At the outset of this project, I expected it to be painful. I expected to fight with my husband, bleed a few times, and mourn my enthusiasm. Those things haven’t happened much yet. Until this week. A week ago, I thought I’d have lights in a day or two. A week ago.

Instead, I’ve spent a week fighting with the electrician every day. The main issue, essentially, was communication. He said certain things were going to be okay at the start of the job. I think partially because my dad runs a fairly reputable construction company and he wanted to build that relationship. I also think perhaps he underestimated the amount of work it would be. There may also be elements of gender at play. 

When I said I would be reusing antique light fixtures he didn’t process that as actuall old light fixtures that had been rewired. It seems like he expected new light fixtures in shiny boxes that looked old. Once he got to our house and saw the fixtures I had he said as much. At least a half dozen times. I wish I was exaggerating.

The issue with antique light fixtures which had been rewired is that they lack a sticker on them which says the maximum wattage you can put in them. Apparently this sticker is very important. 

Another thing I’ve learned is that antique light fixtures were built for gas lights, which with wires and things makes them very tricky to install without tangling the wires, cutting them, and potentially starting a fire. I did not go through all this pain of new electrical just to start a fire with a light fixture. In this case, I took myself to Menards and bought a $4 light fixture, tossed the provided piece of glass, extended the drop on it using the drop pipe from the antique fixture, connected the glass and solved the issue.

In the instance of my other two, sticker less fixtures; well, I’m taking a gamble on my electrical inspector not being a huge ass about things and letting the antiques live another day. He can, apparently, force me to take them down before he passes out final electrical inspection. 

Getting to this point of having fixtures which hang from the ceiling and turn on took a week. A week in which I talked to him every day. Multiple times. And ultimately, refused to budge, tried to pull my own electrical permit and threatened to fire him and not pay the remainder of my bill. 

This has been the hardest part of our renovation — getting a man I paid to do his job. The only part of the renovation so far that has made me cry. Not the part where I took out a chimney. Not the part when I took a rusty nail to my butt. Not when I stood on a ladder two stories off the ground to paint a nice straight paint line. And not the part where I rattled my brain around with a jackhammer. I cried because after a week I still couldn’t get this guy to do the job he was being paid to do.

I would love to post a happy-go-lucky missive about how easy this all was and how nice of an experience I had working with a contractor. It’s just not the truth. It was painful and frustrating in a way I struggle to process. I am exhausted and still mad and honestly, the small spark of joy I felt when I flipped the switch and the chandelier turned on and it was gorgeous was still tempered with naseau from stress and the lingering threat of the inspector might make me take it down. 

So, we have lights. And they are lovely. And I’m terribly fond of them. But it’s kind of a bitter victory. 

DIY life is relatively easy, General Contractor life is not. But for now, there are lights. 

When White Paint Makes You Happy

If I told you I went through six samples of white paint to pick a ceiling paint, would you call me crazy? I might have rolled my eyes at one such person at a different time in my life. Several were too gray, others too white, one too pink. When it came time to roll up to the Home Depot paint counter and actually pick one — I went with one I hadn’t picked a sample of. A dangerous gamble, one could say. I was definitey saying it to myself in my head. However, time was up, and I made a choice. Thinking to myself, f*ck it, Andrea, no one will ever notice it but you and your mom. No one looks at a clean, white ceiling and goes “I think that’s the wrong white.”

White paint is not usually something that revs my engine. I’m a color person. I can say horrible things about beige paint when asked for my opinion. I can appreciate the aesthetic of all white home, but I would have no clue as to making a design choice like that work. 

Never in my life have I been excited by white paint. 

But this white paint, that I put on my shiny new re-plastered ceilings that aren’t going to fall down for another hundred years at least — this white paint is perfection. 

Its Chantilly Lace, a Benjamin Moore paint we had color matched at Home Depot, and I am in love with it.

