A what point did I realize I was in over my head in fixing up a run-down lake bungalow in northeastern Connecticut?
When I peeled up layers of carpet, linoleum, and asbestos tile to find a mostly rotted subfloor?
When my roofer failed to show up for weeks after I paid him $4,500?
When I realized that upon tearing down every wall, ripping out every electrical chord, and removing every pice of piping down to the septic tank disposal, that I was left with a flimsy shell that leaned precariously upon two leaky chimneys?
I’d purchased the 1-acre property at auction in October 2013, which itself was an ordeal. I was in Brazil at the time, and it was unexpected that the cabin — which I’d had an eye on for a year — would suddenly come up for auction from the owning bank. I couldn’t myself make a bid from Brazil, but I could empower others to act on my behalf.
I rushed to the US consulate in Sao Paulo to ask a notary public to grant my father power-of-attorney in bidding for the house in a HUD-organized auction. I won the auction — I may well have been the sole bidder — and found myself returning to the US that December to a lakeside bungalow with no heat, water, or bathroom at the start of a cold New England winter made especially frigid by an infamous “polar vortex.”
DECEMBER: TEARING DOWN
What the bungalow did have was: leaks, infestations, mold, garbage, and lots of problems. It’d been abandoned for years, the previous owner having walked away from the indebted property sometime in 2012 (likely after realizing all the problems). Mold inside the walls was so unbearable that my allergic uncle could not stand inside for more than several minutes.
So why had I wanted to purchase the property anyway? 1) The price wasn’t much more than the value of the land, so it seemed a decent investment. 2) The property connected to my parents’ land down the street, so it would protect their investment and they could watch over my investment whenever I was away. 3) It had a cool old fieldstone fireplace and chimney.
The renovations began with tearing out three layers of nasty flooring, the kitchen cabinets and cupboards, all wood-paneling and drywall, as well as the thin insulation behind it. That provided access to all the electrical wiring and old piping.
“Should I tear that out, too?” I asked the allergic project overseer, Uncle Steve.
“I would,” he said.
Out it all came.
My little mother inhaled plumes of dust as she helped turn the house inside-out, hauling its guts into a growing pile that would eventually weigh 2.25 tons (according to the dumpster company that hauled it all away). My father took up a sledgehammer and helped pound down walls.
I nearly lost a finger when I tripped and snagged a nail that pierced a hole through my pinky. I invested in a Rigid powertool kit from Home Depot, and with the sawzall my uncle and I sliced into the 4-inch cast iron ventilation pipe, cutting it in half and dropping it down through the roof and tossing it into the truck of Marty, who earned a few bucks in scrap metal for the task.
Marty also took away an old hot water tank, washing machine, dryer, and bags of electrical wiring–about $200 in scrap metal altogether, he later said.
The chimneys turned out to be two of the biggest headaches. A brick chimney in the center of the house serviced a forced hot air furnace in the basement. A second fieldstone chimney on the side of the house was non-functioning. It had been sealed shut years earlier with a steel cover, and an unsightly hole had been bored through the beautiful fieldstone rocks to service a pellet stove. The original hearth had been dismantled. A mason inspected the chimney and suggested that I pay him $1000 to tear it down.
But with some encouragement and reassurance, I opted to restore the old fireplace to working condition. I ripped up an ugly fieldstone hearth, ripped out the fireplace’s steel cover (again utilizing the sawzall), and reinforced the floor with 2×10 beams. Marty, a science teacher with Uncle Steve, worked hours in sealing up the chimney’s holes and rebuilding the new hearth.
But the new hearth wouldn’t happen until April… First would come other tasks on the to-do list, like a new subfloor, because I’d ripped out about half the existing subfloor due to rot, meaning that you now walked into the house and looked straight down into the basement.
JANUARY: TOWN POLITICS
I wonder if every new homeowner isn’t taken aback upon receiving a letter that says “welcome to our town, please pay us taxes for our services, which for a single, unmarried, childless homeowner who lives outside the country for much of the year will amount to simply collecting your taxes.” I was surprised, especially since my bungalow was officially listed with more bedrooms and amenities (such as a functioning kitchen, running water, and a working bathroom) than I’d found.
So I challenged the taxes.
Driving to the Woodstock Town Hall in Uncle Steve’s old red truck one cold snowy evening, a woman appeared in the middle of the road with her hands held high motioning for me to stop. I stopped. I waited. Five minutes later a gunshot fired. A police officer appeared, dragging a corpse out of the road. A trail of deer blood (and some guts) marked the road as I drove forward. (Other animal spottings during my first Woodstock winter included a beautiful orange fox that ran across my parents’ property, and a pack of coyotes that could be heard howling in the night. I nearly hit a deer myself on another occasion, and I did hit a possum.)
The deer killing should have been an omen. At the town hall, I was not welcomed. The board of assessment appeals was chaired by a crotchety old towny who didn’t appreciate the challenge from this young buck, and he endeavored to run me over with the power of his chairmanship (figuratively speaking).
The appeals chairman said I was lying about the condition of the bungalow. He said I would likely lose the appeal and end up paying higher taxes. I said I still welcomed the reassessment.
