The Summer Prequel, Part Two: the Gordian Knot

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The state of things at the Cabin last summer.

Children and lunatics cut the Gordian knot which the poet spends his life patiently trying to untie.

— Jean Cocteau

I got an email from my caretaker yesterday. He couldn’t figure out how to activate the electricity in the Anchorage, which I had turned off for the winter. Emera, the service provider, told me that all he needed to do was press a button underneath the meter. In the end, this turned out to be true, but it caused Dave to make several trips out to the house as we both puzzled over what it could mean — Had they activated power to the wrong house? Had they even bothered to turn on the power in the first place? Are you sure they said “a button”?

This feels like a metaphor somehow.

Restoring a historic Maine homestead is more difficult than I thought it would be.

There, I said it.

When I first walked around the place, I realized that both foundations needed work. The Anchorage needed a new roof and some paint. There was water damage on the west wall of both buildings from ridiculous gutter systems that leaked storm run off directly down the outer walls. I soon learned that no one could even locate the septic tank for the main house.

On the whole, this was not discouraging. My ex and I had basically disassembled our Austin home and put it back together. I had sanded floors and stripped acres of wallpaper on my own in various rental properties to make them more appealing. Besides, my Realtor showed me six other houses, and all of them had flaws that would require extensive remodeling. They also had impediments to water access or no way to tap into passive income once I moved up there. I didn’t want to cash out my retirement funds without having a property that paid for its own taxes and maintenance, at the very least, because then all the cash would be tied up in the house, and the only way to liquidize the equity would be to sell or refinance. I wanted a property that I could rent in the summer — and still live on. And with my budget, that meant renovation and restoration was in the cards.

The inspector’s report contained mostly good news, especially considering the age of the Anchorage. Thanks to conscientious attempts to counteract the forces of gravity, there was remarkably little structural damage. For all practical purposes, the Anchorage was move in ready.

Nevertheless, as the previous owner wryly remarked once the closing papers had been signed, the place “has a lot of moving parts.”

IMG_0274The first sign of systematic trouble came in the form of the water testing report, which showed high concentrations of arsenic and heavy metals in one spring, the one that feeds the Cabin, and lower concentrations of arsenic (but no heavy metals) in the Anchorage spring. The springs themselves are enormous; one has a cistern that is thirty feet long. Falling down “houses” in the woods cover them both, and plastic tubes run through the boggy woods to the property. These springs once fed a property up the road as well, through a system of pipes that run hundreds of feet east to what must have been a pump house.

There is no shortage of water. It flows all the way down Caterpillar Hill, through my woods and into the marshy foot of my meadow, where it inundates my neighbor Pat’s careful landscaping in the spring. The dampness below is what’s kept the wood of both houses in pristine condition all these years.IMG_0293

Thus, it was a bit ironic that the well guy, a taciturn Yankee who looked for all the world like a sea captain, had to bring in special equipment to fracture the bedrock once he got down to 400 feet and still was coming up dry. That cost a pretty penny. The well, now full, sits amidst a glorious expanse of sand that Ben Webb, the excavator, trucked in to support the weight of the concrete mixer that poured the foundation last summer. I’m set to tap it this summer when the plumbers reconnect the Cabin’s plumbing. If it contains arsenic, I’m going to cry.

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Last summer was all about the Cabin foundation. The house was sinking into a bog at the northwest corner; in another decade, the support beams would have snapped. Since this is the house I’m going to live in, I needed to act fast.

The house was in the air for almost two months, while Ben built roads and moved dirt around to create new pathways for the water to go, and the very handsome — sorry folks, no pictures of that crew — family of Joel Wilson built forms and poured the concrete in stages. Finally, it was carefully lowered back on to the new foundation with system of many hydraulic jacks jerry rigged into a control board.

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This summer is all — or mostly — about plumbing and water. Ben dug the leach field in my front yard last fall before the first frost, and sometime soon — ahem — he is going to put in the tanks and lay the connecting sewer pipes. The plumbers need to

  • divert some pipes.
  • install a pump beneath the foundation on the west wing to help the water flow.
  • install a pump in the well itself.
  • reconnect the plumbing in the Cabin.
  • insulate the pipes so that I can have water year round in the Cabin.
  • connect water to the Anchorage, either from its spring or from the new well.

