So You Want to Buy a Fixer-Upper?

March 30th, 2016

Renovation Musings, Part 1: To move in, or not to move in

We purchased our first house in October 2015. Before we made on offer on the place, we had a detailed plan of action for our renovation. We knew we wanted to remove the wall between the kitchen and family room, gut and remodel the kitchen, add a powder room to the main floor and a second bath upstairs, install central air conditioning, and make a whole bunch of cosmetic changes. Our scope of work changed a little due to permit hiccups (hello, DCRA), and we ended up swapping the bathrooms for a finished basement. All of which is to say, we had a pretty comprehensive plan for the house. Before we closed on the house, we considered whether it would make sense for use to move right in and live in the house during the renovation or whether we should save ourselves the headache and live elsewhere while we finished the work.

Ah, the age-old question of whether or not to live in a construction zone. We opted to move in. I have a lot of opinions and feelings about this decision.

Consideration No. 1: Cost

Before we bought, we were renting a sick, two-level, top floor apartment in a cool part of town. There was no way we could afford to keep up the rent for that place and cover a mortgage. (We probably couldn’t “afford” to live there in the first place, but sometimes you gotta YOLO.) So we knew we were going to move somewhere. Market rent for a cheap, one bedroom place, in an okay-ish part of DC, is around $1500 per month. That’s some serious cash when you are budgeting for a renovation. Plus, there is the issue of timeline. We weren’t in a position to sign a lease since we had no idea how long the work would take. For instance, it is now April and we are still about a month (optimistically) from wrapping up the major work, but we honestly thought we would be wrapping up in January. (Poor, sweet past us.) Moreover, at this point, renting could have cost us over $10,000 just to avoid living through our DC renovation. I would do a lot of things for $10,000 and it turns out one of those things is live through construction. In this regard, one of the surprising cost factors turned out to be just how long it took us to get through permitting. We were held up from October to January just wading through the permitting process. During that time, our house was much less insane, so renting would have only been a marginal benefit. I think cost was our number one factor when we made the decision, and as I reflect back, I think cost would still be my number one consideration.

Consideration No. 2: Kiddos (or lack thereof)

Suj and I have it relatively easy since we don’t have any kids to manage during this ordeal. I know many people successfully live through a renovation with kids and I am awed by that kind of fortitude. Based on this experience, however, I can whole-heartedly say I will never attempt to live through construction with kiddos. Ever. For us, it would be much too difficult to maintain safety and peace in an environment like our current home. Between 100-year-old plaster dust, rouge nails, BOXES, plastic, debris, etc., it would just not make sense. That is saying nothing of our mental health. Example, this weekend, Suj and I watched three hours of TV on our ipad while we ate left over pizza in bed. Do we sound like people who could be responsible for a living being right now? No. No we don’t.

Consideration No. 3: Control

One of the obvious advantages of living in the house has been that we are able to keep tabs on the work as it is done. If there was a problem with framing, or if we preferred to move an outlet or light switch, or if we didn’t like how something was finished, we could tell our crew right away and avoid additional delays. I work from home half of the week, so I am often available if the contractors have specific questions. This has been a lifesaver on a couple occasions. It turns out that there are a lot of tiny decisions made every day, and being available to answer specific questions has really allowed us to customize the work for our taste. I’m sure the guys would do a great job without my help, but sometimes their taste is not my taste. And I am a control freak, obviously.

Consideration No. 4: Quality of Life

I’ve discovered that Suj values his quality of life differently than I do. Apparently, I am like a rat-person who can adapt to an insane environment and run on the fumes of pinterest and excitement. Suj, on the other hand, likes clean sheets, organized clothing, and the ability to socialize with friends and family. He has been a real trooper during this whole adventure. He has also been very generous in not assigning blame for our current living conditions. I know things are going to be different and so much better when we are done, but it sort of breaks my heart to see my darling allergy-sensitive husband sneezing up a storm or shaking dust off his suit before he leaves for work. In the future, I am going to try to raise my quality of life measurement up to his metric.

