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Archive for the ‘House’ Category

One of our first major upgrades to our house, all the way back in August 2008, was to replace the aging oil-converted-to-natural-gas furnace that was only about 60-70 percent efficient with an Energy Star-rated natural gas furnace. It cost a ton and took a whole day to install (thankfully we followed our home inspector’s advice and replaced it in the summer). But for all the money and time we spent, we didn’t have anything to really show for it except lower energy bills. As my aunt put it, who gets excited to have friends over to show off their new furnace?

The same was true for a lot of things this year. In early spring we had sewage backup that led to a plumbing overhaul (wait, that doesn’t happen in every house?), complete with the comical touch of discovering some of the pipes under our house were one size held to more pipes of another size by lots of tape. Then, on Halloween, our sump pump died and we discovered it had never been hooked up properly. It allowed so much water to flood our crawl space that it spilled over into the garage and also killed our furnace motor. No heat for a week just as the temperature dropped, and we spent a few days with a make-shift sump pump system that included our garden hose running water from the pump out the crawl space, through the garage, and out the garage window to the ditch in front of our house.

But aside from the absence of the temporary ridiculousness, all we really have to show for that one is a giant credit card bill. And the invisible hope that such a thing will never happen again.

Then there are the fun projects. Or at least the projects that are fun when they’re complete. These are the show-off-able projects, the ones that delight your own eyes every day because you remember what came before. In the case of our kitchen, we’ve upgraded both style and substance over the past year. And just in time–no way was I welcoming my first child into a construction zone.

kitchen remodel

We’d gotten much more used to our granite tile counters that were installed over the summer by the time the backsplash was put in. We had a hard time choosing a design for the backsplash, and until we installed it, I wasn’t sure the blue tiles would look okay with the brown and gray swirl of the countertop. I just knew in the often-dreary Pacific Northwest, I needed a touch of color. I think it worked out rather well:

backsplash over stoveThis is the only part of the kitchen where the backsplash uses all three “tiers” of tile. If you look really close, you can see the blue glass tile is just a smidge too short to fit under the cabinets, so James, our house’s fairy godfather, had to cut each strip by half an inch. After slicing nearly every piece of granite, though, he said glass was a piece of cake.

We also got rid of one remaining bit of weird after all the tiling was complete. Between our cabinets and the back door of our house is a small strip of wall that was paneled with bead board up to about the height of the countertop. It’s the only such panel in the whole house, and we naively figured it was left over from when the kitchen had a different cabinet configuration. After the number of walls we’ve opened, we really should have known better:

kitchen heaterThat black box is what’s left of a heater. Yes, a heater. When the previous owners built an addition onto the back of the house, they apparently “solved” the problem of the heat ducts not being able to reach that far by putting heaters into the walls. Which isn’t so bad, but then they thought covering it up with a cabinet and bead board was okay? No way were we pulling out the cabinet after we had just tiled the counter and backsplash, so James took pliers and literally ripped as much out of the wall as he could before patching the hole with drywall and adding an outlet. In terms of hacks, ours is at least a notch above theirs.

repaired kitchen wall

We then had him do the same thing to the (visible) heater in our bedroom wall, which we had always been afraid to touch ourselves. Turned out that unlike several things in our house, neither heater contained live wires. They were simple fixes, somewhere in between the realms of seen and unseen home improvement. But as James is moving to the far reaches of our county and limiting his side work and we are burned out, broke, and getting ready for Jonathan, the kitchen feels like our last project for awhile unless something breaks. We’re grateful to have found James and other quality contractors, grateful for the education our home has provided, and grateful for cheap, quality materials on Craigslist. But we are even more grateful to just be done. To let our hard work pay off and let our house transition from a project to a fuller nest.

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Our Kitchen–Getting Closer

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted about our remodeling escapades, but they are still going on in the background. As with many things, there is now a sense of urgency to finish at least the indoor ones before a certain little Miracle makes his appearance in January, but we’re hoping this will be the case without a lot of stress.

