Monthly Archives: March 2016

Yard Work

With the beautiful weather that’s been around the past few weeks, we’ve been spending a lot of time outside. I attempted to seed my lawn about a month ago, and added starter fertilizer a week ago, and it is very slowly starting to come up in places…with our hard clay soil and sloped yard, I think a lot of seed probably washed away in other places before it set out roots. Or the weeds are totally choking out new growth. I also got a sprinkler which is SO much better than standing and watering my yard by hand almost every night which, despite the small size of my yard, took about an hour and probably didn’t get the ground nearly as wet as a sprinkler.  Many spots will have to be revisited with more seed, perhaps after a serious weed treatment and a lawn aeration in the fall. But some of my baby grass is sending up shoots:

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We also weeded out the beds in front of our house, which were covered in weeds (see the little weeds around this daffodil, and it had gotten even worse in the last couple weeks!).

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We weeded and mulched everything:

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I’m trying to talk myself into thinking that if we keep these areas free of debris and weeds, the monster spiders that live near our porch will seek areas with more cover and stay away. Unlikely, but here’s to hoping!

We also added a bird feeder and bird house out back. I always thought birds were sweet docile creatures, but after a week they had torn the feeder apart and ripped off all the hole covers so the seed spilled out, and then the squirrels got to it. Apparently a $7 feeder cannot withstand my yard’s wildlife, so a more substantial one has been ordered. Here’s a squirrel who was literally dragging the fallen feeder around the yard for a while trying to get the remaining seeds out:

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And finally, after a less-than-pleasant notice from our HOA informing us that our mailbox paint was unacceptable (although our neighbor’s disabled van that has been on the street since about January with no air in the tires and a busted front end is totally contributes to the aesthetic appeal of our neighborhood), we scraped off the old paint and sanded it, and Nik put a couple new coats of exterior enamel on it this week.

We’re trying to do everything the HOA complained about on the exterior of our house to up our chances that they’ll approve our garden (move our trashcans out of sight from the road even though 9/10 houses on our street keeps their cans on the side of their home or in the driveway, and none of our neighbors got a notice asking them to move their cans), fix the mailbox paint, and fix our lawn’s weed situation (they asked us to “please remove all weeds from your yard within 14 days of receipt of this letter”…hah!). They STILL haven’t decided if they’re going to let us have this garden despite my 5+ attempts to contact them and inquire about whether a decision has been made, or to ask if they have suggestions so we can redesign it a way that they are happy with how it looks. I honestly never knew people could make this much fuss about a small raised bed garden and a few vegetable plants, but apparently being given authority does things to people.

This weekend we’re hoping to wrap up some trim painting in the house and maybe get started on painting some kitchen cabinets. My parents will be in town so I’m excited to show them all the projects we’ve done in the past few months.

On to the Next Project

Now that the bathroom is wrapped up, we’re moving on to our next big project: the kitchen. Literally anything we do in this room will be an improvement, not that I want to set the bar low, or anything. But, we will be on a tight budget – probably even tighter than before, because we had a major blow to our “house budget” this past week with an epic fail of our 17 year old HVAC system. Our lovely gas pack (contains a gas furnace and AC all in one unit) was spewing gas and high carbon monoxide into our yard due to a very perforated heat exchanger, and based on the age, we’re deciding to replace. It’ll be about $5000, and with our plans to not sink more than $15,000 into fixing up this house based on what we believe we can sell it for in our neighborhood, that’s a big chunk of the budget.

But, it makes it kind of fun to have to cut our budget and see what an amazing transformation we know we can make with even LESS money. So, kitchen. This is what it looked like when we moved in:

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Obviously, since then we’ve sunk $2000 into upgrading the appliances and we’ve painted the ceiling, but that’s about all we’ve done in here. We’ve also stuck makeshift metal shelving into the middle of the room to serve as an island to increase the almost-non-existant counter space. As ugly as this shelving is, it’s proved to us that an island is critical to make this kitchen functional.

Our plan for the rest of the improvements will be adding cabinets or storage shelving above the fridge, adding a base cabinet and wall cabinets on the far wall (to the left of the garage door which is seen in the above picture), adding a small banquette seating area with bench storage to the rest of that wall, painting all the existing cabinets and moving them ~1-2″ up on the wall and adding top molding, adding a mounted microwave, upgrading to granite counters and a new undermount sink and faucet, adding a backsplash, adding an island, painting the whole room, and adding our hardwood floors (same floors, already purchased) to this room.

