This is the 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 may want to read all the Saving Etta chapters.
It was a cold afternoon in North Carolina, especially for May. A mist of humidity hung in the air, threatening rain.
I saw him pull up right on time.
“Are you the structural engineer?” I yelled down.
Sean looked around perplexed.
“Up here.” I called to him from the roof peak.
“Well, I’m not the fireman come to get you down.” Sean retorted.
I laughed and told him no worries, I had a ladder around back. Arriving at the property early gave me a chance to get up on the roof to see why there was so much water damage in the house. It was as I had expected, the middle section of roof between two gables was flat as a pancake. Large sheets of asphalt with exposed nails wasn’t doing anything to push the water off the roof. Asphalt shingles are for sloped roofs with a minimum of 2/12 (2 inches in one foot) pitch. Dirty circles provided evidence of pooling water that sat until it evaporated or eventually seeped into the house. This also explained the large rubbermaid tubs filled with water inside the house.
Turning to climb back down the ladder, I was awestruck by the view. Tall trees on either side of the yard provided tons of privacy in the back yard. I knew if I had to tear the roof off, I wanted to build a small second floor room to take advantage of the view.
Back on terra firma, I walked to the front of the house to meet Sean, the structural engineer. He was slim and wore an olive green shirt fresh from the racks of L.L.Bean. He appeared ready to venture into the rainforest instead of a dirty crawlspace. Behind his back was slung a hatchet. I never figured out what it was for, but perhaps he used it to hack away at the ivy covered crawlspace door. He had already been under the house to take a peek the day that Lori called him. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to make it downtown day.
We spoke for a few minutes about the issues in the crawlspace. He chuckled a little as he explained the granite boulders set on their side to act as piers. Then we walked around the back again as he made suggestions for correcting the drainage.
Sean leaned against a tree that was growing out of the foundation wall of the house.
“About this tree…” he began.
“Oh yes, I like that tree.” I interrupted. My smile let him know I was joking.
“…well it’s causing a lot of damage to the house.” he finished.
We both looked up 30 feet, and watched the top swaying in the breeze. The weedy tree had grown alongside the house and was rubbing the shingles and fascia board away. The base of the tree hugged tight against the foundation probably pushing it into the crawlspace. I’m sure that tree would be a bitch to get out. And, it would be impossible to cut the whole tree without damaging the foundation or the siding.
We walked around front and began discussing the porch foundation that was bowing out and cracking. I thought for sure I’d have to support the porch roof and rebuild the entire foundation.
Sean pointed to the corner and said, “It’s pier and skirt foundation. See? There’s the pier and the rest of the block is just cinderblock that someone added later.”
Sure enough, I looked closer and saw the brick pier separate from the blocks. He explained that people used to fill in the gaps between the piers to keep the kids from going underneath the house to play.
“Easy fix, just knock off the skirts and have a mason patch any areas that are missing from the pier.” He explained.
“Sweet. That’s a big savings.” I said.
“But, you do need to wall up the foundation under the house.” Sean replied.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“There is a large opening in the foundation where the porch was added. You need to close that up to protect the crawlspace.” He explained.
“Ugh, there goes that savings.” I groaned.
At that moment Lori pulled up and got out of her Range Rover. Today she looked somewhat casual (if you count Hunter boots, black leggings and a long cotton tunic casual.) My casual look was holey jeans and paint spattered shirts.
“Ready to head inside?” she asked with a chipper voice.
We stepped in the front door and Sean pulled out his flashlight and began to scour each room. He found the attic pulldown and gingerly climbed up the ladder. I prayed it would hold him as the wood steps creaked and cracked.
“There are some broken rafters up here.” Sean yelled down.
I nodded, having noticed the same thing on the first day I saw inside the house.
He descended the ladder and explained he couldn’t see into the attic area over the front two parlors.
“What? I could have sworn you can see by peeking on top of the HVAC ductwork.” I explained.
Climbing the creaky steps, I was in the attic and crawling on top of the ducts determined to see into the attic over the parlors. I laid on top of the shiny foil heating and air conditioning ducts with my flood lamp shining into the original attic. It was empty. No storage items, just old brown blown insulation. My eyes traveled up the rafters and I admired the unusually tall ceilings in an old attic. As my gaze turned to the gabled ends, I rejoiced to see the original louvers were still there. They must have been covered by aluminum or plastic soffit sheeting on the outside. Call me crazy, but those cute little shaped louvers on old houses always make me swoon.
As I began to climb down the pull down ladder, I looked to my left and noticed the rafters were barely supported by a 1” thick board.
