Monday, November 5, 2012

The Home Front: Finding an Architect

I started this blog to document our very long process of buying and renovating my old childhood home. And when I say long process, I mean VERY long. For some, the idea of moving back to your childhood home would be the very opposite of a good time.  Fortunately for me, I loved my childhood and I loved where I lived.  My mom's ready to downsize and we're ready to upsize, so it's a win win for everyone.

Isn't she puurty?  I was standing too close (too lazy to cross the street) so you can't see the front and side yards but hopefully you get the point. With five bedrooms and three and two half bathrooms, it's a whole lotta house for HH and I but she has great bones and as our family gets bigger, we'll be able to grow into the house. My mom's done a great job of preserving the details that make old homes so wonderful and HH and I can't wait to put our own, more contemporary stamp on things. We thought about looking for a house that would be new to both of us, but in our price range, but there's no way we'd be able to afford this much house and have enough left over to put in the work it would likely need. And then there's the taxes. They're objectively insane, but living in Montclair is an absolute must for me and the crazy ass taxes limit our options quite a bit. This way we get get a great old house full of memories that we can continue to love and tweak into exactly the home we want over time.

Inside, it's your traditional center hall colonial but with a two-story addition on the left (the side hidden by the big old tree...) that was made by the previous owners. The goal is to gradually make improvements that bring it more in line with modern living while respecting the more traditional "dignity" of the home. As with most things, our wish list is huge and our budget not so much, so we're  focusing on the infrastructure and maximizing the use of space.  

Phase I To Do List - The Good, the Bad and the Ugly:
  • Whole-house electrical wiring 
  • Install central air
  • Paint and plaster every single room
  • Kitchen:  gut reno to enlarge existing family room, improve mudroom, update half bath, and maximize light (more about my kitchen plans here)
  • Laundry room: move to second floor
  • Windows:  ugh. new windows throughout to maximize efficiency (little by little)
  • Floors:  first floor only - refinish/stain/replace existing hardwoods (whichever's cheaper)
  • Master Bedroom:  second floor addition.  expand en-suite bath and add his and hers closet (gulp)
  • Second Floor Bathroom:  update as much as we can with as much as we've got left
Phases II thru XX involve me DIYing the bathroom in Penny Heaven (aka the third floor - you can read about why we call it that here), renovating the basement, adding a fence, landscaping, installing a batting cage for HH among other things.  We'll be busy for a good long while.  Skipping the sordid details (yes there are more!), we're planning to start renovations in October 2013.  Little Debbie will move in here once our tenants are out and HH and I will remain in BK watching the clock and praying like heck that it all gets done by May/June 2014.  

The first step is finding an architect to make all of these wishes a reality.  Can I just say I was more than a little dumbfounded by the cost of hiring an architect.  In our case it was a must given the age of the home and the scope of the changes to the layout of the first floor and the master-bedroom suite addition. For any of you in the early stages of budget planning, be prepared to earmark about ten percent to the architect.  I was floored.  You can contract for an hourly rate or a percentage of the budget depending on your project and preferences but we're opting for a hybrid i.e., a negotiated hourly rate not to exceed ten percent of our agreed budget.  Whichever method you choose, make sure you're comfortable that the scope of work is clearly defined to avoid any nasty surprises once construction is underway. If you're going with an upset limit like us, make sure it covers you for as long as you need - in our case  through the bid process and contract negotiation phase, thru to construction documents and any necessary revisions thereto (and construction management if you need and can get it - we're going a la carte on that phase).  

We've interviewed three local architects and took a tour of a several renovated homes in our town with a prospective contractor.  My takeaways so far from the architect vetting process so far:
  1. Spend some time getting to know your house and have your property survey on hand.  The architects will expect you to know some basic things like what kind of wiring you have, additions/renovations by previous owners, age of the roof, boiler, furnace, etc. The more you can tell them about your house, the better able they are to issue-spot for you and maximize your resources.  Having the survey on-hand will help them figure out whether you your plans will require variances from your zoning board.
  2. Choose someone you think you will work well with for a long time - if you're not vibing well now you darn sure won't be six months from now when you're knee deep in the weeds or, God forbid, if the ish hits the fan.
  3. Go with someone local who's well respected in your area and familiar with your town's zoning rules, ordinances, contractors, suppliers and VIPs etc. in case you need any variances or run into any inspection issues.  Having someone who knows all of the key players can make all the difference, or so I'm told.
  4. Ask the architect to arrange for a tour of complete and near complete projects.
The house tour was by far my favorite part of this whole process to date.  I didn't know you could tour homes this early on but one of architects we met with encouraged us to get out and see his work and I'm so glad we did.  Loved, loved, loved house crashing our neighbors and seeing the restoration of wonderful old homes.  It was a great way to get ideas for our project and made us much more comfortable with our choice (not surprisingly, the guy who recommended the house tour).  I'm so looking forward to more house crashing when we finally get down to selecting a contractor.  

