Wednesday, August 15, 2018

This Old House

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: If you're a person of (ahem) a certain age, you'll know there was a moment, or two, or three, when you woke up and discovered things were not as they once were. The "sleep wrinkles" on your face didn't disappear after breakfast. Your joints began to snap, crackle and pop like your bowl of cereal. Eating a danish resulted in a one pound weight gain that wouldn't go away. Like, ever.

My house is hitting that period. To be fair, she has a lot of years under her belt. Two hundred, give or take a decade. And, just like an old person, the hot and humid weather isn't helping. The front door is swollen with so much moisture we sometimes have to go through the barn and open it from the outside by crashing into it like an offensive lineman through the Crimson Tide defense. The front stair banisters, which were finished in marine varnish a couple centuries ago, get uncomfortably sticky, so that going up to bed feels like holding hands with a really bad first date. The master bath's toilet, which dates from the Eisenhower administration, responds to the heat with a steady drip-drip-drip of condensation which runs across the bathroom floor in a gentle stream. Why does it do this? Because that floor, and every floor, slants. There's not a level vertical or horizontal surface to be found anywhere in my house.

But these seasonal annoyances are as nothing compared to the Large Systems Death Spiral I have entered. When Ross and I purchased  our farmhouse in 1994, we were the beneficiaries of the previous owners good maintenance and bad timing. In preparation for living in their country home full time in retirement, they prudently invested in the best furnace, water heater, etc. etc. available. Unfortunately for them, the husband died less than a year after he stopped working. (I'd wonder if the place was bad luck for husbands, but two deaths in sixty years isn't that much of a statistical anomaly.)

Over the years, Ross and I replaced and upgraded here and there. The eternally freezing-and-bursting copper pipes became impervious PVC. The WWII-era downstairs bath eventually went to the way of all flesh (and ceramic, and moving metal bits.) We painted (and by we, I mean Ross and the Sailor), we had the roof replaced, we had the septic tank pumped out.

Now, however, the bill is (literally) coming due. Last spring, the water pump, which had steadily supplied us from our well since before we were owners of the place, died. We didn't even know where the well was buried after all those years. Fortunately, my plumber had a good eye, and the backhoe guy found it without having to dig up more than a 3x5 trench in our yard. 

Both the front and back storm doors gave up the ghost (with a little help from the Sailor, who managed to break the glass in both doors within a two month span.) I have two dear cousins who are super-good at carpentry and all that jazz, and they volunteered to come over and do a quick change for me. It wound up taking them nine hours to install one storm because the back door wasn't standard size. None of my doors are. I have three in the parlor/office in which I'm writing this, and every one is a half to three-quarters of an inch off from the rest.

My cousins called one door good for the year. They'll be back in September to install the front storm door. I'm planning to have them stay overnight.

This summer, I was hit with a plumbing/bathroom trifecta. The oil-fired water heater, which again, had been there when we moved in, died. Over thirty years, who could blame it. Thank God, it was the hottest part of the summer, when taking camp showers were, at the very least, bearable. I had a new, fancy-dan green hybrid heat pump heater installed to replace it, for only about as much as I paid for our trip to Hawaii. Sorry, kids. This year, you get hot water for Christmas.

When the hot water came back on after three weeks of being shut off, the accumulated mineral deposits blasted into the dripping-for-some-time kitchen and shower faucets and kludged them. (Yes, a filtration system is on the list. But it's a long list.) The kitchen was so bad we had to turn the water off to the sink. Again. The plumber (who likes me very, very much, since I am financing his new car) will be over this Thursday to finally put the new faucets in. They are transitional in style, and it took me more time to pick them out at the plumbing supply design center than it did ti find my wedding gown.

But wait, there's more! While all this was going on, the electricity went off in the master bath - which is also the laundry room. It's not the circuits - I checked. And rechecked. So while the water has been off, and on, and off, and on, the lights and the washer haven't been working. I've been performing my nighttime ablutions by candlelight, which is very flattering. I may keep that. Sadly, having to lug my dirty clothes and sheets to the laundromat (or to kindly friends houses) is much less gracious and romantic. So as soon as Jeff the Plumber is finished with his part, I have to call Joe the Electrician.

