From Farmhouse to Our House IT TOOK MORE THAN TWO YEARS TO TRANSFORM THIS 1850S FIXER-UPPER. ALONG THE WAY, THE OWNERS LEARNED THAT RENOVATING AN OLD HOUSE IS NOTHING LIKE BUILDING A NEW ONE. IT'S AN ACT OF FAITH--IN YOUR INSTINCTS, YOUR CONTRACTOR AND YOUR CHECKBOOK.
(MONEY Magazine) – To say that I found the antique coin, or the creaky house that came with it, would be vastly overstating my control over the forces that compel mortals to buy and renovate old homes. What really happened was, they both discovered me. The coin stared up from the dirt as I was standing outside my 1850 Maine farmhouse one day in May 2000, supervising some landscape work. The previous fall an excavator had dug a giant trench around the house and buried drainage pipes in an effort to keep the stone cellar from flooding every spring. It didn't work; now, in addition to a wet cellar, I had a front yard of mud instead of grass. The only thing green in sight was a small round disk at my feet. I absentmindedly kicked it, then picked it up.
It was a corroded copper penny, but it was big--nearly as big as a Kennedy half-dollar. I rubbed it between my fingers and read the date: 1835, under the head of Liberty. Probably dropped by my home's original farmer a century and a half ago, it had been churned up by a giant yellow Caterpillar in the last year of the 20th century. I had owned lots of old cars, and I still had some old Motown 45s, but I had never owned a penny (or a house) this old before. "Sarah!" I yelled to my wife, feeling like Jed Clampett when his bullet hit the oil gusher at the beginning of The Beverly Hillbillies. "Our troubles are over!"
Well, maybe. But one thing was certain: That coin was the first thing we'd found during our home renovation that wasn't going to cost us money. Americans spend $180 billion a year fixing up their homes, which must be twice what they had budgeted. Glance through any home magazine and you'll find a thousand ways to blow the inheritance on home improvement--everything from pewter light fixtures to terrazzo shower floors. (We bought both.) But like most normal people, we had to stop somewhere--and our challenge was making a finite budget last through a two-year project full of unknown expenses.
We survived, although I admit to counting nails toward the end (hey, why buy another box if we have enough?)--not to mention the nails I was biting. And after months of breathing plaster dust, paint fumes and possibly worse, my remaining brain cells learned that renovating a really old home is an act of faith--faith in your instincts, faith in your contractor and faith in your checkbook. Other than the need for dangerous power tools, it's nothing like building a new house, which comes with helpful instructions called blueprints. Nor is it about historic restoration, unless you don't care for indoor plumbing. It's mostly about making expensive decisions you'll have to live with for years while a guy with a drill is checking his watch.
Playing Beat the Clock was not the idea when Sarah and I moved from Nyack, a suburb of New York City, to a rural corner of mid-coast Maine two years ago. We were seeking a less hurried life, in a place where our two small boys--Harper, 9, and Whit, 6--could grow up near their grandparents and surrounded by nature. I was quitting my job as an editor at People to write books and fulfill a dream of growing our own food. Like lots of recent back-to-the-landers, I figured e-mail and the Internet made it possible to live and work anywhere. My wife Sarah, a former actress who hadn't worked outside the home in years, had just finished a master's program in teaching and hoped to start her own Waldorf kindergarten in a farm setting.
But it was all just a theory. Compared to our well-ordered suburban life of commuter train schedules and paid vacations, the rural adventure we'd embarked upon seemed scary and unpredictable. I had enough contract work lined up for a year or so, but beyond that lay the unknown; estimating quarterly tax payments was a dart toss, even for our capable accountant. On the plus side, we had a cushion of $115,000 from the sale of our New York home and no debt other than our monthly mortgage of $1,000.
In an ideal world, that cash would be set aside as rainy-day savings if work slowed. But in the real world, it was about to be sucked down the funnel of home renovation.
We didn't set out to buy a fixer-upper. But when we hadn't found the right place by early 1999, we started to worry: There weren't a lot of farms for sale near Camden, where our kids would go to school. We wanted to move that summer, between school sessions, and we needed to buy before I quit my job; once I became self-employed it would be harder to get a mortgage. Sarah decided to broaden our search and logged onto the Internet. That's when our farmhouse, a gable-fronted Greek Revival Cape with four bedrooms, popped up.
