Whoops – Townhouse finished!

May 1st, 2020

Never did post that “finished” townhouse post, did I? We’ve been up to a lot in the past year – we moved, for one thing! To a beautiful already-rehabbed house with very little gardening space. It’s pretty weird to have no construction projects left for me to do except a bit of tiling and some elective carpentry here and there!

But so before I get sidetracked again, the finished townhouse (which is basically just the kitchen and basement)!

First floor before/after: The fridge and half wall were removed left to where the round table is in this photo to make space for a very necessary new half bath. (The only bath was on the 2nd floor). We tried to put in a full bath in the basement as well, but permits and regulations etc being what they were (the ceiling was 1/2″ too low) it snowballed and became too cumbersome and expensive to even attempt. I’m sure I detailed it at some point in previous posts.

1744 Webster HD plans 1ST FLOOR jpg

1744 kitchen 2

New half bath with pocket door where the fridge was:


Every item in the bath was rescued and rehabbed from Second Chance, except for the sink faucet. The one-piece toilet and pedestal sink are some fancy-schmancy Italian brand that when I looked them up, started at around $2k. Not too shabby.


And there were even enough extra leftover flooring boards kept in the basement (thank you, thoughtful previous owner!) to patch in the gaps in the floor where the wall had been and match perfectly.

Stairway/dining room wall before:

1744 living 2

After (new banisters/railings too, matching the ones already on the 2nd floor):



1744 kitchen 3

After. We don’t have the same fisheye lens as the realtor used so it looks smaller, but it really doesn’t feel any more crowded than when the table was there. And the open staircase makes it feel … well, more open.


Stairway down to basement before: (I had to find new floorboards for the landing at the top of the stairs, put in new oak treads and banister and stain it all to match.)

stairs looking down before

stairs before



Basement before:

basement to bedroom

After I added a new floor, drywalled & insulated, built in an electric fireplace:


Can lights everywhere, including a new sofa nook (under the HVAC ducts) and a new little broom closet with a door cut down to match.


The floor is luxury vinyl plank. Durable and gorgeous and gotten for waaay cheap on sale from Floors Plus. The baseboards and quarter rounds (stained oak) from there too were nearly free and almost match. I think they look pretty sharp.

Front of basement before:

1744 basement

Even just a new floor, paint, baseboards and more lighting makes a huge difference.


And that’s about it! We didn’t have to do much upstairs besides cleaning and repainting and changing out the faucets and showerhead. Out on the back deck I needed to re-mortar some of the bricks and repaint the whole thing; the front door got a lovely glossy new coat of paint as well and the wood floors got shined. 1.5 floors from October through December 31st.

More than a year later now I can’t quite remember how much we spent, but I believe it was about $15,000. We purchased it for $292 and I estimate its current value to be around $307 if we’re lucky – Baltimore housing is not doing great at the moment. So with the cost of the rehab we’re very close to underwater, which stings. (Hey, at least I did it all myself; I’d had quotes from contractors for $45k+. At least I didn’t go that route, huh?)

I didn’t mind so much when I thought we’d be holding onto it for ten years and waiting for appreciation to do its thing; but we may not actually keep this house long-term. It doesn’t make a very good rental because among other things Baltimore City taxes are so much higher than elsewhere (our escrow is nearly double that of the rehab/beach house). Because of that, rent just barely covers the mortgage, so any expenses come out of pocket – whereas if we could start over with the same values in a different location, we could be cashflowing comfortably. Remember – originally we thought we could convert it into a 4-bedroom with a full bath in the basement. Rent for that configuration would have covered any expenses nicely, as 4-bedrooms are rare in the area. Obviously that didn’t work out… but oh well, at least I made absolutely sure before purchase that it would work, if not very well, as a 3-bedroom too.

But for the moment we’ve found some lovely tenants so we’ll keep it at least as long as they decide to stay. Feels bad to maybe give up a property after owning it for only a couple years (Oct. 2018 purchase), but hey, if the numbers don’t work then chalk it up to investment experience, right?

And in the mean time it does feel good to have done my part to spruce up a nice old place and make it even nicer. Is real estate like camping… leave it nicer than you found it? Makes sense to me at least!

Typing up loose ends (Townhouse #14)

January 19th, 2019

At this point it was almost time for us to leave on Christmas vacation. I absolutely had to get the place ready and listed before December 31st if I wanted to be able to deduct everything I’d spent on it this year, and I knew I’d never get it all done in time. So I had to bite the bullet and do something I never do…. ask for help.