Is it any wonder I religiously go to the DIY Network and HGTV sites every day and enter their Ultimate Retreat Giveaway? I linger over pictures of the brand-new, perfectly plumb construction, the cunningly designed laundry room, the kitchen with the full-sized refrigerator that doesn't have to fit in the hallway around the corner from the stove because there's literally no space for it on walls pierced with four doors, three windows and a wood stove.

Do I sound a little on edge? I read that most of the winners of the Dream Home and Ultimate Getaway houses wind up taking the cash option - it's too far from home, and they don't want to pay the taxes. Not me. When I win, I'm putting this old house on the market and moving. North Carolina, Washington State - it doesn't matter to me. Sure, I'll miss the friends I see so often now. But I can always Skype with Jeff if I get lonely.

77 comments:

  1. Oh, dear . . . no matter how old [or new] the house, I suppose there’s always a never-ending list of issues for homeowners to deal with, but fixing those old-house-issues is never as easy as the folks on all those renovation shows make it look. The unique predicaments of your house may make me chuckle, but you also have my sympathy . . . .

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  2. The time has come, the walrus said... Ah, old houses. For me I think having to do laundry "out" would put me over the top. I am very fortunate to live in a 130-yer-old house that has been completely redone - by the man in my life. Of course we had to live in a construction zone for five years, but it's now all new systems, insulated, and lovely. Much isn't level, but I can live with that. Wishing you all the best with yours!

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    1. Edith, could you lend this lovely man to Julia for a couple of weeks...or months?

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    2. Ladies, I'm reminded of a line from on of the "Sweet Potato Queens" series by JIll Conner Browne. She offered the following advice of picking a suitable husband. "Marry a man who can either fix thing or has enough money to hire someone to fix things." If only it were that easy.

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    3. Lydia, I married a man who had enough money... until he gave up the law in favor of teaching special ed. I mean, it's not like you can argue with that, right? Maybe Edith will loan me her husband.

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  3. Cover this is such a constant! Our house is from 1894, and we love it, but walls are cracking, and don’t even think about the basement.
    So-We go back to sleep wrinkles on the face? This is an age thing? It drives me absolutely crazy. Is hot compresses how to get them away? I have started sleeping on my back to avoid them… They are so weird!
    I’m so sorry for your house woes, Julia. How does it know?

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    1. I’m not sure what I meant by “cover”. Sigh.

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    2. “However”? “Moreover”? “Wonder”? Just speculating. Happy Wednesday, Hank’s autofill and Hank! ;-)

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    3. Be glad if the sleep wrinkles still go away in a few hours. Mine have been permanently embossed since 2001. Pftt. Call them laugh lines, character grooves, road ruts, whatever.

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    4. I've heard that silk pillowcases do the trick. They're good for taming hair as well!

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  4. Your house woes trump ours, Julia, that's for sure. Our house is just 100 years old. Right now we're dealing with a 3' deep sink hole in the front lawn... a sure sign that the main drain pipe from the house to the street is sagging and leaking and needs to be replaced. Backhoe. Trench. The good news is it's a GREAT time to be a contractor.

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    1. The fundamental issue with old homes is that it's NEVER a little problem. Everything that goes wrong is a Big Deal and will cost $5,000 to fix, more or less.

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    2. It often seems as if a sometimes-harsh reality offsets the charm of those wonderful, old houses.

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  5. Julia, I feel your pain. My house isn't as old as yours, but I am seriously considering finding someplace else once the guys have fledged the nest--the steady drip drip drip of money into repairs--it's always something! And the yard is more than I can/want to handle on my own. I'll miss the location badly, my neighbors, and proximity to family and friends--but I want less stress and more time for stuff I want to do. Best of luck with your plumbing and electric!!

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    1. Well, Jeff and Joe ARE having good luck! :-)

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  6. I am so sorry to hear of your house woes, Julia. Our house is not yet 100 years old, but heading towards that milestone and we had a summer-full of repairmen last year for this and that. My consolation is that at least we are dealing with genuine hardwood floors and window trim within, rather than modern composite materials. Am I grasping at straws of home ownership glory here?!?!?!

