Home Improvements

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For the third weekend in a row (week 1 was the knob-and-tube removal, week 2 was the dryer vent and outdoor light installation), we made a trip to a big box hardware store with the intention of doing another project ourselves.

This week we went to Lowes and while headed for the paint aisle to browse, a display of light fixtures caught our eye. PULL-CHAIN LIGHT FIXTURES!!!

It’s almost impossible to find ceiling mount pull-chain fixtures anymore. Especially if you don’t want the “naked bulb” look.  Sure, that works just fine in a basement, garage, or attic, but it really looks like crap in your living space.

Upon closer inspection, they were the type that usually mounts to the bottom of a ceiling fan, but my wife’s limited Spanish skills came in super handy, “Poro ceiling-o install-o”, or something like that…

For whatever reason, this weekend, it seemed like everything had the Spanish side facing forward, but that’s a rant for another day.

Forty-nine dollars later, we were on our way home to replace the long-dead pull chain fixture in the center of the ceiling in our kitchen.

The original fixture was a horrible, slightly rusty circular thing, about 18 inches in diameter. The lighting consisted of two of those circular fluorescent bulbs — which provided great light when I purchased the house but it was UGLY. Rusty fixture, two naked tubes, and no place to mount a cover (because of the pull-chain placement) to hide how horrible it looked.

Over time, the fixture started to buzz like that annoying light we all have at the office. Then one of the bulbs would never turn on, even when I replaced it. Thankfully, it never flickered.

One ambitious weekend, I took the whole thing apart and replaced the ballast and it worked like a charm for about a month. Then the buzzing started up again. And then the pull chain snapped.

That was probably two years ago. Since then, we’ve made out with just a couple of old ratty lamps. The result? A dark, yucky kitchen.

We took down the old one and installed the new one. The instructions were very cryptic — sorta merging the “fan installation” and the “ceiling installation” into one very confusing mess. Turned the power back on, and voila! A bright kitchen!!!

It doesn’t hurt that the white balance is way off on the before photo…It was still ugly though. The old fixture had a HUGE hole in the ceiling above it where you could see the electrical box. We needed one of those big plastic cover plates to hide things — and mount the new fixture tightly against the ceiling.

A quick trip to Home Depot, $17, and another 15 minutes re-installing the light and we were done. It’s not ideal, but for around $60, it made our relic of a kitchen a lot more livable.

And that’s three consecutive weeks playing with electricity… without an injury! Woo-hoo!

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Trex LogoYesterday, the contractor’s salesman team came by the house to measure the attic windows… though as I suspected, that was just an excuse to come over and collect the second $8000 check.

Being a bit of a talker, to put it mildly, Art (the main salesman) went on and on about nothing while repeating things we’ve heard over and over and over again.

I can’t tell you how many times, regarding the new doors we selected, Art’s mentioned that “the doors are a thousand dollars a piece”… Problem is, we looked at the exact same doors at our local Lowes and they’re both under $500 each — and that’s after the retail mark-up.

Same deal with the attic windows. “Oh, the circle top windows are $900 a piece…” C’mon… All hot air. I just nod my head. My wife on the other hand will probably call his bluff on the next round.

Later on in the evening, the owner of the business stopped over. There was likely some communication issue as he was also probably stopping by for the next check, but whatever.

It was nice to finally meet him — and he left a good impression. You can tell he’s not an aggressive salesman like Art, but he works it too.

Last night, he basically sold us on a new front porch. The pitch was, “you’re updating the whole look of the house, you may as well have the porch done to complete it.”

He’s right. But when he tries to sell us on a new back porch, well, we’ll stop him there.

What was cool was that he gave an estimate right there, on the spot. It wasn’t this needlessly long drawn out process, like it was the first night with Art and his son.

Another difference from the first night was that the number wasn’t staggering. Around $3000 for Trex and around $1500 for wood. I’d have to sleep on it.

Having never heard of “Trex“, I was leaning more towards wood, if not only because I’ve heard of wood, but because the current porch is made of wood and I’d guesstimate that it’s over 80 years old and it still holds up just fine — except for the one plank at the end.

After looking it up, and with a some valuable input from my wife, the idea of what Trex really is, set in. Yep, the synthetic stuff. Probably the wiser choice.

