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 A News Cafe in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke. Chamberlain holds a Bachelor's Degree in journalism from CSU, Chico. She's 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's been featured and quoted in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, L.A. Times, Slate. Bloomberg News and on CNN, KQED and KPFA. She lives in Redding, California.

Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments