Doni’s Old House Remodel – Week 1: Hit the Ground Running

Doni's "new" old house needs some tender loving care.

Doni's "new" old house looks fetching on the outside.

I know that buying a newer house is more of a sure thing. Newer houses contain modern plumbing, modern wiring, modern foundations and modern materials.

I know from experience that old houses can turn into money pits fraught with disaster, disappointment and uncertainty.

Even knowing all that, maybe I'm a masochist, maybe I'm crazy, maybe I'm a dreamer or maybe I'm all of the above, but I still love old houses.

That's why seven years ago I bought a 1956 Garden Tract fixer-upper that had good bones and took six months to completely transform it from what some neighbors said was a pink eyesore to one of the prettiest houses inside and out (no brag, just fact) in the Garden Tract.

Doni's Garden Tract home in 2010, pre-remodel.

Doni's Garden Tract home in 2010, pre-remodel.

Doni's Garden Tract house seven years later ...

Doni's Garden Tract house seven years later ...

Not only do I have a thing for old houses, but the truth is, I enjoy remodeling.

My Garden Tract house was complete, and it wasn't getting any younger, or any more remodeled. At some point, I wouldn't be able to honestly say it was "newly remodeled" anymore. For various financial/market/timing reasons, I was ready to sell and move on to a new project, one that I was banking on yielding an even higher return for me one day than my Garden Tract home.

Sure enough, with the help of my son/realtor Josh Domke, of Real Living Real Estate, earlier this month I sold my remodeled 1956 Garden Tract home.

On the luckiest of number dates - 7-7-17 - escrow closed on my newly purchased 1938 pre-war west Redding home. One of the things I loved about this house was its curbside appeal. I mean, look at it. Adorable. I could pretty much leave the house exterior as-is. The only thing it needed was maybe some awnings, and a bistro set on the porch from which I'd sip coffee in the morning and wine at night as I waved to my neighbors in a few weeks - a month, tops.

Doni's "new" old house looked pretty darn cute, and only needed some slight remodeling.

Doni's "new" old house looked pretty darn cute. And check out those rock walls.

Plus, my newly purchased house is a few hundred square feet smaller than my Garden Tract house, which was fine with me, since the other house felt too spacious for me, a single person. But it had more room for guests, which also appealed to me.

Before escrow closed on my "new" old house, I was aware of some serious issues beneath the floors in terms of extensive dry rot along most of the perimeter walls, as well as some wood beetle damage. Repair would be messy, but it needed to be done. This was not a job to be postponed. Two rooms were so damaged that you could actually bounce a little on the floors and feel the give from the squishy boards below. I figured that's why the sellers were so quick about accepting my offer. They didn't even counter, despite the fact that my offer was quite a chunk lower than the asking price.

The few times I'd been in the house I already anticipated a few interior things I intended to do asap. First, I'd hire someone to rip out the carpets, old vinyl and linoleum to expose the wood floors that were hidden beneath. I knew they'd probably need sanding and varnishing, but I figured that would be money well spent. I love wood floors. I'm not a fan of wall-to-wall carpet, mainly because solid floors are easier to keep clean.

Here's the living room, before I bought it. One of the home's real estate disclosures noted that some previous occupants had pets that caused notable carpet damage. Sure enough, the house smelled super funky, something none of the myriad Febreze sticks strewn throughout the house could mask.
1239 walnut living room beforeThe second thing I wanted to do was replace all the kitchen cabinets. To me, the kitchen is always the star of the home, the place where people gravitate.  It's the most important room, and one where I expected to spend a lot of time and money to make it habitable.

Doni knew she wanted to replace her "new" old house kitchen cabinets.

Doni knew she wanted to replace her "new" old house kitchen cabinets. Pay attention to the soffit over the sink, for later reference.

People have different remodeling styles. Some people like to take their time, move in, and methodically tackle one project at a time, month by month, year by year. I admire those patient people. I wish I were more like them.

The second style is what I call the remove-the-BAND-AID-quickly method. That's my style. I would rather do a total remodel blitz and get the major stuff done before I move in than drag it out and live in a construction zone.

The last time I remodeled a house, I hired a pair of contractors. This time, I'm the acting contractor, and I'm subbing out all the work.

I do have some significant deadlines. First, ready or not, the container of all my stuff will be delivered at my house on July 27. The day before, on July 26, the city will pick up and haul away the drop box. My plan is to have the largest bedroom ready, and that's where the container contents can be held until I'm ready to unpack.

This room needs to be ready to receive a container full of Doni's belongings in less than a week.

This room needs to be ready to receive a container full of Doni's belongings by July 27. (That toilet was pulled from the nearby bathroom because the floor was removed for pest work.)