Compass Rose We checked out their website and, yeah, it looks really nice. That is, if your going to build a huge circular deck and have a compass rose built right in. Our house can’t quite pull that off.

We’re building a rectangle. Maybe 14 feet long and 5 feet wide. Where would the compass rose go? Anyway, they don’t really have a colour option that matches the house, and I think a great deal of the cost involved is due to the “finish” they put on the fake wood. We’d end up painting over it.

So, that puts us back to wood. While $1500 more really hurts, it’s not nearly as painful as another $3000 would be. And I have a feeling his estimates were for bare minimum style porches. I’d like to jazz it up some with some nice posts and railings. Going the Trex route, I’ve little doubt that I could put together a porch that would cost us in excess of $5k. That’s not an option.

Today, he’s dropping off a catalog of posts and railings. I think I know exactly the look I’m looking for and hopefully it’s in the catalog. Our original back porch, which was torn off in December and was likely original to the house, had the type of post I’d like in the front. There are few old houses in town that have the style too — basically a fancy square post. No round columns for me or anything that looks like an extra large interior banister.

Right now, though, I guess anything would be an improvement over the cheap piece-it-together wrought iron posts and railings we have now.

For the floor, and actual porch structure, my only hesitation on using wood is that “they don’t make ’em like they used to”. Our porch has a neat sound when you walk across it. I’ll miss that. The floor is like a hardwood floor — not in the looks department, but it’s put together in a tongue and groove fashion. It’s tight. No gaps between the boards. I like that. And you *never* see that on new construction.

For a back porch, where I’d call it a deck (are the words interchangeable?), that type of construction seems right, but for the front, I don’t know, I kind of want to keep the “authentic” look…even though the house is now covered in vinyl…

Decisions, decisions…

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This past weekend, my wife and I decided to take on a few home improvement projects ourselves.

Seeing how the siding contractors have gone around obstacles on the side of the house they’ve finished, it seemed like a good idea to remove and replace the obstacles we don’t really like, so when they go around them, they’re not leaving an eyesore up there.

The back porch area was the area we concentrated on — specifically the light fixture and the dryer vent.

The first project of the day would be the dryer vent.  When I bought the house in 2002, there wasn’t a dryer — just a 3 inch vent, with a bird nest, for one to hook up to.  When I finally purchased a washer and dryer, my mom cried as I’d no longer make laundry visits.  But the real problem I had was that the standard dryer duct was 4 inches — I had a 3 inch vent.  Nothing an adaptor couldn’t take care of, but it was always something in the back of my mind; make the dryer vent bigger.

The original wall mounted light fixture on the porch was one of those junky looking under-$10 types.  We went to our local Home Depot (we’re actually more partial to Lowe’s, but it’s farther away) and picked out a relatively inexpensive (around $40) motion sensor type of fixture.

Then we headed to the aisle with the dryer vents.  We picked up a nice plastic one that came with the 4-inch duct that would extend into the house.  There were all kinds of options to pick and choose from individually (duct & vents), but this one had everything connected already and kinda had the look I was picturing.  Total damage, about $5.

Now the problem would be drilling a 4-inch hole in the side of the house.  I knew my dad had drill bits like that, and I remembered exactly where he kept them.  Problem is, my parents retired to Florida a few years ago, so I’d have to get one for myself.

Off to the tool section and I couldn’t find what I was looking for.  They had what was called a 4-inch saw bit.  Not really what I needed.  My wife asked one of the associates and they said we needed that and a mandrell.  Hmmm… Barbara Mandrell is going to help me drill the hole, eh?

Nope, it was a mandril. Basically a normal looking drill bit with the ability to attach the 4 inch saw blade to.  Never saw one of those before.  I  thought a mandril was a monkey.  My dad’s big circle bits always one big piece.  Whatever, we needed it to make the hole and this was all they had.  Sucks that it was nearly $40 total for both pieces.  I’m not sure I can think of another place I’ll need to drill a 4-inch hole.  Ever.

