dumpster delivery

A massive 30 yard dumpster has been delivered to the house.  It’s a huge metal behemoth, which measures 22’ long, 8’ wide and 6’ high.  I was given a chance to laugh at myself again by offering to help the driver guide the dumpster into place as it was rolled off the truck.  He curtly told me that he had done it before, and then proceeded to place the dumpster next to the house (for ease of heaving debris from the windows) closer than I had imagined possible.  Good thing I was there to help.  

empty and waiting

The weight allowance is 5 tons!  I haven’t done sustained strenuous, dirty, physical labor all day, day after day, for a long time.  And gutting a house requires just that.  I question how my aging desk bound body will manage.  Have I mentioned that my 19-year-old nephew is here to help?  My brother says he is fit from lifting weights and jogging.  I am too (sort of, well … not really), but demolition work is a different kettle of fish.  It requires physical strength, of course, tearing out, and then carrying, endless loads of debris that may eventually add up to 5 tons.  It also requires a certain mental fortitude, and a lot more protective gear, than one needs in the gym.  Dirt and dust will be trying to find its way into every pore and alveolus.  What with kids nowadays (grumbles this old man), and my aging body, I wondered how we would fare.  A 5 ton dumpster for two weeks, Evan’s help for 10 days, and a house to gut.

Marci suited up

Evan, Marci and I donned tyvek suits with hoods, goggles, respirators with mold filters, gloves and shoe covers.  The sweat started pouring out of us just from wearing the gear, never mind actually working.  We had the required tools as well – sledge hammers (15 lb. and 3 lb.), regular claw hammers, crow bars (big and small), flat bars, bolt cutters, shovels, battery-powered sawsall, brooms, garbage cans and old spackle buckets.  I figured we’d better start slow, and build up as the week went on.  After five hours on the first day (including 50 minutes for lunch and breaks), we were all knackered and gladly quit for the day.  We also enjoyed the opportunity to look at some of the old ‘treasures’ that came out of the walls and ceilings – but more on that later.  Our clothes were soaked and dirty.  When we got home I grabbed some soap and shampoo and we headed for the creek.  This became our daily routine. 

suffocating dust

We worked 8 of the 10 days, only managing an average of 5 ½ hours a day.  Although we maintained only a moderate work schedule, we managed to fill the dumpster – and then some.  The final weigh-in came in at 6.07 tons! Saying that we tore out and dumped an average of 1,500 pounds of debris a day sounds much better than only 5 ½ hours of work a day!  Just as importantly, we managed to swim, fish, walk or bicycle every day together.

morning break day one and all smiles

Thank you, Evan, for your help, your friendship, and not quitting on me and the work!  (there are certain advantages to flying in one’s help from 500 miles away and the spare bedroom being the only home they have!).

We ended up tearing out a lot more than I initially intended.  I was originally thinking that some parts of the house may just need repair, and not

cast iron tub demo

absolute demolition.  I am not one to do things by half measure, though.  So when decisions had to be made on whether or not to tear something out, I erred on the side of tearing it out and replacing it with new (when in doubt, tear it out?).  The bathroom was one of these decisions, including taking out the cast iron tub (the enamel finish seemed beyond saving).  Evan’s initial enthusiasm to smash it up also helped in the decision.  He quickly found out how strong and resistant to a sledgehammer those tubs are!  I had to tell him to be careful at one point, fearing that he may drive it, intact, through the wall, out into the yard (as opposed to breaking it into manageable pieces).  He’ll think twice before volunteering to do that again! It may require more work, and cost more, but hopefully the increase in rent or sales price will make it worth it.  Regardless, I will know it is new, done right, and will last much longer.  So now we are pretty much back to the studs, in the kitchen and bathroom too.  Ah well, what else am I going to do with myself?  Watch TV?  Why not renovate an entire house instead!

success - a full dumpster

Unfortunately, despite a full dumpster, the demolition is not done.  It is now a matter of having to slow down and figure out what else must be removed, and taking care while doing it so as not to create more work down the road (such as having a ceiling collapse on me!).  I must also figure out the process of the remodel.  For example, some floors need to be leveled, which will require


jacking from below.  Obviously this must happen before installing new windows or sheet rock.  Sitting at a desk for a bit and figuring out this process, and how to proceed, is what I do best!

Congratulations!  We are the proud/scared new owners of a real fixer upper. 

