One splinter of experience is worth a whole fixer upper of warning

Our story so far: Are you willing to take on a fixer upper? My husband and I thought we were, and we made a plan to renovate a 126-year-old Methodist church into our dream home.

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Chapter 7

My beloved husband Tyler knew well what it meant to renovate a house and why anyone about to tackle such an undertaking should proceed with caution.

Nearly thirty years ago, Tyler’s first whole-house renovation project began with Boone County’s oldest operational tobacco farm.

He and his wife at the time purchased the property in Northern Illinois for just the price of a new car in the 1980s from the two bachelor brothers who had grown tobacco there for decades. Now in their 80s, one of the brothers was in ill health and living in a nursing home; the other planned a move to join him.

tobacco farm
That’s Tyler there on the left, sawing. His grandfather, in the middle, and a buddy lend a hand to the construction project. The old tobacco barn is in the background.

One of the buildings on the farm was a distinctive tobacco barn with hinged foot-wide openings. They all locked from the inside with a wooden peg. The slates were opened to dry the tobacco hanging inside.

The brothers smoked their product. Every out building had Zig Zag cigarette rolling paper packages stuffed in every crevice.

The farmhouse had no heat except a warm-morning stove connected to a fuel oil tank. There was one light switch in every room connected to a single bulb hanging from the ceiling. Old horsehair plaster was on all the walls and ceilings. The flooring and trim was basic Douglas fir that could be refinished; the baseboards were distinctive. The main floor consisted of three rooms, and a steep stairway led to the second half-story. The basement was a five-foot-deep hole with a dirt floor.

There was no plumbing. The “running water” was a well pump outside. The brothers pumped water and brought it inside for drinking and bathing. When Tyler had the well tested, it was like death syrup, the levels of live bacteria and chloroform so high as to be practically toxic (chloroform was used an anesthetic in the Civil War). The “bathroom” was a two-hole outhouse on skids so the brothers could move it when the pit beneath it filled.

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Tomorrow: Hard physical effort transforms the old tobacco farm. Read it here.

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The timeline for closing on a church is not ordained

Our story so far: We moved into a rental house two blocks from the church, ready to get to work renovating it into our dream home.

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It was two weeks after we originally planned to close on the church (two weeks!), and no closing had been scheduled. The church still didn’t have the paperwork it required to designate authorized signatures.

Tyler had had it. He was anything but understanding at this point.

Sure, we were protected from the elements now, but really! We wanted to close on the church two months ago! Should we walk away from the deal?

Though we entertained a few conspiracy theories that the congregation really didn’t want to sell the church, we knew in our hearts they just weren’t as motivated to wrap things up as we were. So we decided to give them some incentive. We offered to extend our offer for two more weeks (admitting to ourselves it would be a regular miracle if we closed in two weeks), but we also lowered our offering price. Now our good deal was even better!

We sweated it out for twenty-four hours while we awaited a response, but the church accepted. So now we had a few thousand more in our budget and two more weeks to plan how to use it.

As we relaxed in front of the TV one evening in our little rental house, I asked Tyler how he was feeling about things.

“Excited,” he said right away. “And scared.”

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Tomorrow: Tyler is knows very well what he’s in for. Read it here.

Moving day

Our story so far: Rather than move directly into the church we intended to convert into our house, the rapidly cooling autumn weather prompts us to rent a house nearby.

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Chapter 6

When it came time to move into little house two blocks from the church ten days after we’d signed the rental papers, we decided to do it over the course of three days. We spent the first day cleaning.

Oh, the house looked clean enough upon first inspection. No garbage. The floors appeared swept. The cupboards probably had been wiped out. Probably.

But my husband, born a Virgo, wasn’t one to trust when it came to cleaning. One of a Virgo’s principle traits is perfectionism. If a Virgo sets out to do something, he typically doesn’t rest until it’s done very (very!) well which I guess is a good thing when it comes to cleanliness (and church reconstruction).

He brought along five gallons of concentrated Simply Green. Five gallons.

