Thursday, March 29, 2012

Step 6 - Sketch Out the Floor Plan

I love maps.  If we're going somewhere, I like to follow along with a paper diagram and once we get where we're going (amusement park, new city, state park, etc.) and someone offers us a chart of the area, I accept it with gratitude and open it up with excitement as my wife explains, "He's a map guy."  Over the years, people have regularly asked me how I go about re-doing the really bad-off houses I buy to rehab.  After I clean the house out (Step 5) the next thing I do is create a floor plan (which is really just a map of the house.)  This step is not absolutely necessary, but it's what I do.  However, I am a map guy. 

Let me say that if you're about to dive into a home renovation project, you're going to be well served by having a drawing (in some form) of your house.  You can scratch your home's layout on a napkin from a fast food restaurant or you can commission an architectural firm to create a rendering for you, but I'd like to suggest that you start somewhere in the middle.  A measuring tape and a few sheets of graph paper are the easiest way for me to knock out Step 6, but you may have some computer software you're more comfortable with.  It's going to take a few hours to draw out the house (at the least), but I always do it and feel it's worth the time and effort.  Ultimately, you may hire an architect, but having a drawing will only be an asset if you do.

There's several reasons why I sketch out the floor plan.  First, it's easier for me to visualize changes, adjustments, and additions when I have a bird's-eye view of how the house is laid out.  I see things differently and more completely when I have a scaled depiction on paper.  Secondly, like taking pictures, I want a drawing of what the house looks like before I start tearing it apart so I can compare the layouts before and after (the same as I do with the pics.  See - Pictures, Pictures, Pictures!)  In addition to that, I need to draw the house in it's original form before I start redrawing it (Step 8).  For me, renovating a run-down house is a step-by-step process that has unfolded over the years in a pattern that works effectively for me.  Step 6 is just a routine part of how I go about my process of bringing my dilapidated buildings back to life.

The Cottage - Before

There are a variety of types of graph paper out there, but I've grown to prefer those that have either sixty-four or one hundred blocks per square inch in sheets that are 11" x 17".  Standard graph paper will work also, but I like using the styles with the smaller squares because that allows me to create a rendering of the home in which each small square represents a 4" area of the structure.  This may seem too minute or finite and might sound like a task that's going to take way too long.  I've plowed through this step too many times to count, it's easy once you get going, and I won't renovate a home without having a drawing to work from.  For me, Step 6 is a necessity.   

There are several reasons why I prefer and recommend that the drawing of the home is broken down into four inch increments on the sketch.  First, doors, windows, cabinets, counters, closets, appliances, stairs, hallways, rooms, and most everything else in the house will be in sizes closely divisible by 4.  Secondly, most walls will be accurately represented in a floor plan if they're drawn to be 4" thick.

Finally, remember to include fixtures in the bathroom, cabinets, fireplaces, porches, balconies, and anything else on the inside or outside that may impact your plans.  This drawing does not need to be elaborate.  It needs to be easy to read, clean, organized, and most importantly as accurate as you can make it to the four inch dimension I keep referencing.

I always do a rough drawing right away in the project house and then a second, cleaner version when I get home while I'm sitting down at my desk or the kitchen table.  After that, I'm ready for Step 7 - Permits and Step 8 - Redraw the Floor Plan

The Cottage - After

I would like to apologize to those of you who are outside of the United States where things aren't as easily divisible by increments of 4 inches.  I do realize that my readers in other parts of the world may be working from the metric system.  Although I have worked on construction projects outside of my home country, my experience is predominantly here.  Please excuse me for specific terminology more applicable in the USA.  However, I hope with some minor translations in my measuring techniques, you can adjust my advice to help you no matter where you are in the world.  

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Break It Down

If you’re renovating a house for the first time, adding a master suite, planning the redo of your kitchen, or some other endeavor with a seemingly infinite number of things to do, consider the words of M.C. Hammer or D.J. Lance and break it down.  Steven Covey is the author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.  Habit 2 is: Begin with the End in Mind.  You want to have the finished house in your minds-eye from the start, but I want to encourage you to break things down into smaller pieces so your plans aren't snuffed out before you really get going.

