Monday, December 31, 2007

Potty Mouth

In mid-November I had to call the plumber.

The toilet in the basement had been slow for months. The waste would flush down, but the TP would not, and the same bits would float around in the iron-tinged water for days.

So I didn't use it unless I absolutely had to. But then the toilet upstairs got plugged. And the stopper lever kept coming off its chain.

So the plumber came, but by then, the upstairs john had cleared itself. He fiddled around with the chain, though, and it worked again.

The basement stool was another matter. He put the snake down, and couldn't find a thing that could be blocking it. But it was undoubtedly blocked.

"I've got awful hard water here," I mentioned. "Do you think it could be calcium deposits plugging it up?"

He took a probe and checked the holes where the water jets are supposed to squirt out around around the rim of the bowl.

"Yes," he agreed, "these are full of lime."

He dug around a little more, but to little effect. "The real problem is this inlet at the bottom of the bowl. And I don't have a tool that'll clear the calcium out ofthere. And I don't know if there's a chemical that's safe for you to try."

"How about white vinegar?" I suggested.

"You could try it. If it wrecks the stool, you're no worse off than you are now."

And he took the minimum service fee for the call under my home warranty plan, and went away.

Well, I tried the vinegar. Four gallons of it, in the tank and the bowl, for two or three days. And it worked! I still can't get over how gratifying it is to see that water swirl around and take everything down in my basement potty.

However. The upstairs toilet still doesn't work as it should. The flapper chain clip started coming loose again and I resorted to a safety pin to keep it on the lever. But that problem was nothing compared to--

Well, let's be civilized and say only that no, one does not insist on putting old socks and whole boxes of Kleenex and half the contents of the cats' litterbox down the stool and expect it to flush. Not at all. But there are certain things any competent water closet should accommodate, and mine, from time to time, emphatically does not.

So this afternoon, I use it, flush it, and put down the lid. I've washed and am about to leave the room when I hear "Guh-loomp! Guh-loomp!"

I turn around. My tabby kitten is lying on the lid. Oh, no, is he about to be sick?

But no. The noise is coming from farther down, from the bottom of the toilet bowl.

I shoo the cat off, open the lid, and see almost no water in the bowl. I flush the toilet. Water pours in, nothing goes down. I give it a few jabs with the plunger and flush it again.

Four-alarm red-alert MISTAKE!!!! The water flooded in and didn't go down and here came the potty water, up, up, up and over the rim and down onto the floor! And it wasn't clean water, either.

I turn off the valve to stop the deluge, then start to work again with the plunger. Of course, that splashes more water out onto the floor. I try easing it in at first, but soon discover that unless you push a good big bubble of air in with it, the plunger just won't work.

So I did what had to be done, and got the stool unstopped.

About then I noticed that oh! looks like there isn't as much water on the floor as I'd thought! Having fetched a couple old bathtowels from the basement, I wiped up the spilled water. And while I was at it, I cleaned the iron stains out of the toilet bowl. And got the vacuum cleaner out and sucked up the cat-hair bunnies from behind the sink and around the water dish and then got a clean towel and washed the rest of the bathroom floor.

Lovely! How nice to have a clean bathroom floor going into the new year, regardless of why I had to do it!

But then I went downstairs to get the clothes basket to put the dirty towels in. And in the kitchen I hear a funny noise: Dripp! dripp! dripp!

Oh, damn, that stupid toilet water went down those bloody bad joints between the wall tile and the floor vinyl, and it was dripping through the joint in the kitchen ceiling sheetrock!

Worse, it was coming down the walls and making big water bubbles of the paint!

(So to speak.)

Same damn thing happened last time the upstairs john overflowed, about three and a half years ago, before I got the kitchen repainted. But now it is repainted and oh, no, don't I have enough on my 2008 house To Do list without adding "Touch up kitchen ceiling and wall paint"?

Not to mention "Put a big honking bead of tub caulk around the base of the upstairs bathroom walls, you idiot!" Which I bloody well should have done after the first time it flooded.

Could be worse, I guess. The ceiling joint's in a handy place to relieve the pressure, and it is sheetrock, so I don't have to worry about falling plaster. And the textured finish I have on the walls should keep the water bubble places (which I poked with a needle to drain them) from being too glaringly apparent until I can get around to repainting them.

But still. This was not part of the 2008 plan!

Guess that's part of the joy of home ownership. And several gallons of white vinegar is definitely on my list for my next Costco run. The upstairs can would benefit from two or three days of the 3% acid treatment.

I mean, if it's not calcium deposits that's clogging it up, what could it be?

Friday, December 28, 2007

A Dream, or a Financial Nightmare?

I got a call this morning from the repairman at the local family-owned appliance dealer's.

It'll cost me almost $200 to replace the wonky thermostat in my oven. Maybe more.

That is, if anyone can sell them a thermostat for a going-on-eleven-year-old stove.

If they can't get the part, I get to buy a new stove.

Sorry, I mean, I'll have to buy a new stove.

Get to.

Have to!

Get to!!!
I admit it: I'd really like the excuse to buy this Frigidaire. You know, the one with the cool (or should I say, hot) convection oven converter feature and the regular, medium, and high-powered burners, the big honking oven window, and all the other bells and whistles.

I've been on-line researching prices on the models I saw there, as well as dropping round in person to my local Lowe's, Sear's, and Home Depot. And the price at the family-owned shop is the best going, especially factoring in free delivery, set-up, and haul-away.

But I have no business buying a new stove. I'm still not working full time and my income is drastically limited. Even paying to get the one I have fixed ain't exactly in the budget.

If it's a junker, I really ought to be sensible and get an ultra-cheap pedestrian model with manual oven cleaning and knobs that turn things on and off and that's it.

That's what I ought to do.

But I don't wanna. If I do that, I'll be in conscience stuck with the thing for the next ten years. Or until I sell the house, whichever comes first.

And how is anyone going to be thrilled with my kitchen if it's got only a boring basic range?

So that would justify my buying the model I want, right?


Well, I guess I'll see if the part is available for the eld beast. And make a common-sense decision from that.


Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Sore Winner

Last Saturday, a circular arrived from the local family-owned appliance store. It announced their "One & Only WINTER Clearance Event!" with "Our BIGGEST Savings of the Year!" Not only that, but I could also enter their Scratch 'n Match contest to see if I had won one of three prizes, the top one being a $10,000 kitchen makeover!!

Well, I don't need that. My kitchen is one of the most pulled-together rooms of my very un-pulled-together house. But I scratched the silver stuff off the number dot anyway.

Did not say "Sorry, You Have Not Won." There was a number there, all right.

But the winning numbers weren't on the circular. Oh. Guess you have to ask about it at the store.

And I needed to stop by there anyway. Because last week when I was about to launch into my big Christmas cookie baking campaign, my oven went haywire. I'd set it for 350, it'd stay there long enough to do one batch, but then the temperature would start to climb. 400, 500, 600 and on and on! Burnt cookies! Smoke alarms going off on every floor! General annoyance and frustration!

If one of their guys couldn't fix my oven, maybe this One & Only WINTER Clearance Event! could give me a line on a replacement stove. And I guessed I'd best do it quickly, since according to the circular, "WINTER" ends on January 1st.

So I walked into the appliance dealer's this afternoon, again thinking how it'd be "just my luck" to win the kitchen makeover, when the room that really needs it is the bathroom.

But I was really there to look at stoves. And I did.

The only one that really fits my specifications is about $150 more than I'd like to spend right now. And the model with the feature that could really get me excited about spending the money (convention oven conversion at the flip of a switch--whoo-whoo!) runs an additional $100 more.

And neither of these appeared to be part of the One & Only WINTER Clearance Event!

Hmm. I think I'll bring the info on my existing cranky stove in and see if they can simply fix the overheating problem. Their repairmen should be familiar with the beast, since my previous owners bought it there and this shop has been out to fix things on it before.

I was headed out the door when I remembered to ask the salesman, "Oh, yeah. How does this contest work?" He took me back to the service desk, where they had the winning numbers posted.

And what the hell, if all my numbers didn't match for one of the prizes. A "3 Day/2 Night Vacation Getaway."

Oh. That's nice. I actually won something. Oh!

"Something" being hotel accommodations for two at any one of quite a wide range of destinations, as close as just up the road, so to speak, or as far away as Honolulu, Hawaii.

I was aware of not being as excited as I might be. Maybe I wanted to stay cool so I could understand all the fine print on the redemption certificate. Maybe I wanted to keep my expectations down as to the quality of the hotels in question.

Maybe I was feeling inadequate for not being married and having an automatic other half of the "for two" to take up the other side of the deal.

Yes, well. I do like travel. And I do have girlfriends who'd enjoy going off on a larking kind of trip like this. And a good handful of the listed destinations were within driving distance.

So this evening I got ahold of my friend Frieda*, and we're going to visit Colonial Williamsburg sometime next spring, about the time we both celebrate our birthdays.

But as I was driving away from the appliance dealers, I found myself thinking, "Well, dammit. If I had the luck to win one of the prizes, why couldn't it have been the $10,000 kitchen makeover? I could have done a lot of good in the way of new appliances and a decent floor and countertops and some new lighting with that kind of dough, even if the cabinets and my adorable faux finish paint job are just fine. Why couldn't my luck just pushed me a little way further over? Answer me that, hmm?"

But instead, I had to win a lousy free hotel accommodation certificate. Sheesh.

The other prize was one of three iPhones.

Well, I console myself, I don't want to switch over to AT&T anyway.

Yeah, but I could have sold the thing on eBay and made some cash!

Shut up, kid, and be grateful! You and Frieda* are going to go to Williamsburg in the spring and you're going to look at antique buildings and pretty gardens and you're going to enjoy it all very, very much!

So there. And stop being a sore winner!
*Made-up name

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

O Wert Thou in the Cauld Blast

This past August I read a novel by English author Rosamunde Pilcher called Winter Solstice. The main part of the action is set deep in December in a town on the far northwest coast of Scotland. She did such a fine job of describing the snow, the rain, the cold winter weather, that when I'd open the door to let the dog out I'd be surprised to feel the balmy breezes of a southwestern Pennsylvania summer.

And I was impressed how convincingly Mrs. Pilcher depicted her characters going out into this weather without moaning or complaining. They were continually out visiting, shopping, walking the dog, walking themselves, and the conditions seemed always to strike them as bracing, or envigorating, or, at the most, challenging.

Gosh, how admirable! Once winter has set in, whatever happens in my back yard stays there till next spring. In the dead of winter, once I'm inside I hardly want to open the door to pick up the mail!

But there's a basis for all this Pilcherian cheerfulness. As the creator of her novelistic world, she decreed that her characters should have a "well-built Victorian house" to live in and enough pounds and pence to keep the central heat going comfortably and to pay for logs to throw on the sitting room fire whenever wanted. It's easy to face inclement weather with good cheer when you know the house you'll return to is toasty and warm.

I wish I could rewrite my own current life story that way. But alas, no. I finally had enough and turned on the furnace night before last, and the highest it's going this winter is 61 degrees when I'm home and awake and 56 at night.

No, I'm not trying to reduce my carbon footprint. I'm just trying to reduce the drain on my wallet.

It's been all right so far. Really. The temperature outside hasn't gotten below the low 30s and the double-glazed windows are shut and locked. It helps having three cats to act as live hot water bottles, too.

I'll see how it goes once it gets colder. I suppose turning up the thermostat a bit is preferable to my sitting on my icy hands whining. Thinking of other and older British novels, the proverbial drafty 19th century manse may seem romantic, but living in a house that feels like one is not.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Ghosts in My Garden

This is what my camera captured in my back garden this chilly late October night . . . "I see dead people . . . !"

Or dead something, at any rate. These "shrouds" are purposed to protect the last of my sweet peppers, eggplants, and tomatoes, as well as the newest canes of the climbing rose, from a heavy frost that's forecast for early tomorrow morning. But judging from what I observed when I took the dog out early this morning, the covers may be too late. We got frost up here in the Valleys last night.

