December 1, 2006

Waiting for the scary number

Filed under: House Blog — marcstober @ 1:01 pm

Update on our kitchen renovation: we’ve chosen a general contractor, paid him a small retainer, and come up with a design. Now we’re waiting for the estimate with the scary number on the bottom line.

One of the reasons we chose SteveWorks as our builder is that he would only give us an off-the-cuff price range to start with. Then, he charged us a small retainer to design and quote the project in detail. That way, we’ll know exactly what we’re getting when we sign the contract, rather than having to make compromises to fit with arbitrarily determined allowances. Anyhow, at this point we do have a hole in the ceiling that Steve made to look some structural issues, and are waiting with our home equity loan checks in hand.

What we’ve discovered, in general, is that there is no shortcut or cheap or easy way out of this process. We could have just picked a budget in advance, but it costs a certain minimum amount (more than we really wanted to spend altogether) for the general construction, and above a certain amount you really have to be trying to pick out extraordinary furnishings. So, you can’t just pick a number out of the blue. Also, we felt that, as an investment, we needed to involve a professional and renovate the kitchen up to the standards of what having a new kitchen means in our area. Keeping appliances and fixtures up to date is great but having a totally brand-new kitchen (at least if we’re eventually able to add bathrooms, too) will really put the house in a higher class of homes (although we don’t want to sell it).

October 31, 2006

Front Door

Filed under: House Blog, Tools — marcstober @ 7:09 pm

Fall 2006 031Just in time for Halloween, we have a freshly painted and fully functioning front door. See below for advice on paint and caulk guns, but first some editorial content.

When we bought the house, we were only given back door keys, and the old mortise lock (probably original) felt like it was one jiggle away from falling off the door. I know what you’re thinking – this is the suburbs, people enter their houses from the driveway. But I like to use the front door, and always have, ever since I let myself in that way when I got off the school bus. So what if I’m the only one in my family who enters my parent’s house that way? Now that I take the train home, I like to use the front door, too – especially now that it gets dark early and it’s dark in back.

We’ve made a few improvements, like installing a bracket for an American flag and a new doorbell we bought at Restoration Hardware on our second night in the house. The biggest improvement was hiring a locksmith to get the old lock working. It took him a while to rebuild it, but was still a lot cheaper than buying anything that looked as nice as the original one. So now we can actually go in the front door. (I suspect this will be particularly important when the kitchen is being renovated and maybe we can’t get in that way.)

I did some pre-winter maintenance as well, like painting the house numbers white (for visibility), and installing little solar floodlights so you can see the house number and steps, which are not well illuminated even when the front lights are on. I sealed some cracks in the steps and caulked and painted the front door. I think the old wood front door adds character to the house and a thick layer of glossy black enamel brings it out even more.

On the advice of (someone – Hammerzone I think, but can’t find it now), I got a professional quality caulk gun. Fortunately, professional grade caulk guns are still under $20, It does make it easier to get good results. I also used Benjamin Moore paint. I think it really is better that the Behr paint (which I basically consider the store brand) at Home Depot. The big soapstone sink in the basement with garden-hose pressure made quick work of cleaning my brushes, too (although buying new brushes every time has got to be better for the environment than using all that water).

Finally, I did some work to restore the appearance of the lock. There are 12 brass slotted screws on the outside, and the locksmith replaced the missing ones with drywall screws. This was functional, but I replaced those with matching brass screws. Even this turned out to be more work that I’d thought because it turns out that the screws around the cylinder where shorter (because of the mechanism behind) than the others, and I needed to cut the screws and wedge in little pieces of plastic anchors for them to stay in the stripped openings. (They must just be decorative anyway. Even back in 1920, I think they were smart enough not to build a lock you could just unscrew from outside!)

Eventually we want to rebuild the whole front porch and steps. Until then, I think Cheryl is still using the back door. 🙂

October 18, 2006

More specifically, the kitchen sink

Filed under: House Blog — marcstober @ 1:15 pm

In my last post, I mentioned buying a kitchen sink. You might ask, why did we buy a sink already? Shouldn’t we wait until we’ve decided on a layout or even countertop? Admittedly we did by an undermount sink that would limit our countertop options.