Things I Would Have Done Differently:

Not bought a fixer-upper in DC! I kid, I kid. But seriously, I think there are some things we could have done that would have cost a little more, but ended up better in the long run:

1. Have a better idea of timeline.
This one is very difficult for a first-time buyer because we didn’t have any idea what we were doing, and the google can only tell you so much. Next time around (ha!), I would understand that there will be a period of calm before the storm and I would plan accordingly. Living in the house from October to January was fine. The house still needed the updates, but it was completely livable. We had no idea the permitting would take so long, so it turned out to be a good thing we moved in for those months. Once construction started, however, I probably should have considered moving most of our stuff into some sort of storage pod to avoid both living in a house of boxes and the dust ruining everything. I guess it is not too late to do that. Hmmm.

2. Pump the breaks on the online ordering.
I love deals and I hate future costs hanging over my head. These impulses caused me to jump the gun a little on many of our major purchases. We ordered our washer, dryer, range, and dishwasher during black Friday sales. We got really good prices on all of our appliances, and we saved hundreds of dollars, but there has been a washer and dryer in my living room for four months. At some point, I gotta ask myself whether that is worth $500.

3. Consider whether my hubby would enjoy the experience as much as I do.
Suj is the best and he is usually game for all of my hair-brained adventures. (Who wouldn’t want to be on a wild ride with a crazy, novice driver?!) But in the future, I think I will consider more honestly whether, in a vacuum, my husband would enjoy the experience.

Thats all I’ve really got on the subject of to move in or not to move in. Would I do it again? Probably not. It sucks living through construction. Everyone said it would suck, and it does. Hopefully, if we ever renovate in the future we will either be ridiculously wealthy or we will live somewhere less expensive. Either way, I would opt to not move in.

(I have a million other musings about all things renovation, so I am sure this will be a 25-part series.)

Kitchen Progress, Part 1

March 29th, 2016

Let’s check in on the kitchen.

We have been living without a kitchen for 79 days. The absence of a kitchen sink is, decidedly, the most difficult part of the renovation for us. Our diet lately consists of premade soups and sandwiches from the Yes Organic down the street along with so much happy hour food. My skin and waistline have looked better. We love to cook, so no kitchen has been an additional drag on our psyche. But we passed our first inspections last week (!!!), and now we have drywall up (!!!!!) and the light at the end of the tunnel is distracting me from the fact that we are still kitchen-less.

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(Before)

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(For some reason it looks kind of okay in these pics. I blame natural lighting. I assure you, it was bad)

So what have last 79 days entailed? Well, the guys demoed our old kitchen a couple days after starting work. We planned to gut the kitchen and remodel when we bought the house. It was not in great shape and we were really excited to design a space for us. The old cabinets were probably put in sometime in the 1950’s. The shelves were uneven and falling down and the walls behind the cabinets were all kinds of a mess. Most of our appliances had serious problems (our inspector taught us how to shoot water through the sink drain just by running the dishwasher!). The only thing we didn’t get rid of is the fridge, which is currently located in our living room along with a million random things covered in plastic. We bought a new counter depth fridge to replace the enormous current fridge, but that will be delivered in two weeks. We are going to see about selling the current fridge on the cheap on craigslist.

(Side note: Can I gush about the delivery guys at Lowes for a second? They have an awesome policy that allows me to continually reschedule my delivery date because we are so far behind on our construction. The Lowes guy calls about a day before the scheduled delivery, but if you are in a crazy panic because your house if full of other appliances in boxes and there is literally no space for anything else, they are super chill and just ask for a different delivery date. I’ve rescheduled five times, and they are so cool about it. Not like Home Depot. Just saying.)

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Back to demo. Our construction guys gutted everything then demoed the wall between the kitchen and the living room. I am generally not a huge fan of entirely open concept first floors, which are super trendy with flips in DC right now (just a preference–no shade), but I really love having the kitchen open to a little bit of entertaining space. We cook a lot, so being about to hang out with friends or family while we cook is a big deal. Anyway, the guys took down the walls and it really opened up the space. And it sprinkled out entire house with 100+ year old plaster dust. I completely expected the dust, but until you experience it, you just don’t know.

