Spartan Existence

So, it’s been over a year since that comment in my last post about the renewed commitment to writing. I actually have been writing quite a lot, but only in my head where no one can read it. I don’t know whether I needed a new topic or whether it was the fear that no one ever reads my posts… I mean literally, not even my family.

What ever it was, I do have a new topic and so let’s see where it goes.

It has been a longtime dream of mine to own an Airstream, but new ones are expensive and old ones are scary. How would I know if I was getting a bargain or a nightmare? But still, I’ve looked at Craigslist ads every now and then for decades. So sometime, I think just over a year ago, I saw a Spartan Travel Trailer made in the 50s in Tulsa, Oklahoma I only found it because it was mis-advertised as an Airstream and it peaked my interest. So, I showed it to Russ and we were both bit. We looked and thought and learned. We looked some more. No, we’re not finished with the renovations on the house, not even close. We looked. We joined Facebook groups. We found great websites and lots of Facebook friendlies. For better or worse, we managed to neutralize the fear. We found an Avion. We went to Hilton Head to look at it. It was scary even for our new found bravery and we like Avions, but they aren’t Spartans and we didn’t think it was a price / condition match. We actually found several things we like. Boles Aero, Vagabond, M Class, and on and on. Trolley tops are really cool and there is some stuff out there that is just so awesome that I never knew existed. Each ad we saw represented a trade off between location, condition, price, brand and whether or not Russ could stand up in it. I had Craigslist alerts set up across the entire south east. Some how I couldn’t stop the Avion query from also giving me the frequent furniture ads by the same name.

I was up one night recently doing the late late night mucking about on the interwebs and I decided it had been some time since I had looked at actual Airstreams. I put in a search and there it was, an ad 15 minutes old for two local Airstreams, only 1 of them was a Spartan. The asking price was within reach and the wording said it was negotiable. This is the begining of something new and wonderful!

Hard Wood

I was cruising Craigslist one day thinking about the thick 1950s knotty pine paneling that a friend of mine ripped out of a flip several years back. I gasped when she told me she threw it away. I thought there might some other renovator out there who had the wherewithal to keep theirs out of the landfill. That’s when I found the Savvy Salvager in Avondale Estates. She was working with a builder who was about to tear down some mid century ranch houses and put up newer ones, connecting people like me with the resources we wanted to rescue/salvage. There was knotty pine AND there were hard wood floors. I had been thinking of installing bamboo floors in the new house to get a look similar to hardwoods without the cost. There is also the fast growth rate of bamboo, making it a quickly renewable resource. Re-use trumps quickly renewable resources though and there’s the lasting beauty of wood. If we ripped it out ourselves, actual vintage hardwood was also the least expensive option. We made an appointment and went down to see the house.

I was definitely willing to do the work to get the knotty pine, so Russ and I talked about the floors. The purchase price for access to the materials was attractive, but the success of our outcome was an unknown, so it was a risk. The closing on the house had become uncertain as well, so there was risk on top of risk. We do a lot of things, but we had never demoed something on this scale, or for re-use. Taking it out carefully so it is both pretty and functional was the newbie challenge.

I thought the floors would be a “Russ” job. I said that I would support him however I could, but that I realized it had to be his decision because he’d be doing the work. Russ took the leap of faith, but the job turned out to be bigger than both of us.

Working in Avondale Estates and with the Savvy Salvager was the fun part. I loved her job and would still like to find someone on my side of town to work with in the same way that she does in her area. There is a small neighborhood radio station “AM 1690 Voice of the Arts”. We bought a battery-operated radio because the power is always turned off in a demo house. We listened to 1690 exclusively and really got into our sense of place. It’s the only station I know that periodically plays a bird call (or a whale call). Travel is one of the great joys in life, and sometimes the best trips are not geographically distant.

Avondale Estates is also the home of Waffle House. Our favorite restaurant in town wasn’t Waffle House though. It was not a franchise, Palookaville, home of the world’s best Corn Dogs and adult only milkshakes. Before my first visit I didn’t even like the idea of a corn dog and I couldn’t imagine a milkshake with alcohol, but we knew we’d eat there often and having a reason to be nearby certainly didn’t dissuade us in our decision to move forward. It turned out to be the only place we ate, our exclusive after demo respite. They are famous for the dogs, but the Cobb Salad with Pine Street Market bacon was pretty sweet. The sandwiches are good too and there’s a thrift store on the other side of the parking lot that had some of the best potential I’ve found to replace some of my lost treasures, or to find replacement home goods that remind me of things lost and the people they once belonged to.