We scrubbed literally every surface, and what we didn’t scrub, we swept or vacuumed. Gone were the whispery spider webs in the ceiling corners. Gone was the scrounge on the bathroom floor. Gone was the greasy dust on the ceiling fans that had clearly never been touched, let alone dusted, by the previous resident.

This was a good warm-up for the church, which had sat empty for sixteen months and had 119 years before that to accumulate gunk. Ceiling fan dust would be the least of it.

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Tomorrow: A bed, a bed, our kingdom for a bed! Read it here.

Too big, too small and juuuuust right

Our story so far: As we waited impatiently for the church to gather the necessary closing documents, we got a look at the freshly minted survey for our lot.

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Some math revealed we were about to be owners of 5,033 square feet of livable space, including the basement, in the church we intended to convert into a house; this was roughly fourteen times the size of the camper in which we’d resided for nine-going-on-ten months.

Part of me felt guilty for giving up the minimalist lifestyle. When people asked why we’d moved in the first place, we often told them our house had gotten too big; we rarely walked into entire rooms.

But the truth was, we just hated that house. It didn’t start that way—it was a home to raise a teenager in a decent school district. But we’d paid more for it than it was ever worth, and then the 2008 Recession hit and stole even more equity from us. Spending any money on it at all to make it more our own and less mass market felt wasteful and pointless. The teenager grew up. The longer we stayed there, the less it felt like home, which is opposite the way it should have been. Getting out was a relief.

The part of me that didn’t feel guilty about taking on so much house felt positively giddy about it. Living in a camper for a season had proven to be problematic when it came to entertaining. There was too little room to prepare meals much less serve them. Overnight guests slept in our living room and were forced to awaken at the first grind of the coffee. I was excited to create inviting guest spaces in our new home, and with a grandchild on the way, I wanted plenty of space to spread out the crib, toys and other paraphernalia accumulated by modern parents.

I also longed for our king-sized bed. The camper only had room for a queen, and Tyler and I together more than filled it. Cozy had started to become cramped.

Tyler also began to resent the landmines I’d created everywhere by stuffing our belongings into every conceivable space; I longed to have cupboards to organize dishware, toiletries and shoes without having to pull every last thing apart to get to the bottom of a pile.

There were a lot of coordinates and numbers, but what the survey didn’t capture was how that square footage was going to create a sanctuary for a family.

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Tomorrow: We begin the move into our temporary rental. Read it by clicking here.

How to inhabit a church in just three easy steps

Our story so far: We’re filling our time waiting to close on the church we plan to convert into our home by creating budgets and making plans.

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As the prospect of freezing temperatures became ever more real in our camper, we debated how long it would take for us to acquire a habitation permit from the village.

The building inspector told Tyler he required an operational bathroom, kitchen and bedroom before he would allow us to occupy the church. So simple! Just three rooms!

bathroom.jpg
Check out that sweet bathroom. Just kidding. It’s hard to see but that’s not one, not two, but three room deodorizers on the window ledge.
Well, we had a toilet in the basement.

Kitchen Before
The church kitchen in the basement in all its “before” glory.
At this point, we didn’t even have running water. The congregation had turned it off sixteen months before when they vacated the church building to merge with another congregation in a nearby city. They took all the pews, the pulpit, the altar and both the bathroom and kitchen sinks. The basement kitchen countertops existed but were unmoored from the walls.

On the third showing at the church when we found Stan the squirrel, we discovered puddles of water in the basement. The caretaker, who noticed us at the church as he drove by, came inside to tell us the basement always got water when it rained. Shouldn’t a caretaker do something about that? I wondered silently.

A basement prone to flooding was probably not a great place for a bed.

Tyler spent a month scheming about plumbing in order to construct a bathroom shower and install new (or newish) sinks. He consulted with an electrician. He called an HVAC guy to schedule a furnace check. And he pondered how we might keep our sleeping area free of construction dust. We could take our time once we were living inside the church, but speed was of the essence in getting it livable.

