Re-Constructing Home-Part 14: Surprise!

Some folks love surprises: surprise parties, surprise engagements, surprise Disney vacations. But during a renovation, surprises are typically unwelcome—although they seem to crop up exponentially. The trouble is that neither contractors nor owners have x-ray vision (although it would be a cool superpower); until demolition begins, there’s no guarantee about what’s lurking behind the walls or under the flooring. Unfortunately, reno surprises often drive up the cost of the renovation. And even if they don’t incur additional expense, surprise obstacles may mean having to create workarounds that sacrifice a bit of the design in order to accommodate necessary functionality, like central heat and air.

Even the most reno-savvy folks don’t escape all renovation surprises. For Derek & Bethany, there have been some mundane (but admittedly weird) surprises. Like the circa 1960 condoms discovered in the wall. Or the antique Budweiser cans they found kicking around in the walls. Then there’s the more macabre surprise: little squirrel skulls and an accompanying stash of nuts. Seems the squirrels had chewed through the walls by the gutters, and they met their untimely demise stuck inside the walls.

Weird stuff aside, Derek & Bethany haven’t had too many surprises that fell solidly into the “bad” category. But one misfortune does stand out. As renovations began on the second floor, two factors became apparent: 1) previous contractors had done some pretty shoddy work renovating the second floor, which was originally designed to be an attic, and 2) the house had settled significantly in 101 years. The settling wasn’t surprising. After all, it is an old house. But between the settling and the less-than-stellar previous renovations, Derek & Bethany were stuck putting in additional supports on the second floor. The supports kept the floor from dipping tremendously and bolstered it to support additional weight. Even with the new supports, the floors (which had settled about 2 inches over the years) still won’t be perfectly straight. But these issues are part and parcel of renovating a historic home. Sometimes, the owner has to be willing to let go of perfection and enjoy the character of the home that comes with age.

The 101 year old floor just needed a little extra support.

And then there’s the truly unexpected: the happy surprises, the ones that save money or add cool vintage character to the house. Derek & Bethany were blessed with two such surprises. First, they uncovered an old fireplace hidden behind a wall in one of the upstairs bedrooms. Although it will remain a non-working fireplace, it adds a quaint charm to the room. Then there was that odd upstairs room with the raised floor. They were concerned that there would be plumbing underneath the floor that would need to be extracted, which could be costly. But, as they tore up the floor, they discovered that the room was once an old porch. The built up floor was covering gutters, instead of plumbing, turning it into a quick and inexpensive fix. A boon for their renovation budget, and one less challenge to worry about as the renovations continue to unfold.

A surprise fireplace. Definitely better than surprise squirrel skulls.

Surprises are part of the reno game. But Derek & Bethany racked up a few factors that mitigated potential reno surprises: a solid understanding of real estate and housing construction; a trustworthy contractor; and a 101 year old home that truly does have good bones. As they move slowly but steadily toward completion of the renovation, they are keeping their fingers crossed that the surprises stay to a minimum.


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