

BSAPE is about home renovating, but it's written from the perspective of my own experiences saving severely neglected houses; places that have been abandoned, homes that have been overlooked, and properties that others didn't want.  As I've shared before, I have the radio on when I'm driving or working alone and there's been plenty said in the last couple weeks about basketball player Jeremy Lin, the point guard for the New York Knicks who was seemingly disregarded for years.  Lin has burst onto the scene this month in a way that seems more like an inspirational Disney movie than something that could actually happen in real life.

When people were going nuts about Tim Tebow in the fall, I weighed in because I was enjoying the story, we were talking about it frequently, and I especially loved the fact that TT was proving football experts to be off target (like they predicted his passes would be).  Lin is a great story that is being compared to Tebow's due to their humility and religious commonality.  But these two stories are about more than sports or spirituality.  They're about doing things contradictory to what authorities with experience foresaw with certainty.  They're about chasing dreams and persevering through adversity.

Basketball wise-men consistently passed on Jeremy Lin.  He didn't get an athletic scholarship after high school and was not drafted out of Harvard.  After a season with the Golden State Warriors, Jeremy got waived in early December by them and was then let-go by another team on Christmas Eve.  Ouch!  Then he filled out the bottom of the roster in the Big Apple until injuries to multiple teammates resulted in his chance to shine.  Now, there are a lot of people in the world of basketball scratching their heads and explaining why they failed to notice the Knickerbocker's newest star. 

The properties I've resurrected have been overlooked by plenty of other people; contractors, house-flippers, investors, and other folks who couldn't see past the fire or hurricane damage, the trash and debris, the overbearing intrusiveness of Mother Nature, and/or the other issues.  They weren't willing or able to see the potential until after I was finished, then many of them realized that they'd missed a great opportunity, just like those NBA talent scouts and executives are now doing as they watch the dynamic play of Jeremy Lin. 
A diamond is a piece of coal under extreme pressure.  Hear what the experts say, but don't let them stop you.  If you want to take on an abandoned house or do something else people with more experience view with discouragement, throw yourself at it, and don't stop until you've achieved your objective.                 

Friday, February 17, 2012

My Favorite Part of This Old House Magazine

Although many things have changed over the past decade, for me one thing remains the same: my routine when I remove my issue of This Old House Magazine from the mailbox.  The first thing I look at, oftentimes before I even make it back into the house, is the last page:  Save This Old House.  The homes that TOHMag. features here are Pig's Ears; houses that most people don't want and properties that have been seemingly forgotten.  Many of these houses are vacant by the time they appear on this page.  They're not completely dismissed though, someone recognizes their value and has taken time to put out a call for their rescue by sharing photos and a brief write-up.  As much as I love taking on severely run-down houses, I also enjoy the stories and lessons of history and the STOH page nearly always has intriguing historical details included in the articles accompanying the pictures and ties these facts into the subjects of the back page.  

Sometimes these houses need moved, but they always need someone like me who's ready to dig into the challenge of renovating an extremely run-down home; properties that have in many cases been left for dead and are ready to be brought back to life.  We live in the Lowcountry of South Carolina near Charleston.  They featured a home in the Palmetto Sate once; a property up in Union that's about three and half hours away.  So, if you have a STOH near you, I'm envious.  I'd love to buy one of these places and head up the effort to breathe life into it and help transform it into a Silk Purse. 

One of these days, maybe TOHMag. will share a home on Save This Old House that is near us.  I'm watching our mailbox and waiting because those are my type of houses.          

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Dog Tag

Happy Valentines Day.  On this day, I wanted to write about renovating and love.

There's a series I enjoy on HGTV called If Walls Could Talk with episodes full of stories about new owners of old homes finding things in the house and many times it's part of a renovation or restoration effort.  Over the years, I've found plenty of interesting things inside walls, closets, in the attics, and in those cavities where the flooring and walls meet.  At times the discoveries are valuable, maybe not to me, but to someone.

I shared this story with Renovation Style magazine and the following was included in their Winter 2005 issue. 

...During my work on the house I found a military dog tag in one of the walls.  At first I set it aside, but eventually with stories about military families and war on the news every night, I became motivated to try to return the tag to its owner. 

 I looked up the name in a local phone book.  The woman who answered the phone advised me that she was the widow of the man who had worn the dog tag during his service in World War II.  She lived a few blocks from me and invited me over so I could return her late husband's tag.

She was old, and feeble, but invited me to sit for a few minutes.  She couldn't have been sweeter as she told me about her husband, her children, and her grandchildren.  Her family never lived in the house I was renovating, but as we talked , she concluded that years ago her son must have been playing with the dog tag along with some boys who lived in the house.  That was likely how the tag came to be there.

