in FS, Home & Garden

Remodeling a Home and the Little Surprises

Luneray’s home-buying adventure is over, but I’d like to continue to share home-ownership stories every Thursday. Fortunately, I’ve got some doozies of my own to share. For the next few weeks, I’ll describe what it’s like to move into an old house.

Two years ago — just before I developed my frugal side — my wife and I bought an old house. It was the place of our dreams: two stories, hardwood floors, lots of windows, gorgeous architectural details, several outbuildings, and three-fifths of an acre. The place wasn’t perfect. It had been occupied by the same family for nearly forty years, and it felt like it. We moved in at the end of June 2004 with a huge list of projects.

We had a few weeks to tackle these before the sale of our existing home closed. With the help of a half dozen friends, we peeled the wallpaper in the dining room, parlor, and den. Upon doing so, we discovered that we could not paint the underlying drywall (which wasn’t actually drywall in many spots). We proceeded to rip off the wallboards, revealing the old ship-lap siding beneath.



We called in drywall contractors, got bids, and scheduled a guy to start as soon as possible. Our $500 painting project had turned into a $5000 drywall project.

“You know,” said W., our drywall contractor. “While you have these walls exposed, you really ought to do some blown insulation. If you do it from the inside, the holes will be covered by the new drywall.”

“That’s a great idea!” we said. “Can you recommend anyone?”

“Sure. Try P. from GCS — he does excellent work.” Coincidentally, a close friend had also recommended P. from GCS. And a consultant from the Energy Trust recommended P. from GCS, too. P. from GCS had a high reputation for quality work.

I called P. from GCS and explained that we had drywall work starting in a couple of weeks — could he come out to give us a bid on insulating our house? He dropped by and toured the house. “This is a beautiful Old Home,” he said. “Let me assure you that we’ll take steps to provide improved insulation while preserving the Old Home’s Historical Integrity.”

“Great,” I said. “When can you start?”

“Right away,” he said. “Let me go back to the office and work up a quote.”

This was a Monday. Tuesday passed with no quote. And Wednesday. And Thursday. On Thursday afternoon I began to fret. I called P. He apologized. He’d been Swamped but would get the quote over right away.

“When can you start?” I asked, worried that he was Swamped.

“Oh, in about two weeks.”

My heart cracked in seventeen places. We felt we needed to have the insulation done before the drywall work started, and that the drywall work had to start on the twelfth. Kris and I went over P.’s price quote and selected a handful of insulation measures. I called P. on Friday morning and told him we’d like to proceed, but that we needed at least the blown insulation part of the job done by Monday the twelfth.

“I’ll see what I can do,” he said.

Friday passed with no word on what he could do. And then Independence Day weekend came and went. On Tuesday, I was in a panic.


I called P. again. “Oh, we’ll have a crew out there Thursday,” he said. But on Thursday, P. called me early in the morning. “The crew ran late yesterday. They may not get a chance to start on your house today.” Despite P.’s concern, the crew did start on Thursday. When I pulled up to the house after work, they were loading the van to leave. I could tell right away something was wrong.

“Are you the owner?” asked a young man, tattooed and sweaty. “We have a bit of a Problem,” he said. He led me into the house, through the kitchen, to the dining room. He pointed at the wainscoting. The beautiful wainscoting, the focal point of the dining room, sported nineteen two-inch diameter holes evenly spaced around the perimeter of the room.



Inside, my heart shattered. Outside, I grinned feebly and said, “Wow. P. told me that you wouldn’t touch the wainscoting.”

The young man shook his head, frowning. “He forgot to tell us.”

I called P. immediately and, with a minimum of panic, told him what happened. He had the right answer: “We’ll do whatever it takes to make it so you cannot notice the holes.” I felt reassured. Still, when Kris got home, her heart shattered, too. We agreed that on Friday morning she would have have a talk with the contractors.

Which she did. And they appeased her. And they continued their work. Then, fifteen minutes before I was scheduled to leave work, she called in panic. “There’s been another Problem,” she said. “They were putting the insulation in the attic when one of the workers fell through the ceiling.”

My shattered heart crumbled to tiny pieces.

“Come home,” said Kris. “Now.”

It’s difficult to drive home with a shattered, crumbled heart, but I managed. The sweaty, tattooed guy grimaced at me as I passed him on the lawn. “There’s another small Problem,” he said. He led me upstairs. There, in the hallway, was a large hole where the other worker had fallen through the ceiling.



I shook my head.

I wanted to talk to Kris about the Problems, but didn’t feel I could around the contractors. We headed to the Panda Chinese Buffet. Over a lunch of Szechuan chicken and Chinese dumplings, she told me about the meeting she’d had with P., who had dropped by to look in on the project.

“He was re-assuring,” she said. “He could tell that I was panicked, and he told me, ‘I know that these seem like huge problems to you. But we can deal with them, we can fix them. To us these are little problems.’ I told him that wasn’t completely reassuring, but that maybe I’d feel better later.”

We both felt more relaxed after lunch, and driving home we were even in high spirits. Then, as we walked in the back door, the same worker who had fallen through the ceiling tipped a bookshelf filled with bottles and boxes and cans of cooking supplies. The back of the shelf popped off, and foodstuffs tumbled to the ground.

