Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Freewheel is here!

The Freewheel is here! We've actually had it for about ten days now and we are loving it--the entire family. There is definitely a bit of a learning curve; even small adjustments to a wheelchair require a period of readjustment. But on the whole we are all very enthusiastic about this contraption. Joseph used to handle standard city sidewalks with relative ease but now he positively flies down them.

He and Margaret race to Mass every morning now (she on her bike). Joseph doesn't balk and flinch coming down every curb break wondering if he's going to face plant in the street. He's started to experiment getting up and down curbs on his own and, when he's hesitant, we can easily get him up and down large curbs ourselves without stopping to adjust his anti-tip bars and then bump him up and down backwards.

Eric took the kids to the farm last week to pick up our milk and eggs. We've been going to this farm for a couple years and it's always been sort of a bummer because Joseph can't really get around and see much of anything. He's always said he wants to be a farmer and we've sometimes gently pointed out that wheelchairs can't really get around that well in fields. This trip to the farm was completely different. He bumped himself right up into the farm store and then tooled around with the other kids looking at animals. He handled the gravel, he went up and down grassy hills. It was awesome.

We take walks in the neighborhood as much as we can after dinner in the summer. Last night Joseph was able to wheel onto the grass with the other kids and try to catch fireflies. We haven't been to the beach, yet, but we may try that soon. Exciting times.

Thursday, June 16, 2011


Yesterday I zipped down to our Home Depot Tool Rental store and got myself 24 hours with a random orbital floor sander. Our Home Depot is staffed with equal parts really competent people who are over eager to help me hunt down everything and load it into my car and young, lazy, jerks who openly mock women who claim to be competent with power tools and like to make a big show out of lifting 80 pounds into someone's car (I'm not ashamed to admit that I can't lift 80 pounds but this seems within the comfortable range for most 20-year-old men, right?). I was disappointed to find the latter type on duty yesterday but after suffering through thirty minutes of incompetence I was on my way back home with the sander and a huge stack of crazy expensive sandpaper.

In a classic, novice DIYer moment I totally forgot to budget for the sandpaper. Or, more, I thought, "It's paper. How expensive can it be?" Fortunately, Home Depot sends you home with gobs of it and then credits you for anything you bring back and I was able to return quite a bit of the finer grit paper.

William was hoping that he would be the one to operate the sander (I briefly toyed with the idea of renting him a mini bulldozer for the day but I couldn't fit it in the minivan):

Eric was actually the first to take the sander for a spin and, as you can see, the first pass gave some impressive results:

But he quit (at my request) after a few minutes and I started in. And I'll freely admit here as well that I vastly underestimated the amount of work involved in getting these floors back in shape. The sander isn't really hard to use. Honestly, if it weren't for the "Danger: Risk of Explosion" thing emblazoned everywhere you could probably close the door and let this go for a few hours Roomba-style. It's self-propelling and has four randomly-orbiting pads on the bottom so it sort of drives itself around on its own and the operator sort of keeps it in check and gently guides it to spots that need a little more action. But despite using 36-grit sandpaper and despite spending a full three hours in each of these tiny bedrooms (they average at under 10x10) there were still stubborn spots left over.

I don't know how long a job like this usually takes and I'm sure there's some degree of technique involved. It's possible this is just an insanely dull, slow project. But, in retrospect, I probably should have either started with 24-grit paper or opted for a "drum sander". Although that would have left me with a lot more edge clean up.

After three hours in each room I did a nice slow pass in each room with some 80-grit paper and called it a night. By this time I'd spent a full seven hours wrangling an 80-pound vibrating machine on a hot day while wearing a respirator and ear muffs. I was pretty much ready to collapse. But I paused for a minute to snap this shot:

Those are black sandals. I'm glad I had the foresight to wear washable footwear for this project.

The results? I'm a bit of a perfectionist so I have slightly mixed feelings. There are some really stubborn beat-up spots left:

I'll spend some time with my hand-held sander today and tomorrow to see what I can do to make those disappear. But the overall effect is, I think, very positive:

That picture is before sweeping, vacuuming, and finishing. I'm looking around at the wood floors in our apartment and realizing that they contain lots and lots of imperfections and discolorations but I definitely think of our floors as "nice." So I'm hoping our future tenants will have the same reaction.

And if anyone can weigh in on the type of wood we've got here I'd be glad to know. Here's a picture of one of the more interesting sections wiped with a bit of Murphy's Oil to bring out the grain for the picture:

I assume this is oak but the grain seems so much more interesting than usual and it is really varied. Maybe I'm just not used to unfinished hardwoods. We're pretty sure these are original floors and we think the house is about 100 years old (yes, we bought a house not knowing the exact age, welcome to Newark). Someone suggested staining the floors a dark color to hide imperfections but I think, imperfections notwithstanding, it would be a crime to hide this gorgeous wood.

I'll post another update when we're all finished. Oh, and the kitchen is still happening but we jumped on the floors first so as to give the finish plenty of time to cure before the tenants arrive.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Wood floors!

Remember when I mentioned that the front of our rental apartment was really nice? This is a shot of one of the two front rooms, looking into the front room. Nice paint, nice details, and really gorgeous hardwood floors. They look like they were probably very recently refinished.

