Doni’s Old House Remodel: Nailed it!

It’s been exactly five months since I bought this 1938 stucco-and-plaster house in west Redding. If I’d known in July the amount of time, money and stress it would take to make this house habitable, I’m not sure I would have taken on this project.

Now, thank goodness, I really think the worst is behind me. I’m living here. All the workers are gone. It’s just me and all the unfinished little things that I can do, like painting trim, and puttying nail holes, and caulking. Lots of caulking. 

My hindsight is awesome. For example, had I known that all my earthly belongings would be in storage as long as they were – because of remodeling delays – I would have packed so much differently in June.

For one thing, I would have taken even more with me in my homelessmobile than I already packed into all those boxes and bags and suitcases which went for a Redding roadtrip all summer with me. I would have taken things like the navy blue long-sleeved dress I planned to wear for my friend’s daughter’s fall wedding, because when the wedding date arrived, my dress was still in storage.

Most important of all, I would have taken the dated paperwork for a speeding ticket I got in the spring, which I’d paid, but I had a ridiculously long deadline to complete the traffic school, a date that came and went because the papers were in my container. And when the container was delivered, and I got the boxes, it took me weeks to find the papers, and when I did, lo and behold, it was three days past the deadline. For the record, Shasta County Superior Court isn’t the least bit sympathetic about people’s moving woes and papers-in-storage explanations.

People have commented about how seemingly well I’ve held up through this challenging remodeling process, but honestly, I have had a few – OK, many — moments when I felt completely overwhelmed. There were times when I was at Home Depot just before closing (9 p.m., FYI) after a long day, looking at something needed for some contractor the next day. Sometimes I felt so alone and tired and afraid of so much – of running out of money, of making the wrong decision, of hiring the wrong people, of finding more rats, of discovering yet another expensive unexpected disaster –  that one employee saying something as simple as, “Screwdrivers? Did you look in tools?” nearly sent me around the bend.

Even so, I know this little house has come a long way, baby. And that feels pretty good. I remember when the back room looked like this:

Now that corner looks like this:

The back bathroom was a mess of dry rot. Now it looks like this:

The old kitchen looked like this:

The biggest surprise when removing the kitchen cabinets was finding more than an inch of rat crap in the soffit above the cabinets and sink.

The kitchen now looks like this.

I learned so much along the way, such as to always offer a beverage to anyone who showed up to work, or give a bid, or make a delivery. Sometimes, in the summer, I wouldn’t even ask, but just hand the guy a bottle of water. It was never refused and always appreciated.

I even started a routine in July of buying workers R&R Meats’ combo lunch every Friday. It seemed like a good idea in Month 1. By Month 4 I was questioning my sanity. I spent more on those lunches than I did interior paint.

I learned that when hiring someone to install something, like a light or ceiling fan, and I’m paying by the hour, it’s better if I unpack the merchandise from the box and assemble everything before they arrive, and add batteries, if needed, so I’m not paying someone by the hour to put something together before they install it.

I learned to check my pockets before washing my work clothes, because it just takes one random screw or nail to stop a washing machine drum dead in its tracks.

Check those pockets before washing work clothes.

I learned to ask anyone who set foot on the premises for their advice. I got a lot of good ideas that way, and I knew I was on the right track when there was a consensus.

I learned to have $5 and $10 bills on hand for delivery people. It’s a nice thing to do, but it also ensured I’d be remembered favorably if they had to return to pick up something that was defective, which happened surprisingly frequently.

I learned to pay by the job whenever possible, not the hour. And if I did have to pay by the hour, I learned (the hard way, of course) to get an estimate first.

I learned to carry a tape measure in my purse at all times, and keep measurements of everything — from room dimensions to window measurements — noted on my phone for handy reference. It saved a lot of running back and forth between the project and various stores.

I learned to ask “dumb” questions like, “Where exactly is the gas line?” and “Where exactly is the water shut off?” and “Do I smell gas?” and “Why is it necessary to attach a chain to a rat trap?”

I learned to trust my gut, and if I felt weird about a worker, it was OK if I didn’t hire him again; even if his work was good.

I learned to expect that with construction and remodeling, everything takes at least twice as long and costs about three times more than I expected.

I learned to troll the aisles for scratch-and-dent items and returns, because sometimes that’s the location of some great bargains.

I learned that sometimes it’s worth it to put up a fight for what’s right, such as when returning damaged merchandise, or asking for compensation when employees at a particular store took three hours to find something I’d paid for and my handyman was hired – by the hour – to pick it up.

I learned to make design choices with my lifestyle in mind, such as choosing floors and counters with a pattern that doesn’t show every grain of salt or bread crumb, because although I don’t have a housekeeper, I like things to look as if I do.

One of the most upsetting lessons I learned was that when hiring an unlicensed laborer, even a guy I’ve worked with for years, write the checks for no more than $499, and in the check memo, write specific project titles – rat soffit removal, tree trimming, carpet removal, dump run, etc. — as a form of CYA later.