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(RIP walls)

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(Plastic, plastic, everywhere)

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Our floors were so gross. When we moved in, the flooring was some sort of vinyl wood. Under that was about three layers of laminate flooring on top of the original hardwood floors. The hardwood was beyond repair, so the guys had to take everything out. And, surprise! We found out we did do not have any subflooring in our house. At the time I was like “Oh?” But I had no idea what subflooring was. I now know it is a layer of floor below the nice hardwood floor. A lot of older houses have planks that run horizontally below the hardwood, but newer houses tend to have plywood subflooring. It’s basically to help us not fall through the floors. Our guys laid down plywood for our subflooring. We had contracted for the labor, if we needed it, and the material was only about $250, so not terrible. We are going to lay new hardwood on top of the subflooring, but that day has not yet come.

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(Gross.)

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(EEEEERRRRR! So awful!)

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(Okay, last one. Look at that sweet subfloor!)

Once the guys took care of the floors, they framed everything out. We left a little space framed out for our fridge so we could push it all the way back into the wall and, hopefully, not cover so much of our window (you can see it better in the drywall photos). I got the idea from a blog, and it is genius if you hate giant refrigerators jutting into the kitchen. We ended up buying a pretty condensed counter depth fridge (this one), so we might not need all the framed-out space, but it’s there if we do.

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(Ready for a peninsula)

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The electrical and plumbing work took a long-A time to do. I’m not sure why. I think the “trades” are just a different beast in terms of scheduling because those extra skilled guys are in high demand. We had our rough-in inspection last week (deserves its own post) and we passed with flying colors. The guys spent the rest of that day putting in the insulation, and we passed our insulation inspection the following day. So happy about that!

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Once the inspection was finished, the guys flew with the drywall. They had it up in the basement and the kitchen within two days. Now they are taping and mudding all the seams. Our contractor told us the tapping, mudding, and sanding would take about a week. He offered that information out of the blue about three times. I’m pretty sure we are those annoying clients that bug him about everything all the time and he wanted to set our expectations. He’s learning.

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(Boxes on boxes on boxes of IKEA)

Our cabinets and most of our appliances are patiently waiting in boxes in our living room. We knew we were going with IKEA cabinets from the beginning, because 1) we love IKEA, 2) they look sweet, and 3) anyone who complains that they are made of particleboard is buying into the cabinet-industrial-complex. We toyed with the idea of semihandmade fronts, because Queen Sarah inspires us all, but we decided some of that cash was better spent in other places. We can always upgrade and swap out the fronts later if we think it is worth it.

I’m sure I will post a recap of our IKEA kitchen experience, because there is so much to say. But that is for later.

So then. We will wake up tomorrow, on day 80 with no kitchen, and we will chug along. In the meantime, tonight is a good night for a Taco Tuesday happy hour.

Hot & Cold: HVAC and the radiators

March 12th, 2016

When we purchased the house, there was no central air conditioning. The prior owners used AC window unit (very large and heavy ones). Before that, the house was cooled with good old-fashioned breeze and transoms. We knew we would be putting in central air, so we factored in the cost when we were deciding whether to purchase the house. We had no idea what air conditioning costs, so we sort of ballpark budgeted for $18k.

One of the first consultations we had was for central air. We met an HVAC guy at the house a couple days after we closed to talk options and pricing. This was late October, which turns out to be a great time to install AC because the weather cools down and so does demand for the work. Our original estimate was based on a single AC/furnace unit in the attic with duct work running down to the main floor. The plan was to run the ducts through closets so that they didn’t require big, ugly bulkheads. After the off-season discount, the quote came back just over $14k. We were pretty pumped that the estimate was lower than we expected, but we weren’t quite ready to pull the trigger.

In the following weeks, we met with a couple general contractors to discuss the other work we wanted done. The GCs basically freaked out when they learned we were considering hiring the HVAC work a la carte. This is when we learned the first rule of major renovation: bundle everything in one contract. Turns out, we were able to negotiate a much better price for the work through the GC when we bundled everything into one big job. Plus, the general contractor was able to provide us with all the bulkhead framing and wall repair, whereas the HVAC guy would just install the thing and leave us with the holes and exposed ducts. So that was that. We ended up negotiating the HVAC work into the larger renovation contract and our GC secured a subcontractor to do the installation.

