The Buffalo Evening Times – June 2nd, 1899

We’ve made some progress since our last post in 2014.  The house certainly isn’t done, but we at least have a remodeled parlor.  Goodbye to cracked plaster, hello fresh drywall.  I miss the plaster; it told a story.  But it had fought the good fight since the 1890s and had earned its rest in a hole in Lewiston.  Also, while taking down the plaster, I made a few interesting discoveries.  Here is the first of them: a copy of the Buffalo Evening Times from June 2nd, 1899.  Now older than any known living human.  It had been stuffed into the wall cavity all those years ago, and popped out during demolition.  The paper is extremely brittle, and did not particularly enjoy being unrolled after a century and change.  My preservation methods are probably less sophisticated than the Smithsonian’s.  But here you go, a little snapshot of life in Buffalo back in the glory days.  Enjoy.

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… Getting close on Bedroom & Bathroom

First off, I should mention that we now have non-wood heat in the house, provided by our lovely boiler & radiant floor system.  Right now we only have the front half of the first floor heated, but that includes the kitchen, office & living room (which is still our sleeping quarters as well).  We love our wood stove; it got us through a kicker of a winter.  But there is something quite nice about not having to choose between getting up in the middle of the night to stoke the fire and having a forty degree house in the morning.  The luxury has made us weaker already.

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The radiant floor system will eventually serve the entire house, except for one bedroom which is over the beadboard ceiling in the kitchen.  We did not want to pull the ceiling down, so that bedroom will have a baseboard radiator.  It will also have its own thermostat, which makes it a great guest room.  We will have to pull down the plaster ceiling in the parlor to heat the master bedroom, but that ceiling is already damaged, and removing it will allow for an easy ceiling fan installation and will let us insulate for sound. 

As for the master bedroom, we have made progress up there despite the last few months finding both of us up to our ears in big projects.  Allison is part of a new food business and I have begun another broken house rehab.  It is true, rehabbing two houses at the same time is often unwise, but when the master bedroom, bathroom and guest room of our home are done, A. and I should have all the finished space that we will need for now.  The outside of the house still has a few things left to do (porch repair, notably), but with the roof and most of the painting & window repair done, the outside is starting to look respectable.  So I plan to dial back on our home and work on Project #2 at three-quarter steam.

And as you can see, we are getting very close on that bed & bath situation:ImageImage

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Still some paintwork to do on the windows & trim, still need to find doors for both bedrooms.  And the old floorboards need something done.  The plan is to paint them and then coat the paint in polyurethane.  The floorboards are pine, which is a softwood and therefore not the greatest choice for holding a finish, but it is what we have for now.  They had been painted in the past and, dadgummit, we’re going to do it again.  We’ll throw down some rugs in the high traffic areas and hope for the best.  Even without 3/4″ T&G rock maple, we will be so happy to have a bedroom & bathroom we just won’t care.  ETA on move-in day?  I hate construction timelines, but let’s say May 4th.

Oh, and here’s the hallway outside the bedrooms, finally getting drywall:ImageInsulating the window weight pockets.  We put a lot of work into saving the old wood window sashes, and now the challenge is to make them as energy-efficient as possible.  The weight pockets are usually a tough spot to get to, but sometimes you just have to pull the casings off and fit some polyiso foam board back there.  Caulk and spray foam are also handy if used with a careful hand.  The trick is to insulate the pocket as much as possible without interfering with the movement of the window weights.  I have heard the suggestioof fitting the weights into PVC pipe to act as a tight-fitting channel for the weight while allowing insulation to be packed around it.  I haven’t tried yet, but it sounds like a neat idea:

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Here you see the layers.  We caulked the joints between our sheathing boards, fit fiberglass between the studs, 1/2″ foam board over that and then the drywall.  I like the idea of having even thicker walls with more room for insulation, but our house is long and skinny and thicker walls would have compounded our design challenges.  One does what one can.Image

Kitchen!

We now have a kitchen.  The long wait is over; we can cook, bake, wash and refrigerate, all in one convenient space.  Until the kitchen came together, we were using a single electric burner on a small counter top in front parlor.  While the dual challenge of extreme space efficiency and very limited means is an interesting one, we are glad to leave that exercise behind us. 

