The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

When walls in old home come down, new renovation problems emerge

Once demolition within the Maynards’ 1924 farmhouse in Hyattsville began, some structural problems became evident. (James Loren Payne Photography)

Nigel F. Maynard is an architecture and design writer/editor living temporarily in New Carrollton, Md., with his wife, Stephenie, and their 140-pound harlequin Great Dane, Yeager. During the next few months, he will chronicle their experiences renovating their 1924 farmhouse in Historic Hyattsville. This is the second installment.

An old house never fully reveals itself until you open walls to see what problems lie in wait. We walked through ours multiple times with our agent, and a handful of contractors inspected it in the run-up to closing. They found no visible issues.

For a 92-year-old structure, it was in respectable shape. The electric had been updated in 1991, so there was no horrid knob-and-tube wiring to replace. The foundation was sound (save for a little needed plastering), the porch piers were in good shape, and the roof appeared to be fine (for now). We braced ourselves for potential troubles nevertheless.

During the demo, workers gutted the two full baths and the kitchen. They removed all of the light fixtures, the damaged ceramic-tile floor in the kitchen, interior doors, laundry and kitchen appliances, the crumbling patio, the front walkway, the deck boards and the HVAC units.

(Though the powder room is not in the scope of repairs, the workers removed the toilet and pedestal sink. I intend to build a custom vanity, paint, re-tile and replace the fixtures myself while the other work is in progress.)

More Maynard: We found a home we could afford after touring 100. Now the real work begins in making it livable.

Even though we removed all of the lights and plumbing fixtures, we did not indiscriminately hurl items into the dumpster. We assessed the house with our contractor, Rob Bostick, president of House Pros, to see what we could save and donate to Community Forklift, an organization that accepts donated building and landscaping products and provides materials to households in need. We were able to salvage 10 hollow-core interior doors, a handful of light fixtures, pedestal sinks, a toilet and (possibly) the washer and dryer.

Bostick didn’t find anything catastrophic during demo, but we didn’t escape entirely. We noticed some unevenness in the second floor and wanted to explore further. New wood flooring was in the scope of repairs, so we were reluctant to leave the subpar surface. To ensure a more serious issue wasn’t lurking, he advocated removing the floor (and subfloor) as well as the ceiling above the dining and living room so a structural engineer could do a careful inspection.

Verdict? The structural integrity was good, though we had three bad joists that needed to be replaced. In addition, if we wanted the floor to be completely level for the new hardwood, the contractor would “sister” the joists and install a new 5/8-inch plywood subfloor.

Sistering involves establishing a level line around a room and nailing dimensional or engineered lumber along the side of existing joists up to that level. In our case, it removed about a ½ inch to almost 1 inch off the ceiling height, but we still have about 8 feet 11 inches of head height. Plus, now we have a level, squeak-free surface for the new oak or cherry we’re getting.

The estimate for the floor work was about $8,000, but it was necessary so we approved it. To accommodate the change order, we scaled back the hardscaping (in favor of grass) and revised the porch repairs. Instead of new posts and balusters, we’ll fix the damaged ones, remove the vinyl ceiling and paint the existing beadboard, replace the stair treads and scrape and paint everything. These modifications saved about $10,000. (We also added the second bath to the scope of repairs.)

Miscommunication with contractor slows renovation as it enters home stretch

But there was another surprise in addition to the floor. When the plumber showed up, he didn’t like the looks of the copper pipes in the crawl space. Verdigris — the green film that sometimes develops on copper — was present, possibly because of the moisture in the space or leaking. Further investigation in areas throughout the house revealed that the pipes were not as good as they could be.

Our contractor felt that because areas of the walls were already opened, it would be easy to redo the plumbing now rather than later. Cost? $3,500. This was a fair price, so we were fully on board for doing the work.

With the plumbing about 90 percent completed, the workers labeled the supply lines and wrapped the “hot” side with foam insulation. The rough-in (behind-the-wall components such as wires, pipes, drains, etc.) for the wall-mount faucet in the master bath and the shower valves are next.

On the recommendation of our contractor, we made another change to mitigate some of the moisture issues in the crawl space: a sump pump. The crew also repaired the cellar door framing with new pressure-treated lumber and installed a steel door (with a lock) for added security.

What to do when your home-renovation dream turns into a nightmare

Though our house is only about 1,500 square feet, the high ceilings and the tall stairwell could prove difficult to heat with an electric heat pump. So we upgraded to an energy-efficient gas boiler, which cost us an extra $900. Plus, my wife really (really) wanted a red gas stove, so we ran a new line to the kitchen (marriage saved!).

With the surprises behind us (we hope), we now move on to electrical rough-in, tree and fireplace inspection, bathroom rough-ins, and deck and porch work. Wish us luck.