I had more trouble with the paneling than I expected. I had to call Russ in when I didn’t have the strength. It was the survival factor. Anyone can sling a sledge hard enough to break something, but it takes superior controlled strength to disassemble with a carpenter’s crowbar. Most of the paneling came out well, but a few pieces broke. I took the picture below when I came to the place where the bathroom medicine cabinet had been up against the paneling. Have you ever noticed the disposal slit for the old fashioned razors? Well here’s what happens.

When I finished the paneling, I became Russ’ helper. I started taking out nails. They were cut nails, big sturdy nails that look a lot like a horseshoe nail. I hammered them backwards and a few would fall out, but I had to grab most and pull with the claw or pliers. One person told me they used a saws all and left the heads in the boards, but I have the slow cooked mindset of someone who will put thousands of hours in a textile project. Sometimes I think I have a finer sensibility and sometimes I think I should value my time more like other people.

My job expanded. Russ, Avondale Estates, the project, the opportunity to thrift in a different direction on the way, my center of gravity was there. I’m not really sure how much help I was. My skill set and my physical strength were growing, but not nearly fast enough and it wasn’t cost free. I was working at the edge of my capacity, both physically and emotionally. There is no air conditioner in a house without power, no fan either, just stale abandoned house smell…at best. In the original scenario Russ was coming over alone after work most days, but it turned out that I went over while he was at work and we were there together after. It was my choice to expand my role, but the work was hard enough that I still felt like a failure. I did more and felt worse about it. Before it was all over, it morphed into Karen does whatever she feels like she can handle and Russ does all the other stuff. To the outsider it may have looked like I was in charge, but really what happened is that Russ let me do the parts I thought I could handle and then he made sure it all worked.

Our uncertainty about, and our commitment to the project intensified with every drop of sweat, every thick heavy cut nail. We still weren’t sure we would get the house we planned to put these boards in, or how many we needed if we did. The seller shut down access after due diligence. We expected a quick closing, so we hadn’t measured and assessed things the way we would have if we had known we were going to try to make decisions ahead of access. So, with all the unknowns and a need to be working toward something, we took another leap of faith and bit on the floors in a second demo house. The price was higher per square foot on this one though. The wood wasn’t quite as nice either and the demo date was more likely to be an issue. Our Savvy Salvager had been clear at the beginning that demo would not be held up if we didn’t finish, so the stress was on. The weather was warmer for this house and we couldn’t open the key door and windows that would have allowed for the best breeze. Russ and I each experienced a death in the family over this time period and moving forward was an act of unfocused determination, a half minded, single minded one foot in front of the other kind of march.

Sub-Floored

We read a few suggestions on order of operations before starting our home renovations. I liked the one that started with painting the ceilings, then walls and finally addressing the floors. Part of the appeal was never needing to worry too much about where paint fell. I’m a messy painter. That didn’t turn out to be our method though. The floors were an ever blooming cacophony of pet smells, so we were required to start there, and stay there for a while.

Here’s what we did to the floors. First, we found a recycler and took the carpet and padding in. I say “we”, but that mostly means Russ, ’cause he’s the one man wrecking crew with the muscle. I was in charge of getting out the tack strip and all the staples because that was slower more detailed work. I took the tack strip out with a carpenter’s crow bar (Wonderbar, wrecking bar) and started on the staples that held the padding down (it’s okay to laugh) with an office style staple remover. I lasted a surprising amount of time with that little technique, but the remaining chunks of padding jammed it every time and eventually I got over my dislike for wrecking my wrecking bar with little dings and started shoving it at the staples till they came out. It roughed up my tool, but at minimum wage I could have bought several with the money I saved in time.

Russ ripped the floor out of the laundry/mud room. Even though it was vinyl, the room smelled and it had cement board sub-flooring as for tile. It was a real jewel to get it out. I came along after and pulled out the ring shank nails or hammered in the ones that lost their heads. There is a knack to it. As I went along, I figured out that if you are careful to make sure the nail goes all the way in the claw of the hammer as far as it can before yanking, the heads stay on better, and over time more nails were pulled and fewer were hammered in.