Anyone out there planning or in the early stages of a big reno? Feel free to send any advice, horror/success stories my way.  We can use all the help we can get!

Saturday, November 3, 2012

I Made Something! aka DIY Roller Shades for Dummies

I'm one of those people who gets a seasonal itch to change up my bedroom and bathroom linens.  I get it from my mama.  As a kid, whenever it got chilly I'd come home to a cozy new comforter and curtains, so every year around this time I get twitchy to change things up.   For me, finding and committing to a new duvet is akin to the search for the fountain of youth, so I set my sights on the bathroom.  

Bathroom Updates

Pausing here a minute to pat myself on the back for my newly-acquired mood board skills (!!) thanks to this great step-by-step tutorial from Dana over at House*Tweaking.

Stupidly, I neglected to take any before pics of the bathroom.  In all honesty the before wasn't that bad but for the fact that there is ZERO natural light in our bathroom. Ironically the first thing you see when you walk in is a giant window, but sadly it's covered in dark frosted glass and faces directly onto a brick wall.  Although I'm thankful for the ventilation, I've been looking for a cheap and easy way to cover up the eyesore window since the day we moved in. DIY roller shades are all the rage in blogland, and since it's one of the few projects that requires no power tools, sewing, or schlepping of heavy materials on subways, I was all over it.  And here she is!

So, I have to admit, choirs of angels did not break out into song when all was said and done as I'd hoped (in my head).  I'm a little "eh" about the fabric and the fact that you can still see so much of the ugly black window, but I am SUPER proud of myself for successfully executing this little DIY project.  We've been living with our pretty new shade for a couple of weeks now and I still get a kick out of seeing my handiwork every morning.  Yay for the little things.

Thankfully, making the shade was simple a la these idiot-proof instructions from Emily Clark.  I started with a basic vinyl roller shade, wrapped it in fabric and glued the edges.   Easy!

None of the instructions I found online really addressed how to handle wrapping the fabric at the top where the vinyl connects to the roller thing.  In my case, the vinyl was stapled to a heavy duty cardboard tube thing at the top.   I could probably have left the very top uncovered since it would probably be covered when the shade is rolled up, but I decided to just unstaple the vinyl from the roller which worked out great because it allowed me to cut the vinyl exactly to length (I ordered it a little too long) without having to mess with the finished part at the bottom (the part you pull on).  It also made wrapping the vinyl in fabric easier without having to deal with the top part still being attached to the roller.  When I was done gluing, I just stapled/glued the fabric-covered vinyl back to the roller.

My fabric glue said wait 24 hours to dry but who has time for that!  I gave it a few hours and then enlisted the help of Handsome Hubby to hang the shade.

witness the big ugly eyesore (the window not HH!) :)

The lack of natural lighting foiled my attempts to take pretty after pics - in reality it's more citrus than mustard, but either way, there is A LOT of yellow going on in here. I'm on the hunt for colorful accents to break things up - maybe a blue bowl for my jewelry or a succulent plant (anyone know if they can live without sun?).  We shall see. 

Ambivalence about the fabric (and the yellow) notwithstanding, I'm fully on the DIY roller shade bandwagon.  So much so that I'm planning to tackle our kitchen window next - except this time I think I'm going to try painting on some stripes like this:

Better Homes & Gardens
Stay tuned...

Sunday, October 14, 2012


For the last few weeks Handsome Hubby (HH) and I have been meeting with architects to discuss our big renovation project.  We have lots to think about and more homework to do before we pick a team but on the plus side, no one fled the premises when we we finally got down to talking budget - even after seeing the basement.

