Several weeks ago we started talking about our efforts in establishing a budget friendly and very quick renovation of our kitchen. A refreshed kitchen was a move in necessity, and between our cabinet painting, hardware updates, spray paint counter top treatment, and inexpensive under cabinet lighting, we had established a pretty solid renovation for only a few hundred dollars. It was good enough to give us a kitchen to move into, but didn’t break the bank.

The first year in our house we were slowly getting our arms around everything. Our renovation projects, though minor and inexpensive due to our broke-ness, were starting to come along. We had a few issues here and there that we were able to resolve on our own or with some outside assistance, like the replacement of our leaky skylight, and things were going pretty good. Wendy decided to continue the inexpensive kitchen update we had started when we bought our home by extending the work to the sun porch area just beyond the kitchen.

The tile that adorned the floor was a very 1970’s pattern and color combination and we wanted it gone. Unfortunately we didn’t have the knowhow or the budget to replace it with another tile.

After much deliberation Wendy decided she was going to paint the tile white. The tile had a slight texture to the decoration, so a consistent white tile with the irregular surface would be pretty cool looking, and it would work well in a pinch. So Wendy chose a cold January day just about one year after we moved in to paint the floor.

Her project was going well and she was making quick work of it. We were both happy to be rid of the ugly floor, and we were ready to make better use of the space. We were still very gung-ho on our home and projects and hadn’t hit a major speed bump since we moved in, but little it we know it, we were due.

About this same time we had our first snowfall of the winter. We always enjoy looking at the snow out our back door as it collects on the tree and ground, and this snowfall was no different. Unfortunately, the days immediately following proved to be quite a bit less serene.

Our poorly configured and overflowing gutter (it clogged because of the sharp angle and use of PVC as a downspout) caused a significant amount of ice damning on the gutters and down the back of our house. The warm-up in the days that followed the allowed the melting snow to run behind the ice that had formed and beneath the shingles on the lower sun porch roof, ultimately working its way into the wall of our house. We first saw it with this little drip of rusty water coming out of the base of the heating register.

Curious as to the source of the leak (we didn’t realize it was from the ice damming, we were noobs), we decided to pull off a bit of the drywall to get a better look at what was going on. What we discovered was similar to a visual version of the dreaded “record scratch” sound.

The wood sheathing was completely saturated with water, and what’s worse; it was spongy to the touch. The wood seemed to have completely rotted away wherever the water was consistently getting into the house. Remember how we hadn’t hit a major speed bump? This was a speed mountain!

Serving no purpose and not even able to hold a nail, I removed the wood sheathing to get down to the studs below. What I found was even more shocking. Mud tunnels on the outside of the studs, the telltale sign that a termite colony, either active or vacated, was working on munching away at the structural members of our home.

The more we removed, the more horrified we were. We weren’t built for this, we didn’t know how to fix it, we didn’t have any savings, we hated termites…what were we supposed to do?

Oh, did I forget to mention the random live wiring we also found hanging down in the various stud cavities?

Our nice kitchen had become a nightmare once again.

On a recommendation from an Internet message board, we called in a well-respected home inspector named JD Greewell. JD is the kind of guy who will deliver the news that your house is falling down with the same gravity that he will let you know that you have ungrounded outlet or a window painted shut. We felt the need to have someone come in and take a second look because our home inspector had apparently missed so much. While he was there, we were also hoping he could put us in touch with someone who might be able to help us do the work.

JD Took a look around and was flabbergasted by the fact that the original inspector had missed so much on our house. From poorly patched burst pipes to a leak that was actually an active leak (not just old damage long since repaired), he just didn’t see how the inspector couldn’t have noticed so many issues with the house. After taking a look around, JD gave us the bad news.

JD reported, “The second floor at the back of your house is not structurally sound. The water infiltration has attracted termites over the years that have eaten away the majority of the studs in your back wall. The entire second floor rear section of the house is being held up by two 2x4s. You’re going to need to get this taken care of soon. The total cost to sure up the structure, install a beam, pour new footers, replace all of the siding, and repair and replace all of the plumbing and electrical, refinish the drywall and ceiling, and finish everything back up will probably be in the neighborhood of about $30,000.” As I mentioned, this was all delivered in a very calm “your world might be ending” sort of way.

