To dye, to stain, no more..(or at least less visibly)

This afternoon, a box of kelly green Rit dye and I got down to inking up some kitchen towels and cloth napkins. These towels and napkins started out either white or cream but have more recently become an unpleasant blend of dingy yellow-ish brown, cream and tan smears. I probably should have known better than to bring light colored fabrics into our house as ML is well known for his abilities to turn previously white things brown.  I tried my luck nonetheless and things turned out as they usually do…a little darker than they started.

The story starts to turn my way when I remembered that I had purchased a trusty box of kelly green rit dye for $.60 on sale sometime during my college years. How cool would having a bunch of green towels and matching napkins be….VERY cool. WARNING: I haven’t dyed anything since my high school days of tie-dying everything I could get my hands on, so I was forced to diligently read and attempt to follow the poorly written directions on the Rit box. It was a long and tedious process – and it went something like this:

1. put all napkins and towels into hot water
2. wring them out
3. heat up 1 Cup of water and add the dye powder – stir a bit to mix it up (wear rubber gloves for this)
4. find a giant plastic container and add 3 gallons of hot water
5. add 3/4 Cup of salt to the giant plastic container
6. add the dye mixture and stir (wear rubber gloves from this point on)
7. add each item to the big mixture and stir it around
8. once all items are in the mix, stir it around with your gloved hands
9. let sit for 15 minutes, stir again, repeat
10. wring out all items
11. dump mixture down a drain
12. put the items back in the big container and keep rinsing the items with cold water until the water is clearish or you are tired of this process (it took me about 4 rounds before I gave up)
13. wash the items in warm water and do an extra rinse cycle
14. hang out to dry

In hindsight, probably more work than it was worth, but at least we won’t look like total slobs when we have friends over.

The next step was totally worth the work! I used my woodland creature cookie cutters to trace appliques which I then sewed on to the towels and napkins. I was able to use some old fabric and ended up with a super cute bright end product.

From left to right starting on the top row: fox, moose, snail, bird, porcupine, squirrel!


Sunshine through the clouds

I took this week of of work to achieve my curb appeal goals. While the first two days were filled with rain, Wednesday was sunny and pleasant – perfect for slapping on the first coat of gusto gold. While these past few April days have been the opposite of helpful, I have been able to cover the three street-facing sides of the house with a color that has drawn the following comments:

“Should we change the name of our street to Sesame Street? I feel like I’m living next to big bird. Maybe you should paint your front steps orange like his feet. But seriously, it’s cute.” – next door neighbor

“I’m sure glad I wore my sunglasses today.” – mailman

“I guess I’ll always know I’m in the right neighborhood.” – little old man who walks through the neighborhood looking for deer and other woodland creatures

“I’ll never miss your house when I drive by.” – realtor who lives 4 houses down the street

Halfway through painting the front of the house, I was also stopped by a college student working on a photography class assignment. He was supposed to find a scene with red, yellow and blue. I happened to be wearing old red workout pants and painting a previously blue house bright yellow. He assured me he was not a creep and would be getting an ‘A’ for this great find.

On the days when it was raining too hard to scrub down the siding, I stayed inside and finished up some indoor painting projects I had been putting off.  The bathroom door had been looking a little blah and gathering a large number of unwashable grimy fingerprints around the knob, so I added a semicircle on each side as a dual purpose accent and dirt hider. I also started and finished painting the closet door in the laundry room. Ours is now the most sterile-looking laundry room I have ever seen – everything is white or wood.

 This morning, we’re getting some light rain, so I plan to scrape and paint the garage door which should provide me with a relatively dry workspace and some satisfaction at seeing the last shreds of grey-blue disappear from the street-side of the house. The nasty front awning may also be making its way off the scene if my mom is able to stop by, cell phone in hand to call an ambulance should things go awry. as I like to say- safety first, someone to call an ambulance, second.

PS – Thank you hail storm and homeowners insurance for the lovely check that will pay to replace our ugly beast of an awning. If you decide to bring us golf ball sized hail again, please do so before we replace the roof  and front entrance.

