To get the quick overview before reading this post, please see my previous post: Why Home Inspections are Overrated
If you’re wondering why I keep writing about houses in a blog you thought was about Down syndrome, read this: House People
In the last post, you viewed a collection of (frightening!) photos from our home inspection and over subsequent weeks. I kept it together during the inspection. As it was my first time going over the house with a fine-toothed comb, I was fascinated. I took hundreds of photos of all the details I missed during our showing. Have I mentioned? I LOVE OLD HOUSES.
However, driving home I started to worry. Whoa, there is a lot of stuff wrong with this house. Not little stuff. Asbestos, dry-rot, sagging floors, probable lead paint, rotting window frames, outdated & fried wiring, crumbling walls, and a well pit with a flimsy cover containing a pressure tank that should have been inside.
For many of the items on the list, rather than pinpointing the problem, the inspector wrote phrases like: “further consultation with structural engineer needed.” Thanks.
What items do you negotiate for in a situation like this? The house had been listed “as-is,” so we had no idea if the family would be open to covering anything at all. In the end, they were generous enough to replace all the old wiring in the house and pay to have the pressure tank moved in and the well pit filled. The rest of the repairs seemed relatively little–for example, replacing wiring costs about 15x more than encapsulating asbestos.
We knew we would need to replace some windows, cover the lead-clad exterior trim, and eventually fix the bathroom tile wall in the shower because it was caving in with each push.
The encouraging news was this: despite all the dry-rot in the joists, absence of collar ties in the roof, and sagging floors, when we had a contractor come take a look he said that the house was so solid it would take an earthquake to budge it. He said that if the same house was made with today’s materials, it would be a heap of rubble by now. But this house was built with timbers and planks of hardwood and would most likely still be standing for another 100 years.
That statement was all I needed. I was in.
We felt encouraged knowing some repairs would be completed before we closed on the house in a few months (we asked for extra time to sell our house, but had no home sale contingency). During those months we stressed more about selling our previous house than fixing our new one.
Then we closed on the house. The day after our closing we had lead testing done–the x-ray kind that can detect lead through all layers of paint. Early on I had called the county EPA representative for lead paint and almost had a nervous breakdown after she told me all the ways children could be exposed to lead in an old house: walking on the varnished floors, bathing in the lead-lined, enamel-chipped tub, drinking the water, playing in dirt around the house, and ingesting lead dust from opening doors and windows. I kept thinking, “Am I going to endanger my kids’ health by moving them to this house?”
We figured there would be lead paint due to the age of the house, but we had no idea how widespread or significant the amount would be. Once we had the 10+ page report of every surface in the house, we were able to create our action plan.
It was concerning. There are ways to combat lead, but I also wanted to preserve the beautiful woodwork. I started with doors. The criteria for a “positive” result for lead was 0.07mg/cm². The master bedroom door contained a level of 21.6mg/cm². Thus, the first item on my list was to strip the paint of the master bedroom door.
You know why they used lead paint? Because it is FREAKING DURABLE. And its an enormous pain to remove. Especially when you are using “green paint stripper” because you are worried that the chemicals in ZipStrip are too toxic. I spent hours upon hours trying to get the paint off that door (which amounted to devoting time I didn’t have to a small task). In the end, my mom ZipStripped it while I moved on to other projects.
It wasn’t until almost 6 months later that I finally finished and put up the master door. Boy, did that feel good. And it is one heck of a gorgeous old door.
However, the difficulties I encountered stripping three doors (only two were salvageable) convinced me to encapsulate the rest of the lead on the woodwork by painting it with adhesion primer and another layer of paint. That left the floors. I knew I would want to remove the carpet at some point to expose the hardwood floors, but then I started thinking we had better do it before we moved in so that all the lead dust from the messy refinishing could be removed.
The downstairs carpet was not too tough to remove, and I was able to recycle all of it along with the urethane padding. Then we just had about 25,000 staples to pull out of the floorboards.
The upstairs was a different story. The floors up there are original softwood and were painted porch grey with varying amounts of lead paint, then covered with what I could only guess was some sort of indoor-outdoor carpet. The carpet came right off. The crumbly foam backing stayed stuck to the floorboards. It was a nightmare to remove, even with ice scrapers.
Once the floors were sanded, I had another bring-me-up moment when I walked in and instead of seeing black foam, I saw the golden honey color of aged softwood. It was glorious.
Around the same time as the floor refinishing (a project I left to professionals), we noticed some mold in the basement and my devoted Dad tried cleaning it with bleach. Then he started taking the wall apart. Inside the wall was more mold. When he moved on to the next room, he took off some trim and found mold crawling up inside the wood paneling. At that point he stopped and suggested I call a mold removal company.
Limestone foundations and drywall don’t mix. I will never know why the previous family decided to finish a basement that had known seepage issues with wood and drywall. In the end, all of the wall material had to be removed, costing thousands. It was the worst thing to have to pay for in a new house, because instead of improving or adding something, we actually lost what we thought was a great basement room.