What’s a reasonable budget for this project? We’ve priced out some of the additional cabinets we’ll need and estimate this will be ~$300, plus another $100 for cabinet top molding and new floor shoe trim. Paint for cabinets and walls and trim ~$100. Microwave $250 and electrician to move outlet $200. Granite and sink priced out around $1900. Backsplash ~$100. Floors (~$400) and appliances ($2000) are already purchased. Wood/hardware for banquette and island $100. Faucet/drain system $150. Cabinet hardware $100?

That brings us to about $5600, minus the $2400 we’ve already purchased in appliances and flooring means we have about another $3200 we need to spend on this room. I’d be happy if we keep it under $3000 so we’ll see what money-saving ideas we come up with as we go along.

So for some fun pictures to show you, we spent this rainy weekend looking at paint and granite options. We decided to go with a light light gray cabinet paint, and when Lowes was having a 1 day 30% off sale on Valspar Reserve paint on Saturday, we made a snap decision and got one called Polar Star (I say “snap decision” even though I’ve been stressing about minutely-different shades of light gray for over a week now, including multiple trips to Lowes and a trip to Ace Hardware with some sample colors I brought home, but when we showed up at Lowes on Saturday, we hadn’t known about the paint sale until we walked in the store, and we couldn’t pass it up so I had to finally make a decision under pressure!).

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We ordered a cool air compressor paint sprayer which came in the mail last week, so I quickly sanded a door from our old bathroom vanity in the garage (same cabinets as the kitchen), and Nik gave the sprayer a test drive. We primed first, then got a single coat of gray paint on before the rain started. The gun worked nicely. We had to strain the paint first, then thin it with some water and Floetrol (latex paint additive for smoother paint). I’m definitely still seeing some oak grain on the cabinets, so we might also experiment with priming with a hand brush to put it on thick, then spraying just the color paint on. The cabinet frames may all have to be done by hand inside, especially the base cabinets which aren’t moving, but we’ll deal with that when we get to it.

And here’s one of the granite options we like (our final paint ended up being right in-between those two options on the board, so I think it will match! The white is our trim color).

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I’m excited to see how this project evolves over the next couple months. This is the last major upgrade downstairs, so once it’s done we can really start enjoying our living space.

In the rain on Sunday, we also installed a new ceiling fan in the living room. Nik discovered that we had some very questionable and unsafe wiring going to the old fan- basically whoever installed it (cough*awful previous landlord*cough) wanted a separate switch for the fan and the light, and didn’t have enough proper wires to do this, and decided to use the uninsulated grounding wire as the hot wire, which could definitely cause a fire. Luckily, Nik picked up on this problem after we tried to install the new fan with the properly colored wires and it didn’t work, and he then consulted with his dad and they figured out what was going on. To make it safe we’ll have to put the fan and light on one switch, and use the pull cords to operate the fan, which is less convenient but if it’s safe I’ll take it. Thankfully Nik knows things about electricity to keep our house from being on fire =)

Here’s Nik dismantling the old fan:

And here’s the new one – best $69 I’ve spent in a while! Also, please don’t judge the general state of chaos in our living room. I wish I could say it doesn’t normally look like that, but Nik and I have determined, with application of our geeky science minds, that this room has abnormally high levels of entropy. For non-scientists, entropy is a measurement of the level of disorder in an isolated system, and in our living room’s defense, nature tends towards maximum entropy. So there you have it!

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Bathroom Reveal

This title may be a little misleading, suggesting we’re TOTALLY done with the bathroom. There’s still a few tiny things to do…finishing the caulking around the toilet (once we’re sure its still got a good seal), caulking around the vanity, and adding the wood threshold piece to the floor. And we’re still deciding on a mirror (I have one option to show you). But for all other cosmetic purposes, it’s all done so I can show pictures!

To remind you, here’s what we started with:

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And here’s the final product:

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Here’s some close up on the vanity backsplash – tile trim edge pieces are insanely expensive (would’ve cost more than $40!) so I found some decorative wood trim to use instead:

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I also spent $20 on a new toilet paper and towel holder:

Figuring out where to put these was trickier than I imagined. Nik performed some highly technical positional testing, and we referred to internet sites that recommended TP holder placement:

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So there you have it!

We’re very happy with how it turned out – admittedly better than expected. I’ll give you a rough breakdown for the cost of this project, from start to finish. We had leftovers for a lot of things that will definitely get used on more projects, so I’ll count only what we used. We also had to buy a tile saw ($80), mortar spreaders ($10) and mixer ($6) and grout floats ($6), but these tools will last a while.

