New to Detroit, I had decided I wanted to find a rehab project in an established historic district. After looking at countless properties, I finally found the one that felt perfect. It's a brick Colonial Revival built in 1921, located in Indian Village, on one of the blocks closer to Mack. It was the right size and in the perfect state for me to take on. A previous owner had done some work that was beneficial to the house, and, of course, a lot of work that was detrimental. He was showing us around the site and started talking about taking out the original paneling in the dining room to put in a faux fireplace when I interrupted him and said, "Tools down! This house is mine! I'll take it!" I fell in love with it for its presence on the street and for its clear need of stewardship. It was a total construction site when I bought it: no kitchen, no working bathrooms, exposed joists in the hallways, holes in the walls, electrical hanging out of outlets, but beautiful floors (where there was flooring), gorgeous entryway and stairs, original trim, original bathroom tile, and almost all of its original windows (!!). It was dreamy. And after all the work I've put in over the last year, the surprises and headaches (and heartbreaks), it's still dreamy.
I needed a working bathroom so I could move into the house while the rest of the work was to be done. When buying the house, I hired a contractor to come look at the site, advise me, and to quarterback the larger projects. While we were waiting for our construction loan, we paid out of pocket for the bathroom to be done.
It turned out to be harder than we had imagined (of course) and took twice as long (of course). Thankfully I was able to save all the original trim and wall tile, but the pipes to the toilet needed to be replaced, which meant losing the floor tile: first heartbreak of the project. I replaced it with a white 1-inch white hexagon tile, very similar to the original. I was surprised by how long specialty fixtures take to come in, so I learned to be prepared for very long lead times and very frustrated contractors/tradesmen.
I was also surprised by how hard I had to fight to keep original features even though my contractor advertised himself as a restoration contract specializing in historic preservation. I learned it is up to the owner to advocate for every little detail, if it is at all possible to save, which requires gumption, a loud voice, and a lot of independent research to be able to bring to the contractor or tradesman.
The house required major, widespread work, which forced us to get a sizable construction loan. We went to Lake Michigan Credit Union, which has an incredibly useful program that lends money for mortgages and construction loans in one lump sum. A major problem that I've found many rehabbers face, is the lack of funds to both buy a fixer upper AND fix it up. And on top of it, most banks will not approve mortgages for houses that they consider to be uninhabitable or too risky. Enter Lake Michigan Credit Union. They are aware of this issue and seek to solve it. They will give a loan that covers the purchase price, plus the cost of renovations, up to the full market value of the house that it will have once it is fully renovated. Life saver. The only problem is then you have to work with a contractor who is approved by the bank and provide them with a full scope of work, which has to be completed within a certain timeframe. While this makes sense from the standpoint of the bank, it makes it very hard to build in a contingency, to make mistakes, and to fire your contractor. That last fact can be the most brutal one. The benefits are obvious, but the most unexpected one is that the contractor can't drag his feet too much, otherwise he gets fines if he doesn't complete the work within the given time frame.
I fixed cracks and major unevenness in original plaster myself. It saved us a ton of money and we learned something new! We discovered many helpful tidbits along the way. My boyfriend's grandfather was a master plasterer (go figure), so with a bit of his advice, we spent weekends and evenings getting the walls of three bedrooms ready for paint. Step 1. Clean the walls really well! We used TSP. One pass with the TSP, two if the room was really dirty, and two passes with water. Step 2. Go over the walls with a layer of primer mixed with some water. This was a trick his grandfather taught us. We used 2 parts Sherwin Williams basic primer with 1 part water. Be careful because this leads to extra splatter off the roller. Step 3. Get a free standing construction light, or several, turn all the overhead lights off, and position the lights so the light runs along the wall. This will show you where dips and bumps are. Then mark them. We circled dips and put Xs or ran lines on top of bumps. Step 4. Tape cracks. Most contemporary plasterers I have come into contact with use the mesh tape. Our octogenarian master plasterer advisor told us (in colorful language) that that's not a good strategy and it is much better to use the fabric tape that looks like large masking tape. Step 5. Plaster. I won't try to explain the full process of plastering (youtube is your friend), but I will say that most people use EasySand, especially most construction workers who don't specialize in plasterwork. This is fine if you're mudding drywall, but over historic plaster, it isn't smart. Even though it's easier for the novice to apply, EasySand leads to very poor quality walls, especially poor quality repairs of cracks. It has a completely different density and composition than what you're attempting to repair. We were advised and did use Durabond. It's like cement and has a similar composition to the plaster. We used Durabond 45 because we're not experts (Durabond 15-30), but we didn't want to wait 90 minutes for things to set. We worked in small batches though. Step 6-8. We found that we were not nearly as good at this as we thought we'd be. The first room was a bit of a mess, but with each room it became so much better. Unlike with Easy Sand, Durabond is, well, not so easy to sand. But it's not impossible. We found we could wet sand the imperfects. Spray water onto the imperfection and sand with a handheld wet sander. It works, and your back/arm muscles will rock afterwards. After we were content with the smoothness of our walls, we wiped down the walls with a dry cloth (just to get plaster dust off the walls), we primed again, though with no water added, then we painted as we would with any other wall.
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