We deviated pretty substantially from our initial plan of one unit in the attic. For a variety of annoying permit reasons, we changed our original scope of work from adding a master bath and powder room to finishing the basement. We were originally planning on leaving the basement unfinished and maybe getting to that later, but the DC permit office denied our application to add the extra bathrooms (without a boatload of other plumbing work), so we switched gears and decided to finish the basement in phase 1. In hindsight, I am so happy we decided to do this. I mean, I would love to get those extra bathrooms someday, but we are fine for now and I am thrilled with all the additional space the basement is giving us. The biggest drawback to finishing the basement is that we had to address the boiler problem.

Our house, until recently, was heated with radiators. Before now, I had never lived with functional radiant heat. I had a teensy apartment in law school with an insane radiator with no temperature control. It would heat the whole place like a crockpot and it banged continually when it was on. Not great. But, wow did I ever fall in love with the radiators in our new house. The heat is so cozy! They were quiet and big and I could toast my hands and toes on them when I came in from the cold. I am a radiator convert. The problem with the radiators in our house is that the boiler pipes in the basement were a mess. They were super low and obstructed the space and there was no way we could finish the basement without completely reworking the radiator pipes. Our contractor gave us a quote for moving the pipes–only about $7k. What?! No.

After a lot of consideration, we decided to take the radiators out. We are really bummed about losing the radiant heat, but it just didn’t make sense for us to spend so much money moving the pipes when the boiler is over 30 years old–still working, but it hit its life expectancy. Plus, it is not like we had beautiful, ornate radiators. They were plain, kind of ugly, and covered in layers of peeling paint. Not to mention, when we settled on the HVAC plan, we decided to add heating units as well because it was going to cost us less than $1k for the additional units. We already had a heat source ready to go. So the radiators are gone. Well, not gone. The pipes are gone, but the radiators are all still sitting in our house, useless and sad. At some point, the guys will remove them (those suckers are heavy!). Until then, they watch me and make me feel guilty.

Back to the HVAC! In the end, we decided to install two units and create duel zones. We have a heat pump in the attic to heat and cool the second floor. We installed an AC and furnace unit in a back crawl space in the basement with floor registers in the main floor and ceiling registers and ductwork in the basement. We have two zones that we can control separately, which is great because the house feels so big to us, and it is a lot more efficient to heat and cool the parts of the house we are using. This plan also lets us avoid running ugly ductwork through the ceilings and closets in the main floors of the house.

The HVAC work was mostly completed a few days ago, and so far so good. I had never heard of a heat pump, but apparently, it is a good option in these old row houses because it runs on electricity rather than gas. That has something to do with the pipes or venting or something technical, but bottom line, it is happy in the attic.

As for thermostats, we sprung for a nest unit for the main floor. The second floor still has the cheap thermostat from the HVAC guy. I would like to eventually upgrade that one to the Nest too, but everything costs so much money and it hurts my little frugal heart. I did save a little money on the Nest because I ordered the second generation, rather than the newer third generation. As far as I can tell from the reviews, there is no functional difference between the two models, and the second gen is $50 cheaper. I am really happy with the purchase. The Nest feels like “the future.” I am not that into gadgets, but this little thing makes me want to have a smart home.

We still have a ton of holes in the upstairs walls where the guys had to access the attic to run pipes. We also have a giant hole in the main level floor near the stairs. We are going to hide the basement unit return in the bottom of the stairs when they get reconfigured. It was a pretty good solution to avoid a huge return box elsewhere in the main floor. But that has not happened yet.

As for price, we ended up negotiating both units, installation, ductwork/wall repair, and boiler/radiator removal for about $15,500. Not bad considering the first estimate only included installation of one AC unit. And we stayed under our initial ballpark budget, which is great because we spent all the extra savings on other stuff.

As for the function, it’ll do. We have not used the AC yet, but it is warming up in DC so we will be kicking that on soon. The heat is aight. It does not compare to the radiant heat, but it keeps us warm. Phase 2 will include new windows, which will also help with the temperature control in the house. But we will save that for later. Onward!

How to make the hallway look amazing: restoring the banister

March 9th, 2016

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The banister is one of the things in the house keeping us sane right now. It sits majestically in our upstairs hallway as a bright, shiny example of DIY gone very, very right. It serves as inspiration for our ability to actually do something ourselves and as a light at the end of the tunnel for the work on the house. It looks fantastic.

