Patterns in static

Buying and renovating a house the hard way, part V

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26 March 13.

[PDF version]

Part of an eight-part narrative. Start at Part I, or read the whole thing in PDF format.

Renovation costs (or, gathering information by rolling dice)

I first saw The Partisan without a REALTOR, just looking at what I could see from the yard. I stuck my telephone into the mail slot and took a photograph, and what was on the screen looked great: an old house, stretching into the far distance, that just felt good on the screen there. My mother got her BA at a land grant college in the Midwest when I was around ten years old. I spent that chunk of childhood being dragged around to old classrooms and libraries, with plaster walls, wood all over, and a certain air of productive quiet that I later learned comes from high ceilings. The Partisan had it.

A photograph taken through a mail slot, showing a long sequence of archways and a wood floor.
Figure One: a photograph taken through a mail slot.

We finally got in one rainy day in October. As soon as we walked in, we observed the key defect of The Partisan: it leans. The house is at the end of a row of houses, and it slants away from the row, into the mud on the other side, by enough to be visible and even tangible. The first floor was almost empty, and the owner of the house buzzed us in but did not come down to greet us. We found the basement, and in the rain it was in the process of flooding. Little spouts of water were coming in through the brickwork.

The house had been neglected for this last decade of its 150-year life. The roof was only recently fixed, after letting leaks through for what seems like years. There were no gutters to speak of, including on the neighbors' properties, so voluminous water exited the block via the foundation of The Partisan, eventually sinking one side of the house.

When we got up to the second floor, we saw the owner, “Dewey”, sitting behind his desk in the front bedroom/his office. He was personable, and was happy to give the narrative of the house as far as he knew it, which tied in with his own narrative. The house had been Dewey's real estate agency, but the agency had packed up years ago. Over the course of the last decade, Dewey had developed MS, and I gather that as his ability to climb stairs deteriorated, so did the house. When we asked him about the basement and the water pouring in on the side, he would cock his head to one side, look bemused, and say `Hmm. I didn't know this. You know, I can't get down there.'

I told you about The Qastle, The Luther and The BP because they were the slippery slope that led me, a person whose experience in house renovation mostly consisted of calling a plumber, to where I was standing in a dining room, plaster replete with Character, conscious of my balance in a way that typically only happens when I'm hiking up a rock slide, air humid from seeping rain, and thinking OK, let's break down the costs. To kill the suspense, I did buy the house, and so I can break down the final costs for you: a new support beam in the basement on new concrete piers ($5,000), some new roofing and a gutter system for myself and my neighbors ($3,000), a two-foot apron of cement all around the house ($3,000). Inside, the virtuous contractor who finally saves the day will lay new floors, and build wedge-shaped platforms underneath to bring the new floor to level ($5,000 for just the platforms).

To give you a sense of scale for what's to follow, check your insurance policy if you have a house, and you'll be able to find the company's estimate for the cost of rebuilding should your house burn to the ground entirely. But I'll save you the trouble: if you have a non-mansion single-family home, the replacement cost is probably between $100,000 and $250,000. Add maybe another fifty thousand to go from what the insurance company will pay to the reality of what it would cost. So when I tell you that Partisan-sized houses in the U Street neighborhood sell for around $700,000, you can calculate that the moist dirt under these houses is worth about half a million dollars.

If you ask me, fifteen dollars is too much to pay for dinner, yet in the last year I've grown comfortable throwing around numbers like these, and find myself preceding a price like $3,000 with the word only.

I brought in a support of contractors to estimate the costs. Some thought $120,000 would do it; Jim the hard-nosed inspector guessed surprisingly low at $80,000; my favorite insisted that it was absolutely impossible to fix the house for under half a million dollars, and looked at me with pity that I was so naïve as to think that this could be done for any less. I'm still not quite clear on what floating the foundation means, exactly.

After slogging through several contractor appointments, each taking an hour plus travel time, I tried an experiment where I brought in three at once. It would either be very efficient or a learning experience.

One pointed out that the joists in the basement were rotted through and would all need replacing. The others agreed. None had gone down to the basement before making this evaluation. “Brenda”, an architect and a typically attractive gal, worked hard on giving me the girlfriend experience while discussing the job with me. She'd beckon me into a corner to share a secret with me, the secret being that I should envision the interior space entirely gutted and then completely rebuilt, which she could do for maybe $400,000. By the end, the three came to a consensus that the house had to be eviscerated, and there was no other alternative.

Having gathered the full range of possibilities, from doable from my savings to absolute financial disaster, I bought the house.

[link] [2 comments]
[Previous entry: "Buying and renovating a house the hard way, part IV: LUST"]
[Next entry: "Buying and renovating a house the hard way, Part VI: the architect's triangle"]

Replies: 2 comments

on Thursday, March 28th, techne said

I love the scientific approach! You got what, 6 estimates? I eagerly anticipate seeing how close the final number was to the various measures of central tendency of the estimates you got.

on Friday, March 29th, the author said

The results above were a mixture of two distinct sets. One was people who wanted to rebuild the house in a manner that would cost more than leveling the house and rebuilding it from scratch. The second were people who put some thought into what steps would be needed to repair things. The second set were the only ones I listened to, and they turned out to consistently underbid, by about a half compared to the final result.

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