Part One: Avoiding Pitfalls when Buying Shitloads of Stuff
The New Old House project is going very well, thanks for asking. Slowly, if you measure the progress by any sort of professional standard, but very well, if you consider the fact that I am having an absolute blast working through it bit by bit.
“What a fine life this is”, I thought to myself this week, as I stood out on my spacious new concrete patio which overlooks the park, cutting out some elaborate wooden forms with a high-end cordless jigsaw. It was a very warm day, and the bright sun shining sideways from its winter solstice position lit up the whole scene like a glowing postcard. There have been many moments like this, where the deep satisfaction of solving tricky puzzles and building something big takes over my whole mind and makes me smile and chuckle to myself like a fool.
It’s not all Nailguns and Roses of course, as there have been plenty of obstacles along the way. The complex design required a lot of sourcing of tricky materials (including almost 3000 pounds of gigantic steel beams which I have been cutting and welding all week). The byzantine regulations of the 2012 International Building Code added some troubles as well, especially when interpreted by an overworked and under-motivated crew of building inspectors who often don’t return calls and emails. And my own juggling of family, friends, and construction time has resulted in a very lax work schedule. But with no looming deadlines or financial constraints and the reassurance that I have done this all before, I have had the luxury of taking each thing in stride and working through it, one call, email, and shovel at a time.
The other challenge is the odd feeling of suddenly becoming one of the biggest consumers in town. Almost every day I have to buy stuff. Tools, materials, and supplies are needed in abundance for a project like this, and so I’ve spent about $20,000 in the past three months. On top of all that steel, there is a huge pile of engineered lumber taking up most of the back driveway and more deliveries on the way. I try to remind myself that it’s an investment, and the money will be returned many times over when we sell our current house (this downsizing will free up over $100,000, even after all these renovation costs). But I still see the trucks and forklifts, steel and wood, cardboard and plastic wrap, and can’t help but notice that for now I am chewing up a huge share of my own planet just to build myself a dwelling.
Renovation is always an expensive and complex affair, but I am making a bigger effort than ever this time to take the edge off of it. I am investing extra time and effort to cut the cost and material waste involved in this project, and I thought it would be worthwhile to share some of the results with you, as a mid-project update.
Designing to Reduce Ridiculousness
When faced with a blank slate, most would-be homeowners try to cram in every possible idea and feature. “It would be nice if the kids could each have their own ensuite bathroom, and I really want that dedicated closet just for my shoes this time.” We have felt the same temptation to chase perfection, but are working to suppress it. We avoided the usual urge to add floor space to this house, and instead just re-partitioned the existing space more efficiently. After all, you only have one body and thus can only use one room at a time. Whenever any room sits unused, it consumes your resources while returning no benefit.
There’s also philosophy to consider: by now, you and I both know that adding more luxury to one’s living arrangements will not produce a happier life. But houses can still bring happiness when they meet needs: shelter, a place for family and friends to gather regularly, and a location close enough to amenities that you don’t need to engage in the proven happiness destroyer of car commuting in order to live there. Since my old house already met these needs, any project like this one must be about the journey itself. The effort, hard work, and overcoming of obstacles must be its own reward. This is definitely true for me, plus there is the endpoint of greater wealth and ongoing satisfaction of being surrounded by things I’ve built myself.
With the design mostly in place, it was time to go in search of materials. Before even beginning the shopping I was able to decrease the quantity of steel and wood required by negotiating down a few structural details with the engineer. Then I sent the design to a lumber supplier, and reviewed the resulting parts list with a fine-toothed comb to reduce waste and find less material-intensive ways to get the required strength. This was a tedious exercise that involved no rewarding sunshine or adventures with power tools, but it sliced almost $2000 from the budget right away. Smaller designs are generally smarter ones.
Craigslist Does it Again
Through Craigslist, I found an old steelyard that was going out of business in downtown Denver. There, I was able to buy about 40% of the steel beams I needed for the project, at only one fifth of the price of new steel. They were odds and ends which were of no use to the typical large commercial buyer of this product, so this find was a big score for both wallet and ec0 footprint.
Reuse and Recycle
I sold the old dishwasher and fridge from the house to free up space and cash. And now I’m making a daily visit to the “Materials” section of Craigslist to scoop up any workable materials and appliances for the new design, displacing the need for newly purchased ones whenever possible.
I tore out whe whole failing spaghetti-network of copper and cast iron pipes from the crawlspace and rebuilt it with PEX and ABS, then took the whole 500-pound lot of the old stuff down to the metal recycling center so it could be melted down and re-used. They gave me a check for $108 for the copper.
And I’ve been reclaiming every 2×4 from torn-down walls and meticulously stripping out nails so I can reuse the classy old-growth Fir elsewhere. While this may not be time-efficient when new studs are only $2.88, it just feels like the right thing to do when I consider the reduction of trash and the decrease in new material purchases.
