A House Full of Surprises

Author: James P. Lynch ’62

I wanted to rehab a house. To this day I am not sure why. Maybe it was boredom. Or a delayed midlife crisis, the need for excitement. I had watched This Old House and The New Yankee Workshop and Hometime for years. Those shows made rehabbing look effortless. I thought, how hard could it be?

I began to seriously look for a property around the time of my daughter’s wedding.
Maybe I was propelled by the extra energy in the house, alive with the marriage preparations. Or I may have subconsciously figured everyone would be distracted, not paying attention to what old dad was doing.

So after some diligent searching, I found what appeared to be the perfect rehab project. It was an old two-bedroom frame house on a beautiful tree-lined street. It was located in a small town, only a 30-minute drive from my home. The lot was a mess, and the exterior was covered with a type of shingle you sometimes see on old farmhouses. It had a quaint front porch. The inside needed some cosmetic repairs, but I could see the possibilities once it was spruced up. I was excited.

Jim Lynch, photo by Barbara Johnston

I mentioned the purchase to my family just prior to the wedding. My wife said, “Oh, that’s nice,” as she and our daughter continued to finalize the seating arrangements.

But after the wedding she asked me, “Did I hear you correctly? Did you say that you bought an old house, and you’re going to rehab it? When are you going to find time to do it? You have a full-time job.” Then she added, “I’m not getting involved.”

“I’ll do it on weekends,” I replied. “It should only take six months. I can make some money on it. It’ll be fun.”

I should have said that it would be a nice diversion because my regular job consisted of endless phone calls, long meetings and a continuous stream of never-ending problems, so fixing a house would be something tangible, something I could see and touch, with an end result. So off I went to have fun.

I admit my initial inspection of the house had been superficial. I saw that debris had to be removed from the yard, the lawn needed reseeding, and flowers and shrubs had to be planted. These were chores I could do. The house’s interior was another matter. The kitchen and upstairs bath needed to be modernized. An exterior living room wall required repair, carpeting had to be replaced and all the rooms had to be painted. Oh, and the heating system had to be updated.

It is a funny thing about buying real estate. We may think about it for a long time, but it is usually emotion, not logic, that pushes us to make the final decision to buy. I was no different in this respect. In my enthusiasm I missed many of the house’s flaws.

So I made my budget, closed on the home in July of 2001 and set to work. A Dumpster was ordered, and for the next two months I concentrated on the outside. There were trees to trim, evergreens to plant and more junk to pick up than I could have ever imagined. My Saturdays were full. But when I left at the end of the day, I could always see what had been accomplished. As I cleaned, I saw that the outside trim needed paint and some minor carpentry. But that could wait until spring; winter was approaching.

When I turned indoors, everything began to unravel. Removing some damaged plaster to repair an exterior living room wall, I discovered that the insulation was merely newspapers. The newspapers dated back to 1903. The house was almost 100 years old.

With the walls now open, I discovered another problem — the electricity. The service box had been updated, but the original wiring from the 1920s was still in place. The whole house had to be rewired. This meant all the plaster in the house had to be removed. So I ordered another Dumpster, and the interior demolition began.

I hired two men to assist me on Saturdays. They were a great help to me — when they were able to work. But I soon discovered that our priorities differed. Sometimes they had weddings to attend or football games to see. And let’s not forget the sacred hunting season.

With new insulation and a new electrical system, my budget was beginning to hemorrhage. And when I discovered a water leak in an upstairs bedroom closet, I realized there was a problem with the roof. My budget was brought to its knees. But still more bad news was to come.

One afternoon as I was loading tools into my truck, an old man stopped to chat. He said he was happy I was repairing the old house; it had been an eyesore in the neighborhood. He also said he could never understand why the frame house had been covered with those asbestos shingles. They are so hard to work with, he said. Asbestos! The outside of the building was covered with asbestos! I wanted to cry.

Four months into this venture, I had to rethink the whole project. The original budget was no longer relevant. What was I to do? One option was to stop the project, tear the building down and sell the vacant lot. This would stop my losses immediately, and selling the lot might help me recover some expenses.

But then the adventure would be over.

The other option was to continue the rehab work. The only way that made any sense would be to expand the home so I might sell it for more than the original estimate. This was possible.

The house could be redesigned for an additional bedroom on the second floor and a new half bath on the first floor. It would be easy to enlarge the kitchen to include the rear porch. I could add new windows. And if the front porch were enlarged and a rear deck added, the house would be quite attractive. I ran all the numbers and found this approach would work. And I would still be able to make a profit. There was one caveat. I would have to do a lot of the labor myself.

The decision was mine. Quit or move forward. If I quit I would be admitting to my family that I was inept. And I definitely knew I was not inept — I was just overexuberant.

So I made the decision. Another Dumpster was ordered. It was full steam ahead.

