Relay: This Old-ish House

By the time you are on your second house, you have learned enough from the first one to apply that knowledge to the next one

There is an old saw that says you should build your second house first.  


Well, by the time you are on your second house, you have learned enough from the first one to apply that knowledge to the next one. That makes whacky sense, but it just sort of works if you are doing a renovation.

Consider that your first/original house (inherited, bachelor digs, divorce gift) no longer works for you, but you are used to it and you love the location. You know where the sun comes up and what you would want to look at if only the windows were wider, taller, or moved a foot to the left or right.

So call this future renovation the not-quite-second house because half of it you learned from and the other half you have no clue about.

Naturally, you expect the plan drawer-upper to find certain mistakes in your semi-architectural sketches and notes. (Do not.) You expect the builder-project manager to take you aside and say, “Ya know, if you just thought about having that cellar be a” — read: “trophy” — “basement you would have a lot more space. . . .”

But not everyone tells you stuff in ways you can hear it. We got a cellar and not a “trophy” basement. Twelve years ago, who really knew about the (under)groundswell of the magical third floor that can exist below grade?! But I digress.

We got the house we asked for. Really. But we didn’t get or didn’t really hear the expertise we might have been given. Herewith some of what we learned 12 years after the fact.

We should have:

• Given ourselves a first-floor bedroom with an en-suite bathroom for guests and/or old people with stair issues. (We didn’t do it, and that was a lesson learned too late.)

• Gotten the (trophy) basement with inside stairs. Didn’t, because it ate up too much inside floor space, and I thought basements always had spiders and were basically creepy. In the early 2000s we had never thought about a “third-floor” basement. Amazing, since it’s now such a part of the building vernacular.

• Planned for gutters instead of having to retrofit a few years ago.

• Considered a really big mudroom.

• Known that living here year round we would have seasonal clothes that would not really fit in the summer-house closets.

• Remembered that everyone needs their own room/office/den/cave/space. Sharing is complicated.

• Had the ceilings painted glossy from the start.

One thing we did do: Put the washing machine near where the clothes live (second floor). Lugging laundry is overrated exercise.

The fun/frustrating list is what we would love to change, add, tweak. (Are you listening, New York State Lottery?) I will be leaving “pie in the sky” for another “Relay.” Stay tuned.

Here’s what we were surprised by last year: That the washing machine would wear out (after 12 years). We don’t do that much laundry, really, but apparently they have a built-in obsolescence. Well, replacement wasn’t the worst surprise. The real surprise was that the new washer and dryer (stacking, smallest available) would no longer fit into that little closet we had built to house them. Now they make them deeper to make them narrower. This required an emergency robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul solution, expanding the closet by diminishing the room behind. You win by loss, sort of. Well, there is no predicting old age, in people or machines, but the mechanical engineers really pulled a fast one.

Last year we were also surprised by a massive leak in the ceiling of the kitchen. The ceiling paint held the leak for a while, but the ballooning ceiling was alarming. “Call the super! Wait, we are the super; this is a house.” When we found a fixer we had to open the roof to find out that our 12-year-old kitchen roof had had a slow leak all along. When the kitchen skylight had to be replaced along with the roof, we learned from the fixer that the flashing at the true top of a skylight is abundant, less so at the bottom edge. The flashing around our kitchen skylight was basically nil. Looking back, we guess the building crew just didn’t realize that top edge of a skylight has more flashing — and when putting them in backwards they cut away the extra flashing at the lower edge. It turns out that all of our skylights are backwards. Big surprise!

Then there are the things you wish someone had pointed out before or during the renovation. These are the things nobody warns you about because they assume you know. To wit, a one-story house sees the side of the garage, a two-story house . . . well, the view is no longer the side of the garage; the view is the roof of the garage. Surprise! You will want a new roof there, too.

Another surprise is ice dams.

Nobody tells you when you become a year-round summer person to get the snow away from your shingles. It’s hard enough to shovel a path on the deck, why would I clear the snow away from the house? Why would I ask someone to do that?

ICEDAMN, or damned ice dam, that’s why.

On the verge of our 12th spring, we were in for yet another little surprise.

During recent winters, snow piled on our nice back deck. We cleared paths to the driveway, but that was all we did. Twelve winters of snow/ice/melting/ freezing and more snow got up and under the lowest shingles at the join with the deck. It snuck into the house and buckled the floor in our pantry along the outside wall. How long did it take? I have no idea. It was only today, when I put a few empty bottles on the floor of the pantry and the bottles fell over, that I came face to face with the result. On my hands and knees (no easy task) I saw that a corner floorboard was heaved and dark with water stain. While the area was free of mold and damp, clearly the floor was compromised. Outside the shingles kiss the deck. My guess, though I cannot yet swear to it, is there is no flashing around our deck. Very likely the building crew/skylight putter-inners, who also built our deck, never flashed where it met the house.

Surprise, house, it is your 12th birthday. Feeling old, are ya?

Rebuilding the deck is not an option right now, when we really need that en-suite bathroom (see above), so shoveling is in my future. Unless you are still listening, Lottery God.

Crap happens in and to your house.

Some are things you can live with or fix (leaks, ice dams), and some things you just have to live with no matter what. When your neighbor’s house becomes a monster construction site, their pretty willow tree drops stuff in your gutters, which clog, overflow, and get mildewed on the shady side of your house; when other neighbor’s hedge grows so high and you lose your cutting garden to shade.

Not to worry.

Crap happens.

Take heart, though, because going forward, in this area, there will be fewer and fewer opportunities for renovations. Why? Because everything is a teardown. My house, your house, the house down the road. Anything built after 1900 and not considered historic is destined to be rubble as soon as the closing is over.

So, dear future renovators, if you inherit your mom’s house, fix it up for you and your lifestyle. Pay as close attention as you can, but don’t go nuts because the house you are in, when sold, will be razed, and in place will grow a brand-new, trophy-basemented, en-suite-bathroomed, gambrel-roofed, 12-foot-ceil­ing­ed house — built by a guy who still might put the skylights in backwards.

Just remember, when you sell, it will be for the land and the location, so patch what’s broken and get on with your life. No worries, mon.

Durell Godfrey, a contributing photographer for The Star, loves watching buildings being built because “That’s the stuff that dreams are made of.”