Country Home Checklist

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This country home came with a few more problems than the homeowners expected. It’s going to take a lot more than new curtains and a fresh paint for this home.

Older country homes are receiving some well-deserved tender loving care as more people are flocking to the countryside after realizing their retirement oasis might need a bit of extra work.

By Mark P. Evans

Urbanites are flocking to the country to work from home in a place where the pace is a little slower, but they still have access to high-speed internet.

It’s like the Beverley Hillbilly’s in reverse; city folks are bringing their high-tech lifestyles and sophistication out to the sticks. The great thing is, they’re bringing a big pile of cash too. Although, rebuilding costs flatten that curve pretty quickly. Many “cubical escapees” favour old-time farmhouses for their rural oasis projects. Sometimes the realization of what they’ve gotten themselves presents itself in curious ways.

One new country customer recently had me out to their ranch to snake a clogged line. They tried using the chemical drain cleaner first, but that wasn’t enough to fix the issue. I discovered that the reason the drain was getting slower over time, and then eventually stopped altogether, was because the center of the house was starting to sink, and the piping within its framework was going with it. This was creating a backfall on the drain.

Disaster in the making

At some point, a furnace was hacked and chopped into the center of the basement right below the staircase to the second floor. The installer removed the structural support to make room for the ductwork and gravity began pulling the building down. I wondered what that person expected to hold the building up.

To make matters worse, the electrician routed his wiring through a series of half-inch holes, all drilled in a row close to the bottom of every joist across the basement. All the joists were cracked, and several were broken. I wondered why that guy didn’t just clip the wires to the underside of the joist instead of boring all those holes.

I found a little comfort knowing a reckless plumbing installation wasn’t to blame for this catastrophe, but it was this plumber’s unfortunate burden to inform the owners of the desperate state of their new home. It is at this point that many planned retirement homes become fixer-uppers.

Flushing the septic system

For those that choose to stay the course and do it right, the mechanical makeover begins with thorough flushing and a septic tank pump-out. I would normally recommend this practice but think it’s especially important now due to the global pandemic.

It is wise to refresh the septic system when the property changes hands or every three years or so. This isn’t because the septic system needs it; this is to make sure that it doesn’t need it. It’s an opportunity to check the efficiency of the system and to identify misuse. A personal sewage treatment plant is part of life in the country and its functionality depends on the residents’ interaction with it.

Grease build-up is a common problem. It must be physically removed, and the users must change their ways. The repair and/or replacement costs are their own if they choose to violate natural law.

From my many years of experience having to go into century home basements, I have found that they are strangely both damp and dry. I have observed some type of mysterious wetness leeching through the stone foundation, yet the dirt floor is somehow powder dry. What that wetness exactly remains a mystery to me — it could be misdirected surface run-off, groundwater intrusion from a spring, or just condensation.

Structural damage can occur when poor rough-in methods are used by contractors.

Leaky septic tanks

I’m suspicious of the ancient septic tank just beyond those leaky walls, but there’s only one way to know for sure and it involves a lot of digging. To address this issue, it’s necessary to expose the outer foundation for inspection, repair and insulating. I like the “R” value and the water-resistance properties of expanding foam insulation, although I really appreciate that it also secures the timeworn masonry that literally holds the building up.

I’m very careful not to disturb the soil around the black-water processing unit too much because I realize that it supports the container and its terrible load. I don’t want a breach of that tank, especially while I’m down in the trench with it. A sewage pumper truck is often referred to as a “Honey Wagon.” But I can promise you that what’s inside is definitely not honey.

It’s a lot of costly work but the entire sewage system must be assessed and repaired before this old house can become the dream home they envisioned.

Greener acres

After my new country customers’ more serious issues were resolved, I cut out their piping arrangement and began installing a plumbing system. They look similar but do different things.

One has a one-of-a-kind connection method, bizarre “venting” arrangements, and provides fault-finding plumbing columnists (like me) with endless stories. The other removes wastewater from the home.

I started by prying out the four by three ABS reducer that was caulked into the four-inch cast-iron building drain because it was undersized, had no clean-out, and it leaked. They used a variety of materials including what looked like plumbers’ putty and paintable caulking in their attempt at a water-tight seal.

I prepared to make my professional connection by tossing a few lead ingots into the crucible to melt while I packed two layers of oakum into the joint. Just kidding, I used silicone and slathered it on everything.

The rest of the DWV was roughed in with no through joist routing and a gentle slope out of the building because splashing is not allowed in the cesspool.

Most farmhouses I’ve rebuilt have additions and that’s where the kitchen always ends up. It makes me wonder where they cooked before they expanded the home. It’s always a crawl space too—a nasty, inhumane place where a renovator like me must do much of his work. It’s also a freezing cold place even when it’s warm outside.

I see plenty of daylight coming through all the cracks in the building envelope from that gloomy vantage point and I wonder how the existing waterlines didn’t freeze and pop through all the cold winters before I got there and did what I do.

I admire the passion of my new country customers and hope to become one myself someday soon. I agree that despite the meteoric rise in building material costs and exploding real estate prices—“Green Acres” really is the place to be.

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