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: we are so thankful to find a handyman who is not only talented and personable, but so trustworthy that we happily let him do the most inconvenient work while we’re out of town. He even takes care of our cats in the process! Dear James has poured so much time, sweat, and tears into our house that we often remark what a shame it is that he and his family weren’t able to buy it first and tailor it to their tastes. But even though that’s not the case, we love having him in our lives. He’s like our poor house’s fairy godfather.

James triangulated our kitchen while we were visiting Mike’s parents for Thanksgiving. We went back to see them again around President’s Day to do some chores around their house (gardening, taxes, cleaning out the garage–we’re good kids like that) and asked James to install some floor tile. I know a lot of people like “open floor plans,” but I actually like some definition in my living space. We thought using tile floor for the kitchen but keeping the hardwood-like laminate in the dining area would help with that.

We only had about eight ceramic tiles left from our bathroom floors, but thankfully Craigslist led us to a contractor selling off some of his surplus, which was more than enough:

Kitchen Floor

The countertop didn’t get serious attention until spring. We had planned to order granite tile from Home Depot and even had a color picked out, but the reviews were mixed and I wasn’t sure it would actually work well. I saw an ad on Craigslist for tile that were a swirl of brown and gray, and after looking at it for weeks, I finally asked Mike if he thought it would work for us.

In early June, while Mike went to NYC on business and I spent half that week house- and teen-sitting for one of my co-workers, James began the endless measuring and cutting required to get the tiles to lay just so:

Kitchen Counter

To save him time and us a little money, I said we would grout. “We” turned into “Mike” when it became clear that the smell of grout was not compatible with morning sickness, but he did quite well on his first go at grouting.

We knew we wanted a tile backsplash and didn’t want something either too bland or too busy. One thing that made it hard to plan any sort of design, though, was all the different heights. In the picture above, you can see the window sill, cabinets, and the range hood are all different, and not in increments that make it easy to divide tiles. Plus, our range hood had nothing between it and the other window, so where did we lower it?

We mistakenly decided the simplest solution was to get one more cabinet to make the stove area look symmetrical and more clearly define our tile pattern. I say “mistakenly” not because we don’t like the end result, but because our cabinets were clearly bought on close-out by the previous house owners and so are no longer made. We jumped through several hoops with a painfully slow kitchen remodeling company in order to get a cabinet that would look close enough to our “out-dated” style. (All the while, of course, knowing they were bitterly disappointed they failed to convince us to just let them get us all new cabinets, or at least re-face.)

But as my stepfather, who’s also a contractor, said when we asked his opinion, an extra cabinet will never hurt either you or your re-sale value. I’m glad we persevered:

New Cabinet

The one on the left is the new one, but it’s not obvious, is it? We don’t think so, either.

The tiles to the left of the stove are the very beginnings of our backsplash. Along with some minor electrical tweaking and patching the wall to the left of this window (that story for another post), the backsplash is all we have left. If those tiles look familiar, well, I did say our floor tiles were “more than enough” to cover the floor. We ordered one extra case from Home Depot along with some pretty glass tiles to go above them, and we’re all set. Here’s hoping for snag-free work sessions.

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Our kitchen is both blessing and curse.  Blessing, because there’s a lot of cabinets and counter space, along with plenty of room to walk around and not get in other people’s way.  Curse because while the cabinets are of pretty good quality, the spacious countertop is the cheapest laminate Home Depot had available six years ago (we checked).  Which would be bad enough in itself, but it also suffers from our previous owners’ “measure once, cut once, patch as needed” philosophy of remodeling.  Seams are very evident, and the wood trim around the edges boasts several obvious nails that have torn a few pieces of our unsuspecting clothing when caught at just the right angle.