Curb Appeal

I’ve been checking out quite a few books from the library on exterior improvements and curb appeal. Being a native Iowan, I am a little confused about my personal inclination toward bright, bold, exterior paint colors. Apparently, the approved exterior home colors for the midwest are taupe, taupe, and more taupe. Per Sherwin Williams: “In the nation’s heartland, creams, whites and light beiges are the rule for exterior siding, while window trim, shutters and entry doors wear coats of deep burgundy or forest green. Why? Like New England, this is an area where tradition dominates, so color choices swing toward the conservative shades of the spectrum. Light neutrals blend well in virtually any neighborhood, and provide a calm canvas for the green foliage and multicolored landscaping so popular in residential communities. Light neutrals also echo the shades of wheat, corn and other farm crops that are the heart of the heartland.”

I say hell no to this. I don’t like cream or beige or forest green. Give this girl something in the goldfinch palette, and call it done. One of the many books I’ve been perusing said that when your friends drive down your street, they should know which house is yours. Maybe I just lack creativity, but I’m not sure how you jazz up neutrals so your friends will recognize your abode among the sea of tans, browns and taupes. I’ve never been one to follow the pack, so it’s not much of a surprise that I don’t feel constrained by the limited socially acceptable color options.The irony of my exterior paint color choice is that the goldfinch is the state bird of Iowa. Maybe its time for Midwesterners to look to their natural wildlife instead of row crops for inspiration…..


With my color rant out of the way, I’ll move into other curb appeal measures I’ve started taking. Almost any house can be drastically cute-ified by adding a simple window flower box. I had researched and planned to make my own boxes out of cedar planks, but after visiting my local menards and comparing the price between cedar boards and pre made boxes, I saved myself a few hours and about $30 by skipping the DIY. I bought some white paint, added a few coats to the boxes and installed them using “L” shelf brackets. Once they were up, I added some details using light blue paint (and a touch of red) that I am hoping will accent the soon-to-be-painted gold siding. Next on the docket – shutters.

I should mention that I didn’t go crazy with installing things on my exterior and choosing gusto gold paint without a little preparation. Thank goodness for the library, photoshop and tons of house pictures on the fab internet for helping me draft my makeovers. Friends, I hope you recognize my house when you drive by.

Adventures in Bathroom Sitting

May 2010 – Another step toward progress

In my usual pattern, knowing that ML would be out of town, I decided to dig into a big project. The bathroom started out with floral wallpaper, floral-print curtains, pastel geometrically pattered linoleum, yellow poofy shower curtain on a big bronze rod, and a medicine cabinet with eagle shaped sconces. I feel like this should give you an idea of why it needed an overhaul. I started by choosing my bathroom fixtures from the Lillangen series a few weeks earlier. I also purchased my mildew resistant paint in white and grey and my black linoleum floor tiles and vinyl trim. I was going for a mod-institutional feel which I think I successfully achieved. I started by removing the wallpaper (I’m a pro. see the enlightenment for details). Once all of the wallpaper was down, I removed the fixtures and primed the entire room including the floor. I drew on a horizontal line that would serve as my divider between the grey (bottom) and the white (top).  I did a coat of white, waited for it to dry and then carefully painted the grey line by hand, using a roller once the line was straight and complete. I also had my first experience with hiring an electrician. We had to create an outlet for near the sink as the old eagle sconce medicine cabinet had previously been the keeper of the plugs. Thumbs up to East Iowa mechanical for sending a guy who knows how to deal with old lath and plaster walls!

Because of some issues with the sink piping (missing parts in the package – I love you IKEA, but a little more QA would be appreciated), the project was on hold. I called IKEA and had the parts shipped because I live 3.5 hours from the closest store. The project would not be finished by the time ML got home. He ended up helping me put in the flooring and install the sink and medicine cabinets. I don’t think I could have handled the flooring by myself because we had to disconnect the toilet, install the floor, add a new wax ring and get it all put back together quickly because we only have one bathroom. Luckily, ML’s brother is a plumber and walked us through it over the phone. The final touch was in the textiles. I bought some neat wood-look fabric and sewed the shower curtain and regular curtains to match.

