Editor’s Note: The idea of purchasing and renovating a home is a dream that many carry, but few of us stop to consider the complications and complexities of the process until we are already knee-deep in drywall debris. Lisa Przystup, a writer, florist, and frequent contributor to Front + Main has been kind enough to share her journey of home ownership with us. Check out the first installment here. Enjoy!
Illustration by Tallulah Fontaine
A house is a home because two people make it so. Since we closed on our home a year ago so much of the progress we’ve made has been because of my husband (refer back to the “On Spray Painting in Your Bedroom” post). He does all the heavy lifting (both literal and figurative) and then I swoop in and throw a handful of tchotchkes and more than a handful of textiles at what he’s built and walk away. It seems crazy that you guys haven’t heard about things from his perspective and the fact that we just celebrated a year in the house seems like the perfect occasion to hand the mic over to him. Below you’ll find a sort of kind of conversation—more of a recounting really—of our experience with our porch.
When we first started looking for a house, we had a short list of things we knew we wanted: good light, wide floorboards, a certain unnamable quality that we’d know when we saw it, and a porch. In the soft focus film of our lives, I pictured rocking chairs and pumpkins and a little bistro table or bench where we’d sip hot coffee, steam coming off our mugs in the chilly fall mornings. In the summer, we’d drink perspiring glasses of iced tea as we lapped up the sun. Maybe even a porch swing. We were happy to find just such a porch attached to the front of the place we now call home. Less than happy 6 months into living there to discover that the stage for our outdoor dreams was as crooked as a politician. To be clear, the porch was not in the best of shape when we bought the house. It wasn’t in terrible shape either, but the wood in the eaves was rotting out and the paint on the floor was faded and peeling and the ceiling needed a new coat of paint (still does actually) but we figured we’d get a few more years out of it and tackle an overhaul down the line.
The wife and I decided to redo our front porch the day we woke up and realized it was falling over. Considering it was one of the main reasons we bought the house, it was especially painful to rise one eager spring day and check the thermometer only to realize the post it was hanging on was crooked. For a day or two, we deliberated over whether it had always been that way or if the water from spring’s slow thaw moved the carefully placed cinder blocks that supported our dream. Of course, at the time, we didn’t know that the posts of the porch were only being held up by cinder blocks.
Our inspector said nothing about it to us—no red flags, nothing about it in his report, so we figured it was fine. In the end, it was his gross oversight that found us replacing it not three years into home ownership, but six months. The day of our inspection was a miserable rainy day and I suppose we should have known that our inspector was not of the highest caliber when he made a snide remark about our timeliness (we were ten minutes late thanks to the vice-like grip of NYC traffic) and the, after we all got inside and he rudely rushed me through any questions I had. Word to the wise: this is the biggest purchase of your life. Take your time. Do not feel bad about asking questions. You’ll be the one who has to live with your inspector’s oversights, not them. We powered through the inspection, trying to turn the mood and things went fine. Because it was raining, he told us that he would come back later in the week when things had cleared up to inspect the exterior of the house. It’s clear to us now he didn’t, because had he returned, he would have found that the posts of our porch were balanced on top of the idea of support: stacked fieldstones under one post, stacked rocks under another, and cinderblocks under another. Each of these motley stacks were sliding and slipping out from under each other and out from under the posts. Even if he hadn’t bothered to remove the trellis to look under the porch, he would have seen that two of the posts were leaning at an 80-degree angle
The porch was old. The wood was rotting. The walls were dusty and covered in a fine layer of red dirt that Lisa and I affectionately call “Bovina Red.” Actually, maybe affectionately isn’t the right sentiment, but it softens the idea of something that seems to find its way into every aspect of life in the Catskills. Whether it’s on your boots, on the floor of the car, in your house, on your clothes, or floating through the air, Bovina Red is always around, it seems. Despite all this, I loved our ancient porch. We celebrated our first night in the house on its rickety stairs with a of bottle wine, watching the leaves change.
