Things I learned while working on my backyard

This summer was supposed to be all about Project Reclaim The Backyard. Unfortunately the scheduling of this project conflicted with Jersey’s monsoon season (yes, I already used this joke on Twitter/Facebook). It started strongly enough, as I cut down hundreds of feet of vines in a couple weekends, but their actual disposal has dragged on for a couple months. Still, we got a patio installed so that The Woman and Kayleigh can hang out and watch me drop rocks on my foot and branches on my head for the rest of the summer/fall. It’s a family thing.

For the past week the crux of the work has been removing the remainder of the shoddy walkway that used to lead to the basement door. There is still no definite plan for replacement, but walking on dirt is a better alternative to navigating the concrete minefield that was left behind by an unnamed backhoe operator. And at the very least, I finally got to use the sledgehammer that was left behind in our basement. That’s a lot of fun – at least when the concrete is less than 2 inches thick. My next lesson will hopefully involve how to dispose of broken slabs of concrete.

After wiping out the walkway, I learned just how heavy Belgian Block is – VERY. I also learned that wheel barrows are not very good at transporting 6 or more blocks o’ Belgian at a time – especially when rolling them over the muddy holes they were dug out of. So the migration of blocks to another corner of the yard became a week long process because carrying one at a time significantly reduces the chance of breaking a foot but has the unfortunate side effect of taking way too long and tiring me out way too quickly. Maybe that stone fort I had planned is not such a good idea…

But by next spring, gosh darn it, we will have a usable backyard. Either that, or I’m going to start subletting it to a small farmer.

Take my money, please!

We’ve been itching to get some work done on our house. Nothing too big…actually we wanted something very big. There is a plan. A master plan. A master plan that involves knocking out walls and parts of the roof and rearranging plumbing. A master plan that would turn our humble “3” bedroom cape (our office/den is counted as a bedroom while the ones upstairs are awkward and small) into a spacious home with plenty of room on both floors.

But that plan had a flaw. And that flaw was the need for money. Specifically a need for money when the global economy decided to flush itself down the proverbial crapper. After a couple months of toying with the idea and speaking with some contractors I finally caved and called a bank. And they laughed at me. Alright, maybe they were actually polite about it, but some words were bandied about that didn’t put me in the best of moods. Words like “not economically feasible” and “decreasing property value” and “fat chance” and “stupid”.

It was disappointing because we managed to find a local contractor that seemed like the perfect choice to do the work. He suggested ways to cut costs even though he was already cheaper than other estimates, showed us some of his other work, took us to his office, bought me coffee, and was just generally a friendly guy. Once the money started to evaporate, we talked to him about doing the outside work that we need for safety reasons with the hope that next year some of the master plan could go into effect. And that’s where it currently ends.

And I’m left wondering, why do contractors not want my money? You see, we already started talking to some people last year about our crumbling front steps, potholed driveway, and collapsed retaining wall. They came in with some great ideas and put together some initial estimates. But once serious adjustments were made… where’d everybody go? Seriously, doesn’t anybody want money these days? Or are all contractors required to be flighty, inconsistent, and at least slightly unethical?

Unfortunately the hardscaping is not something I can do on my own (or even with the help of drunken friends). This isn’t like ripping out sheetrock or putting up shelves or replacing electrical components. We’re talking about demolishing brick steps, removing a concrete walkway, hauling lots of dirt and rocks, building a wall, and paving a driveway. My cordless drill, reciprocating saw, Wonder Bar, and large tub of joint compound just ain’t gonna cut it. Even if I drag up the sledge hammer chances are a few more bricks will be loosened and we’ll end up be using the side stairs for the next 3 years.

For all I know by this time tomorrow someone will get back to us with some concrete (har har!) numbers and we can start making plans to upgrade the decaying rubble look of our front yard properly. But I’m beginning to think the next time The Money Pit is on TV I’ll mistake it for a documentary…


This weekend we (and since The Woman is 37 weeks pregnant, we really means I) had to get some painting done. That included:

  • Priming and painting the kitchen ceiling
  • Priming and painting the kitchen walls
  • Priming and painting the nursery ceiling
  • Priming the nursery walls
  • Priming the new linen closet
  • Pretending to prime and/or paint the kitchen trim

The Woman did, in fact, help out a lot. But she can’t be in the room when the primer is being used, and she can’t paint anything that’s lower than 3 feet or higher that 6 feet. Unfortunately our walls extend beyond both limits. The real shame is that she’s a better painter than I. But in the end it worked out – and for the first time in a while, I may actually be owed a tad more sympathy than she is. Holy crap does every square inch of my body ache.

To be fair, by now I’m already well on my way to recovery (until I paint the nursery walls tonight) while her feet are still ballooned to twice their usual size. And trust me, I’m smart enough not to try milking this for anything, anyway. Regardless, this was an incredibly rare weekend during which I was actually looking forward to returning to work on Monday in order to relax. Fool me once…

The incredible leaking house

Just remember, when you stop one leak, God will provide you with another… I think that’s the proverb. At least that seems to be the appropriate one for this house.

For those of you not currently enjoying the wonderful heatwave up here in the Northeast, you’ve also just missed out on one frightening bit o’ thunderstorm that hit these parts. We’re talking non-stop thunder, lightening strikes that seemed only blocks away, winds that sent rain horizontal, and hail. That’s right, freakin’ hail. I don’t know about you guys, but I honestly can’t remember the last time I saw hail around here. While it may be common elsewhere, that’s freaky weather for me.

Thanks to our recent gutter cleaning, all of the basement leaks appeared to be holding well. No big deal considering how quickly these vicious storms can pass. But I kept hearing some strange noise along with the howling winds. Eventually I tracked it down to a window at the top of our stairs – one which we, of course, just recently talked about replacing. I’ve seen it leak a little before, but after five minutes of the torrential downpour outside the sill was overflowing and a stream of water was heading down some steps. Oh joy, because I just love every square inch of my house constantly being under threat of a random soaking.

Fortunately a bunch of extra towels and an old comforter stopped it up. But it got me thinking of the water issues in this house and how they keep staying one step ahead of me:

  1. Initial water found in basement.
  2. All boxes are moved to dry locations.
  3. Dry locations quickly become wet, too.
  4. Front gutters are cleaned stopping the leaks.
  5. Major storm dumps enough water to cover the entire basement floor – outright mocking my previous work.
  6. Basement is cleaned to the point that only major storms will affect it – good enough for me.
  7. Damp sheet rock is discovered in soon-to-be-built nursery.
  8. All gutters are cleaned, no more dampness in soon-to-be-built nursery.
  9. Water heater EXPLODES filling basement with 2-3 inches of water.
  10. Water heater is replaced. Everything in the house is now dry.
  11. Upstairs window starts flooding stairwell…

WTF! Could I just go back to some of the non-water related homeowner problems? Wait, we’re just about to renovate the kitchen. So please, a reprieve on homeowner woes. I beg of you!

From the new digs

The move is complete… Wait a minute… I moved? Not me, but my company. Well, part of my company. And that part included me. So… uh… yeah… I guess I moved. This has been a long time coming and now finds me sitting in my glorious new office. A very nice place to be considering the sheer amount of stress that has been hitting me (and, to be honest, still is hitting me) as a result.

No details here. Maybe I’ll post a photo when my office is a tad cleaner. It’s a pretty sweet setup, but I probably shouldn’t be showing photos of our “data center” to the entire Innerweb. Let’s just say that the actually network/server room is probably twice the size of my previous closet… er… office. And right now I’m living proof that a good working environment goes a long way. So much more can be accomplished when you don’t have several servers and an A/C unit blowing noisely on you all day.

In case you couldn’t guess, this move would be one of the major reasons I’ve been such a bad blogger of late. One of the other reasons would be that I’m frantically working on the nursery. And yet another reason would be that I’m frantically working on the kitchen. And all of these things require me to run around from place to place in total ignorance of current gas prices. On top of all of that, I also have a shiny new toy to show off and haven’t even had time to demonstrate it’s awesomeness.

More to follow, including photos of me covered in plaster and breaking wooden boards with the power of my mind…

The dandelion crop looks good this year

Those of you who have visited my humble abode have probably noticed there’s a certain section that I’m not exactly… er… proud of. Even though we’re excited about the kitchen renovation, there’s still a certain charm to the existing one, so it’s not that. The awkward shape of our “master suite” has served us well no matter how much I’d like to expand it (well, at least raise the roof a couple feet). And despite it’s semi-frequent floods, the basement is still the site of future cool endeavors that I can pseudo-brag about…

No, the overgrown and disheveled mess that is my yard offers the most embarrassment to me. And considering that most of my neighbors spend hours every weekend outside or pay for a service to do it for them the difference is… well… you get the idea. I mean, I use a push reel mower. No, I’m not talking about a push versus riding mower, I’m talking about one of those old-fashioned manual ones with no engine. So you can see just how seriously I take the outside maintenance.

This year was going to be different, though. I think I actually mowed my lawn before anyone else. The next weekend I spent a few hours removing what appeared to be barbed wire that had grown wild in the back. But just in time for me to do more work in the front – BAM! – the water heater went. And we got lots of rain. And suddenly spring kicked into full gear. And suddenly I walk outside to find the grass not only several inches taller, but filled with hundreds of dandelions. Because, you know, I was running out of challenges around here.

Walking by the disaster zone was a tad depressing, but between work and the more pressing needs inside the house there was no time left for cleaning up. And so I can’t say it was exactly a surprise when I cam home Thursday night with enough daylight left that I decided it was time to make things right that I found this in the mail:

Mow your lawn or else!

Awesome! I was honestly threatened to have my lawn ticketed. Is that the lamest way to break the law or what? Could you imagine if they actually dragged me to court because I was working too late and didn’t want to make my pregnant wife take care of the yard? Brilliant! The funniest part is that we always wondered what it would take to get one of these notices, and knowing is half the battle… Personally I think it was the dandelions that did me in. When all was said and done, they pretty much filled a large garbage bag – I almost feel bad not making a case of wine out of them. But after they were removed, the tall field of grass that remained wasn’t that bad. Of course now that’s it’s cut, there’s a little less personality to our property…

Just kidding, the place looks a lot less white trash, and I’m sure my neighbors appreciate that. Still, there’s part of me that wants to call up about the notice and go on some rant about how my taxes pay their salary and with the ridiculous costs of living in West Orange they should be mowing my lawn for me. Where would I be without righteous indignation?

Anyway, now that the front is looking normal, I guess it’s time to toss some gasoline and a match out back to clean up the rest…

The good luck was bound to run out…

Here at the Slattery household, we can’t help but feel a tad blessed of late. Lots of good things have happened, from my game show appearance to The Woman’s growing belly. But we knew that something somewhat bad had to happen to slightly balance it out. And so, instead of telling you about the kitchen renovation plans, the great deals we got on the last appliances, or my big upgrade purchase I get to wonder about why I didn’t buy this emergency water pump during the big flood last year…

This morning I was awoken by The Woman commenting that there was no hot water. There have definitely been a few mornings when my shower has been on the cool side or shortened because I was second in line, but no hot water at all is a real conundrum. Everything else was running just fine, so it’s not like PSE&G decided to cut us off because I still can’t figure out the stupid login for the account. So I headed down to the basement to check on the flame and hopefully get it back up and running in no time.

Unfortunately as I approached the basement door I heard a sound I definitely did not want to hear – running water… Crap. At first glance the floor looked to have only a few puddles, but those were apparently just reflections. Because once I threw my sandals on, I found myself sloshing through 2-3 inches of water to get to the shutoff valve. Yeehaw! For those of you who don’t know how water heaters work, just realize that it’s about the same as a pipe in that if it breaks… well… there’s nothing to stop the flow of water.

The frustrating thing is that we’ve been having discussions about replacing the stupid thing this summer. But there were no real indications (at least in my mind) that an upgrade was a huge priority. Certainly nothing that said a flood was imminent.

At least just about everything was moved off the ground due to the previous flooding problems. It looks like just some CDs and DVDs that were on the lowest shelves may be ruined, and the pump from Home Depot did a pretty good job so far with some more clean up work to be done tonight. So we still can’t complain that much, but this is more than just a minor inconvenience since the hot water is off until a plumber can come by. Not to mention, I don’t feel very eco-friendly wasting a few hundred gallons of water to wash the basement floor…

Grown-up decision time

Hey, remember that TV show I was on? And I won a bunch of money? And I made a comment about remodeling our kitchen? You don’t? What the hell is wrong with you?!?!

For those of you paying attention, the comment about the kitchen wasn’t just me trying to get quality, non-dork, face time on TV. Next to paying down credit cards, that was the number one option The Woman and I had decided upon for spending any significant winnings that might befall us. Actually, there was a more complicated mental list that included completely renovating the second floor, but wussing out on the Rudyard Kipling guess prevented that plan…

For now let’s just say that the kitchen is job number one… alright, the growing baby is job number one. So we’re back to calling it number two. You all still following? Great. The point is that we’ve talked to a few places about remodeling costs, and it looks like we’re ready to move forward. But there’s still some hemming and hawing and hand wringing (by me) as various numbers have begun to crawl ever upward. Sure, the cabinets are fairly reasonable, even with all of the upgrades, but the extra work to make sure the entire room is completely up to snuff has squashed any notion that we’d be able to do multiple jobs (i.e. fix up a bathroom) this year, and also has me worried about longterm effects.