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    1. We old-home owners glory in our character. Notice that's also what you have left when your hair turns gray and your face starts sliding south.

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  7. Oh dear. Makes me feel good that I live in a brand new house, by comparison. 1933. Even at 85, she's got her wrinkles and surprises.

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  8. Oh, Julia, hang in there. It’s good to know that you have Jake and Joe on the team! Small consolation, but even in this 32 year old condo in CT, the humidity has swelled every door this summer. And, in April, a 3’x3’ plate glass mirror slid off the bathroom wall while I was away. The most fantastic condo watchers in the world had all the shards cleaned up and disposed of before I returned. Since then I have had the sink replaced, wall repaired and painted, still searching for the “ perfect” replacement, and yesterday the fan started with ominous “click,clack”. The joys of maintaining shelter.

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    1. As I remind the Smithie, who is saving up for a house, it doesn't matter how mew it is - every house will need a repair fund, starting from day 1.

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    2. More "mother's wisdom" -- when I bought this condo when it was but 18 years old, my mother said, "When you own it, there's always something!"

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  9. Julia, your laundry, not mention you + are always welcome at our house. Sometime when the sun decides to shine and we are on the deck I will tell you about what it cost to leave our last home. Pimms will be poured.

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  10. I feel your home repair pain. We moved from a thirty-year old money pit in Cleveland with three sanitary sewer backups in nine years to a brand new house in Atlanta with many construction flaws followed by a Cincinnati money pit. Brand new doesn't equal stress free, just a new set of issues (like the two story front hall chandelier that almost came crashing down because it wasn't correctly anchored to an attic beam, which cracked). A handyman shoved scaffolding underneath it just in time. Or the "flawed" siding on the back of the house which, fifteen years later, had to be replaced. Unlike our neighbors, we knew not to accept blue pipe for the water line from the street to the house. Not-very-old to new, it never ends.

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    1. Margaret, what is wrong with the blue pipe?

      What a horror show with the chandelier! That could have been such a scary situation.

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    2. I think I saw that musical. THE PHANTOM OF THE SPLIT RANCH, right?

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    3. aluminum-sided tract colonial. Same concept. I remember the day our concrete front porch caved in because it hadn't been backfilled.

      Blue pipe disintegrates because of the chlorine added to our water. I refused to buy our Cincinnati house until it was replaced.

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  11. Our house is only 95 years old, a relative new built in comparison, Julia. But I plan to leave it feet first. When I look at the newer stuff on the market, I'm amazed at the cheap plastic construction. And I don't see a lot of square corners in those, either.

    We had a complete tear off of the roof about ten years ago, and the new one will last longer than I will. We will paint and put on new gutters next spring, still have the original half round galvanized from 1923, and they are leaky. Then we are going to deal with the damp basement. Have I mentioned the garage is on the verge of collapse? Well it is. Need a new one of those too. And the patio cracks need attention, but that is last on the list. The hot water heater is still cranking, is 25 years old, and so is the AC. We do have a new furnace and adequate insulation. And a mature garden, nice landscaping and a great neighborhood.

    I've lived in this house going on 18 years, the longest I've ever lived in one place in my life. I'm not moving. Ever. Unless Julie puts me in Shady Oaks and moves to the south of France.

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    1. Never give them ideas, Ann.

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    2. Ann, did you know you can buy gutters tinted to match your trim paint so they never have to be painted? We also had leaf-relief installed in all the gutters so we no longer have to dig pine needles out of them.

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    3. Yes to matching the trim. However ours is white so is standard issue anyway. And yes to the screens.

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  12. For Cincinnati, our house is old, 78 years. It's had everything done to it at least once since we moved in 33 years ago, but most of it wasn't of the major outlay type, except for the addition.

    However, the new house we are building is turning out to be a massive headache. Just as we began construction tariff rises meant prices for lumber and steel, main components in homes, soared. Rebar, for instance, went from $600 a ton to $1,000 a ton, overnight. Thanks to local regulations, the septic system is going to cost 1/10 the cost of the entire project.

