This Old House–Updated with Lance’s House!

Today’s finally a nice spring day, temps in the mid 50s, and I’m in the mood to start working on the house and yard. I have a lot I hope to do this year, but then that’s been the case for the past couple of years, too.

Here’s a picture. Ain’t it nice?


I do need to finish putting lattice on the bottom, but to do that the steps have to come off, and the stringers are old so I’ll probably end up just rebuilding those, and I’ll probably put a concrete pad under them, which will also solve the problem of the sidewalk stopping about three inches short of reaching the steps.

Look at the fish-scaling above the porch. Looks nice, doesn’t it?  Below you can see what it looked like at the beginning of last summer.


This picture gives you a good idea of the color scheme: white with two tones of grey for the trim.  That’s a travesty for a Victorian, and the place looked like a haunted house. Looking at it when I pulled into the driveway after work was invariably depressing–it was cold and dull, and looked like a place I didn’t want to come home to. Even the pink and purple that it was before the grey/grey/white would have been better, if a bit overdone.  The new color scheme was chosen by my lovely spouse, and while I never would have settled on that kind of scheme myself, I love it, and now when I pull into the driveway I feel good about coming home.  It’s also been nice, as we’ve been working on it, to have people stop while they’re walking or driving by to complement it.

But as can be seen below, we still have a corner of the house to finish, and reaching all the area of that tower to scrape and paint isn’t going to be easy. We’ll probably rent some scaffolding for that. The back side of that section of the house also has to be finished, but it only goes as high as the  top of the windows on this side, without a dormer, so it’s much easier. We also have to replace a few pieces of siding here and there, but that won’t be too big an issue.   DSC_0141

DSC_0074DSC_0071 But the back corner of that tower, just in front of that diamond window (which, by the way, has small squares of red, yellow, and green glass surrounding it, like the small squares in the dormer window, which also are colored), was rotten at the base, and we had to get that fixed last year, as you can see in the following pictures. I wasn’t surprised, because the eavestroughs had been put on very stupidly in that section, so that the one end was away from the edge of the house and attached to the outside of the corner of the tower, allowing water to pour down behind it. Somebody’s idiocy cost me a few hundred bucks there.

DSC_0138[1]As a bonus, here’s a picture of that diamond window. The wall around it is in the process of being redone, too, as it had an old peeling wallpaper on it and some areas of crumbling plaster, and is discolored from water leaking in due to ice dams in the past. The window’s not really warped, that’s just the angle of the photograph.  Oh, and that china cabinet in the background, that’s getting painted white. There’s no end of stuff to do when you buy a house that’s 140 years old and has never been fully renovated.

DSC_0137 Now to the backyard, which you can see here. This being an old neighborhood, our lot is narrow. There’s barely room to squeeze between our house and the one to our right (both of which, along with the house on the other side of that neighbor, were built by the guy the street is named after), and our driveway actually cuts a small portion of the other neighbor’s property.  But the lot is deep. That white structure, my grape arbor, is 125 feet from the house. The trees on the right are on the south side of the property, so there’s too much shade for my grapes, and I have plans to turn the arbor into my own  possum lodge, where I can drink a beer and recite the man’s prayer (“Oh, Lord, “I’m a man, but I can change, if I have to, I guess”).

My yard has several trouble spots. Along the right side for quite a ways in there is a lot of gravel in the soil. It appears someone once had a driveway that stretched for 70 feet into the yard. Nothing but weeds grows there, so I’ve been cleaning up sections of that. That is, I cleaned up one section, started on another, built a bike shed over a third, am planning a pad for my utility trailer over yet another, and that will leave me with just the unfinished section and an 8 foot section between the driveway and trailer pad to finish.  I actually built a big sifter–a frame of 2×4 lumber with screen material on it, to sift out the gravel. It works, but it’s very labor intensive.


In the picture to the right, the foreground is the one area I completed. The grass grows well there now. But that concrete pad you see, that’s been a puzzler. The lady who lived here before us poured it so her kids would have a place to bounce a basketball, and she made it 4 inches thick. And it’s sunk on the south and east sides. The smart thing might be to break it up and haul it out, but I haven’t wanted to do that labor. So I decided to build a screen room on top of it, so we can sit outside and be safe from the mosquitoes. I’ve puzzled all winter over what to do for a foundation, but now I’ve decided to just lay pressure treated 4x4s and build on top of them. It will just be a wood frame with aluminum window screen stapled to it, nothing fancy, just functional. Then we’ll put sand on the floor and lay some brick to level it out. I’m hoping to find a source of used brick, because I want this to be a low-cost project. They just tore down an old brick hardware store in my mom’s little farm town, and I’m hoping maybe I can get hold of some of that. In our bike shed (not seen in the picture), a simple 3 sided structure with no constructed floor, we laid brick that was laying around my mom’s yard when she bought her house–she was glad to see it go.)