“It’s like the Keystone Kops doing contracting work,” I muttered. We turned back around and left. We went to see a movie. Our new Old Home was beginning to feel like a Money Pit.

When the time came to settle the bill, P. stopped by to collect a check. We sat down at the kitchen table. “Look,” I said. “You guys have caused us a lot of trouble. What can you do to compensate?”

P. was taken aback. “We already paid the drywall folks to repair the hole in the ceiling, and we patched the holes in the wainscot. What more do you want?” I wanted some sort of discount, was what I wanted. But he wouldn’t give me one. I paid him and sent him on his way, believing this was but a momentary nightmare. I was wrong.

A Leak in the Attic

As you’ll recall, when we bought this old house, we paid a company (GCS) to install insulation. They messed up the job in four ways, three of which were apparent immediately:

  • they drilled holes in the wainscoting despite explicit instructions not to do so,
  • as one of the workers was crawling around in the attic, he fell through the ceiling, and
  • while working in the mud room, they knocked over a shelf unit full of food.

In September of 2004, we learned that GCS had made another, more serious error. One morning, after a particularly stormy night, Kris woke to find discoloration on the upstairs hallway ceiling. “That looks like water damage,” she said. My heart sank. I climbed onto the roof. The contractors had installed four roof vents. One of them (on a flat section of roof) had peeled loose, the plastic/rubber edges curling, pulling away from the tar that was meant to hold it in place. We created a make-shift patch from duct tape and plastic, and then made a polite but firm call to the contractor. The company sent a man to fix the leak. “This wasn’t done right to begin with,” he told me.

No kidding.

A year passed without incident. After Christmas 2005, Portland was deluged with heavy rains. Kris and I began to notice more water stains on the ceiling, but not just in the hallway — in three of the four bedrooms upstairs, too. We were faced with a choice: call GCS again, or try to handle the problem ourselves. We weren’t convinced that GCS would be able to make competent repairs. Besides, the problem needed immediate attention. I am no handy man, but I felt it would be impossible for me to make the problem worse.

I scoured home-repair manuals. I searched the internet. I made a list of materials and headed to the hardware store where I spent an hour reading labels on cans and tubes and buckets of roofing sealant. I brought home several options. I carried the cans and tubes and buckets up to the roof, and spent the afternoon crawling around, trying the various products, patching anything remotely resembling a hole. I believed the leaks were repaired.

A couple of weeks passed. The ceiling dried, and as it did more stains appeared and the paint cracked. But when heavy rains returned in mid-January, the hallway ceiling turned damp once more. I called in the help of a friend. Because there was no existing ceiling access, we ripped open a chunk of sheetrock (spilling insulation and water onto the floor) to peek into the attic.



We discovered several large wet spots and lots of mold. The only obvious leak was at the vent, as expected. (The photo above not only shows some of our knob-and-tube wiring, but also the leaky vent.) I gunked things up as best I could, but when it rained the next day, the leak returned — it had been reduced, but not eliminated. Worse, water was seeping in from someplace high on the roofline, someplace I could not see.

Our “attic” is divided into three sections. One section was dry. The section we opened had minor leakage from the roof vent. Most of the trouble seemed to be coming from the third attic section, the section above the spare room. Unfortunately, we couldn’t see into this space, even with mirrors and flashlights. To test for problems, we drilled a hole into the ceiling of the spare room. I stuck a dowel through the hole. The next morning, the dowel was swollen with water.

I crawled back onto the roof and spent an afternoon gunking up every hole, nook, and cranny above the spare room. “I’m done,” I told Kris. “This summer, let’s pay to have a professional fix this mess.”

“What about GCS?” she asked. “This is all their fault.”

“I know,” I said. “But I don’t care. I’m through with them. Let’s just move on.”

In July we hired a roofing contractor. For a few hundred dollars, he tore out the old vent and replaced it with something appropriate for the space. “What kind of idiot puts a vent like that on a flat roof?” he asked.

“GCS,” I told him.

“Huh,” he said. “They’re supposed to be pretty good.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Everyone keeps telling us that, but we’re not impressed.”

Portland has experienced heavy rains for the past week. I just crawled into the attic to check for leaks for the first time this autumn. It’s dry as a bone. Finally.

Write a Comment



  1. This sounds like it’s an absolute nightmare. It’s like a horrible trainwreck; I want to stop reading as it’s so upsetting but yet I’m looking forward to the next post.

  2. The words “I was wrong” and “to be continued” appearing in the same sentence have never signaled good things- yet I’m anxious to hear the rest of the contractor adventures.
    evariste is right, you definitely have a talent!

  3. Thanks for a good read. I want to own a home one day, but unexpected expenses like these scare me! Hopefully this story has a happy ending.

  4. Hah! I love it…My wife and I bought a 100+ year old home about 6 years ago. I feel your pain, but it’s also good to hear from others that have had similar experiences. Misery loves company.

  5. Been there, done that, but I cannot believe what they did to the wainscotting! Were they really that stupid? Never mind. I know.