As we talked, she carefully held and caressed the dog tag and told me several times how glad she was that I had taken time to bring it to her.  She was struggling to talk and breathe, and explained that she had cancer.  She wasn't bitter or angry but seemed very satisfied with the long, happy life she had enjoyed.

We concluded our talk, and I told her I needed to be going.  Because she was struggling to talk and breathe I encouraged her to keep her seat while I let myself out.  However, she ignored my suggestion, worked to stand up, gave me a big hug and said, "I want to get up - because I want to give you some love."   

Thank you and Happy Valentines Day to all the men and women serving our country and the families that sacrifice with them.  Think of this story the next time you see them and give them some extra love.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Step 2 - After the Pictures, Clean Things Up

At the end of January I wrote about the significance of taking pictures.  The second thing I do before I begin to renovate the project houses I buy is clean the property up.  This can apply to a run-down Pig's Ear that has been condemned because it's uninhabitable or a foreclosed property needing TLC that has been vacant for some considerable time.

There are a few reasons to clean up after the pictures.  First, I want to make it obvious that things have changed; that someone cares enough to mow the yard and pick up the trash and debris.  Without any formal announcement neighbors will begin to look out for you and kids will stop throwing rocks at the windows.  Also, if teenagers have been hanging around late at night, they'll think twice and likely find somewhere else to listen to music and drink beer.  And, if people have been casually throwing trash out the window when they drive by, believe it or not they'll show some respect for the house with the mowed grass and be more inclined to get rid of their garbage somewhere else. And lastly, bringing a run-down home back to life is long process and can be a downer when you're surrounded by neglect and disorder.  Cleaning things up begins to change that instantly. 

On more than one project I've mowed, raked, and hauled away yard debris and trash before I actually had ownership of the property.  This may seem impetuous.  What if the sellers change their mind and decide not to close?  First, I'm only investing a little time and some gas money.  And because the houses I've bought have been in such rough condition, I'm nearly certain the buyers will not renege.  No one else wants the houses I've taken on.  They're owners are glad to get rid of these places and I know they're going to show up at the attorneys office on closing day.  It's not a certainty, but it's pretty close to it.  Because there is so much work to do, when possible I start early. 

After Day One - A big step in the right direction.

So, after taking pictures, clean the place up.  The neighbors will appreciate it and when you return, it will pump you up because it will have a bigger impact on the appearance than you will imagine.    


Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Weeping Joints at The Fire House

One of the things I really love about renovating severely decrepit houses or Pig's Ears is the numerous opportunities there are to come up with a simple fix to a major problem; a solution that others have missed.  The Fire House had plenty of these challenges and the painted exterior with it's weeping mortar joints was a great one.  In the song What Was I Thinkin' American country music star Dierks Bentley sings about a cute girl, evading the law, and dealing with the little beauty's dad, but it may have been inspired by someone who painted the outside of a brick house with weeping joints who made things worse instead of better.

Weeping mortar joints are often seen in ranch homes in the southwestern United States.  The name is rooted in the fact that they're created when the mortar is allowed to weep or ooze from between the bricks and then dry in whatever squished out form it takes.  Typically, masonry mortar joints are finished off with a tool called a jointer.  In our lifetimes, we've all seen thousands of joints in buildings that have been finished this way.  However, if you see a house or building with weeping mortar joints you'll likely take more notice because it's not something you see everyday (unless you live in Arizona).

We live in the Lowcountry of South Carolina.  I know of one house in Charleston that has weeping joints and I think it looks good, due in large part because the brick and joints have never been painted and the contrasting colors work well together.  The brick is a rich brown, offset with the gray mortar, and the little house has windows trimmed in white. What helps this home to really pop from the street is the green ivy that has crept up from the ground.  These vines are always beautifully manicured and it's really charming.  However, what I had with The Fire House was ugly.  It had been painted and it was the opposite of charm; it was seriously jacked-up.        

Remember that 80's pop song by C+C Music Factory, Things That Make You Go Hmmm...?  These weeping joints fit into this category.  I lost track of all the people that paused in front of the house to ask me about them.  With puzzled looks on their faces they'd say things like, "What's that all about?", or "What do you suppose they were trying to do there?", or maybe my visitors would just look and shake their heads with disgusting disapproval as they continued forward to see if the interior looked as bad as the outside. 

To me, the dancing fighter in the clip exemplifies these mortar joints and the people chirping at me about them; it was a lot of attention and consideration spent unnecessarily.  Like plenty of other issues in the house I received countless suggestions, opinions, and words of advice for months about how I should handle this small matter and folks freely told me what I couldn't or shouldn't do.  Most made it a bigger issue than it was and in the end it was pretty simple to deal with.  I can relate to the guy in the dark trunks in that I patiently and politely listened.  When I needed to take action I did and I put the issue to rest.  I spent twenty or thirty minutes every day chipping mortar off, one 5' x 5' section at a time.  Everyday, it was the same drill and after a few weeks the problem was solved.  People were surprised and said things like, "Hey.  What happened to the stuff on the walls?"  And I'd answer flatly, "I just chipped it off.  It was easy."  And, not only did it look good, it looked like it could have always been that way.

