6 Hard Questions for the DIY Rehabber

Week 34 – Amy

We are about half way through our house project!

[Note from Joe:  Well…  maybe halfway to moving IN.  We all know the “house project” will never actually be done]

At the beginning of the project we knew enough to know that there was a lot we didn’t know.  Along the way we’ve discovered the answers to some of the hairy questions and situations we knew we would eventually encounter.  We anticipated from the get go that this would not be easy, that we had a lot to learn, and that there would be many hurdles and road blocks to tackle. Most people don’t take a DIY approach because they don’t want to deal with all those hassles and headaches. Strangely enough, as in other areas of life, we have been all too ready to dive headlong into a mess, invigorated by the idea of making something worthwhile out of something others might be tempted to avoid.

On a side-note:  While dealing with these tough questions we’ve also come to understand that, despite the real need for revitalization in urban areas, there is no easy path to help individuals who want to do exactly what we are trying to do right now. In fact, we’ve often felt that the system discourages people like us.


QUESTION No.1:  “How will I finance my project?”

ANSWER: “The old fashioned way”

Usually, if you have good credit, it is not terribly difficult to get a loan to buy a house.  Unless that house is deemed uninhabitable. Despite our modern banking systems and grand institutions that help people do things like, say, build new houses or start businesses, there is little help or mercy for those people who chose to restore old homes DIY style. You could probably get funded for a TV series about DIY rehabbing sooner than you can get a loan to do the actual rehabbing itself.  Banks will give you a loan to do the job ONLY provided that you hire approved contractors for the jobs (meaning no DIY) and allow the bank to approve and inspect the work at intervals. This scenario is:
A. more expensive
B. more time consuming
C. overly controlling
In our case we did what families have been doing since the beginning of currency, we looked to our elders.  Seeing the trouble we were having getting funded for this project without losing the option to do it ourselves, a family member graciously offered to loan us the money for the initial purchase of the house. When the project is near complete, and the house is deemed “habitable” by a bank (whatever that means), we will be able to “buy” the house back and use a conventional loan to finance the purchase.  Without this family loan our home renovation would have been a completely different experience…  and not the one we were hoping to have.


QUESTION No. 2  “What does habitability look like……. to a bank?”

ANSWER: “A place to store canned goods and no cracked tiles.”

The word “habitability” was a buzz phrase at our house for a while. Without heat, running water, broken glass everywhere and gaping openings to the outside, we didn’t need anyone to label our house.  We knew darn well it wasn’t habitable – we aimed to fix that.  Since we plan on eventually switching to a “habitable” home loan we asked the bank to tell us what habitable means to them.  Apparently it is a gray area.  Some things are obvious, such as running water, no gaping holes to the great outdoors, and having heat.  There were other odd things that could also make your house deemed uninhabitable.  For example – homeowners beware – we actually had a bank tell us that they would look for cracked tiles. Also, counter tops and cabinets are required.  But what if we want open shelving? Apparently people can’t be expected to live without reasonable canned good storage. We’re still not clear if things like lack of gutters or crumbing plaster walls will keep us from switching to a normal habitable home loan sooner rather than later.

[Note from Joe:  A friend of ours suggested that we should move in and live there.  Then how can they say it isn’t habitable?]

questionably habitable walls
questionably habitable walls

QUESTION No. 3:  “How will I insure my fixer upper?”

ANSWER: You won’t. Or at least not for long.

Our current house is 145 years old.  Apparently so old that the insurance company thinks it’s going to blow away in the next strong wind.  I’d like to think of it as standing the test of time.  If it’s stood this long, it’s probably not going anywhere, right?  Despite this rationale, we actually had a little trouble getting our current house insured.  So, if you have an old house or you’re looking to buy one you might have to shop around to get insured.

With the new fixer upper, our insurance company would not give us a regular insurance policy because, you guessed it, it wasn’t habitable.  It seems like a good deal to me – no pipes to freeze, no electricity to catch fire, just a shell of a house.