Demo and rebuild ~ 5 weekends of time

50 lb Mortar (used about 1/2 bag) $25/2  = $12.50

10 lb grout (used about 1/4 bag) $30/4 = $7.50

Cement backer board for floor (3’x5′) $10

Screws for cement board (2 packs) $10

Vanity and sink (on sale) $180

Faucet $70

Faucet water lines $ 15

Toilet paper holder/towel rack $20

Extra drain pipe length $6

Toilet seat $25

Toilet foam/wax ring $12

Plumbers Putty/caulk/adhesive $10

Wood Trim piece $5

Floor tile $42

Wall tile $60

Wall paint (clearance mismatch gallon) $9

Threshold wood (half a piece) $15/2 = $7.50

Extra quarter round trim $4

Total: Around $507

People care about bathrooms a lot, especially ones guests will use. For a little over $500, and all the DIY expertise we gained with tiling that we can now use in our kitchen and eventually upstairs bathrooms, I think this was a great investment. Now, on to the kitchen!

Close to the End

This was a very productive weekend for the bathroom, and at this point we are so close to being done! On Saturday, we spent a long time looking at our backsplash tile to figure out the easiest/least wasteful way to cut it and get the coverage we wanted on the wall. We ended up just cutting 3 of the pieces in half, with plans to put the flat cut edge against the wall and the feathered ends hidden behind the vanity so we wouldn’t have to even deal with cutting them even. Here’s Nik doing the down-the-middle cut of our first piece:

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The cuts went ok; we definitely got pieces here and there that got chipped at the edge as the blade cut through but overall it went better than expected.

We laid out the edge pieces and then figured out how to feather in pieces to fill the space above the vanity:

Unfortunately, this design is basically made up of four interlocking quadrants for each piece, so the dimensions were kind of set in stone with ~6″ square increments, and the only way to change them would be to mess with the flat edges we cut, but we only had about 1.5″ of wiggle room there before the uneven edges would show on the side of the vanity. Fortunately, when we laid it out on the verge of panic as to whether the spacing would work, the configuration came out to 31.5″ wide, and our room is 32″ wide. We felt this was good enough and we’d grout in the extra 1/4″ on each side.

So here’s the layout, with the white cardboard representing where the vanity would come up to:

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So on to mortar and laying the backsplash:

Turns out spreading mortar and laying tile on a vertical wall is much more challenging than a floor. The right side had some issues sliding downward so it needed some stressful adjusting to get it to fit properly. But the finished product came out nicely:

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We dragged the vanity in again to see how it looked:

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Then we left it alone to harden over night. On Sunday, we started off by filling and caulking all the baseboard cracks, and then painting the baseboards and door casing with a fresh coat of white trim paint. Then, Nik started configuring the toilet drain. We thought we’d need a flange extender since we were adding the tile, which came up much higher than the old laminate flooring. However, when we put the 5/8″ extender on with the foam ring (a replacement for the wax ring), the toilet was about 3/8″ too high off the floor. So we removed the flange extender and just went with the foam ring, and the toilet sat flush with the tile.

And (finally!!) we got to install our new toilet seat, that started this whole renovation. I wanted to wait till the very end to put this on to signify closure of this project, but then Nik reminded me how annoying it is to go all the way upstairs to pee, so on the seat went.

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We’re not 100% sure the foam ring alone without any flange extender at all is making a tight enough seal (we really needed a 3/8″ extender, not a 5/8″ one), but there’s no leaking when we flush and it smells fine. Unfortunately, the only good way to tell if the seal is tight is if you start to notice a bad sewage smell, it’s not tight enough. So we’ll see how that goes in the next couple weeks before we caulk around the toilet to seal it in place.

Next on Sunday, we grouted the backsplash tile. For me, this was one of the more stressful bathroom experiences so far. Lots of little tiles = more grouting work, and I was worried the grout wasn’t going to buff off of the less-smooth stone tiles.

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The sponging and buffing steps for this was very work intensive, because you basically had to polish the grout around every single tile until you were happy with how that grout line looked. But, I finally finished around 11:15pm last night and I think the outcome was good. You can also see the slightly thicker grout around the side edges of the backsplash, that made up that extra 1/4″ on either side. I put grout in a ziplock bag and piped it into this space like frosting, then Nik smoothed it with his finger. It’s a little thick, but I honestly don’t think it’ll be too noticeable when we get the vanity in.

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We were hesitant about using the same gray grout we used on the floor, but we decided to go with this after we saw the tiles set in the gray mortar and we kind of liked the darker contrast. I also think it makes the whole tone of the backsplash a little more gray than tan.