I found a good, if pricey, contractor and wrote a two page list of everything that still had to be done. And wouldn’t you know, they finished all that work in only 4 days!

Drywall patching and painting the places I couldn’t reach:


Installing baseboards: (these I got at the discount flooring place. They practically give away their remnants – which can be up to 16 feet long! – at $1 a piece. They handed me several bundles for a flat $20 when that quality and quantity of stained wood trim at Home Depot would have cost probably about $400. The baseboard carpenter was amazed!)


Doesn’t that fireplace look nice??

They finished up the staircase and landing for me:



And hung the remaining door:


And added the “window” banister upstairs.


Because of their help, it was rentable by December 25th and I did get it listed in time! I used photos from the original listing, since I still need to do a giant cleanup and carry out several truckloads of tools and supplies from the basement. And after that’s done it’ll take me forever to get Josh in there to take professional photos… but I can’t wait til you see it all cleaned up and gleaming!

Make it burn (Townhouse #13)

January 17th, 2019

Once the floors were in I could start building the crowning jewel of the basement – the fireplace!

We bought this fireplace insert from Amazon because it was the most highly rated. I had wanted to direct-plumb a real (but ventless) gas fireplace, but ventless fireplaces are super expensive. Plus, gas makes me nervous – probably because I’ve never lived with it. But still, it introduces risk to the tenants so I decided to go a safer, if less impressive, route. Electric would have to do.

PuraFlame 30″ Western Electric Fireplace Insert with Remote Control

People said this particular one was one of the more realistic ones out there. And it sure does look slick, with its giant glass front and the depth of the firebox. So I had my electrician install a new electric subpanel and a dedicated 20amp circuit just for the fireplace. Overkill, but… better safe than sorry. (Can you tell I tend to overthink everything? Thanks, anxiety.)

Started by adding a couple of ledger board type things along the back of the mantel and the back of the hearth. These are screwed across the wall and into the studs with 3″ screws. They provide me with a way to attach whatever smaller parts I need to later without worrying about using drywall anchors or shear force or whatever – there’s wood wherever I need. Speeds up the process a whole bunch.


Second step: building the box frames that will become the surround and act as the hearth, then covering them with skins made of the leftover 1/4″ plywood. (The hearth box at the bottom got 3/4″ plywood because it has a greater risk of being kicked or sat on.)


I added window moulding under the mantel and thin corner cove moulding all along under the lip of the hearth. These would be painted later, but because I wanted the mantel to be stained rather than painted I skinned over its framework with 1/4″ real oak boards.



I love my Porter Cable nail guns and air compressor! They really were indispensible for all the trim, especially the next step of adding trim to the front pieces. And before caulking and painting we had to make sure the insert would fit…



I had a ridiculously cute helper for the painting step:


She begs to come along and help with painting!

I used the same stain on the mantel that I used on the upstairs railing. Doesn’t quite match the floors, but it’s as close as the Sherwin Williams store could find. I did a couple coats to make it as dark as I could.


And that is good enough.


Looks pretty good… Can’t wait to get the baseboards and have the electricity finished up enough that we can put in the insert for real!

Cover that concrete (Townhouse #12)

January 15th, 2019

With framing and drywall up and the sticky insulation filling the walls all taken care of, it was safe to lay down my pretty vinyl floors. But because the concrete was still so uneven, and because the contractors had done such a bad job adhering it to the original concrete that it was already cracking in places, I first had to lay down subflooring. This would provide a smooth surface for the plank flooring and also disperse weight from people walking across it. That also meant that I first had to lay down a thick plastic vapor barrier to protect the wood from direct contact with the concrete.


I used 1/4″ plywood because I didn’t want the floor to be any higher.


I wish I’d gone with something thicker though, like a standard 3/4″ board, because the sheets were flexible enough that laying the planks on top afterwards was difficult in some parts.


Every board had to be screwed down to the concrete floor in like twelve places, so I went and bought myself a new hammer drill. It’s called a rotary hammer – I didn’t even know there were different types of hammer drill, but this kind is amazing.

It cuts through concrete like butter!

So many sheets of plywood. So many screws.


But then comes the fun part!


I bought these vinyl planks from my favorite discount flooring store and was lucky enough to find them on sale. I only needed about 335 square feet, so twelve boxes were plenty.