Though to this day we’re still so glad we had JD in to give us his brutally honest assessment, I’m not sure he made it out the door before Wendy burst into tears. $30,000, where were we going to find $30,000? I figured I was going to need to start working the night shift at McDonald’s to pay for these repairs…and that’s a lot of night shifts.

We collected ourselves and took the name of a contractor that JD gave us to get started on this project. He suggested we work with a guy named Craig Wallace. We gave Craig a call and he came out to give us his assessment. He was far less gloom and doom than JD, so it was a bit easier to work through all of the options. We told Craig how we liked to do things on our own, so he suggested that he could just install the beam and footers to make sure the structure was in good shape, then we could take a shot at doing everything else.

I think Craig really thought we were paint and paper DIYers and assumed we would get into it, realize we were in over our heads, and call him back out when we couldn’t handle it. He was wonderful to work with and made us feel like we could trust him and like he was in our corner, but just to let him know if we couldn’t do it.

Craig and his two-man crew got to work and installed a double LVL beam and a few big footers beneath the damaged section of the wall. We opted to have him leave this completely open rather than installing partial walls to bring back the doorway that had been there before. This allowed the kitchen to be open to the sun porch and made the whole space feel larger and brighter.

After Craig wrapped up his work Wendy and I took over. Before I get into the details of what we did, let me first say that there were plenty of moments where we would look at each other and say “what next?” while simultaneously thinking, “what have we gotten ourselves into?”

We actually started the project off with more demo. As we tore off more drywall from the walls and ceilings, we continued to find more and more evidence of water damage, poorly insulated spaces, and downright dangerous electrical wiring. It was a seriously scary sight and nothing like what we expected. I think we figured we would jump in where Craig left off, put up drywall, paint and be done. Instead, we ended up with the biggest project we had ever taken on.

Once we had torn back all of the damaged material we were left with a shell of the kitchen. The floor was torn up, ceiling removed from about 1/3 of the kitchen, and the whole ceiling removed from the sun porch.

With the drywall removed and the lacking and moldy insulation torn out, you could see the extent of the damage that years of water infiltration had done on our poor home. You could actually see through the wall from the inside of the house right through to the outside.

You could also see all of the remnants of weird ventilation fans that no longer worked but still had live wires running to it, another main panel that had long been covered over, and just item after item I was shaking my head at, both human created and insect.

After several days of effort, we had ripped everything back to the point it needed to be. Demo can be a fun part of a project, but in this project, it wasn’t particularly fun. We went through a tremendous roller coaster of emotions, from feeling like we might have to have to leave our house (yes, it crossed our minds a few times), to feeling like we had everything under control. The key in the process for us was getting to a point where our demo was done, the structural items were taken care of, and we felt like we could start moving forward to actually put our house back together.

Wendy and I put together a plan of attack. We were going to run new electrical, run a bunch of network, speaker, and cable wiring, install insulation in our ridiculously cold kitchen with holes in the siding, install drywall for the walls and ceiling that were open, and patch in the floor that was now missing. It was a lot to take on, but we felt like we could maybe…possibly…just maybe make this all work. It was going to be a little tough, we knew it, but we knew we could do it…maybe.

We’ll fill you in on the effort we had to take on to put this all back together in our next post. But until then, we’d love to hear about any similar experiences you may have had that made you question to ability and sanity in working on your house. What do you think, were we crazy in what we were trying to take on with little to no experience working on the house? Or was it the feet to the fire scenario we needed to let us lose our fear. Perhaps a bit of a sink or swim moment.

Comments 23


2/27/2012 at 8:50 AM
My husband and I bought a foreclosure just east of Capitol Hill and we found bad wiring, walls that were built from scrap 2x4's toe-nailed end on end and both a spigot and outlet hidden behind a sheet of drywall! Needless to say we (and our contractor) did alot of work but it's good to know that now we're in a home that's safe and sound!
It's truly amazing to see that sort of stuff. It may cost less, but it actually takes *more* effort to toe nail 2x4s as a stud wall than just use a stud of proper length. I just don't get it. Glad it is all fixed up now.
2/27/2012 at 9:55 AM
I hate the feeling of thinking you might have to try and sell your house and never get back what you paid for it. When we're frustrated and tired and angry we often say that we should just burn the whole thing down.