The last step in the process was installing the towel bar and TP holder. Having found a great space saving towel bar early on, I just needed to determine placement. I ended up installing the towel bar in the original TP location – close to the shower and sink. Since I had taken its spot, I had to find a place for the TP holder so I attached it to the side of the sink cabinet. Overall, a solid use of 36 sq ft.

It’s garden time and I’m famous.

April 2010 – Hello world.

Terrace garden with onions and garlic planted

While there had been some pretty massive projects undertaken by the time April rolled around, more projects and one of the coolest things to happen in my life thus far happened this month. We tried our hands at painting paneling and ML began the garden planning and pre-planting process. The weather was warm enough for me to bust out the spray paint and turn the burnt orange metal and floral patterned kitchen chairs from my grandma’s garage into lovely silver masterpieces.  ML bought seeds and covered the area around our only southern facing window with plastic containers holding his seedlings. He cared for them meticulously until having the brilliant idea of using our black cavalier as a greenhouse – apparently the temperature inside a black car has the effect of killing off any plant life. He started over and was able to make a pretty awesome first year garden.

By this point, we had already begun the painting of the laundry/utility room. This was the darkest room in the house – all wood paneling and dark carpet. ick. The flooring is a story for another day, but the walls were taken care of pretty simply with a no VOC white primer and semi-gloss paint. To add a little character to the strange nooks and little faux window connecting the laundry room to the entryway, I used two tension rods set parallel to each other and sewed some IKEA window shades to serve as a divider. This completely changed the look and feel of the back entryway and laundry/utility room.

Before and after of laundry room

The most exciting news of April was that PBS visited Dubuque to do a piece on sustainability and transportation.  They were looking for a house to tape Americorps members doing water retrofits and I got a phone call asking if I would volunteer my little, very-much-under-construction house for the effort. I spent the entire morning cleaning and then the volunteers and PBS guys showed up. They ended up finding me more interesting than the retrofitting, so I was interviewed for about an hour and Michael and I were filmed riding our bikes up and down main street while the cameraman dangled from the window of their SUV.
Check out our TV debut and some footage of the house at BluePrint America: Former factory Town Eyes Green Future.

The en "light" enment

March 2010 – from dark to light
Saying it came in like a lion or out like a lamb would be a severe a understatement. I have a tendency to do 2 things: (1) get a project idea in my head, shove it around for a few days, and decide it must be done as soon as possible and (2) underestimate the amount of time it will take to complete. I’m hoping that writing about the projects will help to slow me down a bit.

In our house, March was the month of the kitchen. ML and I made a little deal when we bought the house. The kitchen would be the first thing to get a makeover. Apparently, we disagreed/misunderstood the timeline for when “first” would occur. For me, it was less than 2 months into homeownership. For ML, “first” could have happened 2 years down the line. An exercise in effective communication was in order, but only after we each sufficiently peeved each other. The kitchen was our first place to start for a few reasons: (1) the wallpaper was the same stuff that had been in my 4-8th grade home (it was my first source of laughter when we did our walkthrough with the realtor) and (2) we hate dark walls, dark wood, any furnishing that absorbs rather than reflects light. The kitchen was covered in wallpaper dotted with small bunches of wheat, the countertops were bright blue, the cabinets were oak (stop screaming wood lovers!), and the layout wasn’t conducive to cooking or hosting friends.

pre makeover photos of the kitchen. The flash on my camera makes the space look deceivingly bright. 