Deciding on an IKEA Kitchen

One of the things which we had originally planned on was re-doing the kitchen. At the time, we thought it would be our biggest ticket item. How naieve and innocent we were in regards to rennovating! That naievetae was bliss. Fast forward two weekends of demo — we knew we were going to have to skimp on the cosmetics.

Thanks to Pinterest, I knew pretty early on what I wanted in a kitchen aesthetically. Like most white women of my age — its white kitchen cabinets and a white farm sink and marble backsplash tile. Its so basic. I love it. However, given we have gone wildly overbudget in other areas — custom cabinets seemed irresponsible given the difference between them and IKEA cabinets. (3 times higher in price).

I Googled. Hours spent late into the night reading blog posts from people like myself who couldn’t afford fancy cabinets. Blog posts for people who could have, and elected to go with IKEA anyways. Posts from people who had installed their cabinets five years ago and *gasp* still liked their Ikea kitchen. 90% of the time the complaint about them seemed to be that installation was a pain, or that they hadn’t been organized enough in their build process and had confused themselves.

Deciding that building cabinets was well within our skill set, even if we did them one at a time for two weeks, we designed our kitchen using their online kitchen modeler. Again, I messed with this thing for hours, perfecting the design. Our goal was to get as much function out of our tiny kitchen as possible. We thought about what goes in what drawers, where do those things need to be located for maximum efficiency. We both developed slight kitchen OCD. Their system is glitchy, and one just has to accept that sometimes its slow and weird, and cultivate patience. The ability to visualize your kitchen design and rotate the views is wonderful. Changing the colors and look of things is also very helpful.

We settled on a U shaped kitchen design. This gets us the most workspace in our narrow room, and allows for us to keep our countertop appliances secreted away betwewn the sink and refridgerator. (Hello, designated coffee making counter space, how are you?)

Floor Plan

Design wise, I opted for gray lower cabinets and white glass upper cabinets. Initially, I had fallen deep in love with the tuxedo kitchen look. However, in our small 1920’s kitchen that look would have been overwhelming. Gray lowers allows me to blend the stainless appliances in with the cupboards, while keeping things very light up top. IKEA glass cabinets come with in cabinet and under cabinet lights, making them very bright.


During the summer, IKEA does a kitchen sale. You get 15% of your total kitchen price back in IKEA gift cards. For us, that was just under $1,500. Given that we will need a bathroom vanity, mirror, and a PAX wardrobe from IKEA later, this makes affording those other things much easier.

The only thing we did not do from IKEA was countertops. Unsure what the final size of our room was going to be (there is a 4″ spacer built into our design on the U end) we didn’t feel confident on the counter top size. We will get that later from another vendor.

Braced for the challenges of an IKEA kitchen – inevitable missing parts, 16 cabinets to build and install ourselves, storing three palletes of boxes and appliances — we went for it.

Ordering the kitchen at IKEA is, according to the internet, a long and tedious process. However, it wasn’t for us. My hours spent obsessing over it with their kitchen planner paid off and she had to add only a few things I missed. Then, another salesperson checked her work and we paid and left with a delivery date set. It took about an hour to get in and out of IKEA. Not the day-long process the internet had lead me to expect!

Delivery, has been an interesting and different story. Originally, I thought things were going to be delivered on Saturday. Instead, I got a delivery notification that delivery would be happening on Monday instead. That didn’t really work for us with our work schedules, but changing the date would cost us another $150. Nope, thanks. Sorry work, I’m going to be out at a strange and random time on Monday, Thanks!

Two delivery trucks were scheduled, at two different times of the day. The first delivery involved “assembly”. I assumed this would be our appliances. It wasn’t, it was two of the glass shelves. The afternoon delivery involved everything else. Minus our stove and two hinges.

Its not unusual for an Ikea delivery to be missing a piece – usually it is somehting like a hinge and they will next day FedEx it to you. It is unusal for you to be missing a whole stove. Long story short(er), our delivery was set for 7/9. Its now a month later and I still don’t have a stove, but they keep promising to send me one!


