I BOUGHT A TOTAL DUNGHEAP OF A HOUSE: ROLLING DEEP IN RED TAPE

One casual afternoon, D was down in the basement working on something or other (I was at work). A man walked inside, claiming to be an inspector from licensing and inspection.

Sep 20, 2012 at 6:00pm | Leave a comment

The bulk of demoing (in which we essentially tore down the entire house) took about six weeks. Go ahead and laugh, but I thought a week, TWO tops, would get ‘er done. Because I was planning to move in by April. I mean, this stuff couldn’t take THAT long, could it? When week after week slipped off the calendar for demo alone, I grew concerned, but that didn’t change my April dreams. D, on the other hand, laughed openly at me. Let’s just say, I’m glad I hadn’t placed a bet.

Backdrop plot: About two months before buying this house, we had been renting a loft from an out-of-the-country family friend, until a white rapper (who could actually pay a market-rate rent, unlike us) asked to rent it. No foul play, as this was a temporary stop in a post-hospitalization-what’s-happening-to-our-lives stint. We weren’t really sure where we’d go next. We considered leaving the city and retreating North to fresh air, well water, and open fields (D’s childhood stomping grounds). We even got as far as falling in almost-love with a small rancher for rent. It had no neighbors, tons of open land, and a glistening glass covered porch.

I thought how perfect it was, how’d I’d quit my job and drink steamy coffee every morning and write and HELL maybe even get a dog. Then I had to go to California for a few days and by the time I got back, it was already rented. I know it seems insignificant now, but part of me can’t help but wanderlust the whole "What if?" Ah right, I’d never have settled with this dungheap, and fallen in love with all you perfect readers, (as an aside, I would LOVE to hear about your almost-if stories, and how life veering they almost were).

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A far cry from Philadelphia

Unexpectedly, we got a call from a friend of a friend whose house was on the market. They were looking for renters due to the stagnant market and were we interested? Considering it was two blocks away from where we were living and we could move in straightaway, we agreed. I suppose that’s when we really decided to move forward with the whole house-buying business.

That said, I’d caution against renting from friends, or a house that is for sale. House tours are THE WORST. Especially when they happen nearly every damn day and the real estate agent is a half-wit. But that’s here nor there, lovey.

All this is to say, I kinda got minor heart palpitations when demo kept dragging on and it didn’t seem we were a single day closer to actual living quarters -- and I wasn’t asking for much. I was totally prepared to camp out in a tent in the living room (or shower in the backyard, which I totally did for a couple months). Our rental was being shown daily and any one of those potential buyers could mean we had 30 days to get out. Pressure much?

So when demo did, at lovely long last, come to an end, we prepared for next stage of actually putting this house back together. Remember how we ripped out half the upstairs flooring (joists included)? Joists, by the way, are pretty damn important in a house. They’re big, horizontal running beams that run from wall to wall to support a floor/ceiling/roof.

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D and a friend starting replacing the joists while we hired a father/son duo to brick point. Due to all the excessive moisture, coupled with the age of the house, our brick had begun crumbling in several areas. D attempted to patch up where he could, but since this was a foundational issue, it seemed best left to pros. We also wanted to cut two new windows into the house. The first was downstairs, where we had ripped off the kitchen.

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The second was almost directly above, in what would become a 2nd bedroom. This was the old bathroom and housed only a small ship-like window. 

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Sunlight was really important to us, as THREE rentals ago (we moved a lot the past year and a half) we lived in a dark house where sunshine was impossible to penetrate. Oh, and that place was from 1793 and the previous tenant died in the living room. I didn’t find that out until I’d been living there about six months. Does this stuff follow me or something?

Anyway, there was a small bustle of activity on the homestead, which felt pretty kickass. Despite my inherent paranoia, the door was often left unlocked during the day as people came in and out (daily Home Depot runs became the ban of D’s existence). One casual afternoon, D was down in the basement working on something or other (I was at work). A man walked inside, claiming to be an inspector from licensing and inspection. His pal, who was working with him for the day, laughed, assuming it was the brickpointer.