They clicked right into place and had their own insulation and cushioning attached. Except for the areas where the stupid floor dipped and rolled and the planks had some trouble flexing around it. I do worry that the planks may some day come apart in those areas.


But in the mean time, it looks pretty great!


In fact, it looks good enough with the color of the ceiling that we decided not to drywall or paint it after all.


Kind of reminds me of a fancy restaurant or wine cellar!

Warmth in the walls (Townhouse #11)

January 13th, 2019

I had my first adventures with foam insulation!


The walls downstairs were built of regular old drywall right against the original stone walls. No vapor barrier, no insulation, not even using all metal studs. Can anybody guess what damp, clammy stone walls and untreated wood and cardboard leads to?

Mold. Yum.

Luckily, it was done recently enough that nothing had started yet. But give it a year or two and it’d be a fungus lunch buffet. So that’s not ok. Can you picture a situation where we develop black mold and a tenant sues us for health problems? Or we need to suspend their lease for a few months while we rip out all the drywall everywhere and redo the entire basement?

NOT OK. Stink. Health. Damp. Cold. Boo.

Two solutions. 1: rip out all the drywall and studs. Replace with metal studs, vapor barrier, insulation, and get all new drywall installed. Probably the best way to go but also $$$. Option 2: open up the existing drywall enough to fill the cavities with expanding foam insulation that not only will fill all the gaps and stone crannies, but when it dries will act as a 4″ thick plastic vapor impermeable barrier? SCORE. Can you guess which one I chose?

I did a bunch of research and found a company, FoamItGreen, that not only offers the right, special slow-rise product but is the only spray insulation company to offer free shipping. Plus super clear instructions and great customer service. And no, I’m not affiliated with them.

The first step was to cut holes in every single stud cavity, every vertical 3 feet. Which turned out to be A LOT. On 3 walls. Bah.


They sent me two propane-looking tanks and a long, bifurcated cable with a gun on the end. Plus, they include allllll the extras you could possibly want: glasses, a full Tyvek suit (which I’m TOTALLY keeping), cocktail-length heavy duty rubber gloves, shoe covers, goggles, and probably some more things I’m forgetting. I just had to squish some clear tubing onto the end of the gun to be able to poke it in, and then squeeze, and fill ‘er up. Layer by layer.



So, the different colors are because I was doing it wrong. I was still adjusting the input from either tank but I did eventually get it right. (PS: their customer service returns calls, like, immediately. Kudos, FoamItGreen.) That mint color is what it’s supposed to be – an even mixture of the blue and yellow liquids, of which I guess one is foaming and one is hardening.


In the end, much messier than I had thought it would be. I’d drip on the floor and then step on the drip and then on the plastic and then the plastic would stick to my shoe and smear on other plastic and back on my leg and then there was sticky-as-caramel foam EVERYWHERE. It helped to have a big ole off-cut of drywall to set the gun on whenever I needed to trim the end off the tubing or had a drip or whatever.

Oh, and the drywall nail pops from where I accidentally overfilled and the foam expanded enough to pop the drywall off the studs scared the poop out of me. As did the realization that this stuff gets hot as it cures, which I only found out after I had coated the gas lines in it, like, six inches deep.

I left early that day.


I did not explode.

The foam was a lot more difficult to scrape off the drywall than I had imagined. Starting the second row, I first taped up plastic all along under the line of the holes, and lined the edges of all the holes with painter’s tape.

Overall, though, it was a really satisfying project. And you can REALLY tell the difference in the rooms down there – they feel like a normal room instead of a dank basement. They’re about as warm as the upstairs and don’t smell… well…. basementy any more, making it a much more inviting space.


No more falling off the stairs (Townhouse #10)

November 27th, 2018

A railing, ladies and gentlemen, we have a railing!


Came in late one night to show my parents around and look what I found! Jason The Railing Guy had been busy.

Because of the complicated angles and terminations, I had hired someone to do this project for me. I’m so glad I did. Jason’s work is beautiful. Look at his joinery!


And he made it match the upstairs perfectly (at least it will once painted/stained):


I had kind of felt that having someone else do this banister was an expensive excess, but I no longer think so. It makes a statement and looks just beautiful, and that’s important given that it’s the first thing you see in the house.

Absolutely worth it. Wish I had enough to have him do the “window” and the downstairs banister too.

