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Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Little Shingled House That Could

This is the story of a small house with a big heart. I thought it would be fun to share the story of a fixer-upper that consumed our days and nights--a few years before we had babies who consumed our nights and days. Hubby and I owned the house when we first were married. It was in the San Francisco Bay Area, and it was almost one hundred years old. Sure, in many parts of the world that’s not an old building. But in California, that’s old.
I remember the first time I laid eyes on it. It had a greenish split pea soup paint job only its mother could love. It was small and needed a lot of TLC, but we were full of ideas and energy. We opened up the roof and walls and poured a lot of love into it.
Our house--BEFORE

Our house--AFTER (lots of blood, sweat and tears!)

This was in 2000, before I had a digital camera, so I catalogued the transformation with film. I made an album of all the projects we did at the house—and by “we,” I don’t mean contractors we hired. Hubby and I did most of the work ourselves.
Perhaps the craziest part of the whole thing was going without a bathroom for five weeks. Yep, you read correctly: we did not have a functioning indoor bathroom for more than a month while Hubby redid our only bathroom. Because he was laying wooden floors in the bathroom, Hubby had to remove the sink, toilet and bathtub. We showered at friends’ houses and used a camping potty at home. It was not glamorous. But we survived the experience and I was never so glad to have my own functioning porcelain throne again!
This is our only bathroom, midway through its renovation. Note the alluring camping toilet in the background.

Bathroom (after). Bye, bye, camping toilet.

Here is a little background on the house. It was built in 1905 and was Transitional Victorian style. This means that it had certain Victorian features but without all the gingerbread. The exterior was shingled in wood, as was common at the time. (Although at some point, the house was covered in stucco for fire protection. And then painted swamp green, to scare away fire.) The house had two bedrooms and one bath, measuring in at 865 square feet. I loved it from the start, even with its murky paint job. Before we moved in I’d been living in a one bedroom apartment with cracked linoleum floors (and I actually really loved that apartment, too), so it did feel like an upgrade to move into the swampy green house!

I could write for days about that house—the actual renovations as well as my feelings about that time. But I’ll try to keep this to a manageable length. The photos speak volumes, but I always like adding anecdotes that you would not know from the photos alone.

What’s tricky/fun/maddening about fixer-uppers is that they often have endured various makeovers throughout the years (well-intentioned but not necessarily ones that still look good after the 1970s). Our little house had been given its 1970s redo and there still were odd elements that only that decade can claim. There were the light fixtures made of chains and jars. There were the green textured glass windows. The master bedroom closet had a structure that jutted into the room and had shingles on it. It looked like Snoopy’s doghouse (and not in a good way.)

Here's Snoopy's Doghouse (aka our closet). Groovy, eh?

One afternoon when we had been in the house only a few months I found Hubby sawing through the greenish stucco outside. I was confused—weren’t we supposed to be improving the house, not cutting holes in it? Hadn’t it been through enough already? Turns out Hubby was curious about whether the original shingles were still underneath the stucco. They were. Unfortunately, the shingles were not in great shape. Termites had dined on them. Once we knew that the house originally had been shingled, we thought it would be a fitting tribute to return it to its shingled glory. While I was at work one day Hubby hired a crew to strip off the stucco and I came back to a very different looking house—dark and shingled. Eventually we stripped off all the old shingles ourselves and put new cedar shingles onto the exterior of the first floor and shiplap onto the exterior of the half-exposed basement. We both loved yellow houses (so cheerful) and so we painted the house two shades of yellow, with white and royal blue accents. We replaced the windows (Hubby installed them), redid the kitchen, redid the floors (Hubby did it himself), redid the grass, changed the front door, redid the bathroom with a claw foot tub, and Hubby reframed Snoopy’s closet. Hubby rebuilt the front stair case and I planted flowers near the front. We sweated and lifted and moved dirt for months. We placed every single shingle on our own and painted the exterior ourselves. Hubby put insulation into the attic and framed and installed a skylight in the bathroom. Our days were full, and each night we slept deeply. Every morning I awoke to the sound of my early bird husband drilling or hammering something outside. He was (and is) a hardworking dude.

One aspect of our renovation was not part of the original plan. In its nearly one hundred years, our house had sunk a little bit. A marble placed onto the floor would roll toward the back of the house. I might have lived with the sloping floors and described them as a rustic, charming feature of an old house. But Hubby had other ideas. He bought car jacks and literally lifted the house. I would no more think to do that than try to build my own space shuttle and fly it to the moon. But Hubby researched it and thought it would work. He had to replace the mudsill and the studs but he taught himself how to do it all. Lifting a house was uncharted territory for us, but Hubby loves a challenge. Neither of us love heights, though, and at times the renovation tested our limits. I wish I had a photo of me, up twenty feet, shingling the peak of the house.

