More walls, more room (Townhouse #5)

November 13th, 2018

Ever since I realized that I couldn’t excavate the whole basement and that I’d have to cut the family room off right at the back of the stairs, I’d been struggling with unsatisfaction with the resulting size of the room.

But I hadn’t wanted to move the bedroom wall to enlarge it because I still thought that front space was going to be a bedroom. I wanted to at least compensate whoever had to sleep in the basement with a large space to make up for it.

But when I finally came to terms with the fact that that would never be a (legal) bedroom, I realized there was really no reason for me to keep the wall where it was. Though I groaned at the thought of causing myself yet more work, it only made sense to push that wall back and enlarge the family room.


It only adds a bit under 3′, but it makes a lot of difference.


The family room now feels like a nice-sized room and the “office nook” feels… smallish. :/ It’s about 10×12 now. Which should be big for a room in a townhouse, but the ceilings are so low that everything feels a bit cramped.

At least this new wall is built with a PT stud on the bottom (the other wasn’t) and straight (the other wasn’t) and plumb (the other wasn’t.) Even if it did cost me a half a day’s labor. I’m sloooooooow.


So what’s left for the basement?

  • concrete leveling, as much as possible
  • stairway: risers, banister and rails, staining and finishing, drywalling over wood framing
  • stone “feature” wall to be left unfinished: concrete patching, parging/smoothing and painting
  • electric: can lights, outlets, separating rooms into their own switches, etc (right now the entire basement is on one single switch at the top of the stairs).
  • current finished walls: electrical wiring and then spray insulation filled behind (serves both as insulation, sound barrier and vapor barrier)
  • opposite as-yet-unfinished wall: framing, electrical, spray insulation, drywall
  • flooring: laying down moisture barrier or dimple mat, covering with luaun or 3/8″ ply, and laying (hopefully, if it’s level enough) vinyl plank. And if it’s not, carpet. Though I do hate carpet in a basement. Then trim. Ugh. I don’t like trim.
  • painting, painting, painting. I even have to paint the ceilings. I’m going to do a “white-out” – where everything gets painted over, even ductwork and electrical wires and spiderwebs and stuff. Keeping it naked – without drywall – actually makes it legal living space (according to a basement specialist contractor). Who knew. If we had a “finished” ceiling with drywall, suddenly ceiling height codes would apply and we would all go to jail and pay a million dollars in today’s monopoly money. I’m going to have to learn to use a paint sprayer. I hate learning new tools.

Rest of the house:

  • more painting
  • more patching
  • more painting again
  • painting forever
  • ugh so much painting
  • changing a shower head
  • half bath in the kitchen area (contracted out)
  • railing up to the second floor (contracted out)
  • railing on the “basement window” triangle
  • probably more painting.



Let there be light (Townhouse #4)

November 11th, 2018

The first thing I had to do, if we were going to take the basement from Dank Cave Hole to Welcoming Family Room, was make sure it enjoyed as much natural light and air as possible.

basement entry before

Begone, door!


After I took off the door, I ripped out most of the framing. I moved it farther over towards the wall and lifted the header as high as I could without hitting the HVAC ducts hidden up there – a full 8′.


Looks a bit funny because it’s still so narrow, but that can’t be helped. Now the light from the glass back door shines directly down the stairs.

It was surprisingly frustrating – ripping out and reframing all that stuff should have taken me less than a day, and it took me 2 instead. Didn’t make it any faster that I’m scared of heights. I was working above my head, reaching up as far as I could while balancing on top of a narrow, unstable stepladder, perched on a tiny landing, at the top of a long flight of stairs! There was a lot of trembling and forgetting to breathe. There was an unspeakable, unladylike amount of sweating. I am glad that part of the project is over. TAKE THAT, STAIRCASE.

But that wasn’t even the crowning glory of this part of the project. I needed to open up the wall that was keeping the staircase looking narrow and dark. (Dark when it’s not full of camera flashes… you’ll just have to take my word for it.)


Opening that wall would let the basement breathe, let in a lot more light, visually open and join the two spaces, make the staircase seem wider, and make the basement seem so much less cut-off and cavelike.


Heck yeah.


This was the nerve-wracking part. I could still stop at this part.