    But the worst is the scarcity of tradesmen. Carpenters, plumbers, electricians, roofers, and septic installers can all name their own price, IF you can find them.

    If you know a young person who is trying to find a lucrative career, by all means steer them towards the trades. They can practically name their own price these days.

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    1. Karen, this is true here as well. I've talked about it with Jeff the Plumber (who really is a very nice guy.) He and most of his peers are in their fifties, and there aren't nearly enough young people following after them. Jeff has two sons he'd love to pass his business on to, but neither of them are interested.

      The trades can be physically challenging, but they're bullet-proof economically. You can't outsource your plumbing to Malaysia, and as long as there are houses, there will be clients.

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  13. Oh Julia, I feel your pain. We had, for Atlanta, an old house but built like a fortress in 1924. We had to redo all of the systems because they were replaced by the second owners (we were the third) on the cheap. Finally we moved to a condo, built in 1986. So new! However, there is a plumbing company whose truck has its own parking place in the garage and we all know the plumber by name and he has his own fob for the doors and elevators. Anymore there is no construction new enough. Sigh.

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    1. A good point about "replacing in the cheap." We benefited from the previous owners choices to get the best possible everything, and now I'm repaying that by doing the same. When a house gets to be a certain age, you become the caretaker, not the owner.

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  14. Julia, I am keeping my fingers crossed that you win one of those ultimate retreat packages. Although old houses can be charming, the upkeep would prevent me from ever owning one.

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    1. Those Ultimate Retreat houses look plenty charming enough for me, Marla!

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  15. Oh dear, Julia!

    But I know what you mean. Our house is not as only (only since 1928 or so), but the quirks are many. Nothing is plumb or level. None of the doors or windows are "standard" size. We can't move much through our back door - everything has to come in the front because not only is the door wider in the front, the back hallway (which loses space because of the radiator) is tiny, and the door is smaller. The walls, mostly original plaster, are cracking. Someday we're going to have to replace that boiler and I shudder to think of it. Fortunately, The Hubby has become relatively handy in the 20 years we've lived here.

    Ah, the joys of home ownership!

    Mary/Liz

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    1. It's surprising how many JRW folks are in older houses, judging from these comments. I wonder if there's a correlation between "book lovers" and "sucker for original wooden moulding"?

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    2. Maybe the books look better against the "classic" decor? LOL

      Mary/Liz

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  16. Oh, Julia. My heart goes out to you. Our house is a mere 113, and had major renovations both when we bought it twenty-three years ago, then again about ten years ago, when we completely gutted the kitchen, redid three out of four bathrooms, repaired the foundations (Ack!!!!), replaced the water heater, rebuilt the sunporch windows and uncovered the original floor, and rebuilt the chimney, hearth, and mantel (because we had to--after the foundation repair, our firebox sat a foot and a half below floor level.) We've replaced the upstairs AC but are now facing replacing the downstairs this year. We still don't have insulation and all of our 34 windows except for 4 are original--which means 0 R value.

    We only have a new roof thanks to a Texas storm and our insurance company. Oh, and now our deck, pergola, and driveway, all of which we put in 23 years ago, need replacing.

    The work (and the money suck) is never-ending. But I will say that the place has charm.

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    1. Do you ever feel like you'll get it EXACTLY the way you want it, and then die the next week?

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    2. I have given up on the "exactly the way I want it" lol. Maybe if I sold my books to TV!

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    3. If you finish renovating a house from top to bottom, you are guaranteed a job relocation.

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  17. Julia, if it makes you feel any better, our condo is from 2009, which is fabulous in many ways, but has its own issues. The appliances are new and shiny, but when they break, it's impossible to find someone to fix them! Also, the lights and bathroom fixtures are no longer made, so good luck if you need to replace one of them. I will say that the major systems are in very good working order, and the floors and ceilings are all straight. I remember trying to paint in our 1864 farmhouse in MA: It made me crazy trying to follow edges that were all higgledy-piggledy!