I think it made sense. The sink is where the size and shape really matter. We wanted a larger-than average, single-bowl model, to fit more dishes and larger pots, and because we didn’t want to have to move food scraps from the side without a disposer to the side with (double bowls are trendy, but it’s gross).

Countertops are flat. You are more choosing a look than what you can put on it. (I know there are other factors, but even so.) If we needed a cheap way to install an undermount sink, I figured I’d buy a slab of butcher block at Lumber Liquidators. Besides, we weren’t going to get a tax-free sink otherwise!

October 16, 2006

…and the kitchen sink

Filed under: House Blog — marcstober @ 3:48 pm

We’ve had a range, dishwasher, hood and, yes, the kitchen sink crated on our back porch since August. We bought them during the Massachusetts sales tax holiday, and I’ve been meaning to blog with the “and the kitchen since” cliché since then.

and the kitchen sink

The original plan was – since we can’t afford a big renovation – to just replace the appliances. Which turned into, “let’s replace the appliances and put in another $1000 to spruce things up.” Then, “let’s replace the appliances and floor, and put in another $1000,” and so on, until we had a budget in the low 5 digits and a year of weekend projects, all for what would amount to window dressing on fundamentally the same 1950’s kitchen.

So we started looking for contractors. Stay tuned for what we found…

October 12, 2006

Zillow on the value of home improvements

Filed under: House Blog — marcstober @ 12:38 pm

There’s some good information on Zillow about the value of home improvements.

It shows a lot of specifics, including multiple levels (mid-range, upscale) for certain improvements, details of the work performed, and job cost and cost recouped. The numbers match what we’ve heard locally. The kitchen renovation we’re planning fits in between their mid-range and upscale descriptions and costs; some architects and builders have told us that a two-story addition with a bedroom/bathroom will add more value than just a family room; and I’ve sense that to complete the upscale window replacement (which the previous owners did upstairs only) isn’t a particularly great investment.

Whenever I hear payback numbers I wonder where they come from. We are improving the home with the intent to live in it for a while, after all, so it’s not all about resale. Zillow’s business of making this information free is appealing, but I still don’t know what’s behind them and their numbers.

September 7, 2006

We’re Celebrities!

Filed under: House Blog, Newton — marcstober @ 11:18 am

Our picture is in a Boston Globe article published today about assessed home values!

I spoke to the reporter on the phone for a while and the only quote they had from me was three words, “a good deal.” But if we go with the rule “a picture is worth a thousand words” (which doesn’t even seem like a cliche in this situation) we come out pretty good.

August 28, 2006

Housewarming vs. keeping the house warm

Filed under: House Blog — marcstober @ 2:17 pm

We had our housewarming party yesterday. Perhaps the greatest benefit was that it forced us to clean out the sunroom and dining room. The sunroom that we had written off actually seemed nice for the day. Of course we actually unpacked very little so this was just a shell game of moving boxes around.

We had way too much food. But the Weber grill did well and impressed people. I think a fully-loaded grill of food with lots of smoke and flare-ups actually makes the food come out better.

I don’t think my relatives were properly impressed by condition of the house itself. That is, we got a lot of compliments on the house, but people didn’t realize how much needs be done. This may be because as a picnic pavilion on mild day (which was the situation yesterday) the house performed phenomenally. Living in my own house isn’t supposed to feel like being under a rustic shelter at the park, however. It needs to be a place where I can put Hannah to bed without losing sleep myself, and a place where I can be safe and comfortable whatever extremes of weather or other challenges the outside world throws at us. Admittedly people have lived their whole lives with more primitive shelter (and some still do), but I live in twenty-first century North America, with a sizable mortgage, where single-family homes are expected to meet to certain standards. Eventually I showed Uncle Andrew and Aunt Diane the basement with our steam boiler and some of the electrical work, and I think they started to understand.

Speaking of the boiler, we did get the heat working. A furnace tech was able to get the flueways inside the boiler cleaned out as part of the regular annual cleaning and smoke is no longer going into the basement, the smoke alarm is not going off, and the radiators all seems to be getting hot. (I’ll wait until it’s actually cold out to try and balance them further.)