The morning we noticed the 80-degree lean, we decided to bite the bullet and redo the thing. It’s hard to say whether or not the porch could have hung in there for the year or even the next few seasons, but we didn’t want to risk it—it felt better to take control of the situation than wait for the other shoe to drop and come home to a porch that had collapsed.
Jonathon handled most of the nitty-gritty details of things—he basically acted as the coordinator and liaison between myself and our super-duper wonderful contractor Gary.
We had the great luck of working with the only contractor in Delaware County who shows up on time and is upfront about the potential cost of things (thank you, thank you, thank you Gary for everything). Coming up with estimates for the porch was pretty terrifying. We didn’t want anything fancy. We just wanted a porch. Something to give us an excuse sit outside and squeeze as much warmth from the all-too-short summer months. Something to host dinners on with good friends and watch the fireflies from. So yeah…just a porch.
Without going into too much detail, the price of a new porch was going to run us anywhere from about $6,000-$15,000—a gut wrenching potential. We spoke with Gary about how we could cut costs. Turns out that demoing the porch myself would save us about $900. We spoke about what sort of wood we should use—Douglas fir seemed to be the go-to for porches in the area—it’s a hard wood and resistant to many molds and moisture, so an obvious choice. The problem is that it’s no longer sourced locally, which meant we would have to bring it in from out of state. We looked at Redwood. That, too, would have to shipped in. Just for perspective on cost: if we chose to use Redwood or even Douglas fir, the wood alone would run over $5,000. $5,000!!! So we settled on pine—not the most glamorous wood—it’s soft, dents easily, and has more of a yellowish tint. But when you need a new porch and you ain’t rich, you settle. Also, Gary advised that as long we maintain it, it should last plenty long. He picked up a hundred some odd lengths of tongue-and-groove pine and said we could save a little more money if I pretreated the boards myself, so I built a little tank out of a leaky tarp, a collapsible table, some ladders, and a few clips. The idea was to create a vessel that I would fill with Wolman’s Woodlife Classic, big enough that I could dip the 12 foot pine boards into one-by-one. Simple enough. And it worked. It just took days. I completely underestimated how long it would take to dip the wood. Turns out you need to let each board rest in the tank for eight or so minutes so it has time to soak in the preserve, let it dry and do it again. Three days later, I was done.
While I was dipping boards, Gary was digging holes for the posts that would eventually support our new porch. There’s no shortage of rocks in these mountains and I could tell he was getting frustrated when after three out of the seven holes he dug with his auger collapsed in on themselves because of the sheer number of stones in the earth.
From that point on, there were a few hiccups here and there, but that’s pretty par for the course when it comes to contracting work. The concrete for the posts was poured, the porch was framed, and eventually the tongue and groove was laid.
We originally wanted to paint the porch floors a nice glossy black, but after painting out attic floors that same color and realizing that it actually (counterintuitively) shows more dirt than white, and after seeing the beautiful wood grain of the pine, we couldn’t bring ourselves to paint over it, so we decided to seal it.
I spent a day sanding the porch floor and prepping it for the first coat of varnish. There is nothing finer than walking barefoot on freshly sanded tongue and groove pine…it feels like silk on your feet.
I used Epifanes varnish to seal the porch—it’s used on boats that have to deal with the salt from the sea eating away at their hull. It’s expensive, heavy-duty stuff that takes a long time to dry, but it’s what we needed for the porch, especially after going with pine. Epifanes recommends five coats—I was able to get three down this year and plan to do a few more next season.
We have since had the railing and skirting put up and the porch has been inspected by the town inspector. Safety codes have changed since the last porch was built, so it doesn’t look exactly the same, but I think it looks pretty good as it stands. We were even able to host my birthday dinner on it. We still need to paint the railing and stairs and skirting but I’ve learned to just try to take things in stride when it comes to doing home projects. Things will get done when they get done.
Photography by Sarah Elliott + Lisa Przystup