When it comes down to it, our kitchen is totally functional as it stands. Now that we’ve replaced our broken oven and upgraded the refrigerator to a decently-sized unit, cooking has become less of a chore. So the debate has become whether a full remodel is excessive or a sound investment. Guarantee me that we’re still living in this house in 10 years and it’s a no-brainer. However the skyrocketing property taxes in my county suggest that is not a certainty.

But there’s no two ways about it – we either do all of the work or none of it. I made a decision not to half-ass things with the house. Ripping out old, poorly configured cabinets and replacing them with new, poorly configured cabinets is a waste of money. Tearing up an old, sagging tile floor and replacing it with a new, sagging tile floor is a waste of money. Ignoring plumbing problems when everything is going to be completely exposed for a week is just asking for it to comeback to haunt you further down the road. Couple these things with issues like questionable lighting and outlets, an undersized pantry, and a lack of a dishwasher and there’s plenty for the contractor to do.

But what would you leave off? Skipping work to save one or even two thousand dollars right now will just leave me aggravated when I realize how much it will cost to fix things later.

We may still skimp on the demo work, because apparently soffits in kitchens are some sort of magical contraption that more than doubles the cost for contractors. I’ve got a sledgehammer and a case of Yuengling that says my friends can make short work of it. Still, something tells me that my engineering degree still isn’t enough to confidently wire new electrical outlets next to a gas pipe.

This decision was a hell of a lot easier when we were just looking at cabinets and DIY installation…

We can hardly contain ourselves

Get it? It’s a pun! “Contain ourselves”?!?! It’s freakin’ hysterical – alright, maybe it’s more groan-worthy, but at least it should get a reaction… oh, wait, crap, I forgot to tell you what this is about… let’s start over…

The Woman and I can hardly contain ourselves over the new closet… nevermind. This idea sucks. Let’s just pretend it never happened and I’ll just skip to the part you care about… wait, what do you guys care about?

The first step in operation “Deal With The Annoyances Of Our House And Prepare For The Baby To Get Here” – or DWTAOOHAPFTBTGH for short – was to fix the closet situation in our bedroom. It was/is a tad odd. The house is not without closet and general storage space – actually it’s got a lot of storage. Unfortunately, not much of it is convenient for clothing. The Woman’s closet has a small door that leads into a short – yet long – dark, unfinished area that nearly gave me tetanus when I realized just how unfinished it was. My closet, on the other hand, is a real closet – albeit one that was designed for a narrower person than myself. Oh, and it’s located in the future home of the aforementioned baby.

While not horrible, this is far from ideal. When I first mentioned this issue over a year ago, a couple people suggested looking at the Elfa system from The Container Store. (Yes! I finally tied in the title appropriately. You may now all collectively groan.) We hesitated too long and missed out on the annual sale – I feel bad for even taking this long to mention them as the sale ends in less than a week. But I still want to put it out there. Why? Because it really is a good system, and the people who work at the store are great.

The idea was to take this horrible mess of a corner in our bedroom:

The Woman will be so pleased that I am showing everyone this mess...

and turn it into a workable, open closet arrangement.

Our first trip to the store was a tad overwhelming, because it gets really swamped on the weekends. So I decided to send The Woman back on a week day armed with the proper measurements. For starters, they plan out the whole thing for you for free – that’s pretty cool. But what shocked me was that they will actually e-mail you the plans from the store. The Woman called me at work to let me know the cost, and when I asked about how it looked, the designer sent me the layout right then and there!

So after waiting a few days to clean and paint that corner, it took only a couple hours over two nights to build this:

The last time our bedroom will look this neat...

My side will be filled with emergency chocolate rations...

Everybody in the store was super friendly and helpful. In fact, we’ve already gone back once because we decided to add another hanging bar (since I have more pants than long clothes) and are thinking about adding another drawer on the other side. Even their non-closet organizers are appealing to us – this unit would work well on the door to the basement.

We’re totally stoked to have a real closet area and, while the Elfa system can be a tad expensive, it’s also incredibly convenient and much sturdier than what you can pick up for a couple hundred dollars at Home Depot or Lowes. It’s also a system we’ll be able to adapt if we ever get to build that walk-in closet.

Now if I could just convince them to send me some ad money for writing this crummy review…