It begins: Masonry, Electrical, Painting, Flooring, Plumbing, and more

It’s been a long winter. After the closing, we sort of meandered about, walking through the house with bewildered looks on our faces. When everything needs fixing, and everything is a project, you don’t know where to begin.

We had to break down the house into “10-year, 5-year, Major Now, Minor Now, and Maybe” projects. We don’t have much of a renovation budget; it’s really nerve-wracking when you read some of the other blogs and comments from people who are renovating Detroit homes and seem to have endless capital with which to renovate. Those people are not us. That joke that goes around, based on those ridiculous home renovation TV shows: “Meet Dave and Brittany. Dave is a professional shellfish polisher and Brittany is a part-time lettuce grower. Their budget is $9 million.” never hit closer to home.

In an ideal world, we’d just point every contractor to the house, hand over our debit cards, and say “do your thing”. Unfortunately we don’t have the financial situation to allow that sort of creative freedom.

FLOORS:

It’s tricky because you want to do the floors before you move anything in, but you also want to make sure you do other work that could damage the floors even further first. So, floors must be somewhere in the middle: We want to do the most destructive work first, and paint, before we get the floors restored.

Measuring Wood Floors

Randy Penhorwood measuring floors for restoration quote

We decided to work with Randy Penhorwood from Penhorwood Floors again. He did an amazing job at the Sullivan House and truly has a passion for old wood floors. He came in, did some floor-whispering, and left excited about the quality of wood, the patterns, and his ability to make things shine again. His quote was extremely reasonable and we didn’t hesitate to say “go for it!”. Schedule is undecided so far, pending how all the other jobs line up.

PAINT / PLASTER / WOOD

Last month, Nicole found a contest hosted by Motor City Paint in partnership with the Detroit Historical Museum. The contest was to name 25 new colors that Motor City Paint was releasing. They are inspired by historically accurate colors of Detroit and are focused on restoration projects like ours.

We went to the Historical Museum one cold Saturday afternoon and spent 20 minutes writing down super goofy names because I’m dumb like that. The contest had three components: The person with the most Facebook likes would win a $1000 grand prize house-painting package. Another $1000 grand prize would be given out to a random person who entered, and then the 25 people whose color name ideas were chosen would each receive a $50 gift card from Motor City Paint.

Paint Color Naming

Old Yogurt was a favorite

I posted the contest entry on Facebook and shared it with my friends and associates. It was mostly for laughs, as you can see.

A month later, I got a Facebook message from Brian, the Motor City Paint guy. We won the “most likes on Facebook” part of the contest. To say that I was shocked is an understatement.

As it turns out, the $1000 grand prize is worth far more than that, because the $1000 covers labor: Motor City Paint is providing all the paint for free. What an incredible gift!

Motor City recommended one of their painting contractors, Lakeside Paint & Plaster. We will be meeting with them shortly to discuss initial work. Since the prize is free labor, we were thinking of getting the more costly and difficult painting done by experts; possibly the hallways, banisters, and stairways as well as the small parts of the exterior that are painted wood. Bedroom and other easier painting is stuff we can do ourselves.

Motor City Paint color swatches

Checking out the offerings at Motor City Paint

We picked up a swatch book from Motor City this past weekend and started the arduous and stressful task of color choices; we have no solid plan yet but whatever colors we choose have to go well with the dark natural wood that already exists in the house.

MASONRY

Lincoln had excellent work done by RC Marsack, so we didn’t hesitate to call him back for our own projects. Turns out, this is a big one.

The entire front walk, the decorative brick pillars in front, the front porch steps and slabs all need to be repaired or replaced. The chimney needs work, both fireplaces need to be repaired, and the back porch (which is mortared stone) is in significant disrepair. The exterior finish (pebble dash) has cracking and even some gaping holes on all four sides of the house. The main slab of the front walkway is a solid piece of limestone that needs to be canted away from the home (currently it is sunk towards the house, which is great if you want rain to pour towards your foundation, but we’re not like that). Ralph spent a solid hour walking around with a clipboard, discussing various projects with us. We came to the conclusion that the only way to do it is to do it once and do it right. The quote came back and while we were prepared to see a big number, it’s still shocking when it’s right in front of you in black and white. Ralph does good work, though, and for the amount of labor that needs to be done his quote was quite reasonable, so we’re going to proceed.

ELECTRICAL

We got a personal recommendation from a trusted neighbor that Dave Munroe from Caledonia Electric was the way to go. The house is currently a (bad) combination of knob-and-tube and some modern wiring, all hooked into a relatively new 150 amp breaker panel. It looks like some work had been done in the last ten years but not all of it.