Framed and drywalled all in one (Townhouse #9)

November 25th, 2018

I got the remainder of the basement framed in just two days! That’s gotta be some kind of record for me.

Here it is 3/4 done:


The reflective bubble wrap behind the wall is not only insulating but also acting as a vapor/moisture barrier for the stone wall. I have it running all the way up, under the air returns and folded around the closest edge in the hopes that it will prevent the condensation that so often discolors drywall under air returns… or if it doesn’t prevent it, maybe it will at least keep it from reaching the drywall underneath.

And then I totally forgot to take a picture when I was finished. OF COURSE. Because I am still me. But it was neat and lovely to see and I was proud of myself.

Once I had the framing in place the electrician was done with his work in two days, so I called the drywallers on the off chance that they were free. It turned out they had an opening the very next day –  that NEVER happens! So I was literally hammering in the last few chunks of wood when they began working early that morning.

They did the office in about 45 minutes flat! Here’s a panorama while I stand in the office and they’re already 2/3 done with the family room: (click to embiggen)


It looks so different with the drywall up. The air return bulkhead looks a lot bigger that I’d pictured – partly because with the heightened floor and the framing, I can no longer quite stand underneath it.





I was worried that the can lights above would cast dark shadows underneath that bulkhead so I had the electrician put in two downlight boxes underneath. I’m thinking people can put a sofa under there and there will be some soft reading light.

And hey speaking of can lights, did you notice how much brighter the space is now? Look at the first photo above for comparison. Between the two photos the electrician finished installing all the lights. Even though only every other one of the lights is lit, it’s still so bright in there!

I finished patching up all the holes, gaps, and chunks of missing mortar in the “feature” wall back when the floor concrete was getting redone. Fun project – I really like working with concrete. (The patches are type S mortar mixed with liquid concrete adhesive, in case you were wondering.)


Didn’t look great at first. But once it dried, and now with the staircase boxed in, this area is so much closer to looking like a finished space!


Plasterers come tomorrow!


Busted (Townhouse #8)

November 23rd, 2018

Oh, the concrete debacle. If I knew then what I knew now… I had been going to do this part of the project all by myself originally, but I decided to hire a professional because:

  • I was nervous that I’d do it wrong.
  • I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to carry that many bags of concrete.
  • I’d never used an angle grinder and it all seemed too scary and difficult.
  • I didn’t know if I’d be able to strip the paint off well enough to get a good adhesion. (The workers omitted this step entirely).

I wish I had trusted myself. Once I started, grinding down the concrete was not only easy, it was kind of fun! As for the bags of concrete, I barely had to transport anything – I had someone at Lowe’s load them into the truck for me and then once at the Townhouse I just slung them down a makeshift slide inside the basement window. I now love using self-leveller – it’s so satisfying to see it creep and smooth itself out. I would have saved money, used better quality products, and had ceilings 2″ higher than I do now with a flatter end product. Probably would have taken the same amount of time, all told.

The contractor did send a guy back the following week to bust up the most egregious part of the floor. It took him several hours even though the concrete came up relatively easily. Because, surprise surprise, the workers had not scraped the paint underneath at all so there was zero adhesion. I could just yank pieces up with my fingers.


He took up quite a bit while trying to cut back the slope. When he left (snuck out while I was gone to fetch the girls even after I made him promise to stay until I got back), the floor still wasn’t level.


Better, but not level.


Hard to tell from the angle, but on the left the laser ends up about 1/4″ from the floor and on the right it’s a bit more than 1″.

But the contractor refused to do any more on the grounds that he had said from the beginning that it wouldn’t be absolutely perfect. While true, I guess his definition of not-quite-perfect and mine are very, very different. I threw up my hands and got to work.

The angle grinder was great fun but it threw out so much dust that it set off the smoke detectors. I’m constantly finding it all over – even on the second floor – and the kitchen upstairs looks like a snowstorm hit. I have a heavy-duty mask that looks a bit like I’m a WWI soldier and by the end those filters were toast – but better them than my lungs! And my fully-sealed safety goggles helped keep grit out of my eyes. But I got a few odd looks as I walked out that afternoon to go get the girls, until I realized that I was head-to-toe covered in grey dust except for around my eyes and mouth…

Ah, Construction Chic fashion, you are not my friend.

