Journal Entry: The Tulsa House

Here’s the whole story on the Tulsa house. If you’re just interested in what’s gone on lately, skip on down to the 2008 part.

If you’re looking for pictures, I don’t have any here. Check out Trish’s blog for that.

We moved to Tulsa in 2002, renting half of a duplex on the northwest side of town (and I was working on the northeast). It was an old, old, old building, and the landlords didn’t do too much to take care of us. After a year of that, living in Tulsa seemed like a pretty permanent situation so we decided to buy a house.

The rule everyone told us went, “If you’re certain you’ll be in the house for five years, you’ll probably break even when you try to get out of it.” We kind of stretched that to the limit, getting a zero-down, 103% loan, and then not really paying much extra on a monthly basis.

We ended up with a 1300-square-foot, 1956 one-story home with three bedrooms and one-and-a-half baths. The living room sprawled (my favorite part of the place) and there were original built-in cabinets and closets everywhere (Trish’s favorite). A huge window opened onto the big front porch. Outside the back door was a covered plywood deck.

The place had its drawbacks, though. Every wall was covered with old-lady wallpaper.

Also, we learned during out inspection that the foundation was in bad shape. Nothing drastic — every house in the neighborhood had the same sort of problems — but it needed six new piers at three corners, and that would run $3,000. At the time, $3,000 was an unimaginable amount of money. The house needed a new roof, too — the old one was twenty years old and already had two layers. That was nothing we wanted to mess with, so we overlooked it and forgot about it.

We did a little bit to improve the place while we lived there. We tore down nearly all of the wallpaper and painted. With the help of all my friends, we wired the house for a computer network and, in the process, completely redid the phone and cable wiring. Then again, a lot of those improvements were offset by my work in the office. I painted the walls dark green, and all the wood trim black. And I painted the floor black. I didn’t even do a good job of it. It was awful.

One bedroom had cheap, peeling brown linoleum on the floor. The master bedroom had huge water stains underneath the window air conditioners (the place had central heat, but no central air). And, now, my office had a poorly-painted black floor. The rest of the house was carpeted, and our cats were not perfectly house-trained.

When I got a job working for the FAA in the summer of 2005, we moved to Oklahoma City. I got a pretty hefty raise, so we picked a newer and larger house for our new one, enjoying the largesse of my new position. That wasn’t necessarily the best choice we’d ever made.

Before we left Tulsa, we signed with a realtor to sell our house. We’d heard good things about her, but she mostly worked down in Broken Arrow, twenty to thirty minutes south of our house. She told us it wouldn’t be a problem, though. We signed a three month contract with her, and moved.

While the house sat on the market, we were making mortgage payments for that one and the new one in OKC. That was tough. You’ve also got to keep the utilities turned on while the house is listed, so that potential buyers can make sure things are in working order (and, once an offer is made, so that the buyers’ inspectors can check everything out). Even with no one living in the house, having utilities active ends up costing something every month. Worse, you’ve got to keep the lawn in showing condition, and with us living out of town that meant hiring a lawn service. That was almost as big a hit as the mortgage payment.

We had a contract with the realtor for three months. To our knowledge, she never showed the house once. We certainly never had any offers, and in October we let her know we weren’t interested in re-listing. We hired a rental manager and he offered to find us renters. They moved in in December, but he took the first month’s rent and the deposit as his management fee (as well as ten percent on every month’s payment), so we didn’t see any money from July to January.

The renters had a lot of demands. We had to put in a new side-door on the garage for some reason I’ve forgotten now, but it was several hundred dollars. They offered to paint (begged us to let them, really) because they didn’t like the dark, dramatic colors Trish had picked. When we gave them permission, they took the cost of the paint and the sprayer out of their rent for the month. Little things like that ate at us.

Then, in July, we didn’t receive a rent payment from the manager. He said the tenants hadn’t paid him yet, but he was looking into it. In August, he told us the same thing again, and he was still hoping to get some money back. Two months late on rent was really hurting us financially so we started bugging him about it. He finally admitted the tenants had left without warning, but the house was clearly abandoned. He said the good news was that they’d left it in really nice shape, and he would get it cleaned up and back on the market soon.

