Saving Etta: Chapter 1: At First Glance
This is the beginning of a true story about a house built in 1900 that is in serious disrepair. It’s also the story about my journey toward becoming a general contractor and my attempt to save a home from being bulldozed. I hope you’ll follow along as I embark on a journey into the unknown perils and rewards of flipping a home in downtown Raleigh, NC.
If you are just joining the story, you will want to read all the Saving Etta chapters.
The weather was hot and slightly muggy as is typical for Raleigh, NC. Up popped the “You have reached your destination” on Google Maps. I had planned to get to the house before my agent so I could drive around the neighborhood to assess. I was looking for signs of renewal and renovated houses. In the back of my mind I heard my husband’s voice. “I just worry about your safety. I’d feel better if you’d get a gun.” This stuck with me but somehow my Quaker upbringing wouldn’t allow me to entertain the idea of purchasing a gun. Instead I attended a pepper spray workshop the week before. Looking down at my purse, I saw the canister ready for use (but hopefully never needing to be used.)
The neighborhood was nice. Lots of cute bungalows with colorful siding and front doors. This was a completely different feel from the homes we had looked at earlier in the week. Both of them prompting me to tap the canister of pepper spray in my rear pocket frequently to make sure it was still there. Typically I ask my agent, Lori to lock the door behind us once we were in the home.
I pulled into the driveway, a major plus for any potential flip house. Driveways are sought after in the typically small lots of downtown Raleigh. I knew my agent would point that out. I looked at the siding of the small bungalow and noticed lots of english ivy. Having eradicated our backyard of ivy several years ago, I knew first hand how much damage it can do to a house. I also knew how happily black widows and snakes lived inside its protective coverage. “Hopefully the foundation is still in good shape.” I said aloud to myself.
Looking around again, there was still no sign of my realtor’s car. Feeling impatient, I stepped out of the car and began walking around the perimeter of the house inspecting everything from top to bottom. I wandered toward the back of the house and was amazed by what I saw. A long expansive backyard. Immediately I began to doubt whether all of it could be the homeowner’s. Then I noticed the fences around the perimeter. The chain link fence was barely visible behind the scrubby weed trees and overgrown lawn. Unbelievable, this might mean I can check off installing a fence to the property. Plus, it meant that I could easily let Bandit out while I was working on the house.
Bandit is my apprentice in training. He’s a one year golden retriever/boxer mix that we adopted about six months previously. He’s still young and full of energy, but I’m hoping he’ll mellow out and fill in where Buddy departed. A year ago we lost our English Shepherd, Buddy (affectionately known as Handy Dog to many of you.) I had visions of flipping a house with his presence by my side at all times for protection. He never strayed from my view (except to wander down to the creek to cool off now and then.) He was a constant supervisor of the DIY projects from a safe distance. We used to joke that Buddy was a Walmart greeter in a past life. He was calm and polite to anyone he met. But, he always came back to me. I still get choked up thinking about his final month with us. We knew he was dying from a tumor on his heart. It was a blessing to be able to spoil him rotten, but it was hard on all of us knowing that death was imminent.
I turned around and began walking back toward the house. I noticed a car parked in the yard. “Well, that will have to get moved.” I stated as I tried to calculate how much that would cost in my head.
As I neared the back of the house I began to have visions of someone jumping out from the weeds and assaulting me. I tried to shake the worrisome thoughts from my head. Being a woman means it’s always important to be aware of your surroundings. How nice it would be to be a guy who doesn’t stress about these things.
I located a vine covered crawl space door and began trying to free it from the death grip of the ivy. After some tugging and ripping it finally broke free. I stumbled backwards and realized it had broken off in the hinges. “We won’t tell anyone that I just broke something on a house I don’t own.” I thought guiltily.
I peered inside the crawlspace but it was too dark to see. A cool musty breeze wafted over my face from the crawlspace. I looked around to see if my agent had arrived yet, but she hadn’t. I quickly decided to run back to the car and grab my floodlight and some gloves. As I neared the car three people walked out of the house. I panicked for a minute thinking I was trespassing (flashbacks to my wreckless teenage excursions.) I never did anything illegal beyond walking through people’s yards, an activity that both thrilled me and made me feel guilty. It was the battle of the good girl vs. the rebel.
I got my thoughts in check as I realized it was another agent and his clients. The young asian couple looked shell shocked. I quickly asked if they were finishing up their showing. The man, who I assumed was the agent, laughed and said, “Yes, but it is all kinds of jacked up in there. The ceiling is falling, the floor is treacherous and there are spots that have dropped two inches.” He told me there were two more people still looking in the house. The three walked off to the empty lot next door and began to talk. I decided to grab my bag of tools and headed back toward the crawlspace as if I owned the place. “It’s always better to look like you belong than to look timid and hesitant.” I told myself. My mind always needs a reminder that I belong here and I know what I’m doing. It’s hard being a female general contractor in a man’s world sometimes.
When I was studying for my general contractor exam I spent most of the prep class observing the other men in the class. I was the only woman and I knew I was stepping over the threshold into their world. I watched how they stood (legs apart and arms folded confidently across their torso.) I watched how they walked (confident and casual strolling down the center of a hallway.) But, most of all I watched how they spoke to one another. It was conversations about past jobs and experiences that I had no information to add. They spoke of corrupt inspectors, clumsy subcontractors and shoddy construction. I longed to tag along like a fly in a toolbelt and learn about home construction from them. Instead I tried to absorb as much information as I could from the lectures. I spent an enormous amount of time looking up terms that I didn’t know. Oftentimes, I would exclaim to myself, “Oh that’s what that thingy that holds up the other doohickey is called.” I knew basic construction skills visually, but the terms were not something I learned. Again, I felt like a fraud, out of place like a duck out of water.
