Thursday, June 30, 2005

Meanwhile, back at the Chateau...

I didn't make it over to That Old House today, as I had other business to attend to, including selling my car. We're a one-car household for a week or so until my new Mini Cooper arrives at the dealership. Woohoo! If you're wondering how I can afford a new car while renovating a house, it's actually all a part of the financial voodoo. By selling my 2003 Mini, and leasing a new one, I can get a spankin' new car and lower payments to boot. Of course, I'll have no car in three years, but honestly, judging from my first Mini, I don't want to deal with one of these quirky Brits once she's out of warranty.

Meanwhile, back at Chateau Danneel, I've got to start getting ready to move and it's looking pretty ugly. We have a couple of unfinished projects that we long ago gave up on (sigh) that have to finally be dealt with. When we were redoing the kitchen, the idea of stained glass transoms above the pocket doors to the dining room sounded great. Five years later, they're still just unfinished holes, and if I didn't get the glass made for me, I'm not doing it for my tenants either. Better find my spackle trowel.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005


By coincidence, the water company is replacing the gas lines along our street this week. We learned about this yesterday, about twelve hours before they started digging up the sidewalk. Thanks guys! So not only we do have one crew inside the house making holes in the roof and walls, there's another crew outside digging holes as well. It's like gopher heaven.

The chimney is almost gone, from the house at least. It's still present in brick pile form in the backyard. I hadn't expected them to go through the wall in the attic stairs, but I can see why they had to do so. I guess we will be painting that room after all.

I hate seeing dirt tracked through the house, but I know it's inevitable. I think I'd better tape some cardboard down over the floors this weekend, before they get any more damaged.

Here are some highlights of the hole tour:

That one looks like something out of Blair Witch, eh?

And finally, our very own pile of bricks:

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

A big pile of bricks!

This afternoon there's a big pile of bricks in the yard, from the soon-to-be excised chimney. Yay, construction!

We're under a lot of stress to get the house livable as soon as possible. We have tenants moving in at Chateau Danneel on August 15, so we really need to be out by the first of that month so we have time to get the place ready for its new inhabitants. With work on That Old House starting so late in the summer, I'm pretty anxious about having someplace safe to move into. If it were just Mr. Nola and I, we could handle living in a construction zone, but with baby Stella at home with me during the day, living on-site isn't going to work out.

We're weighing the options, but there's a good chance I'll just take Stella and leave for a few weeks at the end of August. We could rent an apartment for a while, but would prefer to avoid the expense. I'll feel bad leaving Mr. Nola to fend for himself onsite, but on the other hand, leaving New Orleans in August is always a good idea.

Monday, June 27, 2005

There are no secrets in New Orleans

Met up with Lafitte the leveling guy today over at That Old House. He took a check from us, and said they'll start work on the chimney tomorrow and it'll be gone by the end of the week. The resulting hole in the roof will be temporarily patched until we have the roof extension put on. Gaping holes in roof during hurricane season make me a bit nervous, but at least the channel it will leave through the house is between two walls.

They start on the roof with a sledgehammer and work their way down to the roofline, then in the attic, then they'll go down to the basement and take out the bottom of the chimney. The last bit between the walls on the main floor will probably be knocked out from underneath, but if they have to go through the kitchen wall they can - it'll come out later anyway.

Why bother taking out the chimney? 16 crucial square feet in the kitchen, for one thing. The other is that the mortar is crumbling and it's not safe to use for its intended purpose, venting the furnace. Not to mention its unintended function of holding the center of the house higher than the rest of the house around it. At the current house, Chateau Danneel, we left a similar chimney stack in place when we redid the kitchen and I've always wished we just got rid of it when we could have.

Lafitte's family have been shoring up New Orleans houses for six generations - back to 1840. We were lucky to find him. When we were in the inspection period one week before closing on the house, I was madly trying to get quotes from contractors on what necessary repairs would cost. The leveling contractor recommended to us didn't show up for two appointments, and we needed a quote fast. Mr. Nola opened the phone book and called the first name on the list, which happened to be Lafitte.

When Lafitte came over, I walked him through the house, and asked if he wanted to see the basement. "That's okay," he told me, "I know the house."

He KNEW the house? It turns out that this was the very guy that the previous owners had called for an estimate. HA! This meant that I would have the same information as the sellers about what it would cost to fix. Aha! This, friends, is the nature of New Orleans. Everyone knows everyone else. Every contractor has either worked on every house, or bid on the job. There are no secrets.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Some "before" shots of the kitchen

These were taken when we toured the house before we bought it. It looks kind of cute, really, it's just very small. So small, in fact, that the refrigerator is located on an enclosed porch adjacent to the kitchen.