Clocking in at more than 20 miles from Camden, the house was far from ideal, but it was available. And it came with more than 135 acres on both sides of the road and a nice stand of sugar maples. It also had an attached wagon shed that had been converted to living space and would be perfect for Sarah's kindergarten. But what a mess. Our hearts sank when we walked through the door and saw layers of curling linoleum and pet-stained plywood. Like many old houses, this one had suffered countless cheapo "renovations" over the years. In centuries past, the Yankee spirit of self-reliance meant hand-hewn oak barn beams; today it means do-it-yourself simulated-wood doors. "Evidence of amateur workmanship" was checked off on page after page of our home-inspection report. This was the house that K Mart built.
So, of course, we bought it. The final sale price of $175,000 was probably too high by Maine standards, but it seemed cheap compared to New York. We hadn't even listed our Nyack house when a nice family knocked on the door and offered us $433,000 for the 1929 brick Colonial we'd bought for $337,500 two years earlier. We made a deal on the spot, turning a tidy profit and paying nothing to a real estate agent--a nice bonus after several agents had assured us the house would sell for much less. We walked away from the closing with $170,000. After deducting $35,000 for the down payment on the Maine farm (money we had borrowed as a "bridge loan" from my father pending sale of the New York house), buying a second car (used) for $12,000 and paying moving expenses of about $8,000, we arrived in Maine with that $115,000 cushion. It seemed like enough to fix up the house; it would have to do.
We had never undertaken a total home renovation, but fortunately we knew a few experts in Maine, and we plied them for advice. The first was an architect friend who said the house could be made livable for about $30,000. That seemed way low to me, but I was already familiar with the double-the-estimate rule of home renovation. I made a mental note that the job would cost $60,000. The next was a general contractor named George Hervochon. He looked around disapprovingly and said it would cost $60,000. I adjusted my personal estimate to $120,000 and hired him.
Getting George was the best decision we ever made, although he wasn't an obvious choice. Renovation specialists talk reverently of old wood and hand-rubbed whatever; they love your old house more than you do. George was not one of those guys. In fact, he was primarily a new-home builder, and he preached the gospel of modern materials and airtight construction so fervently that I felt embarrassed as he set to work on our leaky old box. But George was smart--smart enough to have quit his job as a precious metals trader on Wall Street and followed his dream to Maine. Best of all, he was a close friend of Sarah's parents; he'd been at our wedding. We knew we could trust him.
Some people assume that renovating an old home is mainly about stripping away the "new" stuff and revealing the old, which may need some cleaning. But most old homes have been altered so many times over the decades that there is no single version of "old." In our house, entire rooms had been carved out of attic eaves. It had, in fact, accrued history with every owner; forcing it into a time warp back to 1850 would have erased much of the story.
So we decided to respect the home's basic 19th-century floor plan of discreet parlors--that meant no "open kitchen" or "family room"--and retain any timeworn elements that appealed to us by virtue of their materials or what they revealed about the home's chronology, no matter how incongruous they might appear from a "design" standpoint. It seemed basic and sensible enough that we didn't feel the need to spend money on an architect or designer, preferring to trust our own taste as we went along.
There was not much of taste to recycle in the home's tired kitchen or the dank bathroom. We would need new appliances and fixtures everywhere, but we also wanted to incorporate scavenged antiques and the work of local craftsmen. So while waiting for George to show up, we went shopping.
We wanted an old slate farm sink for the kitchen, but the ones we saw in vintage housewares stores sold for more than $1,000. I finally found one in Uncle Henry's, Maine's venerable classified ad publication, for just $350: the owner was renovating, and he'd heard those babies were worth something. Then we ordered matching slate counters from a stone yard in northern Maine (an expensive splurge at $3,500) and rustic ceramic tiles handmade by a woman in nearby Augusta. We justified those pricey additions by forgoing trendy stainless-steel kitchen appliances. One company's $4,000 stainless refrigerator didn't hold any more food than its $1,200 white model, nor could I find much difference in the specs of the all-stainless "pro" and the regular wall-mounted convection ovens--and I am a professional food writer.