Three weeks later, in mid-August, Trish was in Tulsa for some work and she dropped by the house to see how it looked. She was horrified. She called me in tears. There was a trashcan in the living room filled with trash (including food) that had apparently been there since before the tenants left and — naturally — bugs were everywhere. The whole house was trashed. We finally saw the paint job they’d done…without taping, using a sprayer, splashing uneven, glossy white paint everywhere they could reach.

They’d stolen a really nice fan from the living room, and replaced it with a crappy $20 fan that wasn’t wired up properly, so it didn’t respond to the wall switches. They’d left the washer connection in the laundry room dripping, so that the whole floor was soaked and rotting.

This was three weeks after our rental manager told us the place was empty and he would get it ready to show again. There was no sign he’d done a thing, and so many problems that he could have fixed so easily. It was late in the month now, and there was no chance we’d see any rent in September, either, and we were just crushed.

Our friends and family came up to help us, and we spent a long Friday cleaning the place up. The Austins came up from Oklahoma City, and Josh was there, too. We worked all day, got the place livable again, and then jotted out to Claremore to have dinner at Josh’s dad’s restaurant. It was some delicious barbecue, and we ended up with tickets to the OU game the following day. That made the trip worth it.

Anyway, I don’t remember the exact timing on this (and I don’t have the patience to look it up now), but Josh metnioned that he was interested in staying there, and I was desperate for a tenant. We worked out a deal, and Josh moved in before the end of the year. He told me his little brother would be staying in one of the rooms, helping pay rent.

At some point, before the end of the year, he told me in chat that they’d gotten a puppy. I wasn’t happy with the idea, I let him know that, but I never said up-front “no dogs,” and I didn’t really say it then, either. I probably grumbled a lot, but I know I didn’t tell him to get rid of it. That’s not really the sort of thing I would say.

Before it was over, he had at least four dogs living there, between him and his brother, although it was never more than two at a time. The doberman in the yard next door kept killing his puppies when they got through the fence, so several of those were replacements.

Josh was able to make all his payments on time. He didn’t ask for a lot, and he was more than willing to put in time and energy to work on the house when it needed it. We had to get a new garage door and opener, but really we’d known that since we lived there. Other than that, he was the most helpful tenant a landlord could hope for.

He tore up the rotted laundry room floor and replaced it with at nice tiled floor. He took out some shrubs in the back yard that we’d always hated, and spent a lot of energy on the lawn, getting grass growing in front and back, and even keeping the flowerbeds out front. He replaced a leaky faucet for us, and started tearing down the crappy plywood deck out back, in the hopes that I could come up with the money for him to build a new, nicer one. That never actually materialized.

Something else that never materialized….. Josh loved the house. It had a big back yard, plenty of room, and it was conveniently located. He kept talking about wanting to buy the house, and that seemed — much like his renting the place — a win/win situation for both of us. I didn’t want to push him into it, though, because we’ve been friends for a lot longer than I’ve cared about money. I think he had some of the same worries, and it never really happened.

He also often mentioned moving out, as he looked at different opportunities and wrestled with what to do with his life. Sometimes he wanted to move to Claremore, sometimes farther away. He knew that I was depending on him for the rent, though, so he always tried to give me lots of warning, and I know there were opportunities he passed up because taking them would have left me in a really tough situation. I appreciated that.

At the very beginning of March this year, Josh came up to Tulsa for a concert and I was able to have dinner with him. He was in a hurry, and it was a noisy restaurant, but we had a little time to talk and he mentioned that he was wanting to move out of the house in April. Spring is the best time of year to list a house (especially one without central air), and this was really the first convenient time he’d mentioned moving out, so I told him I could probably survive that, and he went off to his concert.

Meanwhile, I went home and had a little freak-out trying to figure out how we’d survive without the rent, then I called my parents, because that’s what I always do. Mom said her spring break was the last week of March, and they’d be glad to come help us fix up the house for selling.

That was a terrifying prospect. I’ve told you what happened last time we tried to sell the house. It sat on the market and ate a thousand dollars a month out of our budget. We’ve done a lot to improve our financial situation since then, but that’s an awfully large chunk to just absorb.