D flew upstairs, confirming it was NOT the brickpointer. The Man demanded all tools be dropped (like, literally), packed up, and everyone had to leave. He had shut us down, officially.

When we first bought the house, I attempted to research what permits we would need to renovate. Admittedly, I knew we needed something, I just couldn’t exactly figure out which -- and if we were even qualified to get them. I called several city offices, received a few emails, and was generally passed around a messy maze. Then D spoke to a friend who advised we skip the permits, that’d they be an additional headache we didn’t need. Worse, we feared once we let them in on our little lives, they’d badger us and run the already mounting cost of the renovation up. Not even the potential of earning a whopping 10-year tax abatement was enough to make us take the permit plunge. Plan B, KEEP THE DAMN DOORS LOCKED and try to avoid anything out front that obviously points to the extent of our renovation. Man, why does no one listen to me?

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My tool belt is no reason to ignore me.

Luckily, he didn’t seize our tools. That would have been a major gut bust. But still, my April move-in dream was rapidly disappearing. We were shut down on a Friday and told to call first thing Monday morning. Until we sorted this out, no one could be caught working at the house, including us, the title-holders (this still makes me kind of sore. I mean, IT’S MY DAMN HOUSE. PISS OFF.). 

It was a nail-biting weekend while we waited for Monday to roll around. Guilt setting in, we began reasoning with AND against ourselves. It was V Jekyll and Hyde. One minute we were pissed off we couldn’t work on the house we had just laid down some heavy cold beans for. On the other hand, we softened and rationalized how L & I was good for the city; that they needed to make sure people didn’t do shoddy work that could quickly have repercussions for neighbors. Take a bad electric job for instance -- boom, you have a five-house fire.

Either way, I had to make the call Monday morn and I needed a good story. Conveniently, the day we took over ownership of the house, we found a "last warning" letter from L & I about the mounds of trash piled around the front of the house. It had to be cleaned up immediately or fines would ensue. In a way, we had just sorta kinda just cleaned up, no? I mean, we hadn’t actually started building yet.  

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Admittedly flimsy, that was my planned story going into the red tape conundrum Monday morning. It took me a full week before I was actually able to get the inspector on the phone. As it turned out, the man didn’t even remember us, or the house. Not that he was friendly by any means. He knew if we were calling, it was for a reason. But the harshness of the situation we had fretted over all week lessened considerably when we realized we were just one non-permitters in a city full of them. Really, of all the people I know who have renovated in ye old fine city, I’m the first to be L & I spanked. Go figure.

We set up an appointment to come into his office and fill out permit paperwork. He offered to come out to the house, but I was too fearful he’d start poking around and realize how we had umm, dug out the basement, and uhh, ripped out half of the second story, and well, starting cutting fresh holes in the house for new windows. Oh, right, not to mention we ripped off the entire kitchen.

D took the building reprieve to busy himself with cleaning inside, pulling nails out of the walls, and floor, vacuuming up dirt and removing remaining debris with DOORS LOCKED.

Living life fully on the edge, we didn’t tell the brickpointers about the run-in. I know this seems downright foolish, but we didn’t want to scare them off and have them leave the job undone, half our money in hand. It’s some strange luck they plugged away without getting caught, especially when they installed new lintels out front, which is pretty obv.

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Lintels are the whitish stones above and below every window.

When we did finally catch up with L & I, things went a lot smoother than we’d expected. The inspector turned out to be a pretty friendly guy and helped me fill out the permit request as simply (and cheaply) as possible. The fee for permits is based on the projected cost of your renovation, (around here anyway) FYI. The receptionist, on the other hand, was a complete brute. Can’t win ‘em all.

This all led to another strong turn in the winds of home renovation. Now that we were on the bureaucratic radar, we were kinda screwed. Overall renovation cost instantly soared. We were able to get a simple building permit to do the work ourselves, but we were ineligible to get any of the other ones -- plumbing, electric, and mechanical (heating), AKA things that cost oodles of money. Only a licensed and insured professional in each field could get the proper permits. Which is how we ended up with a few bootleg versions bought on a gritty North Philly street corner. I KNOW, we are sometimes total numbskulls. But at least we were FINALLY on our way to building.

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