Again, I took a few days off of work, invited my friend MD and ML’s brother, CL to help with the transformation process.  We first started with wallpaper removal. I did some internet research and ended up purchasing a wallpaper removal paper tiger, wide putty knife and a chemical spray. After the first 30 minutes, the verdict was in; paper tiger – YES!, wide putty knife – YES!, chemical spray – NO! The spray was awful. It didn’t do much to help remove the wallpaper, but did provide an unpleasant lightheadedness for me and my counterparts. I had heard that a 1/3 vinegar, 2/3 warm water combo worked well, so we switched to that method and SUCCESS! The method was perfected and away we went: scratch, spray, scrape, wipe (remove glue remnants with old cotton rags).

wallpaper removal process. beginning of my foray into spackling wood paneling crevases to look like drywall. ML in the doorway.

Once the wallpaper was removed, we began taking the doors off of the cabinets, wiping them down, and preparing them for painting. I also began researching ways to make wood paneling blend in with drywall.  There are plenty of websites out there, but most made it seem more daunting than is actually the case. Here are the steps I used and my walls turned out just fine:
(1) use a hand sanding tool and rough up the surface of the paneling
(2) wipe down the wall to remove dust
(3) using a wide putty knife add water-based spackling compound to the crevases applying horizontally and once filled, follow with a vertical swipe
(4) let this dry for a day or so, sand with fine sandpaper until the spackling blends with the paneling and redo steps 2-4 until you don’t see any cracks in the spackling
(5) sand a final time, use a shop vac or vaccuum with a brush attachment to remove dust
(6) prime and paint the wall

paneling in the back of the kitchen showing first round of spackling. kitchen after spackling and painting

The wall painting followed the cabinet painting and a trip to IKEA to pick up new butcher block countertops. A word of advice on butcher block – there is a bit of maintenance involved and you need to be careful about leaving metal, specifically copper-bottom pots, resting on them. They will leave stains that can only be sanded out. The general rule of thumb is to apply linseed oil once/day for week, once/week for a month, once a month for a year and once every year after that. I’ve been using that method (with a few missed months here and there) and it seems to be working. In the winter, when the heat is on, you may have to apply additional coats to areas where the wood is splitting due to dryness. Once you reapply, the wood starts to go back together and I’m told that once the summer humidity returns, I wont even see the cracks anymore.

The last thing we did in the kitchen (in March) was to move one of the cabinets out of its corner and turn it into an island. I found super cute stools at IKEA and we had our island with its butcher block top for additional food prep and dining space. By the close of March, we had a light filled, gold and white kitchen.

The Radon Man Cometh

January 2010 – we meet our first enemy: radon. 
As if the homebuying process wasn’t confusing and stressful enough already, add to it a positive radon test. We were lucky to find an inspector who also performed a radon test on our house prior to purchase, but not lucky enough to have an EPA determined “safe” level in the house. The radon test came back at 6.0 pCi/L. The EPA recommends that some type of mitigation be done to lower radon levels below 4.0 pCi/L. Generally, assuming the home has a full basement or at least true crawlspaces (with enough room for a person to crawl – hence the name), mitigation can be performed relatively simply. With high hopes, I began contacting mitigation companies in the city.  All of them asked about the type of basement, and after my explanation of the layout of this strange little house, they all wanted to see it before suggesting a reduction method.  After getting the “no guarantee” response from the first 3 contractors, I started to lose hope.  The one stroke of luck we did have was the caveat in our purchase agreement – the seller would pay half of the mitigation costs if radon was found, and if no mitigation could be completed, we were off the hook. ML and I needed to decide if we still wanted a little house with a little radon problem. We mulled it over for a few days, while I continued to make calls to the State of Iowa Radon Hotline. My real question in this situation was how high is 6 pCi/L, really? Are we talking lung cancer by 30, or probably no cancer at all? There were two promising facts that came from my many calls to the hotline – (1.) 6 pCi/L was not that high, and we should probably test for a few years before getting too worried; (2.) there is one contractor in our area who can mitigate anything.  The first bit of information would have been more useful if we didn’t have to make the mitigation decision prior to closing (January 29). If we chose not to mitigate now, but mitigated a few years down the road, we would have the whole cost. If we decided to mitigate upfront, we would have half of the costs covered.  I contacted the radon hotline’s ringer contractor and he said he would guarantee mitigation below EPA standards. We got his quote and continued with the purchasing process.

