This and That, Busy Spring Edition

This And That

This And That

It’s cherry blossom festival in our nation’s capital this week. Trees that survived the erratic winter are preening their all for hordes of gawking tourists who come from near and far to admire the temporary pink flowers. Meanwhile, chaos continues apiece in the Charest household eclipsed only by the magnitude of chaos in our centers of government power.

Winnie and I tend to do a bunch of stuff all at the same time, take a long hibernation pause, then jump back into doing another bunch of stuff again. Our current home improvement project is more of the same. As detailed in a previous story; in January 2016 we embarked on an ambitious home improvement project of replacing all the worn out carpeting in our home with wood flooring. We had three levels of flooring and two staircases of carpeting to replace, and we figured that by starting on January 1 we could be done by April, in time to start boating season.

It was a plan.

 By June we finished remodeling the kitchen, a previously unplanned project that became necessary when the new wood flooring made the old kitchen look really old. I also finished up my Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) certification program, earning a Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) certification that I could add to my collection of other highly important documents. We took off the summer for a few weekends of boating and in the beginning of September were ready to start the third and last level of carpet replacement.

 Then we discovered a leak in our main floor bathroom. In order to gain access to the piping, we had to tear out the fixtures and one wall. We hadn’t planned on remodeling this bath as it was in pretty good shape, but we ended up remodeling anyway. As we were finishing up the work in late October I managed to cut my finger in a table saw accident. Not as bad as it could have been; I didn’t permanently lose any body parts, but it did dampen our enthusiasm for home improvement projects for a few months while I healed up.

Winnie had quit her Personal Care Assistant (PCA) job in late September so she would have time to work an income tax preparation course. Course completed, she took off a few months to just enjoy being around the house. By December we were getting restless to finish up our home improvement project.

 Finally, in early February, we got back into the last (so we think) phase of carpet replacement, just about at the same time Winnie went back to work. This was also the same time I landed a part-time evening job teaching English as Second Language (ESL) at a private language school. This was something I wanted to do, but also meant that now neither of us had much free time to work our home improvement stuff.

We started replacing flooring in our upstairs hallway, then moved into the smaller of the two upstairs bedrooms. We couldn’t just replace the carpeting on account of that was too simple of a project. We have unused attic space over our attached garage, that Winnie wants to use for living space, adjoining the smaller bedroom so we made a door between the two rooms. Adding the door meant first removing a small closet we didn’t need anyway. Really. I also relocated an A/C floor duct after removing the closet, and then built a small dresser into one knee wall. Then we started the flooring.

While Winnie was putting down flooring I was busy in our master bedroom expanding our closet into the unused space under the eaves. This project involved removing existing walls, relocating electrical wiring, new framing and insulation, then putting in several sheets of new drywall.
As of today, the newly expanded closet is mostly completed except for trim work that I’ll do after the flooring is down. Next I’ll be adding another built-in dresser in our master bedroom to match the dresser in the small bedroom, then we can start the flooring. We finished the flooring and trim in our smaller bedroom, and Winnie is pushing to get the master bedroom finished.

 So, Winnie is putting in a couple of hour’s home improvement per weekday between her job and taking care of household chores while I’m working 16-17 hour days. We do major construction work during the weekends so Winnie can properly supervise me. The house is in home improvement chaos, and with our present schedules will probably stay in chaos for another month.

 The last major project for this year is rebuilding our main staircase with hardwood stairs to replace the nasty wood formerly hidden with carpeting. At which point it’s boating season again. I suspect next winter we’ll be working on finishing off the attic space we can now easily access. I’m excited.

Happy springtime everyone!

Home Improvement 2016 And Beyond

Fire Axe

Home Improvement Tool

Back in December, Winnie decided that we needed to do some major home improvements. To be fair, our house is about 30 years old and needs some upgrades. So our plans were to redo the flooring in our basement den first, along with repainting. Then we’d move up to the main level and replace the old carpeting with wood flooring and be finished by April. Take off the spring and summer for more important boating and outdoor stuff, then replace the upstairs carpeting  with wood flooring in the fall and be finished by Christmas 2016.

That was our plan.

So the basement den part went well. We did replace the old carpeting with a nice floating wood flooring, and repainted walls and trim work. This only took twice as long as we planned which I considered to be right on schedule. Then we moved up to the main level and mission creep set in.

Replacing Flooring

Replacing Flooring With The Old Kitchen

Different floors of the main level were either carpet, parquet wood tiles, or linoleum. We replaced all of this with a nice nail-down bamboo plank flooring. We also repainted the walls and trim work. After all this work, “we” decided that “we” really needed to redo the kitchen because the old cabinets looked so ratty in contrast to all the new flooring.

New Flooring

New Flooring

So we rebuilt the kitchen. This renovation project ultimately included ripping out all the old cabinetry and counter tops, installing all new cabinetry in a new layout, adding additional electrical outlets, moving a phone jack, and upgrading the plumbing and gas lines.

Winnie's Tilework

Winnie’s Tile Work in New Kitchen

The original kitchen was an “L” shaped layout which really didn’t offer enough cabinet or counter top space. After a lot of measurements and debate, we came up with a new “U” shaped cabinet arrangement and still had enough floor space for two people to work. We decided on a stone counter top and replaced the original double sink with a new, single basin sink and more modern faucet. The old stove was about worn out so we replaced it with a new, much nicer, stove. The overhead microwave died just as we were finishing up the renovations so we got to replace that as well. Winnie finished off the walls between the counter top and cabinets with some really nice tile work.

All-in-all, the new kitchen is much nicer than the original 30 year-old layout. But the work took us till the end of June to get enough completed so we could actually cook in the kitchen. As opposed to alternately cooking in either the living room or back patio depending upon the weather. At that point, I announced that I was now starting my summer recess and actually getting back out onto the water again. Except for work that I was able to do during the evenings and rainy weekends, and replacing our roof in mid-July (using a local contractor) we took a two month break.

