Crawl Space or Slab Foundation

11 02 2014

California houses typically don’t have basements. For an upstate NY transplant it’s a culture shock to pay such an insane amount of money for a house with a musty, web-filled dirt crawl space or concrete slab instead of a basement.



Where basements are the norm the extra space is utilized for everything imaginable in addition to the typical laundry and storage areas, like play rooms, weight rooms, arts and crafts, game rooms, bars, man caves, family rooms, wine cellars, band practice, extra bedrooms, bathrooms, and more. Lack of a basement means having to convert the garage which is common.


Foundations with crawl spaces are cheaper, but installing a vapor barrier over the dirt is recommended to keep out the moist, musty air. Alternatively concrete slab foundations are more common nowadays. There have been three recent tear-downs in the neighborhood, all with slab foundations. It was interesting to see this construction site progress.


New Construction Next Door

23 12 2013

Earlier this year the house next door was sold (July 2013). Nothing happened for several months, but then we received a letter from the city about a permit being filed for new construction. Well now the project has started, so I thought I would share the images to document the project.

The city is requiring the developer to remove and replace a minimum of 5 feet of soil right up to the property line on both sides. Apparently there had been a stream running through the lot before the homes were built in the area. The silt is too soft and there is no clay to hold the soil together for a solid foundation.





Putting in the new soil… it’s making our windows rattle and the house shake like a minor earthquake!!!


DIY Front Door Makeover – Blah to Wow

8 12 2013

This post is to share a quick tip on updating a door by giving it a faux-wood look in just a few hours. But first a little background leading up to this project.

The homes in our neighborhood were built after the war in the late 1940s to early 1950s. A mixture of small 3 and 2 bedroom generic ranches about 900 – 1400 sf. I’ve heard Douglas Aircraft built many of the homes for its employees, both executives and factory workers. A few houses like ours were built by the government for returning veterans.

These days many of these houses have been remodeled to update and add more living space as we have. I’ve always noticed the first project nearly every new homeowner does is replace the front door. Not us. We kept the original painted solid wood door and periodically gave it a fresh coat of paint. Now that the master suite addition is done and the whole house got a fresh coat of grayish green stucco, the plain white front door stood out like a sore thumb.

After months of investigating options to replace our door, last weekend on the spur of the moment we decided to stop at the paint store. Having watched countless hours of home improvement shows over the years and getting input from the sales associate, I decided to try creating a wood-look with paint. I bought two quarts of latex paint, one a warm tan color to mimic natural wood and the other a blackish brown to simulate walnut–the thought being if the faux-wood look doesn’t work out just cover it with the dark brown.

Here are photos of before, during and after. A summary of the application process follows.

20131208-111106.jpg “During”

20131208-111119.jpg “After”

20131208-111127.jpg “Before”

-1st step: wipe down the door with deglosser to help the new paint adhere. We prefer deglosser to sandpaper, because old houses have lead paint. If you sand paint, always wear a mask or respirator.

-2nd step: Apply the lighter tan paint over the entire door using a large brush, e.g. 3-4″ angled

-3rd step: After allowing the paint to dry according to the directions (1-2 hours) apply narrow blue painters tape vertically in places where the door’s horizontal sections intersect the vertical sides. This helps maintain the look of wood grain. (Watch a few how to videos on YouTube to help grasp this concept. You’ll see a lot of professionals with complicated faux-wood graining techniques, but you really just need to understand what direction the woodgrain naturally goes on your door–usually horizontal across the top, middle and bottom sections and horizontal along the sides. Decorative trim moulding on the door can be painted normally.)

-4th step: Apply the darkest color to each of the horizontal sections one at a time using a Chipping Brush (short bushy bristles $1 or so apiece or any old scruffy brush will work-just don’t use a good brush or you’ll get too much paint) going in the same horizontal direction of the woodgrain. Avoid applying too much paint by wiping both sides of the brush off on both sides. Drag the brush straight across the section purposely leaving lines of dark and light to mimic woodgrain. Quickly follow that with another clean dry brush–either another chipping brush (have a lot of these on hand) or I used a large wood staining brush that I already had. Do not dip it in the paint, just press this dry brush over the area always working in the same direction to simulate woodgrain. After painting all the horizontal sections using this technique, remove the painters tape.

-5th step: Follow step 4 to do the same process for the vertical sections of the door being careful not to brush over any of the horizontal sections previously painted. I opted not to use the tape this time, but if you want to use it again wait 1-2 hours for the horizontally painted sections to dry.

It was easier to do than it sounds. Like anything else, you can make it as simple or complex as you have time and patience to do.

Tankless Water Heater Pros & Cons

9 06 2013

Tankless Water Heater

Although tankless water heaters provide unlimited hot water throughout the day, there is a limit to how much hot water the unit can generate at the same time. Therefore when buying any type of water heater, tankless or not, it’s crucial to estimate PEAK DEMAND, i.e. how much hot water is used at the same time. Larger homes may require multiple water heaters.