So those are my summer outdoor plans. Anyone who likes physical labor is welcome to come help out. I pay in brats and beer and good companionship.

Update: Lance’s House
As promised, here’s a picture of Lance’s house. As he told me the story, it was originally a one-story house, and he literally cut the roof off, lifted it up with a crane, built a second story, then re-attached the roof. Pretty damned ambitious. And it looks great. I like a house with a nice porch and lots of plants growing around it.
Lance's-house2 001

About James Hanley

James Hanley is former Associate Professor of Political Science at Adrian College and currently an independent scholar.
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31 Responses to This Old House–Updated with Lance’s House!

  1. Dr X says:

    Oh my gosh, what a gorgeous house! Let the work continue. You’ve got a gem there.

  2. lancifer666 says:


    I wonder how I have known you this long and have never seen pictures of your home. It is quite lovely and approximately of the same style and era as ours (1880-1890).

    So those are my summer outdoor plans. Anyone who likes physical labor is welcome to come help out. I pay in brats and beer and good companionship.

    Maybe we can work something out.

    I’m just finishing the inside of mine and will have to re-side most of the outside after buying $6,000 of defective yellow pine siding twelve years ago for my second story addition. It has warped and split and generally self-destructed. (While the 130 year old, first story yellow pine drop-siding is almost all in good to perfect condition!)

    The lumber company has promised to “work with me” after coming out and seeing the problem. So far “working with me” has been offering me wholesale price for new siding. That is not going to fly. I may have to take them to small claims court if they don’t at least agree to cover part of the actual cost of the new siding. I’m being damn nice not going after any of the labor costs.

    What still need to be done to yours? I am serious about swapping labor and I am an experienced professional contractor that specializes in older Victorian homes. (And I like beer and brats, as you have observed in person.)

    I’ll try to post a couple shots of my Victorian if I can figure out how to do so.

  3. lancifer666 says:

    Oh, and I like your (uh, Johanna’s) color scheme. The old grey and white was ghastly. I hate it when people, that have no business owning Victorian homes, paint them grey, white or beige (or the despicably ambiguous grey-iege.)

    Owning a classic Victorian is like managing a wildlife refuge. If you don’t know WTF your are doing, or aren’t willing to learn, you shouldn’t even be allowed to close on the property. Because you can be the reason that something goes extinct.

    Losing a beautiful old home is like losing a species of rare egret in my book.

  4. James Hanley says:


    My time is probably more flexible than yours in the summer. I’d be happy to trade labor. There’s actually lots to do on the house, including some fairly major interior renovation and rewiring. But for this summer, my primary construction jobs are replacing a few pieces of siding, pulling off a not too large section of siding, insulating under it, and putting the wood back on, and building the screen house. Let’s talk, because while I’m reasonably handy, I can always use someone with more knowledge of technique. (And I’m still boggled that you actually cut the roof off your house and added a second story under it.)

  5. James Hanley says:

    Lance, I don’t know if you can post images in the comments, but you can email me pics and I’ll post them.

  6. lancifer666 says:

    When you’re building your own Possum Lodge don’t forget to use plenty of the “handyman’s secret weapon” duct tape.

    My personal favorite “Handyman’s Corner” segment of the Red Green Show was when Red made a bicycle from a junked Chevette and a roll of duct tape.

  7. lancifer666 says:

    I’ll email you a couple of pictures tomorrow. One taken shortly after I added the second story and a more recent one with the deteriorated siding.

    Kidist was just asking me if I had talked to you guys recently. I could definitely help you with the siding project and the “screen house” in less than a week.

    I have some suggestions for the foundation. If you are going to spend the time and effort (and money) on the structure it probably makes sense to get the foundation right. A backhoe only costs around $200 a day (depending on local rental rates and if you have a rental place close enough to shlep the thing a few miles so you don’t have to pay the $100-150 delivery fee). A backhoe could tear out the old sunken concrete pad and dig footers for the new one in less than a day. (I am very experienced with one and you could play with it yourself, with the proper supervision, safely away from your house, neighbor’s house, car, wife, children, dog, buried utilities, septic tank, power lines, thoroughfares, schools, hospitals, orphanages…)

    There are mini-backhoes (sometimes called Terramites) that go for around $150 a day but they are toys compared to the real thing.