We planned on starting the final push for the upstairs renovation in mid-September. However, at the end of August we started seeing water stains on the ceiling of our basement bath. We immediately knew it couldn’t be coming from a leaking roof because we just had the roof replaced. After some investigations, we determined that the valves in our main floor bath were not only leaking, but water was running into a void space behind the bathroom wall where all our heating ducts and water pipes run. And also ruining the drywall and bathroom vanity along with the downstairs bathroom ceiling.

Bathroom Tear Out

Bathroom Tear Out

So Instead of starting the upstairs we ended up rebuilding the main bath, which was the one room we didn’t plan on renovating this year (or ever). We had to rip out damaged drywall behind the sink and toilet, and cut damaged drywall about one foot up on two other walls. We got our duty plumber in to replace enough of the valves to stop the leaking. He ended up just capping off the pipe so we could replace new drywall easier, and promised to return when we were done to finish the plumbing job.

There was enough used space in the void area to build in a small closet, so “we” decided to add this project. This bathroom had never been tiled (except in the shower enclosure) so Winnie also decided to half tile the walls. Which made finishing off the new drywall much easier. We replaced the old water-damaged sink vanity, and the new sink made the old bathroom mirror and light fixture look old so those had to be replaced as well. This work only took the entire month of September, almost lightening speed.

So today the plumber is back finishing up the hookups. Once he’s done I’ll need to complete the trim on the new linen closet and then this bathroom renovation project will be finished. Then we move to the upstairs, probably about mid-October

So it’s looking like 2017 might be the year we finish our 2016 home improvement project.

This and That, Springing Ahead Edition

This And That

This And That

So yesterday we entered the time of year colloquially known as “Daylight Savings Time.” For those readers who live in a place civilized enough to not do daylight savings; the concept is that if you cut off the top two inches of a sheet of paper and tape it to the bottom of the sheet, you make the sheet longer.

The people who came up with this idea run the world.

Meanwhile, in the not daylight savings time world, Winnie and I have been busy as always having our adventures in living. Winnie continues to swim regularly. Her current routine is to get up early every weekday morning and get to the pool when it opens at 6:00AM for one hour of swimming and a quick soak in the hot tub. Then off to her job. She tries to get me to go but I’m already leaving for work at 6:00 so, regretfully, I am unable to exercise before actually finishing my second cup of tea.

Weekends Winnie is normally able to drag me, excuse-free, to the pool on both Saturdays and Sundays so I can keep in shape. We’ll see how this schedule holds up over the summer when my plans include being on some type of water-craft, in the water, on weekends.

I’ve also been busy with my Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) certification program. I’m really enjoying the classes for their format and for the chance to meet interesting people as classmates. The all-day class format is structured but relaxed as the morning session is lectures, then in the afternoon we have group practicums of ten minute presentations using the day’s topic. I learn best by actively doing things, so this format is nearly ideal for me. So far all instructors have been excellent and my classmates seem to be open-minded and actively interested in helping other people as teachers.

My next big part of the program is to observe on-going English as Second Language (ESL) classes. I need a minimum of formal 18 hours observation in any of a dozen different programs around the area. I’ve applied and hope to be starting these observations this week or next. Graduation is at the end of May if I can complete all requirements by then.

Not to complicate our lives; we’re also actively involved in major home improvement projects. Over the Christmas holidays Winnie decided that this year we needed to do home improvement things. It’s been nine years since we last painted (at move-in) so we needed to re-paint as well as replace the nearly 30 year-old carpeting throughout the house.

Tearing Out Carpeting

Tearing Out Carpeting

We started with our basement den the day after New Year’s.

We emptied the room including everything on the walls. We repainted (same color as before), then ripped out the old carpeting and linoleum, and replaced it all with floating wood flooring. The engineered wood ended up being trickier to install than we expected and it took two full days over the weekend to finish. Then we had to put down the finish moldings, move all furnishings back in and re-hang everything. We did a complete redecorate with our wall hangings, with the result that some parts of the newly painted walls looked like pegboard by the time we agreed on the best arrangements. We also rebuilt the staircase, going from carpeted crap to nice hardwood stairs.

A Finished Den

A Finished Den

This past weekend we started replacing on flooring on our main level. This is a little trickier as we have carpeting, old and worn wood parquet flooring in the dining room, and linoleum in the kitchen. We’re planning on replacing it all with one style of nail-down bamboo flooring. As with the den, we’re repainting the walls, but probably rehanging everything the way it was before so extra holes in freshly painted walls should be minimal… At some point we’ll work our way upstairs to the bedrooms and redo them also. A kitchen remodeling project is under negotiations.

It’ll all look nice when the work is completed.

As an unexpected bonus Winnie already picked some fresh greens from her garden this past weekend. The winter was so mild plants that normally die off survived are already growing. Having fresh garden greens in mid-March is a first for us living in Northern Virginia. Cherry trees are already starting to bloom in some areas so we might get some fresh cherries this year (we lost last year’s crop to fungus). I also had my inflatable kayak “Nemo” out Friday afternoon for a very early spring paddle.

All of this portends a long and busy spring/summer season ahead. I’m looking forward to it.

Home Improvement: How Not-To

The Microwave Oven

The Microwave Oven

Winnie and I have a considerable amount of experience in home improvement. My expertise goes back to my teen years and I’ve been involved with projects (some of which involved contractors) on each of the five homes I’ve owned. Winnie used to help her uncles pour concrete and lay tile roofs back in China, and has worked with me on all our home improvement projects starting right after hurricane Katrina.

One would think that with all this home improvement experience something fairly simple like installing an over-the-range microwave would be easy.

We own a rental property, a 1950’s vintage home that Winnie and I renovated several years ago. Recently we had to replace the over-the-stove microwave for the third time in five years. How people can destroy a microwave is beyond my understanding and probably the topic of another story. The important part is that, having installed two previous microwaves in the same kitchen, I had Experience.

Our new tenant contacted me a few weeks after move-in letting me know that the microwave was giving him problems. I checked it out, tried to go into denial mode, and finally accepted that in fact the high-end microwave that I had installed only four years earlier was in fact broken and would need to be replaced.