There were times when we worked too long and got a little crabby with each other. We’re human. But we were so proud of what we accomplished with our first house together. It was our baby in a way—a split-pea-turned-crumbling-shingles-turned-cheery-yellow-shingled newborn that we nursed to health. I’ll always be proud of it.

I love where we are now, so I don’t lament selling that house and moving back to San Diego. I think you can build happiness almost anyplace you live. It’s not about the size of the place or the fixtures. It’s about creating moments of fun every day and making your home your own. Building happy memories. Our current place is still a work in progress, and that’s okay. Your needs change, your taste may change and your ideas change over time. When we first moved in here, we noticed that there was flocked wallpaper in the bathroom, among other unusual elements. Fixer-uppers are a good deal because of their lower price tags, but they also afford you the chance to make your home how you want it to be. (Unless you wanted 1960s flocked wallpaper anyway, in which case you change nothing and celebrate its period charm!)

You may wonder why I am writing about our old house today. Most of my blog posts are about things I’ve made or done recently. We sold that house more than fourteen years ago and moved back to Southern California, where our roots are. But for some reason an image of our old house popped into my mind today and I decided that it would make a good blog post.

As a side note, let me say that in 2000 there were not yet a zillion home improvement shows on tv. Not that we had cable tv back then, anyway. But my point is that what we were doing was not something inspired by what we’d seen on tv. It was inspired by the need to do things in a less costly way. And both of us are big do-it-yourselfers. We like challenge. We like putting our stamp on a house. It was a good team project for the two of us, time we could spend working and laughing together on the scaffold—and nothing says newlywed romance like scaffolding and a camping potty. You know what they say--the couple that lifts heavy concrete and gets covered in dirt from scalp to toe together stays together. 

We didn’t plan the renovation to be a newlywed litmus test, but in hindsight it seems like an interesting study in social behavior. It reminds me of the Survivor tv series—putting people together under challenging circumstances and seeing how they interact. Which ones become stronger? Which ones crack? Thank heavens we didn’t have a tv crew filming us as we worked. No newlywed couple needs that scrutiny and pressure. (And if memory serves, there were a few newlywed couples in Hollywood whose brand-new marriages weren’t improved by the presence of a camera crew.)

A house with only 865 square feet would be hard to live in today, as a family of five with three growing kids. (I know some families live in quarters even more cramped than that, but I am grateful that we have more space now that we have more people in our house.) Living without a bathroom would be extra tricky with a houseful of kids.

We did the renovation over the course of two years, and during more than half the time we both worked full-time at our jobs. Some phases of the renovation involved small changes, but there were months when we worked seven days a week on the house, shingling, painting and renovating. I thought I was busy then—which makes me laugh now. Once I had kids, the concept of feeling busy reached a completely different level. But at least we had a functioning toilet…

Our old house holds happy memories for me. When you do something yourself you appreciate it in a different way. When the house starts out needing a lot of TLC, you have a real hand in bringing it back to life and it sets up shop in your heart.  We learned so much from that experience and it was a memorable process. It grew from a swampy green wallflower into a beautiful yellow show-stopper. Like almost anything in life, the house changed for the better when we poured effort and time into it.

You know the children’s book about the little engine without a lot of power or experience? The engine chanted to itself as it chugged along: I think I can. I think I can. Our first house was that engine. Not everyone saw its potential--but we did. It was the little shingled house that could—and did.


  1. Still absolutely one of my favorite renovations. ��

    1. Thanks, Maia! You have renovated, too, so you know it's both frustrating and fantastic. If nothing else, definitely an adventure...

  2. Wow. that turned out fantastic! Something I really want to do to my home now, but it just seems so overwhelming with work and kids. Inspirational.

    1. Hi Adri, thank you! I think you're amazing for juggling all you do, so you get a gold star regardless of whether you add any home improvement projects to the mix...

  3. What a fabulous project that was! It turned out to be so beautiful, with the yellow color. I did indeed like your after, much better than your before. Hard work brought a great result. A house transformed! An experience always to remember! Thanks for sharing! Love, Aunt Eileen

    1. Thank you, Auntie. Yep, team work makes a big difference. And paint.