A month later the old man arrived at the bungalow with his posse from the board of appeals, sniffing around like a old miser with too much time on his hands. He left after a gruff 30-minute walk around the house during which he made belittling remarks and tromped around as if he owned the place.
Weeks later I received an updated assessment that was $30,000 BELOW what I’d been taxed, which was supposed to translate into hundreds of dollars in savings for me, except that my next tax bill would still be according to the OLD assessment PLUS the cost of improvements that I’d put into the place. I was being taxed more than for less of a house! An hour-long argument with the truly moronic town tax assessor did little to change that. The only thing I learned from the experience is that local politics is tyrannical and bullying.
All the while I was laying down that new plywood subfloor, piece by piece. And around this time a new problem had emerged: the house was infested with carpenter ants.
As I ripped out and replaced ant-infested wood, my ever-helpful neighbor Rudy who noticed another problem: Every door and window in the house was framed incorrectly so that the weight of the entire roof was sitting directly atop my windows (instead of resting on the beams to either side of each window)! We had to brace up the ceiling/roof around the front door and each window and build a new frame.
Working alone late one night, in that depressing little bungalow lacking heat or water, persecuted by the cold and the carpenter ants, I balanced pieces of a new window frame on my shoulders and attempted to pound it into place, feeling some kind of kinship to Jesus Christ as he carried his cross up Golgotha.
Then there was other politics: applying for a building permit; calling and interviewing electricians, plumbers, and carpenters; recalling and turning down electricians, plumbers, and carpenters; and, perhaps most stressful of all, monitoring my delinquent roofer Don Wilson of Wilson Home Improvement.
I’d hired Don because he seemed weathered, wizened, patient, straight-forward.
I eventually fired Don (and he in turn threatened to sue me) because in fact he was not wizened but actually just creaky and slow-moving, not patient but actually just a procrastinator, not straight-forward but actually just a jibber-jabber who liked to spout dumb opinions.
Don’s work day started late and ended early. He originally said the roof, including three skylights and chimney repairs, would take 1-2 weeks to complete. It took him nearly two months.
To be sure, Don was dealing with snow and cold weather, but those would also simply become excuses. Around this time I asked my neighbor Rudy for advice in building a little staircase to the basement, and he ended up practically building the thing. Working with Rudy yielded solutions; working with Don gave me problems.
One morning in late February, with forecasts of a pending blizzard, Don showed up in the late morning and asked me to pay him for the remainder of the job, even though he still had to finish shingling the roof, among other tasks such as sealing the chimney and cleaning up a huge mess. I asked him why he couldn’t finish the job before the blizzard came, and that I’d pay him in full when he finished the job in full.
This led to a one-hour shouting match that left my lungs physically burning. Don finished the basic roofing job that day but then failed to reappear or call for three weeks. When he did, I asked him to never set foot on the property again. He’d left behind clogged gutters and debris.
I also soon noticed that Don’s flashing-job around the stone chimney was so terrible that the cement crumbled at the touch. Then I noticed an even more expensive mistake: the roof was leaking around the brick chimney because of Don’s poor roofing job.
Meanwhile, my other sub-contractor Dan Merlo was showing up every morning bright and early. He quickly framed out a new bathroom and nailed up the ceiling furring strips, and then recommended that I consider hiring the local electrician Brendan Owens and local plumber Jeff Duncan, who also turned out to be smart and efficient and flexible.
Brendan started on the rough-on electrical wiring and Jeff started on the rough-in plumbing.
Soon enough we were ready for the insulation. Then came the sheet rock, the mudding and sanding, the tiling in the shower and bathroom, the painting, the re-installation of heating vents, the new installation of a tankless hot water heater, and the finished plumbing and electrical.
APRIL: LIGHTING A FIRE
Much of the hard work was done. Now came two major aesthetic developments: a finished fireplace and new woodstove insert, and a gloriously gorgeous pine ceiling. Marty and Uncle Steve spent a long Saturday finishing up the new hearth late into the evening, Dan helped me reseal the flashing around both chimneys, and the local chimney and stove company Mainline installed a new Regency woodstove insert for the fireplace.
Dan and I installed the wood ceiling, made from Connecticut-grown pine trees that had been milled locally at Barret’s Lumber. Some of the leftover pieces of pine were combine with wood from Dan’s property to build a big beautiful bookcase.
Running around Lake Bungee at this time, I saw a stack of six plastic chairs placed curbside for the garbage-collector. I returned with a truck to load them up, and while at the house the homeowner asked me, “Do you need anything else?”
“What else do you have?” I replied.
He gave me the chairs, a toaster, a refrigerator, an old oak liquor cabinet, and a clothes hamper. My neighbor Rudy gave me an entire furniture set (couch, two chairs, two side tables, and two lamps) that had belonged to his mother. My parents gave me their old kitchen table and a classic old poker set for the fireplace.
Now I’ve got this bungalow, built with the indispensable help of Rudy, Marty, Uncle Steve, my parents, and a lot of my own blood and sweat — as well as part of Uncle Steve’s right ring finger, which he nearly cut it off while we were splitting wood this summer.