Lessons from my Crawlspace, and my Contractor

Trigger Warning: extreme change orders

Here you have the 1st floor kitchen at my house when I found it:

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It looks kind of cute to me now.  I kind of think I should have just kept it that way.

So, I didn’t keep it that way.  I pulled out all these finishes – the dropped ceiling, the old pantry doors, the vintage appliances, the bathroom behind the partition to the left of this photo, and the archway.  oh, the archway…

Finally, I pulled up the linoleum floor and started to work pulling up the wood floor underneath.  Things were going fine, I was working my way along the floor, prying up salvageable wood flooring with a flat bar, when something happened I will never forget.  As I made my way across the floor, it became harder and harder to get the top layer of flooring up, because the subflooring was being pushed down under the pressure of my pry bar.  Ruh Roh.

Here’s the very same view, minus the whole kitchen:

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We demo’d this space completely, and found that there was no foundation under it.  Now, I don’t have high standards for what I’ll consider a foundation.  Dry-laid fieldstone, I’ll take it.  Large rock sitting on some compacted soil – if it holds up for a couple hundred years, it’s good enough for me.  But this section of the house, which would be the “5” on a telephone keypad, wasn’t even built on rocks.  There were four large logs laid down on the bare dirt, and the floor was just framed on top of that.

The subfloor and the framing was mushy and rotted, which you’d expect it to be after 150 years sitting on cool, damp soil.  And the shallow crawlspace – how should I describe this – was full of the remains of at least 6 different kinds of animals that I could identify – their poop, their nests, their skeletons, their fur, their decomposing stink glands – I’ll just leave it there.  It was a really, really nice place for animals to live.  and die.  The smell is something I will never forget.

Clearly, this part of the house was not meant to stand the test of time.  I’d like to think that this addition was built as a temporary structure – maybe a porch or something.  But over time, no one remembered about the lack of foundation, and they just kept adding additions, piling on around little number “5” until it was smothered in other additions, namely the numbers, 2, 4, and 6, which all had totally reasonable foundations.  It’s amazing that the house did not collapse on itself like a giant doughnut.

When we got to this stage, that’s what I called it, my doughnut hole.  Here it is with the old stairs removed, and with a view clear through to the North side of the house:

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This was about the time things got very, very serious.  It became clear that the renovation was going to be a much bigger, much more expensive job than we meant to do.  If you take nothing else away from this blog, take this. If you insist on renovating an old house, this moment will come. Lesson #1: People say you should set aside maybe twice as much time and money as you thought you would need.  I will tell you it’s more like three times as much.

This was, maybe not coincidentally, also about the time that my contractor began to lose his mind.

My contractor, who at this point would rather remain nameless, is a wonderful guy.  He does great work, he is a pleasure to be around, and he tried everything he could to charge me as little as possible.  That’s where we went wrong.  If you take a second thing away from this blog, take this.  Lesson #2: Things cost what they cost.  You may think you are saving money by hiring your friend/cousin who is giving you a great price.  The tradeoff is, they won’t be able to work full time on your job, because you’re not paying full price.  They will need to work on other, full price jobs, for most of the time to make their living, and they will work on your job on nights and weekends, or between other jobs.  That means your job will take a lot longer than it needs to, and if you are paying for another place to live, or were counting on rental income from that space (I was doing both), that means it’s costing you lots and lots of money.  I would have been better off paying my contractor a lot more money up front to bang out the job.  And my contractor would have been better off as well.

As it went, while my contractor was trying heroically to get the work done for a price we both felt I could afford, he got sick, very sick.  A lifetime of smoking, hard work, unhealthy eating, and most likely the stress of working on this house caught up with him about halfway into this work.  He was out for weeks, sometimes months at a time, dealing with treatments for skin cancer and other serious health problems.  He managed, over an excruciatingly long period of time, to lay down a thin layer of concrete (aka a “rat slab”) that would keep animals out in the future, and to frame up the first floor of the rear section of the house.

Before:

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With an insulated gravel base for the rat slab:

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And with the cement finally poured:

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I can’t tell you how much better this place smells now.  Here we are with a new 1st floor, thank goodness.  In the back of this photo, you can see this original roof line of that part of the house:

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After this, things went all to hell.  The photo above is also what the job site looked like the day my contractor laid down his tools, made his favorite joke (again) about the one-eyed mason (he makes really beautiful circular brick paths), told me he would see me on Monday, and never came back.  It was devastating, and I went through all the regular stages of grief, which took a few more months.  I mean, I really loved the guy, as much as you can love a person you’d like to strangle on a daily basis, which most people will understand, is quite a lot.

I finally had to hire someone else to finish the work, and finish it they did.  My new friend Daniel Madri came in with a crew of 4 guys, I paid them the money I should have paid my original contractor in the first place, dammit, and they finished up the work, based on the drawings and specs they found lying around – my contractor had drawn them on pieces of 2×6 lumber, as carpenters will do.

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I basically handed them this.  They looked at it, laughed, looked closer at it, and said OK, and built it.  Finally, finally, no more doughnut hole.  I had floors in all the places where floors should be, and stairs in all the places stairs should be.  The framing inspector came and treated me gently, signing off on all the permits pulled by my original contractor.

While I’ve been dealing with the demo and framing portion of my remodel, I have friends who have bought, renovated, and moved into houses.  I have friends who have built houses from scratch in less time than this has taken me.  There is a 5-story development around the corner from my house that has gone up in less time than it’s taken us to get to this point.  I also have friends who have lost homes to foreclosure since I started this project, and that is not lost on me.  I’m not going to pretend that any of this is cute or fun, because it sucks.  I was so fed up and exhausted, I didn’t even take any photos of the new staircase before piling it all up with building materials again.  Hopefully there will be some “after” photos some day, but right now I’m too exhausted.

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2 Responses to Lessons from my Crawlspace, and my Contractor

  1. Somer says:

    Whoa… Thanks for sharing Stacy…
    It’s heartening to know that others have gone down the hole building stuff ourselves and getting help with it rarely is a dream show for anyone… It’ll make our perspectives on projects stronger I hope… Best with it…

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