And there were the things we knew about that needed fixing. We were pretty certain the no-central-air situation bore a significant responsbilitiy for the house not showing the first time. The foundation had still never been repaired, and the roof had only gotten older. More than that, there were newer…issues that we knew needed dealing with.

As I mentioned, Josh had started tearing down the deck in anticipation of building a new one. We never got around to building the new one, though, and instead, there was just the ruins of a deck out back, with a big bare patch underneath, occasionally showing signs of a long-buried patio brick. Also, the giant maple tree in the back yard had died a year ago, and the major ice storm late in the year had brought down a lot of limbs. Since the tree was dead anyway, Josh had started work taking down the rest of the tree, too.

That left a sprawling back yard completely filled with massive limbs and rotted logs. Some of it was really good wood, much of it was not, and all of it was an eyesore. Worse, there was tons of it, and we had no way to get rid of it. We’d have to hire one of those big roll-off dumpsters to sit in the driveway, and fill it up with branches.

There were other things Trish had always said we needed to do, too — fix-ups that would make the house infinitely more likable to buyers. The bathroom was original — and awful. The kitchen countertops were cheap, crappy plastic vinyl. She had tried painting them to update the kitchen’s look, but it hadn’t really worked too well, and that color no longer really matched the rest of the house. The kitchen’s stick-on tile floor wasn’t sticking anymore, either.

It was daunting. Things like the roof and the foundation were going to cost us a fortune, and things like redoing the countertop and hauling off the wood would take a ton of man-hours. It was way too much.

When we finally got to Tulsa, at the end of March, things only got worse. On Monday before we showed up, Josh fell ill and ended up at the hospital for three days, when he’d been planning to pack up his stuff and move out. So we showed up to find a house still fully occupied. Not only that, but he’d taken on a roommate at the beginning of the month….

Josh and I have been friends for a long time, and nothing about this incident changes that. I don’t have any really hard feelings about it, but the roommate situation was tough. There’s a good chance he’ll end up reading this…but nothing I’m going to say should take him by surprise. It was a bad move on his part, and he knows it.

Anyway, around the first of the month, his girlfriend’s little sister had fallen on some hard times, and had no place to stay. At the same time, Josh was living all by himself in a three bedroom house, and he’s a soft-hearted guy so he let her stay in the back bedroom. He knew she was a smoker, so he made it really clear that there was to be no smoking in the house. As a result of some of his health problems, though, the dude has no sense of smell, so he wasn’t really able to enforce that.

She only lived there for a month, but she did about as much damage in that time as a tenant can possibly do.

She…flushed personal products. That’s probably already more detail than you wanted to know, but it stuck us with a two-hundred dollar plumbing bill when we had to get Roto-Rooter out on a Friday night, because we had ten friends coming in from all over on Saturday to help work on the house. She had two indoor dogs that tore the place up and used the carpet as a toilet. Again, as a result of Josh’s medical condition, he didn’t know how bad it was. When we showed up on Thursday, though, we were gagging just walking from room to room, even after we’d opened all the windows.

One of the dogs, in an effort to get at a lady-dog in the yard next door, had shredded the wood frame of one of the original, built-in windows and even punched a big hole in the glass. We haven’t got that fixed yet.

Her room was a pigsty of half-empty Dr Pepper cans that she’d used as ash trays and dirty clothes and fast food bags with the remains of the meals stil in them.

From the dogs living in the house, everything was filthy. There were clothes and furniture everywhere — as I said, the house was still fully occupied when we showed up to start working. Josh hadn’t been able to contact his roommate in over a week, so she didn’t even know we were there. And she didn’t show up to take her damn dogs away until late in the day on Friday.

March 27-30
Anyway, here’s how that weekend worked out: Mom and Dad showed up late on Wednesday, and checked into a hotel nearby. They dropped by the house to get a feel for the situation, and that’s when we discovered the plumbing problem for the first time. They gave me a call and warned me what to expect.

Then Thursday morning Trish and I drove up. We spent much of Thursday just trying to figure out how to handle the situation. Dad helped Josh find a place to move into, Mom started the process of cleaning, and Trish met with carpeters and foundation guys and roofers and realtors trying to get estimates and figure out what, out of the massive list of things that needed doing, we should actually do. I spent the whole day Thursday, and most of Friday, hauling limbs and logs from the back yard to the front driveway, and heaving them up into the dumpster.