Still, I gotta try. There's a lot of peppers on those bushes that'll be fit to eat if they get just a few days riper.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Checking In

Barring Wednesday's theological cyber glitch, I haven't posted for the past week.

And I haven't posted about productive work on the house for I think a week yet again.

That's because, barring routine housework and yardwork, I haven't gotten any productive work on the house done for the past week or two.

It's only partially because of the four-day-a-week AutoCAD class I started a week ago yesterday. It's mostly because in all my current projects, I've met some sort of check or delay or brick wall. And not wanting to do the bitch-and-moan polka, I've said nothing.

After all, you, dear readers (all two of you), want to hear how cleverly I'm solving the problems, not how they're making me wonder what was it, exactly, I didn't like about landlords.

But on the theory that it's more fun to read about the messes fellow-housebloggers get into before they emerge in shining and exemplary success than to plod through the self-glorifying sagas of those who never drive a nail wrong, I'll give a rundown of what I'm embroiled with and how I'm at least trying to take care of it:

Sanding and repainting the Adirondack chairs. Decided to use my Black & Decker Mouse sander to even out the old paint, but I was out of the Velcro (TM) -backed sandpaper sheets that go on it. Lowe's and Home Depot don't carry them. They're hideously expensive even online. But hooray, I found an outfit called Online Industrial Supply, that would sell me 10-yard rolls of fuzzy-backed sandpaper in my choice of grit for a very reasonable price. The two rolls I ordered came couple of days thereafter, and I'm using the last B&D sheet as a template to cut new ones to fit my Mouse. It's going to work great, and I'll get back on the job this weekend, as soon as I finish my AutoCAD homework or the humidity goes down, whichever comes first. Or last.

Reseeding the back yard. Got that done last Saturday. The seeding part, I mean. But the recipe I was using for repairing a dog-damaged lawn says to cover the seed with a quarter inch of compost. I was thinking compost would be too acidic, and I bought five bags of humus-y topsoil instead. It's lovely, rich, black dirt. It's also sopping wet. Quarter inch cover? An inch and a half, more likely! Not counting what sticks to my hands.

I tried emptying two bags worth into the garden cart, to let the dirt dry in the sun. But of course then the rains came. Dirt can't get very dry covered with a tarp . . .

Finally yesterday I said Oh, phooey, and scattered those two bags worth over the newly-seeded area as far as it would cover. It will probably just smother the seeds, but what can you do? The sugar maple tree has started its annual leaf dump, so it's all equal. I'll just have to try again in the spring.

Recovering my drafting board, etc. This is very annoying. The vinyl cover will not lie down flat, even with double-sided tape under it. You'd think after a week or more of resting, it'd behave itself. But noooooo! And it has to be flat, or you get those ugly gray smears up and down your drawing when you slide your parallel bar.

At least, when those of us who still think some architectural drafting should be done by hand slide our parallel bars!

I had an interview (yes!) with another hand-drafting architect this past Tuesday. While we were at it, I asked her about her experiences with covering her board. Told me, she doesn't try to tape the cover down. Just lets the parallel bar hardware hold it to the substrate. And I guess it flattens out eventually.

So I'll try that. But just in case I want to try the tape again, I gave the plywood board a coat of primer this evening. Maybe the sticky didn't work because it was absorbed by the bare wood grain.

Once my studio's put back together, I can get back to real house projects like woodwork stripping and floor sanding and redesigning the upstairs bathroom around the new kittens' litterbox.

That is, unless I'm consuming all my time trying to keep up in computer drafting class. If you don't hear from me before Thanksgiving, blame that.

Or you can blame the dog and the cats. Yes, you could assuredly blame them.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Mysteries Revealed, or A Trip to the County Courthouse

This noon I was down at my new bank picking up my signed copies of my HELOC documents. As a by-the-way, I asked the loan officer, "If I want to find out exactly how old my house is and who owned it before me, should I ask over at the county courthouse?"

"Sure. It's the Recorder of Deeds Office. Go on over. They won't be busy right now."

(It's handy living in the county seat, with the courthouse just a few blocks away.)

So I went and inquired. And found out some things I hadn't expected to learn.

The legend around my neighborhood is that the land was a fruit farm up until 1925 or so. That about that time, the old farming couple died and their grown children didn't want to take on the orchards. That the heirs platted the land and sold it off for building lots, and barring the original farmhouse across the street and the old carriage house down the block, all the dwellings here date from the late 1920s or thereafter.

Well. That's not what it says at the Recorder of Deeds.

The area may well have been a fruit farm-- the plat is called "Groveland Plan." But it was platted and registered in June of 1889.

As for ownership of my lot* and its "appurtenances," it goes like this:

Prior to his death in November 1911, it was owned by Edward J. Allison. It then passed to his children, with a life-interest held by his widow Margaret M. Allison.

19 June 1916, Margaret M. Allison and her adult children Margaret and Dwight liquidated all their considerable property in the plat for the benefit of their minor brother and sister, selling "my" lot to Romaine A. Wilkinson and his wife Laura D.

15 April 1920, the Wilkinsons sold the property to George Henry and Cora Lezonia Jeffrey.

16 April 1920, the Jeffreys sold it to Laurie H. and Kathryn G. McLaughlin.

(There must be a story here. Were the McLaughlins family to the Jeffreys? Was Kathryn a Jeffrey by birth?).

This much I learned from actually looking at the recorded deeds. What follows is from the clerk's print-out:

1 January 1930, Kathryn G. McLaughlin purchased the property (from the estate?) for $4,600.

The next day, 2 January 1930, she sold it to Kathryn C. McLaughlin (her daughter??) for $1.

30 November 1981, Kathryn C. McLaughlin sold the property to Mary K. Soltis for $45,000.

25 June 1987, it was purchased for $1 by Mary Kathryn and James Neri (Hmmm. Are Mary K. Soltis and Mary Kathryn Neri one and the same? I suspect so). These are my POs-1, my Victorianizing previous owners. (Bless their hearts!)

28 February 1997, the Neris sold the land and improvements to my immediate POs, John A. and Kate A. Carpenter for $96,500.

