Avoid Druggie Plumbers and Other Renovation Lessons

I know today is typically a News Roundup day, but instead I’m taking a minute to sit back and review a house renovation project I’ve been working on since May 2006–four years! It all started in March 2006 when my next-door neighbor’s house caught on fire from a lint explosion in the clothes dryer vent. The fire quickly spread into the attic and caused pretty severe structural damage to the roof, but never went through the roof. The laundry room and kitchen were torched and the rest of the 1952 Ranch house received severe smoke and soot damage. The insurance company totaled out the house and my neighbors decided to buy a house that they wouldn’t have to renovate.

I admit I bought the house mainly because I was sure the first thing an investor/flipper would do would be to tear out those sturdy steel casements and put in junk vinyl windows barely more substantial than a piece of paper. I also had heard that a gaggle of potential investors (this was the height of the housing boom after all) had been overheard to say, “We can just patch and paint these walls” which was ridiculous. So, I made a deal with my neighbor, jumped in with both feet and then piddled around for four years until this last week, when I kind of finished. I say “kind of” because I still have to move my tools back to my house, and I keep making additions to my punch list, but otherwise, strange as it is to think, I may just spend this weekend in my own house and yard instead of hiking next door.

Even though it’s taken forever and a day, I have no regrets. We (my patient friends and family) salvaged almost all of the interior trim, stripped, re-painted and re-installed it (had to buy new trim for the kitchen and laundry because there was nothing left to salvage); re-glazed all the windows (many broken panes from the heat); installed tile in both bathrooms; installed a glass-block window; installed re-used kitchen cabinets from my brother’s house (with his permission, of course); caulked, caulked, caulked, painted, painted, painted. And painted some more. I didn’t do the big stuff myself though–contractors did the framing, HVAC, plumbing, and electrical. I’ve learned alot about repairing a building with major damage, figured out many little tricks of the trade; I now know not to hire a druggie plumber, and really it is best to measure before laying tile.

One accusation about preservation is that only rich people can afford to be preservationists. Granted this house was not a mansion–some preservationists might even question whether the building had any historic value. One contractor, just before giving me an estimate of $25,000 just for the labor of re-framing part of the roof and back wall, told me the only thing worth saving was the hardwood floors. But just like any traditional preservation project, I had to search out replacement items that cost more than what I might have found at Home Depot, etc: the faux asbestos shingles ($3 per shingle, and they break like nobody’s business), tongue-and-groove boards to repair the garage walls and porch ceiling. On the other hand, all the time I took to salvage the nice beefy trim saved me a bundle of money on new trim, which costs a fortune and still looks like plastic. And of course, repairing and re-glazing the windows, which I did myself–it’s not rocket science–saved me thousands of dollars and in the end gave me real steel windows that look fantastic.

To demonstrate how affordable preservation can be for normal people, I present my budget, rounded out to make it pretty on the page:

House and 1/4-acre lot: $15,000
Re-framing (incl. demolition, new framing, roofing, faux-asbestos shingles): $15,000
First Plumber (Druggie Destructor): $3,000
Second Plumber (Competent Fixer): $7,000
HVAC (all new ducts, new furnace, re-used outside unit): $5,500
Electrical (all new): $4,700
Sheetrock: $1,800
Insulation: $400
Floors (sanding and re-finish): $1,600
Bathroom cabinets (went to IKEA in Atlanta): $1,000
Lighting fixtures (some salvaged, some new): $500
Windows (putty and glass–had to replace the plate glass): $400
Painting (exterior): $4,500
Painting (interior): $300
Miscellaneous materials, tools, nails, heat gun, sanding disks, etc: $3,000

Which adds up by my accounting to a 2-bedroom, 2-bath house–with garage, hardwood floors, real wood trim, all new electrical and HVAC, mostly new plumbing, and a large grassy yard in Fondren, Jackson’s hippest, coolest neighborhood–for about $64,000. And I can look over there and see my steel casements and smile–priceless.

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If I can do it, you can too, and maybe in less than four years!



Categories: Historic Preservation, Renovation Projects

6 replies

  1. It’s gorgeous! I love how the bathroom came out!

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  2. Those casements are wonderful! Love your splashy yellow door (people are so afraid of color)! What an incredible job you have done there!

