top of page
  • by Karen Cummings

Ms. Cummings Builds Her Dream House

My first foray into house buying as a single woman started more than a year ago when I happened to notice this house as I picked my daughter up from basketball practice. It immediately caught my eye--I don't know whether it was the laundry hanging on the front porch, the broken windows, or the missing siding, but I liked the place and it was for sale.

My predeliction for "handyman specials" had previously manifested itself in a harmless way--more of a wistful, "Gee, wouldn't that place be nice fixed up," as my husband sped by a shack until I was safely out of harm's way.

Well, things were different now. I didn't have anyone to temper my foolish ideas. No one said, "That place doesn't have a single redeeming feature," except, of course, my mother. No one said, "That place is a real dump," except, of course, my kids.

Despite the disparaging words, I thought of any excuse to drive by and peer at every feature of the house's exterior. After months of procrastination, I finally called a friend who deals in real estate and immediately understood why what had now become my dream house had not been snapped up as soon as it came on the market. Unless real estate values had taken a giant leap since my last look, I knew no one would pay the asking price for that place, and I hadn't even'seen the inside.

Undeterred, that was my next step. Together with my friend and the agent who had listed the house, I took a tour through the place. It was no Taj Mahal. As I walked through the plain but sturdy house, which had obviously undergone many years of neglect and abuse, I remodeled the whole thing in my head. With no thought for the dollar, I knocked out a few walls here and there, added a sunroom, and completely changed all the wallpaper and paint so that by the time I took my second spin through the house, I was certain I wanted it. The listing agent, an older gentleman who appeared

genuinely embarassed to show the place, was flabbergasted that I could see through the mess to envision any potential.

Decision making is not one of my strong points. As buying and deciding to remodel a house involves nothing but one decision after another, the first of my months of self-imposed agony began. There was no question in my mind that I wanted the place, but I knew the asking price was too high for what was there.

Predestination became my watchword: If I were meant to have the house, I would have it. (Secretly, though, I feared someone with more funds or foresight would come up with the asking price, outrageous though it may be, and snap my dream house right out from under me.) Months passed, and though I still drove slowly by "my house" (as I had come to think of it), buying and remodeling the place had definitely been put to the back of my mind.

Not so my realtors. Ever-vigilant for my interests--by now, just the phone calls alone would negate whatever commission either would get on this sale--they both called to alert me that my house was about to come back up for sale by the Farmers' Home Administration after it had been reassessed. It had been left in a pretty sorry state, so it was almost a certainty that the price would be substantially reduced. The listing agent promised me he'd give me a call as soon as he got the letter stating the revised price.

The call never seemed to come, but when it did, the decision had been made for me. How could I say no to less than 50 percent of the original price? I was so shocked at how substantially the FHA had reduced the price that I felt like I had to buy it. After all, what woman can resist a bargain?

Now as I drove by the house, I was appalled by how much work it needed. The camouflaging snow had melted from around it, and it was looking bad. What had I done? Maybe my mother was right. Maybe my children were right. But, there was no turning back. By the end of the summer, I had closed on the place and I became the proud owner of a dump. My children took one walk through the place and declared that no way would they move in until it was completely remodeled. I felt the same way.

Being a frustrated architect, I knew basically what I wanted the finished product to look like, but I had no idea where to start. Though it was hard to think about regression, I knew that a few things had to be torn out before I could start on my great remodeling. It turned out to be just the job for a hard-working rock climber during his off-season, who only asked for a few days off to go surfing.

Thoughts of trying to retain any of the original house were immediately forgotten. Within two days, all the plumbing (except a great, old, claw-footed tub) was ripped out and carted to the dump. After my demolition expert punched a hole in the wall to illustrate that I really didn't want to keep the old horsehair plaster, I was inclined to agree with him. In a little more than a month, my house was reduced to just a shell-completely gutted except for one upstairs closet, which I inexplicably told him to leave alone (you have to draw the line somewhere)--and it was time to start going in the other direction.