Installing a microwave is fairly straightforward. The actual weight of the microwave is supported by a perforated metal plate the size and shape of the back of the unit, with several hooked tabs along the bottom edge. This plate comes with the microwave and is mounted on the wall over the range, with the perforations giving lots of options for getting screws into the wall studs through the metal. The back bottom edge of the microwave has slots that hook onto the tabs. Screws go through the cabinet over the microwave into the unit to hold it in place.

To perform an installation, the installer mounts the plate on the wall with screws going into the wall studs; then locates and drills the holes in top of the cabinet. With the help of another person the installer lifts the microwave into place, hooks it onto the wall plate, swings it up and uses the three screws through the bottom of the cabinet to hold the microwave into place. Connect the vent duct, plug it power and test; job over and its Miller time (or your choice of beverage).

So when I knew I needed to replace the microwave yet again, I knew I wanted the same model so the back mounting plate and upper holes would presumably be the same. (Different model microwaves have different mounting plates and upper screw-hole locations.) I ordered the new microwave and waited three weeks for delivery. On a beautiful Saturday morning Winnie and I went over to the rental house for the big event.

I told our tenant to plan for three hours but secretly thought I could do the job in 30 minutes. We arrived, unpacked the microwave, staged my tools and started work. I pulled the old unit down in ten minutes, which ended up being the best part of the project.

With the old microwave down I compared the new wall plate with the one already installed. They were the same size and shape so no replacement needed! Then I checked the top of the new microwave for screw-hole locations. The three holes appeared to be in the same location as the old ones so we were cooking. Winnie helped me lift the new microwave into place, hooked it onto the mounting tabs, swung it into position and I tried putting in the top screws. Then I discovered that although the new holes were in the same arrangement as the old, they were about one inch further to the front of the unit. Which meant I needed to re-drill the upper cabinet. We took the microwave back down.

I used the template to carefully align and drill new holes. They were very close to the old holes and I was already concerned whether there would be enough strength in the wood to hold the weight. Winnie and I lifted the microwave back into place and tried again. My holes were one quarter of an inch off towards the front, and the screws would not go in. We took the microwave back down, again.

I re-drilled the holes further back and now the new holes merged with the old holes making really large holes that the screw heads fell right through. The only fix would be using large fender washers that I didn’t have with me, meaning I would need to make a hardware store run. Then Winnie came up with a Really Good Idea; cut up the extra metal wall plate with perforations that I didn’t use to make washers. I really didn’t want to make a shopping run, and I did have a pair of tin snips with me, so I went along with her idea. I cut up the plate to make three large washers and Winnie covered them with duct tape so no one would cut themselves on the sharp edges. We raised the microwave again.

This time the over-sized holes lined up with the microwave screw-holes and I drove the screws in with the metal plates. We plugged the microwave in, tested it, and everything worked fine. Then I noticed marks on the cabinets on either side of the microwave indicating this new microwave was sitting up over one quarter of an inch higher than the old one.

I investigated, and quickly discovered that the wall plate tabs were not aligning with the slots on bottom of the microwave. After looking closely, with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, I realized the placement of the slots in the new microwave was slightly different than the old microwave, and did not line up with the mounting plate tabs. I needed to use the new wall plate after all, but it had been cut up for the over-sized holes.

Winnie and I quietly and rationally discussed the problem, then calmed down and tried to decide what to do. After looking it over, I realized the tabs were about one inch wide each, and were about one-half inch misaligned with the microwave slots. We pulled the microwave back down, again, and we carefully cut about one-half inch off each of the tabs on the side were they were misaligned.

Once finished, we lifted the microwave back into place, watching the tabs alignment. The microwave slide into place and we put the screws back in. While putting the screws in I discovered why my holes were off the first time; apparently the misaligned mounting tabs pushed the microwave backwards. With the microwave properly sitting in the tabs, the holes lined up with where I first drilled them.

By now Winnie and I were both frazzled. What I though would be a 30 minute job had taken almost four hours and there was tools, saw dust, and metal snips all over the kitchen. We quietly declared victory, cleaned up the mess, loaded my tools along with the old microwave and pieces of scrap metal into my trusty Rodeo, and went to lunch.

Lesson learned…oh never mind.

This and That, Summer 2010

This And That

This And That

Here it is already September, the long hot n’ Dry summer almost passed.  Although I enjoy warm weather, these past two months were almost too much of a good thing.  And in the category of “here we go again,” we have a hurricane watch just days after the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

The more things change…

This has been a short summer for me as I’ve been so busy with work-related travel.  I spent most of May and June out in Portland, Oregon, then made two more week-long trips out to Oakland, California; one in July and the second in August.  This traveling really broke up my summer plans.

In addition to my travel, the tenants we had in our rental property finally moved out August 22, so Winnie and I had the dubious pleasure of spending the last week of August cleaning up other people’s messes and fixing all the things they broke.  Things we were fixing had just been made new before those tenants moved in one year earlier.  The only good thing was that we did get those tenants out before they did more damages and caused more of a mess.  We did get new tenants right away though, and Winnie and I are very hopeful this new family will keep the house nice and be around for several years.

Between traveling and fixing our rental property, we took on a small earth-moving project.  Our backyard is mostly a downhill slope ending at the tree line of public land.  A couple of weeks ago Winnie decided she really wanted to level out the back edge of the yard for more gardening area.  This meant obtaining mass quantities of fill soil.  I thought I could delay the inevitable by promising to look into how we could get soil “as soon as possible.”  I was wrong.

One morning that Winnie had a weekday off, she called me at work and very excited.  She breathlessly explained that there were some workers a few blocks over digging (Verizon crew installing their FIOS cables) and they had a lot of soil to get rid of.  She had just made a deal with the foreman to have the crews dump their excess soil at our house instead of hauling it away somewhere else.  I was very excited about this.