It wasn’t a bearing wall, so I didn’t have to worry about structure much – though I acted as though I did, and supported it with a heavy header made of 2 2x6s, glue, plywood, and about a hundred and four 3″ nails.


No turning back now…

These two following are looking up the stairs from the basement. This “before” was taken around 1pm:


And this “after” was taken at dusk. But look how much more open it is! Even with no natural light it already looks brighter.


Yes, there’s going to be a railing in that new hole – but I can’t put it in until the drywall is up. It’s gonna look great when that happens, though. Everything tidied up, all the rough corners tucked neatly away. Excited about drywall… I am the dorkiest.

I’m so pleased with how this turns out. It’s not often that a project small enough to take only a day can make a dramatic difference.


First steps (Townhouse #3)

November 9th, 2018

First project in the new house was one of those with the most dramatic impact.

As shown in last post’s plans, the basement staircase led directly to a cramped corridor barely 24″ wide.


That corridor extended several feet into the rec room (this photo foreshortens it a lot).

1744 basement 2

It made sense that the staircase would be closed in, but I couldn’t figure out why the corridor to the rec room had been built so narrow or so long, and why you had to go all the way down to the rec room to do an about face and access the storage/laundry area.


Back side of the closed in stair and corridor:

basement to bedroom

These walls were non-load-bearing and so simple they weren’t even anchored into the concrete. I planned to simply rip them out entirely.

1744 Webster HD final basement plans

Down with the walls!

First I closed off the odd doorway from the rec room into the storage area and opened up the corridor. You can see its old footprint in the concrete. See how long and narrow it was?

stairs wall before

Then the stairway wall came down almost as easily. Looking downstairs:

stairs before looking down no wall

After one very…. um… educational false start with a new stairway stringer – and may I never lift and transport a 2x12x12 ever again – I started laying new, wider stairs. The old 28″ treads came up very easily and I found some lovely 36″ wide solid oak treads to replace them with.


stairs looking down before


new stairs looking down


stairs before



I still have to transfer the old banister – tuck it away behind the newel post – and I have yet to make risers. I would leave the stairs open in the hopes of it seeming more spacious, but though I added an extra riser on the outside, I never moved the original outer riser so now the three are awkwardly out of center and need to be hidden.

Still… pretty promising start, if I do say so myself. :)


Can’t wait to see them stained and finished.

Plans all wrapped up in pretty red tape (Townhouse #2)

November 7th, 2018

We chose this house because we thought the basement could easily be converted to hold another bedroom and a bathroom. At first I had wanted to extend the family room all the way to the back of the basement, but then I learned that excavating that might entail new footers, underpinnings, drain fields, sump pump, etc. NO THANKS.

So change of plans #1. I pulled my plans back to a more modest scale and drew the family room boundary back to where the worst of the sloping started. I was thinking something along these lines:


I figured whoever sleeps in the bedroom would never want to go up two flights of stairs in order to take a shower, so the bathroom should have a tub/shower. Since it’d be pretty much only that person regularly using this bathroom, that it should be made part of a bedroom suite instead of apart – hence the Jack-and-Jill layout.

Except the way the HVAC returns are set up there causes all kinds of problems. There’s nowhere to run the pipes, especially the big sewer pipe, and nowhere to exhaust the fan. I explored every single way of doing it – moving the returns and squeezing the bathroom in next to the staircase like a hot dog. Putting the bathroom under the staircase towards the back. Putting the bathroom on the other side of the bedroom.

In short, nothing worked very well, and all the extra moving of HVAC ducts, pipes, etc that are already down there caused the price to go up too high to fit in our budget. So, no bathroom. Which means… it’d be really weird to have a bedroom down there. And that even if we do put in a 1/2 bathroom up on the main floor, it’s not going to be enough of a change to refinance and get our money back out like we did with the Beach House.

SO. Sigh. Change of plans #2. Just do the bedroom without the bathroom?

Unfortunately, a big fat NO to that too. The city we’re in, unfortunately, requires an egress window for any closed , windowed room in a basement. So despite our having a great big lovely 24×52″ window…


it would still have to be twice as big. We’d have to excavate out below the sidewalk, dig down the bottom of the window about 12″, put in a window well and either some kind of drainage/sump pump or a special hard-cased closed window cover so that rain doesn’t flood down in the newly excavated hole and pour right into the basement.