The closing went relatively quickly.  I performed my role splendidly – I brought a large check and, without complaint or query, signed every document put in front of me.  The check was instantly broken down into smaller digestible checks to feed to all the open mouths (seller, realtors, title company, water authority, school taxes, county/township taxes, attorney’s fees, etc.) – eleven in all!   

The forms are prosaically wonderful.  The seller was a bank, and one would swear that they have a whole department of struggling scriveners dedicated solely to creating the most absurd yet somehow marginally plausible documents.  It must be rather fun really.  I can picture it now, a head popping up amongst the cubicles, calling out above the din of a sea of fretfully tapping keyboards: “Listen to this. How about a ‘Signature/Name Affidavit,’ which the buyer would of course have to sign (an old joke, but knowing chuckles all around), wherein the buyer would have to certify that their legal name and signature is in fact the signature that they are using at the closing?!”  There would be hoots of admiration and approval mixed with those of jealousy, having failed to come up with such a simple, yet obvious, additional form.  Some wag might then call out, suggesting an ‘Affidavit to the Signature/Name Affidavit,’ which may get booed down as sour grapes or imitation, yet stored in the minds of many for a more appropriate later date.   

tyvek suits, respirators, gloves, and goggles for all

Check proffered, forms signed, deed recorded.  As my realtor said, this may be the deal of a lifetime.  I’m thinking it could be the death of me.  Either way, I have a feeling this blog could go on for quite some time.   

The unequivocally good news is that my nephew Evan has arrived from North Carolina. Now that the deed is done, we will start work forthwith.  I have purchased the necessary safety equipment, including tyvek suits with hoods, dust masks with mold filters, goggles, gloves, and shoe covers.  Let the demolition work begin!

Yes, I am still dithering.  In the meantime, summer has sadly come to an end. Mowing the lawn is with an eye toward keeping it short for ease of raking.  The leaves are starting to accumulate, and I have probably mulched them with the mower for the last time.  The rake and tarp (for hauling leaves to the curb) are going to have to make an appearance.  The black walnuts are falling in earnest.  We have been picking them up for a few weeks now so that they don’t damage the blade  of the mower.  Despite our previous efforts I still managed to gather over 200 more black walnuts on Sunday.  I also still managed to find a few more with the help of the mower blade,  which became apparent with the occasional loud bang and shredding sounds.

As for the garden, it is sadly on the way out too.  This weekend we enjoyed a ‘fall harvest’ of a  few acorn squash and a butternut squash, as well as a handful of tomatoes. The squash are fun, especially since they grew randomly throughout the garden as a result of our ‘not fully composted’ compost (as did some tomatoes).  The tomatoes have lost a lot of their flavor, and pale in comparison to the spectacularly flavorful tomatoes of July and August.  The sunflowers are mostly done flowering.  They are, however, leaden with seeds.  Since we had so many sunflowers, I think that the birds may be enjoying the seeds for quite some time to come.  I presume the squirrels will get in on the act too. That should be fun to watch over the coming months. 

The shining lights still in the garden are the zinnia.  The zinnia are great in the summer, with splashes of vibrant color everywhere.  Now, coming into fall, they  continue to bloom, and there are more on the way. The last holdouts on life in the waning garden.   Although we may have recently seen the last of the hummingbirds, there are still some bees listlessly buzzing around and making the most of the pollen. The zinnia have been a real hit with the humming birds, butterflies and bees, but I guess it’s time to put away the humming bird feeder and bring out the bird feeders full of seed.

A little walk from the house along the Brodhead Creek brought some more sights of fall.  The last of the Monarchs enjoying a clump of butterfly bushes was a very nice surprise.  Although most of the flowers are gone, there are still plenty of flowers remaining.  The butterflies flitted about, from bloom to bloom.  I will have to remember to get some cuttings in the spring. 

