Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Do It Yourself; Nobody’s Stopping You

I consider myself a do-it-yourselfer. If it is a construction project or a repair of some sort, I’ll attempt to tackle it on my own. I replaced the washer, the dishwasher, microwave and water heater (which I’ve dulled you all to butter knife quality in the past). The results aren’t always what I wanted or expected, but sometimes I can even surprise myself, like when I wired the lights on the patio or when I hooked up the electrical connection for the fountain on the porch (or the railing I built).

This is the before picture.

We moved into this house almost four years ago this August, and when the ink on the title was still wet, I had wanted to tear down the wall that separates a downstairs fifth bedroom with our living room, which I had always considered to be on the small side. With our enormous sectional couch that worked well in the old house, there is left little room for spreading out. In addition, the other room, was mostly useless. The kids would play on their train set in there and I had my drafting table set up in the corner, but other than that, nobody ever went in there unless they needed some quiet time to do homework or run Thomas around the tracks.

The big plan for the room was to tear out the walls, remake the fireplace with some natural stone work and a mantle, install a giant flat panel TV on the wall and fill in the original TV nook with shelves, paint the walls and add in new carpet. The only thing on my list of things that needed to be done that I was going to hire out was to replace the carpet.

The rest I could do myself and I budgeted about $6000 for the whole project, the bulk of which would be for carpet and the entertainment package. The first thing I had to do was tear down the wall!

What stopped me from tearing out the wall was myself… and Kara (more on that later). I don’t know much about actual construction methods of houses, so I had no idea if the L-shaped wall was load-bearing or not. I tried to contact the builder, but they never returned my calls… and the city won’t allow copies of the house plans without permission from the architect, and since I haven’t had that class yet, what good would it do me to look at blueprints.

I asked a couple of the neighbors over the years who have the same style house as ours. Some of the original owners told me that it was an option not to have the fifth bedroom downstairs and to have the big open living room. We visited a family down the street that had the option… but why did it cost more not to have those walls there? You’d think it’d be cheaper not to build a wall and instead leave it open. Was it because they had to shore up the framing underneath the upstairs to compensate for the missing wall? Were there extra load-bearing studs in the walls that are not in mine? They kept referring me and my questions to a guy around the corner who reportedly had the conversion done (he did it himself as it turns out). The people that live there always seemed so unapproachable, sort of hillbilly hicks stuck in the big city, always scowling at everybody and kicking the tires on their lifted trucks. The yard was run down and blank and the house sat faded and a little neglected… not the sort of situation you want to take advice from. Plus, every time I’d drive by, I’d only see the guy out in front of his house when I was late for something.

Finally, on Halloween, when the kids rang the bell, I got the chance to ask about it. As it turns out, they’re a little white trashy, but seemingly nice people. They invited me in and I hobbled (remember, Elsa got out that day and I pulled a muscle running “with” her) around their converted living room admiring his handiwork.

This is the during picture.

He assured me that the walls weren’t load bearing and that if I pulled them out, it would be an easy job. Here we are, eight months later and I finally took the leap…and even that took four months.

I was supposed to tackle this project in February, but work threw me a curveball and I ended up having a full schedule for the month. So, I put it off until June, the next month Kara had off. But every time I said, “So, this is the weekend… I’m going to finally tear down the wall,” Kara would expel that worried little whimper of uncertainty, probably picturing the same predicament that I was: Matthew’s bedroom plummeting into the middle of the living room as soon as I knock out that last stud. And, something always came up, a birthday party, working in Kara’s classroom or a trip to IKEA prevented me from starting it. I was beginning to suspect that Kara was sabotaging my plans, always suggesting that I call in a contractor or some professional to take care of it for me.

Frankly, it goes against my grain to pay for something that I’m capable of doing myself…or at least I something I think I’m capable of doing.

So, I bought a crowbar on Monday, and on Tuesday began what I affectionately referred to as “screwing up the house.” Since I watch a lot of home improvement television, I had in my arsenal a few tricks to make it easier, but I was surprised how quickly the drywall pulled off of the framing. It took about three hours to strip the walls bare, from first hammer blow to clicking off the vacuum. Additionally, I found it to be quite a stress reliever. How many times have you wanted to put your fist through the wall? For me, lots of times, and that day I got to give it a try…but I used a hammer instead.

I opened the window and chucked all of the debris onto the side yard, and it made quite a pile. Tomorrow, the second barrel of drywall goes to the curb and I estimate it will take two more. Once done with the drywall, I was left with the exposed wires, two light switches, three electrical plugs and a couple of speaker wires and a coaxial cable in the wall.

Day Two dawned… well, it dawned with me still sleep, as I didn’t get started on the second part of the project until around 11am, and this was the hesitant part, as it’s the studs that really hold up the wall.