And on 28 August 2003, I, Kate H., bought it from them.

Do you see a pattern here? It was so astonishing to the Deeds clerk that she dropped everything to help me search. Ever since 1920, this property has been owned by someone named Kathryn/Katherine or Kate!

Too strange . . .

But as to the house itself, the Deeds clerk brought up an assessment document stating that it was built in 1916! And she was anxious to point out that it might be older than that and probably is.

What difference does it make the the Sow's Ear is at least ten years older than I thought it was?

It's a matter of spirit as I go about the improvements. It assures me that I'm not abusing the original intention of the house by redoing it with a Craftsman or Arts and Crafts feel. Before, I felt I needed to curb my enthusiasm: after all, I'd tell myself, the house could actually date from the 1930s; maybe I should be going for that sort of style. But no. Now I know my instincts were correct.

And now I know what to look for for examples and inspiration.

There's a lot more I can find out, but that's all I had time for today.

The immediate remaining mystery is, why didn't I run over to the courthouse before and find this out a whole lot sooner?


*My land is actually portions of two lots of the original 1889 plat, but for style's sake, I call it one lot.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

So What Can You Do?

This morning I started my computer aided drafting class at the technical institute. And the instructor was taking the class (99% boys, 99% less than half my age) through some basic setup commands. A propos of the dimensioning setup, he commented, "You've got your choice of metric, engineering, architectural, or decimal dimensions. Since this is going to be a mechanical drafting class, we'll be using the decimal dimensions."

Huh? I thought I was taking a class to learn architectural computer drafting!

No chance to ask the teacher about it after class. Besides, what can he do? He's teaching what he's teaching, and I'm a non-degree student anyway. But I had to ask the faculty supervisor down in the office about something else, so I inquired of him-- am I in the wrong section?

No, not really. Turns out the AutoCAD 2008 class I'm taking is a prerequisite for both architectural and mechanical drafting. And apparently it's up to the instructor for the term which one he or she wants to emphasize. It's the luck of the draw.

Meaning that I need to be willing to be bored-- I mean, instructed by having to do up incomprehensible-- I mean, illuminating diagrams of pipe fittings and machinery, in order to get the commands down. That's the point of taking the class, after all.

The faculty supervisor said he could ask the course instructor to assign me something architectural for my final project. But I won't stake my life or my grade on it happening.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Anything Rather Than Actually Work on the House

I've signed up for a computer drafting class at a local tech college.

It's primarily to enhance my professional chances, but I also think it will be fun to mess around on my computer and experiment with ideas for the Sow's Ear.

The interviewer told me that the CAD students draw a house for the final grade. Wonder if I can draw up my own house?

(If not, Mr. Teecher, sir, kin I do up the Craftsman house I've had lurking in my little hed since 19-bluddy-87 or so? Pleeze don't make me draw an ugly ranch box like the ones I saw postid at the kollidg, pleeeeezzz!?)

When I draw up digital ideas for my ugly foursquare box, I can post them on here. I'm sure you'll be waiting with anticipation and glee.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Ticking Things Off the List

How very odd. Last night and this morning I wrote in my calendar what I hoped to accomplish concerning the house today, and I actually did them! And it's not even 11:00 o'clock yet!

Here's the list:

*Go to the bank and sign the papers for my new home equity line of credit. It'll be a few days before it's accessible, due to the three-day recission rule and the paperwork that has to be done on the bank's end after that.

Well, I wasn't dying to use it right away, anyway. Just nice to have the lower interest rate, and know the money's there.

*Call the trash haulers and see if they'll take my old drafting board with the trash tomorrow morning. Check! (Though it'll be up to the driver to decide what the extra fee will be. Hope he's in a good mood.)

*Fill the rough places in the replacement plywood drafting board and make it smooth to receive the vinyl board cover. This was an all-day process, of course. Started with spackle, finished with joint compound. Started with wet sanding, finished with dry hand sanding. Started in my front room where I have plenty of floor space and light, finished in the basement which is darker but where I have a better chance of keeping the dust contained.

(Speaking of dust, do they make dust masks for people with small faces? When I wear the mask, I can't wear my glasses. The mask rides so high, the glasses won't stay on my nose!)

I played with the idea of going on tonight to iron on the edge banding and maybe even to stick down the vinyl cover, but I'll wait. I can just see me making a mess of my good clothes iron. Maybe I'll visit the Goodwill or the Sally Army thrift store tomorrow and see if they can sell me an iron I wouldn't mind mucking up.

*Remove the edge pull and other hardware from the old pocket-door-turned-drafting board. The edge pull I'm keeping. I've spent a lot of years fiddling with it when I should have been working, and why should I give it up now?

Here's the door/board detached from whatever you want to call that piece of plywood I had it hinged to to give it a slant. Looking at it from the other side, doesn't that old door just scream "1970s"?

*Put the old board out for the trash. All the way down from the third floor and out to the alley. Goodbye, old horse. You've served me well in your day. And thanks again after all these years to A. G., architect of PhilaPa, whose hand-me-down this was.

Then something that got added late in the day:

*Take the new high-pressure hose nozzle and knock the loose paint off the Adirondack furniture. Yeah, the set I was talking about repainting way back here.

It was chilly today. Fall and winter are definitely in the wind. Shortly before sunset it hit me that I'd better tackle this job now, if it's going to get done before next summer at all.

Because the only place to do it was the portion of the backyard closest to the house where my dog has messed up the grass. If I wait till next spring, the new grass will be trying to come up and I'd drown it with all the water. But if I power wash the chairs and table now, the water will dilute the doggie residue. And it won't mess up the grass-- there really isn't any. The paint chips will get raked up with the dead thatch. And doing it right away, there's half a chance I may still get some grass started this fall, before it gets too cold.

I'm debating what sort of surfactant to use to get the actual dirt off this furniture. I'm thinking maybe plain baking soda. Seems to me, it'd be good for the soil. It might neutralize all that doggie acid.

I came back in the house sopping wet, of course. Another good reason not to leave this job till the cold weather really hits.