Our plan is to merge the three small rooms comprising the kitchen, porch, and breakfast room into one big eat-in kitchen. There is also a formal dining room, so a separate breakfast room is really unnecessary. The exterior wall of the house, which divides the existing kitchen from the enclosed porch, is going to be bumped out to not quite where the porch ends now.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

You can DO that? or, Fun with Foundations!

Mr. Nola met today with Boudreaux the Contractor over at the house to review the plan for this week. After many months of planning, we finally will have someone lift a hammer. The first phase of the project is to hoist up the side of the house that has subsided and bring the floors back to level.

New Orleans is a geologically unstable place, a city built on a series of swamps. At the end of our street you can see the Mississippi River levee loom over the buildings in front of it, and ships float along on the other side that appear to be flying. We are below sea level, below the river level even, and prone to flooding. The silty soil is notoriously unreliable, and some parts of the city just have their own ways of reminding us of our foolish choices in settlement.

Ironically it was actually a drought that caused much of the subsidence in our house and many of the others in our neighborhood. Without the usual onslaught of rain one year, the ground dried deeper than it should of and many of the old foundations shifted or settled. If you're lucky your house might subside evenly or just have a sort of ladylike lilt in the floorboards. Ours, well, it's more like a drunken swagger.

Part of the house is built over a cellar, and part of it is over the traditional pier and beam foundation. Naturally, the two parts didn't settle at the same rate, so now the left side of the house tilts rather dramatically towards the outside. It doesn't look as noticeable when it's furnished, but when the house is empty it sort of feels like a Salvador Dali painting. The difference in height from the low point of the house to the high point is about five inches.

On Monday, they'll begin the leveling process by removing an old chimney stack that isn't in use and partially holds the center part of the house higher than everything else. Getting rid of the chimney will also free up a good chunk of space in the kitchen. After the chimney's gone they'll place jacks all around the house and lift it up, repair the piers, build up the ones that are shorter, then lower the house back in place. It sounds crazy, doesn't it? But every house in this city gets it done at one time or another. It's like getting a new roof. The whole shebang will cost about $20K.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Inaugural Post

All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, not in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.
- JFK, Inaugural Address, 1960

I am the kind of person realtors hate. I go to every open house in the neighborhood - peering in closets, checking out the photos on the refrigerator, sizing up the furnishings and the age of the appliances. I consider it my business, as I am a property owner, after all, to stay up to date with the local housing market. I like to know who's coming or going, and why, and if they have any nice antiques that might show up in a yard sale. I'm not entirely wasting their time, I've always thought that if the right thing came along at the right time... well you'd never know.

And that's how we found this one. Bucolic, right? A charming craftsman cottage with yellow paint and a cheerful blue door, she resides on a gentile avenue in Uptown New Orleans. It's huge - 3000 sq ft counting the finished attic, has a backyard, nice sized rooms, and off street parking for two cars inside an automatic gate. Parking in this area is a rare amenity, and one of the first things Mr. Nola and I admire in any house.

When I went in, the house had been on the market for six months. It was priced competitively for the area - $395K, down from an original asking price of $415K. Parts of Uptown have houses selling at over $200 per square foot, so anything under $500K that isn't in a ghetto and is over 2000 square feet is a pretty good deal. It was also very pretty. Decorated for the holidays, one could easily imagine having big family dinners in the traditional double parlor, tucking les enfants in bed after hanging their stockings by the marble fireplace. It was like one of those Lands End Christmas photo shoots.

So why was it on the market for so long? Well, it had one small problem. Small meaning 13x8, to be exact. It was the kitchen. How a house this size made it to 2004 with a 104 square foot kitchen I do not know. I believe the previous owners all looked at the situation and decided the wisest thing to do was move. Mr. Nola and I, on the other hand, looked at it and saw a challenge.

Six weeks later I was handed the keys, for a pretty fair final price of $350K. This required some significant financial voodoo and the promise of all my organs once I'm done with them, but at any rate, it's ours. Having had a traumatic experience in the past with living in a house during a kitchen renovation - a sad story for another day - we planned to have everything that needed to be done DONE by the time we moved in.

It is now 5 months later and we are getting close to the date we have to vacate our current home, Chateau Danneel, for our new tenants. Before they move in, we have to get some repairs done at Chateau Danneel, so there will be projects going on at two locations for a few weeks. Over at That Old House, after five months of haranguing the architect and shopping for contractors, work is finally about to begin.