I killed the circuit, and of course they’re not marked on the panel so I had to throw each one to find out which one was for the living room and the fifth bedroom. Yes, it was the last one! I cut all of the wires, took out the switches and electrical boxes and began pounding on the two-by-fours with a four-pound hammer.

This is the after picture, but before the electrician and the drywaller showed up.

I thought it would be hard, but this was easier than pulling off the drywall. All it took was two or three whacks with the hammer and the stud slipped off the toe plate. However, overzealous nailing made some of the other studs, especially the ones that make up the header over the door and at the corners especially difficult. Was eight nails really necessary within two square inches of each other?

Once the wall was down and the debris cleaned up, I was left with a series of holes in the ceiling and the walls… plus a bunch of wires that made less sense severed than they did connected. There were three plugs and four wires, one leading to each plug, one from one plug to the other and one from the light switch to the plugs.

I connected the wires I thought needed connecting, what made sense to me, flipped the circuit breaker and nothing happened. Like I said at the beginning, I’m all about doing it myself, but some things go beyond my scope of skills. Time to call in a professional, and I figured that my schedule would have to be reworked, thinking that there’s no way I could get an electrician out here any time soon. However, I called a reference from an old coworker and they scheduled me in for Monday morning. It took him two hours to rewire everything and add in an additional plug in the middle of the wall to hid behind the big TV, something that would have taken me two days, some mild shocks and several trips to Home Depot… and then to have the rest of my life listening to Kara bemoan stories of fire due to faulty wiring.

It was much easier on my sanity to have it done professionally. Meanwhile, we discussed a change in the plans. Do we really need another big TV? The one I wanted (a 55-inch) cost nearly two grand, not to mention the surround sound system, another thousand, and the installation of the wires in the ceiling and the speakers on the walls. That was a huge expense that we probably didn’t need to undertake, especially considering that August through December are the expensive months (Aug: car insurance; Sept: house insurance; Oct: vacation; Nov: car registrations; Dec: Christmas and property taxes). There’s a lot of money going out, and plus, we have two TVs that work perfectly fine.

So, without the extra money that I needed to save my doing all of this work myself, my DIY mantra lost some steam. It started with the electrician. I paid for his services, so why bother doing the rest of this myself. I hired out the hanging of the drywall patches and the painting of the room… and the last step will be laying down the carpet.

And then we can sit around and complain about how a nice new couch would look better in our nice big new room than this old ratty one we’re sitting on. All the while, we’ll be shouting at the kids, “Eat it in the kitchen!!”

1. one crowbar: $8.00
2. electrician: $324.00
3. paint: $40.00
4. drywall patching and painting: $750.00
5. carpet (375 sq.ft): $1,875.00
Total cost of project: $2,997.00

I told Kara I’d have the whole thing done on time for Natalie’s birthday on August 28… but it looks like I’ll be about a month early!

Oh, since I like hearing stories of people finding treasures behind the walls of their houses (I was glued to the TV as a kid when I watch Geraldo Rivera uncover Al Capone’s vault…and subsequently disappointed), we decided to put into the ceiling a time capsule to share with someone in the future what it was like to live in 2009. We put pictures of us, a copy of our bills (mortgage, electric, gas, etc.) and a couple paychecks, some coins, movie stubs, event tickets, LA County Fair ticket, a winning lottery ticket, some brochures of places we’d been, receipts for the grocery store and a couple of magazines. Accompanying it is a letter explaining who we are and how we came to live in this house, and I’m excited to wonder who might find it tucked up in between the ceiling and the second story.

Right now, the drywall is being screwed in place and the seams taped and plastered… we’ll never see it again. But here is where it is sitting, just beyond three magazines we subscribe to here (Architectual Digest, Car&Driver and Fortune Small Business).

So, as to the notion of doing it myself, sometimes, I figure my time is more important than money. Can I tape and mud drywall? Sure, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure it out, but why not sit up here at my desk getting some work done while it is handled for me downstairs.

Plus, I got to remove the wall with a sledgehammer, which is what I really wanted to do all along!


Tris Mast said...

Car&Driver! That's not a Primedia publication.

Oh, and nice job on the house.

Ryan or Kara said...

What has Primedia ever done for me?

Chris said...

I recently did a full kitchen remodel and like you, I didn't really know what I was doing until I was done. My reasoning was, "how can I pay someone more than I make?" Disappointingly, I didn't end up finding a time capsule. Instead someone squeezed an empty bottle of Bailey's Irish Creme between the drywall and insulation. As soon as I ripped that sheet off, it fell to the floor and crashed into 1 million pieces. Makes me think that crew likes to "relax" from time to time.


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