my triplex, after winter 2007 snowstorm
my triplex, after winter 2007 snowstorm
my triplex, rear view, after winter 2007 snowstorm
my triplex, rear view, after winter 2007 snowstorm

I bought my First House, a 1947 daylight basement Cape Cod, in 2000. It represented most of what I was looking for: A liveable fixer with a garage and lots of parking, within bicycle commuting range of downtown seattle. I spent the next five or six years fixing it up, and then sold it in summer 2006 to buy my South Park Triplex.

The Neighborhood

My first house is located in the Wedgwood neighborhood of seattle. Wedgwood is a neighborhood in the northeast of seattle that filled out after world war two, so it contains a lot of Cape Cod style homes, mine being no exception. Prior to becoming a suburb, it was a rural area with small farms and orchards and cabins in the woods. Many of these buildings are still standing today, scattered among the newer homes. It is one of the sleepier in-city neighborhoods, but was (and is still) seeing an influx of many new, younger residents. By the time I moved on, I was the second most senior resident on the street; a couple of the surrounding homes had been sold more than once during my tenure there. I liked living there, but in contranst to my current home in the South Park Neighborhood, it took a lot longer to meet any of my neighbors, and there was far less community activity and organization evident.

The House

This house was built in 1947 as part of a subdivision of five or six homes. It is a fairly typical example of its "period" except that for whatever reason it never had a real fireplace; instead it was built with a wood stove. Being on a hillside overlooking Lake Washington, the lot slopes gently, making for level entry to the basement from the front of the house. There is about 1700 square feet of living space, and a 250 square foot garage.

Original configuration

From what I was able to deduce living there for six years, originally the house had two bedrooms and one bath upstairs, with colonial style moldings, panel doors and fir floors. It probably had space-age steel kitchen cabinets and countertops. It had been painted quite colorfully inside with various reds, yellows, blues, and browns. There was never a fireplace, but there may have been a wood stove originally. The basement had been built with good ceiling height, and was finished to a rough standard with asbestos floor tile and fiberboard paneling and more garish colors. A laundry area had been installed under the kitchen, and a large concrete slop sink had existed in the garage. The basement had probably been divided into one or two large rooms, plus a furnace enclosure and garage.

First remodel: 1960's

From what I was able to gather during my own work, The house suffered through two "remodels" prior to mine. The first one happened in the 60's, and involved redoing the bathroom and rearranging the floor plan upstairs to try and increase the size of the bathroom and add storage space for the kitchen. Fairly nice mahogany hollow-core doors and new trim replaced the original trim, and carpets went down over the worn fir floors. A gas furnace replaced the original oil one at that time as well. Also at this point many of the original steel frame windows on the upper floor were replaced with single-pane aluminum frame windows. This work was reasonably well done for the time. The upstairs bathroom was actually fairly nice with mahogany paneling and mosaic tile, but this was worn out and partly covered over by a later remodel.

Second "remodel": 1980-ish

A second more significant remodel happened in the early 80's. This one included finishing the basement to add 2 bedrooms and a 3/4 bath, and a kitchen remodel. Crappy fixtures were installed all around. A second half-baked kitchen was installed downstairs. A portion of the garage was taken to create more finished space in the form of a hallway and part of the downstairs bathroom. The laundry area was moved into the garage. The exterior of the house was "modernized" by covering over several original window frames and reframing others to take the 80's style wider-than-tall windows that were common at the time. Much of the yard was paved over with 1" thick concrete, and a pathetic attempt at a drainage system was installed in the backyard to try and combat the water issues. It got a tear-off rroofing job at about this time as well.

My remodel

More Remodel Pictures

By the time I bought the house, the interior screamed "cheap 80's crap!" and was falling apart. The yard was an overgrown mudhole. Several untrained dogs had been kept in the basement by the previous renters. The previous owner had been an absentee slumlord and was selling because enough things were falling apart that liveability was becoming marginal. Multiple sections of original plumbing were ready to go. A lot of original electrical systems were in bad shape. The carport was rotten and ready to collapse. The patio was cracked and sunken and chanelling rainwater towards the foundation. The furnace did not work. The water heater was leaking. The gutters were rusted out and the roof was starting to leak. Rotten wood from a large tree that had been cut down god knows how long before was piled up next to the house. It had recieved very poor interior and exterior paint jobs prior to going on market. The kitchen was one bright spot: it had been done reasonably tastefully (for the 80's) and was basically in good shape although the dishwasher was DOA and the countertops were a bit dated. The one other bright spot was a modern breaker panel had been installed at this time as well.