It’s fairly expensive by itself, and even more so if you consider that an inspector would then have to have access to the basement, so we would likely also have to rectify a number of other not-to-code issues down there. Depending on how detailed he wanted to get, it could easily spiral into some major projects. Considering the pretty small bump in rent that we’d get for having an extra bedroom-with-no-bathroom, the high cost just isn’t worth it.

Believe me, I did consider just making it into a bedroom in secret and leaving the window as-is – after all, this window was considered above average only last year! But a) this city requires rentals to be registered (really heavy fines if you don’t) and b) in order to be registered they require annual inspections… and one of the checkboxes on the inspection pass sheet is that every closed room in a basement has a new egress window. Since we can’t prove when the room was finished, since it was done without official permits, we can’t get grandfathered in, and we’re stuck.

SO. CHANGE OF PLANS #3. GODDAMNIT. I guess we’ve got no choice but to leave the window the way it is and eliminate hope of having a bedroom down there. Instead we’re going to rent it as a three-bedroom and play up a huge, beautiful family room downstairs. (Click to embiggen.)

1744 Webster HD final basement plans

I’m going to leave half the wall that was there – but move it backwards to make the family room bigger. It’ll visually divide the space in case someone wants to have an office or playroom separate from their hang-out space, but the gap will be wide enough that it’s obvious you couldn’t just stick a door there. I’d LOVE to put in a gas fireplace – this place has natural gas! – if I could find one for less than $2k, and really play it up with maybe a stone accent wall or something posh (I can find stone veneer at Second Chance for very cheap). I mean, if we’re not spending that money on an egress window and a real bedroom… I guess we should put it into playing up the features that we do have. :/

Lastly, I’m still not sure about the laundry area and how I would prettify that. I had planned to leave that half of the basement alone as Unfinished Storage so I could get away with not fixing it up. Remember, if we tried to level the floors back there with the highest corner, there would only be about 5’5″ of ceiling height.

So I’m thinking … maybe I’ll build a platform of some kind instead. Something just the size of the laundry area so that the floor height doesn’t have to come up that much. Put down PT sleepers cut to contour, top them with 3/4″ plywood, and at least end up with a nice little laundry nook even if the rest of the area still looks like a cave floor.

laundry level

I dunno. Worth it? It certainly doesn’t look welcoming right now – I wouldn’t be delighted to do laundry there – but I’m not sure how important it is.

I recently got a part-time job that I’m really enjoying, but it limits me to about 4 days a week (including weekends) of construction time. And I do try to take at least one full day of family time each weekend (heck, I don’t actually enjoy doing this kind of work myself) so that makes it 3 days a week I can work on this house. Which means, I guess, that all my potential construction time is like 50% more valuable than it was before? Maybe? Is that a thing? At least that’s what it feels like. Anxiety/stress/overwork, anyone?



At it again (Townhouse #1)

October 28th, 2018

Goodness, all these months and I never followed up on the Beach House posts! In the end, couldn’t have had a happier ending. We found some absolutely wonderful renters within a month. When we refinanced, the house had literally doubled in value. If you count equity, I actually ended up earning myself a respectable annual wage!

Of course towards the end of it I was swearing up and down that I would NEVER EVER DO THIS AGAIN. So then why … what…

1744 front

Oh dear. I seem to have gotten myself in a housely way again.

In my defense, this house – which I’ll call the Townhouse – couldn’t be more different from what the Beach House initially was. It is gorgeous inside.

1744 dining

A lovely open main floor with exposed brick. Three bedrooms, even though one is windowless.

1744 bed 1

Only one bathroom, but it’s already redone.

1744 bath 3

It’s in a really swanky area – a great, family-oriented neighborhood – with good rents and a huge park only 2 blocks away.

So, as Sofia said…. “What’s the catch? What’s wrong with this house? It’s already got a toilet that flushes! And heat!”