With now bare sub-floors, cleaning started. I don’t know if you know this, but, unless you hang around ready with the vacuum, those guys that lay carpet go straight from ripping out to putting the new stuff in with no regard to what’s on the floor. Ever since I learned that, I’ve made sure anyone who lays carpet for me knows that they will need to take a short break ’cause I’ll be there with the vacuum to make a speedy round in the middle. So, it wasn’t a complete surprise, knowing that the previous owner had 3 cats, to find kitty litter clay ground into the sub-flooring. I took a big stiff bristled scrub broom and scrubbed it out. I was a bit surprised to find kitty litter in places like the dining room though. It was everywhere. I can only guess that the kitty litter changed homes from room to room over time.

Russ wasn’t happy to find dozens of razor blades left under the carpet, primarily along the edge where they could cause more problems. Sandy dirt tracks from the dogs had worked through carpet and the padding making their favorite paths obvious. The combination of skin piercing implements with habitat wasn’t the greatest. I had updated my overdue tetanus when I got some deep splinters salvaging floors in Avondale Estates, so new scrapes and piercings were lower risk, but still, quantities of razorblades are a hazard to leave behind for the person who rips the carpet.

After a good scrub and a bunch of research we used some stuff called Odorzyne that we ordered straight from the manufacturer in concentrated form. It was supposed to convert uric acid to something not uric acid. Maybe it does. It was almost miraculous. I applied it with a back pack sprayer like those that landscapers use. It had a perfume that smelled a lot like Odoban and when the perfume faded the pet smells were mostly gone and the big spots on the sub-floor were gone or faded. Before Odorzyme, there were places like the coat closet that seemed to be odor free. But after the application, it became apparent that the “odor free” places were really just lower odor than the places that had been knocking us over. The instructions said to use two applications in tough places and the whole house got two coats. Some painters had suggested going up the walls with primer because of some pet habits. With 3 cats and two dogs it seemed likely that one of them might have had a wall habit, so I made sure to go up several inches. Russ pulled the molding because we’re going to install hardwood floors anyway, so we were able to get that area really well. Afterward we were so happy with the results that it was tempting not to prime. But, knowing that things like that could eek out over time, we were afraid not to. Once the hardwoods were down there would only be regret if we hadn’t taken care of the problem properly.

We pulled out the big guns to be really sure. After more research it turned out to be Zinnser BIN that seemed to be what most remediation professionals use to seal in odors from disasters like flood or fire. It’s some pretty heavy duty stuff. Russ read all the warnings, from comments like “Be sure to use a respirator.” To “A could just feel my brain cells dying with every breath.” The BIN deserves its own article though…

On some levels, I’m a little bit glad that the heavy perfume and overpowering pet smells didn’t signal the red flags they should have for me. I mean I saw the flags, but I just didn’t realize they filled the sky completely. I think I never would have bought the house if I had known how hard it was going to be just to get past the smell of it, and that once we did, there would still be so much work. I do think we’ll be happy with it when all the work is done though, and the pace of repairs will slow sometime… I hope so anyway.

Closing a Door and Opening a Window

IMG_20140604_202753The first attempt to close on our house was put off for around a month while the seller got her paperwork in order. The second attempt was delayed because the seller’s moving van arrived just after we did for the final walk through appointment and the movers in it were greeted with “We don’t have enough boxes”. There were signs of packing since before we wrote the offer, but somehow that didn’t translate into finishing the job before either closing date. We gave her another three free days and took off for Memorial Day weekend. We had a nice but brief interlude with a night of primitive camping at a national seashore, a get together with one side of the family and a Memorial Day cookout with the other side. Refreshed and ready, (sort of) Tuesday it was time for the third attempt at closing. Would it be the charm or the strike out?

It was both. We did close, but it was not a happy day for me. The extent of the pet problem had been softened in my mind by the potential of the property and now I had to face the realities that the seller had not. A friend brought congratulatory flowers and surprisingly, they did not wilt on exposure to the house.