When we moved into the house, the banister was painted white. Not just painted, coated. The upstairs piece is original to the house and had a dark wood stain, but somewhere along the way it was painted brown then cream then white. I had no experience ever trying to strip paint from anything, so I figured we could just paint the railing black and call it a day. (Spoiler alert: I love painting things black.)

In the first few months after moving in, I had a number of other projects keeping me busy, so I suggested that Suj take charge of the banister. One of the many things I love about Suj is that he likes to do things the right way. Not that slapping a coat of black paint on everything isn’t “right,” but Suj is a little more thorough and thoughtful when he approaches a task. After some googling and youtube watching, Suj decided he wanted to strip the banister down to the original wood and refinish it.

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Before doing anything, we tested the paint for lead because we are equal parts responsible and scared. Test was negative, so we were good to go. Suj started the stripping with a heat gun, but it kept setting off our ancient smoke alarm, and it was pretty slow going with so many layers of paint. The best technique he used was several passes citristrip followed by scraping with a multi-tool. It was horrible and super messy, but it worked. We worked on the project for a few weeks, spending a couple hours here and there after work and on weekends. I think it was sort of meditative for Suj. After we got all the paint off, Suj sanded everything down, applied a stain, and finished up with a coat of gloss. 

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We let ourselves off a little easy and decided not to strip the bottom railing. I actually like the look a little better when the entire bottom part is white. A lot of the paint was chipping and peeling, so we sanded those parts and applied primer before we painted.

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The results are magical. I just love it so much.

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The downstairs portion of the railing is not original to the house, unfortunately. At some point, the prior owners changed the layout of the stairs so they lead straight out the front door rather than turning perpendicularly at the landing. The change probably makes more sense functionally since you don’t have to go through the living room to get from upstairs out the door, but it looks kind of goofy and creates a really awkward space between the stairs and the living room wall. Our contractor is changing the layout back to the original design. Eventually. In the meantime we are looking for a salvaged banister post to replace the ugly plain one we have now. It’s going to look sweet.

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Welcome to Villa Verde

March 8th, 2016

And… I’m back. With a house! Suj and I are proud owners of a single family home in beautiful Petworth, DC. I’ll spare you the sordid and depressing details of trying to buy property in DC right now, and I’ll just say that after a LOT of house hunting and soul searching we decided to buy a fixer upper. Okay, perhaps it was not quite enough soul searching, because we’ve owned the house for about five months and we have second guessed this decision just about 38 billion times. I exaggerate. But here we are.

I had every intention of getting back on the blogwagon sooner and keeping a detailed diary of every stage of the homeowner/renovation process, but life etc. got in the way. So better late than never! (I still have every intention of filling in the past few months as I go, so that is definitely happening. Definitely.)

Okay, so here we are in early March. Friday will mark two months since the ground breaking of the contractor (aka professional) portion of the renovation. It’s going okay, but full disclosure, I spent about an hour earlier today googling “renovation depression anxiety.” That rabbit hole was somewhat helpful. But at the moment, I am sitting on my cute front porch, typing away at my bistro table while the warm breeze and indie spotify mix keep my company. I must say, my blood pressure is much lower.

So without further ado, let’s get to some before pics, shall we? Brought to you by Redfin-the website that lets total strangers google my house number and see the old listing photos:

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So much potential, right? Do you see it??

Stay tuned. I am definitely going to be really good about updating the blog this time around. Definitely.

Kale and Quinoa Salad

October 4th, 2013

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This is my new go-to salad.  The recipe is inspired by a salad Suj had at the Ace Hotel in Palm Springs.  The caramelized onions, dates, and cranberries add a wow factor, and it is both delicious and inexpensive to make.  We have been making large batches without the dressing and dividing servings into tupperware containers.  We take the salad to work the next day and throw some dressing on it before eating.  The pre-dressed salad keeps pretty well for a couple of days. The Ace’s salad is served with marcona almonds, but we substitute for peanuts because I am apparently allergic to everything delicious.  The peanuts are still great, though.