    And you haven’t truly experienced Man’s dominion over the planet until you have been at the controls of a large piece of diesel powered, heavy equipment.

    Hydraulics are the next best thing to being a super hero. Backhoes are awesome tools. I keep looking for an excuse to buy a used one instead of always renting one.

    We’ll talk more later.

  8. Troublesome Frog says:

    My experience with renting equipment like backhoes is that could potentially pull a Tom Sawyer and get your neighbors to pay the rental fee by charging them to try it out in your yard.

  9. James Hanley says:

    I think that ends up being more than I want, and kind of undermines the idea of reusing what’s already there. There’s a sort of mingling of environmentalism, Swiss Mennonite frugality, love of simplicity and the pleasure of making a problem into the opportunity all rolling around together in my mind. My real question is whether pressure-treated 4x4s are sufficient or whether I should use 6x6s. I was thinking of coating the bottom sides with roofing tar to extend their life (I’ve got most of a gallon sitting around looking for a use).

  10. AMW says:

    It looks lovely, James!

    Living in Southern California I have to make due with a nondescript mid-50’s one-story ranch house. The compensating differential is that Winter is like a second Spring around here.

  11. James Hanley says:

    “The cold though, doesn’t it split the Cheechakos from the Sourdoughs?”

    I should note, though, that we’re in a very middle-middle to lower-middle class neighborhood. I’d say our house is the 2nd or 3rd neatest in our neighborhood. I wouldn’t want anyone to get the impression we live in a neighborhood full of beautiful old Victorians (although that would be nice).

  12. James Hanley says:

    By the way, a point of interest on this house. If you look at he fancy scrollwork in the peaks, and the carved columns on the porch, that’s all handcrafted, and when you get up real close you can tell by the irregularities. The scrollwork, for example, isn’t quite symmetrical left-right, and some fluting at the base of the columns varies a bit on each one (which is good, actually, since we have to recreate it on the corner post, where we had to cut off and replace the bottom due to rot–you can see the unpainted replacement base in the picture).

  13. lancifer666 says:


    For what you’re talking about 4 X 4’s will be more than sufficient. I build screened porches with very substantial roof structures with 4 X 4’s all the time. Unless you are building an upper deck onto the thing 4 X 4’s will be plenty strong enough.

    Also I don’t think coating the bottom with roofing cement is really doing anything useful, especially if you are pouring concrete into the holes first to set the 4 X 4’s. If you are just putting them in the soil it may give some additional protections, but probably not much. And I would not recommend putting them just in the soil if you are going to screen them later. They will invariably shift causing puckering or ripping of the screen. They may do this as well even if you set them in concrete but to a lesser degree.

    As to the foundation, in my experience people often later regret not providing a decent foundation for such projects. It’s very disheartening to spend hundreds of dollars and tens of hour on a project only to see the base of it sink into the ground, tilt all over the place or generally deteriorate.

    Also I frequently see people spend more time and money in the long run by “cheaping out” in the beginning.

    But you know your budget and goals better than I do.

  14. James Hanley says:

    I hadn’t thought about the screen buckling and tearing. I wouldn’t care if the frame of the structure got a bit whopperjawed (as my mom would say), but messing up the screen would defeat the purpose of it.

    So I guess I’m back to the question of whether I (1) pour an actual foundation, (2) put in some piers and lay a beam across them, or (3) just sink some 12 foot posts set in concrete. I really want the lowest cost and easiest solution that will work. And I really don’t want to spend money ripping out the concrete pad that’s already there–I’d rather just build around it.

  15. lancifer666 says:

    So long as the posts are anchored in concrete to a depth of two feet the posts won’t move much laterally. Using a large size post hole digger you can make holes that are 8 to 10 inches in diameter so that you can put a fair amount of concrete in to hold the posts.

    Once the structure is tied to the roof and horizontal 2 X 4’s it probably won’t flex much. The only real problem is if they sink into the ground at different rates. This is where a footer that spreads the load is superior to posts in concrete filled holes.

    Are you considering a hip or gabled roof style?

  16. James Hanley says:

    I’m still undecided on the roof. I’ve considered just doing a flat pitched roof, because it’s easiest, but I’ve considered doing a gabled roof because it would look better. A hip roof is the best looking, at least to me, but I don’t know how to do it and don’t know how the cost compares to a gabled roof. Plus, the area is only about, iirc, 17′ x 12′, and I don’t know if a hip roof would look right on a structure that size? (Heck, I’ve only recently decided that we actually want a solid roof, and not just a screened in roof as well–but Johanna wants shade, and I want to be able to sit out there when it’s raining, so a solid roof it will be, and roofing, at least, is something I’m reasonably experienced with.)