What “All New Electrical” Means

Knob and tube — words you hear on HGTV which you know are bad, but possibly don’t understand. Like aespestos or lead paint. Very good no bad. But what is it?!

IMG_2831This is what it looks like. And an example of why it needed replaced – scorch marks inside the wall.

Once upon a time, knob and tube was considered the best wiring there was. Until about five years ago, when it reached its life expectancy and started lighting fires inside peoples walls. Then the electricians got told it all had to be removed.

In our two rooms that are gutted, ripping the old stuff out was easy. Everywhere else, they cut the wires and the old boxes (plastered into the walls) will get insulated and sealed back in by the plasterer. New wire will get fished up through the walls via the basement or attic, and I have shiny new wires with fancy outlets that will flip the breaker before starting fired. Theoretically — a house fire is impossible. Cross your fingers and knock on wood.

IMG_3052Old wires next to new wires, one looks safe to me. The other looks kind of terrifying.

When calling electricians to get a quote for the job I was very careful to tell them I wanted all new electrical in the house. Then they would get to the house and tell me it was “a very big job”. They also tended to tell me I needed things I perhaps didn’t need. Or ask where my husband was.

In the end, I had eight electricians out to bid the job. Only three turned in numbers, and only two talked to me like I was actually an intelligent human being. In the end, we picked the guy who was lowest, but also was willing to let us do some of the leg work. Or, one piece of the leg work that also saved us close to a thousand dollars in labor.

As it turned out, the wiring which had been run to the garage had been DIY’ed by the previous owner. The wires werent deep enough into the groud, nor where they routed into the garage properly. The conduit pipe had rusted out and cut the electrical wires, making the entire garage live. Also know as a good way to accidently die.

The electician cut the garage wire and set us to digging a two foot deep, forty foot trench. He didn’t believe me when I said we would have it done in one night. But once we started there was no way I was prolonging the misery that is trench digging. We also managed to start it on the coolest night of the week.

For scale, my very short leg and Steve hanging out in our trench. That little yellow sticker was our signal that the electrician had been back out (Inspection #4!) and we could fill our trench back in. While “all new electrical” isn’t exactly an exciting or shiny thing to do to a home, its an incredible and safe home improvement. This is also the most expensive item on our checklist.

Ode to the Bathroom Floor

IMG_2739If you’re wondering what we’ve been up to for the last month, the answer is not a lot. But also kind of a lot? It’s surprisingly hard to keep a blog of a home renovation. I think about this reno constantly, I go to work and spend time talking to contractors, running over to the house, and going back to work. At home we talk about the timeline, electrical wiring (where is that conduit box again?), floor tile, light fixtures, the ever-increasing budget. You’ll have to forgive me for not updating this in a more timely manner.

I hate admitting this, I truly do, but we annihilated that beautiful hexagon tile in the bathroom.

The sad truth of it is that the bathroom joists had to be replaced. Millie’s leaking pipes had done too much damage to them and the integrity of the floor was compromised. Picture- broken joists and a whole lot of really soft moldy wood. Replacing the joists required completely open up the bathroom. This also means the 300lb cast iron tub had to go as well, and since it wouldn’t fit through the bathroom door… well, we smashed that too.


The original tub, carefully preserved through original demo

Originally we thought we would be able to just pop up the tile, pull the old subfloor, and run the new beams up. Instead, we discovered the hexagon tile had been installed directly onto 4 inches of poured concrete. Yes. FOUR INCHES OF CONCRETE resting on crumbling joists with a 300lb tub (at least). Terrifying.

First, I pulled out my trusty electric chipping hammer (we’re besties still after the chimney). He was not quite up to such a job. I managed to make this little dent before giving up and asking my dad if he had a jackhammer?