*And finally, hooray, I made bread. Used to do it every two weeks. Now, hardly ever. Have bread, will eat!

Harvest Still Life

Tomatoes, cantaloupes, peppers, cucumber, and Japanese eggplant from my garden.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Something I Need to Do Sooner than Later

Like, tonight.

Yesterday on my general blog I posted about trying to get the old linoleum off my thirty-year-old drafting board. I wrote it there because it was more about me actually taking steps towards generating some freelance architectural work, than about fixing up the house per se.

But it's turned into a houseblog issue.

Because the lino residue stinks. Badly.

And the smell is getting up my sinuses, and it hurts.

And it's giving me a headache.

And that old-pocket-door-turned-drafting-board needs replaced and dumped. Like right away. Which means it's off to lovely Lowe's for plywood this very evening!

I just hope it really is linoleum on here, and not some sort of vinyl-asbestos sheet goods. Those of you who have peeled up linoleum before, does it have a dark gray paper backing?

Whatever this stuff is, it's painful.

The Vaguaries of Contractors and Water

Why is it, that I can find something to be so clear and straight-forward when I'm operating professionally as an architect, only to have it turn all vague and uncertain when I'm acting for myself as a homeowner? Why can't I openly dispute the pronouncements of contractor-estimators-experts when it concerns my own dwelling?

Why does everything these guys say sound so reasonable when they're talking to me and so "hey, wait a minute!" when they go?

As I said in my post-before-last, last March an estimator from Dessicators, Ltd.* came out to look at my damp basement. He said it needed serious work. New drain on the outside, new drain in a trench on the inside, sump pump, massive dehumidifier, and vinyl wall board over the brick walls. He mapped out how it would all work together to keep my basement mold-free and dry. I balked at the price and I balked at the wall vinyl-- otherwise, it seemed very reasonable.

Then yesterday, the estimator from Dry-as-a-Bone Contracting* came over. He prescribed an interior trench drain and a sump pump, with weep holes, stabilizing rods, and acid neutralizer for my mortar and brick. That, too, sounded very reasonable. And the price seemed reasonable, too.

But afterwards, I got to wondering. I checked out foundation drain details in Architectural Graphic Standards, and they didn't tally with the assumptions my waterproofing estimators were making. But maybe they know the houses around here weren't built that way? Who was I to argue with them?

And I couldn't quite suss where the water would come from that would be running into the new interior drains. But dammit, the DBC guy is the expert, and if he said there was enough moisture in my brick foundation to need a drain, I supposed there must be.

So when the rep from Ted's Rilly-Dri Basement Company* arrived earlier this afternoon, I expected to hear the same diagnosis; the only difference would be in the proprietorial system recommended to cure the problem. And maybe in the cost.

I take the Ted's estimator down the basement. He looks around, and asks, "Do you ever get any running or standing water down here?"


"You don't need our services. Our system is designed to remediate running or standing water. You don't have that. What you've got is caused by high humidity."

Now, I do run a dehumidifier down there, and today it's going full blast with a relative humidity reading of 41%.

And the walls, even the moldy ones, were dry.

But in the high summer, full revs on the dehumidifier can't get the level below 55%, and that's when I notice the moisture, efflorescence, and mold.

"That's your problem. The humidity gets into the joints and the paint and makes it swell up and fall off like that. Otherwise, you've got a great dry basement. A lot of much newer homes look a lot worse than this."

I told the Ted's estimator what the first company's rep had told me, without identifying the firm by name.

"Oh, that'd be Dessicators, Ltd., right? They make me so mad! If your roof was leaking, they'd tell you your basement needed waterproofed." He told me a story of an old couple in a nearby town, whom the Dessicators rep had told they needed 48 new piers jacked in under their foundation, at $1,000 a pier (the house was worth only $65,000). "They're a rip-off."

I didn't say much about the company whose estimator came out yesterday. I think that guy was used to thinking in a certain way and sincerely believed the interior drain was the way to go. As in, if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

But the Ted's guy reiterated that there was no waterproofing work for them to do in my basement-- it didn't need it. What I need, he said, is a second dehumidifier, especially in my smelly workshop under the converted front porch. If I wanted, they could install me a heavy-duty dehumidifying/air cleaning system, but that'd be as much to clear out the pet hair as for keeping the basement dry.

This sounds reasonable. Really reasonable, for a change.

So on the theory that you try the least invasive measures first, I'll try upping the dehumidification first. It's the least expensive, and if it doesn't work, I can take more radical action later.

As to my opening question, it's just me. I hate to get into authority battles, especially when I'm not the expert in a particular field. So when I turn down your bid, it's the honest truth that I don't want the wall vinyl or don't want to borrow the money at this time-- but the fundamental reason is that I'm not totally convinced by your arguments about hydraulic engineering. And I'm too nice-- or cowardly-- to say so.
*Made-up names

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

An Ethical Issue, or, You Snooze, You Lose?

A late development on the basement waterproofing front:

(If confusion ensues, see previous entry.)

Ted's Rilly-Dri Basement Company* called me back about an hour ago. They can send out an estimator to talk to me about that interesting dry basement system early tomorrow afternoon.

Hooray! That gets me my three estimates before Thursday afternoon, right?

Well, functionally, yes. But am I wading into an ethical swamp?

Because the only reason I know that Ted's Rilly-Dri installs this interesting system is because I inadvertently got the national office when I thought I was calling OvenDry Waterproofing* this morning. Phone receptionist says, oh! in your area, Ted's Rilly-Dri Basement Company installs our product! Call Ted's!

I called Ted's Rilly-Dri; at that point they said they might be able to get someone to me this week-- or not.

A few minutes passed. The phone rang. It was the receptionist from the dry basement system's national office. She says, "We've found your contact e-mail to OvenDry Waterproofing. Yes, I know that Ted's Rilly-Dry is supposed to cover your area. But you contacted OvenDry first. So you have to go with them. It wouldn't be fair to switch now."

So she connected me directly with OvenDry, which is the first time I'd actually spoken with them, and which was when they told me they can't get to me till the 25th at the early-early-earliest. Which is too late for me.