  17. lancifer666 says:

    A flat roof is the easiest but very ugly and leak prone. This is a structure you are going to see every time you look in your back yard so I’d recommend a gabled roof which is actually easier and cheaper to build than a hip roof.

    You can also screen the gables so it gives it a much more open and transcendent feeling than a hip or flat roof.

    I often put a fanned pattern of radiating two by fours in the gable to give it some flair. And on screened porches attached to Victorians I sometimes put decorative accents in the peaks and in the corners.

    You could add those later if you like and they come pre-made at Menard’s and Lowe’s for reasonable prices.

    Have you thought about just building it attached to the back of your house? It would be one fourth less screen and much more stable attached to the back of your house. It’s not any more money, except for the foundation, which would have to have footers to the frost line, which is 3ft here in Indiana but is probably deeper in Michigan.

    Here I am getting more excited about working on your house than mine! (Don’t tell Kidist.)

  18. James Hanley says:

    It wouldn’t work well attached to our house, although I’d love to do that. The back of our house already has a three-season room attached to it (our laundry room), and the rest of the back has a large silver maple tree and a pond. You’ll see when you come up, or maybe I’ll send you some pics so you know what we’re dealing with.

    I like the idea of a gabled roof, and I like the idea of having someone teach me how to figure out the angles I need to cut on my rafters. I hadn’t thought about the idea of a fanned pattern in the gable, but I always like that look and it would be pretty sweet to have.

    This is a structure you are going to see every time you look in your back yard
    Heh, look at the picture of my back yard again. Two play structures, a grape arbor that grapes won’t grow on well enough to cover, a standard shed, and in addition there’s a 3-walled/flat-roofed bike shed.

  19. lumbercartel says:

    Ah, old houses. Just bought one in NM that was first renovated in 1897 (no records before that, and old adobes are … interesting.) $HERSELF is about to head over for another spring of fixups — such as the Furnace From Hell (that flames out. Which wouldn’t be so bad if restarting it and changing the frickin’ filter didn’t involve climbing to the roof, through a hatch, and through a tunnel to get to it) which is going to be replaced by a ground-level unit. Along with upgrading the electricals to maybe the 1960s. That “everything else” circuit has got to go! And braving to restore the wood floor under the Carpet from R’lyeh.

    And no, she’s not for hire. Neener, neener!

    However, she has a tip for you on the gravel screen. She uses hers for compost sifting, and it’s basically a drum made from shot bicycle wheels (shops give ’em to us for free, the spoke holes are gone). Make a screen cylinder out with the rims at each end and around the middle, then use furniture casters to support the cylinder on a frame so that it turns easily. Tilt the frame, shovel in crud, and keep the wheel turning. If you’re lazy you can use a motor and a belt. Fine stuff sifts out the bottom under the frame, coarse stuff makes it to the far end and drops in a separate pile.

    We’re not bothering to sift soil here in Arizona — not really worth it, there’s not that much rock in the wind-borne aluvial soil here. In the Rio Grande valley, on the other hand, there is a LOT of river rock mixed in. As in, dig a basement and you can get enough rock to make fences for an acre lot. Although for that I might rent a sifter, we’ll see. No basement on the old place, but if we build anything it’ll be a different story.

    Last point: along with scaffolding, get a harness (cheap enough) and some safety line to rig to the top of that tower. I do some tower climbing in nasty conditions, and my trainer is a fanatic on that kind of thing. It’s not all that expensive to be a whole heaping lot safer.

  20. James Hanley says:

    Got the safety harness. Bought it a couple years ago when I cut down a tree for my mom. But I really like the bike wheel idea. My 1 1/2 x 3′ wood frame works, but it’s a bit awkward. Tell herself thanks for the tip–I can’t ask my kids to shake the wood frame, but I can have them spin a wheel.

  21. lancifer666 says:


    I imagine that adobe era technology is a whole different animal than 1880’s northern frame home technology.

    I am intrigued by the “tunnel”.

  22. lumbercartel says:

    The “tunnel” is just a crawl space that runs across the joists of a newer pitched roof (over what was once a back porch and an added bath) to what was once the back wall, through a gap in that wall and onto the joists of the new pitched roof on top of what was previously a flat roof, where the furnace is sited with a work space.