Well… technically, nothing. Except that because the house is so nice, we bought it at much closer to market value than I’m comfortable with (we were lucky to get it below-market at all, really). Considering it doesn’t offer private parking, multiple bathrooms, or a rooftop deck, renting it out as-is would barely cover the mortgage. It certainly wouldn’t leave much margin for repairs, or turnover vacancy, or replacing the HVAC and water heater, which are nearing the ends of their lifespans.

So how do we change that? We have to increase the value. And the place to do that…

basement to bedroom

The basement. It’s got potential – in places the ceilings are nearly 7′. But other places…

laundry level

I added that red line to show you how out of level the floors are. I don’t know why on earth they would have poured (actually it’s so roughly done it looks like it was shoveled/bucketed) the slab so poorly. It rises nearly 12″ in that back corner.

I had a ton of contractors come in and assess the cost of excavating it, lowering it all down to at least 7′ so we could get it finished and add square footage. One of them told me that he wondered if they had done it like that because that was where the stone foundations ended – and these houses were all built in the 1800s, so he could very well be right. It is clear that the basement wasn’t built as deep as it is now, that it was excavated out decades later. So when that happened, the owners may simply have excavated down to where the foundations stopped and decided that was good enough.

Which is bad news for us – it means there’s a good chance that if we excavated, we might end up having to construct underpinnings, a new drain field underneath it all, a sump pump system…. way too expensive.

So we’re going to have to do our best with what’s left.

basement to bedroom orig2

The floor looks level enough in the photo, but where I’m standing to take that shot the floor is about 3 to 4″ higher than the far edge of the far room. Not to mention that it’s not level side to side either; there’s a kind of wandering hump running down the middle that’s about 2 to 2.5″ higher than floor along the sides.

I think that area above can be turned into a cozy little tv or family room. I had wanted to put in a second bathroom down there, but unfortunately the configuration (or budget) just doesn’t easily allow it.

The already-existing rec room is a major plus though. I think we can turn this into a pretty little bedroom and rent the house out as a 4-bedroom, which would solve our problem neatly… we hope.

bedroom before 2

Plans in a later post!

Skip to the end (Beach house 81)

May 2nd, 2018

I did it! I made it to the end (almost) of the Beach House chronicles before post 100!! Of course, I mostly did it by being so busy that I forgot to write blog posts altogether…. whoops.

Anyway, long story short: I finished! (Mostly. Except for a few details.) Josh took a bunch of gorgeous photos.

Time for some before and afters!!


DSCF4274-1600 (1)





First bedroom:



bed1 a


Second bedroom:


bed 2 a


Old kitchen – moving the kitchen into the open living area lets us have a third bedroom or a more private TV/family room with walk in closet/breakfast room attached:



One bathroom becomes two (in both of which, the toilet is actually attached to the floor! And the tub is actually hooked up to the plumbing!) by shifting the bedroom doors and moving the linen closet to the inside of the first bathroom.





Living area looking towards old kitchen:



Standing in old kitchen doorway looking back at living room:

493 living room before


New kitchen space:

493 living room 2 before


And lemme just show off that kitchen a little bit more:



So y’all are probably sick and tired of my bragging by now – Don’t worry, I’m pretty much done.

I posted these here photos on Zillow, Craigslist, Padmapper, Zumper, Turbotenant… and we’ve already got a renter! In fact, 48 hours after I accepted that renter, I had another awesome couple offer to pay me the whole year in cash up front! Too bad I was already under contract, but at least there’s strong interest in the property. :)

Plus, the bank refinancing is going to come through on time and we may just get all our money back; and we’ve got a really sweet family renting from us that we hope may stay at least a couple years. So it’s looking like while it’s going to take some time to recover, it was a sound financial decision in the end.

So while I wondered so many times during the past year whether I’d made a stupid decision, whether I’d bankrupted us, whether I had bitten off something so large not only I couldn’t chew it but I was going to fatally choke on it – I can say that now that I’m out on the other side, I’m glad I did it. Nothing can quite compare to the experience of standing around inside something that you did, looking around at something you built and feeling proud for having made something sad, beautiful again.