Over the next several days the work crews did in fact use our house for a dumping ground for their excess soil.  In fact, within a week we had “Mt Winnie” in our side yard with complimentary tire ruts across our front lawn.  I finally asked the crews to stop delivering, as we had as much soil as we could haul to the bottom of our yard.  Winnie, to her credit, spent all her free time terracing our yard.  In fact, she even had us invest in a wheelbarrow for the project.  I helped as I could after work, and in just two days we had moved a mountain.  I think we have enough soil, but I worry.  The work crews are now on our street creating more masses of free soil…

Winnie has had good luck with her garden this summer.  We’ve been eating fresh tomatoes, different types of squash, oriental beans, cucumber, and other assorted vegetables for the past several weeks.  With the bounty of free soil we received I expect she’ll be rebuilding her garden and expanding it for next year.

Sea Dragon At Occoquan Regional Park

Sea Dragon At Occoquan Regional Park

Beside the kayak Winnie bought me for my birthday, I also received a second present.  Quite to my surprise Winnie assisted me in purchasing a new motorboat, a Bayliner 175br (17-1/2 foot bow rider) with a 135HP Mercruiser stern drive.

I had taken my birthday off, and Winnie and I spent the morning at the local park. On the way home, she casually suggested we go over to a local boat shop “just to look.”  We did, and on the lot was this nice looking Bayliner.  We looked at it, and both of us immediately liked it.  Then Winnie surprised me by asking “Do you want it?”  She wasn’t joking, and after thinking a bit said “yes.”

The boat sales office was closed that day, so the next morning Winnie showed up just as the shop opened and announced to the salespeople that she wanted to buy a boat.  She spent an hour negotiating, and got us a really good deal.  Two days later, we took delivery of a brand new motor boat.

I’ve only managed to put about 11 hours on the engine so far over several boat outings, but plan on getting the 20 hours I need to get the break-in servicing done before I need to winterize the boat.  After some discussion, Winnie and I decided to name our new boat “Sea Dragon.”  It’s a good name for a new boat…  Now I need to work on doing more sailing as well as power boating and kayaking.

I’ve been getting out in my kayak once each week and I’m really enjoying that experience.  As much as I enjoy motoring up and down the Potomac, being out in a kayak just paddling along is a pleasant experience.  I’ve started checking out the regional parks and beginning to get hooked into good places for kayaking.

So between traveling and boating and moving mountains and cleaning up after other people, this has been a fast summer.  Labor Day is fast approaching, and another season coming up.

Home Improvement, 2009 Catching Up Edition

I suspect that our many loyal readers may have noticed that I haven’t posted much of anything over the past year.  Well, there was a reason for that, and not just because I didn’t feel like writing.

Winnie and I were pretty much blocked up with Home Improvement, Part IV – “Remodeling on Steroids” This past year.

It was just about June of 2008 when Winnie decided that we really, really, most seriously needed to tackle another home improvement project.  Not content with having rebuilt our house in Mississippi then moving out; not content with renovating the house we’re presently living in; Winnie decided we needed to buy a cheap house for an investment property.  Even better (according to Winnie), her best friend Mali told her that the house next door to Mali was for sale, another victim of the foreclosure wave hitting our county at the time.  The house was, of course, a great deal!  According to Mali.

I have to admit I was less than enthusiastic at first thought.  Just the thought of playing landlord again was not appealing. I’ve played that role twice before; been there, done that, got the “T”shirt, moved on. I was also concerned about us buying something that turned out to require more repairs than we anticipated.  But, that didn’t matter.  Winnie wanted to buy another house.

At first look, I wasn’t too impressed.  The house, built in 1954, can be euphemistically described as a ranch-style house, if a home located out in the ranch lands was actually only 780 square feet.  The house was masonry construction, eight inch thick load-bearing masonry walls, which actually did impress me.  The house did have a fully finished basement – full of moldy drywall and ceiling tiles, with a large puddle of water in the middle of the floor.  The main floor had two small bedrooms and a room best described as a “half” room, with a single bath.  There were two basement bedrooms, another full bath, and a nice sized rec room with laundry area.

The Kitchen - Before

The Kitchen – Before

The kitchen cabinets were stained dark black, and covered with a thick coating of cooking grease.  The house was dirty, and every room was painted in custom colors – dark green, light green, purple, red, and blue.  None of the appliances worked.  The plumbing fixtures were original, and hadn’t aged well over the years.  The wiring that was in relatively “good condition” was the original. The wiring that had been obviously replaced over the years was a horror.  On the bright side, the house had a real wood burning fireplace.

All-in-all, I was a bit nervous about getting involved with this project.

But, once a ball starts rolling downhill, you either get out of the way or get rolled over.  At the end of October, 2008, after several months of working with Realtors, Winnie and I found ourselves signing mortgage papers as the proud new owners of a 55 year-old house that in no way, shape or form, could even be considered habitable.

The Kitchen - AfterThe rest of the year went by in a blur. We had many adventures, of which the stories shall be told at another time.  Needless to say, we were busy.  We had calculated the expenses of carrying two mortgages while simultaneously buying building materials, so we knew we could cover it.  But it was tight, and we both knew the sooner we could get the house rented out the better off we were.  I was actually foolish enough, in early September, to think that we could have the house finished by the end of January.

That was pretty funny, actually.

Living Room Floor - Before Refinishing

Living Room Floor – Before Refinishing

We had the main floor finished by March of 2009, and were able to rent it out to two single ladies by the end of that month.  They took the house knowing we would be continuing to work rebuilding the basement.  By August we had the basement waterproofed, re-framed, drywalled, and were putting in the finish work.  The two single ladies had moved out by the end of July, and a family moved in near the end of August.  Again, the family took the house knowing we would not be finished until (hopefully) the end of September.

Living Room Floor - After Refinishing

Living Room Floor – After Refinishing

For the several weeks when there were no tenants living there, Winnie and I “camped out” at the house, so we’d have more time to work on it.  By the end of September, 2009, we were essentially done.  At least, we were as done as any homeowner ever gets.

