Dear Mr. and Mrs. Wantmore,
Based on our conversation at the house on Rundown Lane, here is an estimate for repairs and renovations. These items are not meant to alarm. They suggest, however, that what looked like a real estate bargain may be a money pit.
Cracks visible in the foundation wall may be minor, of long-standing, and easy to smooth over. Or they may indicate unstable subsoil, shoddy masonry, and imminent collapse. Groundwater leaks may be an occasional drip, or they may flood the basement every time it rains. To excavate, evaluate, and fix a foundation is hideously expensive.
Tax assessment records do not extend beyond 1920, so the house may be considerably older than one hundred years. The dimensions of framing lumber, the sizes of windows and doors, and the thickness of plaster, wood casing, ceramic tile, and other interior finishes will be found to differ from today’s standards. A match of new materials to old is nearly impossible, new work must be custom fitted to existing conditions, and labor to make these finicky adjustments is tedious. All this tends to blow up the budget like a balloon.
Mrs. Wantmore noted a “picturesque air of neglect.” The advanced state of decay requires probing to determine what materials are sound and what must be replaced. Broken windows and loose boards are only the start. Termite damage, dry rot, black mold, and pink slime are likely. Deferred maintenance carries a hefty price tag.
Fireplaces and chimneys show fallen bricks, crumbling mortar, rusted dampers, and cracked stone hearths. Flues are clogged with soot, ashes, and creosote, an evil-smelling and flammable residue from smoke. A lively blaze to ward off the chill of an autumn evening will burn down the house. To clean, repair, and fireproof the brick is a job that requires expertise and a wheelbarrow full of cash.
Plumbing pipes are corroded and pitted. Electrical circuits are overloaded, and wiring is frayed, which will lead to sparks and fires. Air distribution ducts are choked with dust, which constricts the flow and contaminates the living space. The replacement of all interior systems is not out of the question, at a cost of many thousands of dollars.
Peeling lead paint covers surfaces, while asbestos fibers lurk in cavities and crawl spaces. By law, these toxic materials must be removed in a manner consistent with public health and safety. Debris must be encapsulated in plastic sheets and taken to a special dump for hazardous waste. The disposable suits the workmen wear, like deep-sea divers, are stifling and restrictive. The process is slow, and disposal fees are steep. The liability insurance premiums are staggering.
Vines such as English ivy and Virginia creeper cover the outside walls. While the greenery may look cozy, tendrils pry into the structure and destroy it over time. They pull mortar from brick joints, loosen caulk at jambs and lintels, and tear shingles off the roof. Vegetation keeps moisture against the house, promotes rot and mildew, and provides a haven for birds, rodents, reptiles, insects, and spiders that migrate inside. Large tree limbs overhang the house. The next storm will send them crashing through the roof. Shrubs are overgrown. Leaves clog the gutters, and roots attack underground. Plant removal is ruinous.
Mr. Wantmore expressed a desire to visit the site daily “to offer advice and a helping hand.” Please note that a construction site is full of sharp edges, sudden drops, and dangling cords, not to mention slippery mud. The risk of personal injury is high. And aesthetic judgments based on bare studs, empty door and window openings, and imaginary fixtures will be moot. Rather than get into heated arguments over methods of installation, with threats to call an attorney, I suggest a weekly progress update, say Friday afternoon after the crew has cleared debris and gone home. Sensible shoes are recommended. A tape measure will be provided. Additional visits will cost you an arm and a leg.
Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. His short stories and essays appear in Bellingham Review, Fiction International, Louisville Review, New Haven Review, Saturday Evening Post, and other magazines.