Consider for a minute that you where embarking on a mountain climbing trip.  Would you be fixated on the top of the mountain as you marched forward each minute?  I doubt it.  Each day, you'd probably be mindful of where you wanted to get before nightfall and you'd surely break that down into a smaller objectives of how far you expected to trek before having a rest, stopping for lunch, and so on.  And think of marathoners who break down their training into do-able segments and have their 26.2 mile mission broken into parts that are marked with mile signage as they get closer to the finish line on race day.  In reality, climbing a mountain, running a marathon, or renovating an extremely run-down home are similar in that they're just a whole lot of smaller steps and tasks put together into something that's greater when it's considered in it's entirety at the end.

I love actor Bill Murray's work and have enjoyed the film What About Bob? more than a few times.  Richard Dreyfuss just wanted Bob out of his office and he used the message from his 'groundbreaking new book' to help make that happen.  If you've never renovated a home before, it might seem overwhelming (like everything was for Murray's character Bob).  However, your home renovation goal is like anything else and needs to be reconsidered in smaller parts.  The interior and exterior.  Then, each room on the inside and the landscaping, the homes exterior, and the roof on the outside.  From there things just get broken down further into small parts that you can knock out one by one.

In addition, when you have a big goal out in the distant future, be certain to celebrate the smaller accomplishments along the way and if you're renovating, remember to look back at your pictures frequently to remind yourself of how much progress you've made (see Step 1 - Pictures, Pictures, Pictures!).  You don't have to have a block party after you successfully knock out each task, but enjoy each accomplishment for what it is and take a moment to savor what you've done before moving on to that next item on your list.

So if you're thinking of climbing a big mountain, becoming an Ironman triathlete, or renovating a extremely run down house (aka - Pig's Ear) start by breaking it down again and again and again into achievable pieces and begin taking small steps ahead toward the moment at the summit, the finish line, or the house you imagine.   

Friday, March 16, 2012

Weeping Mortar Joints

Tools needed to remove WMJs.  (Brick Hammer is shown,
but any hammer to pop down on your chisel will do.)
From my end, it's clear that there is a lot of interest in the topic of Weeping Mortar Joints.  There are some that hold WMJs in favorable regard and believe they should be appreciated as an architectural element.  As I've mentioned before (see The Weeping Joints at The Fire House) when complemented effectively, I'm totally sold on how they can contribute to the exterior facade.  However, when they've been painted with the exterior brick, I think the result is less-than-impressive.  When I had weeping joints on the project we call The Fire House (before), most of my visitors believed strongly that I had no choice but to deal with them in some way.  I agreed.  

There is more than one way to skin a cat.  I've found that if you have a unique issue it's possible to get five different suggested solutions from five people.  They all may be right and they may not.  When you're the one making the decision it's up to you to listen, sort through what you've been told, and draw on your own knowledge base to move forward as you choose.  The WMJs at The Fire House (during) was an example of something that inspired a diverse variety of advice. One person strongly recommended that I hire a masonry crew to chisel away the oozing joints, grind out the mortar, and then tuckpoint replacement material back in to create more traditional looking joints.  Another visitor recommended that I find someone with a jackhammer and get out of the way.  A few thought I should simply get used to how the home looked because they knew of no viable options for me.  And another man got more specific and unloaded his seemingly costly and time-consuming advice for me to attach wire fabric to the brick and then apply stucco.  As I mentioned in my February post on this topic, it was pretty simple and I just chipped the WMJs all off myself by hand, a remedy that eluded the curious folks stopping by.

Question:  How do you eat an elephant?
Answer:  One bite at a time.
Front Before Removing WMJs.

I didn't try to chip all the weeping joints off in one day or even a weekend.  The exterior walls were between nine and ten feet high.  I broke that height in half and started moving my way around the house a day at a time and one 5' x 5' section at a time.  Some evenings I chipped away after work for 20 or 30 minutes and there was a day or two on the weekends when I did twenty-five square feet in the morning and the same sized section before dark.  It was not difficult or strenuous and there was an immediate pay-off because of how the work impacted the exterior look so profoundly.  Once the WMJs were gone, the joints then had a jagged look that differed from typical/traditional ones finished during construction with a jointer, but they looked good.  Better stated, within the painted brick exterior of The Fire House (after), they looked right and if a visitor didn't know any different, they likely assumed that the way it appeared was the way the brick facade had always been.
The back of The Fire House just before I removed the WMJs.  You can chip away from a ladder, but I built a box frame to use as a scaffold that I slid along and worked from as I progressed around the perimeter.  I also used this scaffolding to work from as I repaired the fascia and soffit. 


Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Attention First-Timers: Double Your Estimates from the Start

Some folks will be thinking about their next renovation project before they're finished with their first one.  Others understand that one home restoration undertaking is all they'll ever do.  This advice is for first-timers.  If you're an experienced renovator, this may be helpful, but more than likely you'll be reading along while nodding in agreement as you'll know the advice I'm recommending is valid.  I love to renovate and I want to encourage others to experience the process of fixing up a house as I have.  This advice is to serve as an aid, not a bucket of cold water on a prospective home renovator's dreams.  We have a saying in this industry: if you don't get the foundation right, you'll be fighting the building the whole way.  Think about my advice as a cornerstone for your adventure, keep it in mind from the beginning and you'll have a much better ride.  

Your schedule and budget should be at the forefront of your plans to take on a house renovation project and they should stay with you like a pair of guardian angels until the end.  The duo work together and can drive your project efficiently in unison.  However, if you lack in either (time or money) your project will grind along and be harder than necessary.  If you approach the bank for a loan to buy and/or renovate, one of the first things they'll want to know is how much and how long it will take.  That should reinforce the significance of time and money in construction renovating. 

Be realistic and honest with yourself when you determine the cost and time it will take.  You may be able to roll up your sleeves and put your tool-belt on, you might be in a position to hire most of the work out to others, or maybe it's a solid combination of both.  It doesn't matter, when you renovate it will take time and money so give both of these serious enough attention that you can write the specifics down on paper.  This advice applies to redoing the entire house, remodeling the kitchen, or adding a master suite.  If you're a first-time renovator, acting as your own general contractor, take your time and money estimates and double them before you start.  It's that simple.  If you honestly and sincerely think it will take 5 months and $20,000 then make sure you're ready for a ten month project and have $40K ready for action.  No matter how thoroughly you may prepare beforehand, there will be things that you'll unknowingly leave out of your plans. You'll tear into walls and discover challenges you didn't expect.  Also, you'll likely discover certain tasks are easier than you anticipated and find yourself saying, "While I'm at it I might as well..."  As I described previously you're going to make some errors (see Vinny Had the Right Idea), and quite simply, renovating is a marathon and not a drag race and you're a person, not a cyborg.  You're going to get tired.  All these are factors that will impact your pace and your bottom line so double your allotted time and money from the beginning.

The pair at the end of the clip is a Canadian couple that's renovating a triplex together in Montreal (see Just Two Weeks).  You probably understand it's going to take you longer than two weeks and realize it's more complicated than doubling that and planning on a month.  Really make a wholehearted effort to estimate your time and financial commitment.  Furthermore, don't be mislead by the 30 minute or one hour long reality shows you can watch from the comfort of your living room.  A skilled team of experts with a production crew and corporate sponsorship play a big part in making their schedule and budget more palatable than it will be for a first-timer.    

Finally, work hard to stick with your original estimates.  From the start, be diligent about working to get done using your estimated time-line (i.e. 5 months) and be vigilant about completing things with your initial budget numbers (i.e. $20K).  Give it everything you have.  However, keep in mind that things will happen as they always do, your schedule will stretch out, and you'll get further from that original figure you felt so good about.  It's okay.  That's just how it goes.  Be ready for it and understand that in the end you're going to be closer to my numbers than yours.  I may be wrong, but I doubt it. 

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Step 5 - Clean the House Out

It's pretty simple; if it's left behind by the previous owners, you can't use it, and no one else wants it, then you need to get it out of the house so you can move forward with the renovation.  I've learned some important lessons in this area worth mentioning that can save time, money, and some heavy lifting.  As I have said before, it's been the norm for me to find things left behind in the kitchen cabinets and in the bedroom closets.  In addition to that I've inherited quite a few appliances over the years as well so let's use a left behind refrigerator as an example.

Chances are you aren't going to want the previous owners fridge.  When I first started renovating my Pig's Ears there was no Craigslist.  In 2012 this is a great first option so consider posting an ad there and perhaps someone else will come take your appliance away.  If not you might be able to push, pull, and drag it out to the curb and someone in the salvage business will likely be glad to have it.  Now you can haul it away yourself or wrestle it into a dumpster, but those options waste time and cost you money (and may even result in some visits to the chiropractor) so avoid them if you can.

