Thursday, February 11, 2021

All the work nobody sees

Think about all the things that just are. The things you don't think about until they're broken.

You open a tap, clean water comes out. You plug in your laptop, it charges. You store food in your pantry, it sits there. Until... it doesn't.

Proofreading the house
I'm thinking of the trivia of home ownership, but I've complained about the similar catch-22 in being a proofreader: When someone reads your perfectly clean copy, they fly through it, never stopping to praise such excellent editing. They find one single typo, however, and it's a huge distraction, tarnishing their perception of the perhaps-talented but imperfect proofreader who missed it.

So goes maintaining a property, where so much of the time and work and money are spent on things behind the walls, never seen or cared about by anyone but you. Suddenly, a 99% that was so impressive as a midterm exam score is now a bothersome disappointment when a living room window only closes 99% of the way in the dead of winter.

Of course, some home improvements are quite visible. There are fun projects you get to show off to your friends -- What bold paint in here! Did you lay that tile yourself? How do you grow such beautiful roses? Regular old maintenance projects just to keep the place looking nice are visible as well. They're the "proofreading" of home maintenance. These are the things that are generally unremarkable when in good order but become a noticeable nuisance if you don't take care of them -- mowing the lawn, shoveling snow, vacuuming up pet hair, cleaning up after yourself in general.

But, the realm of projects unseen is vast. Many are just embarrassing little inconveniences you want to fix so you can comfortably host guests, but you wouldn't necessarily show off these upgrades -- fixing a toilet that doesn't flush well, patching pieces of roof that are falling off, replacing a broken window, cleaning up after a mouse sighting. Others -- the most expensive, it seems to me! -- are projects that no one but you will ever know about unless you tell them, and they're not exciting enough to tell. You, yourself, might not even give them much thought until something goes disastrously wrong.

Take, for instance, the basement flooding. You'll mop it up, and then you'll get a guy to clean the tree roots out of the sewer line and inspect it with his camera snake thingy and discover a section of clay pipe that ought to be replaced. More guys come and dig a ginormous hole in your yard and, when they're done laying the new pipe, they fill the hole back in, somehow with mostly random gravel on top, which you'll painstakingly pick out of your yard in your efforts to try and grow grass there again. What are you going to do, take someone on a tour of your basement and say, "Ta-da! How 'bout that dry floor? No drain back-ups for six months now."

"Didn't she do a great job?"
When we were negotiating the purchase of our new old house, the buyer's agent admired her fellow realtor's (the seller) renovation work, gushing often, "Didn't she do a great job?" OK, when you just look at the place, it's easy to be taken in by the updates. Trendy gray walls with white trim. Shiny, refinished original hardwood floors. Brand new granite countertops against a classy subway tile backsplash. She did a great job revealing the house's charm. She did not, however, do a great job on all the actual work.

Example 1: Paint was hurriedly sloshed on every surface without proper preparation. Up close, the peeling chips of the old paint are visible under the new paint on the wooden siding. From the street, it looks fine. Opening windows for the first time required some chiseling with a putty knife. What's noticeable are random bare strips of wood where the thick new paint moved with the window rather than staying put on the frame. Above each ceiling-mounted light fixture, there is an unpainted patch of ceiling, noticeable only in daylight.

Example 2: Also hurried and therefore not well-executed was the bookend to good preparation, properly finishing the projects. The new tile floor in the kitchen, the countertops, and the grout between the subway tiles had never been sealed (i.e., not prepared for actual daily use). So we did that. We finished up that kitchen. Can anyone tell by looking at it? No.

Example 3: There had been squirrels living in the attic. She had her guy drive them out and seal up the holes. Kinda. The squirrels got back in! We hired roofers to come out and replace the chewed-out trim for real. Can you tell? No, not from the ground, and certainly not unless you have a vivid memory of the holes in the old trim.

I could go on. 

In review
Instead, just for fun, I made a chart of some of the work we've done our first year in this old house, a lot of it completed in the first 90 days. I've categorized it into the showcase-able stuff, the invisible but important, and the in-between things that are generally unnoticed except as a day-to-day nuisance or that otherwise negatively affect the aesthetics and comfort of the home. Asterisks indicate work we did ourselves... and by "we," I mean mostly Len.

“Ooh, ahh!”

Invisible, important

Upkeep, improvement

Keys for old-fashioned locks

Expand patio with found bricks/stones*

Stain the fence*

Plant trees*

Build secret door bookcase*

Game room in basement: build mini-golf green, partially restore foosball table*

Frosted glass treatment on front door*

Build porch rocking chairs*

Restore interior of built-in cabinets*

Build shelving in under-stairs storage

Install wash basin in laundry room*

Restyle various furniture pieces to suit house, fit space*

Free or low-cost “new” furnishings*


New lock sets

Add support beams in garage*

Repair water heater vent hood

Repair furnace gas line

Reroute and add electric to garage

New roof trim around dormer

Two rounds of electrical upgrades

Seal crack in foundation wall

New spigot outside*

Massive attic cleanout*

New sewer line

Test tap water for lead

Restore doorbell*

Clean out under front & back porches*

Build insulation cover for whole-house fan*

Caulk exterior holes left by old cable*

Repair section of gutter screen*

Seal all tilework in kitchen*

Seal granite countertops*

Level furnace condensation line*

Multiple plumbing repairs in upstairs bathroom*

Fix gaps in basement HVAC

Have ducts cleaned

Eradicate mice and seal entry points*


Remove old satellite dish*

Prune dead tree branches*

Fix fence position

New washing machine*

Install rain barrels*

Run new internet line

Remove old cables*

Replace glass in broken window*

Install garbage disposal*

Install ceiling fans*

Clean out gutters*

Plant grass, kill weeds*

Install work-light in basement*

Restore proper function of bathroom vent fan*

Minor (in size, not in cost...) asbestos removal

Repair/replace ductwork post-asbestos removal*

Attempt to better align/fit exterior doors*

Weather stripping on doors*

Add insulation to attic*



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