Every day the church failed to conjure up the necessary documents for closing the deal put us more on edge. Tyler would lay awake at 2 a.m. thinking about 100-year-old lead pipes and drain vents. For me, the sleeplessness came at the beginning of the night. I would watch HGTV for hours before retiring for the evening, and then I’d lay awake re-arranging the location of the main floor laundry and dining room table. Or I’d scroll through pages on Pinterest looking at rustic accent walls, vaulted bedroom ceilings and DIY entryways only to dream about them later.

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Tomorrow: Chapter 4 continues with a description of the wonders of architectural salvage. Read it here.

Now here’s a home contractor you’ve probably never heard of before

Our story so far: My husband Tyler agrees with me that his DIY solution to the disintegrating belfry in the church we planned to convert into our house was ill-conceived.

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First Tyler called three area roofers. Roofers have no fear of heights. Or, at least, they have the equipment to mount such a repair on a 30-foot high belfry. Keep in mind, we didn’t even officially own the property yet. Tyler, with his salesman-like charm, persuaded the roofers to have a look. One of them actually followed through, submitting a quote by email for reroofing the entire church.

Um, that’s not what we want. We wanted you to reroof the belfry.

Tyler was undeterred (which is what we would need if we ever hoped to finish this project). He discovered an entire profession created for just such a project: Steeplejacks.

A steeplejack is a craftsman who scales tall buildings to carry out repairs on chimneys, church spires, cupolas, clock towers and, fortunately for us, bell towers. And they have an association, too. Alleluia!

The first steeplejack Tyler contacted looked at the pictures of the belfry and provided a highly detailed quote within a week for ten times what we’d estimated in our Tequila Budget.

We wanted to cry. That figure was more than we were paying for the entire church building!

Tyler didn’t give up, though, and the second steeplejack—a pro with a mission who signed his quote with “in His Service”—confessed he couldn’t promise he could do it for less than the first quote until he could climb up there and see what was going on. Just erecting the scaffolding would take a day to accomplish. Besides paying for him and two assistants (at $2,400 a day), we’d have to shell out for the materials of course.

Of course.

But we loved our bell tower (or, at least, the bell tower that would soon be ours). And I loved my husband. Avoiding having his broken body at the bottom of a set of rickety steps was worth $2,400 a day to me.

And, as if guided by a divine scheduler, the pro with a mission would be available in November.

This coincidental schedule opening only made us more impatient to close on the church. But perhaps the divine scheduler could see a bigger picture than we could.

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Tomorrow: Chapter 4 opens with a debate about our plan to get the church livable. Read it here.

Tools required to check for rot in a belfry: Haz-mat suit and courage

Our story so far: The seller of the church we wanted to buy and convert into our house disclosed the belfry was “rooted.”

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On our third showing of the church, which occurred while we were still waiting for the title to clear and we talked our real estate agent into letting us in again despite the prospect of the tiny commission, my enterprising husband packed a hazardous materials suit, goggles, a face mask and a big flashlight. Oh, and a hammer.

He donned his apparel—what a dashing figure, not too unlike the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man—and climbed a step-ladder in the closet on the second floor that led to the belfry. A couple of whacks at the trap door, and he was inside.

daylight in the belfry
Here’s what the inside of a very old belfry looks like. That bright light in the center of the picture? Daylight shining through the roof beneath the bell.

Unfortunately, he could see the sky. Coffee-can sized holes dotted the perimeter of the roof around the bell. On days with worse weather, rain was probably pouring into those holes. And who knows what else!

Well, we found out what else.

Stan
Here’s what a very mummified squirrel looks like.

Stan the squirrel.

The mummified and dust-covered rodent’s wide-open mouth betrayed the terror he must have felt in his last moments.

The real estate agent and I were standing along the far wall while Tyler poked around. We had no interest in coming face to face with a bat.

Tyler found Stan. But he didn’t find any bats.

Oh, joy! We didn’t have bats in our belfry after all! (I told that joke ad nauseam for days afterward. And I’m not promising I won’t use it again.)

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Tomorrow: Tyler cooks up a plan to repair the belfry. Read it here.