Saturday, January 31, 2009

First Floor Plans

At heart, I am an architect. It's what I should have been, but somewhere along the way, I got distracted by other things. One of the things that was appealing to me about the House of 42 Doors was that the previous owner was an architect. He saved our house from the bulldozer. The family was prepared to demolish this house when he stepped in and rehabilitated it. There are many fringe benefits to the house having been owned by an architect. One of them is that we were given plans of the house that he drew up.

So, for those weeks when not much is happening or the muses have gone on vacation, leaving me struggling for words, I'll post floor plans and other goodies from the architect. Here is the plan he did of the first floor. The front of the house faces east.

Monday, January 26, 2009


My wife does a good job of blogging about our life, focusing mainly on our girls and of course, her own view of the world. Occasionally, she posts on the House of 42 Doors or she posts something on her blog that applies strictly to the house. The most current one is a good example.

I never considered that living within a quarter mile of a river would have such an impact on the number of animals we've seen in the short time we've lived here. To date, we've seen untold rabbits, squirrels and chipmunks, which is not surprising. We've also seen deer, an oppossum, and numerous birds of prey. We had a pair of Cooper's hawks nest across the street from us, a pair of red-tail hawk nest in the lot next to us, a bald eagle soar over the house several times this winter and now a pair of owls has taken up residence in the area.

Strangely we've seen less rabbits this winter. And come to think of it, I haven't seen one of the neighborhood cats much either.

On a completely unrelated note, one of the joys of having children is that you can recognize other parents and the age of their children, based on what they are subconciously humming. My new favorite kids' tune is from They Might Be Giants. I'm thinking of using this as a guide to live my life - oh and it's terribly catchy.

Friday, January 23, 2009


This week's project involved a little friend I like to call "Harry".

The drain in the shower has been getting slower, and slower over the last few months, so one night after work, I decided to see what I could do about it. Taking off the strainer and looking into the drain, I could see Harry hanging out, not doing much of anything. Harry happens to be extremely tough, able to live in conditions that most other creatures would quickly expire in. First of all, he gets little light. Secondly, I'm not sure what food he lives on. Thirdly, his environment is often flooded. Fourthly, he can withstand some serious chemicals including acids (vinegar and Liquid Plumber) and bases (Baking Soda). Personally, I'm all for sending Harry out as an advance explorer to the stars. By my reckoning, he should be able to withstand the radiation and rigors of space with no trouble at all. A cheap explorer for NASA.

Let's be clear about my realtionship with Harry. I don't like anything about him, and I wish he'd find someplace else to go.

Some animals (like lizards) have an amazing ability to lose their tail so that predators end up taking the tail while the rest of the animal gets away. Harry is like that. He happens to be very wily and attached to my drain as a home. So I grabbed a hold of Harry and tried to pull him out. True to form, I succeeded in getting a small portion of him and then, he dove deeper into the drain, so deep in fact, that I couldn't see him anymore.

I thought maybe I could scare him deeper into the drain with one of his few enemies - the drain snake. Perhaps if he was scared enough, he could be tricked into larger living quarters (aka the sewer main). Unfortunately, my drain snake's head was too large to fit through the tub drain.

The next step was to try and force Harry deeper with water pressure. I filled the tub with water and tried using a plunger to move him. Harry is tenacious and at that point he was angry. He wedged himself in so tightly that now no water was draining. I was getting angry too. And so was the wife. Bath time for the kids was approaching.

I took off the access panel behind the tub to get at the pipes and it's clear that this is not the first Harry that had taken up residence in the pipes. One of the previous owners had part of the cast iron drain removed and in its place put a PVC pipe with a clean out valve.

Taking the snake drain in hand, I was able to gently guide it down the drain via the clean out valve, where it found Harry and bit onto him with its head. I pulled out the drain snake and when I went to pull Harry out of its mouth, Harry saw fit to defecate all over me with black goo. Little bugger. Harry has now been removed from our house and the shower is working again.

Still, I wonder how long until Harry Jr. grows up.

And a Happy Birthday today to Saffron. Hope it's a good one.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Winter Blahs

It's cold. This morning the air temperature was -17 degrees Farenheit, which is -26 degrees Celsius. The temperature in the basement dipped to 43 degrees Farenheit, which is five degrees lower than I've ever seen it down there. As there is no insulation in the basement (walls or ceiling), it makes the wood floor on the ground floor cold. Right now the House of 42 Doors is not the most pleasant place I've ever lived. Insulation is creeping up the list of priorities.

Yesterday I made quite an impression on my boss, who was visiting from Ireland. He happens to be Scottish and has never lived where it's this cold. I took a glass of boiling water and threw it outside, where it turned to ice crystals before it hit the ground. He liked it so much, I had to do it again. I had done this years ago when it was even colder and the water made a "pop" sound as it froze in the air. I was a bit disappointed it didn't do it this time too, but the boss was still amazed.

One good thing is that it hasn't been this cold in over a decade. Here's hoping it's another decade before it hits again. The snow is bothersome, but manageable. Cold is dangerous.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Mr. Insurance Man

Last night I spent an hour with an insurance agent who tried to win over my business. He was a nice guy, but I'm not sure he's going to get our business. I learned a few interesting things while talking to him.

First off, I spent a fair amount of time explaining about our difficulty in obtaining house insurance, about the discrepancy between the purchase price and the replacement price of the house, about our desire for full replacement value, about it being listed on the State and National Historic Register, about the high cost of our current insurance and about the strange perks the current policy offers. He seemed puzzled that his agency would have denied coverage on the house originally as the full replacement requirement, knob and tube wiring and the historic registries would not have been sufficient to disqualify the house for a policy.