Tax records indicate that the seller bought the house as a foreclosure at a steal of a price, but I paid generously considering the condition and the contract said it was to be turned over clean. I didn’t expect spotless, there were too many renovations needed. But, I had mentioned my allergies to her agent in reference to the requirement since she was over the max HOA allowed number of pets and dozens of perfumed odor masking products were not equal to the task of making the place breathable. I break out in varying degrees of bright red welts on contact, so it’s not a euphemism or a cover for repulsion, comparatively small exposures have been known leave me swollen and tearful. We had plenty of cause to re-negotiate at both contract extensions, but I was tired of being unsettled and she (actually, her agent) knew it. I didn’t want to start over and wasn’t sure I had time to. We closed the deal, changed the locks and started to clean up the mess.

The problems were not small though. After leaving the house on the first day (when all we did was move trash off the carpet) I decided to wipe down my phone that had been sitting on the counter and hair came off in sheets like tissue paper.

During the actual final walk through I gave some clearly sentimental items to the agent for her seller and we put a 4-foot cat tree and some other things on the street and let her know they would stay till they were picked up, or till trash day. The seller never seemed to recognize the existence nor extent of her transgressions and she hasn’t stopped calling to ask for things that she didn’t actually leave behind.

The house wasn’t just covered with hair, dander, urine and even some dog food and cat litter, the seller unscrewed things like the bathroom mirror (an appurtenance, i.e. part of the house) while leaving things like a large box of spices. Things were strewn carelessly all over the house, mostly trash. She took appliances that were supposed to stay, even to the point of detaching those that were wired in under the kitchen cabinets, leaving the bare wires hanging. At the same time she left sacks of expensive toiletries. The consistency with which she took things that should have been left and left things that would cost her much more to replace (while costing us to dispose of) was pretty complete.

All that was distressing and I was uncharacteristically overwhelmed. I didn’t know where to start and wanted to just leave, but I didn’t. I started to go through things and seek order. That’s when I found it, the thing that distressed me more than all the rest. It was basically a Molotov cocktail. What you see in the picture below is a 5-quart Pennziol jug full of oil (likely used, of unknown vintage) with a paper towel stuffed in the top, not happiness to find for a person who lost her last house to a fire. I took it out to the truck as soon as I photographed it and dropped it at Jiffy lube (the nearest oil change place) on the way home.
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I wonder at the risks and carelessness people carry through their lives and how they never seem to have the self awareness to realize that the consequences they experience (if any) were their own making. Made clear by looking at her trash, the seller had plenty of money for expensive luxuries, but she failed to protect her biggest assets. She “couldn’t afford” to treat for termites to avoid potential damage, even when I offered reimbursement for that treatment at closing. Still, as I sat across from her at the closing table, what she talked about most was wanting to visit to the Ritz-Carlton. She liked to tell hoteliers that it was her honeymoon to get free stuff. I’m sure she wanted to escape her mess (and it’s not lost on me where she’s getting the funds to make this potential escape), but her desires and her ethics heightened my frustration having just bought that same mess. Still, I didn’t have the expected difficulty sitting across from her at closing. I giess there were too many new frustrations to replace the old ones. I had a vision of some lower amoeba like form of life that indiscriminately consumes without thought or consideration. She called just now asking for something she thought was in an empty closet, after failing to come get any of the things that were left out for her. I didn’t share my thoughts and I’ll try not to think too much about her overstepping, inconsistencies and lack of manners as I clean her filthy house and catch up on her overdue maintenance. Thankful to be finally moving forward, I’m getting ready to wash the inside, from ceiling to basement and seal it with a fresh coat of clean.

Salvage Value

I’ve done a lot of renovation, but never by the IKEA method. IKEA designs by choosing the end price and making the features of the product fit inside. I’m pretty confident that I can get a good price and do things economically and well, but it’s a challenge to start with the end cost. I start with the finished product. Maybe not the entire product, but I start at the other end, none-the-less, and work on getting the best cost for the finished good. I think I’d be good at rehabbing properties well, but I wouldn’t cut cost corners and unfortunately most buyers don’t recognize that. So, while I’m sure that restoration could be my vocation, I’m not so sure that I could ever make a living at it.