 

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Ingredients
4 c. Kale, chopped, loosely packed
2 c. Quinoa, cooked
1/2 c. Cranberries, chopped
1/2 c. Dates, chopped
1/3 c. Slivered Almonds or Peanuts
1 Onion
1 tbsp. Butter
1/2 tbsp. Sugar
Italian dressing

Method
1. Cook quinoa according to package. I like to substitute vegetable broth for the water because the broth gives the quinoa more flavor.
2. Slice the onion into thin rings then caramelize by sautéing with butter over low-medium heat for about 15 minutes or until onion is soft. Sprinkle onions with sugar and cook about 5 more minutes.
3. In a large bowl, combine kale, quinoa, chopped cranberries, dates, almonds or peanuts, and caramelized onion.
4. Toss with Italian dressing before serving.

6 Budget Friendly Things To Do In DC During the Government Shutdown

October 2nd, 2013

It’s day two of the shutdown and there is no end in sight. Suj and I have gotten a little stir crazy out of the office (probably a sign that we work too much). I know we are very, very lucky to have steady jobs that we both love, especially in this economy, but with talk of the shutdown potentially lasting weeks, I am conscious of the pressure that puts on our budget. In light of all this, we find ourselves with the opportunity to create a list of fun, affordable ways to take advantage of our (hopefully mini) staycation.

Picnic: Grab some cheese, crackers, and fruit and head over to Meridian Hill or Rock Creek Park for a relaxing afternoon on the grass. The shutdown might be a sorry state of affairs, but at least the weather in DC couldn’t be better.

Workout: It’s about time I use that fancy gym membership that I pay for every month! Exercise is not only a great low-cost activity but it is also a way to relieve some of the stress of the unknown. I hit a yoga class at Vida today and was shocked by how empty the gym was. I thought it would be packed in light of the shutdown, but it turned out to be a great time to enjoy my workout. If you don’t belong to a gym, you can always enjoy the quiet streets and run one of these popular city routes.

Sightsee: Just because the federal government is shutdown, doesn’t mean there is nothing to do or see in the DC area. Privately owned sights like the National Cathedral (donation suggested) and Mount Vernon ($17 for adults) remain open to visitors. There are also many private museums open to the public, including the National Building Museum ($8 for adults), National Geographic Museum ($11 for adults), Newseum ($22 for adults), The Spy Museum ($21 for adults), Crime and Punishment Museum ($18 for adults-online discount price), and The Phillips Collection ($12 for adults). These prices, however, are MUCH steeper than the free admission offered at the Smithsonian museums. That is, when the government isn’t on hiatus.

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Read: I am finally going to crack open a couple of the books on my ever-growing reading list, starting with Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. I am resisting the urge to make a new kindle purchase and, instead, opting for a free book from one of our shelves. If you aren’t book hoarders like us, a great resource is the DC Public Library. I frequent the Shaw location since it is close to my home, and the staff is so helpful and friendly.

Hang out with friends: The Sixth & I Historic Synagogue is hosting Shutdown Central where they offer daily activities, such as yoga classes, as well as a space to hang out and play board games, and best of all, free coffee, food, and Wifi.

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Take Advantage of the Swag! Local businesses have been amazing–throwing their support behind furloughed government employees by offering all kinds of freebies and deals just for flashing your government ID. The Washington Post has a great list of special food deals offered during the shutdown, including free sandwiches from three Jose Andres restaurants (we cashed in on that yesterday!) and drink specials all over town.

 

I am really hoping that the shutdown will end soon, but in the meantime, I’m going to make the most of a bit of free time in a city I love.

Jury Duty and the National Air and Space Museum

September 30th, 2013

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On the eve of a possible government shutdown, I am spending my time holed up in the jury waiting room at the DC district court. It seems like the only upside to a possible furlough is that I would have a day or two off to spend with my mom, who is in town. But no such luck. Instead I am catching up on my emails and watching soap operas in the waiting room.

The highlight of my service, so far, was the two hour lunch break, during which time I crossed the street and explored the National Air and Space Museam. I’d always heard this museum is better for kids, but I must be a kid at heart because I thought it was so cool! The building is spacious, with high ceilings and all kinds of aircrafts suspended from above.