But then I started discussing the asbestos slate shingles we replaced. It seems those shingles were the sticking point. Asbestos siding or asbestos shingles are an automatic disqualification for writing a homeowner's policy. when I asked why, his response was that while they could estimate the cost of removal, remediation and disposal today, his insurance company considered it too large of a risk to try and estimate what future costs for these actions might be.

Second, he started listing all of the discounts for the quote, including a discount for no claims. And then he said, "Did you know there was a water damage claim in 2004?" No, I didn't know that. So then I asked if claims filed on a house were publicly accessible data. He didn't know. Still, I wish that I had known this when we were buying houses. I would have asked my agent about every house on our short list. It's just one more tool to help prospective house buyers.

The most frightening part of the night though came when we pulled up car insurance details. I had given him my address, full name, date of birth and driver's license number, all necessary for a car insurance quote. He happened to have a second computer screen showing what he was entering, and suddenly up popped a screen with my Social Security Number. I asked about that and he said, "Sometimes we can match a social security number based on the person's name and birthday."



This is a private company. Where the heck else is my social security number?

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Homeower's Insurance

House insurance for historic houses can be tricky. There are several good articles and resources online about this topic, and if you are interested in it, you can do your own research as every situation is different.

We had a difficult time finding somebody who would insure our house when we bought it. We tried all the standard insurance companies - AllState, State Farm, Farmers, etc, but none of them would insure our house. Talking to them showed that there were three strikes against us. First, our electrical wiring was the original knob and tube wiring. Second, we wanted full replacement cost for anything damaged or destroyed. Third, our house was on the National Registry of Historic Places. The major sticking points were numbers one and two.

Some of the agents I talked to were willing to consider coverage if we updated our electrical and dropped our request for full replacement value, but I wasn't interested in that. The cost of replacing damaged items in the house with like materials and like craftsmanship is astronomical.

As an example, we are missing picture rail from one of our downstairs bedrooms and I wanted to put it back. I went to a local lumber mill, who specializes in custom doors, chair rails and wood moldings. Naturally, they did not have our picture rail profile in stock. They could make more, but doing so would require a $350 charge to grind a new knife profile that would match the old AND a $150 set up fee to actually attach the knife to their equipment. After the initial $500 charge, the picture rail would run about $1.50 a foot. I'm only missing 50 feet of picture rail, which would be another $75. That adds up to a grand total of $575 for 50' of picture rail.

The other option would be to purchase stock picture rail they have on hand, that doesn't quite match. It runs $1.10 a linear foot. Under a standard homeowner's policy, I suspect that I'd only be given money for 50 feet of standard picture rail and not reimbursed for the full replacement cost.

Using the National Trust Insurance Services, we were able to find a company who was willing to cover us - Chubb Insurance. But even they required us to replace our electrical within the first year, which we did.

One nice fringe benefit of the Chubb policy was an appraisal of our home and it's contents for insurance purposes. An appraiser came out, took some measurements and estimated that to rebuild our home today would cost over four times as much as what we paid for it.

As one would expect, this type of coverage is not cheap and Chubb caters to people way outside of our tax bracket, with some very interesting benefits. If we lose our keys or get them stolen, they'll come out and replace our locks, no deductible. My wife's favorite is that we are specifically covered for "mine subsidence". And my favorite is the example they used about jewelry coverage. "Out on your yacht and lose your Rollex overboard? You're covered." Yacht? Rollex? Good grief.

I received a call from a local agent a few weeks ago who wanted my business. I talked to him at length and described to him our situation. Today I have a meeting today with him. We'll be discussing what he can do for our house insurance. Now that the knob and tube wiring is out of the house (mostly), I'm wondering if it is time to see what is out there for insurance again.

Monday, January 5, 2009

1956 Insulation

The House of 42 Doors is leaky, and I suspect I'll be spending the better part of the next five years trying to find and plug all the cracks and holes that help drive up our heating bill. Great Stuff foam and caulk are two tools that I'm learning to love.

Access to the basement is via the back entry, which is unheated. There is a door at the bottom of the stairs that separates this space from the "heated" basement (which stays at a constant 48 degrees). I suspect that the basement is so cold due to two reasons. First the basement has no insulation in it and second there is a lot of cold air leaking in from the outside. One of the places that this air leaks in is around the door frame at the bottom of the stairs.

Somebody in the past had taken newspaper, wadded it up and stuffed it into the cracks around the door frame to help cut down on drafts. I took this out over the weekend and replaced it with Great Stuff. Based on the dates on the newspapers I found, I'd say that 1956 must have been a very cold winter.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Happy 2009!

It's a New Year and I decided to finish up one of the small projects that has been laying around now for six months. When the waste pipe in the kitchen ceiling busted and we had to replace the entire ceiling, I took off the trim at the top of the kitchen cabinets.

If you look closely at the cabinet picture above, you can see that at one time the kitchen was wallpapered with an...interesting blue wallpaper with flowers. Before they redid the ceiling, it was possible to see that the wallpaper had even been used on the ceiling. The trim has been laying in the basement, until today. I finally put it back up.

Now the kitchen project is officially closed.

It's snowing again. December was the snowiest month on record, with 44.7 inches of snow recorded for our town. That's a lot of snow. About half it has melted or sublimated, but there's still a five foot drift at the end of my driveway where the snow plow fills it in. And you can see that the house is coated in the white stuff.

Hope that everyone had a safe and happy New Year.