There followed many winter Saturdays and some Sunday afternoons ripping out plaster walls and ceilings — not easy work, especially for an old guy of 61. Once the plaster was removed, I faced more surprises. There had been two additions to the original house. Each addition had different dimensional 2-by-4s. When they joined, the walls had to be made to look uniform. This presented a mathematical challenge to me. Also there had been a fire in the house, and the repairs were inadequate; they had to be redone.

Even with all these obstacles, the repairs were made and the building gutted by spring. Now the expansion was ready to begin.

I vividly remember that Memorial Day weekend. Saturday was the first warm day of the spring. I had started early and worked late. The two helpers and I had torn off part of the second-floor roof and had framed in the new bedroom. A tarp was placed over the work to keep off any rain. I was satisfied. Things were moving forward. That evening after dinner I sat down to watch television. When I tried to get up, I had no feeling in my legs. I fell to the floor.

At the emergency room the doctor said I had had a heat stroke. I was hooked me to an IV. The doctor said I would make a full recovery (which I did). He also told me to stay off my feet for a week and to do nothing strenuous for 120 days. That would be the entire summer. So for most of that summer all I could do was drive to the house on Saturdays and watch my two men work. They finished framing the additions. They tore off the old roof. A roofing company was hired to install a new roof.

In autumn I felt well enough to assist in stripping off the asbestos siding, which was hauled to a special disposal site. New windows were installed. The house was covered with an insulation wrap, and vinyl siding was installed just in time for winter.

That winter I worked alone. Money was scarce. My two helpers had gone south in search of steady work and some warmth. The house was mine; just me and my temporary heating unit. Northern Illinois can be cold and bleak in winter. That winter was very cold. And there is nothing colder or lonelier than an empty, unheated house on an Illinois January day. I can’t tell you how many times I thought of quitting.

I know Notre Dame tries to instill in us the idea that we never quit. We compete as long as there is time on the clock. And in life we compete as long as we have breath. But this is an easier concept to accept when you are surrounded by 80,000 screaming football fans than it is to accept in an empty house, all alone, on a cold winter’s day. Nevertheless, I trudged on.

I finished the rough carpentry. In quick succession, the plumbing, heating and electric were installed. That was great. I finally had heat. I reinsulated the house. Then the drywall was hung and taped. By this time I was tired, very tired. But things were improving. I wish I could have said the same for the situation at home.

I was now almost two years into my six-month project. To say that the home team was no longer cheering would have been an understatement. “What are you doing down there? We haven’t had a nice weekend in almost two years. Why is it taking so long?” my wife asked.

“I’m just not as fast as I used to be,” was my reply. That answer would have probably kept the situation under control until one of our sons inflamed things by telling his mother, “You know how much Dad loves to read. I think he’s going down there and just reading all day.”

But then, even though I was exhausted and not looking forward to the hard work needed to complete the job, I started to think of the people who would eventually live in the house. What kind of people would they be? Would they have children? Would they enjoy their new home?

One Saturday, as Christmas was approaching, my thoughts turned to the Holy Family. They needed shelter at this time of year. I wondered: If the Holy Family showed up on the front porch seeking shelter, would this house be good enough for them? Would I be proud enough to offer it to them?

I considered this idea for some time. And from that reflection, it was a small step for me to decide I would finish this house so perfectly that it would be good enough for the Holy Family.

I don’t know where this idea came from. Perhaps it was from my parochial education. Maybe it came from some medieval book about guilds I might have read. Or maybe it was just pure inspiration. I don’t know. Whatever the source, it changed my outlook about the project. I was no longer remodeling a house for a few extra dollars. I was building a house where the Holy Family could stay.

This was something special. I was excited again. My energy returned twofold. I became detail-oriented. Everything had to be perfect. So while my energy increased, the pace of the job slowed. But the end was in sight. And the house was going to be perfect.

From then on the project flowed. I installed the trim and insulated the attic. The painting moved along smoothly. I did need some help hanging the kitchen cabinets and the exterior doors. I even took vacation time from my regular job to speed things up. This allowed me to install the kitchen and bath tile, and to complete the front porch and the rear deck. When I finished painting the outside trim, it was time to have the carpet installed. After that I felt that the house was as perfect as I could make it.

Two weeks after I listed the house with a local real estate broker, I accepted a sales contract on it. Three weeks later, the house was no longer mine. Financially the rehab was somewhat of a success. I was able to pay all the costs and still put some money in the bank. However, to this day I have not had the courage to figure my hourly rate for the project. The couple who purchased the home had one son. I saw him later when I drove past the house. He was outside polishing his motorcycle.

The house had been full of surprises. It had no insulation, needed a new electrical system, had experienced a fire and was wrapped in asbestos. The time and skill needed to complete the rehab work was beyond anything I could have imagined.

But the biggest surprise of all was realizing how much more I achieved when I forgot about myself and decided to concentrate on helping people in need. And that was a good surprise.

Jim Lynch is a freelance writer who resides in Frankfort, Illinois.