The space the kitchen now occupies started out as a bedroom.  After removing the plaster, lath and old wiring, the first step was to install a carrier beam to remove the bedroom wall but not the structural support of the second floor.  Always remember: weight, like electricity, needs a safe path to the ground.  The photo below is of the false wall built to allow the removal of the old wall, prior to the installation of the beam.Image

 

And there’s the beam in the upper left corner.  Plus: drywall.  I went with the recessed lights for more lumens without the clutter.  Image

 

Drywall finished, painted.  VCT floor installed.  Spent a solid day prepping the subfloor before laying down luan underlayment.    We went with Venetian blinds because of the windows’s proximity to the oven.  The range is gas, and I do not need the excitement of open flames plus fabric curtains.Image

 

All of a sudden, cabinets, stove, dishwasher & sink!  Just like that.  Ha ha.  Sure does take a lot of finagling to get it all together.  It’s a giant puzzle that, if done right, makes your life better in a direct and wonderful way.  Just don’t get it wrong.  Or you house will EXPLODE!  Hey, it could happen.  Many thanks to DM for handing us pretty much the entire cabinet and appliance set.  The microwave is courtesy of D&D way out in CO.  Nothing saves money like hand-me-downs.  That truism is well known to house-fixers the world over, and certainly no less here in Buffalo.  A. & I are proud to be carrying on that glorious tradition.  Also thanks to neighbor MJW for helping us with the floor and cabinets, and ND & NL for putting in work on the insulation and drywall.  Team effort.

That wooden squirrel is a gift from my aunt & uncle.  It not only adds a certain woodland serenity to the stovetop, its ears are also used to pull a hot oven rack out when needed.Image

 

Always check your appliances before roughing in your plumbing, gas & electric.  I had to move the gas line to the stove over by six inches once I realized the original placement kept me from putting the stove all the way against the wall.  Fortunately, it is a first floor kitchen so a bit of pipe wrenching and a wood bore did the trick.Image

 

I should also mention that the sink even has hot water.  We had a tankless water heater installed a few weeks ago, and the unit will also handle radiant floor heat.  I have not installed any of the radiant piping yet, but boy won’t that be nice!  For next winter, anyway.  We have a mirror over the sink because we still do not have anything but a construction-grade half-bath in the back of the house, as mentioned in A.’s last post.  But the future full bath is underway and is just about ready for insulation and drywall.

Plenty of finishing touches left, like baseboard on the exterior wall and the cabinet toe kick, crown molding on the top of the cabinet faces, paint touch-up, and putting the bell of that chandelier into its proper place (the light is a gift from my mother, by the way).  But all the important parts are there and functional.     Image

 

The kitchen in action:Image

Status: surviving the Polar Vortex in a broken house

We’re currently living in a three room insulated section of the house – two larger rooms which we use as living room/kitchen and living room/bedroom, and a tiny room that’s office/closet. The kitchen room is where we have the DutchWest wood stove, which is our only method of heating the house.  It’s a great stove, with a catalytic combustor that re-burns the smoke for a cleaner, more efficient burn.  And our neighbor up the block sells firewood!  Even with that thing cranking, the other room is only in the mid-50s today… so we’ve been sticking to the kitchen area.  This part of the house holds heat pretty well, even if it takes some effort to get the front room above 60 when it’s cold out.  After filling the plaster walls in the front room with blown-in cellulose insulation, the difference has been incredible.

ImageFortunately Kevin has been on an insulating tear.  The basement is tightly sealed up, and stays reasonably warm, considering.  The bathroom at the back of the house is no longer at ambient outside temperature.  Instead, it’s a super-insulated box that stays warm with the help of a space heater… so the pipes aren’t freezing as often anymore.

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It’s half shiny silver spaceship and half old timey wainscoting, and 100% better than it was before… which was the only time period I would have accepted (with caveats) the mostly-problematic “urban pioneer” label.  Grudgingly, even I will admit that putting on a coat and boots to visit what’s basically a freezing outhouse is kind of pioneer-ish, as was hauling water from the basement, making do with our rudimentary food preparation situation and heating the house solely on split wood.  Luckily for them, pioneers didn’t worry about showering.  In our modern day and age, showering is part of the social compact.  You’re not allowed to be a filthy stinky person and still be accorded most of the customary rights and privileges of courteous day-to-day interactions… which is ok, and it means we have a rotating cast of friends’ houses where we shower for the time being.

