Restoration vs. Rehab: The Painful Truth

Ahh, Thanksgiving week – excess amounts of turkey (no matter how realistic a size we buy), wine, cider, cheesy stuff…and a steaming hot side dish of guilt. That’s right folks, my guys were working on Thanksgiving. Now, before you start with your pitchforks and fire at my door, please let me explain. I told them not to be there. I told them holidays are for family and eating, not labor and cold. I told them the hardware store won’t be open. I told them we’d give them paid time off for the day. When I spoke with Robert, he said “They have to be there. Have you ordered the plumbing fixtures?” When I spoke with Wesley, he said “It okay. They be here. I’m gone.”

When I spoke with Sebastien, he said “Ally, we need to be here because we desperately need heat in this house and we can’t get the HVAC guy out until this part is done. We don’t want to work in the cold anymore.”

Ah, I see.

See, we do have a heat generator in there – the problem is that it burns kerosene and they hate the smell. It’s also heavy so they have it on the lower floors. Check out our innovative forced air technology!

img_02971Let’s rewind to Monday. The carpentry for the basement stairs is completed. This week the flooring on the first level is ready for it’s final leveling, the 3rd floor is ready for final demolition, and we need to re-build the stairs from the second to the third floor (the guys are currently getting on the third floor by climbing a ladder in the master bedroom):


Based on this to-do list, we know what comes first: stairs. Allow me to remind you of the stats of this house: approx. 2,500 square feet, built in 1890, 3 floors. Here’s the deal with building code: the City is realistic about the age of these homes. They understand they were built under different codes when it was common for servants to be living in the house that needed different entryways. If you do NOT go near the non-code compliant item, then you can keep it. If you DO go near that item, then you have to fix it. You touch it, you fix it. This is the distinction every rehabber has to consider in each property they see – how far do we go? What will give us a better or more secure ROI? Once you commit to a gut rehab, there’s no halfway. The City will hold you accountable. We are definitely in gut rehab. So, we are held accountable.

Having said this, we are also accountable to another entity: ourselves. This house was built in 1890. A buyer who wants an 1890 house…well, wants an 1890 house. They do not want a contemporary layout inside, they appreciate the quirky corners, and they need to see originality. We can’t just “flip” this house, we need to restore it. I’m not pretending to be a restoration expert, I do consider myself someone who respects real estate. I don’t want to make this house what it’s not. I do have to make it accessible to the modern world and I do have to obey the rules. This brings us to the octo-window:


I’m not ashamed: I love this window. It’s quirky, it’s fun, and it’s south-facing. What more could anyone want? I have speant a month designing an entire master closet around this window. Now, the stairs are ripped out:


Again, I walk in on Monday to find Wesley, Robert, and Sebastien in the master closet – at least they were measuring this time.

Wesley: “The opening is not wide enough, this wall comes down.”

Ally: “Fine.”

Sebastien: “We will lose the window” *pointing at octo-window*

Ally: “No!” *re-collecting herself* …”Why?”

Wesley: “Code. We need 14 inches.” *pulls out measuring tape to show me that the stairs go over the window*


Ally: “Can’t we go the other way, into the hallway?”

Wesley: “No, then hallway not big enough.”

Ally: “Can’t we move the 2nd bedroom wall over for the hallway?”

Robert: “No, then the bedroom is not square enough.”

(FYI – I spend many conversations throwing out ideas for them to say no to me in order to facilitate a productive conversation. There’s no room for egos in rehab.)

Ally: “I don’t want to lose that window. I have an entire master closet already designed with these dimensions.”

Robert: “It has to go. Your words: safety, then code, then everything else. Okay? We have to take it out.”

Ally: *dejected*

Sebastien: “Sorry Ally, there’s no other way. We have to follow the rules.”

Ally: “Well, don’t break that window. Maybe we can move it over later.”

Robert: “Okay. No promises.” *walks away*

Wesley: *sad smile. hushed tone* “I try to keep it.”

So, I walk in Tuesday late morning…to quiet. I hear working on the 3rd floor – I hear nothing under my feet:

Sebastien leveled the floor! We had jacked up the floors as far as we could and there were still curved spots so he cut custom shims, anchored them, and placed plywood over the top. The floors are absolutely silent. No squeaking, no echo, and completely stable. After 10 weeks of tearing down during demo, this is breathtaking to behold.

I call out and Sebastien yells from the 3rd floor. I turn on the generator and head upstairs. I walk into the master bedroom to talk to Sebastien above, turn around, and this is what I see:


Grateful: warmly or deeply appreciative of kindness or benefits received;thankful

Yes, I am. On Thanksgiving Day, I woke up before our major cooking started and made cherry cobbler, bacon, and a thermos of coffee. I would have taken a picture – unfortunately, I was in a hurry to get out before everyone got up and they ate it too fast at the house. We talked about past jobs, lost relatives, cultural differences, and summertime. Long hugs all around before I left.

I have a fantastic team, I could not ask for more. Happy Thanksgiving.




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