Doni’s Old House Remodel – Nearly Month 2: This Week’s Surprise

Last week I received the permit from the City of Redding, which gave me the green light to have Corey start editing walls in my 1938 house.

Corey removed lath, concrete and plaster from a portion of the living room/kitchen walls. What a mess!

I don’t consider it “tearing down” walls, per se, because we are taking out mere pieces of walls, not the whole wall shebang. In fact. I’m convinced that the relative simplicity of my project is one of the reasons for the quick turnaround of my permit application. To those who will be submitting plans to the COR soon, tell the permit folks that you want it processed just like Doni’s.

I say my remodeling job is “relatively” simple, but to see the house right now it looks pretty complex. I’m learning so much, such as the fact that when removing part of a wall, you don’t just start swinging a sledge hammer (as we see done on HGTV, talk about fake news!).

It’s crucial to keep studs in place until braces are built to hold things tight until the posts, pier blocks and headers have been installed to compensate for the shift in weight distribution.

Rather, the proper way to remove wall portions is as Corey was instructed: Make surgical cuts into the plaster, concrete, chicken wire and lath, and then carefully remove the coverings from all the studs. Leave the studs in place so they hold up the wall until we can wedge in a brace to keep the ceiling from falling down until the headers are in place. Simple things like that.

Part of this project’s engineering feat involves work beneath the house to give stability to the headers above.

Pier blocks and concrete beneath the floors will give stability to the beams above.

Five pier blocks will be set in cement in 12-inch deep holes Corey has dug out by hand, one shovel at a time, one wheelbarrow of dirt at a time, filled in the kitchen, rolled out through the laundry room, through what’s left of the back yard and into a pile.

Corey stands on the dirt beneath the house and shovels out enough soil to form holes to set the pier blocks in cement.

Back in July, when sister Shelly and friend Chris and I used chalk to draw the sections of walls removed, I never imagined what it would entail to achieve that “simple” open look.

In July, Shelly Shively and Chris Carter measured walls for future remodeling. Just cut here, here and here, and it will be perfect.  Easy!

Had I known removing those four wall sections would be this much hassle, I might had said just forget it. But I’ve come this far, and now that I have, there’s no going back. I know I will have a better house for it, and I will be happier with the outcome.

But right now, it’s difficult to not become overwhelmed with the mess and the construction dust. The most tidy room in the house is the bedroom that’s holding the boxes of cabinets waiting for son Joe’s arrival from the Czech Republic to do the installation.

This relatively tidy room is Doni’s happy place.

What I know about myself is when my surroundings lack harmony, then I feel out of whack, too. The sheer chaos of this remodeling job pushes all kinds of buttons – control, perfectionism and a deep longing for order. I’m forcing myself to let go and just accept things the way they are. It’s that or get stressed to the max. My house remodeling project is a version of construction whack-a-mole where  just when I’ve put out one fire — rats, for example — another erupts — newly discovered water access points beneath the house, for example.

I may have mentioned that on the real estate disclosure papers, the previous owners claimed no knowledge of flooding. Interestingly enough, the south side of the house looks like a series of Little Hoover Dams, what with all the concrete and bricks that someone built and mortared around the vents, all of which were varying degrees of being either at or well below grade level, perfect for water flow, directly under the house.

Flooding problem? What flooding problem?

These below-ground vents were lying beneath thick brush, and uncovered only when Corey set out at my request to block under-house rat access.

Much of this brush was pulled from the south side of the house, which gave a better view of the issues with ground and below-ground level vents that allowed water to enter beneath the house.

With that in mind, I guess I have the rats to thank that we found these below-ground vents in the first place. Otherwise, come winter rain, all the money I’ve invested to replace damaged, structural wood beneath the house would be in jeopardy once again.

Water, dry rot and mold, oh my!

The jumble of concrete you see in this photo, above, was where Corey removed the masonry barricades to have access to the vents for rat-screening. One vent was actually about 12 inches below grade, which means the ground water had extra special access to beneath the house in that location.

