The Devil Queen

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

My Photo
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, June 22, 2007

The Old Home Buying Check List, Part 1

Okay April, here it is. Or at least the first part of it. And, since I rushed some of this, please excuse the "draft" quality of it. Hopefully, I'll refine it at a later date.

If I'd remember to bring my camera with me last weekend, this would be an illustrated list. It was unbelievable. Everywhere I went this weekend their were prime examples of water damage, failing roofs, bad foundations, collapsing additions, etc. I may have to do a version two of this with photos.

Also, I'd highly recommend this book, Renovating Old Homes by George Nash. Among other things, it has a lot of info (and photos) on how to assess an old house's condition.

The extremely short version of it is this: Rot, mold, moisture, termites, environmental hazards (asbestos, lead, oil leaks, etc) and structural failures (roofs and foundations in particular) are things are need to look for in an old house.

And, here are a few tips or cardinal rules.

1) Don't move a house, ever. Leave that to stupid, crazy people like me.
2) Nearly anything can be fixed, repaired, or refurbished if given enough time and money; however, just because it can be done doesn't mean that you should do it. Pick your battles based on your budget and emotional fortitude.
3) No matter how bad you think a house is, it is usually twice as bad and it will take twice as much time and money too. If you move a house, go ahead and triple everything for a good measure.

Now for the long versions. Here are some of the things that I would look for if I were in the market for an old home.

General Exterior

1) What are the exterior walls of the house clad in? Brick, original wood lap-siding, asbestos, aluminum, vinyl, etc?
2) If it is asbestos, aluminum, vinyl, or other type of "modern" siding, was it laid over the original siding (typically wood of some sort) or did they tear the original siding off before they installed the new siding? Nearly every house I've seen has had the original siding underneath. If this is the case, typically one of two things has occurred (or both). The new siding has protected the original siding from the elements and it is in better shape than you'd expected, or the new siding has trapped moisture between it and the original siding and rotted it.
3) What is its condition? If brick, is the mortar still good? Does it need to be repointed? Was it "repaired" with concrete? If so, has the concrete started to crack the bricks yet? [I've never owned a brick house; if anyone has something to add to this, please let me know]. Is the wood rotten, termite eaten, warped, etc? Is the paint on it lead based (chances are pretty good that at least a few layers are)? Can the siding be saved with a little repair or does in need to be completely replaced?
4) Asbestos? You'll want this to come down sooner or later. As long as it isn't crumbling in such a way that the asbestos fibers are becoming airborne, you should be okay as I understand it. [Again, I've never had to deal with this problem; Greg at the Petch House has if I remember correctly. Please let me know if you have some tips on this]

1) How old is the current roof and what is it made of? Composition shingles/asphalt shingles typically have a 30 year life span. If they are incorrectly installed (i.e. laid over pre-existing layers of roofing), reduce the expected life span by 10 to 15 years.
2) If the shingles (or other roofing material) are laid over older layers, how many layers are there? Example: The Devil Queen had two (or three?) layers of composition shingles laid over the original wood shingles. Over 100 years, the weight had caused portions of the roof to collapse.
3) Is the roof shedding its shingle or other roofing material? This is usually a sign that it's time to replace it.
4) Has the roof been patched with tar, asphalt, or other material? Pay particular attention to the areas around chimneys and vent pipes.
5) Is the roof sagging or uneven in anyway? If so, check the framing to see if it is damage. Sometimes though, this can be caused by settling and may not be a problem.
6) Is there moss or other plants growing on the roof? If so, you can assume that the roof will need to be replaced. You might also have some serious drainage issues you need to identify.
7) Go into the attic and look at the underside of the roof. Look for stains or other signs of leaks on the underside of the roof. If there are signs of leaks (current or fixed), go down. That is, water flows down, so look for where it would have gone once it entered the house. Did it pool between the joists? Did it seep through the ceiling into the room below. Did it run down the inside of a wall? Look for the usual rot, mold, etc.

What kind of foundation does the house have? Crawlspace, full basement, partial basement, slab, pier & beams, concrete, rock, brick, etc?
2) How high is the sill plate from the ground as viewed from the exterior of the house? Most codes that I am aware of require a house to be 18-24 inches above grade. Many older homes are not. I've seen some that actually touched the ground in places. Moisture damage is possible, and termites damage can almost be guaranteed.
3) Does the surrounding ground slope towards or away from the house? French drains or landscaping can take care of this, but check for signs of water damage, mold, etc.
4) Are there cracks or holes in the foundation?
5) Look for mold, water stains, and standing water in the crawlspace or basement. We once looked at a house (40-50 year old ranch house in Atkins) that had standing water in the crawl space. It was a deal killer for us.