He did. Dad is the best, and he has all of the things. Armed with a jackhammer, I began the arduous task of jackhammering up a floor while standing on it. (Again, not terrifying at all). I worked at the floor for about two hours and managed to take out about 10 sq feet of it. It was exhausting work, much harder than taking down a chimney, and I gladly handed the task over to Steve. He used the jackhammer for about two minutes before putting it away and getting out his sledgehammer. After that, it didn’t take long for the almost-100 year old floor to die.

(I maintain that I loosened everything with all my jackhammering, enabling him to just smash the rest).

We left that night feeling like we had done a pretty good thing, and then found a sign posted in front of our dumpster that there was no parking over the holiday weekend. Naturally, we panicked. I took Friday off of work, frantically call the City of St. Paul to determine if my dumpster could stay or not. Several hours and messages later, I learned that a dumpster permit (which I had) overrides a temporary no parking sign. We count his as a small victory. Except that I’d still spent most of the day filling our second dumpster in preparation for the fact that it might have to be towed away.

Once the four inches of concrete and tile were gone (that still hurts my soul, to be honest), we had the ability to fix Millie’s joists. Simply put, Dad and Adam cut the old joists away, cut new joists to size, and dropped them into place. Under the tub (knowing I will buy the biggest tub I can fit through a door) we doubled the joists up — so the floor is at double strength and I will definitely NOT fall through my ceiling into my kitchen — ever.

What we’ve been left with is a completely gutted bathroom, eight (8!) new floor beams in my bathroom, and new subfloor.

We then spent several weeks waiting. Waiting for the plumber to get in and out, and pass a plumbing rough in inspection (Inspection #1). Then the electrician went to work over two and a half weeks. This inspector asked for my building permit. What building permit? The one I needed to replace those joists.

Oh, that permit… Mhmm… Let me just… go get that… He signed off on the electrical rough in (Inspection #2) provided I have my building permit and inspection (Inspection #3). After an impromptu visit to the permit office, I have a building permit! Go me! And a week later the inspection — pass! Once we’ve put the drywall up the plumber will come back and we’re moving along again!



A Chimney’s Last Stand

The decision to remove the chimney in Millie’s house was one I came to early, and then debated for two weeks. The chimney stack ran from the basement to the roof, through the kitchen and bathroom. With the kitchen being only 7 feet wide and 12 feet long — it took up valuable real estate that frankly, I wanted back. It also housed the water pipes for the home and electrical wiring. As both the wiring and the plumbing need replaced, opening up the wall those things hide behind makes both of those jobs much easier.

Removing the chimney was least expensive part of this DIY process. We spent $25 on 2×4’s and plywood for this project. Sunday morning, my dad and I climbed up on the roof and pushed on the chimney — it wiggled. Immediately I was relieved that we were taking it down. A chimney oughtn’t wiggle when you lean on it.

Pro-Tip: mow your lawn before you toss bricks on it, they’re going to break and leave little bits of brick in your lawn and damage your mower if you don’t.

After a quick check to make sure no one was on the lawn below us, we plugged in our electric chipping hammer and started chipping away at the mortar. It crumbled into a charcoal dust and soon I was catching bricks as they fell and tossing them off of the roof.

The tricky part came when we had dropped the chimney into the attic. Sitting on the roof near the chimney shoot, I was able to remove most of the bricks from the top. Soon, though, my short person arms reached their limit, and I had to climb into the roof hole and stand on the chimney while I chiseled away the bricks I was standing on. When they were loose; I got to do a squat, reach under my feet and pull away the brick, and then stand back up and toss it off the roof.


Eventually, I could see the bathroom, and I got to climb out of the roof and slide back down to land, and donuts.

After I quit throwing bricks into the yard, my crowd of helpers for the day quickly began gathering them into plastic buckets and bins and carrying them to the dumpster out front. This process would have been a lot more exhausting without helpers! With a handful of people helping, the bricks were gone, and my father-in-law was vacuuming the brick bits from the lawn in less than an hour. He vacuumed for longer than we ported bricks out. The vacuuming, however, was a necessary step to protect that lawn mower!

