The Lead House (Pt. 1)
This is a 3 part series describing the experiences my family is having remodeling a 1920s bungalow in Royal Oak, Michigan. Many aspects of this story may seem like a trophy case example of a First World Problem though, as the title may suggest, it’s something relevant to the health of individuals (particularly children) living in or remodeling old houses or apartments built before 1978.
Contractors, home owners, and landlords alike scoff at the “overblown risk” of lead based paint (LBP). These are quotes I’ve heard along the way:
- “An entire generation grew up with it [LBP] and we’re not degenerate mutants”
- “You couldn’t afford to remodel the house using the governments [LBP] guidelines”
- “As long as your kid isn’t eating paint chips, they’ll be fine”
And other similar sentiment from fellow parents, contractors, and workers both online and in person. Honestly, I didn’t take the threat seriously when we purchased our house and only after our remodel was completed did I realize the gravity and scope of the situation — not to mention questioning how often other similar projects happen under the guise of “don’t worry about it” or “let’s save a buck” mentality.
I’ve considered whether I’m overreacting, after all it’s true that LBP can be maintained or encapsulated for healthy living. Though, through careful research and inquiries I’ve come to the conclusion that even after a professional cleanup, the house we remodeled is still a place I’m hesitant to let my one and three year old crawl in and play in the grass.
As an added bonus (or hindrance depending on why you’re reading), this is also a story of education, growing up, scope creep, and the odd desire many of us seem to have to spend large amounts of money on stupid things. It may take a moment to get to the lead paint parts (so skip to part 2 if you want all the details on that) but, I hope it’s worth the read.
In December of 2013 my wife and I moved our family from Oakland, California back to our childhood stomping grounds of Southeast Michigan. We flew my dad and brother in to help us pack up then we drove the 2400 something miles back to Detroit with a 26ft truck and trailing caravan.
Most folks fleeing the West Coast are extricating themselves from prohibitive housing expenses, running from the cascadia fault, or seeking fresh water. For us, those things were acceptable taxes to living in paradise. Instead, we were on the move to be closer to family, to raise our children close to grandpas and grandmas.
People say that money doesn’t buy happiness but, what I think they mean to say is that money doesn’t buy spirit. The amenities and culture the Bay Area provided were worth every absurd penny we spent. Despite the move being roughly inline with a 50% pay raise, it was a very difficult choice to leave. Having spent enough time in the Bay Area to become intimate with the diversity of geography, food, and people, our experiences there remain the most influential essence and zeitgeist of our lives.
Truth be told and in retrospect, the cheaper cost of living made the transition more palatable. Although, house hunting in Michigan during winter isn’t great. Luckily we were able to move back to a paid off investment property we had left behind when we originally emigrated to California.
Now’s the time I should tell you that not only is my wife a professional interior designer and apprentice architect but, we are both fanatical about architecture and design. As many folks do, we’ve dreamt of concrete and glass structures overlooking rolling hills or of ornate craftsman style houses with bulging garden beds. In fact, we’ve been dreaming about it since high school; sketching our dream house on paper together as high school sweethearts. We’ve had our eyes on such a prize for more than a decade. I haven’t the slightest idea where this motivation originated — is this how the trite “American Dream” starts? Is the capitalistic desire to own things systemic to even childhood? Eh, who knows. We enjoy it. Anyhow… Back to the move.
After settling into our new-old house, I broached the topic of “getting the hell out as soon as possible” since I, selfishly, felt we were at odds with the home.
The Donaldson house is a modular home that was built in the late 1990s. It has no garage, no basement, and limited storage. On both sides of us (and for a couple houses in both directions) we have neighbors that like to keep goats, ATVs, boats, and haphazardly constructed car-port-tarp-garages. The schools are mediocre and our very long street doesn’t have sidewalks or street lights. The area has a micro “up north, rural hillbilly” kinda feel.
Though, to its credit, the Donaldson house does sit on a large lot and gets a ton of natural, southern exposure sun light. And, the neighborhood is actually full of nice people and houses, especially if you’re not peeking into back yards. If you’re not a shallow, inspired design freak with a growing family and dreams of a custom house like me, it really isn’t a bad place to live.