Because there is so much counter, it takes a big chunk of change to upgrade to something of better quality that has been professionally installed.  Consequently, we’ve avoided doing anything about it, because ugly is still functional and our big spending has gone to other projects we deemed more urgent.  But our handyman-hero, who did a series of finishing touches for us while we were in Alaska in August (and fed our cats at the same time), mentioned how odd it seemed to him that our stove, sink, and dishwasher were right in a line at the far back of our kitchen, with our double oven and fridge in another line at a right angle.  Kitchens are supposed to be laid out in some sort of triangle, he said, and it wasn’t like we were lacking space to have our major appliances make a triangle.

The light bulbs went off, and became a neon billboard as he further suggested flipping our stove and hood (which was venting into the wall instead of outside, another favorite MO of the previous owners) to the counter that was currently not being used for anything.  More workspace, more space between the stove and sink to make washing dishes easier, and better design all at once.  “YES!” I said.  “Yes, yes, yes!”

“If I do that,” he said, “you probably should get new countertops.”

So we put off his amazing suggestion for three months, until we went to South Carolina for Thanksgiving.  By then, I’d decided we could get new countertops after we got out tax refund (thank you, adoption credit!), and the patch job our handyman would have to do probably wouldn’t look any worse than the patches that were already there.  Turns out, I was right.  We left this:

IMG_1545 IMG_1546

(Well, we left that configuration of the major appliances, but unfortunately I didn’t think to take the picture until we’d already cleared everything off the counter and pulled out the drawers.  It usually looks better than that.)

When we came home, we had a nice little triangle:

Triangle Kitchen

It takes some getting used to, of course, and our ornery cat, Blue, thinks that a new arrangement means all former rules about what’s off limits in the kitchen have been suspended indefinitely.  But it just looks so much…smarter.  Like that’s what intelligent people would have done.  Even if now it’s harder to shell hard boiled eggs (because we can’t just use the tongs to lift them from the pot on the stove straight to the sink).  I think we’ll all live, even Blue.

Next stop, countertops!  But it could still be awhile.

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No, I Didn’t Forget

When we left for our Christmas trip to the Midwest, we thought for sure that our master bathroom’s Phase II remodel would be nearly complete when we came home on New Year’s Eve.  Even with all the holidays, we were still giving our handyman-hero two weeks to work his magic and lay floor tile, skim-coat the walls to tamp down the insanely heavy texture, and expand the toilet alcove enough to provide a pocket door for privacy.  We were encouraged the day he emailed us to say he’d opened the wall where we’d planned to install the pocket door only to discover that there was already a pocket door frame there (minus the door, but we’ve learned not to ask questions).

We’ve owned this crazy mess of a house for almost five years.  Surely we should have known better.

We got home to find our expanded alcove consisted of two-by-fours half covered in old drywall and half covered in plastic wrap.  The ceiling above the alcove, which we’d discussed raising to match the rest of the room’s ceiling height, was a giant hole covered by a garbage bag.  The toilet sat in the hallway outside our bedroom, the sinks and shower were draped in plastic, and floor was stripped to the subfloor.  It was New Year’s Eve, very late, and our cats were swarming us to feed them.  We decided to sleep in our guest room and call our handyman-hero in the morning.

We’ve worked with this guy on so many projects that we knew there must be a good reason for such slow progress.  Turned out it was more like several.  He plugged in an electric saw one night only to lose power in the bathroom.  In our house, something simple like a circuit breaker is never the culprit.  Poor guy ended up re-wiring the whole master suite by the time he was done, first untangling some wires that were reversed and, later, removing a staple that had gone through another wire.  Then he discovered that a “bump” at the top of the wall that looked like it jutted out to make room for a duct in the attic actually did no such thing, but it did make a great home for the rats who (we hope) formerly inhabited our attic.  So he spent a night vacuuming out rat poop and disposing of old carcuses.  And then, when we thought we were on the home stretch, he found a pipe that was supposed to vent air away from the sinks into the attic, but looped back on itself and vented to the bottom of the wall.

Only a few weeks and about a thousand dollars behind schedule, though, we moved back into our master suite two nights ago.  We hadn’t slept in our own bed since December 16, and it has felt so good to finally be able to do so.  And while this remodel wasn’t as cosmetically extensive as Phase I (which replaced a single sink, off-center vanity with a centered, double sink one and replaced a textured shower surround with a smooth one), I do feel good about having done it.  The floor tile brightens up the whole room just as it has in the other bathroom and laundry room, and it’s a relief to two perfectionists like us to know that things are finally done right.