ImageThis is Upstairs, which will soon be ready for drywall.  In a fit of optimism, we picked out the paint color a month ago.  This is where we will have dedicated sleeping and showering spaces at last!

The heated downstairs and the parts of Upstairs we’re working on comprise the oldest part of the house, a square 2 story box.  This original box is what we’re going to be living in for the immediate future, so we’re only worrying about insulating and sealing off this part (and making sure the rest of it is at least mostly airtight.)  The rest of the house was added on in sections, and will be left in more or less its current state (of structurally stable and sealed but still down to studs) until we can handle the work/need the space, whichever comes first.  Right now it’s looking a lot like:

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and feeling pretty chilly.  But when we’re not working on it, there’s no reason to be there.  Kevin’s up there right now and he’s double layered up plus wearing insulated bibs.  The work doesn’t always stop when the world does, and inside you don’t have wind chill!

I know Kevin’s working on a post about the kitchen so I’ll leave that for now other than to mention that it’s SO NICE just having one, especially on a day like today when it’s -7891045 degrees out and all anyone wants is hot food and tea.

The dog and cat wear their own fur coats but when that isn’t enough the dog has a quilted jacket, which was probably not necessary inside today but it’s new and exciting, and the cat has a crocheted “cat nest.”

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My family is in town, and my brother in law had never been colder than 45 degrees before this week.  Haha!  We took a walk to get takeout from the excellent Niagara Cafe last night and my dad compared walking down Pennsylvania towards the river to when he climbed Mount Elbrus.  It’s been nice to host people by a roaring fire, take them on neighborhood walks in the screeching wind, and assure them that this is as bad as it can get around here, weather-wise.  Unfortunately crossing the 190 via the pedestrian bridge at Hudson did not work out because the ramp is a solid sheet of ice.  My decadent wish is that they incorporate a heated walkway into whatever renovation plans I hope they have for that thing… yes, a pipe dream.

It’s really really nice to be living in a finished space instead of a work zone.  Sometimes I forget about the state of the rest of the house… until I open the door to it.

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Hope everyone else is surviving winterpocalypse 2k13 unscathed!  Don’t leave the house except to take house pictures!!

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November

The wood stove has been hooked up for two weeks now.  We love it.  Nothing like a piping hot stove on a cold night.  I see a forecast high of twenty five for Sunday, which would be a much scarier thing if we were just using the two electric heaters we had before.  But the wood is stocked and waiting, so things will be all right. 

The wood stove has also been great for drying joint compound, aka “mud”.  I now have the finish coat of mud on the walls, and will be sanding it in the next time I have a few hours free.  Hopefully very soon.  Then we can paint the walls and do the kitchen floor, and after that install cabinets and fixtures.  Not too far from having a completed, functional kitchen.  It’s a great milestone, especially with the winter coming on.  The winter is much better when you have a good place to make a hot meal.  Looking forward to it very much.

We have also been taking advantage of few forty-degree days to get more work done on siding repair.  Hopefully we will have something picture-worthy soon.  At this point we will probably have to wait until the spring to paint the new pieces of clapboard, unless we are lucky with a random fifty degree day in late January.  Hey, it has happened before.  In history.  The side door I installed Julyish finally has a set of stairs to go with it, which is a wonderful thing.  I took some of the bricks from the chimneys we dismantled and made a little walking pad in front of the steps, to avoid the scourge of mudfoot.  A light by the door will be a spring/summer project.

All the while we have been doing weatherization projects, especially since we are heating part of the house now.  We still have a few basement windows to reglass and paint, and I am in the process of building a concrete block wall to separate the basement from the space under the front porch.  When we bought it, the two were one.  That cannot be allowed.  Same situation at the back of the house, where the basement meets the crawlspace under the shed roof addition.  Just a giant opening to let local critters come in and get out of the wind.  That, at least, is now fully shut and insulated.

So on we go, through November.

I Have Seen Ice

Outside our door on Monday morning, I saw a small bucket that had filled with rainwater.  On the surface of the water was a film of ice.  I took note of this.