I used a total of 6 bags of self-leveler – and it could have been significantly less if I’d remembered to buy pea gravel. Self-leveler can only be applied about an inch deep but you can double that by using pea gravel to bulk it out… good to know with a product as expensive as that. I could probably have used another 3 bags, but in conjunction with grinding down the high spots it was Good Enough… plus I was already behind schedule. I may still end up having to add more under some of the lowest spots, we’ll see.

Usually I end up being incredibly glad that I hired a professional. This time, I wish I’d done it myself from the beginning. I guess I can chalk it up to a learning experience.

In the mean time, the important thing is that I can now start the framing and we can really get the project rolling!

Happy birthday? (Townhouse #7)

November 22nd, 2018

Concrete to level the floors came in last week… the day before my birthday! I was so excited. Dreams of having the floor puddled, perfectly level and ready to roll with my gorgeous vinyl plank floors (which are notoriously picky about the flatness of the surface they’re applied to). I figured they’d flood the floor and that’d be it, right?




They actually transported in dozens upon dozens of bags and did the mixing right there on the floor. One guy was in charge of glooping the peanut-butter-consistency stuff onto the floor and making sure it was smooth. By the time I got there after putting the girls on the bus, they were almost done with the office.

I had expected that they’d only apply concrete up to the highest point of the room and taper it off there in order to keep the ceilings as high as possible. That kind of feathering-out-to-nothing is only possible with self-leveler though, which is a crazy $35/50lb bag. Regular concrete is only a few bucks per bag but it has to be applied at least 2″ thick or it may crumble.

Clearly my contractor thought he could save himself some money because:


That’s almost two inches thick at the highest spot, which lowers the already low ceilings. And does that look flat to you?

….no. Not remotely.

But these guys have done fantastic work for me before (the sidewalks and front walk on the Beach House), so I left them to it and figured they knew what they were doing and that they probably planned to fix it once they had the whole room done so they could level and screed it more accurately.

I wish I had spoken up, though, because they absolutely did not. When I came back on my birthday I found:


Can you see how over a 6′ span the level is already up an inch? It gets worse the farther you go.


Here’s another. You can’t lay vinyl plank over this gap in the middle. It will buckle and crack. The dip looks small in the picture, but it’s actually more than an inch deep.

And the worst part:


It was like at the end of the day they just gave up even pretending to be aiming for level. They piled 2″ of concrete on the highest point in the entire project and tapered it down to nothing on the lowest side!


They made it worse!

Can anyone tell me why the concrete guy didn’t just use liquid concrete in a truck like normal, just flood the basement and be done with it? Wouldn’t that have made more sense – been easier to transport, faster to finish, and a cinch to level? Is there some reason he chose to do it this labor-intensive, error-prone way instead? Anyone know something I don’t? If there is, I really do want to know.

Let’s just say I learned my lesson about supervising concrete work. If you have to leave for some reason during drywall or framing, fine. Those mistakes can all be redone. But concrete is, of course, more permanent.

I should have called Josh and told him he’d have to get the girls. I should have had him make dinner and take them to gymnastics. He would have, if I’d asked. I wish I had. But I was tired, and I wanted to go home.

In the end the contractor did agree to come back and fix this back corner for me, but not til the following week, which put me further behind schedule.

The icing on the birthday cake? When I was leaving, I saw someone had crushed the back corner of my truck while taking a corner too tightly. (Luckily, he stayed and I got his insurance).


Progress upstairs! (Townhouse #6)

November 15th, 2018

Things are happening upstairs too – I’m really impressed with the contractor I hired for that job. So nice when people exceed your expectations.

The plans on paper:

1744 Webster HD plans 1ST FLOOR jpg

Are now becoming real:


Wow! Fridge moved, wall gone, new bathroom framed out perfectly!


He remembered my request for a pocket door, too. :)

The only thing I’m wondering is whether I should have moved it back into the dining room 2 more feet. Then I could have fitted more cabinets into the kitchen along that new wall:


But that would have made the dining room pretty dang small, so I’m happy with my choice.

I love having contractors do stuff for me. It makes me incredibly energized. Their speed and accuracy is impressive and it’s exciting to see the project progress so fast under their hands. If I had money enough to just have contractors do every single project, I would be over the moon about this career all the time! Instead I slog through at a snail’s pace, full of frustration and backaches and slowly disintegrating joints… but I have to keep reminding myself that the feeling of accomplishment at the end is its own reward. There’s really nothing like it – just gotta get there first.