Who to hire for the rebuilding? I had cleverly procrastinated until every person i knew was already booked for the busy fall building season. Luckily, the rock-climbing community in North Conway is a close-knit group, and my housewrecker knew a young housebuilder who had just started in business on his own and was anxious for work. Ignoring adverse advice such as "if he's not busy, he can't be that good," I looked at an example of his work and hired him on the spot--an action which proved one of my wiser moves.

Equipped with my personally drawn plans which I was constantly revising, my builder and his crew started on the rebuilding process. It took a while before I noticed any real progress. There were things I had neglected to think about, like a few rotted sills that needed to be replaced, beams that needed to be bolstered, and a sagging front porch that had to be righted. A few neighbors came over and suggested I look into what kind of shape the septic system was in (which was nonexistent), and soon I was busy deciding on which side of the house to put in my new system. My builder also suggested all new windows and doors--it seems the former tenants liked to kick their way through them. And to think, I was just planning on some new paint and wallpaper.

At one point, I stopped in to check on things and the septic man and his crew were outside just finishing laying in my new system, the electrician was in the basement with his helper, the plumber was in the upstairs bathroom with an assistant, and my builder and three helpers were swarming all over the outside of the house making repairs after they had ripped off the old asbestos siding. I almost fainted--I mean, I had to pay all these people. Me, who, though I had led a relatively affluent life, had never bought anything that cost more than $200, was now writing checks for over a thousand dollars on a regular basis. Talk about trauma.

Slowly but surely, however, my house started to take shape, but not without much agonizing on my part. The builders were doing an admirable job, but I second-guessed every decision I made. As soon as my new windows came, I decided they were too long. Some closets and walls were moved after they had been framed in because I thought of a better idea. And I contemplated tearing down a perfectly built chimney because I hated the brick I had picked. I suffered endless sleepless nights, and my co-workers though I had turned into a manic-depressive. Either things were great, or they were awful.

With the wisdom of Solomon, my builder broke my decisions down to two a day. "Anyone can make two decisions a day," he pleaded. Suddenly, I renewed my acquaintance with an old friend who was an architect and started asking him theoretical questions--complete with floor plans.

It became clear that, though I had a total picture in mind, I had not devoted any of my energies to the nitty gritty little details that really make up a house. My builder had to develop the patience of Job during his four months on the job. Things like the direction the front door would swing open could stymie me for a week, let alone deciding which front door I wanted. I adopted a Scarlett O'Hara attitude; I was constantly telling my builder, "I'll think about that tomorrow."

Despite all this, the house continued to progress. With the old asbestos siding gone, the exposed clapboards gave the house a much classier look. Inside, the workmen went from sheet rocking to framing in the new windows and doors, and my dump was turning into my home. I began to look forward to stopping in to see the advances and at the same time, I noticed that the urgency for my decision making had lessened. Realizing the need for things to move along at a quicker pace than before, my builder had subtly changed his tack from asking me to telling 'me how things were going to be done.

I still had to decide such things as the arrangement of my kitchen, but I really didn't know how the cabinets would look until I saw them. The trim around the doors and windows was another pleasant surprise. Things almost got out of hand when I got a call from my builder suggesting that I reassess a decision I thought I had already made--the color of my kitchen counter. Though I had chosen a dark, rich blue weeks before, my builder wanted to give one last chance before he ordered it. I thank him for it now because he was right--I would have hated the blue and I love the taupe counter.

Actually, I love everything about my house. I get a special kick out of opening my doors with the door knobs that took me three weeks to choose. Every time I walk past my kitchen counter, I have to rub a hand along the oak trim that my builder made 'curve around the end. I'm having a hard time hanging pictures because it seems sacrilegious to put holes in the pristine new walls.

In retrospect, I am fully aware that I didn't go about redoing my house in the best of ways. I know now that the correct way to remodel a house is to have everything drawn up with specifications which include the exact nail size you plan to use. Fortunately, I didn't do that or I don't think I'd have the house I have today.

Though a floor plan is important, it's the little details that give a house its character. Some of my favorite things about my house were my choices; others were choices my builder made. I see some mistakes, too--things I wonder why I did them--but I just shrug and say, "Oh, well, next house...."


bottom of page