I’m also making occasional stops at the recycled building materials store, and the most amazing find so far was a brand new $500 modern-style sink with the “Lowe’s Display” sticker on it, marked down to $100 – including tax. It looks very similar to this one:
Discounts on Materials
If you go to the Pro desk at Home Depot or another retailer and tell them you are building a house, they will often offer some fine incentives on your larger orders. 10% off, free delivery, and price matching even on obscure items like custom windows from a brand they don’t even carry. In my area, if you have a building permit in hand you can get a reduction in the sales tax rate as well, saving hundreds more.
A Quick Credit Card Hack
To allow easier tracking of the total cost of this project, I decided to open a new, dedicated credit card just for this house. We chose the Chase Sapphire Preferred card because of its ridiculous $400 signing bonus, followed by an ongoing 1% cash back. I also took the opportunity to get a new card for my business (which in turn owns this blog) – the Chase Ink Bold which kicked in another $500*. Both of these cards require a certain amount of spending within the first 90 days to qualify for the bonus, but with house and blog-related spending currently very high, it was an ideal time to do something that is normally a bit of a hassle. With the frugal theme of this project, making the time to scoop another $900 out of the air seemed fitting.
An IKEA Kitchen
The kitchen cabinets are often the most expensive part of a renovation like this, and I have heard a $10,000 cabinet set referred to as “cheap” by my fellow builders. But there is a secret: IKEA sells assemble-it-yourself cabinets that come with top-the-line front finishes and hardware, at less than half the price of special-order or custom cabinets. On top of this, we placed our order during the November kitchen sale for a further 20% discount. Mrs. Money Mustache did most of the design and ordering work, we paid IKEA $144 to hand-pick and deliver our complex order (saving us a 120-mile roundtrip drive and a day of painful shopping) and she is now assembling the cabinets with expert craftswomanship in one of the spare bedrooms. Savings on our rather elaborate kitchen: at least $7,000.
DIY, Friends, and Barter
The most obvious cost-saving measure available for homeowners is of course doing most of the work ourselves. “Easier said than done”, is a common refrain among the uninitiated, but “It’s much more fun than it sounds” is what those of us in the know say in response. I had a good handle on most of the trades from past experience, but in a project this large, there is always more to learn.
One of the first projects I dug into, for example, was replacing the whole electrical service of the house. Sure, I had done plugs and switches before, and even wiring runs and breaker boxes. But here I wanted to tear out the antiquated aerial line that dangled ominously across the back yard, entering through a crusty old hole in the shingles to feed a tragic 6-circuit service panel from over half a century ago. This would clean up the appearance of the house, as well as getting wires out of places they should not be, facilitating the upcoming roof framing.
It took some work: I had to coordinate the power company, the building inspector, and the labor of myself, some Mustachians who stopped by to help out on my birthday, and some gracious free advice from an electrician friend I also met through this blog. Research, phone calls, digging a deep 40-foot-long trench, running thick wires through unforgiving PVC conduit, and installing a meter panel on the outside and a breaker panel inside all took me a good several days of hard effort. I had to sledgehammer an 8-foot-long copper grounding rod into solid earth until its head was flush with the soil. But in the end, I learned in intricate detail exactly how to build out an electrical service from the ground up, and saved a few thousand dollars as a secondary reward. Today the power company hooked up my new system for the first time and cut down the old wire. As soon as they left, I plugged my construction radio into one of my brand-new outlets, cranked up the volume, and danced.
This project has also provided the opportunity for some enjoyable barter with friends who are also working on their own houses. We exchange work visits with each other, where my electrical knowledge earns credits towards their framing or painting skill.
Finally, I accepted a crazy offer from a reader that is a mirror image of the Carpentourism trip I took to Hawaii last winter. An entrepreneurial young guy is driving out from California and showing up here on January 4th – in exchange for free rent, food, and an education in building houses, he will be working alongside me roughly full time during the weeks (and teaching snowboarding in the mountains on the weekends). The idea sounded just ridiculous enough to work, so we’re going for it and it will surely be a winner in all directions.
And that’s just part one. In future episodes of the New House Chronicles, we will cover “Getting Bids and Herding Cats”, “How to Do Anything Yourself”, “Building a Bathroom From Scratch”, “The Radiant Heat at 90% off Experiment”, and many more topics as they come to mind (requests?). This house project is a big and very fun part of my life these days, so you will find it creeping into the pages of MMM as well.
*While I can happily recommend these two cards since I have had good experiences with them myself, do watch out for the annual fee which kicks in after a year (I tend to cancel mine and then repeat the process the following year). Also, once you get the card, go to https://dnmoptions.chase.com/, and un-check all the ridiculous opted-in choices for extra spam. All credit card companies do this, but I have found immediately opting out keeps my snail mailbox blissfully empty. At least the Chase implementation is quick and efficient. See this blog’s credit cards page for more details.