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Fixer-Upper Causes Big Chain Reaction

<i> Zamorano is a bilingual teacher in elementary education. </i>

In the spring of 1989, Barry Rein, my soon-to-be husband, and I started hunting in the Pasadena area for a house. We thought we would capitalize on his capacity for fiddling with things and fixing them. He is an electrical engineer, and he and his father had once re-roofed a house themselves, so we decided we could tackle a fixer-upper. If there was an additional unit or two on the property to help us with the payments, that would be dandy too.

For weeks we traipsed through shabby duplexes and bootleg triplexes. We walked entranced through beautifully restored homes complete with guest houses and unattainable price tags. At last we found what we thought we wanted: a 70-year-old home, three bedrooms, two baths, with an unattached three-bedroom, two-bath behind it.

I saw the molding around the windows and doors and fell in love with all the potential charm. Barry attended the preliminary inspection and decided he could do the necessary repairs. It wasn’t until after we were married that I realized he’s a man who simply can’t resist a challenge.

After the wedding in November of ’89 we moved in and had a closer look. Living the happily-ever-after dream, it was easy to ignore the gaping cracks in the lath and plaster, the nicks in the woodwork, the aluminum-framed windows, the black hole of a walk-through closet which devoured our clothes, even the mud-colored carpeting.

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No amount of bliss, however, made me oblivious to the 10-yard dash that was necessary from our bedroom through the front room, through the dining area, then into the main bathroom. Nor the unappetizing view of the toilet from the kitchen as I cooked. Even with the door closed it bothered me.

We made a tentative list of all necessary repairs and decided to tackle the bathroom first. We had no idea then how much of a Chinese puzzle the house would be, unable to remove one piece without jiggling three or four others loose first.

Before we sealed off the offending doorway, we would, of course, have to open another one, this time leading into a bedroom. Barry scowled at the bedroom’s square footage of exposed lath and decided both bedrooms’ walls would have to be torn down. When he poked his head through the flimsy drop ceilings he realized the walls continued up another two feet.

He and his father, Max, tore down the false ceilings and the walls of the projected master bedroom and opened up a doorway into the bathroom. Laborers tore down the rest, and used the carpet to haul away the debris, leaving a dirty, half-refinished hardwood floor underneath. We were now living out of the front room and using the 3/4 bath at the end of the house.

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We inspected the removed molding, baseboard and plinth blocks, my symbols of old-house charm, my reason for buying the house. It had all been painted a dozen times and was badly gouged everywhere. We threw it all out.

Since those same laborers were going to dry wall the three rooms, Barry and Max quickly built and installed frames for new bedroom closets. We ordered closet doors, bedroom doors and a bathroom door, all prehung for easier installation. We had still not gotten to the bedroom.

Meanwhile, one night I ran the microwave oven. When every light went out we realized how much of the house was on a single circuit breaker. After a look in the crawl space beneath, Barry said the wiring belonged in a museum, and complete rewiring was the only solution. He went to the library, studied the electrical code, bought supplies, and got an electrical permit. The wiring had to be done before the walls went up. The bathroom waited.

The wiring done, the walls up, a doorway installed, and the offending door at last walled over, Barry could devote his energy to the original project. He decided to rip up the bathroom floor to replumb. Then he checked the plumbing code on sewers, and for a couple of weeks we had a pleasant view of joists, girders, and the earth below. Barry replaced the bathroom floor, covered it with sheet-vinyl, installed the vanity, mirrors, sinks, fixtures, lights, and crown molding. I painted.

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By this point, the bathroom was the most beautiful room in the house. And all those jiggled pieces of the puzzle, the unfinished floors, the gaps where molding and baseboard had once been, the bare dry wall, were driving me mad. Progress hinged on the windows, and our biggest mistake was not ordering the windows earlier, and, when we did, ordering the inexpensive sashes. Had we ordered the pre-framed windows it would have saved Barry weekends of work. Once Barry installed the frames and windows we surrounded them with molding and plinth blocks built on our table saw. The pieces of the puzzle had almost come together again.

Barry, however, had become passionate about turning the opening between the front room and dining area into an archway. But first the cracks in the front room ceiling had to go. He wanted to tear it down and start all over again. No more plaster dust and horse hairs! I shouted.

He climbed a step ladder, chiseled away to widen the cracks, and slowly patched one eighth of the ceiling. After a week of this, disgusted at himself for listening to me, he got a couple of engineer buddies, Marco and Alejandro, to help him dry-wall over it. Then he tackled the arch. Once again the requisite visits to the library. He dry-walled over the lath and plaster, constructed an arch, and was able to match the texture of the original walls simply by splattering on dry-wall mud and knocking it down with a broad knife. We painted.

Relieved to see the scattered pieces at last turning into a recognizable shape, we left refinishing the hardwood floors for a future generation, and ordered carpeting. It was installed in March of this year, and living here has been virtual bliss since.

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We’re taking a breather now. After four rooms, and two closets, Barry now knows that if he’s going to install something he should order it pre-framed, or pre-hung. I’ve picked up the technical jargon, and could walk into any home improvement store with confidence. Everyone says planning, planning, planning, is essential, but so much depends on the quirky nature of the house. My advice is, Be flexible! We are still married, after all. I think what I’ve really learned, though, is why people buy new homes.

Now on the weekends we go window shopping and throw dinner parties, like normal young couples. Except the design of the kitchen is driving me crazy. There’s no counter space, no room. But before we can start on the kitchen we’re going to have to raise the roof. . . .


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