Once home, the dryer vent was the first project.  My wife used a hammer to pry off the old vent.  One thing I’ve noticed on this house is that the previous owners had apparently never heard of a screw.  Everything is nailed on.  And then painted over.  Once she got the vent off, we saw what I’d guess was the original colour of the house: white. 

Original 3-inch Dryer Vent 

From the insides of the attic windows, we determined long ago that the trim was originally green.  White with green trim and brown cedar shingles.  That would have looked really nice.  Makes you wonder why they threw light gray shingles on top, painted the whole thing a baked bean shade of red, and then nailed plastic black shutters up.

Back to the task at hand…  Since it would be too difficult to use the drill to make the 3-inch hole a 4-inch hole without drifting, and the original hole was in an odd place anyway, we decided to make it a few feet lower and to the left.  We picked out spot and I started to drill.

Making the 4-inch hole with the new tools.

Barely through the semi-rotten clapboard, it became apparent that an electric drill would be a huge advantage over the cheap Skil 12V battery powered drill I have.  It’s a terrible drill.  In fact, I hesitate to even call it a drill.  Screw stripper would be a more accurate name.  It died.

We recharged it and drilled to death about 5 or six times before we’d gone through the siding, the wood behind the siding, the wood lathe, and the interior plaster wall.  We luckly missed a stud by about an inch — something I hadn’t even thought of when I started to drill, but something I won’t forget for the next time I’m pulling holes somewhere in the house.

I was also surprised at how thick and hard the wood was, once through the old siding.  I was always a little skeptical about how solid the house was where it looks terrible, but just behind one of the worst places on the exterior, it’s as solid as solid can be.

We pushed the new duct and vent through the hole, connected the dryer and gave it a test run.  Success!  I didn’t bother to pull/push it flush against the house and screw it down yet though, as I’m sure the contractors will appreciate it having a little give for when they side around it.

The new 4-inch dryer vent!

Back Porch light fixture upgrade.Next up was the light fixture.  We turned off the power and pulled down the old one.  I was worried it was going to be like some of the interior wiring — ancient.  It was old, but not terrible.  The biggest problem we had was stuffing all of the connections in behind the fixture.  And then figuring out which setting to set the motion sensor on.  We also left a little give on it too — it’s not super tight against the house either for the contractor’s benefit.

Small projects, yeah, but we’re working our way up to tearing off the horrible wood paneling, and then plaster, in our entry room.  Small steps, right?

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The back of the house looks…new?I should have done this a long time ago.

Yesterday, when I arrived home from work, I found that the back of the house had been sided. Wow. Not sure I really expected it to begin so soon, but I’m not complaining either. I’m just glad we have the funds in place to make the remaining payments already.

The colour looks a lot better than I thought it would. I was a little skeptical… I dunno, I thought it might be too dark, but it’s not, it’s perfect. And the improvement is so drastic; I can’t imagine why I held off having this done for so long. Oh yeah… the cost.

On the negative side of things, it’s not seamless vinyl siding. I kinda knew that going in, but amazingly I’ll admit it’s not that noticeable. Maybe it’s the shock value of the house not looking like crap any more that makes me gloss over the seams, I don’t know.

Another thing I don’t really like is how plasticy and semi-squishy the side of the house is now. Again, I knew that was going to be the case going in, and it’s also the reason I’m not real fond of vinyl siding, but the difference in curb appeal will totally be worth it. Still, someday I hope to have an old home with read wood siding — and in great shape. It just would have cost too much to restore and maintain this one and make it look the way I want using all wood.

The contractors have been good so far — a definite improvement over the roofers. I’ll hold off on a final ruling because the roofers also appeared quite good until the last couple of days when they tore most of our screens, put a brick through a window and onto the hood of our car, and on top of it all, they left a dumpster in our front yard over the Christmas holiday (even though the project was complete over a week beforehand).

On the back of our house, there is an exhaust port for a fan in our kitchen. Basically a little spring loaded trap door, when it opens, the fan turns on and sucks whatever out of the kitchen. Well, they obviously tugged on the trap door from the outside and broke the chain that keeps the door shut — and the fan turned off — so when I got home, the door was shut, but the fan had been running for hours.

Thankfully, it was an easy 15 minute fix. No damage done.

Slow day at the regular paycheck job.