Painting has been the top priority at the house these days, since painting weather is just about gone.  We have the north side of the house just about done and put away, but the south side of the house is still mostly primer.  It is generally not a good idea to let bare primer overwinter, so any day when it gets to fifty degrees (or just close, if it’s sunny), that is what we do.  The forecast now gives us less than a handful of painting days left.  Realistically, we will not get every last bit of the house caulked and painted before winter, but I think we’ll get close enough.

On days when painting is not an option, inside work moves forward.  The photo below is of the future kitchen, which has been plumbed, wired, insulated and now drywalled.  Tape and mud coming soon.  Paint to follow, then floor, cabinets and, finally, sink, dishwasher & fridge.  Washing dishes in the sink will be a major victory.Image

The colder weather has provided inspiration for another indoor project: the wood stove.  We purchased a DutchWest wood stove via craigslist and are just now getting to installing it.  The stove will sit in the kitchen, which is relatively central in the house.  The photo below is of the newly-installed thimble, which is the passageway from the outside of the chimney into the flue.  A few bricks had to be removed from the chimney to make the hole, and then the flue cut to accept the thimble.  An angle grinder with a masonry wheel offers precision for this sort of thing, but boy does it make a lot of dust.  Brought me back to the summer I spent repointing a brick storefront in North Tonawanda.

For insulating behind the chimney, I used rock wool, which is fire resistant.  I sealed gaps with fire-blocking spray foam.  Our chimney is in solid shape, but extra caution around a flame source is always a good idea.

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Getting wood for the wood stove was easy; we have a neighbor who cuts and splits firewood as a side job.  We picked up five face cords from him, and stocked over half of it on pallets in the basement (our basement stays mostly dry, which is a blessing).  When moving firewood, enlist the help of friends.  The job will go that much faster and you can all enjoy some well-deserved pizza and beer at the end.  For easy loading into the basement, we covered the stairs and stairway walls with scrap pieces of OSB (aka chipboard) and turned it into a chute.  One man at the top send the firewood down, two at the bottom to gather and stack it.  Good verbal communication keeps everyone’s forehead intact.Image

The wood stove.  While waiting to be hooked up, it seems to be serving as a handy work table.  It loads from the side as well as the front, and comes equipped with a catalytic combuster for a cleaner burn.  We built a brick pad in front of the chimney for the stove to sit on.

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Almost forgot about this ‘ol boy.  The ancient furnace in the basement is still an unknown.  The gas is getting turned on Monday, so soon enough we’ll see if it still kicks on.  Code-required CO detector is in place.  Ideally, we would have a furnace to keep the house a base temperature, and use the wood stove to achieve a more comfortable heat.  But even if the furnace turns out to be a dud, hot water and a working oven will be plenty to be thankful for.

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How I navigated the Buffalo inrem auction this year

Buffalo is kind of unique in that almost all of my friends here own houses – not the case with my friends in Atlanta or Brooklyn.  Housing stock is very, very cheap here.  And every year at the end of October, the city sells off a swath of foreclosed real estate at auction, making it relatively cheap, quick and easy to buy a house.

less than $2k

Our new yellow monster! Dare I say… less than $2k? #movetoBuffalo

This year we were interested in properties at auction because my sister and her husband want to fix a house here and then live in it.  We are obviously going to help make that happen.  K was working, so I was deputized to handle the auction this year.  Since we bought our Green Non-Monster directly from the city (city-owned properties don’t go to auction, just properties foreclosured on by the city) and the house we were trying to get before that would have been a private sale (and is now getting torn down… I can’t even talk about it, so sad) this was our first city tax auction experience.

If the auction intrigues you, you need to do some homework. (Ha!) You can start by plugging the spreadsheet data of available properties into a tool like BatchGeo that creates a map.  The list of properties is made available on Buffalo’s website a month or two before the auction.  You might already be interested in a particular neighborhood, or you might be attracted by a certain house… or a certain price point.  Driving or biking around with a house list can be a lot more helpful than cruising Google Street View, but both are fine options – and the Goog’s satellite imagery is a pretty cool tool for seeing the overall layout of the property.  (This year, we were looking for a house close to ours, which made things easy.)  Sometimes the city will post what properties sold for the year before online, sometimes they don’t.