I cannot say I helped patch the roof hole; I wish I could, but my roof skills are just not at that level. My dad, and a good friend of my brother’s framed the hole in, added new decking, laid new tar paper, and feathered in shingles to patch the hole. This process took them about an hour and a half. Then — no more chimney out the top of the roof and a leaky section patched!

The next weekend, we continued to chip away at the mortar holding the chimney together. Again, my brother brought helpers (Thank you!) and we spent a few hours knocking bricks out of the chimney and hauling them to the second dumpster. Yes, second. I should also add that we broke at least two 5 gallon buckets hauling bricks out of the house, so really our cost is up $10 at this point.

When we got to the basement, the easier tool to use happened to be the sledge hammer. With no shiny floors to protect, there wasn’t a whole lot of reason to be careful.

All in all, this was not a difficult project — but it was a labor-intensive one that would have taken much longer without help from friends and family. When all’s said and done it will have been well worth it.


She’s all gone!


Smashing Things

If you haven’t ever gotten to seriously wreck something, then you need to go find someone with a fixer upper and take out a wall or two. It’s good fun.

It is significantly less fun when it’s your house getting wrecked. I had several moments of low-key panic where I thought “Oh gosh, this house is fine. What are we doing? Millie lived here for 75 and she was FINE. Put the wall back! EEP!” And then I went back to the basement and scraped moldy paint off the walls and brushed a small communist army worth of spider eggs out of the rafters.

I love smashing things at other peoples houses. In fact, I kind of love all DIY projects that happen at other peoples houses and am always glad to help. Now that its my house, however, I now know what it feels like while someone else grins maniacally and smashes walls. Breathlessly terrifying and exhilerating.

I hadn’t planned on taking out any walls. I was going to leave the nice plaster walls exactly where they had been and never peek behind them. However, If we hadn’t done that we would not have found: knob and tube wiring (in a house that had “upgraded” electrical) or a slow drip rusted out kitchen sink pipe, crumbling insulation, MORE leaking pipes, and several scorch marks inside the walls. We also found a section of floor that was held up by an old license plate and a section of floor held up by sheer will? Perhaps Millie had worked some spell that broke when we broke her walls.


Another odd and terrifying discovery were the floor joists directly under the cast-iron tub which are cracked, sagging, and squeak when someone walks across them. A 300lb tub held up by drop ceiling brackets and tiles. I am glad we found that, because crashing through the ceiling into my shiny new kitchen while bathing is not something that’s on my bucket list.

Other surprises: the refrigerator we were told works, does not work and smells pretty bad. There is also a chest freezer in the basement growing a science experiment. Neighbors can be neighborly! Two of our new neighbors let us use their toilets while ours was out. We have never been invited into the home of any of our current neighbors. Neighbors who are nice is an odd but lovely experience.

Lessons learned from Demo Day:

  • Bring a hard hat
  • Bring extra work gloves
  • Fill a 5 gallon bucket with water before you turn your water off
    • Sometimes, if your pipes are full of metal deposits and weird fungus, it will take an hour for the water pressure to come back up.


Our dumpster was full after weekend one, and we still need to drop that chimney…


She’s got good bones

If you’re wondering what we’ve gotten ourselves into, the below should give you a good impression of what we’re working with. Parts of Millie’s house are lovely, like the giant bunny. Also, the giant hutch. Details that are everywhere like the arched coves and thick woodwork. Other bits are not so lovely, but that’s what the DIY is for, right?

Millie’s house is a full two story, stucco home originally built in 1926. Because Millie lived in it for 75 years (!) and was the second owner, most of the original detail is in tact and in relatively good shape.

Our plan calls to remove the chimney stack, remodel the kitchen and bath, run new electrical, new plumbing, refinish the hardwood floors, and fix the exterior stucco. Millie’s downspouts weren’t attached to her gutters, and the basement is wet and will need cleaned and re-sealed. Our first dumpster comes on Friday, and the plan is to remove the things Millie left behind and begin the demo!