By the time we were officially finished renovation and had tenants living in this house, we had:

  • Gutted the basement; removing 780 square feet of moldy drywall, ceiling tile, carpet and tile flooring, and rotten framing
  • Ripped out all the carpeting on the main floor, along with several layers of floor tiling covering the original red oak flooring
  • Gutted the existing kitchen down to bare wall studs and sub-flooring
  • Gutted the upstairs bath, but kept the original blue porcelain cast iron bathtub, sink basin, and blue toilet
  • Built a completely new kitchen with all new appliances, cabinetry, and custom tile work
  • Remodeled the upstairs bath with all new tile work
  • Repainted the entire house
  • Restored the original red oak flooring on the main floor, which included replacing about 30 square feet of damaged wood
  • Had a plastic liner with french drains installed in the basement to keep out water intrusion
  • Completely rebuilt the basement including about 50% new framing, all new drywall, all new ceiling tile, all new ceramic flooring, new trim work, and recessed lighting.
  • Completely rebuilt the basement bath, including a custom shower stall and all new tile work
  • Replaced about 70% of all the electrical wiring in the entire house
  • Replaced about 50% of all the plumbing in the house, including all the original cast iron drain piping (which was eaten through by years of apparent draino usage)
  • Installed a modern, modular, cable system of TV, computer networking, and telephone wiring

Starting - The Heater Closet

The Basement – Gutting Out

Yes, we were pretty tired by the time we hauled the last of our tools and scrap out of the house.  We ended up doing most of the work ourselves. The only major jobs we contracted out were the basement drywall, basement drainage system, and basement ceiling tile.

Heater Closet

Basement – After

So, now we’re the proud owners of a lovely 1954-vintage masonry house, completely renovated and rented out. After one month’s rest, I’ve started getting caught up on the rest of my activities, which includes getting back to writing on this website.

But, we’re finished.  To our many loyal readers;  Please come back.  This website has re-opened for business, and I can assure you I have a lot to write about!

Note:  The complete collection of destruction / construction photos can be found in our photo gallery “Remodeling our 1954-Vintage Home.”


This and That, September Edition

This And That

This And That

Another month gone, disappeared just like our money on Wall Street.  Summer is past, Fall is starting and the leaves are already almost gone.  Back when I was growing up my parents used to tell us that “money didn’t grow on trees.”

I wish they would have told that to the kids who grew up to be Wall Street Bankers.

September seems to have flown by even faster than the summer months.  We did get brushed by a tropical storm Hana the first weekend of the month.  No damage, just a lot of heavy rain for a couple of days that caused localized flooding.

I actually only had “Sea Dreams” out in the Potomac one day this month.  It wasn’t nearly often enough.  I probably will not have many more opportunities this season.  It’s not that the air is getting colder; I can always wear a jacket.  It’s that the way the boat ramp is setup at Leesylavania State Park; I cannot launch or recover my boat without getting at least knee-deep wet.  Sometimes deeper than that, depending on how gracefully I handle the trailer.  Spending an afternoon in an open boat cold and wet is not all that much fun.  Really.

Since I wasn’t taking Sea Dreams out, I should have had a lot more free time to do things around the house.  But that didn’t seem to work out either.  We did have some more home improvement opportunities which led to another chapter of “adventures in finding a contractor.”

When tropical storm Hana blew through, all the rain came hard against the back of our house.  During the worse part of the storm, Winnie and I were standing in the kitchen when we noticed water dripping out of the ceiling light fixture over the sink next to the outside wall.  We knew right away that wasn’t good.  It turned out we had rainwater leaking around the upstairs windows and spreading over the carpeted floor.  This led to my cleaning out the front gutters and attempting to clean the rear (after the storm).  When I discovered my ladder wouldn’t reach the rear gutters we had to make a decision:  rent or buy a 40 foot ladder, or hire someone to do the job that already had a ladder.

It was an easy decision for me – I don’t like heights.  So I hunted around and found what seemed to be a legitimate home handyman on Craig’s List.  I called, he went out and made an estimate, then called me back.  For the price of an arm and half a leg he committed to caulking all around all four rear windows, all the seams in our aluminum siding on the back of the house, and would clean out the rear gutters.  It was still better than climbing 35 feet up a ladder myself, so I agreed to it.  The contractor promised to come out the following Monday and Tuesday, half days, to do the work.

Winnie was home most of Monday, and never saw anyone show up.  She was home all day Tuesday, and again never saw anyone show up.  Wednesday should have been a work day for her, but turned into a plumbing fiasco.  Just as I was getting ready to leave for work that morning, I heard water running in the laundry room where water had no place running.  I told Winnie, and then left for my car pool.  By the time I arrived at work Winnie determined that every time she poured water into any drain – shower, sink, and toilet – water ran out the open washer drain pipe.  So I called a plumber.

The plumber ended up spending most of the day unclogging our sewer drain pipes.  Winnie ended up taking the day off work so she could let him into the house.  Meanwhile, the contractor hired to caulk the house again did not show up.

Friday, with leak-free pipes and still-leaky windows, I received an invoice from the caulking contractor.  He billed me for all the work he promised to do, as well as nine tubes of caulking.  I guess billing for work not completed is a good deal if you can get it.

I called the contractor Saturday morning, and in a chatty way asked him about the quantity of caulking used.  After questioning the quantity, the contractor admitted he made a mistake of claiming too much and lowered the price.  Then I asked him to confirm what day he came out.  He couldn’t remember, but knew it wasn’t Thursday or Friday as it rained both days.  Then I asked if he personally inspected the work, and was satisfied that all work we agreed to was performed, and performed to his standard.  He said “yes.”

From there, our conversation went downhill rapidly.   After a bit of my talking he started asking me if I thought he was lying to me, and my reply of “yes” seemed to confuse him.  He again described the amount of work his crew did, and while I was standing in the back yard looking at the rear of the house, explained that I could pretty easily determine there in fact was no caulking on the back of the house.  After a while the contractor ran out of sputtering and just said I didn’t have to pay my bill until I was satisfied, but he’d get back to me to prove the work was done.