Currently, I’m redesigning the company’s website, which is a nice needed change of pace from the regular daily grind. Unfortunately, it’s something I work on whenever I get a chance or things slow down, which isn’t very often.

It’s been a very productive day so far though — I’ve figured out how to prevent Firefox from looping an Adobe Flash file, when every other browser out there loads and displays things fine. It’s something I’ve been planning on sitting down and figuring out for a few weeks, but I finally did it this morning. I’d had a feeling it was something simple… and it was.

I’ve also filled in the content to two sections worth (16 pages so far). As I’m using a PHP template for this site, this part is really repetitive and *really* boring allowing my brain to ponder other things. If you hadn’t guessed, this is the project that isn’t bringing in any income that I’ve mentioned a few times in previous posts.

On the brain right now? Well, with the pending siding project nearing fruition, I’m starting to look even further ahead. The next potential obstacle to overcome for our homeowners insurance problem is the original knob and tube wiring throughout the house.

I removed some myself this past weekend, but it was all in full view. It’s the stuff behind the walls that’s out of my league. And lately, I’ve really been wishing that we had light switches like a normal house. (Most rooms have a pull chain fixture in the center of the ceiling.)

The greedy side of me would also like a sub-panel installed in the detached garage so we could have power out there again, but that’s just like extra frosting.

This week, I’ll dig up the number of the electrician, John Cyr, from when he upgraded the 60amp fuse box to 200amp service three or four years ago. He also wired a new outlet to the dryer and washing machine at around the same time.

Deep down, I know it’s not the type of project I can get a quote on, it’s understandably, as they say in the business, a “Time and Materials” type of project due to the number of variables hidden behind the plaster, but I think he charged me fairly for work done in the past.

That, and I learned a ton just from watching him and being a “stand-in” assistant. I’d be comfortable with him working in my house, really the most important thing, so I’m hoping he’s up for the project and some quick easy money for a job he can work on at his own leisure.

This will kill any chance of reaching my 2007 financial goal, but as long as I finish the year higher than I started, I’ll still be satisfied.

Saturday’s Cessna purchase is still ongoing as well. I was unable to pick it up today, but the plan is for a fellow from work to help me lift it into my wife’s truck tomorrow morning. The weather isn’t likely to cooperate, but I think it should be okay. For whatever reason, I’m pretty excited about getting it home.

Now I can honestly say that, “I own my own company, I drive a BMW, and I recently purchased a private plane.”

Hey — it’s true in a wacky sort of way.

All that’s left is for me to turn my house into a palace — and we’re working on that!

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Removing Knob & Tube wiring from the attic.This morning, the first $8k check to the contractors cleared (even though I post-dated it for June 11). The ball is now rolling and I’m getting excited to finally get the whole thing going even though it’s putting me back in the hole financially.

Last night, we picked out and purchased the door hardware for the front and side doors that we’re having replaced. It was tough to pick a style or even a colour when we still don’t really know what colour the wood grain on the door is going to be. We decided on a brushed nickel finish — though it’s got a bit of a copper finish to it.

My wife also finished clearing out the attic. We hadn’t really ventured up there since the roof was completed in December of 2006; let’s just say there was some yucky debris…everywhere. A quick shop-vac run took care of that.

We also tore down some of the paper stapled up to “hide” the insulation. It wasn’t hiding anything, and it was hanging down and just looked sloppy. We also rearranged a bit to make it easier to the contractors to get to the windows in the gables. I hesitate to say that it looks good, but compared to what it looked like just last week, yeah, it looks good.

This weekend, I still have to remove some of the unused knob-and-tube wiring up there and then somehow cap off the live lines that extend over to our detached garage. Yes, we have our own personal power lines that run from the house to the garage through the air. Don’t ask.

Insulation removal to expose Knob & Tube Wiring which will be removed.

The downside of doing this is that the garage will no longer have power, but I’d hate to have the vinyl siding elaborately go around something so outdated. This way, the exterior of the house will look nice and right now, that’s priority number one.

We also have a few holes along the roof line that various critters like to call home at various times during the year. Right now I believe it’s vacant. The birds have moved out. And the squirrels won’t move back in until the fall.