Here’s a view of our progress, all that’s left is installing the vanity and faucet, adding some decorative trim over the backsplash, and sealing the toilet and vanity with caulk. So close!

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Signs of Spring

When I was a little kid, nature was a big part of my world, thanks to my parents. My brother and I were always interested whatever wildlife we could get our hands on from our backyard (turtles, frogs, tadpoles, bugs of all sorts, a stray duckling, snakes, the list goes on). And my parents were avid gardeners, so we knew all about plants sprouting and growing from a young age.

One of my favorite springtime activities as a young kid was looking for “signs of spring” in the yard – I’d get all bundled up and go in search of new buds and bulb plants coming up out of the leaves or snow. My mom says I knew the names of all the different types of flowers.

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It’s only February now, but our daffodils stared sprouting weeks ago, and the pink cherry trees in our neighborhood are in full bloom. Nik’s fig tree (that originally came from a family tree in Italy years ago, and our clipping came from an established tree in his parents’ yard in Pennsylvania) also had a bud which means it survived its first winter in our ground.  It’s exciting to be in my own house as an adult and appreciate the signs of spring in my new yard.

Since the weather finally got warm this weekend and no more torrential rains are predicted for the next week I put some grass seed down. Our lawn has a fair amount of weeds, but they’re kind of green so I was hesitant to kill them. I’m starting with fescue grass and we’ll see what comes up. Once the grass has become more established I might try to go back with a weed killer.

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I also got a few planters going on my back porch for herbs. I haven’t planted them quite yet, but the soil is in them waiting for it to warm up a little bit more.

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I also got some seeding trays and I’ve started some vegetables from seed in the warm, sunny guest bedroom upstairs. Sure enough, our garden application to the HOA got rejected since it lacked an official survey (but it sounds like they didn’t even take the time to read all the information we did submit), so I’ll have to talk to them this week to see how we can appeal, hopefully still without having to get a survey done, but I think they’re going to be difficult about this unfortunately.

With the warm weather, we’re also seeing more animals in our yard and neighborhood – in the last week, we saw the rabbit that lives in our yard (I named him Peter), 3 deer, a giant opossum, a woodpecker, a baby garden snake, and a large hawk. I’ve also seen bluebirds in the area – I want to get a bluebird house up in the yard to see if we can attract a pair.

Our bathroom has continued to progress. This weekend we got our floor tile grouted – we only made about a fifth of the grout package, and it turned out to still be too much. IMG_0579We scooped some onto the tiles and started smoothing it into the cracks with a float.

The float was making the grout sort of crumbly and dry looking so we added some more water and it went in a little smoother. I still wasn’t convinced it would look nice and smooth when we were done. After applying it, you have to wait about 30 minutes to wipe it down with a slightly wet sponge. It came right off the tiles, and the grout lines immediately smoothed out – problem solved!

We wiped 3 times, then got a rag and buffed the remaining haze off the tiles.

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I don’t think we could’ve asked for better grouting! Next, we used some salvaged pieces of baseboard and shoe trim to cut pieces for the left side of the bathroom to cover where the old vanity was. I gave them a quick coat of trim paint and Nik cut them to size, now they just need to be attached with the nail gun, and the trim that was already in the room needs to be painted to match.

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The next step is adding our backsplash. On Saturday night Nik had a dance performance so I went to Lowe’s to look for tile. I reflected a little while I was in the store by myself, at 8pm on a Saturday night, looking like a hobo in my dirty grouting clothes, spending an inordinate amount of time staring at backsplash tile, and trying to extract as much information as I could about laying backsplash from the  Lowe’s associate I found – turns out their most knowledgeable associates definitely choose to work “off hours” when the store is emptiest, like late on a Saturday night =) But when this bathroom is done, I think it’ll be worth it.

I picked out some tile that I thought would work for several reasons – it is slightly beige toned but still has gray, so I think it will match the walls and help warm up the room. It was about $12 a square foot which is pricey, but we only need about 5 square feet. It has no glass mosaic tiles – all ceramic/porcelain, so we could use the current blade on our tile saw to cut it. And, the shape of the tiles makes sense for our wall – anything with larger tiles, like subway tile, probably wouldn’t look as good along the side of our vanity, which has only about a 4″ clearance on either side.

On Sunday Nik and I dragged the vanity base into the room to hold up the tile and see how it all looked together. The vanity looks very dark in the room, with the light behind it, which we weren’t expecting. It looks more dark brown than light gray. But brown is alright, since the tile has warm tones.

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It’s coming together!