IMG_1415And I am officially burned out on remodeling.  Good thing my steam and our cash flow ran out at the same time.  But thank the Lord for handyman-heroes, who plod through with such beautiful results and a great sense of humor.

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We leave tonight on a long but geographically-contained Christmas trip.  By that I mean we’ll be gone for two weeks but we’re staying within the borders of Indiana and Ohio, not trying to squeeze in my in-laws in South Carolina as we have often done.  This trip will include a very mini reunion of two dear high school friends, my mother’s wedding in which I’m matron of honor, hugging my college “babies” as much as their tween sensibilities will allow, and holding my college roommate’s four-month-old baby as much as said college roommate will allow (which I suspect will be more than the hugging of an almost-thirteen-year-old boy).  Oh, and family Christmas celebrations somewhere in there.

But while we’re gone, our master bathroom will get a face-lift.  James, our house’s guardian angel, has proven he can do wonders when we are out of town.  It is a huge blessing that if we have to inhabit the craziest house in greater Seattle, at least we have a handyman who is good at his job and so trustworthy that we ask him to do the most disruptive projects while we’re across the country.  He’s always game for helping us (who doesn’t need extra income this time of year?), though perhaps his true feelings about our house came through a little bit when he left the other night, cheering that this was the last bathroom in our house.

He’s no stranger to this bathroom, though.  Our first major project with him involved exchanging a textured shower surround for a smooth one that doesn’t invite mildew to take up semi-permanent residence, installing a new, super-quiet fan with an actual duct attached, and taking out a lopsided, ill-fitting vanity to be replaced with a custom-order one with two sinks instead of one.  This project, which sounded so straightforward when we all started, went so over-time and over-budget that we left other things like the floor and the weird space around the toilet go.  But then I bought tile on Craigslist a year ago, and James got the bright idea to expand the toilet alcove so that it will be big enough to allow a door for privacy.

Much better tackled while we’re way out of earshot.

I actually remembered to take some “before” pictures this time.  Here’s hoping we come back to a lovely “after” as our belated Christmas present to ourselves.

toilet alcove

This is the current toilet alcove.  Like so much of the addition on our house, what started as a good idea just never quite saw its way through to completion.  James plans to knock out the wall behind the vanity, expand it into the current empty space that’s there, turn the toilet ninety degrees, and install a pocket door for privacy.  Oh, and we get to use the last of our ceramic floor tile to replace the last of our gray laminate.

doorway trim

Not sure if you can tell, but this is the trim on the inside of the doorway to the toilet alcove.  Tell me this doesn’t scream, “Oops, I didn’t measure right and I need to cover up my goof with whatever’s on hand.”  Lucky for us, trim is James’s specialty.

bathroom vanity

It’s been almost three years since James put in this vanity, but it still makes me smile.  The cost of a custom order to fit the nonstandard space we had been gifted by the previous owner felt ridiculous at the time, but having a space that actually looks intentional and pretty is (at least almost) worth it.  Hopefully in a few short weeks, the rest of the room will match!

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Beautifying Our Bathroom

Our guest bathroom has been on our “someday” list for about two years, ever since we had to shower in there and realized that the tub surround, while pretty and full of good-sized shelves, wiggled when you bumped or grabbed onto it.  We didn’t think that was a good sign, but Mike’s parents, our most frequent guests and consequently most frequent users of said shower, didn’t seem to mind.  They also didn’t mind the weird plywood trim around the surround, or the bizarre and excessive plywood trim around the linen closet, so we put it off as other things cropped up.  The floor tile I bought on Craigslist was intended for this room as well as the laundry room where it has already been installed, and once I found while tile to re-do the shower surround on Craigslist as well, we called James, our handyman-hero, to come work his magic again.