You’ll need to remember that up until the minute the house is auctioned, the owner can pay the delinquent taxes/water/what have you and get the property removed from auction.  So if you’re set on going home with a home, have a list.  It’s worth shelling out $5 for the booklet of properties on offer at the auction, because the printed list is in the order the properties will be auctioned (which is not by address) and you can make notes of how much other properties sold for, for future reference.  (Many of the houses around us got taken off the list before the auction happened – by auction day, there was only one house left that we were interested in. Luckily, it was our top choice.)

In an ideal world, you’d be able to get into the houses you’re interested in and check out the roof, foundation, plumbing, electric, etc.  Since you’re not legally allowed to break into houses that aren’t yours even if they are vacant barring the consent of the homeowner you’ll have to investigate from the outside.  Does the roofline look straight?  Are there any visible major problems?  Does Google satellite view reveal a gaping hole in a flat roof?  Are the neighbors’ houses kept up at all, or are the inhabitants glaring at you from the falling down porch of a terrible shack?  Do you know anyone who might have been in the house and can tell you more about it?  (We were curious about our top choice, a vacant demolition-listed house near us, and found out that a few friends had been able to view it with the owner.  We therefore knew it was fixable by us… let’s be honest here, by K.)

The great thing about the tax auction is that all liens etc. are wiped from the property, and you get a clean title.  (Theoretically – sometimes the water company isn’t in the loop and assumes you owe the money that the previous owner owed, and it’s a hassle to sort out.)  The house we liked best was prohibitive to purchase directly from the previous owner because of the money owed on it, but buying it from the city at auction meant that wouldn’t be a problem.

The sad thing about the auction is that people lose their homes.  Sometimes it’s a landlord losing a property that was over-mortgaged or became too much of a handful to keep in good repair and therefore became delinquent on city taxes, or sometimes it’s a family that couldn’t keep up with their water bill.  (We felt more comfortable considering properties that were obviously rentals badly needing work or vacant/abandoned.  And obviously we lean towards the demolition list…)

Register as a bidder online.  There is a nebulous time window in which you can do this before the auction.  It saves you some time the morning of, but if you don’t register online you’ll be ok too.

Ride a bike or take the bus.  Parking downtown sucks, and the last thing you want to do have to go run out and feed the meter in the middle of hot bidding.

Bring an auction buddy.  Someone to hold your seat or place in line if you have to pee, someone to encourage you to keep your paddle up or take it down, someone to feed the parking meter if you went ahead and drove to the auction.

Finally, plan how to pay.  You’ll need to put down 20% of the winning bid price or $500, whichever is more.  The auction doesn’t accept personal checks, which means you’ll have to arrive bearing money orders, certified checks, or good old fashioned cash.  Leaving to get a check/money order and coming back is risky, because the auctioneers take breaks and will re-auction properties that haven’t had the deposit paid by the end of the break.  This means that cash is easiest, so there’s a heinous amount of cash on the premises and the building is surrounded by cops on horses and so on.  Plan early to take out cash if you have a withdrawal limit.

SO!  After you’ve been agonizing over houses for weeks, the big day arrives.  Actually, the tax auction is spread over three days.  Figure out on which day your houses’ districts will be sold (I’d post a link to wherever this info can be found, but either the city’s haphazard web presence or my own incompetence is interfering) and show up early to get in line for your bidder number, talk to your friends and make sure you won’t be competing for the same property, get a good seat (in the center in the first 10 rows) and calm the stomach butterflies.

I’ve been going to various auctions for a while… first to country auctions to buy furniture and random trinkets for a used furniture store, then to restaurant auctions to outfit my bakery, so I was able to polish my auction savvy with relatively low stakes at first and work up to the expensive/stressful stuff.  I was nervous at the housing auction until a few houses went up and I recognized the auction flow, and felt more at home.  (Also my auction buddy made SUPER STRONG coffee and I was about to jump out of my chair with the caffeine jitters.  Never trust a guy from Alaska with your French press!)  If you’re an auction newbie, it might be worth going to a restaurant auction or weekly country auction just to get familiar with the mechanics of auctions.  And if you’re thinking about buying a house at auction but aren’t sure if you want to do it yet, go anyway so you can watch how it works.

photo not taken during actual bidding, sorry

photo not taken during actual bidding, sorry

Here’s the difference between this and other auctions: the inrem auction is EXTREMELY fast.  If the auctioneer doesn’t see you, your bid doesn’t count.  He encouraged everyone to yell if he didn’t see their bid… and importantly, once he says SOLD the deal is done.  He apologized in advance to people he was going to miss, because it happens.