We had already closed and worked on the house for weeks, so when people said I should contact the former owners for not disclosing mold on the condition report, I preferred to swallow the lesson and move on. Until I discovered something that changed my mind.
In the process of trying to fix the grade on the side of the house I assumed had seeped water, I started digging around by the foundation. One item I had first encountered during our final walk-through was (I thought) a large landscaping rock. However, when I grazed the tip of my shovel on it, I heard the clink of metal.
I crouched down and rapped my knuckles on the top, hearing the tell-tale echo of a hollow space. Nervously, I cleared dirt off the edges of what I now knew to be a metal cover. The moment after I pried my fingers under the cover and lifted it off, my emotions ranged from fury to betrayal to fear for my children. What I saw was this:
Yes, it is a pit with water in it, just inches from the foundation of our house. And it most certainly wasn’t disclosed to us on the home’s condition report.
My first reaction was to drop the metal cover and scream, then stomp around with my hands in the air saying, “YOU HAVE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME!!” and “WHAT THE HELLLLL!!!!!!!?”
Then I took a closer look. To my untrained eyes, it looked like an old cobblestone well. There was a pipe in it and water that appeared to have bubbles in it. I couldn’t tell how deep the water was, and I was imagining a big bottomless pit. Initially I thought it must be a natural spring or cistern to hold water.
Whatever it was, I was terrified of my kids falling into it. I called our realtor and cried to her about the injustices–water in the basement, the mold, and this undisclosed cistern in our back yard. She got right to work contacting the family to find out more information.
In the end, we didn’t ask for anything but they offered to pump it out and also to pay for the mold removal as a gesture of good will. We were so relieved. When the septic pump arrived to pump it out, the septic guy got as far as putting his hose into the pit when he stopped. “I can’t pump this out,” he told us. “This is the drain pit for your kitchen sink.”
I started crying.
Well, that explained the bubbles, at least. The septic guy told us that many of the farmhouses in the area, including the one he grew up in, had the kitchen drain out to a backyard pit. This worked well in the age when water was pumped into the kitchen straight from the well pipe, and was a perfect improvement on the previous practice of throwing the dirty water out the window.
But we had just put in a dishwasher.
I had no idea what adding a dishwasher would mean for the capacity or construction of the pit. When we had plumbers come take a look, they said the only way we could change the configuration would be to rip out the 4+ layers of kitchen flooring material to lay pipes because the crawl space under the kitchen was too tight for a person to get in it and attach pipe ties to the joists. And the length was too long to stretch a discharge pipe without supports.
A few years later and the pit is still holding its own. We figure we will keep it that way since it has lasted this long, but its discovery will always be one of my least favorite moments after taking possession of this house.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only majorly unpleasant surprise we encountered in those early weeks. We knew about the hole in the foundation next to our chimney, and the home inspector had noted that the hot water heater needed to be more properly vented out the side of the house, rather than going up through the chimney.
One day as I worked on the house, I figured I had better fill the hole with spray foam because I had already caught one mouse in the basement. With uncharacteristic forethought, I stopped just before I began spraying and thought, “I probably should check to make sure the pipe is going where it should.”
I headed back into the basement and it took me only seconds to lift the vent pipe and discover that it most assuredly did NOT vent through the chimney. It vented out the side of the house alright–right out that hole next to the chimney. Once again I yelled, raised my hands up, and got angry. This one I blamed 100% on our home inspector who should have noticed a blunder so obvious that it took only a few extra seconds of observation to discover.
Knowing that the vent pipe on a hot water heater’s purpose is to allow carbon monoxide to escape, I first checked the carbon monoxide detector and was relieved to see it at 0. So at least the hole in the side of the house was working as a vent. That didn’t really help my mouse problem though. And I was mortified to think I had almost sprayed expanding foam into the end of the vent pipe for a gas hot water heater.
I called the home inspector and asked what he planned to do about his oversight. He got defensive. It was a very unpleasant conversation, and my least favorite part was when he asked, “Who is feeding you this information? Is someone there telling you what to say?”
As if a woman could never think of these points on her own.
Aside from suing him or the family, which we weren’t really in a mood to do, we did have to pick up and move on. I scheduled foundation tuck-pointing to fill the hole and the heating & cooling company could come at the same time to line the chimney and properly vent the hot water heater.
The biggest mystery in this case, one that no one will admit to knowing the answer, is WHY when the new hot water heater was installed a year or two prior, did no one correct this potentially life-threatening mistake? We’ll never know, but we can at least sleep easier knowing the CO is leaving the building.
We’re at the point where we have discovered most of the worst problems in this house, and have also corrected many of them. The thing I will always keep in mind is to expect the unexpected. And now when I find anything unpleasant, I can usually keep the screaming inside my head.
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