And now Ted's say they can get an estimator out tomorrow. And I've made the appointment for him to come.

So have I done something naughty? Or given my time frame, did OvenDry take themselves out of the picture and everything is clean and clear?

(As might be said in another context, "Skrwepullus Kat Iz Scrwepullus!")
*Made-up names

Where Did I Leave That Map?

Well. I got the call back from the bank loan officer an hour or so ago. My house appraised out a good deal lower than the neighborhood maximum book value.

This doesn't surprise me. Not really. Not with all the half-stripped woodwork, the wallpaper that's ripped in some places (previous owners' dogs) and hanging off the wall in others (a spur to me to replace it sooner than later--supposedly), the torn-up garden borders, the old, scarred bathroom tub with no shower, and all the other signs of work-in-progress-but-nowhere-near-done.

And the figure came in only a thousand less than the current book valuation by my mortgage company-- and double-digit thousands over what I paid for the house four years ago.

So I can't complain, though I don't qualify for the 1% under Prime home equity credit line interest rate, nor for the maximum line amount. The new bank is still willing to write me a line for more money and at 1.25% less than I now have at the old bank.

So I told the loan officer, let's go with that. It'll allow me to get a thing or two done around here that I shouldn't put off and can't at all do myself.

Like basement waterproofing. And that's where I need the map.

I got an estimate from one major Pittsburgh area company last March, Dessicators, Ltd.* But even after the applicable Home Show discounts, they still wanted a quarter of my gross annual salary (literally!) to do the job.

That was bad enough. But I had a feeling at the time that my architectural firm employer was running out of projects that matched my skillset. So even if the price turned out to be the going rate, I didn't dare take on that kind of major obligation. I told the estimator I'd be getting at least three bids total and I'd (maybe) call him back.

I was right about the job situation. I've been "freelancing" since mid-May. And honestly, I can't say things are immediately more promising now.

But last month I heard that another area basement waterproofing firm, Dry-as-a-Bone Contracting*, was running a 40% off deal through the 30th of September. I got my foot in the door by calling on the 28th to schedule an appointment.

Their estimator came out this morning. He measured and poked and took readings with the water detector. And with the 40% discount, the estimate to dry me out comes in at less than half of the Dessicators, Ltd.'s discounted price.

But I found out where the discount comes from. It's a promo from the major chemical company that makes the drainage system components Dry-as-a-Bone installs. For various reasons, I believe them when they say that they have a rapidly-dwindling number of these discounts to apply, and that I have to let them know by Thursday at the latest.

But I don't have my third estimate! Since a week ago I'd been waiting to hear back from OvenDry Waterproofing, a company that uses a system successfully installed in the basement of a fellow Houseblogger in Portland, Oregon. But when I talked to the regional agent today, they told me they can't come out till the 25th, sorry!

So where do I go from here? Dry-as-a-Bone Contracting has been around for decades, is family-owned, and has an excellent reputation with the Better Business Bureau. The estimator left me a list of references longer than my arm. It seems that the tasks they'd perform would solve my wall moisture problem effectively, and they extend a lifetime no-water guarantee.

And, unlike Dessicators, Ltd., they won't insist on covering my honest painted brick basement walls with that godawful shiny vinyl liner and joint cover strips. They'd need to come up a foot from the floor with it, and I'd have to take on the obligation of repainting the walls periodically. But the estimator says, "There won't be any water."

But I still want that third estimate! And I really, really wanted to check out the system that Hillsdale House in Portland used!

Do I take the chance and rely on Dry-as-a-Bone's reputation? Do I take it as a bad sign that OvenDry Waterproofing never got back to me, and say phooey on them, anyway? Or, might I take advantage of the fact that Ted's Rilly-Dri Basement Company* also installs the interesting system used in Portland? But they might not be able to fit me in, either!

Where, oh, where, do I go from here? There ought to be a nice Ordnance Survey-type map that would tell me where all possible paths might lead and keep me out of the swamps and morasses. But all I see on the charts is Terra Incognita.

Oh, well. I can call some of Dry-as-a-Bone's references. And go down and make myself some lunch. Food first, decisions later.


*Made-up names

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Running Ahead

The appraiser who's supposed to tell the bank if my house qualifies me for the new and improved home equity line of credit was due sometime between 3:00 and 4:00 this afternoon.

At 2:15, I'm down in the basement bathroom, trying to figure out how to work the tension shower curtain rod my POs left me--I've been using it the past four years, but every time I take it down, I can't get it back up without it and the curtain falling onto the floor at least twice.

Which it was doing now. I could hear my dog barking upstairs, but he sometimes does that, at whatever or whomever passes on the street. So I ignored him, because the appraiser was due at 3:00.

But Llewellyn kept up the racket, and at last, I thought I'd better go look.

It was the appraiser, at the door. "Hi, I'm Ernie*, from XYZ Realty!"

"I wasn't expecting you till 3:00," I replied in my adrenalin-fueled, sleep-deprived, stretched-to-the-limit ungraciousness.

"I know," admitted Ernie cheerfully. "I'm running ahead today!"

He certainly was. He went out front to take his pictures and measurements, while I did a quick sweep through the house picking up dust cloths and stashing the vacuum cleaner. And I swear it was no more than four or five minutes before he appeared back in the house. He got started in the front room, and I dashed down the basement to quickly get the shower curtain up and stayed up, and to move the more egregious obstacles out of the way. Thinking to return and answer questions upstairs.

But in a minute or two, I heard his footsteps on the basement stairs. "I see you're renovating the woodwork upstairs," he commented. (Is this bad because of the current mess, or good in prospect?) Barely glanced in the door at my lovely shower floor painting job. Said, "Nice dry basement." Which I suppose is true if by that he means the floor's not creeping with rivulets and puddles. (Never mind the mold I scrubbed night before last off the brick.)

Escorted him up to the second and third floors. A quick glance here; a floppy-tape measurement there. There were spaces he seemed about to skip till I advanced and opened their doors. Is he such a pro he can take everything in at a glance? Or is basic structure and dimensions all he (and the bank) cares about? Or was he scamping the job? (Oh, surely not!)

