Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Backyard Plans

Friday, September 16th, 2016

Predictably, I fell off the blog-wagon almost as quickly as I got back on. I really wanted to update the blog in real time as we renovated, but something happened along the way. Things got really REAL at the house for a while. During our renovation, there was a significant amount of time when the house looked truly terrible. Just filthy and broken and full of cardboard boxes and stray nails.


During this same time, we were also writing checks for very large sums of money and handing them over to contractors (insert emoji of the money flying away). We managed to keep our spirits high and maintain a good sense of humor during this time, but it basically killed my blogger spirit. When you are tearing things apart and building them back up, there tends to be a nagging fear in your head that it might not turn out well, and that you will be stuck with an empty bank account and a broke down palace. But then something happens. One day, you wake up and things look better. Eventually you have a kitchen again. Then a bathroom. Pretty soon the contractors leave and you roll out the rugs and unpack the boxes and live your life in your “new” home. And it’s amazing.


So we made it through to the other side, only the blog got left behind. But not to worry—I took a lot of photos of the progress. I am going to do my best to finish up the renovation diaries so that I never forget the chaos and adventure of 2016. Plus, I feel the need to pay it forward to anyone who is starting a renovation and wants a little insight. I studied the pages of so many blogs while we were working, and I know how helpful all the details can be.


With that said, I’ll jump ahead a little. Now that we have finished the work inside, we currently turning our attention to the backyard.


Our house has a good sized yard in the back (for a city house, that is). We were very excited about the yard space when we purchased the home, but at the time is was a blank space of “grass” (aka trimmed weeds), an enormous and rickety wooden staircase, and the finest chain link fence. Our lovely neighbors, on the other hand, have a serene urban garden in their yard, so we didn’t have to use much imagination to see the space’s potential.


For our yard, we are aiming to create an easy blank slate that we can punch up with some furniture, planters, and an amazing vintage preway fireplace.


Something a little like this:


And now some BEFORE pics:

fullsizerender image1




Hey there, crooked drain pipe!

Kitchen Progress, Part 1

Tuesday, 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.




(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.)



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.


(RIP walls)


(Plastic, plastic, everywhere)


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.




(EEEEERRRRR! So awful!)


(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.



(Ready for a peninsula)


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!



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.


(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

Saturday, 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!