February 2010 – we meet our second enemy: the radon man.
After 2 destroyed floors, a broken light fixture, an extra $1000 out of our pockets, and many missed hours of work (me), the mitigation was complete and I would commence the smearing in the mud of the radon man. We had our house, we had 3 giant holes in the floors of 2 different rooms, and I had a headache for 3 weeks. I began the hunt for replacement floorboards. Apparently, around 1940,  the previous owners had purchased custom made southern yellow pine boards.  Each board was 7/8 in thick, 12 ft long, and 3.25 in wide. Unbeknownst to me, this was an impossible board to find. Dubuque has a number of architectural salvage stores – none of these had my boards. Not even the high end furniture and flooring stores could find a supplier. I was eventually referred to a wonderful mill in Wisconsin – Twin Oaks Lumber. They couldn’t meet my thickness requirement, but they could meet the other two. I placed my order for the boards and picked them up a week later. I was able to take a a few days off of work to undertake the repairs. After three near-nervous breakdowns (prevented by my mom’s offer of help), there were no longer gaping holes in our floors. I vowed never to trust a contractor again. At least not one I didn’t know personally and/or couldn’t hunt down if necessary.

Dark-stained southern yellow pine floor – post carpet removal, pre radon mitigation
One of the 3 large holes repaired – shout out to my mom for the help wiggling the tongue & grooves together. 

The one.

December 2009 – we find the one. In early December we find a house that is totally over priced (the reason we hadn’t looked at it sooner).  We end up touring the place just before a massive snowstorm. There is not one room in the house that I don’t burst out laughing at the sight of. From the rock textured wood paneling in the living room to the giant (circa 1980) floral print wallpaper in the bathroom to the little bunches of wheat circling the kitchen. This was definitely a house in need of help. As we made our way to where we thought the garage was we came upon the backyard. Opening the back door of the house, we entered what looks like a small courtyard nestled between the steep bluff and terraced hillside behind us and the house itself. A small ladder allowed us to explore the garden that had been terraced into the hill behind the house. The view was amazing. From that location, looking at the other homes in the valley that would soon become our neighborhood, I knew ML was a lost cause. He was sold. We came back to the house with a pen and paper in hand. I began pulling up the corners of carpet to check for wood floors, knocking on the paneling to see if there was a lath and plaster surprise waiting for us, checked for updated electrical and plumbing, and felt around the windows and doors for drafts.  I created my list of alterations and their expected costs, used my price cheat sheet provided by my contractor uncle and subtracted the necessary upgrade costs from the price of the house.  That was our offer. We went back and forth with the seller over christmas, and by new years, I was setting up the inspections and radon testing.

aerial view of my little house that could and backyard woods

front view of my little house that could

It begins

I have been in my house for approximately 1 year. During this time, I have learned more than I ever wanted to know about radon, wood floors, crawl spaces, spray foam insulation, triple pane glass, low VOC paint, leaks, and most importantly, which projects should be left to professionals.

I will begin at the beginning.
October 2009 – the hunt begins. After moving to 3 apartments in 3 years, and being fed up with landlords and their lack of concern for energy efficiency and my opinion of home aesthetic, we began the hunt for a house that we could make our home.  Our requirements were simple (or so we thought). Small- 1200 sqft or smaller. 2 bedrooms. 1 bathroom. 1 car garage. low maintenance. under $90,000. in a town of 60,000. in Iowa.

November 2009 – change in criteria. The pickins turn out to be pretty slim within our price range for a house that  needs little to no work. We lower our price and start looking more toward the fix-r-upper market.  Knowing ML’s needs for an interesting yard space for gardening and my need for control over every aspect of the look and feel of the home, this fixing up idea seems to give us more flexibility and hopefully, a lower upfront cost and more freedom in the end.