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Fixer-upper chat with Ed Zotti

September 10, 2008
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About our guest
Ed Zotti is the editor of 'The Straight Dope' and author of the new book, "The Barn House: Confessions of an Urban Rehabber." He chatted with Boston.com readers Wednesday, Sept. 10.
More on Ed Zotti

qbert: Hi Ed -- how much of the house did you do on your own, and how much did you contract for? My cousin oversaw some renovations at a home he owns and says coordinating contractors is a full time job, i cant imagine doing all that and having time to get dirty... kudos to you.

Ed Zotti: I did a ton of work - much of the electrical, all the heating (with the help of a friend), all the carpentry on the third floor where my office is. Nonetheless, it amounted to maybe 10 percent of the work that was done. The project was that huge.

Ed Zotti: Coordinating contractors AND doing your own work is definitely a challenge; luckily I had a great contractor - the guy actually returned phone calls promptly. I swear, I think the guy was some kind of genetic mutant.

worldwarz: Hey Ed, really funny piece on Boston.com. I must ask a key question that seems to have been left unansered: How will your home hold up to a zombie attack? Have you booby-trapped the stairs in case you need to isolate in the upper floors? Are the windows and doors easily boarded up? Do you have enough weaponry and food to hold out in the attic? What extra steps did you take to prepare for this impending threat?

Ed Zotti: Listen, having worked on the house for 15 years and lost most of my marbles in the process, I feel equipped to deal with whatever comes along on a zombie-to-zombie basis.

typ9090: With more and more homes going into foreclosure and more buyers wanting the discount that buying these provides, there are more people than ever willing to take on reclamation projects. Based on your experiences, are these buyers nuts? Is the savings in buying these homes negated by the headaches or rehabbing?

Ed Zotti: I would NOT go into a project like this expecting to make a ton of money. You might; as it happens, we made out OK. But we got lucky. So much turns on things you can't control. Leave real estate speculation to the people with experience in that kind of thing. Fix up a house so you can live in it and enjoy it.

larry: Hi Ed, I bought a fixer upper a few years back, done mostly everything except the basement. It is field stone and gets plenty of water leaks,. Do you know if those water sealer paints actually work with field stone and the crumbling motar between them?

Ed Zotti: They might help, but don't expect miracles. The best solution is to trench around the outside of the house and apply a thorough treatment, but that's a helluva project. If you confine yourself to inside work, expect to have to do it over every few years.

handiman: You talked about all the headaches, but what was the easiest part of the project? Was there anything that surprised you?

Ed Zotti: Hiring an architect, beyond a doubt. I talk about that in my book. I knew some people and hired a guy; my wife and I went in for a conference with him. An associate, Charlie, sat there quietly while I ineptly tried to explain what I wanted. A week later he faxes over a drawing. It was perfect ... exactly what I wanted and had inarticulately tried to convey. That part of the job was absurdly easy.

daily_nuser: Ed, love the Straight Dope column in the Phoenix each week -- we have a joke that whenever there's a renovation under way in Newton, there's another man and woman who are heading to couples' therapy. Is a home renovation a guaranteed relationship-tester?

Ed Zotti: Absolutely. One of the toughest things you will ever do. It's not like you're doing anything WRONG. If you're like me, you're slaving away, you figure you deserve a little credit. Your spouse is thinking, I didn't sign up to live in a permanent construction site. You're both right.

billyb: What's the best way to make sure you don't get 'hosed' by a contractor?

Ed Zotti: Find somebody you can trust and communicate with. Seems like a simple enough thing, but it's amazing how people hire somebody they don't really get along with. You also need to make sure you understand enough about the work, even if you're not handy yourself, to understand the process.

daily_nuser: Do you think with the market tanking that it's worth it to do the stuff we used to do before to bump up the price? The logic: If we're not getting near the price anyway, then we just cut our (potential) losses, unless it's a super-crappy-old heater or strikingly evident. What's your thought?

Ed Zotti: Cosmetic work - and I mean basically paint, and making sure the place doesn't smell, and elementary staging - is usually worth it. I wouldn't make a major investment in a down market; very slim chance you'll get it back.

NKP: I have a similar problem like Larry's, do you think a driveway closed to the outside of the basement would also help from water coming in?

Ed Zotti: If you're asking whether a driveway is a good water barrier, I have to say it helps, but you'll still get moisture seeping in. If you have a high water table you can't expect miracles, unless you go to great expense and basically rebuild the foundation.

jerry: I have a house circa 1917 and we've hired a contractor to blow in insulation... any things we should keep an eye on during the process.

Ed Zotti: The problem with blowing in is that it's virtually impossible to "keep an eye" on things - often you can't see where the stuff is going. There may be obstructions that will result in voids. Obviously it's easier if you're in an attic and can see where the stuff is going. Walls are a lot chancier.

typ9090: What about first-time buyers who just want a place to live, but can only really afford a fixer-upper? This is how it is for most working families in Mass ... homes in good shape are too expensive here.