With all this in mind, we took a big leap on closing day. I should say intended closing day, because the leap wasn’t in signing over the future for a house. There were paperwork problems that need to be overcome. We recouped some of our lost productivity for the day in deciding to salvage some knotty pine paneling and hardwood flooring from a house that will be demolished in Avondale Estates.

These salvage items will bring warm reminders of my grandparents back to my surroundings. My father’s parents had a beach cabin on an island near Alabama Point. It had thick old knotty pine paneling. The kitchen was separated from the living room by a bead curtain that I loved to walk through and beside it was a fish net on the wall filled with seashells. Some of the shells were exotic and they fascinated me. This is where I spent the lost summer of my youth. While I won’t be adding the beads and the island décor, it will be nice to have a comfortable reminder.

My mother’s parents had the antebellum home with the twelve-foot ceilings, French doors leading to the dining and living rooms, a long stately staircase and hardwood halls long enough to run through. That house means Christmas to me. Waking up cold to light the gas heaters that retrofitted all the bedroom fireplaces was a part of the winter morning ritual (Of course, my grandfather saved me from having to leave the bed covers cold by coming in early to light mine minutes before I got up. I still hope that someday I will have a home with solid wood doors and glass doorknobs.

How much of the past can we salvage to bring forward to warm our family future? We will see where this demo decision gets us. The cost of materials is very good, but it’ll be haul. Cost of tools, not just specialty tools but also ordinary tools lost in the fire, rental equipment, gas, time and meals that would have otherwise been eaten at home, all of these things factor in. Working after hours and on weekends takes its toll. I know that we will regret the decision before we like it. I don’t know how much regret or how much like there will be. At the very least, it’s better than wasting in front of TV and getting overheated while stacking some of this flooring has caused me to re-commit to loosing some much needed weight and getting back into better condition and I was able to identify some heart pine floors that were eventually saved because I knew what they were.

Diligence Due

Well, we’ve made it past due diligence and into the last stages of purchase on a house, but it sure was a coin toss for such an important and long awaited decision. I really appreciate fine workmanship. I respect time and old world craftsmanship, absent in the new standards construction and most other features of the house we’ve chosen. The positives are: a nice layout that’s good for short or long-term purposes, a good neighborhood, the right amount of space in mostly useful places and the right schools. It even has a beautiful (possibly solid mahogany) kitchen bar, but the house is covered in hard coat stucco that has cracks, messy old repairs and mismatched colors that show clearly, even in a low light photo.

There are decorator upgrades of personal taste, but widespread overdue maintenance indicating a total fail in the wise allocation of funds. With heavy pet allergens all the carpet will need to come out, and it won’t be fun for us as heavily committed DIYs. The house has potentially Money Pit qualities and it blew me away when due diligence exposed over 36K in unexpected expenses and repairs (those I didn’t allow for in the price), but the seller wouldn’t consider any price adjustment. I’ve had to consider the money I’d flush on 2 or more years renting to make myself move forward on this purchase.

And then there’s comparison to the home I lost. I like brick. It’s low maintenance (if it’s on all 4 sides) like mine was. That brick was straight and square and solid without any settling cracks. The old house had some irritating contractor short cuts. The original plumber had dropped the kitchen ceiling a foot and put the master bath vanity on a wall adjacent to the architect’s plan. I knew it didn’t belong there, and confirmed it when I stripped the wallpaper and saw the builder notes written on the wall underneath. The original plumber saved maybe $40 in copper pipe with these ugly modifications. I spent $5000.00 just getting a certified master plumber to restore the plumbing so I could then return the ceiling and vanity to the original plan. I despise these self centered short sighted short cuts, but the 1979 short cuts in that house were still less offensive than the newer short cuts that I’ll be fixing in this house.

As much as I want to be in a home that fits as many needs and wants as this new purchase, and to get on with normalizing life for my family, a feather could have changed my mind when the seller didn’t make any allowances for the problems exposed on inspection. None. Nada. Whether the seller already knew, or simply didn’t care, I remembered well why didn’t last in real estate.

I was offended, depressed and wrung out when I let the due diligence run out without the price adjustments that condition warranted. It may be the best decision I could make, given what I have to work with, but I rarely pay the wrong price for something and when I do I feel like I’ve been had. But, I was, I am, weary of the suspension of normal life and over ready to be getting on with things.

