Tuesday, March 28, 2006


As you can see, we currently have an awning over our front door. It comes in quite handy when it's raining or snowing and you are fumbling for your keys or carrying packages etc... We've never really loved this awning aesthetically however- it's aluminum and we don't feel it enhances the building.

One of the things I'm really excited about doing as part of our 2nd floor project is getting rid of that panel over the awning- the one that matches the front door- see it there?

We are putting in French doors with a wrought iron railing there bringing it back closer to it's original state. Because we will have doors that can open there and possibly tenants living up there, Steve is worried about the doors being left open and water getting in and damaging the floors etc...

This brought us to the issue of awnings for the 2nd floor. Steve set up a meeting with Chesterfield Awnings. We are thinking about replacing our metal awning and getting a new one for the 2nd floor- both made of cloth.

We like the Georgian pattern edge on this one. The sales rep said in our case either you would try and match the building's exterior with a red or brown tone or go for contrast. I think we are leaning toward matching the building.

I like the white edging on this one too. All you bungalow people out there, I see they put these awnings on many bungalows on their website.

We were told that typically cloth awnings last about 7-10 years. They aren't cheap, but they look very nice I think.

I am very excited about this part of the project because I think this will make our building look much nicer. There's something so welcoming about an awning.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Hope "Springs" eternal

The first flowers of the year- tiny crocus came out today bringing hope of more good things to come.

Working within the system

Recently M of Another Chicago 2-flat asked:

I'm curious as to what you're running into as far as requirements to bring things up to code. It sounds like you're being told you need to bring plumbing up to code if you touch it at all(?). But with electrical it is only the service and presumably the the areas you are actually working on?

The answer is that yes, if we touch the plumbing at all in this project, we will have to bring it to code, which means adding the booster pump and replacing all the 3/4" water lines with 1". The reason this came up is because we had been considering replacing the bathroom stack (drain) and the bathtub and sink connections to this drain. At that point we were told, we'd have to update it all and that this would maybe even require new water service to the building, which would be extremely costly since the water line is across the street.

It's pretty sad that they make it so you can't do ANY improvement to the plumbing unless you can afford to do it ALL. We figure that if in a few years time we have plumbing issues, we are prepared to open up a few walls and fix it then. We've been through worse- one open wall is nothing to us.

Regarding the electrical, we've been told by a few Electrical Contractors that if we are not touching the first floor in this project (we aren't) that the inspector won't require us to update anything inside the unit. But, since we are touching the panels and service, the service to the building has to be updated if neccesary. We were worried about our basement because it's semi-finished and somewhat hodge-podge. We are certain there is flexible conduit down there etc...
But they told us that unless there was something really alarming(and there isn't), the inspectors would leave that be.

One of the guys we talked with said we should put in the panel for the 2nd floor in pre-permit so then it would be considered existing and the permit would just include rewiring the 2nd floor to an existing panel. Otherwise, we would be forced to upgrade the service coming into the building, which would then open up inspection to the first floor. It's all sooooo complicated.

It's kind of like politics in a way.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Which is more scary?

I was thinking about something this week in terms of remodeling projects. Which is more scary? Hiring other people to do the work or taking on projects yourself? Personally, I find doing the work ourselves less scary. I know myself. I know Steve. I know how we work and that we will finish a job and do top quality work albeit at a slower pace, but the results will be good.

Oh, there's been the occasional nervousness of maybe we bit off more than we can chew. Or grumpiness from being tired and overworked. But it doesn't compare to the stress of dealing with contractors and getting quotes. Now if we bite off more than we can chew, we might have to eat mac-n-cheese for a year or wear socks with holes or something.

One contractor tells us we need to upgrade the electrical service to the building because it's only 100 amps. The next one we meet with says if 100 amps comes into the building, that means that each floor can have 100 amps maximum. Which is true? We called Comed and they can't even verify how much power we have. All they have on record is the 30 amps the building originally had. So, we need to meet with more electrical contractors.

Great Lakes Structural came over to discuss the beams etc... I won't give myself a heart attack talking about that meeting. We have a structural engineer coming this week to give us the low-down and maybe I'll post about it then.

My job now is to write up a contract and lien waiver for all the workers to sign. That way if they don't get paid by the main contractor, they can't come after us. blech. We don't have to do this when we are the workers...

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Things we can do ourselves (and that we have time for)

In my last post, I spoke about the scary quotes we've been getting. I really appreciated the input and support we received from a number of you -you know who you are!

