I bought an old house a couple of years ago, one built back in nineteen fifty, a standard two bedroom, one bath house for the lower middle class. One might wonder at such distinctions, but they were far more useful then. The blue collar worker was moving up in life to a more desirable housing and life style after the war. The young professionals were able to afford better than their parents in some cases. This town had been absorbed by a large city three years earlier but was still rural, something that parts of it have been able to keep, increasing the desirability of the property, at least marginally. Yes, the world is about value, about maintaining property values, keeping a sense of community, being desirable, unlike Ferguson, which is no longer desirable and hasn’t been for decades. Where we call home has a great effect on us as individuals and as family.
Few places are perfect as home, something always seems to be missing or could be improved. Our wants and desires always exceed our needs and our ability to obtain those ends. Most of are willing to settle for less than perfect, perhaps considerably less than perfect. What we choose and how we live reflects a great deal about our cultural backgrounds and our personal choices. Do I want vast open spaces or a more compartments in my house? Where do I spend most of my time and what do I do there? When one is a child our desires are often shaped by special places such as a grandparent’s house or that of a playmate. We collect ideas about the place where we want to live until time comes to make our first choice. That first choice usually falls very flat for we usually have to make do on a very limited income. The old days of living at the YMCA or at a rooming house where one has a private room, communal bath, and communal entertainment are features of an era long since past, but I wonder if we were wise to have discarded those “relics”. Renting that first apartment is often an expensive affair and having to share the rent an exercise in judgment and patience for not everyone budgets their income well. We eventually move up in the world, usually by small increments according to our sources of income.
Finally the time comes when we acquire that first house. Many of us will buy an older house, one in need of a little work, or so we think. Nothing lasts forever and that nothing proves that rule so well as an older house. Tract houses are the worst since most are built as cheaply as possible. Plumbing and electrical are the main items that go wrong and few of us are born knowing much about these mysterious items. Our venture may start with wanting to change a light fixture or the faucet and water taps (valves with the pretty handels). The rule about plumbing is there is only one shut off valve that ever works, the one located at the supply meter. Everything else is corroded to the point where it is almost impossible to turn the water off. All fixtures have been either soldered in place or if a threaded connection was used, are corroded to the point that the steel of copper tubing breaks when trying to twist the fixture off. Few of us know how to sweat copper joints and I won’t go into any great detail. And the objects of our affection are always placed in spaces too small the the adult midget to work. The only thing worse is if the house was built using a concrete slab foundation, then one is truly hosed, so to speak.
Electrical work is a little easier but the electricians who ran the wiring and did all the connections seemed to be fond of using as little wire as possible. To make matters worse, the common wall socket comes with slots that allow the wire to be stripped of half an inch of insulation and push the wire in, using tension clamp that make it difficult to pull the wire out. The other oddity is when the electrician has used a common neutral for two circuits, not the best of practices. Of course the fuse or breaker box is where most of us become confused. It is an area of grave danger and multiple wiring arrangements. The various wire gauges, the varying amperages for the breakers or fuses, the need for grounding, all this things tend to stupefy us. By comparison, gas lines seem very tame, indeed. I mean, what’s complicated about threaded pipe, except when it leaks?
Replacing doors should be simple but they don’t plug right in as we might think. All that shimming and leveling and plumbing and such, what a pain. The same goes for windows. In some ways replacing them is easier, in some ways not. Garage doors are some of the worst because of the mechanisms that can fail and are usually beyond the ability of the homeowner. As always, having the right tools is an issue. Replacing the tension bar on a roll up door is not for the inexperienced amature. Brick work, cement, siding, fencing, these are all common areas that can prove to be daunting to many individuals. Hiring professions is like inviting strangers to put their hands in the pocket or purse where you keep your money. A good rule of thumb when asking for a bid from a professional is to ask that materials be itemized. The reason is simple, in most states contractors are allowed to charge up to eight times the amount of materials for the job. If it takes a thousand dollars in materials to upgrade an electrical power panel (the breaker box) and the estimate is for nine thousand dollars then you know that electrician is charging you the very maximum he can. No electrician’s time for a day’s work is worth eight thousand dollars. Why can he and the plumber get away with it? Because some work the homeowner is prohibited from doing unless he is a licensed electrician or plumber. Now lucky for me, in my state the home steaded owner can do almost everything but electrical panel and water meter hookup. and I am one of those people who has taught himself how to do quite a lot of building trade jobs. the price is a learning curve and fixing mistakes, but once learned these jobs are easy enough, simple, really.
Now I have before me a remodel job that starts next month. It is a rather large on because I have to gut the house. that is, I will take all the sheet rock out so I can rewire the electrical system. Some of the wiring is sixty five years old and not even close to code. But wiring is fairly straight forward, just three wires; hot, neutral, and ground. Make sure you connect the wires to the right posts to keep polarity (the electrical inspector will check, believe me, and you don’t want to have to redo your work), run a traveler or that second hot wire between two switches when you want a light or socket controlled by two different switches, and life is good. The GFCI sockets take a heavier gauge wire than the normal sockets, and all your sockets should have a ground. Number 14 gauge is fine for ceiling lights, ceiling fans, and most of your electrical outlet sockets since most of what you use rarely exceeds 15 amps. Hair dryers and some kitchen appliances can pull as much as 20 amps and for that one uses 12 gauge wire and 20 amp fuses. It is easier to wire a kitchen and bathroom with 12 gauge wire instead of running two different gauge lines, something to keep in the back of your mind. And if you are wiring up a workshop, always use 12 gauge and 20 amp breakers, power tools pull a heavy load. All overhead light fixtures and ceiling fans will be 14 gauge on 15 amp breakers. The aim is to keep it simple. Where to place receptacles is spelled out, the height of the sockets, the switches, where to put the supporting staples that keep the vertical runs to the studs, all that is simple and easy to remember.
This house has no insulation in the walls, so I get to add the batting. The windows are are old single pane and in need of replacing, so I get to do that. We could use a new front door and I am replacing the door in the kitchen with a large french door. the floor will be replaced including the subfloor. some walls will be eliminated and a couple new ones built in. The exterior walls need to have sheer wall added and since the replacement windows will be smaller, the old wood siding will be replaced. I have a large compressor and a couple of nail guns, so a fair amount of work will be easier. As always, there are a thousand little details so good planning is essential. Drawing up good working plans shows the inspectors you have some idea of what you are doing and can alert them to any problems you may have missed.