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    1. It seems utterly insane to me that you can't find lights and fixtures from only nine years ago. It must be the dark underside of the home reno craze.

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    2. Right? And it's not like they're unique-looking! Very standard lights that apparently the company decided to stop making. Perhaps to make us buy all new ones?

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  18. Julia, I feel your pain. I am NOT going to inflict my house repair stories on you. Still mad.

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  19. Sounds like it's time to take that baby down to the studs and have a full re-do. Let an architect solve the problems of kitchen and flow and so forth, and the contractors solve the wonky walls and tired floors and awful plumbing and electrics. Yes, it'd be expensive, but your quality of life would be immeasurably better.

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    1. And I'm going to do that...just as soon as Netflix turns my books into an award-winning multi-year series.

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    2. Which SHOULD happen any time now!

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    3. Ohhh, I would so get Netflix for that!

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  20. Oh, Julia, I'm sorry for your house trials and tribulations but, oh, you make me laugh. Our house is not in that shape (quick, knock wood!), but at the peak of our newly married poverty, Hub and I had a car like that. Both front doors stopped being openable (because they would fall off) so you had to enter the car through the back passenger doors and then climb over the seat to drive. Hub threw his back out twice trying to maneuver himself over the headrest. We finally put it out of its misery when it started to leak gas, you know, because KABOOM seemed pretty likely.

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    1. Sounds like the car Ross had when we were first dating, Jenn. The driver's seat was held upright by a tall laundry basket wedged behind it. Yes, the basket had to be full of clothes to work.

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  21. Julia, great post! Add it to your future ERMA Bombeck style book. Our house is only 50 years old but our great expense this year is removing 150 large junipers and 3 trees as instructed by the fire Marshall. We now have a bare hillside which will need to be replanted before the rains. Sigh.

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    1. Is there some fire-prevention-approved sort of plantings you can use, Rhys?

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  22. We used to have a beautiful old Victorian with no two Windows or doors the same size. Still miss that beautiful house but don't miss the maintenance and expense. Also, you'll have to get behind me for that HGTV home giveaway ;-)

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    1. Maybe we can time share it, Lynn!

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  23. Wrong, wrong, wrong and SOO wrong. I live in an 1886 18 room 7000 sq ft Victorian I bought in 1985. I'm the first non-family member to own the plantation house (I'm in Georgia). It was in good (and original) shape when I bought it. Updated to 1970s standards electric and plumbing and central heat/air put in. I had it painted in 1989 (before the issues with lead-based paint). Well, two years ago, my insurance company said that the paint was peeling so bad that they threatened to uninsure me. So, we decided it was time to 1) replace the 40+ year old roof (there were EIGHT layers of roofing underneath, including the original hand writhed wood shake shingles!), scrape the old paint off (collecting the lead-based paint on tarps--note: Husband has hasmat license and I am a chemist who has worked environmental). We knew what to do. The house (2 1/2 stories) had to have the wood beam foundation replaced on one side and a few sagging door frames straighened. Try lifting a 2 1/2 story house but my husband is awesome. It took 9 months to hand scrape the house (because of all the gingerbread) and paint it using only brushes. My husband acted as general contractor and lead on the sill replacement since he has had experience with moving and restoring old houses when he worked for a living history museum and is a jack of all trades. And guess what, I don't have to do this again IN MY LIFETIME. Can't say that for a modern house! Oh and did you know? The last time Versailles had a renovation (they are doing one now, was 240 years ago!). Old houses can be low maintenance. I can deal with once in a lifetime maintenance.

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    1. Oh and Julia, the key is to take charge yourself. NEVER, NEVER, NEVER rely on a contractor. They only know modern modular construction and you will have to replace their work in 10 years. What you can do yourself, do. Or learn. I learned to plaster, do trim work, hang wallpaper, paint and got good with a crowbar to take out offending bathroom and kitchen counters and cabinets. My husband does electrical, plumbing and woodworking. The three people we did contract to do the work on the house were expert with old houses but still needed close supervision to a) move them along since we paid them by the hour and b) make sure they didn't cut corners. Old houses are an adventure. Is yours haunted? Mine is.

