Diary of a renovation

The exterior of the 175-year-old house was a weak yellow with black shutters.

The house needed love. It looked like a college party house; the owner had Band-Aided over what should have been surgically repaired. The bathrooms were dark and grimy, the attic a rat graveyard. The living room floor was a patchwork of different woods and had what our realtor called a “whale-tail,” settling unevenly with a giant hump in the middle.

But a structural engineer swore the 1840 house was sound. The housing inspector agreed, although he called for multiple repairs.

We knew we wanted two of the small bedrooms combined into a master suite, an updated master bathroom and a new kitchen.

And so, armed with a basic architect’s drawing, we hired Joel Krueger of Krueger Construction to renovate the house before we moved in. Joel is a good contractor but, make no mistake, renovation is still the painful labor that makes you want only one child.

The living room floor is pulled up, exposing old wooden joists.

In the bedroom, a wall comes down to make way for our master suite, and another wall reveals a chimney from the living room fireplace. We can expose the brick, but we’re advised against opening a bedroom fireplace since fumes from the living room fires below could kill us. We’re neophytes at this renovation stuff, but we’re pretty sure not dying is the right plan.

As the crew tears through the wall between the kitchen and dining room, they expose another fireplace, and old magazines stuffed in the thimble, the hole where a wood-burning stove would have vented. There also are bones from old food.

With a renovation contract, much is “owner supplied.” Home Depot and Lowe’s become your new hangouts, and you realize you can easily blow your own budget when you fall for fancy light fixtures.

No wonder the house tilted! The joists beneath the living room floor were not even connected, just loose timbers lying in the dirt. The joists are “sistered” with new, stronger pieces of wood. We had only budgeted for some spot repair, but the whole floor needs to be redone.

Apparently, the stairs from the lower to upper level were just floating on rotted board. They’re building an extra cement pier so we don’t tumble to our deaths one day. Again, I’m on board with the “no death” construction.

The plumber is going to have to redo all the gas lines and the electrician will need a new breaker box. Cha-ching! Gotta love old houses.

Krueger’s Tom Mueller comes up with an idea for a narrow bookcase to fill the space between the wall and the newly exposed bedroom chimney, which juts out at an odd angle. Can we afford it? Joel nods and we cheer.

The architect’s drawing is off by one kitchen cabinet. Also, the counter-depth refrigerator is actually going to stick out about four inches. Can we live with that?

We decide four inches and one less cabinet is no big deal, considering what just happened with the siding, which is much more rotten than anyone thought. The original plan was to do spot repairs, but about three-fourths of the siding must be replaced.

George McDonald, another Krueger worker, was pulling down rotten siding and a bunch of wiring fell out, too. Seems the previous owners had just stuck wires behind the siding to get it out of the way. It could have been serious if George had hammered into a live wire. Not only could it have shorted the whole house, but George would have been a bit crispy.

Kitchen and bathroom walls are in, and living room floor planks have either been remilled and fitted back, or reclaimed from some other old house.

The crew has not only rid the attic of rat carcasses, but has built storage lofts in the attic, no charge.

Tom points to black speckles on the floor of our closet and bedroom.

“You’re going to have to get those ducts cleaned,” he says. “This is what’s coming out of them. You don’t want to breathe that stuff.”

No, of course not. A call to the duct cleaners adds $1,000 to our budget.

It’s starting to look like a home and not a construction site: the upstairs floors and stairs are stained, the master bath has some fixtures, the living room is painted, and the roof is now Tinner’s Red and not the heat-sucking black it used to be.

The crew is appalled by the front door. Not even an external door, it makes the rest of their work look shabby. Joel finds a solid door and frame from a reclaimed wood place, and we have a new front door.

We’re moving in next week. Joel’s confident the house will be ready.

“Well,” he temporizes, “the inside will be ready. We may still be working on the outside.”

The outside has been delayed by weeks of unremitting rain, but it definitely is a blue house now rather than the previous weak yellow. The shutters are elsewhere, awaiting paint.

Crewmember Wesley Harrell painstakingly made a floor vent of reclaimed wood to match the lovely heart pine floors in the kitchen. Unfortunately, one of the crew puts the leg of his ladder right over the vent, shattering both the vent and his wrist in the fall. He’ll need surgery. The shutters are at this worker’s house, and he’s not painting them anytime soon.

The cleaning lady arrives the day before the move. She does her best, but workers are still everywhere drilling and spreading dust over rooms she’s just cleaned.

At one point on moving day, we have 16 people at our house: four movers; Joel; and an assortment of workers.

Only touch-ups remain: some paint spots, a small roof leak, an outlet that got covered over. All get fixed over the next two weeks.

Nearly a month later, all of the invoices are in and Joel presents us with our final bill: it’s about 2.5 percent over budget. Not bad for a project that is more than $200,000, but not good for our tight budget. He explains that the extras — fancier kitchen cabinets, the siding and even the bedroom bookshelf — as well as the gas lines put us over. His explanation rings true: We did get lots of extras, and the work is top-notch. Ruefully, we write the check.

Our renovated house is beautiful. And we hope to never do it again. Ever.