I don’t know how he plans on proving the work was actually done, after the fact of not doing it and trying to charge for it.  H.G. Wells’s Time machine?  I’m just interested, in an analytical sort of way, as to what this contractor is going to try next.

So we end our month with leak free pipes, leaky windows, rain gutters full of leaves, and Sea Dreams sitting in the driveway instead of out on the river.  But, I guess life could be much worse.

I could be working for Senator John McCain’s campaign.


This and That, Summer Edition

This And That

This And That

It’s been a fast summer here in Virginia. Between my new job, boating, working around the house and other summertime stuff, There’s been very little time or energy for me to write. So consider this a catch-up posting for the last two months.


On the Fourth of July we went to Pohick Bay regional park towing “Sea Dreams,” to meet up with friends there. Pohick Bay is much closer to Washington, D.C. than Leesylvania State Park where I normally launch my boat, in a bay off the Potomac River, and we hoped to be able to watch fireworks from the water. Unfortunately, the marina really sucked; the parking area was small and cramped, the launch ramps poorly laid out, and there was a four foot tide in the bay which was into the low tide cycle, putting “Sea Dreams” in the mud while tied to the pier. About five o’clock it started to rain so we pulled “Sea Dreams” out of the water and headed for home. It rained off and on the rest of the night, definitely putting a damper on local firework displays.

Winnie’s fourth anniversary of “Coming to America” was July 15th.

The big news in July was my birthday on the 26th. About the only thing about birthdays I find exciting now-a-days is the fact I actually have another one. It was a quiet day. Winnie treated me to brunch, then went to work leaving me home to fend for myself the rest of the day.

I did get the boat out at least once every weekend, fishing and exploring the local Potomac. Winnie enjoys using our self-propelled walk-behind lawnmower, so she did most of the yard work in July. She also worked on building up her vegetable gardens, growing squash, pumpkin, cucumbers, tomatoes, and some her favorite vegetable “hon kung.” This is a rather tasty green that Winnie uses in soups, or boils and serves cold with a seasoning of cooking oil, soy sauce, and spices. She lost some plants to the local deer that wander into our backyard, and finally agreed to buy some fencing wire and fence off her plots.


We took on a small home improvement project in August. After successfully rebuilding the basement bath last year, Winnie decided it was time to remodel our upstairs bath, the one we normally use. In truth, it had a plastic sink that was already cracked when we moved in. Previous owners had put dark oak waist-high paneling in the bath, making the space look much smaller than it already was. The vent pipe ran inside the wall directly behind the sink, so the medicine cabinet was mounted on the wall hanging over the sink. The light was one of the horrible “Flood Lighting” fixtures I really don’t like.

Once we (Winnie) had decided the time had come to remodel, we went around looking for the perfect new sink. We found it at Lowes, a sink and cabinet combo that looked ideal for the space. Of course, we needed a new lighting fixture and Winnie again found just what she wanted at Lowes. We made the rounds, and finally located the perfect bath mirror at Ikea.

We ripped out the original sink and cabinet fixture and put in the new one, then replaced the lighting fixture. We replaced the old medicine cabinet with the mirror which gave more space over the sink. After a few days, we realized we really needed the storage space provided by the old medicine cabinet.

The new fixtures looked nice, but made the rest of the wood paneled bath look bad. After a few days discussion, we decided to keep going and replace the wood paneling with tile. We also found a nice bathroom medicine cabinet that we could mount on the wall over the toilet.

We already had tile around the bathtub, and were lucky enough to find tile that nearly matched. We removed the toilet and sink (that I had just put in), ripped out all the paneling and fixed holes in the wall that had been covered over by paneling. Then Winnie took over.

Winnie really enjoys tile work. She put in tile four feet up the wall, all around the bath, and did a really nice job of it. Once she was finished I replaced the fixtures, caulked everything up, put in the new cabinet and repainted the non-tiled wall areas with a nice shade of light blue. The actual tile work only took about one week, during which time we used the basement bath – walking up and down two flights of stairs every morning before my coffee was a bit of a challenge.

Our friends finally got their boat running well, so on the last weekend in August we had a two boat rally. We launched from Leesylvania State Park and motored over to an anchorage on the Maryland side of the river. Our friends had the bigger boat so they anchored, we tied up alongside, and spent the day fishing and hanging out on the water.

Also starting in August I was reassigned to a project over in Washington, D.C. proper. I hooked up with several other people for car-pooling, which has turned out really well. The work itself is really interesting, putting me back working directly for the Navy, actually dealing with the same ships I dealt with when I was working at the shipyard in Mississippi. But it has taken a lot of my energy getting used to my new assignment and new commuting patterns.

ESL classes started up again this month, and now I’m back teaching the “upper intermediate” level. I also have a teaching partner, and Winnie is one of my students. It’ll be interesting…


The summer officially ended with our three-day Labor day weekend. Today we’re caught up in the tail-end of Tropical Storm Hanna, watching it rain constantly since last night. At least we’re now living on a hill.

We did learn, talking with one of our former neighbors back in Mississippi, that our former house was back on the market. Seems the people who bought our house last year were one of the many people wo got themselves into a home loan they couldn’t afford and went into foreclosure. I found the listing for it on the Internet; it was a bittersweet feeling seeing the interior shots of our house again, empty

So that was the summer of 2008 here at the Charest residence, Virginia edition. More to follow…

Home Improvement Part – Never ending

American Gothic Home Improvement

American Gothic Home Improvement

Once again, Winnie and I have taken on a small home improvement project. Not content to merely paint out the entire house, plaster and paint the garage, add a microwave range hood and update the kitchen cabinetry, finish off the basement laundry room, and make a small garden, Winnie decided to finish out the basement bath.

To think we only purchased this house eight months ago.

Our walk-out basement was almost completely finished as a den by some previous owners. All houses in this subdivision with a basement were originally equipped with plumbing for a basement half-bath (toilet and sink) and it looks like the bath was also finished, once.