Mom ended up going into the back bedroom with a box of Glad bags, and just cramming all of the roommate’s stuff into trash bags. It wasn’t pleasant work, and I’ll be forever grateful to her for doing it. When the roommate finally showed up late Friday, she walked in just planning to change and get ready for work, and found us sitting in the living room greeting her with unfriendly eyes, and all her stuff bagged up in the living room floor. Mom told her that if the dogs weren’t gone by the morning we’d be calling animal control (something she and Trish had been recommending since we showed up Thursday). The roommate borrowed my phone, made a couple calls, and within an hour her dad was there picking up her stuff and her dogs. Getting her out of there was probably the biggest relief of the whole weekend.

Friday night Mom and Dad went home to enjoy one day off — Mom’s whole spring break ended up being a single Saturday. About half an hour after they left, while I was still dealing with the Roto Rooter guy, Trish’s family showed up. It was her Mom and Dad, and her brother Matt — who is a carpenter and works on home restorations repairing fire damage, so he was unbelievably helpful to have around — and his fifteen-ish son Owen. I’ve never seen a kid work so hard.

It must have been eight o’clock when they showed up. The plan was for Matt to take a quick survey of the house so he could make some plans, and then we’d all go back to the hotel and get some sleep. Instead, he set to work. He glanced at the kitchen, then headed back to the bathroom and looked it over. Half an hour later, he had the built-in vanity torn out, and all the tile torn off the walls. Before the night was done, he busted out the floor (tile on top of uneven concrete), and stripped the room down to drywall and studs. We left the tub in place, and most of the walls, but everything else came out.

I was exhausted from hauling branches, so I wasn’t able to hang around as long as he did. It was probably midnight when he got back to the hotel, and we were all up by seven the next morning to start again.

On Saturday, the Austins and Gordons all came up from Oklahoma City. Matt and I took a long shopping list up to Lowe’s to get the materials we’d need for the day’s projects. While we were there, the OKC crew showed up and got to work. They finished clearing the wood out of the back yard, and tore down the remains of the old deck. Inside, they started painting. Our first set of tenants had spray-painted the living areas, but the bedrooms were still painted as we’d left them — including my office, all dark greens and blacks. The goal was to take all the bedrooms to a neutral color.

Once we got back from Lowe’s, I gave Emilie and Kris to Matt as his helpers, and the three of them got to work on the big remodeling jobs — the kitchen and the bathroom. Matt was cutting plywood to build a new subfloor for the bathroom, and once that was done he started tiling it. There were dozens of holes in the drywall from the demolition work that had to be patched and sanded, and we also ended up putting in a new vinyl surround for the bathtub area.

In the kitchen, the old countertops had to come up, so we could put down tile there, too. Tiling, as you’ll probably know, is not a quick process. Lucky for us, Matt had a lot of experience with it, and some good helpers.

Now, Dad and Josh had maanged to come up with some ideas on places for him to move, but none of them would be available until the first of April, and I had a whole crew there to work on the house. As a favor to him (that was still very much in my best interest), we used Trish’s Dad’s truck and the manual labor of the guys who weren’t busy, and we loaded up Josh’s stuff and moved it to a storage facility Josh had rented out in Claremore. It was twenty minutes there and twenty minutes back, and it took us two or three trips just to get the house mostly cleared out, so that was most of my Saturday. It freed up space for the rest to work, though, so I figure it was worth it.

The Gordons had to leave early on Saturday and ended up leaving late on Saturday, because they were so anxious to help. The Austins had to get home Saturday night, but they ended up staying for most of Sunday. We have better friends than we deserve. Matt was up late late again on Saturday, and already starting to panic about what he wouldn’t be able to get finished. By the end of the day Saturday, though, all of the bedrooms had two coats of paint on them, the drywall was repaired in the bathroom and most of the tile was down, and all of the exterior work was done. And the whole house was cleaned up, apart from the mess of our actual ongoing projects. We got an amazing amount accomplished in one day.