After a few months of me pestering my wife (and me probably registering on the grumpy spectrum about the situation), she agreed to start looking at houses. We chose Royal Oak (RO) as it’s the nearest — that is only — city with a concentration of culture similar enough to the Bay Area within driving distance to our family. If you live close to down town Royal Oak you are within walking distance to a number of parks, restaurants, coffee shops, and other recreational goodies. To boot, the schools are great.
We set our budget at $500,000 as we were at least going to spend that much on a big enough house in Oakland (as a matter of reference, at the time of this writing that is not an extravagant amount and could only really get you a single family home in a maybe-don’t-let-your-kid-walk-to-school-alone part of Oakland or a fixer upper).
After two months of searching, we settled on a 90 year old brick and wood sided bungalow just a few houses off of Main Street in RO. An unexpected benefit was that we were $200,000 below budget — hell yeah for savings!
The Austin house is an old “kit house,” simpler than most classic Sears Catalog Homes but, with enough detail and charm to buy us over. Although, evidently a fixer upper, we quickly fell in love with the romantic notion of a large scale remodel. Lesson: don’t be blinded by romance. To this day, I have no idea why I overlooked so much neglect and decades worth of missing TLC.
We put an offer in, low balled ’em the first time. Got turned down, then came back at asking and it went through! We immediately setup an inspection to have the bricks kicked and doors jiggled. We had a laissez faire attitude to the whole thing. Lesson: hire an inspector that specializes in old homes and is detail insane: pull up carpets, look for sagging walls/floors, try to open all the windows, look for droops and angles in roof lines, inspect brick work for quick repairs, peek in the attics for water damage, be on the lookout for quick coverups from the previous owner — overall be ruthless in your pursuit of issues.
Even though my wife is experienced in home building (and I thought I was an attentive sort of person), we missed some red flags that indicated structural integrity issues and years worth of Sunday projects that even a remodel wouldn’t solve. Most of these issues wouldn’t present themselves until after the project was underway. Naivety and desire are dangerous friends.
The last inspection we decided to have done, mostly on a whim, was a lead based paint test. We had been given a pamphlet that described the hazards though, we had seen that pamphlet before when we rented houses in California — we usually just tossed it in the trash. Now that we had kids we thought more seriously about the topic (although, still didn’t even read the darn thing).
The lead test came back “hot” on almost every surface of the house. Lead was in the dust, in the windows, on the trim, on the walls and plaster, and on the exterior porch and siding. We thought, “well, we were warned. No big deal since we’ll be removing most of that stuff anyhow.” It was mostly to be expected but at least we now knew what we were dealing with.
What most people don’t understand about LBP is that repetitive friction and bumping creates fine dust that’s inhaled or ingested by little kids. “Kids eating paint chips” is dangerous but mostly a misconception about how lead enters the body. Furthermore, lead paint is often used on areas that get exposed to moisture: the exterior of the house, the windows, the doors etc. All of those exterior surfaces eventually release LBP chips or dust into the soil either through weathering, wear/tear, or various renovation work throughout the years. The EPA has very strict laws that describe who and how contractors can work in such a home.
More on all of that later. On to the remodel, scope creep and other fun stuff!
Planning the Remodel
As soon as we got home from closing, we started ripping walls out and moving stairwells on everything from the back of napkins to our kid’s finger painting drawings. I think my wife somehow pulled kitchen elevation sketches out of her purse as we walked in the door! We were excited, this was a chance to experiment and see whether we could take one step closer to our high school housing dreams.
We took measurements of the rooms and created a legitimate house plan to begin the architectural drawings necessary for such a project. It took about a month for us to come up with a final design that we were happy with. It included moving or removing 50% of the walls, moving and rebuilding a stairwell, renovating the kitchen, tearing out a mud room, redoing the majority of the drywall and ceiling upstairs, and new floors throughout the first floor.
I researched dozens of contractors and eventually received 3 quotes from seemingly reputable firms. The quotes came in as follows:
- This will cost more than a space shuttle launch. You’re better off bulldozing the house.
- We can do it all for a couple thousand dollars.
- That’s a lot of work but, we can definitely make it happen within your budget.
We went with #3. We took a home equity loan out on our investment property to finance the remodel and signed a contract.
We provided a copy of the lead report to the contractor via email and as a physical paper copy in face-to-face meetings. We were verbally assured they were trained to work with such houses. That was it. That was all we did to confirm that the LBP would be handled appropriately. Shame on us and shame on them.