[Note from Joe:  actually…  easier for the pipes to freeze, probably more likely to catch fire or be vandalized.  I get it.]

Less to go wrong, right?  It’s like a health insurance policy that only covers maladies of the skin or only covering people lacking vital and expensive organs.


BUT, despite our house’s apparent lack of houseliness we were able to get temporary coverage,  a special type of coverage just for construction jobs. Put your hard hats on, we’ve got a winner!

UNTIL….two weeks ago when Joe drove over to the house and was surprised to see a clipboard-laden woman standing on our sidewalk.   She was taking pictures and scribbling what must have been ominous notes about the deplorable condition of our uninhabitable house. The best part? Joe actually hid from her until she left, lest he have to answer questions he was not prepared to answer.

[Wait, wait, wait.  I did not HIDE…  I just didn’t get out of the truck.  In my defense, I don’t like confrontations and awkward situations.  This was definitely awkward and I had no idea what kind of trouble we might have gotten into.  Plus, I probably would have been upset at this lady.]

Now, I realize that the outside of the house is rough, but as I’ve said before… it’s not what it looks like.  Thus far we’ve been focusing our efforts on habitability concerns, and not exterior concerns such as chipped paint on the siding or a sagging front porch. The windows are boarded for security reasons, no longer because they are broken or missing. So, yeah it looks bad. For now, there are some additional holes and white plastic sheets flapping in the wind, but only because we are either restoring (AKA making better) or replacing the old windows. You have to make some holes to fill them.

A hole in Lucys room
A hole in Lucy’s room

On a side note, when we talked to the insurance company about covering our new house they almost said no because we own an Alaskan Malamute.  They only approved the dog at the new house because she was already on the policy of our old house (they weren’t sure how we got that approved back then).  To the insurance overlord who made that rule up, I say “harrumph!”  Malamutes are extremely friendly and docile creatures.

The uninsurable beast
The un-insurable beast

In the end, we found out that our insurance on the rehab project had been terminated. Apparently, we hadn’t gotten it done in a reasonable amount of time. That is subject to opinion, thank you very much. To appeal the termination of our coverage, our insurance agent recommended compiling invoices and agreements for work that has been done or is ready to be done.  Even after showing all our progress, the insurance company would not reconsider because we did not get the job done in 6 months.  As of now, we will take our hard-earned money and find some other company to insure our rehab project,  our other “habitable” house, and our two cars.  Plus, we’ll get another man-eating dog just to rub it in. Take that big business.

[Calm down, wife.  I think we might just be able to re-apply for a new policy.  We did know it was only a 6 month policy and that we weren’t going to be done in 6 months.  We just figured we would cross that bridge when we go there.  Well, now we are there.  We will make it work.]


Question No 4:  “Once I legally own the house, I can start fixing everything up straight away, right?”

ANSWER:  No, you have to pay money and get permission to do basically anything on your house.

This very expensive and beurocratic permission slip is called a permit. Anytime you need to fix (or entirely add in our case) plumbing, heating/cooling, structural work, electrical work or buy new curtains you have to pay to get the permit pulled for each type of job and show your governmental permission slip before any of that work can begin. Then when you’re done, it has to be inspected.  Oh, and also, you must have a licensed contractor do the work or they won’t give you your permission slip. I’m a teacher, I know what happens when you don’t have your permission slip.  No bueno.  So if you plan on oh, say, wiring your house yourself, kicking down a wall or sawzawing into the ceiling (just as a few random examples)- no dice.  Are you seeing a pattern here?


You know, just cutting through the ceiling; contractor license in back pocket.
You know, just cutting through the ceiling; contractor license in back pocket.