The vent looks new because it is. I bought it and had Corey install it to block – you know – rats. Here’s a photo of that newly discovered opening that now resembles an archaeological dig, not the side of a house.

Doni stood two bricks vertically to illustrate the depth of the opening that was found beneath the ground.

But enough about that south side of the house. Let’s talk about the north side, a place former occupants said looked like a bathtub in the winter when it rained and the courtyard filled up with water that eventually seeped under the house.

Doni’s “bathtub” courtyard has drainage issues that must be addressed before rainfall. Notice the ventilation vents at ground level. Not good.

Never mind. Forget the outside. Let’s go inside.

The front bathroom walls were such a mess left from the removal of cheap, plastic, institutional-grade paneling that I decided to just drywall the walls, rather than try to smooth everything out with texturing mud.

It’s hard for me to call it drywall, because I know it as Sheetrock, but that’s a brand name, like Kleenex.

Doni loves drywall because it makes former ugly, uneven places disappear. This wall needed to be nice and smooth for some birch-look wallpaper.

Sheetrock, drywall, or gypsum board. By any name, I love it.

During the last few weeks, deliveries of cabinets, flooring and wallpaper have trickled in.

The last of the materials deliveries. Up the concrete steps they go…

Wednesday was the final flooring delivery that contained bamboo planks for the living and dining room, and vinyl for the kitchen, laundry and front bathroom.

I know some people turn up their noses at vinyl, but the new generations of vinyl are attractive, waterproof and practically indestructible.

Meanwhile, I’ve learned to expect the unexpected. Even so, I long for the days when the word surprise meant something fun and exciting, like a surprise party, for example, or winning the Publishers Clearinghouse Sweepstakes. Not facing a (second) rotted-out bathroom floor, or, yes, finding a below-ground exterior air vent intended for crawl-space ventilation; not water.

This week’s surprise was something I probably would have left alone for awhile, until I was ready to face that bizarre little room at the end of the garage. The house is Phase 1. The garage was supposed to be Phase 2.

I credit two of my favorite electricians (E&S Electric), Ed and P.J., who noticed the large rectangular sheet of plywood screwed to the garage floor when I asked if they’d check out the electrical situation in the garage.

My one-car garage is so long and narrow it could fit two – maybe three – stretch limos end to end. At the very back of the garage there’s a weird little room that steps up from the concrete slab-foundation. It has its own door, an overhead light, and a wide-planked wood floor that has a weird greasy spot in the south corner. A former window is boarded up. The overhead drywall is missing big chunks. At some point, we dubbed this space the kidnap room, because it seemed that creepy. When the electricians walked into the KR, they both looked at the screwed-on plywood, and asked the same question.

“What’s under there?”

Times like this are what separates the squeamish of the world (me) from the brave (them).

I said I had no idea, but I was curious. Not so curious I would have unscrewed that board, of course.

When the electricians ran for their screw gun, I ran for my camera. By the time I returned, Ed and P.J. were deep in thought, staring at what they’d uncovered. What the what?

Electricians Ed and P.J. stare into the garage hole abyss. Note the removed plywood resting on the wall behind P.J.

I was standing back, waaaay back, as P.J. dropped to his knees and starting pulling at the stuff in the hole.

I am not exaggerating when I say I don’t think there’s enough money to have made me do what P.J. did for nothing more than curiosity’s sake. With. His. Bare. Hands.

P.J., the handsome electrician, delights in his discovery. (Note the greasy spot on the floor to P.J.’s right.)

What he lifted out looked like shredded fabric; enough to fill that opening in the floor that someone had gone to the trouble of covering with a small rectangle of thin metal, followed by a larger piece of plywood, followed by sinking a screw into each of the four corners. Without the covering, the edges of the opening were uneven, and made a shape that looked like a distressed map of California. My first thought was a fire. My second thought was – you guessed it – rats. Sure enough, Ed and P.J. said it looked like the mother of all rats’ nests.

Rats? What rats?


I asked the guys to please return the plywood to the opening and screw it tightly to the floor.

I’ll deal with that surprise later. But not today.

I’m reserving the rest of today for happy surprises.