Nevertheless the house supported (literally) almost 40 people without immediate and catastrophic structural failure. I’ll take some comfort in that.

July 17, 2006

Heating Help (and maybe something I can relate to)

Filed under: House Blog — marcstober @ 11:58 am

I’ve started a thread on to get advice on what to do with our old oil-fired steam heat system.

Being a software developer I feel like in some ways I can relate to these guys; in plumbing as in coding there are a lot of little internal technical details that make a system run well and maintainable that the end user never looks at. The debates between oil and gas or steam/water/air are also something I can relate to. I’d say it goes something like this:

Warm Air Windows No one says it’s perfect, but it’s the best overall choice most of the time, and most customer-friendly experience.
Hot Water Linux Great technically, but not as slick and not supported by a big national brand, you need to find a local guy who knows what he’s doing.
Steam Unix Industrial-strength, but you are much more dependent on paying good people/vendors to keep the thing running.

I could make the comparison with Macs but I think central heating is more like running a server.

July 11, 2006


Filed under: House Blog — marcstober @ 4:01 am

The electricians have started work! They came with a huge crew of maybe 4 or 5 guys and more tools than I even own. There are already new lights working in the bathroom and the spare bedroom where there were none before, which already makes a big difference–but I need to clean the bathroom now that I can see the dirt!

Electricians 001 Bathroom LightThey used the replacement pushbutton switch I bought from Classic Accents for the bathroom light and seemed to be impressed by it, said they had never seen it and would recommend it to other customers.

It’s a good thing I hired them to replace the lights because it turns out the existing lights were a “canopy” style that didn’t have a box in the wall behind them, which one of the guys tried to explain to me is okay if that’s the type of fixture you have, but you usually need a box for new fixtures. So, I’m glad I didn’t have to deal with this surprise on my own; and I’ll know to pick up a new box if I decide to replace any other fixture on my own.

I think what differentiates real, professional electricians though–i.e., from a handyman or do-it-yourselfer–is not in how they install the fixtures but in how they fish wires through. The real electricians seems to take pride in getting new outlets in almost anywhere so you have to scratch you head, “how did they get a wire in there?”; I guess they just have the experience to know what’s behind the walls.

July 5, 2006

My House is Giving Me Anxiety Attacks

Filed under: House Blog — marcstober @ 9:57 am

Yes, really. But it’s not about me, it’s about the house. We met with a couple architects last week and the main take-away is that what we thought was a lot of money, is only a fraction of what we’ll need to do what we want.

The main issue seems to be that our sunroom is on footings. Even though this space is insulated and seems sturdy, we really need to tear it down and build a proper foundation if we want to use that space as our new kitchen. My gut feeling agrees with this; footings are OK but we’ll have a much more valuable home if we do a real addition.

The good news, however, is that once we build such a foundation it’s only marginally more expensive to build it two stories up and include a master bath. I’ve thought that the lack of a master bath is the #1 reason I’d want to move someday, so this is exciting.

What this leaves open is the question of whether we try to make some small alterations, like a patio door off the living room and/or squeezing a half bath out of a corner of the kitchen, or just wait until we can do the “whole enchilada.” It’s going to be a frustrating few years if we don’t do these things in the meantime; on the other hand, why go broke making changes I’m never really going to be happy with?

(Doing some quick calculations at ELoan, borrowing the amount we need will cost about the same per month as Hannah’s daycare – so there is hope we can do what we want when we have school-age kids and still have years to enjoy it, but when the only toilet in the house is clogged who can think that long-term?)

The other take-away from our meetings is that we might as well get started on certain improvements, such as HVAC improvements, separately. This is all well and good but I was really hoping that we’d be able to turn things over to a builder for a few months, and basically just bear with the dust knowing that we’d have a nice house when it was done. Instead it seems like there is no end in sight to the cycle of missing work to make calls, get estimates, let people in and generally play part-time project manager. And I think it’s this that’s going to keep with awake with anxiety at night for at least the next few years.

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