As best as we can tell, it was the owners previous to us who converted the basement den to a rental apartment. Part of the conversion process was making the once half-bath into a full bath by adding a shower stall. The bathroom itself is only about 27 square feet, so adding a shower stall took up most of the available space and looked really tacky. Not to mention, when the people did the work, they never finished it, so we had a bare concrete floor, hacked-up drywall, and an unfinished ceiling with bare bulb operated from a pull-string.

We really wanted to keep a shower for occasional use but there wasn’t enough floor space for any sized enclosure. After some thought, we decided to keep the shower for occasional use by simply not having a shower enclosure. I’d seen this arrangement in some of the hotels we stayed in traveling around China and though it was a nifty idea. Simply have an open floor with waterproof walls and the shower head installed in one corner. The trick is to have the bathroom floor graded for proper drainage to keep the floors outside the bathroom area dry. And to not use anything in the bath that would be hurt by water…

So, early one Saturday morning in late August Winnie announced it was time to remodel the bath. Within a few hours we had the easy part done; we’d removed all the existing bathroom fixtures and ripped out the fiberglass shower enclosure. Then she left for work… After she left, I hauled the fixtures out into the backyard.

First step in reconstruction was prepping the ceiling.

We have drop ceilings in the basement den area, solid drywall ceiling in the basement corner room we’ve adopted as our library, but the laundry and bath areas still had the exposed framing and utilities. The bath was too small and there were too many obstructions and cutouts for installing drywall or a drop-ceiling. So we opted to use 12×12 glue-up ceiling tile.

Installing ceiling tile meant setting in 1×2 nailing strips first. One side of the bath’s ceiling had plumbing running below the joists from the first floor bath and kitchen, so the nailer’s had to drop below them. Setting in the nailer’s for the drop so the ceiling tile would look “neat” ended up involving some significant woodworking, which looked so good when it was done I almost hated the thought of covering it up with tile…

The Plumbing

The sink had been crammed into one corner of the room and with the shower enclosure gone there was no reason to keep it there. Winnie wanted the sink on the adjacent wall, which meant extending out the copper pipes and CVCS drain line. I’ve sweated copper pipes before, but it was a long, long time ago.

We took out the drywall where I needed to move the pipes, and one lovely Sunday I spent the day in the basement doing plumbing. I made extra sure I’d have everything I needed before I started, which meant I only made three emergency trips to Lowe’s during the day-long project. We ended up having the water in the house turned off for a mere few hours, tops.

The plumbing work ended up looking pretty good, and I got the copper joints leak-free one the second try. Gluing up the white CVCS drain was easy, a lot of fun, and I got it right the first time.

The new sink location on the adjacent wall meant running the pipes inside a finished wall. The interior basement walls were metal framing instead of wood, something new to me. Metal framing is thinner than standard wood, which meant the drain pipe was wider that the wall it was running inside. Before, the pipes just ran straight through the wall from the laundry room side so wall thickness wasn’t a problem.

Since we wanted the drain pipe hidden, after the plumbing was finished I increased the wall thickness by adding 4″ wide strips of 3/4 inch plywood over the metal framing. I also added some cross-framing to properly mount the sink later, and all together I think the plywood really added to the strength of the wall.

Doing the Floor

The existing concrete floor was pretty uneven around the shower drain, and we needed the floor graded to drain away from the walls and door if we hoped to actually use the shower again (without flooding the basement). There’s all kinds of “self-leveling” floor treatments available for concrete floors, but we needed to slope the floor instead of leveling it.

After several weeks of thinking through how to grade a floor, we hauled home three 60 pound bags of “sand topping” from Lowe’s along with cement-working tools. After some calm, rational (-not-) discussion between Winnie and I we started the concrete work.

I cut 3/8″ thick strips of 3/4″ plywood and laid them down as a large square framing the shower drain area. Winnie showed me how to mix the concrete right on the existing concrete floor instead of in a trough, a technique I’d never seen before. We started molding the sand-topping sloping from the drain low point up to the top of the 3/8″ strips at the far corner of the room.

Once the shower corner was finished we moved the wood strips to another area and used them as a spacer to set the level of the remaining floor. We needed the future area around the toilet and sink base level but at least as high as the high point around the shower area. By using the wood strips, we spread the concrete at the proper thickness.

I say “we” but after we worked the shower area it was Winnie by herself, as there wasn’t enough space in the bath for two people together. She’s actually quite good with concrete and seemed to enjoy working it; Winnie has explained she’d watched people back in China doing concrete work ever since she was a little girl.

The floor grading project turned out okay. The shower area ended up with a low point right at the floor drain, just the way we wanted. We gave the concrete two days to setup, keeping it wet, before laying down the floor tile.

Using ceramic floor tile was a given. We found the same pattern of blue tile at our local Lowe’s that we had used for our bathroom floors back Mississippi. After our 900 square feet of tile in Mississippi, 27 square feet now didn’t seem like such a big deal. Once again, it was Winnie doing the actual work while I cut tile as per her directions. After two days of letting the cement setting up, Winnie put in the grouting. We finished the floor off with a marble threshold at the door.

Putting in Wallboard

With floor tile down we moved on to the walls. The entire walls needed to be waterproof since almost any area in the bath could get wet when using the future shower. We opted for 4 x 8 sheets of “tile board” to cover the walls, a nice tile-looking panel that we could just glue on over the nasty looking drywall. Allegedly easier to install than actual tile, it was still two days of me cutting the panels, keeping the tile lines all matching, with Winnie supervising to make sure I cut everything correctly. After it was all glued up, Winnie filled the wallboard seams using white caulking which actually matched the imitation white grout in the pattern. Once it was all finished, the walls really looked like real tile.

Ceiling Tiles

Next was putting up the ceiling tiles. We quickly learned the trick was to put the glue on the backs of the tile, not the ceiling nailer’s (so the glue didn’t drip all over the tile floor) , and use staples to hold the tiles up while the glue dried (so the tile didn’t fall off while the glue was setting up). Winnie and I worked half the ceiling in one evening.  It took longer than expected as every tile needed some cutting or trimming. The second day Winnie finished the rest of the ceiling, again trimming every piece, by herself.  As always she made a neat job.