What is happening on the house front?  I thought you’d never ask.  I continue to fret, of course.  I did speak with my brother again about my nephew flying up for a couple of weeks.   My nephew is apparently ready, willing and able.  Not that my nephew and I have spoken directly to each other about it. Arrangements such as these appear to be fine left to others.  Regardless, I would love to have him visit, and he may be okay with it too.  Kismet?  Perhaps this new house enterprise may come together after all, despite my reservations.

flotsam on the brodhead creek bed

One often thinks of the past as a ‘simpler’ time.  I’m sure those who lived before us would not think of their lives as more simple.  Imagine working farm fields and tending to livestock for 16 hours a day.  War, whether it be with the middle east, the far east, europe, or right here at home, has always been with us.  And think what you will about our current state of health care, I wouldn’t trade it for the ‘good ol’ days!’   The ramifications of the decisions one faced in the past were much greater  than the myriad, yet relatively inconsequential, decisions we make today.  Yet, as the decision date looms, I continue to struggle with whether or not to cancel the agreement of sale to buy the King Street house. 

As I struggle with the decision, I continue to do my homework. I have been getting prices for sheet rock, electrical and plumbing supplies, and a huge dumpster for demolition debris. I also spoke with the borough zoning officer about various permits. Surprisingly, he was familiar with the house.  The house is nestled in the midst of the densely populated borough, surrounded for miles in every direction with lots of houses on rather small lots.  However, he recalled seeing a reproduction of an old hand-drawn map of the area, and believed the house was depicted sitting by itself surrounded by farmland.  Knowing the area as it is now, this seemed absurd. 

Standing on the front porch of the house, with cars and trucks whizzing by, and houses all around, the idea of being surround by quiet farmland seems impossible.  However, if one actually thought about it, blocking out the present, noting the kernels of history dotted throughout the county, the image started to seem entirely possible.  We’ve all seen ‘ye olde’ post cards and historical photos, depicting life of years long passed.  I have often looked at the old photos of Stroudsburg that are hung in various businesses around town, wistfully imagining an earlier time (I was tempted to say ‘a more simple time,’ but I don’t think the early settlers were finding life very ‘simple.’). 

There are records of a Dutch settlement on the Delaware River in 1659, and established settlements within a few miles of Stroudsburg in 1727.  Despite attacks and massacres between Indians and white settlers, the area continued to grow. Stroudsburg was well on the way by the late 1700’s. Monroe County was formed in 1836, carved out of Pike County to the north and Northampton County to the south. It was named after the 5th President, James Monroe, who died in 1831.  The imposing Romanesque stone courthouse in the middle of downtown Stroudsburg was built in 1890. (www.livingplaces.com). There is one photo I am particularly fond of, which shows a tree-lined street leading to the courthouse, ‘busy’ with horse and buggy traffic. It’s fun to think that a former owner of the King Street house may have ridden a horse through the fields (now seven blocks) to town.


I am starting to realize why this decision is a struggle.  It’s not that I don’t want to do it, because I definitely do.  I want to use my hands and my back, working with wood and other materials.  I will also learn from doing the project.  It involves every aspect of home renovation, and will surely be a test of all that I know.  There is also sure to be a test of mental strength as well.  The difficulty of learning what to do, and long days of hard labor, will be further weighted with self-doubt and second guessing my decision.  For whatever reason, testing myself, both mentally and physically, is a common thread in my various endeavors.  This home renovation project will be no different in my apparent quest to test what I am made of.

No less important, there is something to be said for breathing life into an old house.  Many generations have lived in this house, building it, maintaining it, adding to it, and renovating it.  I have worked on old houses before, and I like the idea of being one of many people to work on a particular house, becoming part of its history.  Often times one will find a message in a wall, someone memorializing their project.  Or a scrap of newsprint from a time not often thought of anymore.  Many people before us have lived our lives.  They have experienced our various joys and sorrows.  To skin one’s knuckle on an old hand hewn timber, or admire a new wooden floor, as surely happened 110 years ago as well, is to somehow become a part of history, working in that earlier time.

Coming back to the present, though, should I really do this?  The house does not have any historical value.  It does not have any significant woodwork or other features attesting to its age.  The house is simply old.  It would be a renovation, not a restoration.  Is the investment viable?  Can I afford it?  It’s all well and good to test the strength of my back, and the strength of my spirit, but to possibly do it all for a house that won’t sell, or the rent won’t cover the expense, that is a test I don’t want to take.

