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.


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.


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.



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

Roof! Windows!!

We thought long and hard about the roof.  Metal or shingles?  DIY or pay a roofer?  Ultimately it came down to the fact that we have so much to do on this house and a fixed amount of time and money.  Metal roofs are wonderful but expensive.  Doing your own roof saves money but takes way more time, plus we would have used up all of our friends’ labor on the job they like the least (having all gone through DIY roofing experiences over the years.) So time/friendships saved by hiring, and money saved by not getting a metal roof.

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The price of a roof gets you an army of guys (no ladies on this job anyway) who get a new roof on in TWO DAYS.  Plus tons of ladders and shiny trucks.

Having a new roof makes a huge psychological difference already.  Here’s the before, if you need to be reminded:


And here’s the after.

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(or the end of Roof Day 1)

You might notice some other differences too!  We’ve primed this side and the front in tinted primer.  Kevin replaced the front window on the second floor with one the same size as the one next to it, found elsewhere in the house.  A ground floor window was replaced with a door.  Underneath the door is a bottle window my friends helped me do.  The windows are all restored – a process involving stripping the old paint, repairing any weak points, repainting, reglazing, and rehanging.

There’s still more – replacing the siding that had to come off, priming the other side and painting the whole thing, fixing that porch – but now when you drive down our street you don’t assume it’s abandoned.

Oh and there are windows in the front now!

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(I’m going to paint the sashes blue when I have a minute)

The bottom windows are restored wood windows; the top ones were broken, missing, and potentially salvageable with a ton of work that we would have done if the other ones weren’t missing and broken (in that order.)  So we replaced that mess with vinyl replacement windows.  No regrets there.

Obviously there’s some fancy trim painting to do still.  STAY TUNED.

And as far as being able to live in the house come winter – we’ve done a lot of the wiring and the plumbing is roughed in, which means we can insulate and drywall soon.  And we’re pondering how to heat the house in the long term, and in the meantime there’s a woodstove to install…

Wrapping Up the Summer

Well now, I do believe it’s been awhile since we last posted.  If this morning is any indication, summer is definitely over before fall officially begins on Sunday (at 4:44 PM).  Suffice it to say, we have been busy.  Scraping & painting, replacing clapboard, repairing foundation, fixing windows, building walls, overhauling a roof, running new electrical wires and getting things ready for a plumber to rough in a bathroom and kitchen.  It has been a heck of a summer.

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Of course, with winter coming we are only reminded of how much more we need to do before we can make it through the winter in anything approaching comfort.  There is where the pioneer experience really kicks in.  We purchased a used wood stove last night, and we look forward to piping it in soon.  But there is still not a scrap of insulation in the house, and we have a good few things to do before we can get there.

So, for now, the plan of action is closing up the last of the holes in the house, running some gas line to the old furnace in the basement, getting as much painting done as possible before it gets too cold, and getting things ready to insulate.  With the weather changing, we will have no lack of motivation.  Oh, and we should remember to stockpile some wood for that stove, too.



As per the New York State motto, “Excelsior!”

No more knockdowns

This is our friend Neil, and the house he is closing on this month.

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It’s about two blocks from our house, which I hesitate to call a Monster now that we live in it, so new name suggestions welcome.  Like our house, it was owned by the City of Buffalo and put onto the demolition list.  Obviously I think old buildings add value to their surrounding community, or Kevin and I wouldn’t be throwing so much effort into keeping something up that was well on the way to falling down.  There are many demolitions that have happened in my neighborhood (how do you think we have three vacant lots in a row?) and more keep happening.  When there’s a minor fire, the house isn’t rehabbed, it’s torn down.  When the city takes a house, it falls onto the demo list and is taken down.

Properties foreclosed on by the city are auctioned each fall.  The problem with buying a house owned by the city is that it takes a year or more.  If our house and Neil’s were homestead-eligible, we could have shortened that process to a few months and $1 plus closing costs.  As it is, we had to thrash through a byzantine thicket of red tape and bureaucratic procedures.  For most of the process, we weren’t sure that the deal would go through and couldn’t rule out the possibility that we’d been throwing away hundreds of dollars and months of time.  Even with the support of basically everyone we talked to on various floors of City Hall, there was no expediting the process, and our houses fell further into disrepair while we could only watch.  Our roof had holes cut in it, so every month of delay meant a month of rain eroding the structure.  Luckily last summer was a drought…

As I’ve been told down at Niagara Square (and correct me if I’m wrong,) the zones for eligibility in homesteading properties haven’t been updated in decades.  As they stand, they rule out the expedited acquisition of plenty of otherwise ideal properties for extensive rehab.  There are far fewer people who are willing to fight through a thicket for a year and pay fair market price for one of these properties, even if that price hovers around the thousand dollar mark.

Kevin and I attended a community meeting the other month and were recognized at our small table by a representative of the city, who said that Buffalo needs more people like us to do what we did and preserve neighborhood integrity by preventing demolitions.  My reply then and now is that the city should make it far easier for people who want to rehab a demo property to acquire it in a timely manner.  My neighborhood needs more houses to stay up, and right now we’ve got our hands full with this one.  We welcome those who wish to join our struggle and would prefer that they had an easier time than we did.