Dave came out for an initial consultation, agreed with our spitball assessment that the electrical system was questionable, and let us know that the first step should be mapping out which breakers control what. We could either pay him to do it or do it ourselves. We opted for the latter.

Testing circuit breakers

Nicole was super excited to be stationed at the breaker panel

So it was that we ended up on a Saturday afternoon, flipping breaks and yelling across the house at each other.

Testing light sockets

Brian was super excited to be stationed at the light sockets

We got most of the breakers identified, but one serious conundrum popped up during our exploration. I was standing in what will become the office; the room off of the main room. Nicole flipped every single breaker, yet the lights never went out. Convinced that either I was being an idiot or she was, I yelled down at her to try again. Same result.

I asked her to flip the main. The lights went out. Through a process of elimination and logic-problem solving, we finally discovered that two entirely separate breakers had to be turned off to get the power to cut out… a wiring problem for the ages. Breakers 8 and 12, we hate you.

HOT WATER AND PLUMBING

Another problem to be solved is replacing the old 50-gallon water tank with the broken temperature control wheel. We opted to go with the trusted Soley Heating & Cooling. We have an appointment with Kim Soley soon to get a quote on converting to tankless as well as testing the central air unit and making sure the furnace is clean and in good working order.

Overall it’s been a busy month, and yet it feels like nothing has been “accomplished”. Kyle, my son, has moved in to be a caretaker of the house while we renovate, and he’s been doing a good job of cleaning up the remnants of past occupants. It feels a bit more “lived in” and we can start to see where one day it will feel like a home… our home… but for now it’s just basically an overwhelming project that is starting to be broken down into one to-do list with expensive quote attached after another.

Into Detroit … again

It’s been quite a while since we’ve had an update here. Admittedly, a lot of it has to do with the slowdown on actual renovations of the Sullivan House; looking back, we did so much work so quickly that it becomes a blur. We accomplished an amazing amount of renovation in a very short time, and most of that was driven by necessity. However, once you no longer have an urgent need, momentum drops quickly. There hasn’t been much going on, therefore there hasn’t been much to write about.

We do, however, have some pretty big news for 2018.

For those who have come along on the journey of the renovation of this house from the beginning with us, the living situation makes perfect sense… but for those who may have come along later to this community and joined us along the way, it may be a little confusing. A brief bit of history, therefore, might serve as a handy refresher.

Lincoln moved in with me in 2007 as a business partner in our joint venture, Icrontic. As it turns out, we make really good housemates, and we continued living together through lots of major (and minor) life events. Lincoln had lived with me for five years when he bought the Sullivan house, started this site, and began renovations. During those five years, each of us met our future spouses (Nicole and I got married in 2013; Lincoln married Aaron in 2017), and the four of us moved into the Sullivan House and renovated it and made this community to document our journey along the way.

During the six years in the Sullivan house, Nicole and I have been content but it’s never been “our” place. It is Lincoln and Aaron’s house and we are tenants. Maybe we’re far more invested than “normal” roommates would be since we also poured blood, sweat, tears, and money into this place, but there’s still a point that comes when you look around and just feel like… you’re living in someone else’s house. It was easier to stay put and be content while my kids finished their teenage years out and grew up (and moved out), and while Nicole got her business going and I established myself in a new career field, but—as all good things must—eventually it had to come to an end.

We started searching for houses casually in the “if something jumps out at us, we’ll do something” sense, but really it was a commercial property that kick-started our search for the next phase of our lives.

A building went up for sale down the street from us: a two-story former muffler shop that was weird and a terrible mess. We ended up putting in an offer on the place with a dream of living above a space we would rent out (we were the “Woodbridge couple” mentioned in that article), but since Detroit commercial real estate is in a wild place right now, we got outbid by a pretty significant amount of money, and went back to just “thinking” about looking for a place.

In November, after Lincoln and Aaron’s wedding, it felt like time to start the search for real. I reached out to my old friend Jon Zemke and asked him if he had a realtor recommendation, and he immediately recommended Nika Jusufi as a Detroit real estate expert. Jon knows as well as anybody that when you need to deal with real estate in Detroit, it’s a weird and unique animal and you need an expert to help you navigate the weirdness. Nika was that expert.

She started off by meeting with Nicole and I and getting to know us. After getting to know a little bit about our quirks, she began sending us listings she thought we would be interested in. By the middle of December, Nicole had come across a listing that intrigued her and she told me she wanted to look at it. In the ice and snow, we went to look at the house, located on Lothrop St. in a neighborhood called LaSalle Gardens.