Well, the numbers are in (kind of), and it seems feasible. The home inspector concluded that there were no structural problems, and that the roof did not leak (but that pretty much everything else was a disaster!)  I am clearly deranged for contemplating this, but at least the simple math works.  It appears that my guesstimates of renovation costs (see prior scintillating post) were not far off, and it will take about $55,000 to renovate.  If I do much of the work myself, that amount could be significantly less. As such, with a purchase price of $50,000, and a maximum of $55,000 additional into it, I should have a total investment of $105,000.  If I can sell if for at least $140,000, or clear at least $5000 a year in rent, then it works, right? 

old attic

Who knows?  On the one hand, the simple math works.  On the other hand, it seems like a spectacularly speculative guesstimate by a rank amateur that could be hideously off the mark.  But the simple math works.  Have I said that already? Perhaps it is me that is simple.  I am obviously conflicted.  I want to do it.  I am intrigued by the challenge of doing it.  However, I can’t help but think that I am like the person atop a steep drop-off, 200 years ago, encased in a contraption of feathers and light weight wood, somehow naively thinking, convincing myself, that this will work!  

Lilienthal's Glider in Flight

“When early humans attempted to fly, they mimicked birds — often with disastrous results.”  That’s what I am afraid of – disastrous results!  

I spoke with one of my brother’s about it (who lives in N.C.).  Although sympathetic to the decision dilemma, he rightly pointed out that only I can make the decision.  He also intriguingly suggested that since my 19 y.o. nephew was looking for temporary work, if I did buy it, he could help me out for a couple of weeks.  My nephew and I don’t spend nearly enough time together, only getting together for a few days twice a year.  The opportunity to spend some good quality time with ‘the boy’ would be reason enough to embark on the crazy project.

sleeping teen/ renovation helper?

Well, I have to make a decision. Since an Agreement of Sale has been signed, it is now a matter of me having to cancel the contract if I don’t want to buy the house. If I simply remain stuck in indecision, this real fixer upper will be all mine!

bathroom (w/ radiator in vanity)


The asking price was $55,000. Of course one has to haggle, so I put in an offer of $45,000. After some haggling …

BRIAN: How much? Quick!
HARRY: What?
BRIAN: It’s for the wife.
HARRY: Oh. Twenty shekels.
BRIAN: Right.
HARRY: What?
BRIAN: (as he puts down 20 shekels) There you are.
HARRY: Wait a moment.
BRIAN: What?
HARRY: We’re supposed to haggle.
BRIAN: No, no, I’ve got to …
HARRY: What do you mean, no?
BRIAN: I haven’t time, I’ve got to get …
HARRY: Give it back then.
BRIAN: No, no, I paid you.
HARRY: Burt! (BURT appears. He is very big.)
BURT: Yeah!
HARRY: This bloke won’t haggle.
(Monty Python – Life of Brian)

… we arrived at $50,000.

moldy basement beam/science experiment

I now have to get inspections and estimates to see how much all of this is really going to cost!  I also have to figure out when these inspections have to be done by. According to the contracts, although the bank has agreed on a price of $50,000, they have up to 10 days to confirm this in writing. However, it appears that my time for inspections starts now, not when the contract is actually signed. From the best I can tell, I have 15 days from now to figure out whether the structure is sound, and how much all of the potential repairs will actually cost (windows, siding, plumbing and heating, electrical, mold remediation, etc). The banks don’t make it easy!

Upstairs enclosed porch

I can’t believe I am still thinking about this. I have now looked at it twice. The realtor says that they have received a couple of offers. Obviously they haven’t been accepted (I wish I knew what they were!). I can’t imagine at $55,000 this house will stay on the market long. There are quite a few houses in this town that I have looked at previously and wish, in hindsight, that I had bought.

I realize it is an inordinate amount of work, but I also love a challenge, and I think I can do it. Not only that, and more importantly, hopefully I can sell it for a profit when it is done, or at least have a decent rental property. I have looked at other properties in the area, all of which don’t require nearly as much work.  However, it seems like even the most modest houses that are habitable cost at least $100,000.

 Considering the size of this house, its location, and that if completely redone it will be practically new, I can’t help but think that this house would be worth considerably more (perhaps $140,000?). I guess the issue is how much a renovation will cost.

I can guesstimate some of the costs on my own. While daydreaming at work I have come up with the following list of work that needs to be done, and my estimates as to how much it will cost.