Suj’s office is about a 10 minute walk from the courthouse, so I also got to spend a few minutes eating lunch with my sweetheart outside on a beautiful DC afternoon.  All in all, I guess jury duty hasn’t been too bad.

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The National Arboretum: best undiscovered date spot ever

September 22nd, 2013

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A few weeks ago I started making a list of all the places to go and things to see in DC that I haven’t gotten around to doing or seeing. One of the suggestions that came up over and over (thanks internet) was the National Arboretum. Now that we have been, I can say that this place is a must-see! According to Wikipedia, the arboretum functions as a major center of botanical research and conducts wide-ranging basic and developmental research on trees, shrubs, turf, and floral plants.

All great, but the best part, by far, is the bonsai tree exhibit. The trees are completely adorable, and the exhibit is in such a cool, peaceful space. The Arboretum is pretty difficult to visit if you don’t have a vehicle, but that fact seems to contribute to the quiet, peaceful atmosphere (i.e., very few visitors).

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At least it was peaceful before we got there…

 

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This place is an awesome date spot. Suj and I picked up some sandwiches before we got there, checked out the exhibits for a while, then had a nice little picnic lunch. We are planning to go back again, probably for a bike ride through the trails (this place is big). In the meantime, I am spreading the word to all my single friends about the bonsai exhibit.

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Many of the bonsai trees were gifts to the US from China and Japan.

 

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National Arboretum Bonsai Exhibit. Some of these trees have been “in training” for hundreds of years!

 

Balcony Garden: things we learned the first time around

August 22nd, 2013

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Suj and I are fortunate to have a huge balcony at our place in DC. It is really a ton of outdoor space in the city, so as soon as we moved in we knew we wanted to take advantage of it by planting an urban garden.  We considered building a medium sized planter box for a more traditional-type garden, but since we are just renting we decided that probably wasn’t a practical option. We settled on planting in a variety of mismatched pots, and we are pretty happy with the results.

I did a lot of research about when and what to plant, but I didn’t find much helpful information. Most of the posts I read suggested talking to a local garden store. We decided to just wing it and plant a random variety of veggies. We started in early spring (I think about mid-April) when the weather started to warm up.

We planted a few varieties of tomato, classic and purple basil, rosemary, lots of hot peppers, red and green bell peppers, and zucchini. The rosemary died immediately. We seriously had it for a few weeks before it totally shriveled and died. Apparently it is temperamental with heat and watering. On the other hand, the basil has done quite well. Suj’s sister had a garden last year and her basil plants grew into these crazy 4 foot tall monstrosities. Ours is only about a foot tall, probably due to the fact that it is growing in a small planter. In any case, we have had plenty of fresh basil this summer.

We have had mixed results with the tomatoes. One of the plants is an heirloom variety, and while it has given us a lot of tomatoes, they have a tendency to crack. We did some googling, and apparently the cracking is a result of inconsistent watering. This summer we have had a ton of rain storms followed by intense heat, so we haven’t been able to control the water exposure for our plants. Beside the heirlooms, we also planted a few cherry tomato bushes. These little guys were gifted to us and had been specially bred to be high-yield and compatible with DC conditions. These have been fantastic. I absolutely recommend the cherry tomatoes over the regular size. Not only have they grown well, but they are ready to be eaten so much sooner. I was shocked to learn that it takes over two months for a regular tomatoes to ripen!

The zucchini was a horrible idea. The plants were so tiny when we got them, so we planted them in a long container alongside our bell peppers. We soon learned that the zucchinis are basically plant terrorists. The leaves grew so fast and so big that they took over the place. In addition, we had to wait a long time before we ever saw zucchini growing. When we finally harvested one it was all goofy shaped, not like the ones at the grocery store. It is still in our fridge.

The jury is out on the bell peppers. We got one pepper from each bush and they were tiny. That said, it is unclear whether the problem was the bell pepper plant or the insane zucchini that basically grew on top of them.

The hot peppers have done the best by far. We have a couple bushes: jalapenos, serranos, and red peppers. The jalapenos and serranos have given us more than we can possibly use–and we love us some peppers. I would definitely recommend those for an urban garden.

Bottom line: My urban garden recommendations are hot peppers, cherry tomatoes, and basil. Mid-sized planters work fine. Make sure to water them every day.

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