ANYWAY, how’s progress on our place?  We’ve got most of the wood windows repaired and ready to put back in place, are setting a date for a work holiday to scrape, repair and paint the clapboard, and have shored up the very back of the house which will be Kevin’s workshop.  Still to come: roof and porch repair.  We’ve got our hands full this summer and fall, that’s for sure.

My mom visited for four days just to work on the house.  She's a powerhouse!  (and that's our new dog Isis)

My mom visited for four days just to work on the house. She’s a powerhouse! (and that’s our new dog Isis)

Back to Basics

It seems we have put behind the wintry blast of the several days ago, and are back to the jolly spring weather of May.  This is good, because our house does not currently have heat beyond an electric radiator or two.  And we’ll be moving in two weeks from now.

We did buy this house to be our home, after all.  And our current lease runs out on the 1st.  The summer in Buffalo is a wonderful time, and a little camping out will be fun.  Fortunately, the front two rooms of the first floor remain undemolished, so it’s there we’ll make our stand.  Thinking of it as a pioneer-era cabin trapped inside an old barn makes the move into an American adventure.  It also makes you think about what you really need to be reasonably comfortable.  Protection from the weather, clean water, something to eat, somewhere to sleep, somewhere to sit, a good book or two.  And someone to share it with.

These tight quarters present an interesting challenge in terms of furniture arrangement.  Living well in small spaces has always been a fascinating art to me.  Architecture and design in Tokyo or some of the denser European cities is, at its best, a no-wasted-space bonanza of shelves, hidden storage, and this-folds-into-that ingenuity.  Well we’re not doing any of that, but we can still look there for inspiration.  Efficient living, on the cheap.  Hand-me-downs have been critical here.  For starters, we have the bed.  A sleeper couch that has been in my family since the Flood now sits in front of the porch windows, allowing either a comfortable place to put guests while entertaining, or a much comfier sleeping option than the twin bed we currently share.  Improvement already.  Next there is the drop-leaf table my mother gifted us a few weeks ago.  It has a formica top so, hey, no coasters.  The leaves are dropped by a clever mechanism which I won’t attempt to describe, but it does not require oaths to operate and that is dandy.  Add a mismatched pair of dining table chairs and you have a place to read a book while eating a bowl of noodles.  We also have a “portable kitchen”, which is a cabinet on casters which holds a few dishes and such inside, and microwave (gift from friends) and toaster oven (Salvation Army) on top.  Also, we have an electric kettle for hot water, a great find at the Salvation Army “As-Is” store on Military Rd.  That place is full of diamonds in the rough.  Add a set of shelves holding various dry food items and you have our parlor, the larger of our two rooms.  The other room we call the office, and it holds the desk and filing cabinet, where the deed to the house and a copy of The Last Whole Earth Catalog are stored.  It is the room under the stairs, and it also has a neat little closet under said stairs, so we even have a place to hang up a nice shirt.

And that’s it for now, except for the temporary bathroom at the back of the house.  But living at the house will certainly provide further motivation to fix windows, build a kitchen, build a better bathroom, paint the house, and on and on.  Stay tuned.

Outside work

As K. said in the last post, we’re focusing a lot on the outside of the house right now.  When the weather was cold and we were working inside, it was hard for people to tell that any work was being done – except when we’d have massive work party days every month or so.  Now that we’re able to work outside, we can do things that are immediately visible to the neighborhood (even if a lot of times it will look worse before it looks better, like when half of the paint has been scraped off the porch clapboard.)  We’re both looking forward to the day when our house doesn’t come across visually as a huge eyesore that’s begging for demolition or vandalization.  It’s also easy to meet your neighbors when you’re out and about.  I know I don’t really need to go into the importance of knowing your neighbors… and it’s easy to strike up a conversation from the starting point of yard work, snow shoveling, or home repairs.


“so, your porch needs some work?” since this was taken window frames have been primed and OSB has been replaced with brick walkway (thanks, obsolete ex-chimney)

The other thing we’re doing right now is planting trees and shrubs on the side lot.  We’re way too occupied with stabilizing the house to have a full garden this year, but the earlier trees are planted, the longer they have to grow.  We ordered some plants through the Erie County Soil and Water Conservation District’s annual tree and shrub sale, and although they are tiny right now, we’re looking forward to a future of lilacs providing color and fragrance as well as a wall of evergreens providing a windbreak for the wind that blows off the river straight through our side lot.

our chosen paint colors. green = clapboard, white = trim, blue = window sashes, orange = trim detail

Even more than the holes in the roof, the most glaring problem with the outside of our house (at least visually speaking) is the peeling paint.  Well, maybe also the boarded up windows, which have to wait until each wooden window can be stripped, repaired, reglazed, and repainted.  It’s hard to know where to begin sometimes, with a huge project like this.  That’s why it’s good to step back once in a while and work on smaller projects like tree planting that demonstrate to passers-by that the house is being cared for and on the way to being occupied again.

broken lath bonfire in the side yard