I had no idea you guys had to deal with all of this! You're very brave.
We've had to deal with our fair share of problems and issues since buying the house, that's for sure. From this post, to falling off the roof (yep, that happened to me, but only the lower one), and everything in between, we've taken a licking but we've kept on ticking (and learning). You know what they say, "what doesn't kill you make's you stronger."
2/27/2012 at 9:58 AM
We bought an 1899 Victorian home that (we found out) needed to be completely rebuilt from the inside out. The whole place was held together by rotten and termite ridden siding, as all of the beams had been eaten through. You could literally put your hand through the exterior walls and come out on the other side. The whole house rocked back and forth when you walked. Every single project turned out to be pandora's box. We are still working on it, but it is so nice to bring our home back some of it's former glory. It is a serious labor of love.
Oh my, I can't imagine. I do feel it is ultimately worth it, especially to give an older home a new lease on life. And I also believe that going through the bad times really makes you appreciate your home once it's put back together. I know I still look at the wall and ceiling and remember how hard we worked to make it what it is today. It may never be perfect, but it's what we were able to accomplish, and that is what it important to us.
2/27/2012 at 10:38 AM
Oh, what a disaster! I've been curious about this problem since you mentioned it in passing some time ago.

Definitely have been through that demolition/renovation roller coaster in our own house. Alternating between confidence and worry, sometimes from hour to hour. There was one day where I was ripping out the framing for a second floor bedroom closet when I had that low point, "Why am I tearing more apart? When will this start going together again??" At least in our case, the work was voluntary. (Not disaster mitigation.)

After taking our kitchen down to bare studs, fortunately we didn't find any structural horrors, though there was one old exhaust fan, a mystery pipe whose function I never did figure out so I left it alone; and evidence of long gone pests. Bleah. Also, evidence of the original built-in ice box in one corner, presumably a great yuppie feature in a new home circa 1929. :-)

Very interested to read what came next! Sometimes, you just do what you gotta...
The built-in ice box sounds very cool. I do know what you mean about wondering when you'll start putting things together. Although, I'm totally neurotic about that point. I figure that during demolition, then framing, plumbing, electrical, I'm doing everything out in the open. I want to get to the point where I'm closing it in, but I also dread the moment where I can no longer fix a mistake I notice. It all feels so final to me. I know I just need to relax a bit, but I can't help thinking this way. I think it's the programmer in me, I'm always looking for ways to improve what I make, and I can't very well do that if I put drywall over my handiwork.

We're planning on getting to the rest of this adventure later in the week.
2/27/2012 at 9:05 PM
Yeah, the ice box remnants were interesting. A cement floor with a drain in the middle for ice melt, kind of like a shower stall. Plus, the sad remnants of the only insulation in the walls, around it. Many of our neighbors use these spaces as reach-in pantries, but we re-framed a bit, installed an outlet and put the fridge there. Fittingly enough... We didn't attempt to remove the concrete floor; plugged the drain, covered in self-leveling floor compound, a bit of luan sub-floor over, and now you'd have no idea.

The finish work is a PITA. I couldn't be a plasterer, that's for sure! (If I had to choose a trade to work, I think it'd be electrician.)

PS, voted for you guys on Apartment Therapy!
Kim S.
2/27/2012 at 1:38 PM
Oh, how terrible that your first home inspector didn't find all those problems.

We had a scary discovery in our first house. We were putting on a deck so we had to jack hammer out the back steps. Once we removed the steps we were shocked to be able to see into our basement. The wood headed on the foundation of the house was rotted out (about a 3 ft section).

We called in some help from my husbands 80ish grandfather and he brought over a railroad jack to lift the house back up (it had sagged a bit) and guided my husband in the installation of the new wood beams. I don't even know how much that would have cost if not for Grand-pa!

We are in our second house now, we had it built for us. We worked so hard on that first house, so when we moved out of state we just wanted to decorate. Good news is that all the work on the first house paid off when we sold it.
It's funny you mention that about the sagging. The room above the kitchen also sunk, about three inches from one corner to the other. While Craig was doing the beam he asked us "So, do you want us to jack up that part of the house while we're doing this?" I thought about the problems that could cause with the siding, roof, windows, plaster, etc, then I said "No thanks, it's just character."

