When walking through a neighborhood in downtown Juneau, if one isn’t too focused on how steep the street is on these icy days, one might notice how old many of the houses are. Many of the houses standing today are more than 100-years-old with creaky floors and quivering windowpanes. Or the floors would be creaky and the windows quivery, were it not for the ever-busy homeowners.
Homeowners of houses of any age find themselves with projects, sealing cracks, building shelves, but sometimes a homeowner has a real fixer-upper.
Rich Lyon, a carpenter for 30 years before becoming a building inspector with Wilson Engineering, says “If people like that kind of stuff (home improvement projects) they’ll find something to do.”
Ryan Stanley, Laura Hosey and daughter Meadow saw their century old house on Basin road burn in the summer of 2009 when a purposefully started fire in the neighboring Basin Roadhouse spread to their pink home. Despite the efforts of Capital City Fire and Rescue, the pink house was left a pile of ashes and charred belongings and the family found themselves with nothing but a foundation and a big project at hand.
In the summer of 2010, Ben Lyman and Lauren Brooks, with a lease coming to a close on a West Juneau rental, decided buying a home would be a wise investment. They had done a lot of painting and fixing up of the rental but they would have to say goodbye. With their own home, they could work toward the house they wanted without having to leave it behind. They bought a house that has been spotted in photos as far back as 1905. Like many of those old houses, it had been expanded over the years.
Jorden Nigro and Bret Connell bought the historic Davis House, which is said to be the second oldest livable home in Juneau, when it came on the market. Nigro said they “loved that it’s an old historic Juneau home.”
“We feel like we want to take care of it and keep it around. It’s a part of Juneau history.” she said.
Rich Lyon and Joy, his wife, have renovated every home they’ve ever bought, including an old boat. As he recalled having to redo the foundation on each and every home, she reminded him of the boat; after a moment of thought, they agreed the boat could have possibly used a good foundation as well. They had to live in a van briefly while renovating the boat to make it livable.
Brooks and Lyman weren’t actively looking for a place, but their home caught their eye.
“We just walked by and thought, ‘wouldn’t it be nice to live here?’ and peeked in the windows the price seemed reasonable and it kept dropping.”
They made the decision to buy the house with two months left on their rental lease, just enough time to get the really big projects out of the way.
Something that probably rings true for owners of fixer-uppers is what Lyman had to say about making certain choices.
“It all comes down to either time or money, we have routinely said we wanted our time more than we wanted the money so we looked at having people do various projects on the house and quickly realized that our time wasn’t worth that much money. So we’ve learned new skills and I rewired the entire house, rebuilt the entire electrical system and only hired an electrician for two days and not the entire project.”
Brooks said she learned new skills as well, though she humbly commented that she didn’t learn things to the same extent as Lyman. She owes that to her confidence level with household projects being low at the time, though she’s picked up both the vocabulary and understanding since undertaking the project.
“In general, I learned much more about how a home functions and what goes into the making of a home, the structure of a home, and how things work because, before, it was a total mystery.” she said.
Hosey and Stanley also did a lot of major projects on their own. Hosey took a class at the UAS construction technology program and actually designed their new home herself. They have the same foundation, but the new home had to be built differently to be up to modern codes. Stanley, like Lyman, also chose to do the wiring himself. Even Meadow, age 5, helped with painting the cedar shingles that adorn a portion of the exterior.
Nigro had some advice for the home renovator.
“Make sure you do something once in a while you can see, so you feel like you’ve done something.”
The biggest projects people often undertake involve weatherizing the old homes, adding insulation, replacing windows, fixing drafts.
Rich Lyon had advice as well, a lot of it, and having made a career of building and renovation, and now inspecting buildings, it’s probably the most important advice a hopeful renovator could receive.
“I can’t emphasize enough how important it is that someone know what they’ve got before they start.”
His father, also a carpenter, died from mesothelioma, a condition caused by inhalation of asbestos particles. The majority of homes built or renovated during the 50s through the early 70s used insulation made with asbestos. In Alaska, he said, it could have gone on longer because the materials were there and people would use them. He also warns of 9-by-9 in. tiles and a host of other building materials.
Lead based paint, too. Though it’s been out of use for a long time, old homes may still have lead based paint and since painting is one of the simplest and easiest ways to update a home, Lyon points out that people often just jump right in, sanding off old paint.
Joy Lyon is the executive director for the Association for the Education of Young Children (AEYC), an organization dedicated to not only the education, but also the general wellbeing of children and Rich shares that dedication to children.
“A lot of people who are doing this work are young families. They’re young families with little kids and babies, and their heart’s in the right place and often their knowledge base is pretty small.”