Meanwhile, putting a solid foundation beneath the Cabin has led to problems of its own. The carpentry crew needed to cut around and stabilize what were then two Cabin chimneys in order to do the lift. Sadly, I lost the chimney in my bedroom in that maneuver; it had been poorly built and was cracked. No romantic fires in there for me. The silver lining will be a larger master bath, complete with skylight.

Creating clearance around the stone chimney and hearth in the Cabin’s great room cost thousands of dollars and has left structure damage that still needs to be repaired. Moreover, stabilizing the foundation, which settled all the windows down into their sashes for the first time in many years, has caused damage to the roof, last shingled when the house was crooked. A mason needs to come in and re-flash the chimney, and the whole building has to be re-roofed.

Move one thing, and two others break. It’s a Gordian knot, all right.

Fortunately, I am a poet.

Taking Stock and Defining Motives

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Now that the work is finished for the season, I’ve decided to write a series of posts about the steps I took to finance this investment. Given my writerly nature, these posts will probably be pretty discursive. I’ll try to focus a couple of them on topics like using a self-directed IRA to purchase an investment property. Others are just going to ramble from one idea to the next.

I want to make clear from the onset that I’m not a financial advisor, a tax attorney, or a CPA. I’ve made some miscalculations already; some of them are dumb things I overlooked even after reading dozens of articles online and poring over the pertinent IRS documents.

Still, people think that a venture like this may be out of their reach, so I want to share my experience with you, focusing on both the emotional and economic aspects of it.

This week, I received all but a couple of the bills for work performed on the place this fall. My carpenter’s bill was the biggest; the painter, well driller, and excavator also took sizable chunks. The breakdown looks like this:

  • Clapboard replacement, foundation repair, sill damage to the Anchorage: $10,234.00
  • Painting of replaced clapboards and the other exposed wood: $3,150.00
  • Well, digging and fracking: $6,545.00
  • Consultation with structural engineer:  $291.00
  • Excavation:  $1,410
  • Chimney cleaning and staging:  $866.00
  • Plumbing, including the estimated cost to winterize:  $948.00
  • Lawn maintenance, plus reseeding and fall cleanup: $1,000.00 (estimated)

Total: $24,444.00

Of course, there are property taxes due on both the main lot and the separate parcel of land across the way; and in addition to those expenses, I had to pay the hazard insurance on both buildings, which have different accounts. I won’t count these figures in the tally because my primary interest going forward is how much it costs to repair and restore the buildings.

I have enough of my cash reserve left to fund the next big project — putting a solid foundation under the cabin — but after that I’ll have to save up for each subsequent restoration. There are two big projects that need to be done in the next couple of years: installing a new septic system for the properties, and roofing the main house.

Meanwhile, I’ll be learning how to do this:

Buying a summer house in Maine been a fantasy of mine since I was 12. I would draw elaborate pictures of how I wanted the house to look. I envisioned a drive that meandered slowly through woods richly landscaped in understory ferns and hostas. The house itself, first visible through gaps in the trees, sat overlooking a final parklike slope.

The origin of this fantasy was the cabins my paternal grandparents owned in Pembroke, Maine, a village close to the Canadian border. There were nine white-painted buildings in a row beyond the farmhouse in which my grandparents lived, each kept scrupulously neat and clean. My favorite was a small cabin with bright yellow trim and a weather cock on its peaked roof. Each one was slightly different. That was the charm of the place.

The smell of cut grass and gasoline from the riding mower is what I remember best, that and the sound of sheets churning in the zinc tubs of my grandmother’s old-fashioned washing machine. Sheets and towels, an endless supply, went through that house. I itched and begged to be allowed to feed them through the electric wringer myself, despite my grandmother’s stories about a girl like me “who lost an arm” through carelessness. I never tired of watching the water rush from one end while a flattened curl of towel emerged out of the other. It was like magic.

I was allowed to help my grandmother make and strip beds, hang towels on the line, and do the folding. My grandfather fashioned a cart for the back of his mower, and I rode on that, feeling absurd and semi-important when guests’ children watched me from the swing set at the back of the property. One whole day we spent picking blueberries at the grounds of an abandoned house with “S” shapes cut into the shutters. Saplings as thick as fingers had grown up through the foundation, and in the back was a graveyard that had jars of faded plastic flowers on the tombstones.

