This interview is from the February 2011 issue of the CreativeHands Newsletter. Thanks to rrdesigns for taking the time to do this interview for us.
1. Not everyone is a handyman/woman when it comes to fixing up houses, how did you
first get started at refurbishing rooms/ homes?
My very first rental property as a tenant fresh out of college was a fixer upper. The landlords agreed to pay for any materials that I used to fix the place up, and I took them up on their offer. The first home that I purchased also needed a lot of work. I’ve never been one to shy away from a challenge, so I took a running leap into the home improvement section at the local bookstore ( I’m old enough to have experienced life before the internet!) and started learning.
2. What was it about refurbishing homes that initially caught your interest, enticing you
to get into it at the level you are now?
I enjoy breathing new life into old buildings. I am also a firm believer in sweat equity. I’ve never had the funds to buy or build a brand new home, but I am able to envision how to improve a run down down property. I’ve been an athlete my entire life, so the physical side of the work does not frighten or deter me. Although some of the tasks that surface out of necessity require you to be a glutton for punishment, I don’t mind. I enjoy the challenges and to quote the television show hostMike Rowe “I’m not afraid to get dirty”.
3. Tell us a bit of history of your journey from that beginning to where you are today.
I joined my family’s business when I graduated from college in 1979. This opportunity paid the rent and then the mortgage after I became a homeowner. In addition to raising four children, nights and weekends were often spent in fixer upper mode. We sold the company in 1996 and I was faced with the dilemma of how to make a living. I had some severance pay to live off of for a little while so I decided to try to do what I enjoyed the most which was fix up houses. I started buying fixer uppers and transforming them for resale.
Profits varied from one property to the next, as did the challenges each individual property brought to the table. I live in an area whose real estate prices have never been and will probably never be high (Oklahoma) compared to the rest of the nation. The image of striking it rich with fast turnovers and largely cosmetic improvements that the television shows tout is not a reality in my part of the country. I never made a pile of money, but I can honestly say I loved what I was doing.
I would always hold open houses for the properties that I had completed in the hopes of attracting buyers. Often times the neighbors who knew the history of the homes that I was working on would come through. Their amazement at the transformations was very rewarding. When they asked who did the work and I would raise my hand, they often didn’t believe me. But if they had looked at the calluses on my hands they would see the truth. One of those onlookers asked me to do a remodel job at her house. Word spread and my company “Rambling Road Designs” was born.
4. What inspires you regarding refurbishing homes?
I love the challenge in bringing a fresh look, a new use, or simply restored function to properties in need of attention. And I love learning new skills. While I am your classic jack of all trades, master of none, I really do love the challenge of learning. I sadly admit that I am a bit of a perfectionist. I am always seeking skills and tools to enable me to do even the mundane everyday tasks better. And now, more than ever, there is information everywhere!
5. What are the greatest challenges that you have met along the way? (and how did you
The most difficult challenge I ever encountered was trying to fix a homeowner’s roof which was built with inadequate support over a vaulted ceiling and was consequently sagging. We ended up using hydraulic bottle jacks which we retrofitted to hold a vertical 4×4 post attached to a horizontal 4×4 beam. We used these “T’s” to simultaneously raise both ends of the sagging portion of the roof from inside the attic.
It was August and felt like it was 200 degrees in there. To make matters worse, every time we would crank the jacks a little higher you could hear the entire house creak and moan. It was quite frightening. After we were able to restore the troublesome rafters to their original height we constructed braces underneath them which looked like giant letter “A’s”. This was necessary because the support walls on the outside edges of the vaulted ceiling were too far away to be used through conventional means to support the sagging roof. The builder failed to address the flaw within his design and the sagging roof was the result. I thank the local vo-tech instructor who I consulted for this idea. I still do work for these homeowners (they own a lot of rental properties) and every time I visit their home, I glance at the roof and smile, appreciating how well our hard work performed the task needed at the time and how well and long the “fix” has lasted (8 years and counting).
6. What is the greatest reward that you have received from refurbishing homes?
(personal or tangible).
It is always more personal than tangible, given that I never seem to charge enough to offset the actual work involved. If I didn’t take pride in and enjoy the work, I would have given up years ago.
7. What is your favourite tool that you use for refurbishing homes?
Every project has to start with creativity and the imagination. Beyond that, I have amassed quite a collection of specialty tools. On one occasion I needed to make plunge cuts in a restricted space (I added a lazy susan to a cabinet built without direct corner access). I purchased a Fein multimaster for the task thinking I might never use it again. Boy was I wrong! This is a love/hate tool. I love the functionality the tool provides but I hate the excessive cost of the blades, especially considering how fast they become dull.
8. What is your favourite creation in refurbishing homes?
I’ve done so many over the years it is hard to have a favorite. One project that I get to enjoy daily occurred in my own home. We added an addition to the back of my house in 2000. The stone chimney that used to be in my back yard is now part of a sunroom. I used the stone that was removed from the original exterior to build a fish pond at the base of the chimney.
Then I piped water from the pond to the top of the chimney and created a recirculating waterfall into the pond. We went through three different sized pumps before finding the best choice. My son had to climb the rock face and use a stone chisel to fine tune the rock edges to control the splash. It was quite amusing and we now get to enjoy the relaxing sound of trickling water inside the house everyday.
9. What tips would you give to someone just starting out or currently struggling with
Be flexible. A woodworking acquaintance once said when discussing problems encountered on a piece of furniture that he was making “this is not a mistake, it’s a design opportunity”. And do your homework. If you don’t know how to do something properly, research it. Find out the right way.
Don’t just jump into a project blindly. It will come back to haunt you later. When I was first starting out I would drive by homes under construction and do my own walk-throughs after the workers were gone just looking at everything that they were doing, from the framing to the plumbing to the electrical. It helped me envision how the giant puzzle pieces were supposed to go
together. And don’t be afraid to ask. Talk to the guys at the paint store, and the electrical supply house, and contractor’s desk at the hardware store. And most importantly, be safe. Understand proper framing requirements before you cut through that support beam. And if you don’t know, or you are unsure about how to proceed, find out. The information is out there.
10. How did you find HomeRefurbers and what is it that keeps you coming back?
I was a Lumberjock first (I also build custom furniture) and a fellow LJ member suggested I check out HomeRefurbers when I started a forum discussion concerning Pergola design. I only wish I had more time in the day to fully explore both sites. There is so much worthwhile there, and I feel as if I have only scratched the surface.
Thank you Beth for taking the time to do this interview and to post all your wonderful projects. As you know, I absolutely love the chimney/fish pond. Magnificent!
-- ~ Debbie, Ontario Canada