Category Archives: Old Houses

Care and keeping of old houses–we keep buying them because we know how to fix them.

Tour 2015: Afterword


Coming home after a long trip pulls one quickly back into the routine that the trip was designed to break. However, a two-month absence makes reestablishing the routine much more difficult. The inside of the house looks exactly as we left it (in somewhat of a hurry, but prepared–empty refrigerator, empty garbage cans, etc)–almost: a shelf fell off the wall, probably due to being overloaded just before we left, and a bicycle tipped over, probably due to digging out last-minute supplies from behind it.  However, the outside is a profusion of blooming things that were just starting to wake when we left, and we missed most of the rhody season–those blooms are long gone.  Fortunately we did have a service maintain the grounds while we were gone, so the place didn’t look quite as abandoned as it would have.

Delia is happy to be home, too.
Delia is happy to be home, too.

By now, the cat is used to extended stays of a week or two or three at the Just Cats Hotel, but she always clings to us for a few days after we all get home. This time is no exception. We’ve moved downstairs to the guest room to beat the unseasonable heat wave, and the cat has taken that in stride, curling up next to us, though she still thinks we should be upstairs. We’ve been busy finding window screens and hunting down our seldom-used fans to help keep the house cooler: our big oscillating floor fan perished last year and wasn’t replaced: a brief search for a new one, even a table unit, was in vain, as the heat wave caught us in Montana several days before we got home, and local stores quickly sold out of what isn’t usually a big selling item in the usually mild Pacific Northwest.

Entropy continues to eat away at houses whether they are occupied or not: the upstairs bathroom tank-to-bowl gasket dried out from age, heat, and lack of use, so toilet repair was first on the list after unloading the car. Several days have passed: the tank bolts continue to seep, despite new bolts and rubber washers–a careful juggling act between tight enough and too tight, to make a seal without breaking the porcelain. The new bolts were larger in diameter than the old ones, which called for carefully drilling out the holes in the ceramic tank with a masonry bit, not something one expects to have to do… Suitcases were unpacked, laundry done, and finally, camping gear put away, though we intend to do some local overnight trips the rest of the summer. A trip to Costco to replenish supplies was in order, but the bulk items remain stacked in the garage, awaiting time to distribute them into the usual storage places.

We also brought back items from our cabin after staging it for sale as a furnished dwelling, including a small kitchen table and stools we originally had used in our Bremerton town house, four houses back, in the 1990s, intending to replace my parent’s old kitchen table, which has been a bit large for the breakfast nook in our Shelton bungalow. The cabin has a set of folding tray tables that is adequate for meals: the table and stools have always been a bit crowded there. So, the 1930s kitchen table, disassembled, has joined the other items in the sewing/craft space in the basement, awaiting further disposition, perhaps as a craft table instead of the precarious tilting drafting table we use now. The plan for the rest of the summer is to unclutter and simplify our current home, whether or not we choose to downsize to a smaller house in the near future. Unfortunately, part of the clutter is the accumulation of two months worth of mail. Some progress has been made on reducing that, as I have chosen not to renew my professional society memberships as well as let several other paper subscriptions lapse anticipating being truly retired and traveling more.


Of course, retirement is a gradual process for the software entrepreneur and systems manager: maintenance and upkeep goes on for existing clients, and the home network that supports the profession has been largely left running untouched for the past two months, so software patches and upgrades are in order for all the machines as well. Amazingly, the services on which we depend for access to data and security while we were gone performed well for the entire two months, though a few of the non-essential experimental systems, unstable at best, did go off-line. The essential systems still are susceptible to functional degradation after a restart, and could become inaccessible if they have a restart and the cable company changes the router address before we can reset the security tokens. Something to work on–I  programmed the devices to require manually starting a password agent after reboot to reset the inter-computer communications between servers and clients both internal and external to the network.  There is a way to “permanently” allow encrypted communication between selected computers, but I’ve been reluctant to use that method.

The main issue is that, to save money, we have a regular residential Internet account, where the provider assigns the address more or less randomly, so that our network gateway has to continually monitor its address and then be able to provide changes to the external web server.  A regular commercial account can request a permanent internet address and link it to the Intenet name service, but that is expensive.  Even though our “stealth” web server and secure gateway is not registered, we still get bombarded with dozens of break-in attempts on a daily basis, as the “bad guys” simply scan the network address space for servers and attack them.  In fact, “unlisted” addresses are more likely to be personal computers that are notoriously insecure, rather than servers that have professional management and keep security protocols up to date.