With that in mind, the moment escrow closed I hit the ground running. I immediately  hired someone - who'd been waiting on standby - to remove the flooring, and the kitchen cabinets. Done!

This is Doni's now gutted kitchen.

This is Doni's now-gutted kitchen.

My sister the designer and I spent many hours discussing how to make the kitchen bigger and allow the cook - me - to see into the living room and through the front door. I went to the city of Redding's Planning Department with my paper of notes that described the scope of my work for the necessary permits. I was told I needed professional drawings - such as by Redding architect Tyler Hendrickson - to accompany the permit application. That could take a month of back and forth before I finally get permits to do what will take my handyman and his Sawzall about an hour. No way around it if I wanted to do it right, which I did. I'll sign the contract with the architect today.

Shelly Shively sketched out ideas on existing walls.

Shelly Shively sketched out remodeling ideas on existing walls.

In short order, I contacted Dale Level of Dale Level Extermination, whose guys were going to take care of the under-house repair. I gave the green light to begin. It was during this conversation that Dale Level broke the news that I not "fall in love" with the idea of salvaging the wood floors, because he and his team would need to do major cutting into every room in the house, with the exception of one bathroom and a back bedroom - to get beneath the house.

Oh. Darn.

This bedroom floor suffered some serious cutting.

This bedroom floor suffered some serious cutting. Yes, those are river rocks beneath the house.

Next, I contacted the City of Redding's Solid Waste Division and arranged for a 30-yard "drop box" (we lay people like to call those drop boxes "dumpsters") to be delivered outside my home. I needed someplace to dispose of all the broken cupboards and stuff.

Meanwhile, there was trouble in the attic.

At this point I want to speak directly to a potential future buyer of my home:

Dear future buyer, what you're about to read should make you weep with joy, because it means I've taken care of this issue, which means you don't have to deal with it, as I did, when I bought the house. Know that by the time you buy this house, my current issue will be your non-issue.

Glad we got that cleared up.

Where was I? Oh yes, the attic. I can sum up the primary problem in a few words: rats and redwood shavings.

First, the redwood shavings. Once upon a time, for many decades, bags of redwood shavings were dumped into attics as insulation.

A tag and an old burlap bag that once held redwood shavings was found in the attic.

A tag and an old burlap bag that once held redwood shavings was found in Doni's attic.

For a dramatic demonstration of how redwood shavings change over the decades, one of my handymen took a clump of the shavings, placed it outside on the concrete, and held a lighter flame beside it.


He stomped out the flame with his boot.

"The stuff is just like a match head," he said, adding that these old redwood shavings were so highly flammable that if that material caught fire in the attic the flames would spread so quickly that there would be no saving the house, or anything in it.

"You might make it out of the house alive, but probably not," he said.


OK, so the redwood shavings would have to go. Pronto. My handyman explained we could rent a big machine that is basically the mother of all vacuums, and it would suck all those shavings into about five massive red bags, which he'd throw away into that 30-yard drop box.

This is a good time to share what an awesome job Kenny did expertly maneuvering that drop box into my narrow driveway, with just inches to spare on either side. drop box drop off

Pure precision. Thank you, Kenny.

kenny COR drop box dropper

Now, about the rats. Apparently, generations of rats dearly loved those redwood shavings. In fact, they burrowed under it and made nests. Plural. Nests.

While those rodents were in the attic, luxuriating in vintage redwood shavings, they chewed on the ducts, as well as the wiring sheathing. Imagine, if you will, what happens when exposed wires - perhaps that may electrocute an unfortunate rat - ignite those redwood shavings.

As we ponder that scenario, do as I did, climb the ladder into the attic crawl space and enjoy the cool breeze from the ducting that is so rat-chomped that the attic is nearly cooler - more air conditioned - than the house.

Removing the shavings from the attic with this machine took many hours.

Removing the shavings from the attic with this machine took many hours.

Every so often the hoses would become blocked with - "something big" - and one of the guys would have to shake the hose to dislodge it so the matter could be sucked into the bag. Sometimes the guys encountered "matter" that they dealt with by putting it in a bag, rather than suck it up with the machine, and risk a blockage. I hate to say this, but the guys later reported that some live matter was inadvertently sucked up with the shavings.

The attic contained a lot of non-redwood shaving matter.

The attic contained some non-redwood shaving matter.

On a related note, let me just say how glad I was that I followed my instincts to remove all the kitchen cabinets, rather than live with them during construction, because when the soffit above the kitchen sink was removed, my handyman found it filled about 1.5 inches deep with rat excrement. I'm talking about the soffit over the kitchen cabinet that once held dishes. (The rat entrance, through a hole in the attic for an over-the-sink ceiling light, has been blocked.)