Without meaning to, I learned things about the hospitality business. How to prioritize a list of chores. The value of cleanliness. The importance of customer service. My grandfather took pride in what he did, charging modest rates (because he had no swimming pool) and delivering exceptional value. He didn’t just fix things as they broke. He kept a constant vigil, anticipating what might go wrong. When cars arrived, he rushed outside to greet the guests with a show of enthusiasm, often rising from the dinner table to get their keys and show them to their cabin. Sometimes I would excuse myself and run outside, mosquitos stinging my bare legs, to listen shyly to their conversations.

This reminds me of a trip my former boyfriend Paul and I took, driving down the Baja peninsula to see gray whales. Along the way, we drove through the inland desert to the Sea of Cortez and a fishing town called Bahia de Los Angeles. There, a doctor from Mexicali had bought some land for his retirement and came down every weekend to build stone cabins one by one on the beach. Like my grandfather, he didn’t care anything about the money. We paid something like seven dollars a night to camp on his land. Coyotes yipped in the distance. In the morning, a whale breeched the surface of the bay in front of us.

This was the point.

8515743649_7d67e9576f_z   Bahia de Los Angeles,” by Alessandro Valli

Phase One on the Facelift of “a Magical House” Is Complete

Here it is, the tail end of summer, almost time for the plumber to come and winterize my very own historic Maine homestead for the season. Since the closing in mid-July, the workmen have accomplished the following:

  • Dug a well. IMG_0443
  • Removed a chimney stack.
  • Propped the foundation of the Anchorage.
  • Repaired rot and sill damage from failed gutters.
  • Scraped and painted the worst sections of the house.

I have deferred the next big job — putting a proper foundation on the smaller back house, otherwise known as the Cabin — until I get back up there to watch what the contractors are doing.

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Speaking of contractors, Woodstock says that a check is arriving via registered mail for the work he never did. I haven’t seen it yet, but I remain hopeful. I did, however, get my tax bills. One of the siblings of the family that owned the house before me forwarded them to me with a sweet note welcoming me to the house “with open arms and an open heart.” A different sister, the one who arrived to sign papers at the closing, described the Anchorage as “a magical house.”

Some history may be useful here. The property was on the market 12 years, according to its current Realtor. Before the housing market crash in 2007, it had been listed for over twice what I paid. Apparently it was also in better shape. The family made numerous improvements to the back house, including the installation of all new plumbing. But they had given up on the foundation of both structures and let brush grow up around the Cabin. Weather beat down the roofs, and poorly installed gutters introduced rot.

They also disagreed, as siblings will, about whether the house should leave the family at all. Some prospective buyers wanted to tear down the Anchorage and finish off the Cabin. They wanted the place to remain as is.

My daughter and I choose the suite of rooms upstairs as our own apartment for June, before the seasonal rental market heats up and we have to vacate for our paying visitors. This section of the house includes a toilet at the end of a long corridor, a wash basin in the hallway, and two light-filled dormer bedrooms with a distant view of Eggemoggin Reach.Mail Attachment 2 Mail AttachmentThe fact that the water closet has an arched and paneled ceiling speaks volumes about what makes the house so special. It’s a place where nothing is ugly, and most things are whimsical and charming. My room features framed selections from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, for instance. The banisters going up the steep staircase to the second story don’t match; one is black, the other white. This eclectic touch seems random until you realize that their railings mirror the black and white finish on the stairs themselves.

Both houses are full of neat surprises like that. I was immediately smitten. I’d seen a bunch of places that had good individual features, but over the years the owners had put their mark on them in ways that made the design feel incoherent. In one early nineteenth-century house, the original ceilings on the upper floor were less than seven feet high, yet the owners had remodeled a master bedroom on the ground floor to have the prosaic feel of a 1940s bungalow. Another house had a clawfoot tub seated on a platform in the bedroom. I loved the whimsy of that, but the tub was only five feet long — not ideal for soaking my almost six foot body. And though the tub was the focal point of the room, its location beneath the eaves felt cramped and a bit sad.