Corey Bunton, falsely charged. Remember his name because Doni’s goal is to convince some brilliant, compassionate lawmaker to write a bill named for Corey. Let’s call it Corey’s Law. This law would allow laborers – some of the hardest physical workers in the country – to work as long as they like doing non-licensed contractor work, and earn as much money, without penalty. Doni says it’s unAmerican to do anything else.

Because without that, if some vindictive asshole files a false claim with the CSLB claiming my handyman was impersonating a contractor, not only might the state actually believe the lie and follow up with a sting and fine your handyman, but any appeal would fall flat because the checks would prove the very law that the handyman didn’t actually break. The fraud unit doesn’t care. The state doesn’t care. It’s a royally messed up system.

Finally, I learned when to step back and take a break, which is what I’m doing now. Most of the big stuff is done. I still need to have some minor plaster and drywall patching that will be done in a few days inside, such as the taped-up hole in the ceiling where I was going to have a whole house fan, and where the coving was cut for the bracket.

The bracket installation messed up the coving, which will be repaired soon.

And I just hired a handyman to fill all the holes in the attic (where wires go down the walls to drafty outlets) with expanding foam. Once all the attic and ceiling holes are addressed, I can finally have the insulation blown into the attic, which will be fantastic, because this old plaster house is FREEZING-ass cold! In fact, as I type I’m wearing my down winter coat. Seriously. The guy who patched the holes in the attic yesterday laughed and said I should move my desk up there because the attic was toasty warm. I didn’t think he was very funny. I spend a fair amount of time thinking of pioneer folks, before central heat and insulated dwellings, and I wonder how they endured the cold.

Oh, in case you’re wondering why my home lacks insulation, it’s because my attic is completely bare. Early on in the remodeling process I hired some guys with the world’s biggest vacuum to suck out the highly flammable redwood-shavings insulation as well as the live and dead rats, as well as a raccoon skeleton.

You know, normal attic contents.

So that’s why I have a naked attic. The good news is it’s a clean attic.

Meanwhile, every day is another adventure. Last week a handyman was trying to pull out a big stump by the back door and he found a water pipe and electrical wires under the stump. Of course, that ended that job, until I’m ready to face the bizarre under-stump utilities.

The next day I stepped on a nail while shoveling dirt back around the base of that same damn stump. The nail went through my tennis shoe and into my heel. Enough to leave a puddle of blood in my shoe.

Curse words were spoken. A beer may have been opened.

This was the culprit that caused Doni to get a tetanus shot. (Beer cap for perspective.)

I got a tetanus shot, because my Facebook friends said I should, especially the medical professionals. To quote Dr. Richard Malotky, “I’ve only treated one patient with tetanus. He died pretty fast.”

Doctors Greg Greenberg and Pamela Ikuta said that actually, it’s not so much the rusty nail ER docs worry about, but some really nasty stuff such as pseudomonas found inside shoes. Fascinating.

Later, my daughter-in-law reminded me that I had that Tdap booster after the grandkids were born, you know, so I could hold them.  At the time, I was focused on the fact that it protected me (and my grandbabies) from whooping cough, but it turns out that the “T” in Tdap is a booster for guess what? Tetanus. Who knew? Turns out I didn’t need the tetanus shot after all.

But I’m still here to write about it, so I’ll shut up.

The same day my pseudomonas-filled tennis shoe was impaled on the rusty nail by the special stump was the same day I’d planned to call and cancel the pest service I’d hired specifically for rat abatement. After all, I’d had the service since July without a single rat capture.

But when I went to the garage to return the shovel (to dig in the dirt where I later stepped on the nail) I found THE MOTHER OF ALL RATS in a trap in the garage. I kid you not; this rat was so large that at first I was horrified to think the trap caught a squirrel. No ma’am. No squirrel. Rat. Giant rat. And the worst part was that even though the trap had snapped right about where its waist would be (if a rat had a waist) it was still very much wide-eyed and alive. Thank God for chains on rat traps (see dumb question, above) or that rat would have bolted to some remote corner in the garage with the assistance of his still-functioning powerful rodent biceps. He’d have been concealed there in the dark until the smell gave him away.

You can bet I was praising Jesus for my pest service as I hit pest-control speed-dial and asked for a technician to please come quickly to deal with the rat and put it out of its suffering. When the pest guy arrived, I asked how in the world the rat could still be alive, snapped as it was across its middle.

“Yeah, we’re seeing a lot of that,” he said nonchalantly as he put on a pair of blue exam gloves. “I don’t know what people are putting in the rat food these days but we’ve seen rats snapped across the neck in a trap and still alive.”

I couldn’t bear to watch how the pest guy dealt with the rat, except I know it involved a bucket and my hose, and that it took what seemed several minutes before it was all over.

I will never use the term “drowned rat” in a sentence again, and I will give up coffee with cream and sugar before I give up my pest service, which means never.

I am supremely rattled by the mammoth rat in the garage, because over these last carefree rat-free months my rat phobia had subsided. In fact, I had come to believe that maybe the rats were gone forever from my property. Now I’m worried they’ll try to sneak into the house, even though I know (hope) that every possible entrance is blocked.

The truth is, I’ll probably be fine for a while, at least as long as I don’t have insulation. A rat would freeze to death in here.

Maybe I’ll postpone the insulation, and just put on another coat.

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.

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