Obviously, my next phone call was to a pest company. One man, Andy, is known as the rat terminator. He's on the job. His goal: This 1938 house will be a 100-percent rat-free zone. This is an absolute necessity, because I am seriously rat-phobic.

As you can see, a lot has happened since 7-7-17. Right now, the floors are on their way to being buttoned up from the pest repair.

a man in the kitchen

The attic is all clean and ready for patching (of rodent entrances) so the new duct work can be installed. Last will be fresh, modern insulation.

The attic, after cleaning.

The attic, after cleaning.

In the meantime, I'm realizing that this project may take a bit longer than I expected, which means spending more time juggling my current lodging situation and trying not to be a burden to any family or friends, or wearing out my welcome in any one place. My car is so full of bags and suitcases and stuff that it looks like I live in it.

For what it's worth, I called an HVAC company to inspect the ducts, and the guy said he could easily repair the duct work. But. The thing is, he'd be sealing up the old, rat-infested ducts. Plus, there would be no guarantee of what would be trapped inside those repaired ducts. Of course, the live, dead and dying rat air would be wafting down into my home's vents for everyone to breathe.

No freakin' way. Bring on a new duct system.

Because the AC can't be turned on, the house is so hot that I nearly got heat exhaustion waiting for a sub to show up yesterday. I'm a heat weenie, you know.

I guess if things got really hot I could turn on the AC and hang out in the air conditioned attic ... when hell froze over.

Either way, I'll keep you posted.

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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62 Responses

  1. Randall R Smith says:

    As a friend inspector of this recent situation, let me amplify the reporting by saying the pre Align Doni would have been overwhelmed by this project.  Almost any normal single person would be.  But as this work is both hobby and business and because she is now a modern Wonder Woman surrounded by a cadre of willing and capable workers, everything will be “house beautiful” very shortly.  Our community can only hope there are more caring and creative people to save the remaining architectural heritage in our village.  “Tree Without Roots” in this month’s Shasta Historical Society newsletter details what happens to communities where gypsies are allowed to pull down and destroy the hard work of our wonderful past.

    • Thanks, Randy. You are right that pre-Align Doni would have run screaming from this house. Thank you for your insight and support. Keep watching the progress. It’s going to be good!

  2. Oh, my – love those projects that grow exponentially. Your enthusiasm and your optimism put a smile on my face this morning. The house is adorable and I can see why you fell in love with it – looking forward to seeing what comes next. For your sake, I hope it’s cool, CLEAN A/C air. 🙂

    • You are so right about the house projects growing exponentially. As my sister said, it’s as if everything done on this house is like pulling a thread that unravels something else. Eventually, everything will be addressed.

      Thanks for the kind words. 🙂


  3. Beverly Stafford says:

    There’s a television commercial showing a woman to whom everything has gone wrong during the day – things like a flat tire, missed appointments, kid has a broken arm, and on and on – but she’s completely serene because she has gel insoles in her shoes.  So go to the drug store, find some Dr. Scholls gel insoles, and all this remodeling will seem like great fun.  Randall Smith was so right that the pre-Align Doni wouldn’t have taken all this in stride as the 2017 Doni is doing.  Doin’ Doni indeed.  Absolutely love the outside of your new/old house.  In a few weeks it will be a doll house and the pride of your new neighborhood.

    • I’ll keep the gel insoles in mind, Beverly, but so far, so good. 😉

      Just this morning, during my Align workout, Matthew was extolling the virtues of redoubling the self-care routine – exercise, lots of water, good nutrition – and how it’s even MORE important during high-stress, high-demand times. It would be so easy during this process to skip workouts, but I want a remodeled house to go along with my remodeled body.

  4. CoachBob says:

    Did you bring the great stove from the Lincoln house?

    • Oh, no. I got rid of my unreliable Italian boyfriend stove – Fagor – a long time ago. The new owners wanted the GE gas convection (totally reliable) range, so I left it, the washer/dryer and refrigerator behind.

  5. A. Jacoby says:

    LOL. . . . I read Erin’s note as “YOUTH enthusiasm and YOUTH optimism . . . ” And from my vantage point that certainly applies. I LOVE remodeling projects. I DON’T LOVE  the “surprises” that come along with those projects. Sounds like you certainly got your share!!

    Good luck . . . waiting with baited breath for the grand opening!!

  6. Oh boy! A new project! I can’t wait to see how you and Shelly transform this little house into something unique and beautiful. Good luck!