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  3. Thanks y’all–it’s been fun, and the bathrooms allowed me to express my modern side. Well, I guess the whole house allowed me to express my modern side. I got some guff from my neighbors about the yellow door–our side of Fondren is more practical and traditional than the south side–but am happy to report that my next-door neighbor came over one day and said, “The yellow has grown on me.”

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  4. I love the light fixture on the Living Room ceiling. Very cool. Thanks for sharing your hard work. I have a much better appreciation of such houses now (early wood-frame ranches) and their modern aspects. They’re so often run down nowadays that when you’re driving through neighborhoods, you tend to just glance right past them. Yet they have those important modern touches all the same (the steel casement windows, for one). Superficially, I guess I’ve equated any sort of postwar modernist domestic architecture with brick/stone/plaster, but not with wood exterior surfaces. But that’s not accounting for the low-style (low-cost) variants that undoubtedly flourished. It’s an interesting phenomenon that hasn’t been appreciated much (wood-frame houses with modernist aspects that are most apparent from INSIDE the house). That unfortunate designation “Minimal Traditional” starting with modest ’30s houses didn’t help, either.

    Seeing it all so re-newed and renovated so well–both inside and out–really helps one to understand the interesting sort of transitional role these types of houses played between the wood-frame, “Minimal Trad’l.” past and the changes in housing that would occur by the mid-late ’50s and ’60s.

    Do you know much about those Lustron houses of the ’40s (I think)? They have similar layouts to this one, but with metal exteriors. The Upper Plains is where they seem most prominent nowadays (relatively speaking)?–I think South Dakota’s HP people have written them up, for ex.

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  5. That living room fixture is IKEA–as are all the bathroom cabinets. The house is no doubt more Modern than it originally was with those bathrooms, but I figured since there was nothing left except one bathtub (which we re-finished), I could go wild.

    I hesitate to even call this house a “Ranch” because I don’t know that it really fits that definition, depending on how strict you want to be. You’re right that there seems to be a large undefined type of post-war house somewhere in between a Minimal Traditional and a Ranch, but not really either. In Jackson, I would estimate the vast majority of the housing from 1945-c.1955 or even 1960 was sided in this same kind of asbestos shingle. My house is and almost all the houses on my block and in my neighborhood (adjacent to the GI Subdivision) are. And you’re right, they are for the most part not considered of value. Sounds like a book–I’m sure someone is working on it, since the post-war house is all the rage in academic circles.

    It’s interesting to me to see in these 1950s houses how “Modern” style was combined with traditional or even colonial style–these weren’t ideologues, just regular people wanting a cozy but functional and up-to-date house. I especially enjoy analyzing the difference between my house, built in 1950, and this house just 10 feet away built in 1952. My house does seem to fit the Minimal Traditional definition–quite boxy, wood sash windows, wood floors, screen porch (people keep saying I should move into the house next door, but the screen porch on my own house keeps me here, even if it weren’t so much trouble to move), real dining room, detached garage. The house next door is more horizontal, lower to the ground, more of a walkway than a porch, attached garage, steel casements–it’s a whole different era even though it’s only 2 years younger. It’s like that weird cultural gap between Baby Boomers born in 1964 and Gen-Xers born in 1966.

    We have a few Lustron houses in Mississippi, and one in Jackson. We had three in Jackson until a few years ago when two were dismantled and moved to Ocean Springs. I was thankful for the opportunity to wander around those before they got taken apart. Floorplan was very similar to my house next door, but of course all the finishes were metal and the interior doors and trim were metal, which was hard to get used to. I can’t remember if I had a digital camera back then, but if so, I’ll rustle up the photos and post them at some point here.

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  6. Love the living room, bedrooms, hall (is a hall a room?). Would have preferred finished natural wood (yes, birch is a right handsome wood) finished kitchen cabinets. Don’t like the vanities and countertops in the bathrooms. Likewise, the new fangled looking faucets in the bathrooms are kind of weird. BUT overall a good, affordable redo. Most all the rundown (and not so rundown) houses and other buildings in blighted areas of Jackson and other cities could be fixed up just like what you did if only somebody CARED. And the somebody that should care are the people that live in the houses and neighborhoods. They need to CARE and get off their duffs and start sweeping up and picking up the litter and trash all over those blighted areas. Good job!

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