I think if I pull down some insulation (right near where the wires I’ll be working on are), I’ll be able to see into their home — and out of the holes from the inside.When we had the roof done, the roofers plugged the holes with some wood blocks.

Sadly, those were nothing but a mild inconvenience for the squirrels. Persistent little animals. This time I want to plug them for good and somehow make it so that they never return. Apparently fox urine does the trick. But getting a fox to pee three stories up may be more of a challenge than I am up for.

Either way, I’d hate to have them work their way through the brand new vinyl that goes up in a few weeks.

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Conestoga WagonOkay, we’re not being attacked, but with the pushy sales tactic, sometimes it feels like it.

We’ve decided to green light the siding project!

So today I spent some quality time with my trusty calculator and the various “convenience” check offers we’ve received over the past few months from our credit card companies. (Yes, I’ve been collecting them in a pile on the kitchen table for months to the delight of my wife.)

So, subtracting the CitiBank 0% transfer of $6000 last month, we still need to come up with around $18000 relatively quickly. I’m able to throw around $2000 from my checking account balance at it, so now we’re down to $16000.

I’ve got it down to two offers. The first is on a card from Chase Bank. I don’t carry a balance on the card and the limit is $22k. The offers are:

0.99% for 6 months with the usual 3% fee with a ceiling of $99
4.99% until paid in full with 3% fee and a ceiling of $99

I’ve decided to go with the second option and write a check to myself for $8000, which will actually end up being $8099 on the card after the transaction fee.

The second offer we’re considering is on my wife’s CapitalOne card. Right now, she’s carrying a balance of around $800. We’re going to wipe that out this week and then use their offer of:

1.99% for 1 year with a 3% fee. No ceiling

So, if she writes a check to herself, or me, for $8000, with the transaction fee, the balance will be $8240.

Total borrowed will be $22339.

The plan, which we should be able to stick to, is to continue on our aggressive debt strategy on a slightly smaller scale.

We can pay it all off before the rates jump by paying roughly $600 per month per card. That’s $1800/month which is actually less than what we’ve been paying back on a monthly basis for the past 3 years.

Being that the Citi balance is at 0%, it might be wise to just pay the minimum on that card to focus more on the higher rate balances, but each way I’ve calculated the various repayment scenarios, they all fall within a span of about $60.

So, while just a day ago I was fretting about having to borrow over $20k, now I’m seeing it’s not really that big a deal.

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Not our actual house, but kinda sorta the colour combo we’re going for…Stunned silence.

That was our reaction when given the number.

First things first — we called a contractor for an estimate last week and they came out on Friday evening. Now, my wife and I like to buy things, we don’t like to be sold them. Why is it that every contractor has a seedy sales team? It’s worse than buying a car.

I digress. Plain and simple, we want vinyl siding. We want the little fish scales in the peaks, contrasting trim around the windows, a new front door, and a new basement hatch. That’s it.

We don’t want 10 free windows. We don’t want free gutters.

Don’t tell us what colour we should get. Don’t tell us that shutters are in style.

Don’t tell us what we want.

And don’t ask us to sign something.

 We *know* what we want, and we’re asking if you can do it for us and for how much.

And don’t tell us that it will be hard to find the right size basement hatch or to install a specific door. We don’t care. We’re paying you to do it. I can’t imagine doing that in my job — offering something and then telling a client, “Well, that’s really hard to do.” What?

On the bright side, they do good work. There are a number of homes in the area that they’ve resurrected from the dead and we’d really like to join them.

On that note, they kept calling our house a “show piece”. One of the houses they recently completed is just up the road — and they took us over to oogle their house. Right around dinner time. That had better not happen with our house. I don’t want a “show piece”. And I certainly don’t want strangers walking around my house.

Anyway, it was the bottom line that left us stunned — basically between $24k and $26k in total. Unfortunately, that’s about $10k more than we were prepared for.

To finance the project, it looks like we’ll be using a few of those handy “convenience checks” that credit cards sneak in there on page two of the bill. Using those, our interest rate will top out at 4.9%, which is a lot better than the 15.5% loan we took out from Bank of America to finance the roof.

It still hurts, though, to have just crawled out of the hole and instantly be buried under another 5 figure balance.

Can You Dig It?


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