Since both of our houses reside in historical districts we also have to get approval from the IHPC (Indiana Historical Preservation Committee) and the Indiana Landmarks Association before making changes to the exterior of our houses. This insures that our historically protected areas continue to preserve their historical integrity.  This is fine, but also an additional step in the process. For instance, when we decided to install full-size windows in the new 2nd floor bedrooms and bathroom we had to file paperwork to IHPC and submit the details of our plans.  In addition, we had to send about 50 letters in the mail to all sorts of people and places (Including the Indianapolis Liquor Company?) to also let them know we were about to make these changes. The forms needed to be notarized and a special form from the post office that proves that I actually did mail these letters to our neighbors.  The lady at the post office, per the norm, had no idea what I was talking about, thought I was an idiot, and my toddler threw a fit. I ended up having to handwrite 50 addresses and names onto a form with a toddler on my leg.  I’m still not sure the lady had me do the right thing but I was afraid of putting everything a month behind because of a clerical error.  In an effort to help me cope with my frustration about this whole ordeal I stamped some of the approval envelopes with this stamp.  Others had fun stickers.  I like to take myself seriously now and again.

official "seal" of approval
official “seal” of approval

There was a date set for the hearing over this window change when a select grouping of neighbors and community figures could appear to dispute our window choices/changes should they find them historically lacking.  Luckily, if anyone hated our window ideas, they didn’t show up at the hearing and will now be forced to forever hold their piece.

Three of the 6 windows we got approved
Three of the 6 windows we got approved

As a side note, as annoying as this may seem I think it’s a great asset to historical areas to keep tabs on their historical integrity. That’s why we enjoy living where we do in the first place.


QUESTION No. 5: “I won’t have any trouble finding contractors that want my business, right?”

ANSWER: Apparently, yes.

Our house is a pretty big job. At first we planned on hiring a contractor to oversee the whole thing, but after several conversations that were rude and too many unreturned calls we started to realize that you have to really nag contractors to get anything done…starting with simply returning a phone call.  We also realized that although you may be paying someone thousands of dollars to do a job, they don’t feel at all inclined to be polite to you.  From what I can tell, contractors are in so much demand that they can pretty much do whatever they like.  We also realized that we could save a ton of money by doing this project on our own.

One job we have planned on hiring out was the electrical work, but we’re having trouble getting our electrical guy to call us back even though he previously said he would do the work.  Now I’ve started doing things like this….

Suddenly a wiring enthusiast
I suddenly became a wiring enthusiast. Here is a sampling of my notes, plans ad drawings which are evolving daily. More on this later.

…with colored pencils no less, and reading up on how to fish wire down through plaster walls.

Laugh if you need to. You might guess where this is going.

(Now, I will back up here and say that we have also had work done by super nice people that were great to work with.)


QUESTION No.6  “When are you going to be done?

ANSWER:  According to the bank: never. According to the insurance company: six months. According to us? We have no idea.

We would have never purchased a house that needed so much work if we didn’t think we would enjoy the rehab process.  The easiest part of that process thus far has been the actual work.  We do look forward to the point when we don’t have to rely on other people (or agencies) to keep progress moving forward, but we aren’t overly concerned with our finish date.  It would be nice to be able to be able to move in by late Spring or early summer so that we can put our current house on the market.  For now, we will just keep learning, adjust to set backs, and keep a positive attitude.


So, in review of the things we’ve learned so far about the rehabbing process: If you want to rehab a house, you can’t depend on a bank. The difference between habitability and inhabitability is subject to debate.  Insurance companies won’t insure your uninhabitable fixer upper, so cross your fingers and knock on wood.  Pray nobody hates your new windows.  Also, you’ll need to pay a bunch of money to get permission to fix up the house, and then pay a whole bunch more to get the job done – if you can find someone willing to do it.  Good thing we have a whole lot of determination, a partner to complain to when it gets rough, and plenty of elbow grease to spare.

For now, we’ll just keep moving forward one step at a time.

See? Were still smiling
See? Were still smiling!
Even if it’s hard to tell.


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