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.

A Rollercoaster Named Overwhelmed

My writing has drifted out to sea in the rush to get the house ready for move in. For over a month, the floors have been a plague and we’ve had to go out of town twice for family funerals, one on each side of the family. We’ve also made other trips for other family obligations. “Hurry up and wait” has gone and any sense of order is just a lofty aspiration. Things bought for the house, the booth or the Etsy stores are scattered about the house like sprinkles poured on heavy by a child. As I am writing, I am thinking of the list of the things that we’ve done over the last month and I’m not really sure how we fit it all in, but I am sure why people are telling both of us we look a little short on sleep. This has been the year when people stopped telling me that I couldn’t possibly have children and a grandchild the ages of mine, and started asking if I qualified for the discount.

These are the times when I really question myself about how it is that I choose to do things, as in- never the easy way, but this time going about things the hard way wasn’t all in choice. A lot of the things that I thought would be the easy, low stress or expedient choices weren’t. It seemed reasonable to expect that buying a house would be less complicated, lower stress and a faster recovery than rebuilding the house we lost, but the housing market in our area is so strange now that it didn’t turn out that way.

There’s enough of a recovery going to keep prices fairly high. The recovery isn’t complete though and people have trouble qualifying for higher end houses they might have bought easily not long ago. That brings them down to my price range. My price range was always where I fit, but right now it’s also a fit for far too many other people. Since the fire, a house in my old neighborhood sold in week and another sold in days.

Almost everything has been just like that, longer, harder, more complicated…it’s really just a fairly standard renovation, with overdue maintenance and an unusually bad pet problem. The trips out of town have even actually helped. We have had time to assess how bad the problem is, how well different treatments have worked, do additional research and get some additional advice. If we had been left to do nothing but work on the house, we wouldn’t have done things as well as we have been able to. But, taking it all on at once has been pretty hard to swallow. It’s that we are trying to do as many things ourselves as we can combined with our little thrifty experiment.

Buying things second hand means getting them when you find them and storing them where you can. We are taking things over in small loads when we go to ease the moving burden, both in gas and in workload. Much of the stuff we have bought is “project” quality. We plan to transform it in some way before we use it. I’m pretty sure our new neighbors may be coming to think of us as the Clampett’s of Beverly Hills. First impressions being what they are… I’m joking of course. We’ve done a lot of yard work and they can tell that we are trying to take the worst house in the neighborhood and transform it into something better.

So there’s another day in the life… My goal for July: A house that we can move into, a writing schedule that’s regular, and enough aerobic exercise to keep my energy levels high and my stress levels low.

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.

A House, A House, My Kingdom for a House

That’s not exactly how the Bard wrote about King Richard III’s battleground predicament, but I’m feeling a bit of the same dilemma. Trying to find a home has certainly marked a winter of discontent (and rare winter storms). One of Shakespeare’s most misunderstood plays about one of the most controversial English regents seems a good thing to parody while I’m trying hard not to take myself or my situation too seriously.

Normally the decision to move comes at a natural break, a change in life or career that makes moving away or changing your home the natural thing to do. Mine came quietly in the wee hours of the morning with the sound of fire fighters who scarcely woke the neighbors while keeping the fire from spreading to their homes. My guiding change was only abrupt need.

A rush of decisions hit. First there’s triage, then there are bigger decisions. The decision about temporary housing had to be made before the long-term decisions. Conveniently staying near a major junction in interstates had advantages, but wasn’t convenient to the place I eventually decided was most important to find a home and, what turned out to be my primary goal and focus wasn’t anything I had even thought about before the fire. I knew that it would be hard to make decisions about small stuff before I made decisions about the big stuff, yet life moves on and the small decisions happen whether or not the big ones do.

I’m not so far from that time when many people downsize, and let’s face it. When you have just lost the house full of things you spent a lifetime collecting and inheriting, that does seem like a time to downsize. But I haven’t quite made the time when I can do that. My home needs to accommodate all the needs it currently fills. So, the house that fits this year, may not be the house I still want to keep in 3-5 years. I thought I really wanted a short sale or a foreclosure. The savings would help me to make up for the likelihood that I would be in the house for a short time and cancel out some of the extra expenses of a short-term ownership.

It’s a game for the big boys though. I’m looking for a home in Fulton County where those foreclosure auctions on the courthouse steps include the high value homes of Atlanta and its surrounds. Here, even a home that goes for pennies on the dollar can have way too many decimal places for me and even on the homes that do apply to me, the ruthless people who know what they are doing are competing for a decreasing commodity and they could swat me away with their little fingers.

My sweet spot would be getting a house that someone else got on the courthouse steps, but hadn’t remodeled yet. Something that still had room in the price for me to improve it and have a little reward for my work. I went to a meeting for investors who wholesale properties. I thought I might find someone who had a property for me. I wasn’t really comfortable there. There is a kind of respect that people are due and I couldn’t see it at this meeting.

It is true that people have to look out for themselves and their families. How one chooses to do that comes in every color, shape and size. I know a sales person who said “I looked at every sale that another man made as taking food from the mouths of my family.” He was successful, but in spite of how that sounds, he was also compassionate. People find their own ways to keep up the march and it is a struggle.

Some people have appetites that are never sated though. They lack appropriate respect for the resources they use. Some would take anything they can get and try to force a situation to squeeze out even more from people who are desperate and powerless. Do they need the win, the extreme TV or the power vacation? It’s about how ever they define superiority and superiority is not the hole I’m looking to fill.

The truth is that foreclosures are not distressed properties. They are the properties of distressed people and the choice to focus on the inanimate is just a means to help distance humanity. I want the good deal that helps to make up for some of my losses, both in the fire and in the future, but I want it to come from one of those careless people who doesn’t try and brought their trouble on themselves. I want it to come from the person who will never have anything because they go through life irresponsibly. I don’t want it to come from someone who lost their job through no fault of their own, or worse, lost their health. But I won’t get to choose and I may not know until their neighbors become mine. As much as I would like to take care of my own family in the best way possible, to find the best deal, to continue my march and fill our needs, I do understand that what I have been looking for could be heart wrenching if it actually comes my way and the search for any home at market or below continues as I weigh the prices and potential of what is available.

The housing market has changed since I was last paying attention. I’m seeing that trusted resources like Clark Howard recommend renting in the current market if you will be in a house for fewer than 10 years. I don’t like throwing money away on rent, but I’m not happy with my current options and I’m not expecting appreciation to make much headway over the short-term. If money is to be lost, loosing it without the additional risk of short-term market swings could be the lesser evil. Many of the houses that I can purchase have serious condition issues and the prices don’t seem to reflect that. I’ve drifted toward looking at homes that are far outside my budget to be ready if they become short sales, and kicked myself for missing it when a couple of them did. But, there’s no good way to know and my missing it was not through lack of effort.

This has been a winter of discontent, searching and storms, yet, I have still spent much of it grateful for the better than good bits and I continue to trudge through those other bits with faith that something will turn up.