The immediate thing that drew her to the house was the awesome woodwork on the interior (some of it in the Arts & Crafts style), and the weird black picket fence and dark grey pebble exterior. Pulling up to the house, we could see that the neighborhood was really fascinating, with huge houses, lots of space between them, big old trees, and tons of interesting and unique architecture. The house itself was on the smaller side of things compared to some of the mansions around it, but it oozed individuality, and we were drawn to it.

House in LaSalle Gardens, Detroit, Michigan 2018

The initial inspection was, in some ways, better than we had anticipated and in some ways worse. The house needed a lot of work. It needed new windows, a new roof, and lots of updates inside. There were some structural issues, and some questionable prior renovations. But there were also some absolutely priceless features, such as intact original French doors in the main room, original hardwood floors in decent condition, lots of original decorative woodwork, prior conversion from radiators to forced air (and central air conditioning!), a partially finished basement with updated glass block windows, some fantastic original decorative plaster work (particularly in the dining room), and tons and tons of potential.

We brought our trusted friend Andy (from Handy Andy Services) to come out and give us his opinion. He had some grunts, groans, shrugs, some hmmms and wows, some smiles, but mostly he trusted that we understood what we would be getting ourselves into with this house… again. We were no novices to this level of renovation after all, and besides—this house was in far better condition than the Sullivan house was when Lincoln bought it.

We sat on it for a bit. We looked at a different house, but ended up coming back to this one. Finally we put in an offer and after some negotiations we agreed on a price we were comfortable with.

Now, we are post-inspection, the title search is complete (and clean), and we have a closing date: February 7th, 2018. In six days, Nicole and I will close on this house and begin a brand new renovation project in a new neighborhood. My son Kyle will be living there as a caretaker during renovations and we hope to have the house in at least livable condition by June. We’re looking forward to starting a new chapter of our lives, meeting new neighbors, making new friends, and getting to know yet another awesome part of Detroit.

We’re going to miss Woodbridge deeply. It’s a fantastic neighborhood filled with amazing people and lots of great stories. The Sullivan house is certainly not going anywhere and we were privileged to be a small part of its long and glorious history. Lincoln and Aaron are still going to be renovating, and now this site will have two projects to discuss as we continue our adventures in Detroit.

You can keep up with the renovation log in the discussion forums.

The pub comes alive, or, “suddenly, a dining room”

The last unfinished area in the living space of the house was the dining room. I’ve taken to calling it “the pub,” and its full name (courtesy of its five sponsors) is the “Mighty Worriers Mead Hall.” I really like its position at the rear south corner of the house, out of the normal traffic flow between the front and rear doors. It has very heavy wood trim and crown molding (including wood beams across the ceiling) that immediately made me want to style it on a classic British pub.

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Asbestos go bye-bye

All geared up for asbestos abatement

When one buys an historic home in an historic district, one generally acquires certain materials that were used to build said home in the era in which it was produced. Those materials, as has been revealed by modern medical science, are listed now in this more enlightened era as “hazardous” materials. I speak of things like asbestos and lead.

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Fever pitch

It’s a downhill boulder now. Boxes are packed up at our old house, we’ve moved several things already, and contractors are at the house almost every day working on getting things ready. Oven delivery

Today we accepted delivery of a new stove, and a masonry contractor came out to give us a quote on chimney repairs. The Soley guys are just about finished installing the ultra high-tech condensing boiler system that makes our basement look even more like a mad scientist laboratory. They’ve also re-plumbed the hot water line in the house, replacing a bunch of useless old galvanized pipe, and removed the old water tank.

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Zero hour

It’s getting down to the wire. Renovations are ramping up to a fever pitch. As of this moment, we have calls out to Comcast, a plumber, a scaffolding contractor, a masonry repair contractor, and a roofer. The new boiler system is halfway installed, and the majority of the interior has been primed with at least one coat of primer.

Boiler

Boiler!

The problems we had with primer peeling off in massive sheets are gone, as oil-based primer has solved the issue. The last “frighteningly high-up” surfaces have been covered with primer, and the kitchen is nearing completion (paint is done, sink is installed, light fixtures are up, and fan is installed). Continue reading

Setback

For the last week or so, we’ve been sanding, prepping, spackling, and priming the front foyer and front main hallway of the house.

It took four days and nine coats of primer to turn the formerly pink plaster walls white:

Primer on walls in Sullivan house

White walls!

It was exciting. The walls were old plaster, dyed pink from some previous wallpaper (most likely), and a bunch of us put a ton of work into patching, sanding, and priming them. It took nine coats of primer (two of PVA primer and seven of Killz) to get to these smooth white masterpieces, ready for painting.