Friday night between midnight (when the due diligence ran out) and 3am or so when I finally made it to sleep, I was upset enough that I didn’t even want to sit across a closing table from the seller and I didn’t want to move our maple tree to the new yard. There’s a beautiful Tamukeyama weeping red maple that Russ planted in the old yard when we were dating. We’ve talked about moving it. He said it might take an entire weekend, given our equipment and making sure that it would live. It seems a lot of work to move a tree that’s been in the ground for 12 years, but I wanted the tree to move with us because Russ is the person who made me want to grow things again.

The part of this move that I’m struggling to get over is not that it unexpectedly became a seller’s market in my area just before I unexpectedly needed to buy. Life is a crap shoot and you take it as it comes. It’s not that I’m buying a fixer either. I wanted to restore something (if I can actually afford to restore this). I prefer to restore something old, solid and filled with grace. Not something that’s pretty new and only needs restoration because it’s been abused.

What’s bothering me is precisely that I’m tired of people getting away with having others clean up their mess. This seller bought a foreclosure at a fraction of market value, lived in it for over a decade (the decade that included the largest real estate meltdown in history), maintained it poorly and wanted sell for over 2.5 times the original purchase price. Neat trick if you can accomplish it right? Why shouldn’t anyone be happy about the same result?

But, consider this. If I am unable to make the purchase and repairs within the limits of a current market price, then the house isn’t worth what it costs me. If I pay more, I’m giving up future appreciation (that may or may not accrue). I’m giving my future to the seller, a seller who wants the big pay off regardless of having made decisions that don’t lead to that result, and regardless of who’s pocket it comes from. People who want others to pay their tab have always existed, but I think it is a disease, an epidemic drag on the economy and on our spirits that is reaching scarier heights with each passing day.

It’s the disease that killed my marriage. More importantly, it’s a disease that’s killing our country and I don’t think I’m being overly dramatic here. From building contractors to big banking, taxes to TV, environmental waste to drinking water, NIMBY’s to Pork Barrel Politics, people are maximizing small amounts of personal gain at a heavy and sometimes extreme cost to others, the exact opposite of Spock’s Law, rather than “The Needs of the Many Outweigh the Needs of the Few”, the accepted value sometimes seems to be “The wants of the one justify what ever you can get away with”.

It really seems like big business, big politics, big government and their marketing/campaign/”media”/”news” departments have been honing in on and amplifying the lowest common denominator in humanity for long enough to contribute significantly to debasing our society. The evolutionary brain’s survival technique of attempting to minimize effort while maximizing gain was pretty important when the challenge was to get enough calories to last the winter. Granted, it’s still pretty important now that we are living much higher on Maslow’s Hierarchy, but it needs to be channeled and enlightened. It is hard to overcome our baser selves when there are so many signals aimed at getting us to buy on impulse and maximize the rush, borrowing from tomorrow. When tomorrow comes the dopamine is depleted and it’s harder to get satisfaction.

Business, politicians and other entities constantly appeal to self-interest, they’re tapped in to the brain’s reward system and they use competition, salaciousness and tribalism to inflate the response of baser instincts. That makes us short sighted and easy to manipulate when we need take a long view and act with independent, conscientious thought. We need to be evolving in a changed world on crowded globe. Most of us, especially in the United States aren’t trying simply to survive anymore. We can afford ethics and balance, but too many of us have been worrying about how to get the next fix, anything from the newest cell phone, shoes, 3D TV, junk food, Facebook likes, extreme vacation or actual chemical drugs.

I’ve had a week to let my feelings about my new house and this national shedding of responsibility settle. The bigger, chronic problem is more troubling to me than my own personal run in with the latest reminder of the sickness, or even the one before that. I’ve been busy, so it’s been mulling around in the background, thankfully. Thinking about my own personal response to it all.

So, here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to work on how I feel about the closing. I’m going to commit to this house. I’m going to make it the best I can with the resources I have and while it’s mine it will be maintained properly. I’m going to ask Russ to take that whole weekend and move that tree, out of the back from my old yard and into the front of my new yard. I’m going to combat the disease in my own way, in my own little space. And, if the time comes when I sell this house, I’m going to do my best to make sure it is a value.