Doni Chamberlain
Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke of the Czech Republic. Chamberlain is an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, California.
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35 Responses

  1. Brandon says:

    “What I know about myself is when my surroundings lack harmony, then I feel out of whack, too. The sheer chaos of this remodeling job pushes all kinds of buttons – control, perfectionism and a deep longing for order. I’m forcing myself to let go and just accept things the way they are. It’s that or get stressed to the max.”

    This is one of those big life lessons that took me forever to learn. Letting go and accepting things as they are.

    Also, so, did they put EXTRA screws down on that plywood rats nest lid!?!

    Looking good! Such a cool project.



  2. cheyenne says:

    I think your house renewal has gone way past Tom Hank’s Money Pit.  It is fascinating to see what you are going through, though I doubt you think it is fascinating.

  3. Michelle says:

    We found a mumified cat in our old house remodel. It still stunk.

  4. Beverly Stafford says:

    Oh, my dear Doni, it’s just one thing after another, no?  But as my Mother said when she was a little girl, you are “preversing” (persevering).  And as you wrote in a years-ago column about a little boy at the Rite Aid ice cream counter, “It’s gonna be good!” while pumping his arms.  Calm will soon reign once Joe installs the cabinets even though the calm room may become the chaos room for a while after all the nicely boxed cabinets are gone.  Thank goodness COR accepts cardboard for recycling.  They’ll make a haul with all your cabinet boxes.

    Lovin’ these updates.

    • Funny you should mention that column about the kids at the ice cream counter, because that’s exactly how I look at this house project. Every time I take care of an issue, I’m one step closer to making this house even more awesome.

      And re the cardboard, I called Redding’s Solid Waste department about the cardboard, because  all those cabinets are wrapped in cardboard. I didn’t want to throw it away but I knew I had too much for my blue bin. I learned that on Wednesdays COR Solid Waste will pick up flattened cardboard (at least 16 boxes) and will haul it away at no charge. The only thing is I need to call in a few days ahead and schedule a pick-up. That’s a nice COR service that I will be using.

  5. Good morning! A little back story about this column. I had it written last night and it disappeared just as I’d finished it after midnight. Joe – wide awake  in the Czech Republic – was able to retrieve it from our server, but it’s missing some edits as well as some photos that didn’t make the move, like the one of the garage rats nest.

    Three cheers for Joe, and thank you all for your patience. I have some meetings this morning but as soon as I can get to my computer I’ll make those changes.

  6. conservative says:

    My ex- owns a house with floors which are not level.  Some of the door frames are out of square.  I adjusted the strike plate and frame so now her bedroom door closes.   In the worst rooms, the slope  is 1/8 inch in six feet.  I could crawl around on my hands and knees in the  crawlspace.  I have urged her to have a pro figure out what is going on.

    Since 1980, I have always lived in houses with a slab foundation.  Except for expansive soils, they guarantee floors which are level.


  7. Richard Christoph says:

    Doni, the project on our 1900 A.D. home was begun in April of ’89 and finished in April of ’93 confirming the sage advice that things always take 3 times as long and cost 4 times as much as projected. But having enjoyed the end result for the past quarter century, we have no regrets and are here for the duration. Best wishes for a successful and fiscally viable outcome.

  8. Ginny says:

    What a brave soul you are to have bought that house, even not knowing what you would find when you began the project of making a brand new home for yourself with all your gusto!  Yet, when it is finished, NO rats and a beautiful abode!  ;o)

    Blessings, Dear……….

    • Well, thank you, but really I’m not that brave. Tenacious, maybe. I look at any great undertaking with the viewpoint that the hardest step is the first one off the edge of the cliff. After that, momentum does the rest of the work.

      I know it will be beautiful when it’s done. I just adore this little house.

  9. Joanne Gifford says:

    WOW,what fun,  looking forward to the finished project  !!!

  10. Greg Greenberg Greg Greenberg says:

    I’m pretty sure if I were you that I would have burned the place down and started over again a while ago!

  11. Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

    Doni, you must have a dynamo inside of you.