Rest assured, we are preparing for battle (Thanks Greg) and we are going to perservere until we find a way to get this project done cost-effectively and without sacrificing quality. Put bluntly, we don't want cheap shoddy work. We may move up there and it needs to be of the best quality we can afford. And besides, if this project goes over-budget it cuts directly into the engagement ring fund. I'm sure you can imagine how fiercely I'd be guarding those reserves.

What can we do to help cut costs if we can't do the bulk of the work ourselves due to time constraints? Well, we are already being our own independant contractors and getting our own permits. Steve is the man on this job since he works for himself and has more flexibility than I do.

But what else can we do?

We came up with a few things that we can do to cut costs. Some of the ideas we got from newspaper and magazine articles. Feel free to throw in your own- we can use all the help we can get at this point.

1. Painting.
2. Removing the wood trim and the nails before giving to stripper guy.
3. Sanding and finishing the wood.
4. Doing the job cleanup every day will save $3000 in labor costs for a 2-month project.
5. Stripping the door and window jambs and window sills.
6. Tiling the kitchen backsplash and Bathroom.
7. Buying and managing delivery of all materials, supplies and finishes.

So as you can see, we'll have plenty to do in the 2 months the project is going on.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Please sir, might I have some more....??

Steve & Jocelyn said meekly : "Please, sir, can we please have some more hair-raising work that needs to be done before undertaking the 2nd floor project?"

That's how it's been this week. I've had a little pit of anxiety in my stomach about this BIG project and managing the costs.

We realized that we need to address something before we renovate the upstairs. It can be done of course, but it will cost some money and since we have a finite amount, I tend to worry about running out. The posts attached to the overhead beam(seen left), which support the load bearing walls in our building are rotting and over the years the center of the building has dropped around 3/4".

We need to address this structural issue before drywalling etc... because when you lift a house, the walls can crack and things you don't want moving (like pipes) can move as a result of the lift.

Steve spoke with a company that specializes in repairing structural problems over the phone and we got two options. The ultimate fix would be to remove the wooden posts and beam, raise the building, and replace them with a steel beam and posts. That would cost a mere $11K. The second option would be to remove the rotting posts, lift the building, and replace them with new wooden posts only. That would cost about $4300.00. We asked him how long the wooden post solution would last and he said our lifetime. We are not planning to go for the steel beams. I don't think I need to explain why.

Interestingly though, Steve was watching This Old House this morning and they had a segment on doing this exact replacement project with steel beams and posts. Granted the episode might have been a few years old, but on the show the price tag for steel replacement was only $2000.00. We don't know what to think now. We have to get some more quotes I guess.

In addition to this issue, we discovered that the power coming into the building is only 100 amps and by today's standards, we need 200 amps. Added cost: $3000K.

Then yesterday, we met with a plumber (the fun just never stops) and he presented to us a number of upgrades that would need to be done to reach code requirements for a multi-unit building: Replace the hot/cold piping with 1" (current 3/4" and they are only about 3 years old), install booster pump (helps water pressure to 2nd floor), replace bathroom stack (drain) and connections, and add a dedicated drain for the d/w. Estimated cost $9K-$12K. I've decided I hate City of Chicago building codes.

We asked the guy for a written quote and he said that he would not provide a quote until we hired him, which Steve thought was ridiculous. How can we compare quotes without having one?
So yesterday, we literally spent all day with an excel spreadsheet and going over quotes and budget crunching numbers to come up with decisions for this project. We just can't do everything that could be done on the building at this time. We're doing alot, but we can't do it all! And, I want to make sure we have some money left for our apartment for the den remodel and the floors to be refinished. One thing we had to cut was the rooftop heating/cooling system. But we figure later on we can go with Unico and we love our radiators anyway. We are also holding off on touching plumbing. We will deal with opening a few walls if we have to in the next few years. Blood from a turnip- say no more.

It was painful, but we came to some decisions yesterday. This is probably the most angst I've had since I last conducted a job search a few years ago. During the meeting with the plumber I felt like hyperventilating but I kept myself under control. I have to admit that dealing with this project has made me a tad short tempered, which I don't really like but kind of can't help.
But, the good news is: Steve and I mostly agree about what is most important and what we want to do now and we have a budget that we can live with.

Today, we're going to look at some projects of one of the guys we are considering hiring. He seems pretty good and we may go with him.

This coming week, we will be hiring an asbestos abatement company to come in and get this stuff out of our basement. It seems some of the support beams have pipes going through them (God knows why) and working with them will disturb the asbestos. It will be a good thing to get this stuff out of the building for good anyway! Some of it kind of crumbly as you can see in the below photos. Scary!