Keep the refrigerator example in mind with the other stuff left behind as well.  If you place metal or aluminum out next to the street, it'll walk away on it's own because people who salvage it will be glad you didn't put it in the dumpster and enthusiastically remove it.  Same with other things that may hold little value, but be too good to toss in your rented metal trash box.  Remember: Your trash may be someone else's treasure.  If you can donate it, that's better than throwing it in your dumpster because you need that space for serious trash and construction debris.  In the end, you pay by the ton when the dumpster folks pick up their loaded container and dump it at the landfill for you so don't pay them to take it away if you can get it off your property easier and for less cost. 

Rules, laws, and regulations regarding construction/renovation debris out at the street vary from town to town.  There's a good chance the local sanitation crew will make it disappear if you drop it where the trash is picked up.  If you're paying for sanitation services through your tax payments, you might as well get your money's worth and let someone else haul off the things from inside the house when you can.  It may only be a few dollars, but that money adds up over the course of a long renovation and you'll want those dollars at the end of the job for finishes you'll be able to see and touch.

Also, don't give much thought to what the people next door might think about you're littering the street with the junk from inside the house.  Neighbors became outspoken and tougher to deal with on this issue when the real estate market was white hot, but now (like it was a decade ago) they'll be glad you're investing in their neighborhood and making things better and more than likely they won't mind the stuff sitting out next to the sidewalk for a few days.  Keep in mind that you're making the neighborhood better and helping their property values climb back up. 

Finally, Step 5 is when I pull out the carpet.  Carpet traps moisture and odors in the house and you want both of those gone.  In addition, you want to get a more solid handle on what's under any floor coverings.  You'll be tired after cleaning the house out, but if you're renovating an older home there's a possibility you'll discover flooring worth salvaging.  If you find some hardwood flooring or antique ceramic tile it will energize you and fill you with added excitement as you prepare for Step 6 - Sketch Out the Floor Plan. 

Before with light pouring in the charred hole in the roof.

After the Clean Up. 

After the Renovation - Same view.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Negative Can Be Positive

When I bought my first Pig's Ear to renovate, I was full of hope and optimism.  I was excited because I saw the house's potential.  I imagined how it would look when I was done and accepted how bad it actually was on the day I took ownership.  In addition, I was like Cliff (played by Matt Dillon) in the movie clip from Singles shown below:  I didn't want to hear anything negative.  But people poured it on me.  And the same thing happened with Pig's Ear #2, PE #3, and so on.  As I started each project, I was flooded with comments such as: "You can't save this place.","Are you going to try to do this all by yourself?","You'll never get your money back out of here.","Where's your help?","This house has to be torn down.","You can't have this place done in a year.","Do you really know what you're doing?", and on and on.  This wasn't all coming from one or two people, the sources of the comments were numerous and diverse.     

On the outside I was trying to display a friendly smile and act as if these things were rolling off me like water from a duck, but I was like Cliff and I really didn't appreciate the discouraging words.  I sure didn't feel unstoppable.  I felt vulnerable because I was heading into unfamiliar territory.  I had plenty of construction experience, but I'd never worked on anything that had been condemned.  What I needed was some encouragement and as much as I wanted the pessimists to be wrong, they had to be, because I had no options short of bringing those places back to life. 

I listened like a gentleman, but like Dillon's character described above, that negativity did make me stronger.  That stuff echoed in my head and kept me working even later into the night and got me out of bed early when I was tired and sore.  It drove me and filled me with inspiration.  It motivated and molded me into something more capable.  I'm still polite when someone comes onto my site with words of gloom and doom, but now I'm ready for the barrage of pessimism.  Now, when someone says, "You can't save this house.  Do you have any idea what you've gotten yourself into here?", the visceral response that usually comes to mind is:  Whatever.  Get out of my way.  Go over to the other side of the street, take a seat, and watch me.   However, what I actually say next is something like, "I've saved houses a lot worse than this one."  I couldn't say that back in the 90's, but I can now.  It delivers the message I need it to so the naysayers get out of my way and watch.