Going into the talks, the kitchen was my biggest concern.  The current kitchen is big, which is great, but the big footprint means the cost of gut renovating it could easily break the bank.  We want to open up the floor plan to all allow for a better flow between the mudroom and adjoining dining room and family room.  We could easily spend our entire budget on the kitchen with all of that and new floors, counters, fixtures, etc., but that's not because mama needs a new closet!  Aside from the kitchen, we've got a huge upstairs master bath/closet addition planned (among other things) so we have to find a team that's creative and willing to re-purpose as much as possible.

The big takeaway from our preliminary meetings is that our wishlist is pretty steep but in the kitchen it looks like we'll be able to get more than enough to make us happy by refinishing the exiting hardwood floors and some of the cabinets, and reusing a few of the appliances that Little Debbie recently upgraded.  So our kitchen dreams live on and I finally have a legitimate excuse for oogling kitchinspiration pictures so the architects and contractors can get a better sense of our style.  

LOVE everything about this kitchen from the white, shaker style cabinets, marble counters with contrasting walnut (?) island to the subway tile backsplash and hardwood floors.  Oh, and the windows.    Sigh.

Logan's Hammer Building & Renovation
If I could, I'd put a window next to every cabinet just like this.  And the vaulted tongue and groove ceiling?! Yes, please.
At first I thought I would die without Cararra marble counters like these, but after weighing the pros and cons (and cost!), I quickly changed my mind.  HH would KILL me if we spent all of that money on nice and shiny marble only to have it etched up and stained a few months later.  Fortunately there are lots of pretty marble look-a-likes out there in granite and quartzite that I would be more happy with and that won't require me to maintain an acid and red-wine free kitchen.

Vengas & Company
With this "supreme white" granite, I'd get the look of marble without the housekeeping headaches. I'm also really liking the idea of breaking up all of the white with a contrasting island - maybe with a contrasting island or a bar built-in like this?

Vengas and Company
Kashmir white granite seems like another good white marble alternative.  

Shuffle Interiors
More Kashmir White via Rambling Renovators
I think granite is our best bet because of it's toughness, but this Bianco Macabus quartzite is a dead ringer for Cararra marble.  Thanks to Erin from Elements of Style for the tip!

I'm leaning towards a white subway tile backsplash since it's classic and clean (and cheap) but how cool is this?!

I always over research the hell out of things, so here's even more pretty kitchenspiration :)

Thursday, October 11, 2012


Ever since returning from our honeymoon I've felt this slow creep of anxiety building.  The kind that makes your eye twitch at random for no apparent reason. All of a sudden I've become OBSESSED with homemaking and organization and crossing things off lists.  Lists that I haven't even made, mind you.  It's crazy.  In reality, I have absolutely no innate homemaking abilities, and I'm only organized at work - and even there it's only in short and sporadic bursts.  For weeks all I could see at home was disorder everywhere - like I'd been living in crazytown all these years and never realized it. 

This organizational/homemaker maven alter ego has absolutely no relationship to how I am in real life.  Usually I'm the girl who makes a list and promptly forgets about the fact that I ever made a list to begin with (let alone where I put it). I've even been known to hide my lists so no one ever knows what I failed to accomplish (let's ignore the fact that no one really cares either).  And yet, here I am reading magazines like Real Simple and googling tips for home organization, child rearing, and personal filing?  Right.  I just about lost my mind recently when I accidentally dropped my blackberry on the subway tracks while trying to walk and type one of these new aspirational to do lists.  Like full on freak out - and not even because I lost my phone or my contacts or access to work - but because I lost access to lists I made like five minutes beforehand!  Seriously?!

So after a week or so of the persistent eye twitch that was slowly starting to spread to my thumbs (my essential-for-blackberry-list-making thumbs!) and my subsequent meltdown on the Q train, I decided it was time kick crazy to the curb.  There is clearly no magical organizational stick that I can whack myself my house with and trying to keep up with crazy the old fashioned way is expensive (and potentially life threatening if you're a headcase like me!)! The cute little color coordinated totes and binders and filers and labels and whatnot are not cheap.

