Is Your House Done Yet?

“Hey man, how’s your house?  You moved in yet?  I haven’t seen one of your blog posts in a while”.

This line of questioning is all my fault.  I’m the one that told everybody I knew that I bought a house in December, 2015 and planned to renovate it.  I made matters worse by blogging about and sharing it on Facebook.  I drew all kinds of attention to the subject so I deserve the litany of questions that go along with it.

The only problem is that I have had virtually no answer to that question for the better part of 2017.  This past winter was brutal for my project.  We started in October of 2016 and hit a number of roadblocks right away.  Not much can progress on the house until the masonry in front and back is complete.  Only when that is done can the house be framed and the rest of the work can start.

There is a whole litany of reasons the project moved so slowly, fitting mainly into three categories: Difficulty with inspections from the town, bad weather, and delays with the mason.  Weeks would go by with no progress at all, leaving me with an empty feeling of helplessness as my bank account was draining with nothing to show for it.

In January, there was some progress on the rear addition.  The footings were approved and the mason started to lay cinder blocks with a duro-bond wire in between every other layer.  Once that was done, my contractor called the building inspector and asked him to approve the rear addition.  On February 3, the inspector gave us our first inspection failure.

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My first inspection failure.  I think I’ll frame the original.

The basis of the failure was somewhat unclear at the time.  It seemed to hinge on a somewhat confusing conversation that the inspector and my contractor had.  First, the inspector said that we needed to check to make sure the foundation was built with the proper setbacks from the neighboring properties in accordance with the approved plans.  The contractor asked if that meant we had to have the property surveyed right away.  The inspector said that would do, or we could get a letter from my architect saying that we were building according to his design.

The second reason we failed was because the inspector wanted proof that we put the duro-bond where it belonged and that we doweled into the existing wall properly.  My contractor said that we had pictures and that the architect was supervising the project and could attest that we were in accordance with the building code.  The contractor pointed out that the only to prove everything would have been to have the inspector visit after every layer of cinder block was installed!

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I’m telling you, bro, we really did layer the blocks properly!

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It was kind of hard to prove once the walls were built.

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The view from the back looking towards the front of the house

We proceeded to get a letter from the architect explaining that everything was built according to plan and we sent that to the building inspectors office.  We really didn’t know at the time if that was going to be good enough, so we prepared to move on with building the drainage system.

The project had stalled a bit being early February.  The weather was poor and the mason didn’t have much of a window to work outside.  My contractor told me that he was going to meet with the mason on February 20 to discuss moving forward with the project.  I asked if he could let me know what time he was going to be there so I could meet them both.  I had that day off of work for President’s Day.

On the morning of the scheduled meeting, my contractor texted me and asked me to give him a call.  He said that the contractor was on an unannounced two-week vacation to Peru.  Of course, the weather broke and those two weeks were very temperate for that time of year, it would have been good enough for the masonry crew to continue on.

About three weeks after the supposed two-week vacation started, the mason announced he was going to return to the job.  That day it snowed and he couldn’t come.  The snow was heavy and froze over and set us back again.  All told, from the time of the failed inspection on February 3, we lost about 8 weeks to weather and the mason’s vacation before he was able to start back on the project in earnest.

The Drainage System

As I explained in a previous blog post, we had to build a pretty elaborate drainage system around the extension in back of the house.  We were required to drain all rain water into the sewer connection.  This is the opposite of what most municipalities want you to do, typically you are not supposed to overload the sewer system with rain water.  Union City works in mysterious ways.

We also had to fill in the trenches around the extension with rocks to aid in drainage around the outside of the house.  Since we couldn’t get machinery through the alley between my house and the neighbor, the masonry crew had to use shovels and a wheelbarrow to fill the rocks in around the house.

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That trench is where the rainwater drainpipe will be.

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One of the rainwater drainpipes in it’s fancy rocky bedding.

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An idea of the scale of the excavation we had to do to make room for the pipe.  The masons made this pile of dirt with buckets, one by one.

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The pipes in the aforementioned trench.

Front Masonry

The front of the house wasn’t nearly as elaborate as the job in the backyard.  We aren’t extending the house in the front, but we are building a second story where the original mud room front porch was.  This required first that we demolish the mud room and check the existing foundation to see if the footings were deep enough.  On the left side of the house, the footing was deep enough to pass inspection.  On the right of the house, there was no footing at all, requiring us to demolish the existing wall and excavate enough ground to pour one.

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Nope, no footing in here.  WTH?

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So, we just poured our own footing.  Better make sure it is 42″ deep, not just 36″. Don’t want the house to fall over!!!

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And we have a new wall in front.

The dangerous front steps were also slated for replacement.  They were demolished and the skeleton of the new steps were put in place.  They seem to be a lot more even and less deadly than the old set of steps.  They still need to be finished with concrete.  We’re not going to use any brick finishes, the design we are looking for is a simple one with a skim coat of stucco.

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The hole where the old steps used to be.

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The foundation of the new steps, all with uniform height!

The Inspector Is Our Friend Now?

Before we could backfill the backyard, we needed to have the inspector come and check out the drainage system.  We also wanted him to review the front footings, the existing one we planned to retain, and the new one that we dug out.  He no-showed our first window, telling my contractor while he was at the house waiting that he couldn’t make it.  He made it the next day, and things went decidedly better than any of our previous inspections.

