Dream House on Elm Street:
Our Renovation Story
When we first moved back to the Upstate, Calvin and I rented and saved for a while before buying our first home in Greenville. Over the Christmas holiday in 2015, we decided to start watching the market and made an offer on a house in January 2016. Our realtor, Robby Brady with Allen Tate, provided ample warning regarding the challenges that might lie ahead. The property was originally listed for sale in 2012 and the asking price had only increased during its three years on the market. The seller was fickle. Many had attempted to buy the house and all had failed. The listing was wildly inaccurate - advertising four bedrooms where there were a modest three and a "built in" date approximately 30 years after construction was actually completed.
The neighbors were infinitely more helpful in providing information about the property during our due diligence period. It was a boarding house at one point and later inhabited by squatters who set fires in makeshift vessels in the middle of the living room, miraculously never burning it to the ground. Calvin and I were undeterred, excitedly providing each new tidbit of information to Robby as we acquired it. If we hadn't once taken him to hike around a property where he was accosted by an aggressive donkey, I'm certain he would say this was our craziest real estate escapade to date. Appropriately skeptical but ever supportive, Robby got us to closing and we bought the now infamous house on Elm Street. Cue the 1980s horror movie references.
Image Above: The Elm Street House on the day we closed
Our plan for the house was simple - knock down one wall to create a new, expanded kitchen. We planned to move a couple of electrical outlets; install new appliances, cabinets, and counters; and call it a day. I surprised Calvin with a brand new sledge hammer and crowbar as his house closing gift. By the end of the project we owned a tool collection rivaling that of most small construction companies.
As we started pulling lath and plaster off of the wall, we got our first clue that the renovation would not be going as planned. Where we were told electrical had been replaced, we found that someone cleverly spliced Romex (modern wire) to the old knob-and-tube electrical system behind the outlets and switches - a fire hazard of epic proportions. The whole place had to be rewired.
The next surprise came to light when we finished removing the wall and got a peek into the ceiling above the kitchen, which also served as the floor of the upstairs bathroom. It seemed that a previous owner had removed a small but critical wing wall that provided all of the support to the large cast iron tub on the second floor. It was fortunate that this was discovered during construction and not when a bubble bath landed me in the basement. The entire second floor had to be reframed with appropriately sized joists as calculated by our newly hired structural engineer. The surprises kept coming and our small scope renovation turned into a full scale gut.
When not working at our full time jobs, Calvin and I spent every free moment working on the Elm Street Renovation. We enlisted the kindness and expertise of every family member and friend who would volunteer their time. My mother, a pharmacist with a former career as a master electrician, taught us how to wire a house. Calvin's best friends and brothers committed occasional Saturdays and evenings to swinging a sledge. If someone dropped by to say hello, we quickly capitalized by asking for help lifting the next heavy thing that had to move. We celebrated 4th of July setting a toilet and rang in the New Year with a little masonry work.
The learning curve on the project was exponential. The big lessons included the finer points of plumbing and trim carpentry. The small lessons were frequently safety related. It took a few concussions for Calvin to remember not to leave tools atop the ladder, a rule that finally stuck one day after he greeted a plummeting sledge hammer with his forehead. I learned the hard way that when they say two-man-auger they are not using the term "man" in a general, inclusive, human sense. They mean two brawny, weight-lifting dudes who won't suffer permanent back injury after a single use. We learned to cover the defunct return air in the floor while working under the house if we didn't want Ando, our black lab, to use it as a hatch to join us. Terror is having your leg licked by an unidentified beast while working in eighteen inches of crawl space.
During the two year renovation we fought surprisingly little and laughed a whole lot, partly out of madness (a la Tom Hanks in 1986's "The Money Pit") but mostly out of the joy of creating something beautiful with our own hands. It was surreal when we reached the point of selecting finishes and fixtures - Sherwin Williams paint colors, Cedar and Moss pendants for the kitchen, a Rejuvenation schoolhouse light for the entry, black hex and white subway tiles for the sunny upstairs bath. When we finally entertained our first guests for dinner, we felt unbelievable pride in our accomplishment.
Image Above: The Kitchen
Image Above: Rejuvenation Schoolhouse Fixture
Image Above: Upstairs Shower
Image Above: Dining Bench
Image Above: The Sun Room
Image Above: The Dining Room
The house on Elm Street was always a starter home. We found our forever home, my dream house, about a year after completing the Elm Street renovation. Robby was much more enthused about this purchase. We agreed on a price and started packing boxes. It was a bittersweet day when we turned over the Elm Street keys to the young couple who bought it - hard to say goodbye, glad we left the place better than we found it, happy to know these next owners would leave their own mark on the house's next century.
Image Above: The Kitchen
Once, at a cocktail party, during the Elm Street years, my uncle introduced us to a friend saying, "This is my niece, Becky, and her husband, Calvin. They are renovating a house themselves just to prove how young they are." I scoffed at the time but I reflect on the statement often. He wasn't wrong. Only the naiveté of youth could have thrown us headlong into a project of that magnitude, providing us with an invaluable personal and professional education that we use daily to benefit our clients. We're older and smarter now. We don't plan to do it again but we wouldn't trade the days of hundred degree carpentry or thirty degree painting for anything.