  7. Matthew Grigsby says:

    Our houses are so close to each other in proximity and age and design that I read this entire piece with a grimace. I’m learning more about my house from your house, and it makes me realize I’ve got some rough patches ahead.

    That said, this is terribly exciting and I can’t wait to see the magnificent results!

  8. Debra Atlas says:


    I agree with Randy. Anyone else would have run screaming for the hills – or at least a very large number of cocktails in tandem!  Congrats both on your rehabbing project and your new home-to-be. I know when it’s done it will be a place to be extraordinarily proud of.


  9. Beverly Stafford says:

    Why is my comment awaiting moderation?

    • Carter Slade says:

      Mine too…Jeeez! Apparently opinions only matter if they go with the flow…

    • Yes, a few readers’ comments – yours, included – were awaiting moderation this morning. It wasn’t a human thing. Our system got picky this morning, for who know why. Sorry about that, Beverly!

      • Beverly Stafford says:

        Oh, thank goodness!  I thought I’d somehow offended the News Cafe gods.  Farther down, you answered Darcie by saying you are enjoying the process.  Reminds me of Matthew’s comment that it’s the behavior not the goal that needs to be addressed.  Sure, it’s your goal to have a doll house, but it’s the process that’s fun — sometimes infuriating but overall, fun.

      • Carter Slade says:

        What, and all I get is a sharp stick in the eye? Never mind Doni, your site for me has lost that loving feeling anyway….Ill let ya get back to your remodeling…



  10. Darcie says:

    You have always been an inspiration to me but  this next adventure looks like it will will raise the bar even higher.    If there is a way to enjoy the process I know you will find it.   It’s gonna be good my friend.

    • Oh, Darce, you and your family have always been so supportive of me and my wild undertakings. Thank you! And you are right. I AM enjoying the process, and I know it’s going to be good! xod

  11. trek says:

    I see the need for plans and inspections. What I don’t see is how a pest inspector can cut up your house and the very structural integrity of the floor and he doesn’t need a COR inspector? Inspectors are there for safety and also to protect the homeowner.


    • Thanks for your concern, but there’s no need for worry. The whole point of their work (and btw, this is not a pest inspection, but repair) was to improve the structural integrity of the house, which is now greater than ever with total replacements and reinforcements. I’m not living there now, and it was just their team doing what they do to make things right with the house. As of today their work is finished and they’ve moved on to other jobs.

  12. Ginny says:

    For all the work you will have to do on this home, you will make it so beautiful that if and when you ever sell, the new owners will be so happy.

    But, in the meantime, you enjoy all the ups and downs with the “new” home.  You made the last one absolutely beautiful.

    Love your spunk!

    • Thanks, Ginny. I do find myself looking down the road to whomever has this house after me. Literally from top to bottom this will almost be a new house. I’m up for the challenge to achieve that.

  13. Karen says:

    Oh, this is going to be good!  Although we don’t really know each other (we have met) I have followed your adventures for years.  You did such a beautiful job on the last two houses that I can’t wait to see this project play out.  You’re such an inspiration to all of us remodeling geeks and fitness nerds.  Thankfully you didn’t buy a subdivision house…


    • Subdivisions are great for many, many people, but they’re just not my thing. I’m delighted with this house, for many reasons. I’m glad other remodeling geeks can enjoy the project vicariously. Stay tuned.

  14. K. Beck says:

    Was this an “as is” purchase, otherwise real estate sales require inspections. I can’t imagine this house passed any inspection at all. Let the buyer beware!

  15. amy gibbs says:

    We live in a 1940 house in Grand Junction, which was added to about 18 years ago. At the same time they resided, reroofed (yes, the roof will need replacing again fairly soon) and apparently did some wiring and insulating. I know there are no redwood shavings in our attic! I wonder what was there originally, though. It gets freakin’ cold here, so I would bet there was SOMETHING for insulation. We are still left with some funky situations, like lack of outlets in the old part of the house, and wondering if the older part is actually grounded like the addition is…And the insulation was the blown-in kind, which settles and shifts. It is so nice to see that you are documenting EXACTLY what you are

    We are still left with some funky situations, like lack of outlets in the old part of the house, and wondering if the older part is actually grounded like the addition is…And the insulation that was put in with the expansion was the blown-in kind, which settles and shifts. It is so nice to see that you are documenting EXACTLY what you are doing, and that you are doing it “right” in the first place.

    I also like that you are preserving some architectural heritage for Redding. After living here, and visiting home numerous times, I see that Redding, for its size, does not have a lot of older houses. Some of them have been cared-for, but there seem to be many, many even older homes that are teetering on the brink of being condemned. I know a huge Craftsman is not really what you were looking for, and really wouldn’t be a good living space for a single woman, but boy, I’d love to see some of those “saved”, too.