The inspector reviewed the drainage system in back and determined that it was adequate.  He gave us the go ahead to back-fill the dirt back in the trenches without issue.  There was, however a problem in the front.  The new footing was only 36 inches deep, according to the plans and building code, it had to be 42 inches deep.  The contractor realized there was a mistake but was taken aback by the response the inspector had.  He told the contractor simply to dig the hole six inches deeper, send him a picture, and that we’d be good!  From the explanation of the story that I got, I think my contractor nearly fainted from the shock of this act of kindness and common sense. This was the go-ahead we needed to build the new foundation wall on the right side of the house which was the last bit of foundation that needed to be built.

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The backyard now that the trenches have been back-filled.

So, Where Exactly Does the Sewer Drain?

Now it was time to hook into the existing sewer connection as per our design.  The mason ripped up the basement garage floor where the house trap is.  We found a clay pipe that we originally thought drained out the front of the house to the sewer in the street.  The plumber visited and pointed out that the pipe was pitched towards the back of the house.

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The clay pipe, pitched down and away from the front of the house.

It turned out that the clay pipe was just a rainwater drain from the front of the basement and that the sewer pipe heads out the back of the house.  We couldn’t figure out exactly which direction it heads.  When we excavated the back extension, we never hit the pipe.  It either took a sharp turn to the side under one of the neighbor’s houses, or went straight down.  Whatever the case is, they tested it out with a hose and water seems to drain well through it, so who cares?

Hopefully this is the last “mystery” in this house.  There’s going to be so little left of the original house that there shouldn’t be much guesswork with the rest of what we have to build since most of it will be from scratch.

The mason took out the existing machinery from the basement (none of which was working anyway) and excavated all the spots where we will run the drainpipes from upstairs.  He also ripped out the clay pipe, we’re going to replace that with PVC piping.  When it’s all done, there is going to be very little left of the original basement floor and I’ll have a nice new coat of concrete.

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The remnants of the machine room, along with a trench for drainage.

What’s Next?

We started masonry work in October, 2016.  As of mid-June 2017, we are almost done.  I thought the entire house would take about that long to build, so feel free to call me a dumbass the next time you see me.  Anyway, we can’t move forward with anything else until that is done.

All that is left is for the plumber to hook up all the drains from the inside and outside into the sewer connection.  We will then ask for another inspection.  If we should be lucky enough to pass, they can backfill the dirt in the basement.  We will finally be able to start the framing process.

I met with the framer two weeks ago with my GC to over the project.  When my contractor originally explained the process to me, he said that framing would take “one week, two max”.  I asked the framer what his opinion was and he said it would take “three to four weeks”.  So, I’m guessing it will take three months.  If I’m lucky, he’ll be done by mid-October, but that’s only if I’m lucky, which I’m obviously not.

Is Your House Done Yet?

So, back to that original question.  No, it’s not done, but now I think I have a better idea of where we are at.  Once framing is done, everything else can get started, some of which can be done in parallel.  There also won’t be weather delays for anything on the inside.  We can put siding up, install windows, rough the electric and plumbing, put drywall and flooring in, and install the kitchen and bathroom fixtures and finishes.  Piece of cake, right!

As you may recall, I closed on the house in December, 2015.  I thought we’d have permits in a month or two, start building in March 2016, and be done in time for me to move in before New Year’s 2017.  Given the pace we are at, and how long just the masonry phase has taken, I have a better idea of my estimated completion date.  I think my best-case scenario at this point is December, 2018.  That would be a full three years from when I bought the house.

This situation puts me in serious financial jeopardy.  I budgeted for a year of paying two mortgages out of my savings, not three.  Additionally, the bank I work for had to pay a $7.2 billion fine to the US Department of Justice in January as a result of some improprieties from 2005-2007.  They had to cancel our bonus pool entirely, which was a nice kick in the gut on top of everything else.  The assholes that broke the law are all gone from the bank, playing golf and spending the summer in their Hamptons mansions.  Now I have to figure out how to make up that cash that I was desperately counting on coming in this year.

I’m not sure what’s going to happen other than I have to move forward.  I can’t sell the place as-is, it is a shell right now. I can borrow against my current apartment in Hoboken which is the likely course of action.  However, the plan all along was to sell my condo at the end and use the proceeds to refinance the jumbo mortgage I took out on the new house.  Anything I borrow against my condo eats into the profit I will make when I sell, giving me less money to pay down the principal on the new mortgage, increasing what I’d have to borrow.

I can hope for the best, but there is a slim possibility that I will have to turn around and sell the new place immediately when it is finished.  If that happens, some lucky person is going to get his or her hands on the best house in all of Union City.

I walked through the house yesterday, the entire property is a complete disaster.  The backyard is a muddy mess, there are trenches in the basement, and the frame of the existing house is partially demolished and littered with debris.  It was a “what was I thinking?” moment.  But I regret nothing, I knew I was taking a risk and had bitten off more than I could chew.  If I pull this off, I will be living in my dream house someday.

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Just a crazy mess right now.

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What’s left of the insides, the flooring was removed.

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The clay pipe is gone, leaving this disaster of a trench inside the basement.

There’s a sliver lining to this dark cloud.  Count on partying at my place in Hoboken on the first Saturday of March, 2018!  It’ll be cramped as usual, but we always manage to fit somehow.

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