So in thinking though all of this, I keep coming back to a question people ask newlyweds a lot - does marriage feel any different?  I've generally assumed that they mean different as between the two of us, in which case, I'd say not really.  Thankfully HH and I seem to have pretty reasonable expectations of one another as husband and wife (or spouse as HH likes to say).  Other than getting a kick out of hearing our new monikers out loud and the slight queasiness about merging finances and changing last names (which I'm told is normal), marriage to each other doesn't feel much different. It feels natural.  What I have gathered though, is that I apparently have some pretty unrealistic, and heretofore unknown, expectations for myself as a wife.  Phew.  I feel better already just putting that out there.

For some reason when I pictured myself as a wife, I imagined an overnight organizational and housekeeping sensation.  Like a brown Martha Stewart, only younger and funkier.  Our house would always be perfectly perfect and HH would be greeted nightly (ok at least weekly) with a piping hot homemade dinner.  What was I smoking?!  I've never been that girl, and honestly, I usually judge that girl.  I thrive amidst a little bit of crazy.  And I actually think HH gets a kick out of my crazy too.  As with most things, putting my finger on the problem went a long way towards relief.  For me and for HH who I'm sure is thrilled that my twice weekly binge trips to the Container Store have ceased.  For now at least. 

As a type-a-only child with an uber-competitive spirit, this is certainly not my first (or last) bout with way-to-high self-expectations.  Although it's definitely time for me to put my big girl pants on and set some new goals and make a few lists that I actually keep track of (AND maybe figure out where my tax returns are!) - I am henceforth cutting myself some slack.  Until such time as Ms. Stewart decides to inhabit my body, I'm going to just have to keep reminding myself that who I actually am is who got me here, and thankfully, here is pretty darn great.  :)


Monday, September 24, 2012

Bought and Sold (Rented) in 30 Days!

For those of you just joining, we are at the very beginning of a slow (like really slow) move to the burbs.  From Park Slope, Brooklyn to my childhood home in Jersey to be exact.  You can read more about our big move here.  Suffice to say a lot of things have to happen before then (like my mom moving out of said childhood home), but this post is about progress and I'm happy to report that we made some.  FINALLY!  In August we became the proud owners of this fabulous apartment in suburbia!

this is what apartment storage heaven looks like!
We started early on our search for the perfect next home for Little Debbie (my mom) and she fell in love with this place.  It had everything on her not inconsiderable "must list" including outdoor space (with a city view no less!).

how cute is this!

They pretty much had us at enclosed porch with city views, but the apartment also boasts, two bedrooms, an updated kitchen and a doorman (which was key for worriers like me). 

The apartment is pretty great as-is and with a few cosmetic updates it'll be fab. When we walked in, my mind was buzzing with all the DIY goodness we could get into but, alas, it's mama's soon-to-be place so we'll see what we she comes up with.  If I get my way though, there will be big things happening in this kitchen.

first to go: all old appliances!
The plan (in my mind at least) is to put some of this DIY research I've been collecting in blogland to work and at least paint the cabinets.  This cabinet painting how-to-to from Young House Love seems fairly idiot-proof, although confining mother and daughter to 30 square feet for hours could go in any number of directions.  Maybe we'll videotape it? :)

second to go: all boob light fixtures!
None of us is quite ready to house swap yet so we purchased the apartment early with the goal of renting it for a year.  Like as soon as possible. We closed on the apartment purchase a week after coming back from our honeymoon which was very sad for our wallets.  As it turned out, all it needed was a fresh coat of paint and less than 24 hours after listing, the real estate gods answered our prayers. We are now newly minted landlords breathing a HUGE sigh of relief. Huge.

bonus roof terrace!
With the apartment rented, we're now full steam ahead on the master plan.  Once the tenants are out, Little Debbie moves in and we're free to start the gut reno of her old place so we can (finally) move home.  Handsome Hubby and I have zero interest in living through a gut reno so we will remain dust free in Brooklyn (paying rent AND a mortgage) for as long as it takes.  We obviously want to minimize the rent and mortgage paying overlap so time is of the essence and we the contractors have to be ready to start building master bathrooms and dream kitchens by this time next year.  Gulp. 

In the meantime, I've got my work cut out for me.  For the next year we'll be muddling our way through the major renovation process - from soup to nuts.  At this point we have no idea what we're doing so I predict everything from high comedy to high drama will ensue.  Ever the over-achiever, I've already scheduled our first architect appointment.  Stay tuned..