After - This is a front section, the same view shown above.
Before - At the back.
After - Same spot.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Vinny Had The Right Attitude

For me, renovating dilapidated houses has been a lot of hard work mixed with too many mistakes to count.  I've learned to repair my damaged ego by reminding myself that my blunders are just part of the learning process.  Now, consider that a doctor establishes a medical practice.  Nothing wrong with that.  Or someone announces that they passed the bar and can now practice law.  Sounds about right.  However, if a plumber shows up at your house with his tools and says he's practicing plumbing you'd be like, "What?  Are you serious?  Next."  And if a painter says they'd be glad to practice with your house I'd expect most of you would simply say, "No thanks."

The way I see it, that's what home renovators have in common with doctors, dentists, and attorneys; we're all really just practicing.  Everyone screws up sometimes, but you have to learn from it and move forward.  Remember the movie My Cousin Vinny?  Vinny (played by Joe Pesci) was the lawyer and he didn’t know what he was doing, but that didn’t stop him from trying/'practicing.'  He kept doing boneheaded things, going to jail, and then showing up for court again and again until he eventually fell into a groove, started to sort things out, and saved the Karate Kid (Ralph Macchio) and the guy who played Rachel’s ex-husband on Friends

Like the people operating on you, drilling into your teeth, or helping you with your legal battles, you’re not going to know everything about what you’re doing if and when you embark on a home renovation project.  You’re going to screw up sometimes and probably more than once.  I’ve been working in the construction industry for two decades and I’ve been renovating extremely run down houses for over half of that time.  Even with all that experience I still fail inspections.  Be ready to forgive yourself when you make a misstep, measure or cut something incorrectly, order or buy the wrong thing, or get into a situation that you are completely clueless about.  The mistakes you’re going to make are just part of the adventure of renovating a house and if you ever do something similar a second time you'll know better.  So, be prepared to cut yourself some slack and retrace a few of your steps when you do something really stupid. 

Remember from the start that in many respects your practicing and that no house renovation goes flawlessly, but unlike heart surgery, a root canal, or a capital murder case, you’re the only one that’s going to suffer when you do a really dumb thing.  No one’s going to die when you screw up, nobody’s going to wince or scream out in agony because you drilled into a nerve, and you won’t derail someone else's life because you stood before a judge and said too many of the wrong things.  Try not to forget that you’re renovating a house and unlike the people you really need to be perfect, it’s alright for you not to be.        

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Why Eli Manning Impresses Me

I love watching people who are good at what they do.  There's nothing better than having a contractor step on my job who is totally professional about their craft and no matter what happens they calmly and methodically handle the situation.  I feel the same about the mechanic who works on my truck as skillfully as a surgeon in the operating room or a mother in Wal*Mart who care-freely manages multiple children while she shops, wipes noses, and squirts germ gel as she shuffles through coupons.

As I've written before, I'm a big sports fan and I can't get enough gridiron action during football season.  The New York Giants (who take on the New England Patriots Sunday in Super Bowl XLVI) are not my team, but Eli Manning has come to be one of my favorite players because he exemplifies the type of person I find most admirable.  Years ago, he sometimes would appear rattled and unsure of himself when things weren't going well, but he's matured into a sure handed quarterback that humbly demonstrates confidence.  When they zoom in on his helmet in the middle of the action he now has this look and demeanor that seems to say, "It's all good.  Everything's under control.  Whatever they do, we'll react and be fine.  I got this."  And not only has he been demonstrating confidence, he's also been demonstrating competence as he goes through his progressions and nails receivers with his passes.  And, to make things even better in my eyes, he's just doing it.  He's drawing attention to himself for doing his job well.  He's not dancing or spending time talking to the other team.  He's not doing nonsensical things off the field.  He's not cocky.  He's simply doing his job and doing it well and letting his play speak for itself.

That's the type of tradespeople and contractors I like having on my job sites.  I want people who know what to do, how and when to do it, and who remain calm under pressure and can systemically deal with challenges when they arise.  Not everyone on a construction site fits this description, but when I have the privilege of working with someone who does, I have no problem expressing how much I appreciate them.  I may not be able to tell Eli Manning how impressed I am by how he goes about his business with efficiency, effectiveness, and humility, but I can tell the workers on my projects and the other people doing a good job for me.  

Mark Twain is credited with the quote, "I can live for two months on a good compliment."  If you cross paths with someone  impressive who's really simply good at what they do, I hope you think about what I've shared here and consider telling them how genuinely impressed you are with them.