At nearly the last minute, Ernie asked me what improvements I've made to the house since I bought it four years ago. And in all the hurry, damned if I could remember everything I should have!

This was not the detailed process I was led to expect. I won't venture to say exactly how many minutes the inspection took, but it wasn't that many and he was out the door. After the past week of cleaning and painting and grouting and hauling, it was very anticlimactic! Did this past week's effort make no difference one way or the other-- or will, for instance, the stair carpet the cat spilled paint on back in 2003, that I didn't have time to rip up, come back to haunt me?

I'll find out in a few days.

Meanwhile, congratulate me: I did not collapse immediately after Ernie the appraiser left. I went back down cellar and finished the job I was doing when he so inconveniently interrupted.

No, I collapsed after an early supper and spent this evening reading other people's houseblogs. I'll get back to the battle tomorrow. Tonight, as my grandmother used to say, I'm too pooped to pop.
*Made-up name

I Did That. It's Real Keen!

Funny how a whole summer is hardly long enough to clean out your files, but a few days will suffice to complete a whole slew of tasks you should have done ages ago-- like the few days before the impending visit of The Appraiser.

There is something to be said for an unhurried approach. So much more conducive to preserving one's health and sanity. But even as your deadline drives you on to exhaustion, it's also nice to stop from time to time like God on the Seventh Day and say, as did a high school classmate of mine after a communal renovation project, "See that part? I did that. It's real keen!"

Real keen, like the bolt I installed early Tuesday morning on the hatch to the attic storage. On Monday the kittens, taking after their adopted big sister the calico cat, figured out how to jiggle the cabinet latch open and get in. The little female picked up a dead bird in there (Let's not think about how it got there and how it got dead, okay?). I do not want a repeat of this. Thus, the brass bolt.

And from Tuesday, see how keen the basement shower floor is with a second coat of moss-green floor paint? Applied it with a brush instead of a roller this time: maybe it'll hold up better.

And a touch-up coat of paint on the rest of the bathroom floor:

That's real keen, too.

And early (very early) Wednesday morning, it was keen to get the basement laundry room walls de-cobwebbed, vacuumed, and scrubbed with mildewcide and Simple Green and the floor mopped with TSP:

Wednesday, I got the silly bushes in the front and side trimmed:
(I say "silly" because if you don't trim them, they look unkempt and disruptive and disreputable, but when you do trim them, it seems it's always the most charming, liveliest branch tips you have to shear off. It keeps striking me as some sort of parable about modern society, but whenever I try to work it out, I can't decide on which side the moral lies!)

But getting them done was keen, especially the lemon-lime parfait effect on the golden cypresses or whatever those are.

And it was keen to get out the loppers and tame the weeping cherry, which had threatened to reach out with its rampant branches and devour the house:

And ya gotta admit, it's real keen that at long last, I got the new tiles around the upstairs bathroom mirror grouted and a new medicine cabinet put in:

(Yes, you do see a gap in the tile at the top of the mirror. That is not keen. That was cut out by some previous owner to accommodate the former medicine cabinet with the fugly fluorescent fixtures attached to it (I think the ballast sat at the top). This cabinet here is an el-cheapo stand-in until I can custom-build the cabinet I need. The space between the studs is too narrow for a decent stock model.

(Of course, all this will be torn out when I do my Dream Bath with the blue iridescent tile and the clawfoot tub.)

There's even more keen stuff I got done these past few busy busy busy days, all so I can impress that august personage, The Appraiser. I was up till six-ay-em doing it. (Thus the chronologically-impossible but artistically-accurate time stamp on this post.) But at this hour enough is enough. I do believe (novel thought!) that it would be really, really keen to get some sleep.

Will the appraiser think all this work is keen? Will the bank extend enough of a line for me to get something done on? We'll see in a few hours what comes of it all.

Monday, October 1, 2007


I'm still trying to get rid of the landscape rock my previous owners were so fond of.

My friends Hannah* and Steve* have a large drainage ditch/percolation sink on their property they need filled with something permeable.

I got rock, they need rock. So let's trade.

Howbeit, I wasn't exactly planning on their coming over to scoop rock this evening. Monday night is community choir night and our Fearless Musical Director does not take random absences lightly.

But Hannah rang me at 5:00 o'clock this afternoon and said, "We're all coming over at 6:00 to get that rock. OK?"

"Uh, it's choir night, and I'm supposed to be there at 7:15."

"That's okay. I have to get the kids home by 7:00 to get them to bed for school in the morning. And this is the only time this week we can do it."

Um . . . my front border looked really ratty (witness specimen photo from last Spring): All random piles of rock and landscape fabric sticking up here and there, where I'd cleared the ground to plant daffodils and balloon flowers in previous years. Or from where I tried to dig up the miniature rhododendrens to transplant them in a more favorable spot, and gave up because the roots were under all that rock and I'd run out of places in my backyard to pile it. Good intentions and optimistic plans are all very well, but your typical appraiser won't see that. Curb appeal, my house front had not.

So I told Hannah and family to come ahead, and I'd take the consequences.

And they did, with their van, their tarp, their shovels, a five-gallon bucket or two, and a little plastic child's wheelbarrow. She and Steve and I amongst ourselves got the front border looking a bit more orderly; at least, if you look at it from the sidewalk. Helped (at some detriment to the plantings), by their kids Stevie* and Letitia*.

Wonderful how much three and two/halves people can get done in an hour and fifteen minutes! No, I did not make choir, and I shall have to prostrate myself in deepest self-agnegation to our director.

But it'll be worth it, for the work that got done.

Too bad the daylight ran out. Too bad Hannah and Steve don't need about 20 more cubic yards of the stuff. I'll trade them the rock, for a hole to put it in!


*Made-up names

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Don't Let Me Cuss!!

In his office, my Architecture school dean kept a drawing done by one of his small children. It was a passable portrait of himself, and in the speech balloon was written the plea, "Don't let me cuss!" Seems he tended to let it rip in front of the kids, and his son had drawn the picture to remind him not to.