Sunday we rented a tile-cutting saw and Matt and Kris worked feverishly to finish what had to be done in the bathroom. Owen and I worked in the back yard, digging up the half-buried, half-broken patio bricks that had been hidden beneath the deck, so that I could spread new topsoil and seed and hopefully get the lawn to extend right up to the house. We’d settled on that as the cheapest and least-effort solution to the deck replacement, but it was still a half day’s work for two of us.

Inside, they finished the painting and the cleaning, and the bedrooms looked better than they had since we’d lived there. Even the dark, dark office went to neutral in three coats, and apart from the floor it looked good. We had a plan for that, though.

The kitchen wasn’t finished, and when Matt finally decided he couldn’t hang around any longer, the bathroom still wasn’t done, either. The new baseboards needed to be cut and put into place, the walls still weren’t sanded or painted, and the grouting needed to be done. Before he left, Matt walked Josh through the process of placing tile and grouting, and Josh promised to work on it while he was waiting to move into his new place.

We went home late on Sunday, exhausted, and with the house still looking pretty awful. True, most of the worst of it, now, was from projects that would end up making it look a lot nicer once they were done, but it was ugly nonetheless.

Honestly, I can’t tell you what happened during the week. I went from exhausted, trying to recover from the weekend before, to exhausted, dreading the weekend to come. Dan offered to watch the baby on Saturday so that Trish and I could go up to Tulsa to work on the house. Josh met us there, but apart from that we’d used up all our favors the weekend before.

April 5
Saturday, the house looked much as it had when we left. Josh had gotten some more of his stuff moved and finished putting in the kitchen countertop tiles, but he hadn’t had much time to work on the grout because he’d been busy finding a place and moving in. He put in a lot of work Saturday morning, though, and got the grouting completely done while Trish worked on the bathroom walls, getting them ready to paint.

It’s amazing how quickly the time goes by, though. Our Saturday melted away in no time. Josh and I replaced some gutters that had fallen away, and he mowed the lawn. Trish got the bathroom ready to paint, but didn’t have time to actually get started on that. I took down the ancient, busted-up screen doors in front and back, and…that’s pretty much all we accomplished on Saturday. We also met with a third realtor, who we liked better than the first two, and so we talked with her about what we had in mind for the house, and ended up settling on an asking price that will require us to bring $5,000 to the table. That’s probably the best we can do for the neighborhood, though, even with everything we’re putting into it.

She agreed (as we already knew) that putting in central air was pretty much a must-do. We had several quotes already, and one we could live with, so we were pretty much ready to go with it. Late in the afternoon, we were walking through the house trying to find something else small we could do before going, to make the place look better.

The house didn’t have central air, but it had window units in every room, and they did the job. In all the time we lived there, we never had any trouble keeping the place cool. The window units were effective, but they were ugly. Knowing that we were going to put in central air, I was anxious to get those obnoxious window units out of sight. When we talked to the A/C guy Saturday morning, he recommended taking the old units back home with us, cleaning them up nice, and trying to sell them in a garage sale. With only a car for transport, though — and that mostly packed with tools and cleaning supplies, I knew we’d be limited to taking one unit back to OKC each trip.

So, that’s what I settled on. I wanted to get an air conditioner out, and load it in the car. It was probably about 5:30 when I said it out loud. Which one to take was an easy choice. The one in the master bedroom was the ugliest.

That statement stands on its own. The unit was the oldest, and its cover was in bad shape. Worse, though, was the surround. None of the window units fill the windows from left-to-right, so they’re all mounted in frames that fill the window’s gap and use some sort of foil to prevent airflow around the unit. The foil on the one in the master bedroom had long since broken up, though, so that a steady breeze could blow into the room. To block that, we’d tried repairing the foil with duct tape, and eventually covered one of the sides with a crudely-cut bit of plywood, duct-taped into place. It looked every bit as bad as it sounds.

So, I wanted to get that one out. I didn’t anticipate how much trouble it would be. Trish helped me, and we started by removing all the wood screws we could find, which seemed like it should free up the frame on either side of the unit to collapse down. It didn’t. It was firmly stuck to the window frame.

I went outside and stood on a stepladder while Trish worked on the inside. We used screwdrivers to try to pry it loose, scoring the wood of the windowframe in the process. We used a box cutter to try to cut the caulk, to free up the unit. Once we’d cut and pried and torn everything we could, I resorted to heaving and twisting the big unit, using its weight to tear it free of the window, always terrified it would just smash the window above it to pieces, before falling free.