I can’t find any before pictures, but here are some during:

When James told me to “paint” the bare walls under the shower surround with goop called Red Guard, pink slime meat filler was all over the news. I couldn’t help but draw some comparisons…

Such a hideous color for walls or anything else, and it smelled like nail polish remover times a thousand!

When James does projects for us, we like to do what we can for ourselves to save money, time, and a little face so we don’t feel like spoiled rich people hiring out all our grunt work.  This short list includes touch-up drywall mudding and taping, painting, and running to Home Depot with a specific list in hand.  Or rather, it did.  Add grouting to the list of home improvement tasks that I have, while maybe not mastered, at least done with only minor professional intervention required.

If it doesn’t require much precision, I’m all over it, and grouting definitely falls into that category.  All I asked James to do was touch up a little around the soap dishes (there are six total, and they stick out at a funny angle I couldn’t quite manage).  (Oh, and the line above the accent tile strip is not another accent–it’s just the curtain rod’s shadow.)

Our shower is now pretty and functional, especially after we discovered the other night the pipe leading to it wasn’t properly attached and has been leaking for, I don’t know, probably the four years we’ve lived here, maybe longer.  But James fixed that too, and also made the closet look like it really belonged there, not an after-thought retro-fitted mess:

The closet door on the left used to be a folding door that was mounted on plywood and stuck out from the wall so much that it couldn’t be opened while the door to the room was open. Now it actually looks like a normal, if oddly-placed, closet door, and the trim all lines up perfectly.

I love the floor tile most of all. It brightens up the room and makes it look bigger, and the color ties everything else together.

In case you couldn’t tell, I love our new bathroom.  We’ve done so many mini-remodels to our long-suffering house, and each one feels a little different.  This one was really just to make a not-very-attractive room into a pretty one.  Maybe because it’s part of the original house and most of the space around it is already in good shape (not having been designed and constructed by the previous owners), or maybe because it’s one of the last things we felt we had to before moving, but there’s a great sense of accomplishment and completeness in having finished this room.  I feel like we’ve finally made our house into a place we can (mostly) be proud of, a place that is a good fit for us and has been done to our tastes but also a place that we would feel comfortable passing off to the next owners, if and when they come along.  For once I feel okay not rushing into the next major project, but rather taking the time to bask in what we’ve already done.  There are a few other things to do–there always are–but they can wait a bit.  They can wait until I stop smiling and declaring my undying love every time I step into our new bathroom.

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A couple weeks ago, I sent my husband to Bartell Drugs with a list of random household supplies, toiletries, and vitamin supplements we were either out of or for which I had a coupon.  I mentioned that if he spent over $30, there was also a coupon for $5 off a $30 purchase.

The list was longer than I thought.  He made use of the $10 off a $50 purchase coupon.  That was even without finding one thing on the list.

Then last night, we went to a grocery store that’s farther from home than our usual store so that we could make a trip to Pet Smart.  We weren’t totally out of kitty litter or kitty food, but it was close enough that I felt we should stock up.  Thankfully our usual brands were all on sale, but it still added a large chunk to a larger-than-average grocery bill.  (This store also carried the item that the drug store did not.)

I like to have what I need, and I like to know, say, if laundry detergent is dangerously low before the next big laundry day.  To me, that’s just part of being a well-organized adult.  But this intense need to stock up on everything?  To venture far and wide to get exactly what I need?  To then call our handyman hero to set up a time to start in on our next round of bathroom tiling?

It hit me last night as we put away our groceries: I must be nesting.  I always thought this was brought on by pregnancy hormones, but apparently there’s some other force at work.

Two young women are looking at our profile book this week to decide if we might be the family they want to raise the children they are unable to parent themselves.  We could be parents in either July or October if one of these women chooses us.  We could also just as likely be waiting many more months for just the right child to come into our lives.  Adoption is nothing if not a giant list of unknowns.

But we could get picked by the end of the month.  And this new mama would feel much better welcoming her first child home with plenty of cat food and dish soap on hand.

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