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Live Local, Live Small: DIY home renovations and the need for local tradesmen and businesses

“I’m going to go close the door to the bedroom,” I announced, as I headed down the hall. Jock did not answer. He was speechless, staring open-mouthed at Hilda, our 5-year-old puppy, who was standing in his freshly poured bed of tile mortar. With her tail wagging and a big smile on her face, she looked for all the world like she should be outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in L.A., with flashbulbs popping and a crowd roaring. Instead, she just got horrified silence, and the sound of a door closing to keep her from tracking the tile mortar onto the sheets just before bed time.


Tilework done by Jon Stafford at the upstairs apartment above Old Books on Front St. Photo by Christian Podgaysky

Sigh. It’s a dog’s life.

In spite of announcements to the contrary, so far my 2015 has been consumed by renovation projects. I am exhausted, and I have no one to blame except myself and my own sense of responsibility. Sort of: I do think Jock bears the brunt for some of this. In fact, he has about one-third of it to be exact.

I accept responsibility for two-thirds: Work on the second floor of the bookstore has recommenced. It continues to move slowly, but we got our plumbing inspection passed—which was quite a hurdle. Drywall has gone up everywhere it needs to be, and Jon Stafford has tiled the most beautiful bathroom floor I have ever seen. I am also now knee-deep in the renovation and restoration of my parents’ historic home, plus the ongoing maintenance and upgrades to the bookstore’s building.

However, I am in love with and share a home with a man who is physically unable to sit still. He works well over 60 hours per week for Full Belly Project, yet still manages to come home and rip out walls, cabinets and floors. Where does he get the energy? I run a bookstore, write for a living and go see plays—none of which requires anywhere near the physical stamina that his day does. Still, I don’t come near this level of physical destruction, and I am half his age! Life isn’t fair.

Apparently, he is not alone. According to The National Association of Home Builders’s projections, in 2014 NC was slated to see an average of $1,200 to $4,000 in home remodels per home owner. That can range from an HVAC crisis to a new floor. When you realize how much time is devoted to advertising home renovation through HGTV (which seems to play constantly in my father’s doctor’s office), Lowe’s and Home Depot commercials, the assorted designer showcases and home tours around town, and the constant stream of suggested home renovation projects that pop up in email and internet searches—not to mention the world of Pinterest—it’s quite apparent that home renovation is actually on people’s minds. It makes sense: For most people, their home is the single biggest investment they will ever make in their lives.

After years of playing foreclosure roulette, Jock finally has gotten our house into the clear and is starting to do the work that he put off for years. It was a fixer-upper he bought in the early ‘90s and had every intention of working on it. I guess, he is up to it now. Of course, Hilda is very excited to help.

So far this year, I have learned how to re-porcelain a sink, develop a personal and lasting relationship with the county dump, grapple with an HVAC crisis, move appliances, sheet rock and furniture that had previously been “permanently” attached to the wall, and participate in the re-tiling of one-third of the kitchen floor (with Hilda’s supervision). I am told that the other two-thirds of the floor will come in stages during the course of the year, once we have moved appliances back on top of the new floor section. At least while we re-hung the kitchen cabinets, we played the St. Crispin’s Day speech from “Henry V” in the background. Nothing quite inspires you to keep going in the face of adversity quite like Tom Hiddelston rallying his comrades. Frankly, he makes invading France sound much more plausible than kitchen cabinetry.

I am no stranger to house renovations; my childhood was consumed with the first renovation of my parents’ historical home. But it’s different when you are juggling and directing. By the end of May, I probably will have put close to $7,000 into the local economy from paying tradesmen and service technicians for the work on the two buildings. Historic homes are beautiful, but they are expensive to keep upright with all their parts attached.

Jock continues to do the majority of the work on our house himself. A few weeks ago, some friends asked at dinner (we are not eating at home much right now) why he didn’t hire someone to do this? There are a variety of answers. One is that Jock is not interested in spending that kind of money on things he has an inclination to do himself. Remember, he doesn’t sit still well. That’s where all this started.

It also has not escaped me that he did actually hire someone to do one portion of our home renovation. So far it is the only part we both stare at malevolently and shake our fists. To wit: A portion of the roof and wall needed to be recreated where the roof line met the wall. Jock hired out the work. We have a constant leak in that section and a lovely sagging roof/ceiling combination there. Everywhere else things are whole. Moral of the story for Jock: He’d rather do it himself than pay someone else to do it wrong and then seethe with frustration and anger.

That’s not really a surprise. The do-it-yourself home-repair trend really took off in the 1980s, and the expansion of stores like Lowe’s and Home Depot has been incredible ever since. According to Forbes: “Lowe’s had gross annual earnings of $50.21 billion in fiscal 2012, and Home Depot grossed $70.4 billion.” That’s a lot of tile mortar.

“Just so you know, some of the boards on your back deck are…squishy,” my friend Rusty commented after loading the pick-up truck for a dump run.

“I know but we are in rotting-floor triage right now,” I responded. “Until we have a kitchen floor, the deck is just going to have to wait.” I paused, then added, “There has been some discussion about rethinking the backyard as a place that people might go. You probably noticed that it is entirely the domain of the dogs.” 

But that is going to have to wait until I can make a pot of coffee at home again. So far I have lost five pounds just from the combined stress and inability to sit down to eat regular meals. The dogs had an intervention with me early on that went something to the effect of” “Listen, he is messing with the room where the food lives!” But they haven’t missed a meal yet, so they have calmed down.

Things continue to tick along slowly with the other two historic restorations.  One of my Live Local resolutions was to support local tradesmen this year, which I certainly am doing.  I just hadn’t realized how much more concerning this is when it is your house and your project. It is not so much the cost nor that I want it to be a piece to show off my good taste or financial means. It is just that I want things to be done well and to hold up to daily living. Perhaps what I am trying to convey about home renovations lies somewhere between Hilda and Tom Hiddleston:

“By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,

Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;

It yearns me not if men my garments wear;

Such outward things dwell not in my desires:

But if it be a sin to covet honour, I am the most offending soul alive.”

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