Me, I don't have any kids to shelter from my bad language. But I don't want to cuss in front of myself, because that'd put me in a cussed state of mind and things are cussed enough as it is.

Though, under the circumstances--!!!

Here I have this appraiser coming. And the basement bathroom didn't look so good, especially not the shower. I don't know about you, this appraiser, or anyone else, but when I'm looking at a house, a dirty, scabby basement bathroom is a prime turn-off.

Here's the basement bathroom shower pan just before I moved in:*

Here's how nice it looked after I painted the concrete floor:*

But alas, here's how the shower looked four years later. I did my best in 2003 to prepare the surface, but under ongoing wet conditions the floor paint hasn't adhered 100%.
And then there were the rust stains on the grout. Disgusting.

So this evening I tackled the job. I intended only to clean off the iron stains and mold and touch up the bare spots after. I used a rust-removing cleaner on the grout joints. And I sprayed the tile down with a high-powered hose nozzle I bought this afternoon.

The tile now looks pretty good.

But the painted floor is a disaster. The reactive cleaner and the high-powered spray between them lifted most of the rest of the paint off, in some places down to the bare concrete.

Damn! Looks like something died on it, doesn't it?

Wouldn't be so awful if the paint were all gone, or if it were all stable. But it's not. A lot of what remains is loose underneath but I can't get it up with the wire brush or the scraper. Only spray, spray, and more spray does it, and I was already soaking wet and the bathroom and basement floor was getting flooded and my dear POs (whichever set of them it was that built this bathroom enclosure) didn't bring the wall tile all the way down to the concrete floor in the bathroom proper, and the standing water was already wicking up that half inch of exposed drywall and right up the wall. So I gave up for the night.

I hate it, but I think this calls for a half-assed, stop-gap job. Once the shower floor's dry, run over it one more time with the wire brush and the shop vac, then slam down a coat of primer and a couple coats of floor paint, just so it looks good. And hope the appraiser doesn't go stand in the shower, since this floor paint can't be walked on with shoes for seven days after.

Stop-gap is really what's called for. My plan is to put in unglazed ceramic mosaic. But I can't do that until something's done about the moisture that's seeping through the outside walls. I have an appointment with a waterproofing company rep on the 9th. The ironic thing is, if I can get the house appraised higher, I can get a bigger line of credit and I could swing getting the waterproofing done right away. But if the house looks in too much need of work, the line will be lower and I won't be able to do it!

(Did I cuss a couple of times up there? Yeah, guess I did. Damn.)________________________________________

*I forgot. I took those photos with the 35mm. I'll have to remember where I put the prints and scan them in.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Putting the Fear of God into Me

That is, if the god in question is Mammon.

But more on that anon.

I was going along, accomplishing a thing or two, but nothing ambitious or blog-worthy. Tied up the quince bush in the back garden so it wouldn't impale me on its thorns. Rigged up an arrangement with a bungee cord and a rock to keep the dog out of the Kitten Room while letting them come and go. Plodded along and finally, last Sunday, finished my file cataloguing and paperwork filing. Got the study dusted and vacuumed and put in order, hooray.

So did I immediately get back to woodwork stripping and other useful house renovation projects?

No. I made and canned tomato sauce (well, the fruit would have gone bad if I'd left it longer!). I spent a day or two trying to clean boot the operating system on my little laptop. I tabbed hanging file folders that needed it. I went to a lot of unavoidable meetings. I played with the kittens. I watched reruns of Rescue 911 on YouTube.

Anything but do anything significant to the house and grounds.

Until last night.

You see, yesterday morning I got a call from an appraiser. He's coming to look at the house this coming Thursday afternoon.

Panic in the streets!! The appraiser is coming in six days and my house is a falling-apart, torn-up mess!!

OK, Kate, think sensibly. There's no way the woodwork is getting stripped and refinished by Thursday afternoon. No way there will be new wallpaper up or decent tile or something down to replace the shabby vinyl on the kitchen and hallway floor. But there's a lot that can be and should be and must be done by then.

Like vacuum the blankets of pet hair and dust off the ceiling fans.

Check, did it last night.

And scrape the little tags of half-dissolved paint off the living room window and get the dirty drop cloth, etc,. cleared away.

Check, ditto.

And address curb appeal deficiencies. For example:

Today's task was edging the lawn, front and back. And yes, it was a lot faster and easier to do it this time, having undertaken the eight-hour marathon in June or whenever. And the Neutron edger attachment worked fine: once I'd put in a new string reel, I didn't have to stop and rethread broken edger string even once.

This is pretty, though I say it myself:

The Herbacious Border of the Future edged and semi-weeded:

I'd hoped to tackle my crazy bushes before nightfall. But sweeping up after always takes longer than you think, especially when you're working on cobblestone paving. Gotta get to those bushes before Thursday. And do something about the piles of landscape rock and fabric sticking up out of the front border. And clear the brush piles in the back away to the borough dump.

Why the sudden advent of an Appraiser? Not because I'm planning to put the house on the market; at least, not any time soon.

No, it's because my bank was eaten up by another bank, effective this past Monday. And I didn't like some of the new bank's terms and conditions.

So my checking account and I jumped ship to another financial institution. I also investigated transferring my home equity line of credit to said institution, since their ordinary interest rate is a good deal lower than what I'm paying now.

Buuuh-uht . . . ! If I can qualify, I can get 1% under current Prime, fixed. (Whoo-whoo!!) But going by the book, the value of the Sow's Ear falls short by a few thousand. The new bank is paying for the appraiser to come and see if the value might be scootched up higher.

Agreeing to that sure seemed like a good idea earlier in the week when I was on the phone with the loan officer. Now the appointment is made, I'm not so sure. There is so blinking much that screams out for attention around here. I think I'll be lucky if they don't appraise the house under the book rate, and refuse to transfer the line at all!

Whatever I can do to prevent that, I have to do. So for the next few days, I'll be sacrificing myself, my sweat, my muscles, and a great deal of money I don't really have to the great greedy god Mammon.

"Oh, great god Mammon, we bow before you! Grant us the blessing of a below-Prime interest rate! Salaamy, salaamy, baloney!"