Once I was moved in, I got right to work. Here is a list of everything I did to the place, in roughly consecutive order.

  • Clean garbage out of yard and dig out mud and sod that covered over several concrete walkways.
  • New water heater
  • Fix furnace
  • Dig 100+ feet of new french drains
  • Replace carport
  • Re-wire the garage
  • De-model basement to return garage to original size and configuration. Move entrance to bathroom to a more sane location.
  • Total basement bathroom rebuild, upgrade to full bath from 3/4. Replaced all reachable galvananized plumbing and lower needlessly high "pedestals" that fixtures were installed on. Used attractive vintage fixtures and tile throughout. Homemade cabinets using reclaimed Husky Stadium bleacher board.
  • Move Laundry area from garage into corner of main basement room
  • Remove dangerous downstairs wood stove installation
  • Re-tile basement floors. Redo basement door and baseboard trim and paint all of basement.
  • Redo or remove all reachable original wiring in the basement.
  • Remove doorframe installed inside of doorframe installed inside of doorframe. No Kidding.
  • Refinish stairwell, replace or repair drywall, eliminate wall to increase open space, replace exterior door, install side window.
  • Rebuild pantry to increase useful size and fix dangerously weak floor, and to remove head-cracking low spot in stairwell.
  • Battle (and win) against termites living under the concrete front porch
  • Demo old patio, use concrete chunks to build retaining wall.
  • Install more french drains and new gutter drainage around house, pour new patio
  • Backfill behind retaining wall with dirt dug out of french drains
  • Build attractive brick wall around patio, install new flowerbeds.
  • Build new garden shed using recycled lumber
  • Rework upstairs floor plan to eliminate unnecessary zags in hallway, move furnace cold air return, and increase useful size of bathroom.
  • Studs-out bathroom remodel upstairs. Use more vintage fixtures and lots and lots of tile. Replace more galvanized pipe and more wiring. Repair dry rot found in walls and ceiling.
  • Reconfigure upstairs bedrooms to move master bedroom to the north side of the house. Studs-out on exterior walls, add insulation. Remove surveillance system found hiding in the wall. No shit.
  • Install cedar-lined closets throughout upstairs
  • Open up boarded-up window frames and reframe 80's windows to take original style of windows.
  • New light fixtures in bedrooms, bathroom and hallway.
  • New black granite kitchen countertops, two-basin sink and disposal. New Dishwasher. Replace last vestige of galvanized pipe. Replace more wiring.
  • New carpets and linoleum, and laminate flooring throughout upstairs.
  • New double-pane vinyl windows throughout upstairs
  • New gas stove installation with cool tile hearth installation
  • New interior paint throughout much of upstairs
  • New exterior paint job.
  • New tear-off roof

Looking back, all I can say is, how the hell did I do all that? Guess thats why I was busy most every weekend and evening. As for the prospect of doing it again, well, maybe. But for now, any work I do will be done to a faster and easier standard. That makes more sense anyway for rental units. I may take on another fixer house in the future, but not for a while. I am, for the moment, tired of doing that sort of work constantly.

Moving On...

By the time 2006 rolled around, I was starting to get close to being finished with all the major work I wanted to do to my house. I also knew that the real estate market, which had been appreciating quite rapidly all the time I had been there, might be starting to move into a more stable phase. I also had decided to try my hand at landlording, and I had the equity to get into a small multifamily building. For all these reasons, I decided to sell my house in the summer of 2006. The process of selling my current home, and finding my South Park Triplex was exhausting emotionally, and took basically the whole summer to complete. But it was worth it, and it was a good way to get closure on all the work I had done to my first home, and start on the next chapter. I did well, coming fairly close to doubling my money on the house. I figure all the work I did probably added 80 to 100k of value to the house, and probably made the difference between its being sold as a move-in ready charming cape cod, and its being sold as a tear down. I sort of wish I had decided to stay put and enjoy the place a bit longer after all my work, but it was time to move on. I get bored just sitting and not doing something. And so it goes.