For example, two or possibly three people might take showers or baths in separate bathrooms around the same time — typically in the morning — plus a washing machine and/or a dishwasher. Even a small whirlpool or soaking tub requires a significant amount of hot water.



  1. Plenty of hot water (no more sudden cold showers; great for filling large Whirlpool/Soaking Tubs)
  2. Saves energy (uses gas only when hot water is needed)
  3. Saves money (cut our gas bill in half because not continuously heating a large tank of water)
  4. Space saving small wall mounted box
  5. No ugly vent pipe (when outside)
  6. No enclosure to buy or build


  1. More Expensive to buy (but over time energy savings can offset higher cost)
  2. Uses more water (water must run for at least two to three minutes to heat up in addition to travel time from unit to faucet. e.g. our shower is 20′ from the unit and it takes 3-4 minutes before getting warm water.)
  3. Noise (AVOID installing on an exterior Bedroom Wall.) [When anyone uses hot water while we are sleeping, it wakes us up. BTW – The unit we have sounds like a printer.*]

Tankless Water Heater

                  **** TIPS ****

Locate any water heater as close as possible to bathrooms.

Consumer Reports has a calculation chart for storage tank water heaters that calculates gallons per minute (gpm) to help determine what size tank you need.

*In the photos is a Rinnai tankless, which has an attractive stainless steel case. For more information –

Other tankless brands include Noritz, Rheem, Jacuzzi and Bosch among others.

Dry River Bed

29 04 2013

Apologies for not posting for a while. In case you haven’t noticed, I updated the previous post “Landscaping Is A Lot of Work” by adding more photos as this project has progressed.

Every yard should have at least one special focal point. At this point in time we’ve gone over our remodel budget, so I have had to get creative to finish the landscaping. So while buying some camellias at a local Japanese nursery I asked for and got a referral to a landscaper for a consultation.

Existing dwarf lemon tree was pruned into a bonsai look

Existing dwarf lemon tree was pruned into a bonsai look

Newly planted river bed area by shed

Newly planted river bed area by shed

Dry River Rocks & Pebbles

Dry River Rocks & Pebbles

Dry River Bed

Dry River Bed

2 Blue Star Junipers along river rock - cocoa hull mulch in foreground

2 Blue Star Juniper plants along river rock – cocoa mulch in foreground

Sedum Angelina

Sedum Angelina

Variegated Sanserveria aka Snake Plant

Variegated Sanserveria aka Snake Plant

"Chinese Fringe Flower - Plum Delight"

“Chinese Fringe Flower – Plum Delight”

Japanese Sedge Grass

Japanese Sedge Grass

Blue Star Juniper along side interesting looking rock

Blue Star Juniper along side interesting looking rock

He spent 2 hours at the house giving great ideas for what to plant where, how to prune some over grown trees, and countless other good ideas and suggestions. On a whim I asked about a dry river bed, and a few days later he emailed me a sketch. The estimate was around $600 for rocks and 6 hours of labor. I would buy the plants. I can live with that!

A few weeks later he arrived with bags of pebbles, rocks, a few small boulders, and a helper. Together they installed the dry river bed with plants I bought and repurposing existing drip irrigation lines. It actually took 7 hours, 4 hours one day and 3 hours to finish. I added cocoa mulch* to fill in around the plants (*Do not use around dogs).

What a difference from the pile of dirt that was there!



Note: We’re in the process of fixing and painting the shed in the background, so that area will really be a nice backdrop to our new patio and backyard.

Landscaping Work In Progress

28 10 2012

I’ve been getting my hands dirty doing yard work ever since I can remember. My Dad first put me to work helping him pull weeds not long after I started walking.  By the time I was in kindergarten, when most kids are first learning to ride a bicycle, I was driving a riding lawnmower (we had a big lot in the country).  A couple years after that I was tasked with prepping the vegetable garden and flower beds using a rototiller each spring.  I also helped my Grandmother who lived next door.  It sounds like a lot of work and it was, but I loved it… most of the time.

Anyone who has done even a modest amount of gardening knows it can involve some back breaking tasks at times.  However, that pales in comparison to how hard the landscaping crew worked daily for over a month turning piles of dirt left by the building contractor into a beautiful patio and backyard.  The landscape contractor had originally estimated 2 weeks, but it took more than twice that amount of time, just like our master suite addition.  From here on out I will always double any contractor’s time estimate.

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Dream Bathroom

5 10 2012

Hardly a day went by over the years that I didn’t dream about having a second bathroom.  Our existing single 5’x7′ bathroom was gutted and remodeled in 2006, but one bathroom just isn’t enough. When mother nature calls or your work schedules overlap, a second bathroom is an absolute necessity.

Now that  master bathrooms are a must-have, we used quality fixtures and materials in an effort to get more bang for our buck.  One thing I learned is that a smaller space does not automatically mean it costs less in proportion to the room size, because every bathroom minimally needs the same fixtures: lights, toilet, sinks, faucets, tub and/or shower.  Tile and paint for a larger space only adds incremental costs.  On the other hand a larger bathroom takes longer to clean, so that’s also something to consider.    Read the rest of this entry »