As I walked back toward the crawlspace two men walked out of the house shaking their heads. One of them looked at me and asked if I was an agent. “Nope, I’m the buyer.” The word echoing in my head like a lie. Who was I kidding. I had no right to be here. Sure, I had a piece of paper saying I was a licensed residential general contractor in the state of North Carolina, but I had never flipped a full house before.
As if on cue, my agent pulled into the driveway behind my car. “That’s my agent.” Lori stepped out in her usual high heels and impeccably pulled together outfit. She’s a slight woman in her late-30’s. She looks more at home playing bunko with the country club gals than digging through old disgusting houses. I had told her jokingly that she doesn’t need to dress up for me because we always walk into the shittiest houses in Raleigh.
One of the men chuckled and said, “Did you bring a hard hat?” Lori looked at him and said, “Nope, but I have my boots.” She quickly pulled on a pair of Hunter boots. By this time I was really concerned about what I had gotten Lori into. I told her I had a hard hat in the car if she wanted it. She waved her hand dismissively. “Okay, so we’re doing this” I thought. I picked up my goodie bag (an open tool bag with a few tools inside: floodlight, flashlight, knee pads, gloves, a tape measure, an inspection camera that snakes into small space, a 5-in-1 painter’s tool for poking potential rotted or soft spots and a hard hat…just in case.)
The men laughed at us and asked if we were going to have a picnic inside (as they eyed up my tool bag.) We laughed back and Lori rolled her eyes at me. She muttered under her breath, “If they say one more condescending thing — I don’t have any patience for men that think we are bimbos.” Lori’s attitude bolstered my confidence as we headed toward the house. I turned around and saw them peeking into the crawlspace through the opening I had created. I kicked myself for giving them easy access. I should have left it alone.
We stopped at the bottom of the stairs and I pointed out the porch masonry that was bulging and pulling away from the house. “That will have to go.” I said. She nodded in agreement. We carefully ascended the steps unsure what awaited us beyond the front door.
We stepped inside and waited for our eyes to adjust. The sight we saw would have been shocking but I was all too familiar with homes that were a time capsule after someone had moved out or died.
Last year Lori and I walked into a house so decrepit that we weren’t sure if it was carpet under our feet or fur from a dead animal. We had spent at least 45 minutes navigating piles of clothing, furniture and trash to try to see the house’s potential. The blinds were drawn, the walls were either dark paneling or dripping with a yellow substance. We didn’t have the aid of a light fixture as the power had been turned off. I had been amazed as Lori began telling me about her vision for the house. Her quick chatter began to fill my head with a vision of what the house could be. “Open up this wall and put L-shaped cabinets here. You might even have enough room for a breakfast nook.” She continued to wave her hands and explain her thoughts about renovating the house. Everything in my line of sight disappeared as my mind began to see the vision she was describing. When we left I had fallen in love with that little 900 sq. foot bungalow and knew I had to make the numbers work so I could bid on it. Later I learned that the homeowners (two brothers) had lived there. The one brother had passed away in the house and the other brother (who had some mental instability) neglected to tell anyone for two weeks. I shuddered to think that we might have been standing where he had died. When the bidding on that house went above my comfort threshold, I was sad but tried to remember that everything happens for a reason.
Recently I drove past that little bungalow and saw that nothing had been done to it. I called the new owner and was told that it was slated for demolition once the builder could get to it. I was horrified. That little bungalow had stood there since 1920 and its days were numbered. Without much thought, I offered to purchase the house from the buyer telling her that I thought it was a shame for the house to be bulldozed. She told me, “You can’t get emotionally attached to these houses. It’s an investment. It makes more sense to build a two story house on that lot.” I filed this away as future advice and continued to search for my first “investment property”. But, the idea sat cold in my heart. I love old house and the character and charm they exude. I imagine the stories they could tell. I imagine grown children driving by the home they grew up in explaining to their grandchildren, “That’s the house I grew up in. We had a lot of fun there.”
I thought to myself, maybe I’m not cut out to be a house flipper. My heart is too attached to old homes.
Our eyes scanned the hallway now that we could see in the dim light. A partial set of furniture was in the parlor. Some photos sat stacked on a chair. In the second room to our left (a second parlor) the carpeting had been pulled up and piled in the middle of the floor. We picked our way over the carpet padding and cords lying on the floor. The floor buckled under my weight and sank an inch. For a second I thought that surely I would be in the crawlspace in a second. But, the particle board held. I gingerly continued to walk around the room noticing lots of water on the floor. I looked up but didn’t see any signs of a leak. We were perplexed. Lori offered to walk outside and look at the exterior for clues. She came back in in less than a minute exclaiming that the fascia board was completely rotted out. We nodded to each other.
A boarded up fireplace was centered on one wall and two windows would have offered lots of light if they weren’t covered with mini blinds and yellowing cotton curtains. The other parlor was a mirror image of its twin. Another boarded up fireplace and two windows. I calculated the expense of replacing the windows and made a mental note that bigger windows on the front would really improve the house. As I turned around and looked down at the pile of photos, I saw several faces smiling back at me. Their faces were dark with bright white smiles. The photos had a yellow cast showing their age. I nodded at them and said, “Don’t worry, if I buy your family home I promise to respect it and make it beautiful again.”
Find out what plans I have in store for this house in Chapter 2!
Thanks for letting me share with you this adventure I’m embarking on. In the meantime I’d love to know if you enjoyed this post. Do you want to hear more about this journey to save the house I’ve affectionally named Etta?
If you are just joining the story, you’ll want to read all the Saving Etta chapters.