“What the. . .?” I exclaimed.
Sean followed my gaze and said, “Yup, you’ll need to correct that.”
We talked about potential solutions for the back portion of the house, which was currently three or four separate add-ons. None of them were built to code, and they looked like a DIY special. Sean pulled out a small notepad and drew a few sketches for connecting the rooflines and adding a second floor.
“Shore up the ridge beam with an LVL to support and carry the load of that roof and you are set.” he said. My brain struggled to keep up with his jargon and I was reminded of my struggles two years earlier.
I sat in the exam room facing the computer and re-read the question three times. Frustrated, I pressed my fingertips to my forehead. What the heck was a “plenum” again? Gah, why can’t they show me a picture? While reading the NC Residential Building Code book, I typed numerous google image searches for every word I didn’t know. Reading through the four inch thick code book took me ten minutes per page because I ran into so many words I didn’t know. This must be what it feels like to read a foreign language.
I’ll just have to guess at this one. I continued to slog through the exam questions. Overhead was a camera and I knew the proctor was watching me like a hawk and waiting for me to break one of her rules. I was practically frisked before entering the room. She made us open our bags and remove everything. “No cell phones, no papers, not even your own pencils. And definitely leave your cell phone in the car! I’ll give you pencils and one sheet of scrap paper. When you need more paper you can come ask for another. If you HAVE to go to the bathroom, I will keep your driver’s license. If you don’t come back from the bathroom in 5 minutes you fail the test and lose your license.” The proctor recited her spiel while sounding exactly like Roz, from Monsters Inc.
After answering the last exam question, I slumped in the chair from sheer exhaustion. I was tired, hungry and praying I had passed the test. If I didn’t, I doubted I’d ever get the nerve to re-take this four hour exam to become a licensed general contractor. The clock on the computer counted down the final seconds: 5-4-3-2-1. After what seemed an eternity, a message popped up on the screen. “PASSED”. I thought I was reading it wrong, but the proctor handed me a print out as I walked out of the testing facility with that same word on the top. I was too exhausted to jump for joy. Instead a quick fist pump celebrated the qualification I had worked so hard for.
DING! I looked down at my phone and saw a text from my husband, Mike. He would be arriving in 5 minutes. My stomach clenched. I was nervous for his first peek at the house. We drove by the house last week, but he had yet to step inside Etta’s front door.
A few minutes later, Mike’s car pulled up out front. He walked up to Lori, Sean and me as we stood outside. I gave him a quick kiss and asked if he was sure he was ready. “Yes, I am.” he replied matter of factly.
We stepped into the foyer and I looked down the hall trying to imagine what he was seeing. I knew he was probably horrified by the full scope of this project to Save Etta. The sagging ceiling fan and old dusty books in front of my eyes were not even visible because I could envision a grand foyer with a beautiful chandelier. I had been blinded by Etta’s charm and her potential.
Mike walked in and asked a few questions. I left him with Lori as I ascended the ladder into the attic space again. As I lay on the HVAC ductwork, I got a better view of the huge attic over the front two rooms. It was highly likely an adult could stand fully upright in the space. Mike’s voice wafted up from beneath me. “All I see are boots! Is that Brittany up there?” I heard them both laugh as I tried to wriggle back out of the little hole in the attic.
Turning around, I spotted the mid-century door laying on the rafters. “Oh my gosh! I found a door up here.” I called down.
Mike called back up, “Well I found a rifle!”
I thought he was joking, but as I climbed down the ladder he stood there with a vintage rifle in his hands.
As we continued the tour, Mike, Lori and I discussed a few options for the house. Mike’s suggestion was to hire a junk company to haul away everything. I balked at tossing some of the treasures that were still in the house. There might be some value in the furniture, rifle and books. Every little dollar would help toward this project. But Mike’s MBA brain told him time is money and it was better to get everything out of the house as quickly as possible.
Mike left to head back to work, while I stayed behind to take samples of the mold growing in a few spots of the house. I donned a respirator and carefully cut out sections of sheetrock. Each sample was carefully deposited into a ziploc back that was labeled with the room name and location. For added protection all the mold sample baggies were put inside a bigger ziploc. I was not taking any chances with this stuff. It the results came back positive for toxic mold, I’d be glad I had been extra careful.
As Lori locked up the house, I threw my tool bag into my minivan knowing I’d need to purchase a real work truck soon. We departed our separate ways and I called Mike, hoping to get him before he got to work.
“Hello.” Mike answered.
“So, what did you think?” I quickly asked.
. . . continued in Chapter 6
If you are just joining the story, you may want to read all the Saving Etta chapters.