Oh, and bring on the renovation tips, success stories, horror stories, whatever you've got.  We need all the help we can get!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Honeymoon Highlights: We HEART Rome

Since no one really wants to know everything about what we did on our honeymoon in Greece and Italy, I'm back with more of the highlights (in no particular order).  Next up:  Rome!

First of all, let me just say we hit the hotel jackpot. It's hard not to love the heck out of Rome when this is the view from your balcony!

That was us toasting the good folks at tripadvisor!  Somehow we wound up with a room in the dead center of the hotel with a balcony directly facing the Pantheon.  As you can see, there was quite a bit of happy dancing going on out there upon our arrival.

Albergo del Senato is an absolute gem of a hotel.  It's a bargain in Rome at under 200 EUR/night and spotless.  The location is ridiculously convenient and the guys at the front desk are fantastic.  I will say that the rooms were just ok.  Relatively updated, clean and to the point, but not the most "romantic" if you know what I mean.  I may have been slightly less enthused about this place without the balcony - but only slightly.  For the price and for the convenience, it was awesome.

stay here!
We only spent three nights in Rome before heading to the Amalfi Coast and opted not to spend our time running around like crazy people trying to see everything.  Instead, we dedicated one day each to the Vatican and Colosseum and spent the first day on a leisurely self-guided walking tour of the main sights in the historical center a la Mr. Rick Steve.   Obviously we started with the Pantheon.

Namesake of the Margherita Pizza!
I had every intention of taking the obligatory Trevi Fountain wish-making snap so we could make a wish on our honeymoon but we were repeatedly deterred by the throngs of people.  So not romantic. We made a silent wish as we walked on by (and saved our pennies for gelato!)
Trevi Fountain (aka Times Square)
Piazza Navona
Spanish Steps

As you may have surmised, Handsome Hubby (HH) and I aren't really art or religious history buffs so it was nice to not feel rushed or pressured to feign interest in too many details.  We loved getting lost in the old streets and enjoying the age and unexpected beauty of the city.

how cool is this!
And here's HH with my handsome reward at the end of day one.  Not bad right?

The first half of day two we spent on a guided tour of the Vatican museums and St. Peter's primarily so HH could see the Sistine Chapel.  After lunch, we went BACK to the Vatican for round two: the little-known but very amazing Scavi tour of the ancient tombs deep below St. Peter's that reportedly hold the relics of Saint Peter. When in Rome, take this tour!  Sadly, no pics allowed though.

St. Peter's, Vatican City
It was pouring by the end of our Scavi tour but we lucked out and started chatting up a young priest from Wisconsin during the tour who was studying at the Vatican.  He was nice enough to sneak us through a secret passage back into the basilica and then treated us to a private tour!  It was our second tour of the basilica that day but by far the best.  We were so honored to see the church and its history through his eyes and from his perspective.  Definitely one of the highlights of the trip. 

The Colosseum was another favorite.  Highly recommend the tour that includes a visit to the underground and top level of the Colosseum which were only re-opened to the public in the last year or so.

Maybe it's just us, but there's something about the place that just wants to make you flex your stuff! 

Very cool to be able to be able to get a sense of the sheer magnitude of the place from the perspective of the gladiors as they would have entered.  As if fighting man and beast for your life weren't scary enough!

I'm not going to lie, it was hot as HECK and I wanted to skip the included tour of the Roman Forum which I'd dubbed the "rusty dusty ruins".  HH was a trooper and politely ignored my grump.  In the end I'm glad we went.  Lots of cool stuff to see.  If nothing else, there were more cool painted doors!

the inspiration for St. Peter's! 

As much as we loved the - shall we say, "academic" offerings in Rome, we really LOVED the food.  We kept it casual and went with the hotel's restaurant recommendations almost every night and ate quite happily like pigs in you-know-what.  Great food, cheap wine and gelato(!) makes for very happy honeymooners!

At the insistence of HH, I'll leave you with his absolute favorite Roman highlight.  The quick and dirty backstory here is that I HATE birds.  Hate them.  This of course makes al fresco dining a bit of a challenge.  For me and for the birds.  Enjoy!