Monday, March 13, 2006

Comparing Quotes- 2nd Floor Project

The moment of truth has come- we have quotes to compare! According to all the experts, you are supposed to get at least 3 quotes for a big job like ours. They also recommend not selecting the least expensive one.

We've met with more companies than that, but we only have 2 quotes so far. These quotes are from people that have been in business for less than 7 years, but have at least 10 years experience. One of the guys is arranging for us to inspect some of his finished work. One is the renovation of an old home maintaining the original trim. The other is new construction. We are most concerned about reusing the trim because as anyone who had drywalled where once there was plaster knows, this is a bit tricky.

We are pretty much serving as our own contractor on this job. Steve and I together make up that contractor. I am responsible for sourcing and purchasing most of the finishes in the apartment: cabinets, lighting, appliances etc... Steve will monitor the job site daily as he works from home. He will also be building a medicine cabinet (he says) and shelving for over the kitchen sink identical to ours.

Next step is to get some trim test stripped by the guy who quoted us $1/per foot. We are going to remove some from the den in our unit and use that since we can't very well remove trim while the tenants are upstairs still. And we are going to Home Depot to have the kitchen cabinet configuation mapped on their computer.

Speaking of the tenants,this morning when I opened the front door, I found a crumpled up piece of paper on the floor. Of course, I picked it up and uncrumpled it to see what it was. Turns out it was the acceptance note we had given to each tenant upstairs stating we accepted their early termination. So, someone is mad- At least it's not me this time!

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Tapestry Tile

As promised, photos of the framed Motawi tile we bought last weekend. It's called Tapestry and it's a nice addition to our dining room.

As far as house projects, we worked on our extremely long to-do list for the 2nd floor project. I feel better now that we have decided to simplify it a bit.

Does anyone else read Old House Journal and moon over the stunning historic homes in the back of the magazine? Some of them are quite a steal compared to Chicago market prices.

Sometimes I think about selling this place someday and buying one of them. Maybe when we retire...

Friday, March 10, 2006

What to do with all that money?

We all wish we had this problem right? Well, maybe sometimes. Steve and I are re-evaluating our plans for the 2nd floor rental unit remodel. Things kind of came to a head this week when we were talking to a heating contractor who said that a $1500 permit was required to block off the street and hoist our proposed roof-top heating and cooling unit onto the roof. Oh, and mechanical drawings are required and the city is VERY stringent about roof-top units because of some unfortunate incidents where units were installed below code and collapsed on some firefighters-very bad. This could cause delays in getting a permit.

Steve mentioned extending the tenant's lease. Yes, he actually did this. I'm sure you can imagine my reaction.

I started thinking that we should step back a bit and simplify our plans. Maybe we'll keep the Cadillac of heating for now (radiant heat) and get a portable a/c for the unit. We have so many other things that need to be done, it just seems unbalanced to put everything into a rental unit.
Cutting out the heating and cooling system will save us a bundle.

So, this weekend we are assessing our plans. We have a few quotes and some more coming so that part is coming along. We found a few guys on Angie's List that seem okay. Of course, we'll check their references etc...

This is by far the biggest project we've worked on. I find it much more manageable when we do the work because it goes slow and doesn't seem as risky as trusting contractors. Isn't that sad in a way? You hear/read so many horror stories, it's quite disconcerting.

We are planning to hang up our beautiful new framed Motawi tile so I'll be sure to post that when we do.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

We've been to the mountain

and we have seen the light!

Actually, we went to the Motawi tile factory in Ann Arbor.

All together now, "we're not worthy!" and again, "we're not worthy!"

Their tile is so beautiful and much more amazing in person. In case you don't know, we put a few of their tiles in our kitchen as accent tile.

Here's a close up of one of the tiles we used. Each one of these 6"x 6" tiles was around $35.00...

but in the back of the store, there is the factory and also a room with much coveted over runs. The over runs are about half price.

We picked up one more like this one to use for the 2nd floor kitchen rental unit. How many rentals have this kind of detail- not many that I've seen. Now if we can just find some nice appreciate folks to move in!

...just imagine doing a whole fireplace. wow.

Here are some shots of the inside of the store/factory. They sell framed tiles with quarter sawn oak frames. I took part of my tax refund and bought one. I just couldn't not.

We were visiting Steve's family in Ann Arbor and made time for a a little excursion. We also found a cool store that sells Edward Curtis photos but these were a bit pricey for us at this point.

Here's another shot of the store...

I bought a Motawi T-shirt. What can I say? I'm a Motawi groupie.

Now all together again, "ahh .....Motawi...."

This is a must visit for arts and crafts lovers anywhere near Ann Arbor.
Handmade beea-utiful tile!