That all being said, here are my auction tips and as always your mileage may vary.  I like to be easy to spot, so big hair or a bright scarf/shirt is nice (I mean, nothing too annoying though.)  Always get a good seat.  If you don’t, when your properties come up, make sure to maneuver to a spot where the auctioneer can easily see you!  Otherwise you will have to do a lot of yelling, or lose out.  Make eye contact with the auctioneer when he’s scanning for bids, this somehow helps them remember to check for your bid before closing the item.  Ditto when he checks in for your continuing bids, keep that eye contact and nod or something so he thinks of you as a character rather than a paddle and doesn’t forget you’re bidding.  Don’t look away from the auctioneer.  KEEP YOUR PADDLE UP until you no longer want the house.  I saw a few people’s bids get overlooked because the bidding was so fast and they kept putting their paddles up and down at the wrong times.  Don’t pay too much for a house just because auctions are exciting – remember that you’re almost definitely going to have to do work on the property, and that’s never free.  And don’t buy a house you know nothing about just because it’s $1,000.  There just might be a reason nobody’s bidding against you for that one.

The auctioneer lets you know if each property is a house, lot, commercial building, or recommended for demolition.  He’s very doom and gloom about demo houses which is JUSTIFIED but also was nice for me because it scared other bidders away from my house.  (He made sure to ask whether I really wanted the house before closing the sale, for instance.  Obviously doesn’t read the blog.)

Apparently if you buy a house by mistake you can just let them know and they’ll re-auction it after the break, which is weird/cool.  Always stick around after breaks, because if you lost out on a house and the winning bidder doesn’t pay the deposit, they’ll auction it again.

OH and turn in your paddle on the way out or they’ll charge you $20.

OK so you bought a house!  What now?  You can’t legally go in the house until they mail you a deed.  The sooner you pay in full, the sooner you get it – but it’ll still take over a month.  I’m not going to tell you to break into your new house and check it out because I know a guy who got arrested for doing that: even though he’d bought it, he didn’t have the deed yet, so he didn’t technically own it.  However, I also know folks who had pipes burst in a house they bought and the water froze and caused a lot of damage, and they didn’t know and couldn’t do anything because they were obeying the law.  You also can’t collect rent until you get the deed… I would obviously double check that info with your official documentation before relying on it.

If you bought a demolition-list house like we did, you’ll have to get the demolition halted or you just paid too much for a vacant lot.  Go to City Hall.  They tell you to check with the law office – they didn’t seem to know much about the matter, but start there anyway.  I went to the demolition office on the third floor next, where a helpful guy looked up our new house and found out that the demolition order wasn’t court ordered.  If it is court ordered, you need to get the judge that signed the original order to rescind it – and you need to set this process in motion within 10 days.  Luckily our situation just involved walking across the hall and talking to another guy, and then emailing a City lawyer.

does your City Hall have one of these and are you allowed to just wander into it?

(While you’re at City Hall, check out the Common Council chambers on the 13th floor and the observation deck at the very top!)

Once you’ve got that deed, you have to fix the existing code violations within a window of time, and there are measures in place to keep you from immediately flipping the house for significant profit.  Don’t do that anyway though.

Today is the last day of the 2013 Buffalo inrem auction.  Good luck to all bidding!  If you missed it, you have a year to get your ducks in a row for 2014.

We’re excited to start work on the new place – it was too beautiful to watch it be demolished, and it means one of my favorite people on the planet will be living around the corner.  Hopefully soon we’ll be able to get in there.  In the meantime, the green one is looking better and better with every passing day.

soon enough, your house will look like THIS! and then hopefully even better than this eventually!!

“A hammer and nail and a coat of pail will make a house look new if it sure as heck ain’t.” – Gandhi