  • Siding $10,000
  • New windows $3,000
  • Roof $5,000
  • New bathrooms (1 and ½) $5000
  • New kitchen (plumbing, cabinets, appliances, etc.) $7000
  • Furnace, baseboard heating and plumbing $10,000
  • New electrical service, wiring, receptacles and fixtures $8,000
  • Framing, sheet rock and painting $4,000
  • Mold remediation $3000

gas furnace and old oil tank

It seems, at least on paper, that it is financially viable. If the purchase price is around $55,000, and the renovation costs approximately $55,000 as well, then a selling price in the neighborhood of $140,000 might make it worthwhile. The return may be modest (considering all the work), but the low purchase price means that my initial investment will be low, and if I can do much of the work myself, once the dust settles I should be on the plus side. Plus, my risk is lower if I don’t overextend myself. If I were to buy a house for $140,000, the rent wouldn’t cover the mortgage and taxes. However, if my total out-of-pocket investment is around $110,000 (not including labor), the rent may be a good return.

Playing with these numbers, and really just making an semi-educated guess on several variables, seems no more certain than a clown juggling bowling pins, on a barrel, balancing on a wire.

Since I seem to be getting myself into this deeper, I should get some real estimates, from people who actually know what they are doing. If I am going to invest this kind of effort (estimates, planning, listing), I should put in an offer. At least if the house is under contract, it won’t get sold out from under me while I nervously try to figure out if I might actually be able to make this work. I can’t believe I am saying this – ‘put in an offer.’
Here we go…

The price is alluring.  As for all the work needed,  I can do this – I can be quite handy at times. And my current job situation leaves me with a lot of time on my hands. Am I serious?  I’d have to quit my job, and live another 100 years to somehow fix this place up.  But seriously, I have enough do-it-yourself knowledge to kid myself that I could do this.

As I wended my way through many jobs before and during college,  I found myself working as a laborer for a general contractor.  My only qualification was that I was willing to do what was asked of me, which was primarily anything the more experienced guys didn’t want to do.  I was the schlub who carried all the tools and heavy materials, did the jobs that required a respirator, tyvek suit and goggles, and cleaned up at the end of the day.  After several years, and some modest gains in skill, I found that I enjoyed general construction work as much as anything else.

My many years of formal education have ended up putting me behind a desk most days of the week.  However, I find myself gravitating toward projects that require tools and building materials in my hands.  Essentially, I am like many of us who find ourselves, when not working our day job, in over our heads working on our own home, or someone else’s.  There are myriad reasons for this – saving money, helping out friends, enjoyment, satisfaction, or proving (to whom I’m not sure) that I can do it.

Over the years, while not at my day job, I have continued to do construction work.   I have helped several contractors renovate many different houses, in a few different towns.  I essentially have become a skilled laborer.  I have also been able to work on projects involving almost every aspect of general construction – jacking up houses and rebuilding foundations, enclosing porches into sunrooms and cutting out exterior walls into them, and gutting old houses back to the studs and building it back.

But do I really want to try to do something like this on my own? The fact that I am considering it affirms the adage “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”

A real fixer upper.

I work with a woman who also works part-time as a realtor.  The other day she told me about a house that was on the market – “a real fixer upper.”  In my area, as in many places, real-estate prices have been through the roof.  This made buying an investment property difficult, not only because the prices seemed to be more than they were worth, but they were way more than I could afford!  But prices are on the way down, and this place is in my price range.  

The asking price is $55,000.  We went to take a look at it.

To say that this place is “a real fixer upper” is an understatement!  It needs a LOT of work.  And by a lot of work, I mean that it needs major renovation in every conceivable way – electrical, plumbing, heating, roof, bathrooms, kitchen, mold in the basement, and floor to ceiling wear, cracks, holes and collapse.  My initial reaction is that one would have to be crazy to buy this place, unless they were going to tear it down and start over.  Or use it as a haunted house once a year. The price is alluring, but it just needs too much darn work, not including the hidden or unforeseen problems.

I love a challenge, and don’t like to think I would walk away from something just because it would be hard.   But trying to renovate this place wouldn’t just be hard … it would be insane!  Or would it?  I can’t help thinking about it.  It’s in a good location.  And it has some charm.  It is listed as being built in 1902, and has an immediate feel of solid ‘oldness.’  No, this is ridiculous.  ‘Biting off more than one could chew’ comes to mind.  However, it’s a decent size, with three bedrooms, enclosed porches on the first and second floor (creating some interesting spaces), and a few rooms downstairs.  It has potential. Too much potential!  And a basement full of mold.  Why am I still thinking about this?!