When my husband bought a shabby, one-bedroom house on Mt. Washington for $25,000 in 1979, it was primarily to fulfill what he called, "my adulthood obligation of home ownership."
"The way I figured it, if I had a house I could do whatever I wanted and no one could accuse me of being a bum," Bill said.
Little did he know 10 years later, when we married, that "obligation" would provide us a precious foothold in the Southern California real estate market.
Never mind that it was a dilapidated shingle number built in 1923. Never mind that the floorboards were rotting and you could knock it down with a shove. It was property! It was in Los Angeles! And, with a little work, it would be our first home.
Originally, we planned to add a second floor and reinforce weak areas. But the inspector took one look at the place and said, "Redo it." Technically, our house is a remodel because one side of the original foundation along the kitchen remains. However, the rest is all new.
Bill figured he could save time and money doing the plans and work himself. The house had one bedroom in just 800 square feet. But in the three years we courted, he had only poured a foundation and built a frame. When we left for our honeymoon we had four walls and a roof. But, I wasn't worried. It was time to enjoy Hawaii, and then come home to our "honeymoon cottage and live happily ever after."
That's where the fairy tale and reality collided.
The first week back I got a clue that our first year of marriage wasn't going to be gentle picnics in the park, but weekends comparing the merits of ABS pipe versus cast iron. We had no hot water. We had no gas. We had no kitchen floor. True, we had shelter, but beyond that our house resembled a missionary training ground.
First order of business was prioritizing tasks and comparing costs. And so we began the yearlong process of turning a shell of a house into a reasonable human dwelling.
Our first major hurdle was the plumbing. We had used plastic ABS pipe for drainage, running it along an outside wall. ABS is cheaper, more flexible than cast iron. We were proud of our money-saving savvy, but in our ignorance didn't know ABS can only be used underground! Exposure to the elements will quickly corrode it.
The inspector said "redo it" in cast iron or bring it in under the house. We brought it under.
When it came to the copper and gas plumbing, the key was not in doing the actual work, but having the patience to do it. A professional could do it in one day. Through trial and error we muddled along, measuring, cutting and soldering for two weeks.
After blistered hands and numerous leaks we had the system functioning. Then one day, Bill was replacing some siding when he drove a nail through one of the copper pipes. It took another week to replace the pipe and solder it back together.
With all systems go, we called the inspector to get the gas turned on. To our dismay, he said the entire house had to be completed first. It would be months before we finished!
We started taking hot showers at my in-laws. Sometimes we braved the winter chill and screamed our way through cold showers. Finally, the inspector relented. As a remodel, everything didn't need to be done, he claimed. I think he just felt sorry for us.
The next order of business was the pseudo-kitchen. We could pay a carpenter $1,500 or we could buy the "in-the-box" variety that an 8-year-old can assemble using only a screwdriver.
For $800 we purchased an in-the-box setup from a discount home center--oak front cabinets, counter and cast-iron sink. We took our plans to a local hardware for advice on putting it together.
Throughout, we found the winning formula was to ask the questions at a hardware store but then buy the materials from home centers. Nobody knows more about remodeling than the little old men in smocks at the hardware stores, but the home centers generally have the better buys.
For example, a carpenter's estimate for a stair bannister was $1,000. We bought $200 worth of wood from a home center and, after asking questions, set the handrail and posts beautifully.
The cabinets went up without a hitch. The sink was the challenge.
We followed the advice: position the sink face down over the countertop, tracing the outline. With a jig saw we cut along the outline, dropped the sink in the hole and set the rim with caulking. But like the ABS, the inspector wasn't fooled.
"Mmm, creative plumbing," he said, looking at our fine job.
The trap and pipes were backward and the rim was leaking. He offered his standard advice: "Redo it."
Meanwhile, we had been tip-toeing on a weak subfloor in the kitchen. I had my heart set on a hardwood floor. It wasn't cheap, but by laying it ourselves we could defray the cost.