Wednesday, October 22, 2014


Japanese Maple in autumn

Perspective changes with age. When I was in my twenties, I encountered rot in several places while working on my first old house - a hundred-year-old three-tenement bought for $15,000. My approach was to rip and tear until I got down to solid wood before starting to build back. I would act as if I were cutting out a cancer and wanted to I “get it all” as a surgeon might say to the family after his operation. We sold it a few years later for $23,500 and figured we did well.I had the same attitude with my second house, a hundred-fifty-year-old home in Maine I rehabbed when I was in my late twenties and thirties. We bought it for $27,500 and sold it for $63,000. Then I did the same to a hundred-fifty-year-old cape for my mother. She still has it.
Mt. Kearsarge with the Moats on the left

Around that time I got my first client as a caretaker. It was a compound with several buildings, two over a hundred years old. When I discovered some rotten areas in one building, I brought them to the attention of the owner who was in her eighties. She trusted my judgement but she had a different perspective to things. The rot was in the home she occupied every summer, a magnificent old building designed by architect John Calvin Stevens. Soil had built up over the lowest course of shingles on the uphill side and rotted them. She asked what it would take to repair and how much it would cost. I told her it would have to be dug out first and then pulled apart to ascertain how deeply the rot extended into the sheathing or sill. Then I could tell give her a definitive answer.
Zooming on the Moats for different perspective

She winced when I described the process. “How long will it last if we leave it alone?” she asked. I told her that was hard to say. The building wasn’t sagging and it could be ten years or more before it did. She nodded as I talked, then said she wanted to leave it alone. That went against my instincts to do nothing and let the rot continue, but I had given her my best advice and my job then was to accept her decision graciously. She had done the math and figured the house would likely last longer than she herself would and she was right. She died ten years later in her early nineties.
Our city house with porch

After turning sixty, my wife and I bought another fixer-upper— a ninety-year-old, single-family house that, like our first house, is in the city. We’re both semi-retired now, so we have more time to work on it than when we were young and raising kids. Money isn’t as tight either, but I approach things differently being I’m forty years older. We figured to fix it up and rent it, but we like going down there and use it as a second home. After pulling up some rotten decking on the front porch last summer, I discovered that rot had extended into some of the joists as well. I also noticed that one of the previous owners had done a repair job about thirty years ago. Rather than replace the partially-rotted joists, my predecessor left them in place, then put a new joist next to each one and nailed them together - a process called “sistering.”
Richmond Island, Cape Elizabeth Maine

Forty years ago, the younger Tom would have scoffed at that and proceed to tear the entire floor out. However, the old repair had held up pretty well and other joists were showing rot, so what did the 63-year-old Tom do? I left the partially-rotted joists in place and sistered new ones onto them, just as my predecessor had done. Then I covered them all with ice and water shield and put on new decking. The rot remains underneath, but it won’t progress - and I can sleep easy knowing it will last longer than my wife and I will.
Zooming in on Richmond Island for different perspective

Like I said: Perspective changes with age. I'm better at accepting things that are less than perfect - in myself, in others, and in many situations with which I'm forced to deal.


Paul said...

Taking a little break from your moronic politics and the ass whuppin that you inevitably end up getting? It must suck to not be able to defend yourself at all, like with your last column.

btw, what a great letter in the Daily Sun, voicing the same idea that has been posted here - you can't be for real. Certainly you are a plant just trying to make conservatives (no scratch that, I don't want to give conservatives a bad name. Far Right Wackos) a bad name.

Anonymous said...

This is a wonderful article Tom, thank you for sharing the pictures as well.

Anonymous said...

I'm the happy owner of a 200 year old place.
Never intended to have stuff like..oh indoor plumbing, electricity, etc. ALL of which is a mix of original, through current "standards". (I've come to really like PEX)
Some of the sistering HERE has (quite successfully) been done with "recycled" beams from other 100+ YO house/barn parts.
*sigh* My new buddy is stuff called wood preservative (minwax)
And of course, I have to get lumber from local "rough" sawyers to match the original dimensions of air dried, un planed, siding/studs under the clapboards.
Yep, I keep an eye on "Will this become a REAL problem before I'm gone"?.
I don't think 16"-20" wide flooring planks are going to come from Lowe's/ Home Depot, and I'm PRETTY sure all the lead paint is gone by now.


Julia said...

This is beautiful, Tom, I so enjoyed it. Jeff's stage IV cancer has changed our perspectives on so many things, and for the most part, that's been a blessing. There will always be rotten spots (in old places and also, sadly, in people's comments and behaviors) but that need not distract us from appreciating life and taking what steps we are able to take, to support and enhance it.