    Finally, I know it’s probably too soon, but I wonder about those 50s and 60s houses that were built up in the hills surrounding town. They are often “custom” builds and have some wonderful architectural bones. The house I grew up in was built in 1958-59, and was the usual, “cracker box” kind of construction, though it does have a salvaged brick fireplace (gorgeous) and hardwood floors, but it wasn’t anything unique. I wonder about the “nicer” houses from the 60s, if we will have the same nostalgia for that style in a decade or two…


    • It sounds like your house has made you an expert of sorts on older houses.

      The houses you’re talking about in the surrounding hills around Redding .. I’ve not seen those, but they sound interesting.

      And yeah, although Craftsman is my favorite architectural style, you’re right that I don’t see myself in a big Craftsman house. At least not at this stage of my life.

      Good luck with your house!

      • amy gibbs says:

        Thanks, Doni! I imagine you are more of an expert in older houses than I am! But we have learned a lot in the last 16 years.

  16. Alice Gerard says:

    Welcome to the neighborhood Doni ! Alas, a house prophet has arrived to save the soul of this old home. You go girl!!!

    • Alice, I’m delighted that we’re neighbors and that we can keep an eye out for each other. Thank you for your warm welcome. I look forward to being part of this wonderful neighborhood.

  17. Patty says:

    So excited for you!!

  18. Layne says:

    As you know, we already miss you in the Garden Tract. We loved having you around the corner! I’ll be watching the transformation of your new-old house. How inspiring! Our house is a 1957 structure and it needs a lot of updating. You are an inspiration! Between you and a few of the HGTV fixer upper shows, we’ll have more info and inspiration for changes we need to make here. Please keep us updated with your wonderful photos and details! Wishing you the best with your new home!

    • I miss you guys (and your pup), too. I’ll miss our conversations as you walk the dog, and I’ll never forget your sweetie helping me carry coffee cakes across the street to Tom’s freezer around midnight, and you two let me know I’d left the garage open

  19. Denise says:

    You are SO brave! The very idea of all this sucks the wind from me.

    Can’t wait to see how it turns out. The process is amazing.


  20. Canda Williams says:

    Doni, I love reading your columns.  Makes me miss you even more than I do. 🙁  I think wanting a new project is a great reason to buy another house.  With your gift of remodeling, another very dated house will soon be a show piece.  So happy the rat issue is behind you.  Thanks for sharing photos and details with us.  If I was still in town, I’d want to be over there seeing the progress in person.  (sign)  Anyway, I know you’re in your element, and enjoying (most of) the process.  Congratulations on your new home, and I can’t wait to see future updates.  Love you and miss you so much! xoxo

  21. conservative says:

    I love the gabled front porch roof on the westside house.  It costs so little to build in an interesting detail like that.   A house should not look like a barn with four plain walls.  Some designs today go overboard with too much detail.

  22. Richard says:

    This is a very cute house Doni and I’m very happy for you. I had no idea they used redwood shavings for insulation. That’s good you are cleaning that out for safety. It will be nice to see how it all comes together. I would love to talk about a color for that front door next time you are in the store. 

    • Thanks, Richard. The front door is not that special, but it is wide, and maybe it could be sanded and painted into something pretty. (I’d like to ditch that security door eventually, too.)


  23. cyndI says:

    You are awesome! I love that you jump in with both feet. I will be following your remodel and living vicariously through you. Remodeling homes is my passion that I let get squashed by an ex. Maybe you will inspire me to get back to it.

  24. A Glesca lass says:

    Exciting! I wish I had your stamina and creativity. Looking foward to “the rest of the story”

  25. Sally says:

    At first learning you were leaving the house you so cleverly remodeled – even to the point your home was selected to be shown on the annual AAUW Home Tour, (the proceeds of same are given to qualified young ladies as scholarship funds for their future) it was hard to believe you would ever abandon the terrific personal masterpiece!  But reading all the above, you are following a talented and eager heart to create again!  I admire your energy and lively ideas about which I am sure will again be a blessing in your life.  Good luck!!  Our community should always be in your debt for all you have given to our ever changing town!

    • I know, many people have had a hard time believing I’d ever leave my Garden Tract home. But I learned a lot from that project that I can implement on this job. I’m up for it!

      Thanks for the nice words, Sally. (And re AAUW, I’m indebted in part to that organization for granting me a scholarship many years ago.)

  26. anik domb says:

    I love your positive energy!!! Can’t wait to see the finished product!!!

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