Glad to hear the hard work was worth it. But how hard was it leaving that house after all of the work you did?
threadbndr (Karla)
2/27/2012 at 3:28 PM
Nothing like opening up a wall cavity to install insulation in your kid's bedroom and find it floor to ceiling full of dead ivy vines and bird's nests. At some point, there was a gas heater in that room and when it was taken out, they just pulled the chimney, patched the interior drywall and left the outer part of the chimney open.

Then years after, they resided over the open spot (after tacking up a piece of tin). In the mean time, it was sparrow central. What a mess!

And I'm STILL dealing with the whole electric mess - don't you just LOVE knob and turn wiring?????
Wow, that's amazing, but also not at all surprising. I've seen a lot of things that people feel a little siding can conceal.

We're actually really lucky with the wiring, all of the knob and tube wiring is all gone from our house. It was all removed 50 years ago when someone ran the armored BX off of the main two circuits. We're slowly replacing all of that as well, since there are still some issues, but it isn't nearly as dangerous as the old knob and tube.
threadbndr (Karla)
2/27/2012 at 10:24 PM
My problem is that the knob and turn is behind lathe and plaster walls.

As I go room by room, I'm carving out the channel, installing proper conduit and fishing modern Romex through and patching plaster (thanks to you, I now know a better way to do that and will be going back over some rough areas). So far, the second bedroom and bath are done along with part of the basement. The front porch/living room is on the docket for this summer. Still to do are the master and the dining room and the rest of the kitchen. We brought in new service in the early 1990s, which makes it (realatively)easy. Those old fuses SCARED me!
2/27/2012 at 4:46 PM
So glad you all were able to overcome a big setback like this, especially when you had only owned the house a short time. It's amazing how many surprises lurk underneath. We're having a similar issue with the flashing on our rear dormer. It only seeps a little bit during the biggest snows, but I'm dreading to see what the wood underneath it looks like.

Think of this experience as your boot camp. It helped shape you and gave you guys the opportunity to develop your skills. Look at how far you've come since then. We keep telling ourselves that by starting with the worst projects, that the next one will be less headache, less expensive, and take less time.
Boot camp is such as great comparison in this case. You're absolutely right.

Also, the "comes then goes" leak, especially with snow, is never much fun, that's for sure. We'll keep our fingers crossed for you and hope you don't have any big rot or problems.
2/27/2012 at 7:12 PM
oh my.. what a cliffhanger! how can you stop here :) im excited for the next part!!

greetings from Austria
Stay tuned! Here's a little spoiler, it is a happy ending. :-)
2/27/2012 at 9:09 PM



I remember this being mentioned before, and a FEW photos, but I had never thought it was this BAD. Holy cow!

This just reminds me of my garage wall, which is in a very similar state. Basically, years of water damage from a bad (of clogged) gutter caused half the exterior wall to rot. It's barely being held up, but it's not a major part of the house, and it shouldn't bee too hard, or too expensive to repair (but it will be a bitch job).
It surely tried our nerves for renovation. After we faced this, we figured we could pretty much face anything. The funny thing, after watching the guys install the LVL beam and pour footers I thought "you know, that's not too hard, I think I could do it myself." I know it wouldn't be easy, but it also isn't the worst thing in the world, you just need to have a helping hand or two.

Best of luck on your project. It may not be much fun, but it will feel good when you're done with it.
2/28/2012 at 4:31 PM
I absolutely LOVE old houses, but your post has made me happy we built a reproduction from the ground up. We know every nail, board, crooked wall, bucked plywood from rain, etc., so we are sure we don't have inferior materials in the walls, floors, roof or ceiling of our home. I am so thankful for my home. I will never complain again about any maintenance to our home!
The surprises are the bad part of old home ownership, that's for sure. I love the history, the feel, quality of construction (when done properly), and the story locked within the walls, but the surprises are hard from time to time.
3/4/2012 at 10:43 AM
If there is a silver lining and this is a big if, after all the renovation, you'll be able to make some of those changes that you've thought about doing. Praying you'll be able to have your house back in order soon and that you are able to find honest and trustworthy people to help you along the way with this major undertaking.
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