  6. DIY rules. A few years back a friend and I took a week off work and completely remodeled my bathroom (down to the floor boards–one of which we had to replace–and up to a new ceiling we installed). We did it all in 10 days straight through, for less than $10,000.

    Link (daily diary and pictures):

  7. When I saw the words “blow in insulation” I knew there would be big trouble. We had a similar problem, only on the outside of our 100+ year-old farmhouse. The estimate guy told us we would only have one hole at the top of the siding, every two feet or so around the perimeter of the house. No big deal, the 10 foot rule would be in effect (no one notices anything over 10 feet in the air). The crew put holes everywhere in our beautiful wood siding. It’s really not *that* noticeable, and less so as we repaint on the house, but still.

    I will say one thing, though. Our house is insanely well insulated now. It’s almost worth the trade off for the decrease in our utility bills. Normally these old houses leak like a sieve but ours holds its temp no matter what the weather outside.

  8. I cannot read contractor or remodeling horror stories. I have seen too many. There are always two responsible parties- the contractor and the home owner- it works both ways. Thats why I started my first business-it was a sort of contractor referral service, where the due diligence, background checks etc, referrals, were done for you, and you could then use that information to help you when hiring a contractor. The ones who are good- are very good- the ones who are bad- well…

  9. Yeah — we learned our lesson from that contractor. Although, he came highly recommended, and when we checked his references *after* the fact, they were all excellent. I think it’s just one of those cases where you get the fuzzy end of the lollipop. As you know, I own a small business. We do excellent work, and we know it. But sometimes — like once or twice a year — there’s one customer for whom everything goes wrong: we make a mistake on the quote, we make the wrong boxes, we screw up the deliver, everything all at once. It’s not that we’re a bad company, it’s just that bad stuff happens. I wonder if that’s not what happened in the case of this contractor. The difference between us and the contractor, though, is that we admit when we’ve made a mistake and we do what we can to remedy the situation as soon as possible.

  10. We’ve had similar problems, although not as costly, with our beautiful old house. The folks who remodeled it (all major work was permitted) and sold it to us (he is a contractor and she is a realtor) really took some serious shortcuts. Some have been minor and more irratating than anything(like not using sinks for anything they put into the walls and ceilings–like the shower inclosure for our clawfoot tub), but others have been more serious. Take the story of our leaking chimney and broken-down furnace last winter. After having one chimney company try to convince us that we needed to rebuild the whole chimney we later learned from another, more reputable chimeny repair company that the idiot(s) who installed the chimeny liner when they installed the new (and cheap-ass) furnace, failed to caulk around the liner. Thus, water made its way between the liner and the chimney into the heart of our furnace. This, of course, spelled trouble. Since we don’t go down to the basement on a daily basis it took us a while to realize this was happening, enough time for the water to cause some serious rust and short out some critical pieces of the nearly new, cheap-ass furnace. Thus, what would have taken five minutes and a tube or two of caulk ened up costing us over $700 to repair. Grumble.

  11. I’m always wary. I am no lawyer, and don’t know what I can and cannot say. But, for now, I will say that GCS = Gale Contractor Services. As I’ve said, most people love them, but we just had a nightmare experience…

  12. Rain flooded my cousin’s basement and it smelled like sewage for a year.

    My take home lesson from this: Try to schedule a tour of the house on a rainy day. That way you can spot things like this. Also, if you still like the house on a dark, dreary day, you’ll probably like it when it’s sunny too.

  13. Wow! You’ve scared me away from a hundred year old house. Ours was built in 1940, and we have many projects undone because of fear of bad contractors…

  14. Wow, well at least you found it. And new homes are not immune to their own set of problems, especially those built by developers enmasse.

    I’ll take a quality older home any day over a new mass-built tract home.

  15. I second finance girl. At work (Insurance office) we get a lot of calls wanting to know if leaking windows and roofs and mold are covered due to faulty workmanship. There is a particular subdivision in Molalla that is especially bad.

  16. I don’t really see where everything went that horribly. The holes in the wainscoting was a mistake – they patched them. Someone fell through the ceiling – instead of suing you they pay for the drywaller to fix it (out of their fee).

    You got a discount when they didn’t look at you and say it would cost extra to fix those things, or that the issues weren’t their problem.

    It’s unfortunate they were late getting you the cost estimate, but there isn’t a part of the construction industry isn’t Swamped right now. Small companies especially, where there’s one guy doing all of the office stuff and driving to the jobsites every day to make sure homeowners are happy with the work (not an industry standard), get Swamped quickly.

    I’m in commercial construction, and what they did was better customer service than we get with million dollar contracts. I don’t think these guys deserve the “nightmare” tag you’ve given them.

  17. Our leaky ceilings sounds similar to yours with a 25 yr-old-house. Our roof was re-shingled 4 yrs ago and we’ve had leaks ever since… which doesn’t make sense. I’m glad your leaks are solved.

  18. Our leaky ceiling prob sounds similar to yours. Our 25 yr-old-house was re-shingled 4 yrs ago and we’ve had leaks ever since… which doesn’t make sense and very frustrating. I’m glad your leaks are solved.