Ed Zotti: Sure, lots of people do that. My folks rehabbed two houses on that basis, having a contractor do the framing and then doing the finishing on their own. Thing is, they did this in the 50s through the 70s - life was simpler then, people had 9 to 5 jobs. If you've got the demands on your time that many people do now, it's way tougher, and the job can really drag out. So you have to be realistic about that.

RJS: How much can one expect to pay for an architect?

Ed Zotti: It can very tremendously depending on what you have them do. If you have a detailed plan in mind and all you want is drafting to get a building permit with, you can get that pretty cheap - my sister, admittedly 15 year ago, paid $600. For a complex projects involving numerous drawings and lots of revisions, you can pay a lot more. For the Barn House, we spent something like $21K - but we thought it was money well spent.

dopefan: OK, I'll ask: Are you Cecil Adams?

Ed Zotti: Shh, you'll get me in trouble.

billyb: how difficult was the permit process? did you have a building inspector living in the place?

Ed Zotti: Considering that I live in Chicago, and I'm sure you've heard all the stories, it was relatively painless. I talk about this in the book. We had to get a "driveway permit" for an driveway that was 20 years old - that was a little goofy. And we had a flaky inspector show up who wanted little favors - big favors from some people. But on the whole we didn't have much trouble.

nj: how much can you expect to pay for a complete kitchen renovation ... and i mean complete -- from ceiling to floor to appliances?

Ed Zotti: Huge variation. Depends on the scale of the work and how expensive your tastes are. I mean, we were putting in steel beams. I'd say minimum $20K, but $100K for a real showplace isn't out of the question. No pat answer to a question like that.

NKP: and how much would something like rebuilding the foundation cost? for about 1500 Sqft of carpet area.

Ed Zotti: Again, no pat answer. If you're talking about jacking up the house and rebuilding the foundation beneath ... huge project. My brother in law got estimates for a smallish house in Wisconsin maybe 10 years ago - I think it was something like 40K. MANY variables.

dopefan: If you have multiple contractors working in your house every day, is it prudent to hire them a peg boy to make sure they keep their minds on the work? What's the etiquette on this?

Ed Zotti: If you mean multiple subs, either you need to keep an eye on them yourself or you should have the architect do it (which costs, needless to say). A general contractor, which I'd advise unless you have a LOT of experience, will keep tabs on the subs he hires, and you deal only with the GC.

fran: My daughter and son-in-law bought a house last year that needed major plumbing work. They have been taking showers at our home (nearby) for almost 6 months. How can I help them get their darn bathroom fixed?

Ed Zotti: If the job is underway, pray and bring the plumber some cookies every so often. If they haven't even started, gently but firmly suggest it's time to start getting some estimates. Start asking people you know who've had work done.

fran: They haven't started yet. I don't think they can afford it... maybe a good lesson, don't buy a fixer-upper unless you can afford the necessary renovations.

Ed Zotti: Absolutely. Whatever cost they quote you, you're going to wind up spending twice as much. The worst problem to have is running out of money with the project begun and not finished.

dopefan: Love the straight dope and looking forward to checking out the book, thanks.

Ed Zotti: Great, hope you enjoy it!

froman: how many homes have you rehabbed?

Ed Zotti: I just did the one myself - we started in 1993 and we're not done yet. My folks did two houses, but neither was a gut rehab, and they could live in the house while work was underway, which wasn't true in our case, at least not the first year and a half.

nj: How much more money is your house worth now than when you bought it? Was it more, the same, or less than you expected?

Ed Zotti: We bought the house for 250K and spent 350K in the first two years. We've spent another 100K in the years since. We never thought we'd get most of it back, but we got lucky - the market here exploded in the late 1990s. The latest appraisal, last spring, was for $1.85 million. I can't believe we'd get that with the market like it is now, but we're way ahead of the game, that's for sure. We got lucky.

Arnie: Ed, wife and I are considering a kitchen island with replacement counter-tops for my counters. My neighbors bought some faux granite tops that were relatively inexpensive. They look "real" to me and I was surprised to hear otherwise. Any insights to this/other countertop products? Thanks!!

Ed Zotti: If you mean Corian type products, they look pretty nice. I haven't seen faux granite as such. My one concern would be durability and heat resistance. Since your neighbors have only had theirs a short time, hesitate to make predictions.

rel8: I have water damage in my second-floor wall (3-story house) in the corner under a bathroom and near a dormer ... is there an easy way to tell if its a plumbing leak or a roof leak?

Ed Zotti: The common method is to put dye in the bath/toilet water and see if it shows up downstairs. Leaks can be a nightmare to track down, as you've probably already discovered.