The Cabin and Anchorage need repair and restoration, and yet they are complete. The Cabin has such rustic charm that from the first time I wandered its circular layout, I  imagined myself, clad in soft winter clothing, walking from the kitchen with a cup of tea and sitting by the fireplace to do some writing. My Realtor remembers how I sank into the red chair pictured below and announced, “I want to buy this place.”

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Meanwhile, another semester at Austin Community College is underway. Teaching sections of literature and composition to reluctant student writers is probably not the most efficient way to fund the restoration of a 200-year-old property, but I get to take six weeks of the summer off to go up and oversee the construction, and, for the time being, it pays my health insurance premiums.

The community college teaching also gives me enough time to supplement my income by writing ebooks and website copy. I began working this patchwork of different jobs after the divorce, so that I could continue picking up my daughter from elementary school and taking her to guitar practice and gymnastics rather than putting her in aftercare. But now I have to admit that I sort of like doing a little bit of everything: grading papers for a few hours, rushing to meet a client deadline, strategizing before administrative meeting at the College, tutoring students at a campus learning lab.

Nevertheless, it will be nice to slow down a bit. Focus on my writing. Get some goats and chickens.

Trials with the Chimney Sweep

(NB. My second post was going to be a nice story about my first visit to the village of Sedgwick, Maine. I’m afraid I need to hold that thought, however. I’m having contractor troubles.)

Mary Poppins

Sam Howzit, Mary Poppins

When I was a kid, I loved the film Mary Poppins. What’s not to love about magical servants who float from the sky, dance on rooftops, and can disappear into drawings on the sidewalk? I also loved making fires. One of my fondest memories was of a day I spent at my Aunt Nicky and Uncle Archie’s cabin on the shores of Parrsboro, Nova Scotia. The minute breakfast was over, I snagged a box of Everstrike matches and ran down to the water’s edge, so I could set driftwood ablaze. It was tricky, because of the winds off the Bay of Fundy. I finally used an old oil drum to get things started and managed to get a sizable bonfire going. I was about 11 at the time. No grownups came to yell at me, or even to investigate. A shallow lap of ocean was in, brackish and deceitful, covering the famous tides that trapped people and left them stranded. My grandfather warned me sternly not to walk out too far on the tides. But he would have approved of the fire. He was a pyromaniac, like me.

My feeling about wood fires and chimney sweeps was positively steeped in nostalgia, in short, and one of my top priorities in getting the Anchorage up to speed was having its wood-burning appliances properly inspected and maintained.

Tiled fireplace in Little Otie's room, with bird mural.
Tiled fireplace in Little Otie’s room, with bird mural.

The Anchorage and Cabin have no fewer than six fireplaces between them, in addition to a Franklin stove in one of the kitchens. The oldest part of the house, which dates back to 1812, has two tiled fireplaces — just the words, “tiled fireplace” conjure images of Jane Austin and Dickens characters — above which are paintings or old fashioned prescripts. My goal is to drink bourbon in front of sparking flames, indulging my hard-wired primitive instincts with old friends and family members.

Another tiled fireplace, with the inscription,
Another tiled fireplace, with the inscription, “Old wood to burn, old friends to meet.”

Enter the chimney sweep.

Let’s call him Woodstock. I was wary even before he and his hungry dog Pepper arrived. All the assurances of excellent service and love of everything I said seemed suspicious to me, especially after the laconic style of the average Maine contractor. He cleaned four fireplaces, making himself right at home by propping up a broken window with a piece of firewood and damaging a jammed storage door next to the dining room fireplace. I disliked his propriety air, his stories about “bromances” with musicians from the Grateful Dead and Fish, and his statement that my 77-year-old father was “a treasure.”

He was fey and narcissistic, a former hippie who’d done too much weed, and this is not my favorite type of person. However, he occasionally delivered knowledgeable snippets of information about damper installation and fireplace linings, and he worked solidly to get the fireplaces cleaned when he wasn’t holding forth on a variety of subjects. He also had some good ideas about what could be done to make the two unlined chimneys in the main house usable. I figured there would be no harm in getting him to do a few of the jobs he mentioned.