It didn’t. It took most of an hour, but we got that unit out of the window. It weighed a ton, too, but I managed to carry it all the way around the back of the house and out front to the car. I barely wanted it anymore — I hated it — but that was the plan and (most of all) I was determined to get the thing out of sight of potential buyers.

I got back in the house, though, and Trish informed me of our new problem. The window, probably propped open for twenty years now, at the least, would not budge. I was able to grab the top of the window frame with both hands and hang from it, and the window didn’t budge. That’s two hundred plus pounds, and it wouldn’t move. Now we had a giant hole in the wall, for all practical purposes, and it was seven at night and we had an hour and a half drive home still to make, and there was no way we could leave the house like this.

We fought with it for half an hour. I told Trish I would just cut a big piece of plywood to fit, tape it in place, and we would go home. She went for dinner, I grabbed a hammer and block of two-by-four, and ended up just wailing on the top of the windowframe, trying to make it move (and confident I’d end up shattering the glass instead). I didn’t and it did, and by the time Trish got back from Taco Bueno, the window was closed. We ate and headed home, and then I went out drinking with Dan because I was still too full of rage to go to bed. It was an awful Saturday and, in the end, we only actually crossed three items off our to-do list.

April 10-11
I used up all my scant vacation time back in March to make that work weekend happen, so I didn’t have any time free, but Trish had to be at the house on Thursday to meet with the carpeters. We decided that and the A/C were the two must-dos, in terms of hiring out the work. The roof and the foundation still loom over us, but we’re putting those off until we have a contract. These we needed just to get people to look at the house.

The carpet…ugh. The carpets were old and ugly when we first moved into the house. Since then, between our cats and more recently our tenants’ dogs, they stank and they were just disgusting. It was never a question — the carpets had to go. Trish called around, got a lot of estimates, and we found somebody willing to do a good job for cheap. We needed somebody at the house while they were working, though, and Trish still had painting to do in the bathroom, so she made arrangements for someone to watch the baby on Thursday, and she packed up early and headed to Tulsa.

She was already planning that the weekend before, and when she mentioned it to her parents, her dad said he might be able to take the day off work and come help her out, just so she wasn’t stuck there alone. As if that wasn’t enough of a blessing, her brother Matt said he could probably do the same. We needed his skills still to finish the tile work, so when he told us he was available, we both breathed a big sigh of relief.

Thursday somehow became Thursday-Friday (I’m not sure how that happened), but by the time they showed up Thursday morning they were already planning to stay the night, and get the job done. During the day Thursday, the carpeters replaced all the old carpet and put down new in the bedrooms, hiding my terrible paint job and the water stains in the master bedroom and the adhesive spots from the terrible linoleum we’d torn out of the back bedroom. They also put down new, nice linoleum flooring in the kitchen and dining area.

Friday morning the A/C guys showed up and put in central air. Meanwhile, Matt finished the tile backsplash in the kitchen, and they got all the countertops put back together. Trish got the sanding and painting done in the bathroom, then they hung a new mirror/medicine cabinet over the new sink, reconnected the toilet (which needed some new plumbing) and finished sealing the new bathtub surround.

They got done around five o’clock Friday afternoon. Trish came home and crashed, and I’m sure her dad and brother did the same when they got to Wichita. All Josh’s stuff is gone now, though, and everything we can do is done. There is all new flooring throughout the house. The bathroom is entirely remodeled, and the kitchen has new countertops. The walls are all cleaned and painted a nice, neutral tone. The crappy air conditioners are gone (Trish’s dad and brother got the other two window units out with considerably less trouble than we’d had in the master bedroom). The lawn is clean and grass is growing, and the outside looks nice.

The whole house, now, looks completely different from the one we lived in. Josh was saying, half joking, that he wished he’d never moved, by the time it was done. Trish signed the realtor’s paperwork late on Friday, and the house should have gone up on the market last Saturday.

Now, we wait. Wish us luck, pray for us, and if you’re interested in a nice starter house in Tulsa, I know just the one for you.