Finish Work

With the ceiling tile finished, I put in a new light fixture and added the trim cover for the ceiling vent. This past weekend we finally reinstalled the sink and toilet, moving them out of the backyard where they’d been lying for almost six weeks. We put back the shower head and mirror over the sink, I trimmed up the bottom of the door, door, cleaned the room out, and Winnie put down a hook latch rug she’d made over the past year. We bought a few bathroom accessories and made the room “ready for use.”

The bath came out looking really nice. Even though it’s a small room with no window, it’s bright and cheerful and feels airy. Winnie is happy with the way it came out, which makes me happy. Even better is that Winnie may not want to do any more home improvement for a few months… Meanwhile, I have an extra shower stall enclosure to sell through Craig’s List.

This and That…

This And That

This And That

…the First Posting of September

Frequent readers may have noticed my news posts have been light these past few weeks.  The reason is one that may shock people who read a lot of newspaper columnists and blogs.  The shocking, heart-wrenching God’s-Honest truth as to why I haven’t written much lately is – I haven’t had much to write about.

There, you read it here first.  A writer not writing when there is nothing to write about.

But, I did want to write something again now that our dog-days of summer are past.  So, here goes.  A news post about not much of anything at all, all strung together and packaged in bright, shiny non-lead-free wrappings for the reading pleasure of our many fans.

Moped Commuting

Moped commuting is mostly working out well.  We’ve had a few rough spots and a bit of a learning curve, but that’s okay.  We’ve learned that riding a moped in high winds (such as that caused by an approaching thunderstorm) is not good as the moped is so light it tends to blow around, even at a red light.

The manual choke is a bit tricky to use and gives the motor a “personality.”  We bought the Moped with 1 mile on the engine, and the mileage for the first tank of gas was only about 35 MPG.  As the engine breaks in (now at about 110 miles on the odometer) the mileage is increasing to its current 50 MPG.  The MPG for this model is advertised as 65 to 70, so we’ll see what happens.


I’ve learned that the Potomac River is very different waters than the Pascagoula River and Mississippi Sound.  The Potomac is a lot deeper which means I don’t spend so much effort trying to avoid plowing up the bottoms with my engine prop.  Not plowing up the bottom is also a good thing as there is more rock around here, as opposed to the Pascagoula which was all mud.  The river is less protected from winds and larger which means more changing currents.  So a typical day out on the water means a day bouncing around pretty hard when cruising, rocking and rolling when I’m at anchor.  It’s meant learning all new boating skills and taking more safety precautions than I needed back down in Mississippi.

I have had a lot of chances to take the boat out this year.  I think I’ve been out more often this season than any season since I first bought Sea Dreams back in October of 2002.  Winnie’s been out with me a few times, but between her work schedule and just not caring much for fishing, I usually go out alone.  I don’t mind as I really enjoy the solitude of being out on the water, getting a bit of fresh air and lots of sun.  I really appreciate Winnie encouraging me to get out at least once each weekend, even when she could very easily be nagging me about weekend chores instead.

Home Improvement

In our quest for the perfect home Winnie and I have continued with minor repairs and home improvement projects.

We had decided almost immediately after moving in to replace the existing over-the stove vent hood with microwave / vent combo.  This seemingly small project ultimately involved tearing up a wall and rerouting ductwork, adding an electrical outlet and moving a cabinet.  Once the cabinet was moved, we had to fill in gaps with new cabinet facings, and that all looked so nice we added a galley rail along the cabinet tops. The seemingly small project of installing a microwave was started in April and finished in early August.

No sooner were we finished with this project than Winnie set her sights on a more ambitious undertaking.  Former owners had sort of built a bath in the basement where we have our den.  It had never been finished, meaning; plumbing fixtures were mounted in a haphazard way, unfinished drywall, no finished floor and bare ceiling.  This past Saturday morning, a few hours before Winnie was due at work, we were sitting in our den relaxing.  Winnie suddenly suggested we look at finishing the basement bath.  Somehow, two hours later all the fixtures (shower stall, toilet, and sink) were sitting out in the back yard and half the existing sheetrock was removed.

Now we have a basement full of building materials as we prepare to relocate the sink, install ceiling tile, install wall-tile board, lay ceramic tile flooring after we level out the existing concrete, and redo the bath’s electrical wiring.  I figure we’ll be finished sometime around Christmas.

Division of Labor

When we’re not re-building the house we’re involved in other, more mundane, chores.  Winnie’s work schedule at a local department store is keeping her busy.  For the past several months she’s had to work both days on the weekends, with her days off during the week when I’m at work.  She closes several nights each week which means returning home at around 10:30PM.  So our division of labor has shifted.  Most nights now I’m cleaning the kitchen and fixing my next-days lunch.  On weekends I do the grocery shopping using a list Winnie prepares, and spend at least one afternoon out on my boat.  On her weekdays off she’s mowing the lawn, gardening, running to the bank and post office, and working the home-improvement projects she can take on by herself.  It’s becoming a comfortable arrangement, and really the first time since we’ve been married we’re settling into anything resembling a consistent routine.

Family Matters

We’re still hoping to heave children, and working to improve our chances.  We’ve been consulting with several doctors ever since we’ve settled here in Virginia and learned a lot as result.  We’ve both been recommended for minor out-patient surgery that is supposed to improve our chances of having children.  We’re now both on a vitamin regiment, and a local Traditional Chinese Doctor is providing us herbal prescriptions to help.  We’ve been poked, prodded, screened, tested, prescribed and reviewed for eight months now, and everyone says we’re real close to being in prime condition for having a baby.  But, I have to go with the recommendation of my specialist as the best prescription I’ve ever received from a medical doctor.  My specialist prescribed “A Lot of Sex” as the best approach to having a baby.  Winnie was not amused.

So on that note, I conclude my news about not much of anything at all.  Please come back often for more.