One day we walked into Elmer's Barn, a local junk emporium, and found an antique farm-style buffet cabinet for $300 that would make a perfect bathroom lavatory. George's grouchy plumber was not amused by our vintage-chic setup. "It's too high," he barked. We didn't care. We liked it then and still do. We liked it so much that we asked Tim Aho, a local cabinet maker (who specialized in using old wood), to duplicate the style in our new kitchen.
When George finally pulled up in the late summer of 1999 for some sustained work, we started longing for the days when he was gone; the earliest stage of home renovation is the messiest, because it involves ripping out all the old stuff. In our house that included ancient plaster ceilings, under which were even older beams. Somewhere there's a law that when boomers renovate old homes they must expose all interior beams. That would puzzle earlier generations, who considered them unsightly structural elements. Today, however, we have an aesthetic guided by what an art historian friend of mine calls the mythical past. When we visualize an old home, we cherry-pick elements that say "rustic" to our modern eyes (like exposed beams and bricks) but conveniently disregard other elements of actual old homes (like outhouses).
Some important elements of our house were a little too rustic, and right away we found ourselves writing huge checks for stuff we hadn't even considered. The two cracked chimney flues were unsafe, said George; they'd have to be relined for $5,000. Spray-foaming insulation around the inside of the stone cellar walls would help keep the house warm, at a cost of $2,500. Replacing the ancient wood-burning furnace with an energy-wise oil burner came to $2,500. The outdoor drainage work rang up at $5,000. We knew these were important repairs, but it was frustrating to spend so much money on things we couldn't even see. Our bank account was draining rapidly (unlike the water in our cellar), and our dream kitchen was still seasons away. I began to realize that a renovation budget is a moving target.
Then came the while-you're-at-it syndrome--the four most expensive words in home renovation. While you're at it, we told the furnace man, why not install high-tech radiant floor heating ($4,500) so we can rip out the unsightly baseboard radiators? And for another grand, why not add heat upstairs? And on and on.
We replaced the old windows with modern insulated glass--a move that would make restoration fanatics cringe. But the old sash windows leaked cold air and had layers of lead paint. When one of them slammed down on Whit's hand, the decision became easy. But it wasn't just the windows that had lead paint, and dealing with this dangerous neurotoxin became the defining issue of our renovation. Disturbing lead paint can release microscopic particles that enter the bloodstream through the lungs. Even trace amounts can cause permanent brain damage in young children. Lead was not banned in paint until 1978, so we weren't surprised to find it almost everywhere. (We used inexpensive home lead-test kits available at hardware stores.)
George was respectful of our concerns, but like most general contractors he knew little about safe lead handling. We looked into hiring lead-abatement experts for sensitive jobs like floor sanding, but they charged outrageous amounts--several times more than most contractors--and seemed to be preying on people's fears. So we took it upon ourselves to learn about proper containment methods, starting with our state Department of Environmental Protection. We moved out for a few months, renting a lakefront cabin in the off-season. We weren't nearly careful enough to suit Sarah, but the worst of it for our kids were some blood tests to determine they had not been contaminated.
The first genuinely bad news came on St. Patrick's Day of 2000, with a phone call from our obviously distressed cabinetmaker, Tim: "My shop burned to the ground last night. Everything's gone. I'm down to a craft knife and a Phillips head." He didn't need to add that our kitchen cabinets, scheduled for installation the following week, were destroyed. They had been made of pine salvaged from a ruined farmhouse in Canada. It had taken months to locate the wood, then weeks of red tape to get it across the border during a trade feud between Maine and Canadian loggers.
As bad as we felt for Tim, we were panicking about our own situation. We had already paid him for half the $12,000 kitchen job; now he had no shop, no tools and no wood. The old kitchen in our house had already been ripped out. We had to vacate our rental cottage in six weeks.
The solution involved a lot of scrambling and improvising. The sympathetic owners of the cottage gave us more time, Tim found a temporary shop and other old wood quickly, we advanced him another $4,000 and we lived with plywood cabinets for a few months.
Less than a month after the shop fire came real tragedy. George was in the kitchen, cutting trim pieces on a power miter. I was in the living room when George screamed, but his cry was drowned by the horrendous noise of the saw. Then there was silence. "I just cut off my thumb," he said in a voice so quiet I didn't believe it. More silence. This isn't really happening, I thought. "Can somebody please help me find my thumb?"