Cat Talk


It is the last full day of summer, the longest and driest in the 24 years, off and on, I have spent in Washington State since 1980, and certainly in the five years Delia, our 18-year-old cat, has lived here. She has lived with us for the past 14 years, during which time she has adapted to living with humans and struggled with communicating with us, or at least teaching us to interpret Cat. She hasn’t always been quite so vocal, but during our frequent travels over the past few years, she has had ample time to observe other cats, among her fellow guests at the Just Cats Hotel, and to duplicate their vocalizations, particularly, such phrases as, “I’ve used my litter box: clean it now!” And, “It’s 4:30am—time to make a fire and sit by it.” Language, after all, is but a sequence of sound tokens and context, with meaning a mutual understanding among the speakers and listeners. And, cat talk has a simple grammar—every statement is a demand for some action on the part of the human half of the conversation.

Most of her conversation is in body language, though, and we have learned that, as a pad between her and a lap, she likes quilts best, having lived in a household where quilts are made: before she was banned from the sewing room, she would crawl onto the sewing table and lie on the half-finished quilt top as the blocks were sewn together. Her next favorites are handwoven wool coverlets, a fairly new addition to the handcraft repertoire. The crocheted afghans, gifts from “Auntie Bing,” on which she spent so much time earlier, are now rejected outright as too claw-catching. We are frequently beseached to join her in the living room to provide a platform for proper use of a quilt, preferably in a recliner by the fire. However, this summer, I have put a screen in my office window and placed her scratching platform next to it, so she sometimes consents to be “office cat” to be near her people as well as near the porch.

This summer, while recovering from open heart surgery, I spent less time rushing about or sitting at the computer, and more time sitting on the porch, to the delight of the cat. Our current base camp in our life journey is a 1920s bungalow, of the classic design where the porch is under the natural roof line rather than a mere covered entryway, forming a room with three sides open to the outside. Delia has always enjoyed the porch as a place to get out of the rain while trying to get our attention to be let back in after her daily inspection of the grounds, but quickly adopted it this summer as part of our living space.

Of late, since I have recovered enough to focus on other tasks, Delia has indicated more and more that, no, she doesn’t want in, she wants us to come out, to sit with her on the porch to enjoy the mild summer. So we go, with lunch or books, and enjoy the sun and fresh air. She sits under our chairs or the patio table we moved up for the season, or on a convenient lap.


So it was on this last day of summer—she all but begged me to come out and sit with her. Judy was busy in the house, so Delia sat in her chair, the one in the sun, where she could look out over the low wall toward the street. I had sat there, but Delia indicated that, no she didn’t want to sit on my lap, she wanted to sit in the chair, so I moved back to “my” chair on the other side of the table, whereupon she curled up in Judy’s chair and assumed that regal stone lion pose seen on the entry to libraries and great houses, while I was left alone with my book.

As the afternoon wore on and the sun moved around behind the house, the breath of Fall settled on the porch, prompting me to retreat to the house. Delia remained, and pleaded with me through the office window to rejoin her. I put on a jacket and went back outside, but soon felt the deepening chill with the sun falling below the hill and shadows lengthening. This time, Delia reluctantly followed me into the house, closing the door on summer one last time.

At nearly 18, summers are precious to a small cat, something that I, in my 70th summer, can also appreciate. The rain came at last, but briefly, during the night, and fall colors began to appear with the gray dawn. Winter is coming.


One More Trip to Ace…

In an earlier post we described the mysteries, joys, and horrors of the seemingly simple task of changing a light fixture in the kitchen of our 1927 bungalow, leaving the scene with a foam picnic plate covering the unsightly hole we found in under the old light and yet another identical light to replace.

First, back to Lowe’s to pick a light to go with the modern 6-light Z-bar we put in the center of the kitchen.  Because the second light is over the breakfast nook and my parents’ 1937 kitchen table, we wanted it a bit more in keeping with the period of the house.  We found a ribbed-glass shade pendant light in brushed nickel that was just right, and matched the finish on the halogen bar light.

A stop at Ace to pick up yet another shallow plaster/rework box and two large (8-inch) steel wallboard patches.  The latter are metal plates covered with adhesive mesh that extends 2 inches beyond the metal to patch really large holes, like the ones you get when you slam a door knob against the wall.  We are prepared.