    My knees hurt just thinking about crawling through there and contorting myself to go the gap in the wall (which isn’t aligned with the crawl, and is over drywall without a load-bearing surface.) And I’m not all that old yet. It’s only going to be getting worse.

  23. lancifer666 says:

    And I’m not all that old yet. It’s only going to be getting worse.

    My 130 year old house is built over a crawl space that is about 15″ tall at the deepest point. In many places there is no room to crawl under the ducts of the HVAC system.

    I feel like a WWII allied prisoner of war tunneling to freedom every time I have to “go under”. I emerge covered in old smelly dirt that hasn’t seen the sun since 1878. I have a dedicated “crawl space suit” that I wear (an old set of coveralls) when I am condemned to go under. I hose it off before tossing it in the washer.

    I dread it more each time. It is a subterranean obstacle course that gets more challenging as I get older and stiffer.

  24. James Hanley says:

    That’s awesome (as well as awesomely bad). I love old houses, and those types of oddities fascinate me.

    They’re hell to work with, though (obviously). My plumbing union is beside the basement steps, in a space that’s about 3′ x 3′, and working in there when I replaced the cast iron was not pleasant. And the access to the crawl space under my bedroom is a little hole knocked in the basement wall by the steps, where I had to lay half-in/half-out to replace the drainpipe from the bathroom sink. And I want to insulate the walls in that crawlspace, and the floor of my bedroom, but it’s so low that where the drain for the washing machine runs–directly along the line of and underneath a floor joist–I can’t fit through. So I’ll either have to pull up the floor or cut out and replace the drain.

    Still, I’ve got nothing like your tunnel. That’s a winner in the crazy old house sweepstakes.

    Edit: I have another crawl space that is about 2′ high, but is about 4′ above the floor of the basement, and behind the heater and water heater, so it’s hard to get into. And the house used to have coal heat, so there’s lots of coal dust in the first part of the crawl space. Like Lance, I have an old pair of overalls I use there, and only there–should get real coveralls probably.

  25. lumbercartel says:

    There comes a time when it makes sense to bite the bullet and pay someone younger and more limber to go under the house and move dirt to make things maintainable. I would have done that already except some of the floors are in bad enough shape that we’ve gotten what we need to by pulling up sections of flooring.
    I’m pretty sure that won’t work much longer. That electrical wiring is going to be loads of fun; fortunately, I can afford to pay the aforementioned “younger and more limber” individual to do much of it for me. That, and time things so that the floor repairs will be timed to keep the ugly to a minimum.

  26. lumbercartel says:

    The good news is that the furnace-over-the-house arrangement is on borrowed time. It’s coming down. At least it can come down — plumbing has nowhere to go but under.

  27. Update: we found about 2/3 of the current house (complete with pitched roof — probably tin) in an 1885 drawing of the town: (warning: the image if honking enormous.) Start with the railroad on the left, follow Grant to the right until it runs into Fisher (sometimes spelled with an H); on the right hand side of Fisher right where the street is labelled there are two houses, the upper one being a simple rectangle and the lower being T-shaped.

    The upper one is mine, although the porch has been enclosed and (honking huge) bath/laundry/utility room added at the rear. Otherwise both houses look much the same as 128 years ago.

  28. James Hanley says:

    That’s very cool, D.C. I might boast that my house is even older, but then I don’t have a cool old map to show.

    In the Library of Congress there is a collection of old maps made for fire insurance purposes, which would also plot our houses. I’d love a copy of one of those.

  29. lancifer666 says:

    I estimate the age of my home as 125 – 130 years but have no documentation to prove it. I went down to the county courthouse to search for the original deed but gave up after an hour or so.

    The county workers were less than helpful and I wasn’t allowed to go back into the records room to search the actual paper records but had to navigate the computerized copy system which was very poorly organized and even more poorly designed.

    I used to work for a title insurance company (Lawyer’s Title) as an “abstracter’ when I went to college, so I know how to search the actual records but the damn computer system of our county is confounding me.

    I plan on making an appointment with some clerk or other to assist me next time.

  30. lumbercartel says:

    In the Library of Congress there is a collection of old maps made for fire insurance purposes, which would also plot our houses. I’d love a copy of one of those.

    The Sanford maps? They’re available online, prices vary depending on size. They look good but the ones for New Mexico don’t include my property. The house could be quite a bit older than 1885, but we at least have a bound on the age. The most interesting thing is that it was very much more like today than we thought.

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