The advice is to hire an inspector. Before bringing out the sander or even a hammer, have a home inspected for asbestos and other harmful materials. Carson-Dorn came up as a good option.
To a homeowner who is already looking at thousands to be spent on renovations, it can look like just an extra cost, but Lyon says it’s not that expensive. And really, it will seem a small price to pay to know that everyone is safe.
The other advice, which everyone touched on, was planning.
“Everything always takes longer and is more expensive and more complicated than you imagined.” Explained Hosey after she and Stanley had detailed some of the more tedious steps.
Building the pink house again took a year, though they are still working on some projects. The basement is still totally unfinished and to stay within budget and work with time constraints applied by the insurance company, there are a lot of little things still to be done, like oiling the wood trim, for example.
“There’re no towel bars.” Hosey adds, “It’s those little things.”
Brooks and Lyman had much the same to say about the process.
“It’s a lifelong project. People who have never renovated a house will ask questions like, “Are you done yet?” and that’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous because we’ll never be done.” said Brooks.
Nigro and Connell have completed the weatherization, but she said they have many projects on the horizon.
“We want to remodel the kitchen someday. But for now, we added a fresh coat of paint and everything looks cheerier, happier.”
Rich Lyon recommended painting as a simple and easy way to make a big difference in the appearance of a home.
Meadow, Stanley and Hosey’s daughter, has one bright pink wall that casts a rosy glow over the whole room.
“Well, I kind of wanted all of the walls light pink instead of just one.”
Stanley recalled that she tried to get all pink walls.
“I turned my back for literally, like, half a second and when I turned back around she had painted a big pink thing onto the already painted walls.”
Having rented until their home purchase, Brooks was happy about the freedom of home ownership.
“It’s really nice to be able to knock holes in the walls or paint the kitchen orange and not have to worry about what the landlord will say.”
Lyman also finds home ownership to have similar perks.
“I spent a lot of time as a renter, and a lot of money as a renter, improving my living situation, and inevitably my time in that location would come to an end or the building would be sold, something would happen that would force me to move elsewhere and, in every case, I always lost every improvement that I put in, time and money, and so it’s really nice to be in a location where everything that I do, good or bad, is mine, and I have to live with it but I can live with it and I hopefully don’t ever have to be torn away from it.”
In addition to the freedom of what to do to the house, Lyman was happy with the freedom of what to do with the house, while still acknowledging the responsibilities he now has.
“And I can have pets. And I can have roommates or no roommates. I get to be the landlord and that also means it’s my problem when we run out of oil or something breaks.”
Brooks finds these tasks of home ownership to be gratifying. And she said, enthusiastically, she would recommend buying a fixer-upper to anyone. One caveat, she spends much of her time with people who would probably enjoy the challenges and the joys of such a project.
Lyon, on the other end of the spectrum, doesn’t recommend it, though he recognizes that some people want fixer-uppers or can’t afford a home with all the work done.
Overall, buying a fixer-upper provides a plethora of challenges, but also rewards.
These homeowners were all charmed with old houses and their quirks and found completing projects to be very rewarding.
Of renovating the pink house before having to completely rebuild it after the fire, Hosey commented on what she saw to be an advantage of fixing a home up.
“Sometimes,” she said, “when you have limitations, the creativity just springs out.”
On a related note, Brooks said she couldn’t imagine making all the changes they have made without taking time in the process.
“Little by little, we’re seeing what we want.”
Nigro thinks taking it little by little is a good option, recommending time for vision and planning, as well as time to spend with your loved ones.
“I think it’s important to take time for vision, for what you want to do. And take time for each other. It can be hard.”
She also advises not letting the little things get to you. Because there will always be little things.
All the homeowners acknowledged multiple times that none of these renovations and projects would be possible without the help and support of families and friends.
Lyman noted that it was especially nice to have the woodworking expertise of his father and Brooks’ stepfather while working on the house.
Hosey and Stanley estimated they had at least twenty really good friends who shared in a lot of the work, but they couldn’t begin to thank everyone who had helped in some way.
And Lyon, after reiterating the importance of the home being safe, comfortable and affordable, all pragmatic things, addressed beauty.
“What makes a house beautiful,” he said, looking over at Joy, “Is a woman. And children. And loved ones. And, you know, paint’s cheap.”
Notes: Rich Lyon was a wonderful resource for this article, not only for his poetic moments, but also for his wealth of experience and knowledge. More good advice from him was “Know your limitations.” And “Safety first.”
All of the homeowners took on many projects on their own, all of them had help, not only from friends and family, but from professionals. The first thing anyone should consider is their personal safety and the safety of others. So, call an inspector, know your limitations, and know that safety should come before saving money. Otherwise, happy renovating.