RJS: Thanks. We're looking at a foreclosure right now that would need to be gutted, and while we wouldn't dream of trying to do this ourselves, hadn't occurred to us that we'd need that level assistance.

Ed Zotti: I would NOT try a gut job unless you either had a LOT of personal experience or had an excellent contractor and architect you could count on. Recipe for disaster if you're trying to learn on the job.

Bleacher: What things can be done by a semi-handi-person that you would normally think you'd need a contractor to do? Were some hands-on things actually easier than they sounded?

Ed Zotti: Plumbing is easier than you might think, and I would have to say that electrical work, once you get the hang of it, isn't all that tough. But I hesitate to recommend people tackle jobs where a misstep can mean the house burns down. You have to use common sense and have some familiarity with tools and so on. These aren't the kind of jobs to do during halftime of the Super Bowl.

new_homeowner: Ed, I just bought a house on the Historic Registry which needs some work. The outside of the house has MANY layers of paint that eventually needs to be cleaned up and done over, any suggestions?

Ed Zotti: Painting a neglected wood house is unbelievably expensive. If many coats, alligatored paint, etc., you'll need to have them take it off with sanding, a long, dirty process. You can spend 30K easy. Have at least three contractors give you estimates, and look at work they've done for others. Be wary of lowball prices.

Pete5: With copper prices what they are, there are stories of people breaking into foreclosed homes and cutting out all the copper piping. How much of a pain is that to fix if you're looking at a foreclosure? Does it knock 30-40k off the price? More?

Ed Zotti: I hesitate to attach a price, but if the guts of the house have been ripped out, yeah, that takes a huge chunk out of the sales price.

hyuj: i was a plumber in my country and i understand the code, I dont work as a plumber here, but i started to add a bathroom to my house, but the city told me that a plumbing permit is required, and only *Licensed* plumbers are allowe to apply for such permit, is there a way around that, to make my bathroom legal? all venting etc is up to code)

Ed Zotti: It varies with the jurisdiction. If they tell you only licensed plumbers, get a licensed plumber and see if he'll let you do some of the work in return for a break on price. Warning: if you screw up, HIS butt is on the line, so make sure you understand each other.

dave: can you ballpark the cost of finishing a 2000sq ft house? it needs all systems, sheetrock, everything. if i hire a GC, what ballpark should i be looking for? nothing super high end. thanks

Ed Zotti: Huge variation, so take this with a grain of salt, but a number of gut rehabs were done in our neighborhood and they mostly seemed to start at $100/sq ft and go up from there.

Tray: Ed, I have an older home and love the hitoric features; how do you recommend going about updating/refinishing wooden windows, especially with the potential of lead paint mitigation

Ed Zotti: Windows are a tough call. We wound up completely replacing ours and I'm glad we did - they seal much better and have dual glazing. If you have stained or beveled glass, something of that nature, by all means preserve it, but you'll need a specialist for that. Your basic double-hung, those I'd replace. You can get drop-in units if the framing is OK, but with a really old house you can't count on that.

Ed Zotti: And with new sashes you don't need to worry about lead paint.

dopefan: What are the appliances in the straight dope kitchen of science? Are there beakers?

Ed Zotti: We're talking about HOUSES here. The Straight Dope chat is next week.

dopefan: Hey, that was a house question! :)

dinger: Where does Cecil get the ideas for columns? Are those real questions from real people? Is there anything off-limits?

Ed Zotti: Cecil never makes anything up. Me, I make everything up.

Tray: Ed, what about sealing up on old basement to stop water leakage? Looks like cement plaster is the way to go....how much should I expect this to cost if I do most myself?

Ed Zotti: The price isn't so bad if you do it yourself - we used a special paint that contained portland cement as a base coat, then a finish coat on top of that. Materials were under 1K. Drawback is, you need to do it over every few years, because water continues to infiltrate behind and eventually buckles out the paint.

nj: What's the worst mistake you made during the rehab? And how much did it cost you?

Ed Zotti: Couple things. One was the architect drew the wrong angle for a new turret roof above a bay - caught it fairly early but still spent 2k getting it reframed. The architect also drew in an offset in a chimney chase that the contractor later couldn't fit a flue into. That cost me 5K. Had a long argument about that.

GnusToMe: So I don't own a home either, am not involved with a rehab, and can't hammer a nail straight to save my life. M y question is why does a paper cut hurt so much but a deeper cut doesn't? Or has Cecil covered that one?

Ed Zotti: The nerves are close to the surface. You know, I'm demanding time and a half if I'm going to start answering Straight Dope questions.

Bostondotcom: OK folks, our time is up (just in time)

Bostondotcom: Thanks to Ed for taking the time today, and thanks for all the great questions.

Ed Zotti: That was fun, let's do it again sometime.

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