If you're buying an old house to renovate, restoring a classic car, or doing something else people have a tough time wrapping their minds around, be ready for less-than-supportive comments, remember the scene above from Singles, and let the negative energy just make you stronger.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Subdividing the Bungalow and the Duplex

The Bungalow was a Pig's Ear.  It was the worst house on the street.  In as much as I believed the home and the detached garage (see The Detached Garage at the Bungalow) could be reconstructed dramatically, I also felt certain that the overall property had potential to be more as well.  With the Bungalow I acquired a rental house with two apartments (the Duplex) and from the moment I agreed to the deal I had intentions of legally subdividing the land and creating two separate properties.

The Bungalow and the Duplex were in Charleston, SC.  Charleston is one of the country's oldest cities and it has wholeheartedly embraced it's rich history and distinct architecture.  There is nothing historical or architecturally significant about the Bungalow (and it's detached garage) or the Duplex, but since they're located within the city's jurisdiction, I had to follow the same procedures (through the city's Dept. of Planning, Preservation, and Sustainability,  the Subdivision Review Committee, and the Board of Architectural Review) as the classic antebellum homes on the city's peninsula that were built centuries ago when Charleston was one of the wealthiest cities in the nation. 

The city's process was methodical, systematic, and routine and even though I was not resurrecting historic buildings in the carriage tour districts, the folks at the City of Charleston could not have been more supportive of my plans.  They helped me very thoughtfully with all the photo and drawing submissions (and revisions) that were required and patiently answered my steady stream of questions while they walked me through the reviews, appeals, and meetings that are part of a property subdivision in our historic city.  

In the end, the people working on behalf of the city were instrumental in helping me transform one of the worst properties in the neighborhood into two that we were very proud of. 

View from the back of the property before.  The Bungalow (left) and the Duplex (right).

After - The fence that denotes the new property line will one day be covered with ivy.

See related post The Picture Window at the Bungalow

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Step 4 - Pull Out the Valuables

Circumstances may allow others to skip this next step, but every run-down home I’ve ever taken on came with more than its share of left behind belongings inside.  It’s been the rule rather than the exception to find clothes in the closets and dishes in the cabinets.  After you get the keys and make the home secure (see Step 3 - Batten Down the Hatches) you need to get to the job of emptying it out so you can get sharper on your plan for resurrecting it.  At this point you'll need a dumpster or some other way of hauling trash off site.  You don't want to keep moving and dealing with unusable junk.  And things that stink, are rotten, or are seriously revolting need the be out of the house as soon as you find them (see It's An Adventure).  As a rule, I always give the contents within the house a personal review myself before I let any contractors in to begin the demolition or start their part of the job because I simply don't want everything to be thrown out.  The things I save from the dumpster fall into one of two categories:  sellables and useables

Sellables are: antiques, collectibles, dishes and crystal, coins, old books, sports memorabilia, and anything else that people would like to buy if they knew you had it.  Sometimes I turn these treasures into cash, but I have saved some interesting knickknacks, special books, and a few sports collectibles over the years and I always pocket any marbles I find (on last count my cache came to 486).  One of my favorite salvaged items is an old glass milk bottle.  I grew up just as the milkman was becoming a thing of the past in our Midwestern town, but I still remember Mom retrieving the family delivery out of the metal box on the front porch.  Not only can I tell the kids about this archaic fact from my childhood (along with a world without child car-seats or bike helmets and only three channels on the TV), but I can show them an example of how the milk used to be delivered for my cereal.  What makes my quart container even more special is that it still bares the label of the dairy which was located in the same town where my wife was born.   

The usables are; tools, pieces of hardware, any type of building material and anything else that I think has a chance of falling into this category and to serve some purpose during the project.  Think along the lines of Tom Hanks in Cast Away or MacGyver.  You may not be on a deserted island or moments from being blown to smithereens, but using what you have is better than running off to the store to replace something you threw away a few days before.  Do you remember how Hanks kept those ice skates in Cast Away?  He knew he wasn't going to be lacing them up and doing figure 8's at an ice rink on the other side of the island.  However, he ended up using them to open coconuts and one of them helped him pop out that abscessed tooth right before the second half of the movie. It's simple practicality to keep the usables.  

Gas is too expensive and take it from me, your time and money will be better spent if you make the most of anything valuable left behind.  If you find yourself moving something multiple times during the renovation, then you can take that as a sign that you probably aren’t going to need it.  That’s the time to throw it away.  However, moving something four or five times may still be more effective than driving to the store to replace a usable that you easily tossed away earlier in the project.