1) Does the house have any additions to it?
2) If the house does have additions, do they extend beyond the original foundation or roofline of the house?
3) If the answer to #2 is yes, carefully check where the addition is attached to the house. This is often one of the weakest spots on the house. A lot of additions are poorly executed and poorly designed creatures which are structurally unsound or trap water. The Devil Queen's front and back porches were enclosed in the 1980's or early 1990's. Because of how they were built, they didn't ventilate well and collected moisture inside the porches. They'd rotted from the inside out by the time we acquired the Queen. Even if we hadn't moved her, we'd have to raze the porches and rebuild them.



Anonymous Brenda from Flatbush said...

I'd add, get a professional house inspector's report from an impartial expert--worth its wt in gold. Our guy pointed out a potentially fatal warp/crack in the house's central joist (essentially, its spine) that we never would've noticed--a house that was cosmetically in way better shape than the one we bought. The one we bought was a "wreck" that needed all new mechanicals, but the frame is incredibly squared-up and strong even after a century of neglect (and, yes, some termite work and several areas of water damage). A good inspector's report also serves as a roadmap for prioritizing big renovation projects. Finally, if possible, check for handy macho neighbors who will want to volunteer a lot to lend you stuff like power tools and ladders or, better yet, do stuff with/for you--invaluable!

6:32 AM  
Blogger John said...

Brenda, excellent points. Thank you!

6:34 AM  
Anonymous Julia said...

And make sure you get a good inspector. Ask for references and interview more than one at the very least. Our inspector (who I thought was good) missed some stuff we think he should have seen.

12:27 PM  
Blogger EGE said...

There's also a book called "So You Want To Fix Up An Old House" by Peter Hotton (aka The Handyman). Last I checked it was out of print, but you can get it, I did (ain't the interweb a byooteeful thing?). And I have a ten-point list of my own for buying a house, if anybody's interested...

4:51 PM  
Anonymous April said...

Thank you thank you thank you...........Went out on my first excursion yesterday and this really came in handy.....I drove all over some of the counties nearby me (I am in ST Louis......I was looking in outstate missouri...) It is simply amazing how much photos and real estate listings can mislead a person........

Now any tips on how to break a deep seated love of a house that I know better than to buy would be helpful.........................

I just couldn't help falling deeper in love with a 1910 Victorian Cottage that is seriously trashed. But its cheap, and everytime I looked at it all I could see was how it could look instead of how it really did look. Thank GOD for my fiance. He is the voice of reason here otherwise you guys would be reading a blog about my nightmare house.....Something named "Satan's little sister........." It is seriosly that awful. But I am strangely drawn to it. I really do love it.

I guess I have been bitten by the bug.....

God help me..............

9:35 AM  
Blogger April said...

I just started a blog with the houses that I have seen.......Feel free to take a look and let me know what you think........

9:04 PM  
Blogger John said...

April, took a quick look at your blog and photos. I'll have to take a second look to be able to give constructive comments I'm afraid.

One thought regarding cheap. If you really can't afford anything else in the market, you love the house, it can actually be fixed, and you're ready for the long-haul, cheap is okay. But, keep in mind that just because it's cheap doesn't mean that you'll save any money. We paid $1.00 for the Devil Queen. Free is the only thing cheaper than that. But, we haven't saved any money because of it. We could have easily spent $100,000 to $120,000 on a similar house in much better shape and spent the same amount of money once we'd finished renovating/restoring it. Just a thought. Good luck with your house hunting.

6:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a great webpage. Just what I needed to read. I have looked at a 1919 home many times and considered buying it despite the obvious amount of money it would take to renovate it. Asbestos lead cracked foundation and wall bathroom floor caving in old leaks weak roof porch addition falling off and caving in.... It is so beautiful though.

7:23 PM  
Anonymous Alejamuel Sultz said...

I agree with Brenda: it is a good idea to get the opinion of a professional house inspector. It is easy enough to be mesmerized by the charm of an old house. However, you should also take into consideration the maintenance costs for such a house.

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