Row House Renovation: Home Alone

It was my first night sleeping in the row house alone. Pete was away on business, and I had just gotten back from work when the doorbell started chiming. Normally this wouldn’t be particularly noteworthy, except for the fact that I didn’t know we had a doorbell.

I walked down the two flights of curvy stairs to the main floor and – because we still hadn’t installed a light – blindly stumbled through the living room to answer the front door.

When we had first viewed the row house with Handsome Dan, our real estate agent, a man on roller blades had whizzed past and called out, “This is a nice block! You should buy it!” We’d later learned this visionary was Brady, a neighbor who lived across the street.

Almost two months later, Brady stood on my doorstep in the house we did indeed buy. He thrust a plate of cookies into my hands. “Here,” he said. “I made you salted chocolate chip cookies because I know you still don’t have a kitchen. I stopped by earlier when they were hot but you weren’t home.” He scratched Ernie’s head and asked how the renovation was going.

“Oh, you know,” I started. “It’s going. A little bit of a learning curve, but we’re having fun.”

The truth was that the entire process had been an educational experience, from the first time we viewed the house with Handsome Dan to the moment we signed the paperwork, got the key and raced over to discover the water meter in the ground floor living room had been leaking and we now officially owned a semi-flooded historic row house.

Did we have a plan on what renovations we were going to tackle first? Sure. But that was all thrown out the window the night we walked in to celebrate and instead had to start tearing up floor boards. That night Pete was still in a suit from work and my cell phone had barely any battery left. Other than the diminishing daylight streaming through the front window we had no illumination in the ground floor living room. We’d just opened the door when we heard the distinctive sound of water dripping. Pete took out his cell phone to shine a flashlight app in the general direction of the noise. To the right of the front door a pool of water spread out like a bloody crime scene from the injured utility meter. The wood floors buckled and bowed, undulating like broken body parts under the glistening moisture. The house was silent except for the eerie hiss of the water spitting out of the metal pipes.

I looked at Pete with wide eyes. “What do we do?” I whispered.

He took off his suit jacket and looked around for a place to put it. The house was empty, and we’d yet to bug bomb it. He folded the garment over his arm. “I have no idea,” he smirked. “But hey … welcome home, baby.”

For the next three hours we didn’t move from the front room of the house. With the last of my cell battery I called my father, two plumbers (who wouldn’t take on any new clients) and finally our friend Freddie, who I should have called first because he’s the type of guy who knows a little bit about everything.

Broken Pipe

Freddie’s quick fix to mitigate flooding

Pete left to run to the home improvement store to buy a shop light and tools. I was alone for the first time in our new home. I stood near the front window in the dark looking out the window, listening to the hiss and dribble of the water. I felt helpless.

Freddie arrived and within minutes had the situation assessed. In his no-nonsense way he looked at the previous owner’s curtains hanging in the window and asked, “You plan on keeping these?” I shrugged. He ripped them off the rod in one tug. He popped the access hatch to the basement crawl space and wrapped the curtain around the meter and draped it into the hole, explaining that this would siphon the water down and off of the wood floors. “I can’t touch this meter,” he said. “You need to call the water company and have them take a look at it. And these floors are screwed. You’re going to have to rip them up.”

With that our first project was born. A few minutes later Pete arrived with supplies, and I used his phone to call our real estate agent. “Hey Dan,” I said. “I’m so sorry to call you so late but … who handles our water bill?” I’d rented apartments my entire semi-adult life so I’d never had to work with a water company. After several pleading calls I finally convinced someone to come out and take a look at the meter. Thankfully they were able to stop the leak. The water cut off — we finally walked around the rest of the house.  We were wet and tired, and the initial excitement of being first-time homeowners was gone.

Nail Set

Getting some frustrations out by hammering raised nails

The next day we arrived early with demo materials in hand. The objective: start fresh by ripping up all the warped wood and broken kitchen tile on the ground floor, then refinish (what we hoped) was antique heart pine sub floors. The vision was that the wood planking would run from the front of the house to back in one continuous flow. We considered this leak our renovation baptism and were determined to make the best of a bad situation.

Using a crow bar, a demo hammer and a chisel, we got to work. Pete started ripping up the boards in the living room, and I peeled up the tile in the kitchen. Under the tile was a layer of cement board, but once that was up it exposed the original hardwood floors. To our surprise, the wood did indeed run from the front to back and was almost entirely intact. It was a small victory.

Over the next week we worked on prepping the floor for sanding by using a nail set and hammer to tap in raised nails. We then methodically began prying up staples with a flat head screwdriver and a pair of pliers. Next came the fun part: we rented a drum sander and, working from 60 down to 110 grit sandpaper, walked the length of the floors grinding down the years of dirt, splattered paint, and everyday abuse. The last step was the hardest. Applying professional-grade semi-gloss polyurethane, we sectioned off areas and sealed the newly refinished floors. I had wrestled with the idea of staining the floors darker, but in the end I’m glad that we settled on a matte clear finish. The warmth of the antique heart pine planks naturally darkened with the four poly applications, and we were left with a rustic, yet polished aesthetic.

Drug Sander

Grinding down years of neglect with drum sander

So that night, standing in the dark with Brady, I remembered the first evening in the house and how unsettled we’d felt. I was again alone, but this time I felt a sense of wonder over how far we’d come in such a short time period of time. With the floors completed we’d thrown ourselves head first into renovating the ground floor, specifically the kitchen and bathroom. What Brady couldn’t see in the dimly illuminated living room was the piles of wood, sheets of drywall, overturned containers of screws, and general construction chaos that ebbed and flowed like sand dunes in the shadows.

Ernie trotted over with a toy. “You mind if I throw this?” Brady asked politely.

“Sure,” I replied. What he didn’t know was that there was nothing he could break that we hadn’t broken already. The kitchen was void of appliances and walls were crumbling, exposing brick and plaster. He threw the ball into the darkness and Ernie dashed after it, disappearing into one of the many crevices or nooks we’d created, all ripe with building materials and refuse. Brady gave me a hug and we said goodbye.

Later that night, sitting at the end of the bed in the only habitable room in the house, I wondered how we’d gotten so lucky. Nothing was going as planned, but for every snafu we gained an adventure. Plus, if the utility pipe hadn’t broken, we probably would have never discovered and refinished the original floors. I ate a cookie and tried not to get crumbs in the sheets.

Photos by Kristen Scalia

Read the first installment of Row House Renovation: Buying A House in Jersey City and Making It A Home

Kristen Scalia

is the owner of Kanibal Home, a lifestyle store in Historic Downtown comprised of refurbished vintage furniture, found objects & new home décor, apparel and gift items. She’s also co-owner of The Jersey City Project, an event management company. She can be found running around town, in the shop, or writing about renovating adventures on her blog Row House Renovation.