I also saw nothing wrong with putting half down on the entire job and paying $1800 just to remove one of the chimney stacks. I am from a fast-growing city where construction costs a fortune and most people annoy me for one reason or another. Besides, it’s always difficult to predict what a specialized job will be. I just paid over $4000 to have grates installed at the top of my driveway and a big plastic pipe buried around the yard to channel the water away.

Still, Woodstock didn’t inspire trust. He had eyed some of the things in the house in a covetous way, and I couldn’t stop thinking about how he propped the window in a strange house as though he were the homeowner. My friend Sharon, who had come up from Portland to stay at the house with me, agreed to be there as he worked; and when he didn’t show up when he said he would, I told the carpenter, Brian, to keep an eye on him.

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My problems with Woodstock began over the demolition of the chimney stack. This tower of brick and masonry was in an absurd spot, serving a small sitting room behind the dining room. From the beginning, Woodstock had intimated that the chimney would be tough going. He’d seen some things. Man, had he seen things. I tried to ignore his alarmism — hard to do when he was texting me several times a day to complain that my chimney was the hardest job he’d ever seen, a $10,000 behemoth that had set off his “spidey senses” and forced him to quit after a couple hours to buy plastic with which to wrap the fragile yet deadly stack.

Ten thousand dollars? Let’s let that sink in for a moment.

Meanwhile, I had called around Boston, arguably the most expensive city on the East Coast, to see if $1800 alone was a reasonable price. One company allowed guardedly that it was — if he patched the roof and hauled away the brick. Woodstock, naturally, advised me that the bricks were valuable and “most homeowners desire them.” He suggested that I “consider a use” for the debris, perhaps a hole on the property? I refused to answer. For that price, he was hauling it away, and that was the end of the story.

The carpenter called me in disgust to say, “He’s trying to save the bricks!”

More phone calls followed. The “big fella” in Woodstock’s crew got in his truck and took a nap the entire time Woodstock was off doing whatever. The crew seemed unfamiliar with chimney work. Woodstock got ahold of the carpenter’s number and began texting him as well.

Brian, a practical man, assured me that he and his brother could take the chimney down in a couple of hours with a sledgehammer. I think it was the following post-bowl text from Woodstock that finally convinced me to let them:

I’m calling in a couple favors and bringing in some serious help. Of course no move without your okay. I am a member of the chimney safety institute, and care very much about this. I perceive a delicate balance here and urge that we avoid ‘contractor wars’ that can start over minutia. I agree with 2, 3rd and 4th opinions. There are 2 better chimney guys in Maine than me. I’d like for them to help. One has agreed.

I waited until 3 pm on the fateful day the chimney was to come down, took a deep breath, and dialed Brian. He was sitting on my roof, finishing the shingle work on the spot where my chimney used to be. “We got there at 7:30, and the thing was down in an hour. I got it loaded in my truck and hauled it away. My grandson found extra shingles in the barn.”

I hung up and immediately called the Maine State Attorney’s Office to file a complaint. Tracy, the helpful clerk who answered the phone, was appalled by my story (in her reserved way) and directed me to the section of consumer law that says contractors cannot ask for more than one third down on a job. Although she could give no legal advice, she told me that, as a homeowner, she wouldn’t let Woodstock near her fireplaces with a ten foot pole.

I then went to the Internet and found a negative Google review. A minute later, I was chatting about Woodstock with a man, let’s call him Larry, who was still bitter about the experience three years later. This guy was determined, I give him that; he called every paper in the state that advertised Woodstock’s company and told them what a fraud he was. Incensed by the combative and disbelieving air of one paper’s editor, he found out that Woodstock said Larry was coming on to him and got mad when Woodstock rebuffed his advances, and that was the reason he was besmirching his name.

Did I mention that Woodstock has the keys to my house?

He still has them. Although he appears to accept that he is fired, has taken away his scaffolding, and sent Brian a string of angry text messages saying that his price is $200 an hour with a four hour minimum, he has refused to surrender the keys. The last I heard from Woodstock, it was to say he could not return the keys tomorrow because “Eileen” has meningitis and “he keeps the sabbath.” He also said he was “sending me an invoice.” I can hardly wait for that. He owes me almost $1,500. I know. I’m an idiot.

Stay tuned to find out the lengths I have to go to get my money back.