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    2. I don't think mine is haunted, except by mice in the winter, Rosemarie. I suppose I'll have to start watching those YouTube tutorials and learn how to do a few things myself!

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  24. First of all, I want to hear about Rosemarie's haunted house!!!
    My house is "only" fifty years old. I don't consider fifty old. I'm older than that. However, I have been advised that at this point we should replace all our outlets and switches, because they wear out and can cause house fires. Well, the upside is, we have a house! We love where we live! Determined to look on the bright side!

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    1. Yes, your house probably doesn't have 3 prong outlets (or if you do they are 'fake'). Your electrical needs to be grounded which is safer. But the only time this will become an issue is when you sell. If you want upgrade, find someone you know who you can trust to oversee this because my husband knows what he is doing and he has seen that when my electrical was 'updated' back in the day, it was done HORRIBLY and unsafely. He has been slowly grounding our electrical system (several zones) and making sure that our electrical box is not overloaded. Lots of electricians put blinders on with older houses and just do the minumum, especially if they are paid by the job and not the hour. I've learned paying by the hour and having my husband act as overseer, he kept things moving and made sure they were done right.

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    2. Yes, I found out last year our three prong outlets were fake. Rewiring is on the ever-expanding list...

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  25. Rhys, look up Firewise to see what to plant in your fire zone. My house is from the early 1900's, and I lived there since I was one year old. Living there for 66 years, I tend to not see the problems and think that we replaced that after Dad died. Then I realize that he died 30 years ago. Since I retired, I've gotten new gutters, roof, kitchen doors, kitchen spigot, kitchen lights, and need to do more. Luckily I have a service contract for the furnace and air conditioner. My mother used to say if you have a house, car, and kids, you will always have something going wrong.

    However, I hope to stay here as long as I can. I love my garden and the memories our family made here.

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    1. Sally, I LOVE your mother's saying!

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  26. I think I'll continue to rent. I'm not ready for home ownership & all the upkeep. Even a new house would have too much maintenance for me.

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  27. Our house is getting close to 70 years old, and it seems like it's something all the time. I know that's an exaggeration, but in the 30 years we've lived here, we've had two or three new roofs, replaced the water heater, air conditioning system, heating system, all new pipes under the house, gutted two rooms and did over, added built-in bookshelves to two rooms, taken down wallpaper, painted replaced all the floors, put in French doors, new chimney, new brick front porch, trees that had to come down, and more. Now, it seems there's something else wrong with the pipes, as water usage is way up. It really is an never-ending process of maintenance and repair when you own a house.

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  28. Oh dear Julia and oh dear God!

    Last year we had the trifecta of a new front doorway, a new roof and then (surprise!) the week before Christmas, a new boiler that cost gobs of money but is at least beautiful and efficient.

    I wished we'd known you were in need of laundry facilities the past few weeks. We were away and would have given you a key to the house so you could have done your washing while writing at our dining room table or deck and picked some of the proliferation of cucumbers overrunning our garden while you waited for the dryer. I hope there's not a next time, but you always are welcome to call for help.

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  29. My ghosts:
    I have have 3+1. A little girl who use to like to swing on the porch swing on our front porch burned to death in the driveway after catching her dress on fire back in the 1920s from her mothers yard washpot fire pit. She still swings on the porch swing. Oh, and there is a 'gay' ghost that haunts the inside. How do I know he is gay? Easy, I haven't been able to rearrange furniture for 30+ years. Whenever I do, he moves it back. He understand interior decoration while I do not. The third is a woman with long flowing hair in a long white dress and carrying a lantern who hangs out at my barn (which predates the house). She likes to jump on the back of pickup trucks that deliver my hay when they keep their tailgate down. She jumps off at the road. I have had a dilly of a time finding hay delivery people! Oh, and then there is "Guido". My new ghost. I had to hire him as security after someone tried to break into the house 5 years ago. Second time someone tried to enter uninvited in 130 years. 'Nough said about Guido.

    Letting people know you have ghosts is the best security system money can't buy ;)

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    1. It would give me second thoughts about coming in, Rosemarie!

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