The Devil Queen

How my wife and I sold our souls to the Queen Anne Victorian we tried to save.

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Location: Crow Mountain, Arkansas, United States

Synopsis: This is a cautionary tale. A seriously disturbed couple find the charming, old ruin of a Queen Anne Victorian in Russellville, Arkansas, and buy it for $1.00. They tore the roof off, cut it in half, and had it moved to some land they owned sixteen miles away because they didn't know any better. Since then, they have hired and fired contractors, had all of their tools stolen, re-wired, re-plumbed, insulated, and essentially rebuilt the entire house. Their only problem is that after four years it still isn't finished. Now they are tired, broke, and wonder what in the hell it is they've done to themselves. And, it's haunted.
(Last updated on April 3, 2008)

Press: Russellville Courier Article - December 2003, HGTV website article, AP story - October 2006, and Victorian Homes Magazine - February 2008 (link coming soon).
Art: From time to time, I receive requests for my art. If you would like to look at more of my art, go to The Failed Artist. If you would like to buy my art, email me. I am more than happy to answer any questions you might have. Thanks!

Friday, September 22, 2006

Did We Know?

LA Mama asked, “On the subject of DIY home improvement, have any helpful advice for a couple planning to buy a fixer-upper? We have virtually *zero* experience in this sort of thing. Did you and your wife know what you were doing when you began this type of thing?

I have to laugh, did we know what we were doing? Hell no! If we did, I’m not sure that we would have taken on this project.

So, how did we end up here?

My wife and I both love houses. I’m not sure where we get this compulsion. I can’t speak for my wife, but I always loved building things. Wood blocks and Legos were some of my favote toys. By the time I was about 12, I thought that I would lilke to be an architech. My paternal grandfather was a master carpenter and my Dad learned a few things, some of which he passed on to me. I’m not saying that I knew the tricks of the trade, but I knew which end of the hammer to hold and what “toe-nailing” was.

My wife and I both ended up working for a real estate appraisal company for several years, and getting paid to snoop in other people’s homes got us very interested in houses.

Our first home, Mr. Blue ( 1050 square foot ranch house of sub-par construction), was our first house and fixer-upper. My wife hated the house, but I ended up buying it anyhow. No, she’s never forgiven me for it. Ironically, the Devil Queen was supposed to be her house to make up for that first SNAFU.

We learned some construction basics from fixing up Mr. Blue. Over a period of nine months, my wife and (to a lessor degree) I gave the house a face lift. In hindsight, most of this would fall into the “cosmetic repairs” category: new carpets & vinyl, new AC, wood burning stove, new appliances, repair plumbing & wiring, new interior & exterior paint. Re-framing the carport, insulating the laundry room, and jacking the floors were the only serious construction projects we undertook.

At the time, we thought we had some real construction experience, but, looking back, I’m shocked at how little we really knew.

My wife had been in love with the Devil Queen since she was a little girl. Driven by our love of old homes and inflated sense of confidence we plunged into this project. Nothing has been the same since that time.

First, it helps to think of home restoration project as a serious relationship. It’ll become your jealous lover, your mistress, or your spouse. It comes with all the tempestous ups and downs of any romance. Some relationships make it, some end in divorce or murder. Expect the worst, hope for the best.

Second, I have some more specific advice for you:

1) Do not move a house. If you aren’t familiar with the back story of the Devil Queen, Act 1 of this drama started with us moving the Devil Queen 16 miles. This involved tearing the old roof off, cutting the house in half down the main hallway, and moving it in two sections. Then, we had to have a foundation, septic tank, etc waiting for her at the new site. This little adventure set us back at least two years and $30,000-$40,000. Repeat after me, “Just say NO.’ Yes, even if they sell you the house for a $1.
2) Know thy self. Anyone can learn to work on their own house, not everyone will enjoy doing so. Some people just don’t have the temperament for it. If you are one of these people, there is no shame in this. However, you’ll be much happier if you discover this before you mortgage your soul away for a house that needs some serious help.
3) A high threshold for frustration is helpful if not a must. Things almost never go the way they are supposed to, so be prepared. Beating your head against a wall is a perfectly acceptable coping mechanism.
4) The general consensus among Housebloggers is whatever you think your budget will be (rounding up), double it. This will be the MINIMUM that your project will cost. To date, our costs have been exactly double of what we budgeted.
5) Having prior experience in construction is helpful but not required. A willingness to learn, try new things, and screw up royally (hopefully learning from your mistakes) are required.
6) Banks, insurance companies, and bureaucracy in general will cause you no end of grief. Be prepared and stay away from them as much as possible.
7) Using the right tools makes all the difference in the world.
8) Research everything BEFORE you start a project.
9) The prep-work usually takes longer than the job itself; budget your time accordingly.
10) Read houseblogs. I know that sounds like a shameless plug, but I’m serious. I can’t begin to tell you how much grief I’ve saved myself by reading other people’s houseblogs. There is a lot of great how-to information out their (with copious, step by step pictures in most cases). And, a lot of this information isn’t covered in books or other publications. And, it’s free. How do you beat that?
11) If you enjoy having a robust and exciting social life, be prepared to kiss it good-bye. I didn’t have much of one to begin with, but I missed what little of one I had. There was period of time where we couldn’t afford to go to the movies or eat out. We more or less lived off of pinto beans, bread, eggs, and pasta.
12) Free, salvaged building materials are worth the effort of digging up & hauling. For instance, we salvage approximately $14,000-$15,000 of beadboard from an old home slated for demolition. All it cost us was time, sweat, and the gas money to haul it.
13) Nothing will ever be done on schedule.
14) Pick the right house. There are different kinds of fixer-uppers. Some just need some minor repairs and a lot of new paint, and some need new foundations & to be completely gutted. How much work do you want to do? Also, pick a house in an area you plan to live in for quite some time. There is no telling how long a project will run, and just because you bought it doesn’t mean someone else will want it even if it IS finished.

I’m sure that I’ve omitted a ton of stuff, but this ought to be enough to get you started. If you have any questions, please ask. I hope I haven’t scared you away from home ownership (we have that effect on some people). I think it is better to go into one of these projects a little scared and well informed than blissfully ignorant. You’re chances of survival are greatly improved, I think.

Oh, one last thought. I wouldn't recommend having children mid-project. Lately, there have been a lot of housebloggers having babies. I don't know if we're all that age now or if there have been a lot more alien abductions/impregnations than they are admitting, but it seems that there are babies everywhere. And, a home renovation can be done with babies/children around, but it makes it a lot harder. So, if you have a choice in the matter, either wait until your children are 10 or 12 or put off having them until you're (mostly) finished. I know, life would be easier if we lived in a perfect world.

3 Comments:

Anonymous Paul said...

I would also add, if you know somebody who can give a good objective look at the house before you buy it, do it. There are some structural problems that should be deal breakers, including anything that has to do with rebuilding a foundation or massive water problems. George Nash has an excellent book, "Renovating Old Houses: Bringing New Life to Vintage Homes" that has been mentioned on Housblogs before. I sugest you read that to have some idea of what you may be getting yourself into.

10:18 AM  
Blogger Archimedes24 said...

Hey John,

Aaron from Australia here...except I'm not in Oz anymore. Back in the US for good. Red and I just closed on our first house on Monday. The sellers should be out this weekend, and then we take over. We're in the enviable postition of having a paid for apartment to live in while we paint and do some trim work.

I saw you mentioned a wood burning stove in Mr. Blue. We have a natural fireplace in our new house, and I'm thinking about getting a wood burning insert. The big decision seems to be catylitic, or non. Do you have a strong opinion one way or the other? I've tried to research it, but usually it's just a company plugging their product one way or the other...

Anyhoo, been enjoying TDQ of late. Hope all is well.
A

11:59 AM  
Blogger John said...

Paul,

Excellent point and a great book.

Archimedes,

I was beginning to wonder if you made it back. Congratulations of the house, I hope it's kind to you.

I'm afraid that I don't know too much about catylitic stoves, they are a lot higher tech than ours. We had simple cast iron job that cost us a couple hundred dollars. I worked great with out blowers and all the fancy gizmos. Of course, it probably wasn't as efficent as some of these new ones.

Personally, I prefer simple over fancy/complicated. My father-in-law has an insert with a blower; it is supplemental heat for his home, and when he gets it going it's just like an oven in there.

Sorry I'm much help on this one. I'd be curious to know what you end up with & how you like it.

Good luck & welcome back.

2:28 PM  

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