    I think I’d rather build a vacation cottage from the ground up somewhere on the Oregon coast than do what you’re doing while (I assume) living in the place.  We bought a house in Sunset Terrace about five years ago, intending to renovate it quickly while living inside. Those plans fell victim to failures of willpower and time management. For every improvement we slowly made, something else went to hell.

    I’m tempted to renovate it now, while it’s empty, before putting it on the market.  Alas, the early research indicates that the return on investment would be negligible—hardly worth the hassle, and possibly a loser.  We should have done the fixer-upper work early and enjoyed living with the improvements, but that’s water over the dam.  Kind of a bummer, because the house deserves a facelift.

    • I hear you about the frustration of having every improvement followed by something going to hell, as you put it. My sister says that these house projects are like pulling a little string, and when you do, it leads to one thing, and another, and another.

      When I read about your Sunset Terrace house, I feel it’s just calling out for restoration. But I see your point about just selling it without the improvements, because you might not recoup those remodeling costs when you sell.

      Sunset Terrace is one of my favorite neighborhoods, and I’ll bet you’ll have no trouble selling. If I hadn’t already bought this house, I would have been interested in looking at yours.

      Good luck, Steve!

  12. Grammy says:

    Remodeling is not for wimps. It sure test a marriage if you are in one. Every relationship should first have a remodel-HA! ZERO marriage rate.
    The end sure justifies the effort though. Nothing as great a feeling as knowing that the end result is due to a lot of hard work that you did yourself.

  13. I’m one of those people who are energized by construction. Actually, one of the most successful aspects of Marriage No. 2 was our shared love of creative building projects.


  14. Gracious Palmer says:

    Doni, Wow! you are definitely a warrior!!!




  15. Denise says:

    You are my Queen!! I’m in awe of you. Love the journal.

    Some inner screaming as I looked at that picture told me that was a rat’s nest before you tipped your hand. Eeeek.

    You have surrounded yourself with true talent!

    • Denise, you are correct that I have surrounded myself with true talent. I feel so lucky to have this team of people I trust and like and appreciate to help me through this project.

      I’d never seen a rat’s nest before, but now I know what one looks like. Ick.

      Keep checking back. Eventually we’ll get to some pretty improvements. Right now it’s pretty unsexy.

  16. Joanne Lobeski Snyder says:

    Your energy and enthusiasm are contagious.  There have been jobs around my place that I’ve put off, but am more enthused about tackling after reading your articles.  You take one step at a time and keep moving forward with any big project like this.   Thank you for sharing this wonderful journey!


    • Don’t be so hard on yourself, Joanne. You are one of the most creative people I know, and if I could create pottery like you do I wouldn’t feel compelled to do anything else . (Thank you for the sweet comment.)

      • Joanne Lobeski Snyder says:

        Every home needs work. Mine certainly does. Your articles are inspirational to people like me who have put off dealing with…all sorts of issues that can make a home a safe place to be. I guess I was hearing a tinch too much negativity about your project.

  17. Tim says:

    With electricians already digging into things and REU lifting the moratorium, and plans for solar? Or maybe a(nother) 220 outlet in the garage for EV charging?

  18. conservative says:

    September dust and smoke are awful. Attach a 20 X 20 air filter, the most expensive one, to the upwind side of a 20 inch box fan. Easier to vacuum than the filter on an A/C.

  19. conservative says:

    Hope the job site has N95 dust masks available. Rats carry fleas, so DEET on the skin and Pyrethrin treated pants and socks may be a good idea.

  20. Canda Williams says:

    Oh my goodness, when will the surprises end? You really are amazing, Doni. We considered buying one of the cute old houses in downtown Kalispell, but the thought of endless “surprises” as you describe, resulted in us buying a two year old house. I love that you have the energy to manage this huge project, and what a blessing to work with so many talented subs. Always fun to hear (and see) about the progress. Thanks for sharing the good, bad, and very ugly! 🙂

  21. Sally says:

    Doni – You are extraordinary in sharing your journey to create your little new/old house! However, Greg Greenberg’s comment seems wise…but too late! We all wish you success in the final product!!!

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