So will I do it again? I sure hope so! After I spent a while working on our own home (at the pleadings of poor Josh, who points out that a good 1/4 of our garage space has been taken up with tiles meant for our kitchen for over a year now). I have plans to add a basement bathroom and bedroom or den, plus a complete revamping of our bathrooms… eh, we’ll see. Maybe I’ll take a vacation first. :)

Glamming it up (Beach house #80)

April 12th, 2018

I got around to putting up the kitchen backsplash this past week. This project was fun because it was all from leftover mosaic and repurposed materials, plus the marble tiles from Habitat for Humanity that I got for $10.


Recognize that herringbone?

I was mad at myself – I accidentally cut the herringbone inset a whole inch shorter than I’d meant to. After spending too much time carefully working out the ratio of width to height of the 8×12 tiles and matching it in the herringbone so that they would coordinate despite being different sizes. No one will ever notice except me, whom it will bother forever.

And yes, there’s a lot more space on the top than on the bottom. That’s because I’m accounting for the depth of the hood that I plan to install. I’m tiling behind it so that if I ever switch out the hood for a different model, I won’t have to worry about patching in naked wall behind it.


I bordered it with leftover metal border from the showers – there was exactly enough for 3, 16″ pieces which was exactly what I needed. Whoda thunk.

I used the high-end white grout left over from my own kitchen backsplash 6 years ago.


And when I got the hood installed:


Oooooh it looks so nice!

image-20180407_191223 (1)

With the adhesive at $30 and the 8×12 tiles at $10/box plus the Lash leveling clips, I spent about $60 total. Not too shabby for a few hours’ work!

Trimmed out (Beach house #79)

April 10th, 2018

The trim is on, the nail holes are puttied, the joints are caulked, we are ready to paint!!! And somehow, this baby seems so much closer to finished. So close.




The windows actually look like windows!

Apparently I accidentally set the bathroom window back too far when I installed it, but that ends up being just fine because we made the windowsill extra deep and now it can function as a shelf.


The thresholds have been installed, which I think covers up the very last of the naked framing in the house.


This task pretty much sucked, since all the floors are at different levels. So I had to take a piece of oak stock, rip it down to about 3/8″ thick, and then carefully cut a quarter round to fill in the other side. On the living room threshold, the floor was slanted so I had to cut a 5 foot long quarter round at an angle. They’re not perfect, but they work. Once they’re stained I doubt they’ll be noticed at all.


And here are the marble thresholds I found at the ReStore for $10:


This was a huge pain because they didn’t fit in my 24″ tile saw (they were 29″). But they had to be cut down from 6″ to 4 1/2″ and then beveled, or else they would look dumb.


I made it work in the end, and they do look nice.

Last of the naked framing covered. It’s a milestone!

All is not terrible (Beach house #78)

April 8th, 2018

I know the last few posts were gloom and doom, but not everything is awful. Progress is being made, to the point where I’m now down to dealing with only the millions of small detail-loose-ends type of things. Doorknobs. Trim. Shelves. Coat hooks. Screwing in the dishwasher.

The biggest change lately: new countertops!


Suddenly the kitchen is… kitchen-like. And I’m very pleased with how the soapstone-look goes with the paint and cabinets. I think it blends well. Sorry the photo is sort of dim.

Breakfast bar area:


(I got those pendant lights from Habitat for Humanity for $10. I just saw the exact same ones at Lowe’s for $70 each. Made me feel pretty good.)

And from the other side looking into the kitchen:


I know the whole point of planning is to make things happen in just the way you want them to, but even so it is pretty cool (and a bit eerie) to see the kitchen actually looking exactly like the mockups I’d drawn initially.

Progress in the back (Beach House #77)

March 29th, 2018

Got another day’s worth of work done on the back porch today, in between putting coats of poly on the disappointing, despised Devil Floors. Got two out of three walls insulated and drywalled – put in a couple of electrical outlets while I was at it, too, that’ll be hooked up after the electricians come for their final trim-out.

Looks a little brighter in there!


Made a smooshed-together panorama of the back wall, since there’s no good photo angle out there.

back drywall

Not too exciting, but another checkmark (almost) checked off my list. I still have that remaining 1/2 wall to do, and then all the taping and mudding of course.

Once we get permission to make that an official, REAL room, it’s going to be such a perfect little laundry/mud room. In the mean time, I’m going to order some plexiglass to keep the rain out of that giant gaping hole and hope the county doesn’t call me on it.