Fixing the Flip Part I

We bought our home four years ago from a flipper.  There are many reasons to view the flipping craze with a jaundiced eye including the role it plays in driving up housing prices.  I’m concerned with what it is doing to the physical structure and aesthetics of homes. Flippers, as a breed, are responsible to further Home Depotization of the American home: the destruction of what is regional and unique in favor of homogenization via cheap fixtures from big box retailers.  The replacement of the substantive with the cheap and disposable.

The other problem is that in the flipping game profit often trumps preservation. Flippers are interested in turning over a home and maximizing profits.  This means that a coat of paint will often be used instead of a more substantive repair.  Such was the case with our house, but I knew that when we bought it.  However, I did not know the extent of some of the issues and the pains that the seller took to hide the problems.

The mudsill under the back door, or at least what was left of it

When we bought the house, an asphalt walkway enclosed three sides of the house and butted up to the siding.  It was in bad shape and not terribly appealing so we removed it.

When we bought the house four years ago it was surrounded by asphalt and the grade was substantially higher.  It was not very appealing structurally or aesthetically.

What we discovered was that the grade had built up over the past 80 years and eventually came into contact with the bottom of the exterior wall.  I knew this spelled trouble; soil contact with wood is a perfect avenue for moisture and insects.  Sure enough, the mudsill under the back wall of the house was rotted away, something that neither I nor my inspector caught during the inspection.  The reason is that the seller took steps to hide the problem by encasing the rotten sill in concrete and boxing it in in the basement with salvaged wood.  It was only after I hauled away the asphalt, lowered the grade and removed the exterior shakes that I discovered the extent of the problem and the half-assed attempt to patch it.  How bad was it?  Well, I had to remove several feet of sill before I had a piece intact enough that I could measure the original dimensions.

After removing the asphalt and lowering the grade, it became clear that there were problems.  The flipper we bought the house from covered the rotten sill with a couple hundred pounds of concrete visible here at the base of the wall.

It was clear that the seller and her contractor approached this flip with either a lack of care or a lack of knowledge. Perhaps it was both.  I’m guessing that she was working on tight margins as well.  My frustration was not so much that she was deceptive (though I’m certainly not happy about that), but rather in the realization that for all the effort put into hiding the problem it could have simply been fixed right the first time.  To pull off the “repair,” the seller and her contractor had to remove the bottom courses of shingles and sheathing, build a temporary form, and mix and pour several bags of concrete.  They then had to replace the sheathing and shingles.  With just a little more effort, it could have been done properly, though that assumes they knew how to do it properly.  The repair they did actually made it more difficult to fix properly as I spent substantial time and energy removing all the concrete!

It took a lot of time and energy–alternating between a rotary hammer and a 10 pound sledge –to remove the concrete from around the rotted sill and wall cavity

Years ago when I worked in the trades there were a couple sayings I used to hear that caused my blood to boil: “You can’t see it from my house,” or “good enough for government work.”  These we spoken by people who just wanted to be done so they could move on to the next job.  Mind you, some of these folks were building multi million dollar spec houses!  Thankfully, I also worked with people who were careful and thorough and took pride in the work they did and took the time to teach me how to do things properly. Clearly, the flipper and her contractor only cared about moving on to the next project.

I often bemoan modern construction, especially the McMansion phenomenon wherein cheap materials and unskilled labor are combined to create large yet poorly built houses.  I hate that kitchen and bathroom fixtures as well as lighting has become a disposable feature to be changed out when the next interior trend is launched on HGTV.  Those general complaints aside, there are places where modern building technology has allowed us to really build better, more energy efficient homes.  Modern wall systems are a great example in terms of being able to control air and moisture infiltration.  As such, I decided that this exterior repair should really be an upgrade to last at least another 80 years!  So while I have the walls open, I would repair the sill, add some new lighting, recess the exterior outlet, re-insulate the wall, and seal it all up properly .

My summer project started off as simply replacing the cedar shakes on the back of the house but quickly became a major structural repair.  When I realized the scale of the issues, I admit to initially feeling overwhelmed and losing quite a bit of sleep wondering if I have the ability to fix what the flipper and her contractor “repaired.”  I didn’t wallow too long; thankfully I was raised to be a spirited man. I would fix our house and I would fix it right; this little cottage that we  love so much deserved a kinder treatment than it had received from the flipper and her contractor.

Part II will cover the choices I made in incorporating modern building materials into our 1938 cottage.

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