We love wood floors not only because they are easier on a wheelchair but because they are so gorgeous. They are the norm for floors in our area and--once you've got them--much less expensive to maintain than carpet. This apartment has two back bedrooms. One of them had an old blue carpet with an iron burn right in the middle. The other had ugly, old vinyl tile. We really wanted to replace both of these floors with hardwood but that would have put us over budget on this whole project so we were planning to install new carpet in both bedrooms.

The other day while we were up here dismantling the kitchen I idly asked if we'd looked under the carpet in the first bedroom. Eric pried up a corner of the carpet and found . . . hardwood floors! I'm not sure why we were surprised. I guess I figured that the old owners wouldn't have covered up wood floors if they had them. We then popped up one of the vinyl floor tiles in the back bedroom and found . . . more hardwood floors!

It took about ten minutes to pop up all the tiles and make a big, enormously heavy pile in one room.

But it took the better part of two days for Eric to get all the staples out of the floor in the first room. Whoever installed carpet in that room apparently had the philosophy, "If one staple is good, twenty must be really good!" We are constantly asking ourselves what the previous owners were thinking when they fixed up this house (though their many DIY shortcomings have so far not deterred us from taking on projects ourselves).

And now we have floors that look sort of like this:

Not pretty but I think they are salvageable.
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Monday, June 13, 2011

Kitchen Renovation: Before

I wish this were a post all about MY kitchen renovation but it isn't.

You might remember that we bought a two-family house and that we have our first tenants arriving on July 1. We are confident that we have quality tenants arriving and we sincerely hope that they love renting from us and stay for a long time. As any landlord will tell you, turning over an apartment is generally something to be avoided. It costs money and you lose rent during the time it takes. For our first stab at being landlords we wanted to be careful to pick people we had confidence in and we budgeted a couple months' lost rent as part of our move-in expenses so that we could afford to wait for these folks to move in. That also gives us the time to do work in the upstairs apartment if we want. The new tenants have seen lots of pictures so they knew that the apartment they agreed to take had a kitchen like this:

This is actually a perfectly acceptable kitchen for our neighborhood. There are a few luxury condos around but, for the most part, this is a fairly middle-of-the-road kind of place and there are plenty of worse kitchens out there. This one is on par with our two other rentals in the neighborhood and only slightly less-nice than what we have now.

The front rooms of this apartment are nicely painted with gorgeous new hardwood flooring. The back of the apartment has that kitchen, a slightly vintage bathroom, and two small bedrooms with icky flooring. We really wanted to do something to make the back of the apartment more closely match the front both in an attempt to keep our first tenants as long as possible and then turn over the apartment as quickly as possible when it's time to find new tenants.

Some of the problems in this kitchen include a big gaping "open area" that is just crying out for a dishwasher:

Really ugly faux-wood laminate counters with a seam that was never joined:

A plastic "tile-look" backsplash with, um, stick on green leaves:

Green vinyl flooring, and wood-paneling:

The older range is in an unfortunate spot as well.

These old houses have covered fireplaces and the stoves are often oddly-placed as a result. But there was no way to move the stove without starting from scratch with the cabinets and we're not looking to invest that much money into a rental kitchen.

The plan: replace the countertop, including by extending it under the window up to the refrigerator. Install a dishwasher under the new stretch our countertop. Paint the wood paneling (it's old, thin, yucky paneling, not super-nice wood, don't worry!). Paint the cabinets and update the hardware. I haven't ruled out updating the floor with new vinyl tiles but that isn't in the plan at the moment. It is the easiest thing to do in a year or so either in between tenants or to show our appreciation for tenants that stay on. And we're doing all the work ourselves and calling it "practice." I hope the results are nice but I don't think the results could possibly be worse than what we're starting with.

Stay tuned for updates!

Back from the Midwest

Our mostly-annual Midwest road trip came early this summer. Eric's grandfather died on Palm Sunday and the memorial service was held at the end of May in Madison, WI. We left the minute Eric's semester ended (I picked him up at the curb outside his office with a loaded car) and spent ten days away arriving back home very late the night before an all-day meeting Eric had to attend. The timing definitely meant that we spent far less time in St. Paul that we would have liked but given how much we have going on this summer, a shorter trip was probably in order anyway and this forced us to do it.

Eric mostly grew up in Madison so he is always happy for a reason to spend some time there. The memorial service was lovely. Grandpa was very popular and had many old friends in Madison. He was also a veteran of World War II and the military "presentation of colors" at the end was very moving.

I think the highlight of the whole trip might have been the family reunion that evening. Eric's Great-Uncle Ted hosted the entire extended family at his house for the evening. The Iltae are a very musical bunch and Ted's two sons brought out their instruments and entertained us all with song after song after song. I was amazed at the memory these guys had. There was lots of jamming, too. Joseph and Margaret both wanted in on the action with the mandolin:

Joseph actually had pretty good technique thanks to his violin lessons.

We spent some time tooling around Madison. The kids were excited to see houses where Eric had lived and schools he had gone to. We drove back to St. Paul with Eric's brother Ben Sunday afternoon. We made our traditional pit stop at the Norskie Nook and ate way too much pie. I thought this view of Ben was really fun:

He and William, discussing alternate views on fashion:

All in all, it was a lovely, if short, trip. I hope we can make up for it a bit next summer. We have several very good friends in St. Paul and it is hard to see them only once each year.