Of course, the big surprise when we take down the second light is that, first, the wires just stick out of the plaster: this light was apparently added after the ceiling was textured.  The wiring is even newer, more 1970s-vintage, which we deduced when we tied it in at the center fixture.  So, we only need one of those head-butting-hole fixer plates.  One more thing for the eventual garage sale.  The smooth ceiling, however, presents another problem.  We trace around the round rework box and carefully cut through the beaverboard ceiling with a utility knife, keeping close to the line and working the edge until the plaster box fits snugly in the hole, with the wire through one of the knockouts in the bottom of the box.  We select some screws from our stash of home-repair parts and screw the box securely to the joist and lath, then assemble the lamp.  It looks great, and the original 13-watt CFL from the old ceiling fixture lights up the table just fine, now that it is 30 inches closer.

A few days later, we tackle the paper plate problem.  First, we remove the Z-bar fixture, paper plate, scrape off a couple layers of loose wallpaper in the one-foot-diameter bare circle in the ceiling texture that was under the old fixture, and smooth down the ridge of plaster at the edge of the circle.  I try to cut a hole in the big patch plate with a fly cutter on the drill press, but give up after a bit of chatter starts–the material is pretty thin.  But, it now has a nice 4-inch circle scribed in it.  I drill out the pilot hole to 1/2-inch and use the air nibbler to rough-cut the hole.  Then, I use the air die grinder with a cutoff wheel to trim to the line.  A trip to the kitchen shows we are just a little tight, so scribe a line around the edge with a Sharpie and grind it off, just right.  Just to be safe, I screw the plate into the ceiling, not relying on the mesh adhesive to hold it, as these are designed for wall patches.  Finally, I apply wallboard joint compound, imitating the knock-down texture of the rest of the ceiling as much as possible.  We let it dry overnight, resigning ourselves to cooking in the dark again.

The next day, I put a coat of primer on the new plaster before we leave for the day.  When we return, I paint the patch to match the rest of the ceiling and remount the light fixture in time for dinner.

It looks like it was always there.  But, like other old-house projects, it took a total of a couple of weeks to finish (we did take a trip to Montana in the middle of this exercise), at least four trips to various hardware stores, and we have extra parts and material left over.  The total cost of replacing two kitchen lights was about $120, and, while not to modern electrical code, is better and safer than it was, and is functional.   To completely upgrade the wiring and use restored or reproduction fixtures would have taken more than two weeks and cost several thousand dollars that we don’t have right now.New Kitchen Lighting

“Better Than New” — Old House Restoration

After five weeks, we returned to Montana to check on restoration of our other old house.  Backstory–we got a call from our realtor on New Year’s Day that there was water running down the walls in the dining room, wallpaper hanging from the ceiling, etc.  Seems the cold water faucet connection, undisturbed for probably 30 years, suddenly decided to start leaking, which went undetected through several house showings and a friend checking on the house from time to time, as it went directly behind the sink cabinet into the floor.

Purvis Restoration did a great job, ripping out soggy floor and ceiling, drying and mold control applied, and the nearly-new carpet salvaged.  We hired Tom O’Shaunessy, who had painted the dining room originally, to do the repaint.  The outcome is fantastic, it looks like nothing ever happened, except there is new vinyl in the upstairs bathroom.

So, moral of the story–when you inspect for leaks, feel the joints or wipe them down: leaks are not always visible.  Sadly, we just went through a round of leak fixing in our “new” old house in Washington.

Bending the old house to suit

OK, we love our new old house, but two 13-watt CFLs in the kitchen just didn’t cut it.  Last week, we put up a rather modern-looking 6-lamp halogen Z-bar in the center, which lets us actually see what we are cleaning and cooking.

But, the pale moon over the breakfast nook is just that, pale.  So, back to the store, where we pick out a nice pendant light with a ribbed glass shade that speaks more to the period of the house and the metal matches the light bar, more or less.  Dropping the old light, we find what we expected, wires poking out of the textured beaverboard.  but, at least, no gaping hole in the board and the ceiling is finished right up to the wires.  So, we trot down to our friendly neighborhood Ace Hardware yet again, for yet another rework box.  I trace around it on the ceiling, cut a circle with my trusty Leatherman knife, and pry out a chunk of beaverboard.  The box fits snugly in the hole, flush with the ceiling, and even has a joist to screw it into.

After fighting with the lamp for a reasonable time for an unsupervised DIYer (Judy was off to a quilt guild committee meeting), I read the directions, put the mounting screws in the holes they were supposed to  go in,  remove one of the pendant rod sections to put the lamp at the desired height, rethread the wires, and Wow! we have a right handsome light.  Using the same 13W CFL, which is now two feet closer to the table, we have sufficient light on the table.  Life is good.    Next week, we need to take down the bar light and patch the ugly hole in the ceiling and surrounding texturing.