The hallway complete, we started sanding and priming the round tower room in the front of the house yesterday. Perry and Kyle helped prime and we got one coat on the entire room.

Today Lincoln, Nicole, and I returned to continue priming. I poured the primer and got ready to apply a second coat to the foyer.

That’s when I noticed the blister.

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Heavy rain in Detroit

The past week brought days of heavy rain in Detroit. It was gloomy and dark, and the cold came back.

Heavy rain in Detroit

The rain was significant. The backfill dropped six inches

This was a perfect opportunity to test out all the basement foundation repairs we made earlier in the month, though, so it’s not all bad. After two straight days of downpour, I went into the basement with bated breath.

Every area that we patched was dry.
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Sponsor shout-out: VitaminWater and SmartWater

Very soon after we closed on the house, my old friend Josh from Coca-Cola reached out to me and said he’d be happy to send the work crew along some VitaminWater and SmartWater to help keep us hydrated.

Little did I know he’d be sending cases of it out.

Thanks to the awesome sponsorship, all of our friends during the huge Icrontic week-long renovation adventure had drinks at the ready. And hey, since this March has been the freakiest hottest Michigan March I’ve ever lived through so far, they needed it.

VitaminWater at the IntoDetroit project

Some of the crew take a break with delicious refreshment

We had bottles of VitaminWater Zero in three different flavors and SmartWater. Luckily, the fridge works so they were cold and available whenever anyone needed one. Our contractors and friends were all appreciative of Josh’s generosity.

Thank you Coca-Cola and Glaceau for the awesome sponsorship. Our house now contains a little piece of love from you guys!

The blessing of the Icrontic community

Icrontic and IntoDetroit

Just some of the crew that showed up to help this week

This past week has been a blur, and it almost defies explanation to people who don’t know us or our friends yet.

If you haven’t seen it yet, you should check out our page “About IntoDetroit“. It explains a lot about where Lincoln and I come from and what the Icrontic community is.

The best way to say it is this:

The Icrontic community is the greatest group of friends that have ever formed up around a website.
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Sponsor shout-out: NewerTech Power2U

One of the nice things about our other gig, Icrontic, is that it puts us in touch with a lot of high-tech companies. I usually go to the Consumer Electronics Show every January to cover it for the community as a member of the press.

This year, I got to take a good look at a very intriguing product called the Power2U by Newer Technology. The Power2U immediately struck my eye as something intensely useful for the modern homeowner: It’s a standard 15amp UL Listed power outlet, but it also has two 5V USB charging ports built in. That means you don’t need to take up outlets with wall-warts to charge your USB-based devices.

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Redoing the bathroom

Remember back when we were testing the plumbing in the bathroom and said that the only “good” option was to raise the bathtub four inches?

Scratch that. We found a better option; we’ve re-designed the entire bathroom layout.

Our contractor, Andy, cursed and muttered under his breath, and had a few choice names for us (undoubtedly in cockney slang that we wouldn’t understand anyway), and then with a grin, shrugged and tore into re-plumbing the entire bathroom drainage system.

It took him a couple of hard days, but now we have an ideal bathroom layout.

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The long, slow winter

This has been one of the warmest Michigan winters I can ever recall, but the days are still short, the nights still long, and the pace still slow.

External electrical wiring

The wiring is... less than classy. But it works.

Things are progressing, albeit slowly. We’re finding a new work/life/renovation balance; having this giant new project has understandably thrown us all for a bit of a loop and we’re all discovering a new rhythm.

Our electrician is still working on the upstairs outlets. I’m not extremely thrilled with the compromise that has to be made (essentially, we could either take walls down and make new runs or run external wire harnesses that look more appropriate for a corporate cubicle wall than a Victorian home). The cheap option had to win out; our renovation budget is not unlimited. For now, we’ll have to deal with ugly wiring in our bedrooms until such time as we can revisit the idea of doing electrical properly. Think 5+ years.

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In hot water

Or not.

The boiler

Ut eius anima requiem in pace

The plumbing project has had its ups and downs. With the help of our awesome contractor/plumber/handyman Andy Davis, we’ve gotten the core plumbing runs connected. We now have modern (and more importantly, not-worth-stealing) PEX pipe runs from the basement to the first floor bathroom and kitchen. We cut off some unnecessary galvanized pipes in the basement, capped off what we don’t need for now, and generally got a grip on the cold system to the point where if we need to run some water during construction, we can do that (although the drain isn’t fixed yet: Waiting on power for that).

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