This was really happening. Somehow the saw had kicked back over George's finger, which was now on top of a sawdust pile on the floor. I called 911 and followed orders, putting the severed thumb on ice. George stayed amazingly calm during the half-hour wait for the ambulance. But when he started whimpering about how this would delay our job, I figured he was going into shock.
George's thumb could not be re-attached. I had to call his wife, and she took it incredibly well. Much harder was telling my wife. Sarah cried for several days about it. We will always feel somehow responsible.
George was still wearing a bandage in the summer of 2000, when he replaced the clapboard siding on the exterior of the house. The original pine clapboard, with layers of lead paint, would have needed so much scraping that it was cheaper and safer to remove it and install new cedar. The job also allowed us to seal up the house better--replacing the original birch-bark window flashing with a polypropylene moisture barrier and sheet aluminum.
One hot summer day I was outside stripping paint off an old bedroom door when a car pulled up and an elderly woman got out. "My name is Hazel," she said, "and I grew up in this house."
It turned out that Hazel, then 89, was the daughter of the last real farmer to own our home. (He died in 1945.) Gazing across our fields, Hazel recalled the apple orchard, the hay meadow, the dairy cows, the pigs and chickens, and tapping maple trees in the woods--all the things we hoped for some day. "Everything we needed came off this land," she said.
Hazel hadn't been inside the house for decades, and Sarah and I dropped everything to give her a tour. It brought a flood of memories. "We never had any plumbing," she said while marveling at our new tiled bathroom, "but there were several different outhouses over the years. And it was my job to haul water into the kitchen every morning." She was thrilled to see that the old stone well was still there, even though we now use a modern drilled well. "Our only heat was a woodstove in the dining room," she said. "It was right here."
"I know," I said, pulling back the rug. "We found these scorch marks on the old pine floor," which we had restored after pulling up a filthy carpet and a later plywood floor. She glanced up at our beams and said, "My mother had those ceilings plastered. Oh, they were beautiful."
We arrived at the tiniest upstairs bedroom, and Hazel paused. "This was my room," she said quietly. Tears filled her eyes, and we left her alone. Seeing how much this house meant to her made me feel less like an owner than a proud caretaker. After she drove off I went back to work, and realized I had been refinishing the door to her bedroom.
Our bill from George came to $68,574. That included the plumber and the electrician but not the kitchen cabinets, appliances, heating system and countless other expenses. The whole renovation cost about $125,000, pretty much what I had expected. But we didn't make budget: George's last invoice came with an unexpected charge of about $4,000 from the electrician.
"I thought we'd been paying him all along," I said, noting the many line items to the electrician in previous bills.
"That was just stuff off the top of his head," said George. "He didn't have time to figure it all out until last week."
I suppose I should have realized that the few hundred dollars we'd paid to an electrician who practically lived at our house couldn't be enough, but there was just so much to keep track of that it slipped through the cracks. Our slush fund was empty. I called my father and borrowed $5,000. Thanks, Dad.
The old penny wasn't going to offset much of that. I logged on to a coin collectors' website and learned that it might sell for $20--to a buyer who wouldn't know anything about our farm. I now treasure it as a talisman of our rural odyssey.
Inventing a 21st-century life on a 19th-century farm is an ongoing journey for my family. I earn less than I did in New York, but I save more--and I quickly paid back my dad. I have dinner with my kids every night, and it usually includes something from our garden. That's a good thing, considering the 22-mile drive to a grocery store. We buy everything from books to blue jeans on the Internet. Technology has transformed rural life, but at every twist of the sagging phone line it also reminds us that we are second-class citizens.
Renovating an old house is no different. Halogen cooktops, argon-gas windows and pressure-regulated shower valves make an old house feel new--but no amount of triple-expanding foam can seal every last crack, and when winter's moaning wind slams into our gables, we feel its icy fingers. The farmer with a hole in his pocket wouldn't recognize our kitchen, much less the way I earn a living on his land. But he would know these old pine floors, and he would know about the wind, and he would understand why we love this place. I'd put a penny on it.