After the project, during the height of my research, I found that not only are they legally required to be EPA RRP Certified to work on such a house, they were legally required to provide us with (yet another) pamphlet on LBP renovations. Neither of which occurred.
And so, the project began. We picked out our light fixtures, cabinets, and flooring. We excitedly visited the house during the demolition and remodel, taking pictures all along. These pictures would end up being priceless in my research and investigation of the mishandling of the project.
For now, that is the extent to which I will go into the LBP fiasco. Continue on to The Lead House (Pt. 2) where I go into depth about lead contamination and the precautions that you need to take if you live in an old dwelling or are renovating a house with LBP.
The other part of this story is the emotional toll and fallout of naively remodeling an old house.
Greed and Scope Creep
This project has almost entirely extinguished my interest in the popular pin-up culture of modern housing trends. Our homes (even modern ones) are built from materials that can make us sick, waste too much water, are too big, and have the potential to drain a bank account (described herein).
Remodeling an already large, old house compounds these issues. There are aspects of a remodel that you cannot account for:
- Updating old electrical or plumbing to meet code
- Unstable structure or old building practices
- Mold, mildew, or unseen water damage
Then there are things that you should account for that you probably don’t know you need:
- Hiring a structural engineer
- Hiring a environmental hygienist
- Hidden costs not in contract (painting, cleanup, permits)
- Inspection fees
- Adding to the project scope (we added a few things along the way)
We had a little of all of the above. And, in the end, this ended up driving the cost of the project to about 170% of budget! Sneaky, sneaky! That didn’t include final finishes for the interior like window treatments and rugs. I couldn’t believe it when I finally sat down to “run the numbers.” We admittedly weren’t keeping the best records and I hadn’t tallied the hidden costs until near the end of the project (we admit that we made many mistakes and we are the only ones to blame). We were too young, too inexperienced, too excited, and moving too fast.
Considering the down payment and total project costs, we ended up putting roughly 60% of the purchase price back into the house in the form of liquid assets that we will very likely never see again (sunk cost galore). We still have anywhere from $20,000-$70,000 worth of structure (garage is leaning, walls of house and foundation are sinking) and safety fixes (grounding the plumbing, potential mold remediation, LBP porch removal). The thought that we spent almost 5 years of savings on this single investment with much more to come, makes me sick to my stomach.
I’ve turned these numbers over in my head. They’ve kept me up at night and made me lose my appetite on more than one occasion. To me, our actions and naivety about this project represent the absurdity of some aspects of modern society, to which we contribute. The LBP issues are what sent me over the edge.
Growing Up and Making Decisions
This project has greatly altered my perspective on housing and how health and happiness can be inextricably tied to the place you spend the majority of your life, the place where you grow along with your family.
As we prepare to move into the Austin house, I’ve toiled with following through with the move. I’ve discussed with confidants and online forums alike whether the smart thing to do would be to sell the house and take a loss on the investment. To me, the health of my family and future financial security are just not worth the cosmetic layer of drywall and cabinetry that I’m sure we will still enjoy.
In the end, my wife and I have decided to proceed with moving into the property. We agreed to take one project at a time and to get the kids tested for lead on a regular basis.
The culture, community, and neighbors we’ve come to know during the project has us reminiscing of the Bay Area and hungry for the recreational and educational opportunities that Royal Oak has to offer our children. If after a few years it just isn’t working, we will have learned many things about ourselves and the motivations that drive basic human instincts.
Suggestions on Modern Housing
While researching alternative housing, I found a thriving and affordable modular home movement. There are a growing number of companies that offer products that, while still maybe not attainable to a large majority of the world’s population, allows folks that are interested in architecture and design to own a quality, healthy, semi-custom home for prices that are not absurd. Some of these are still more square footage than any family would need though, there are any number of small house prefabs on the market and most have “green” energy features or are built with healthy LEED standards in mind.
Living Homes C6.1 $179,000 — This house is an ultra modern structure with a host of options that make a comfortable blend of indoors and outdoors with up to 3 rooms. The best part is that it is the first low-cost LEED Platinum modular home. Healthy AND beautiful!
IdeaBox Confluence $139,000-$204,00 — The Confluence and other models by IdeaBox are custom built modular homes. They are designed to let in a ton of natural light and no two are the same.
Method Home Option $230,000-$325,000 — One of the more visually appealing modular homes on the market. Method Homes provides many models (some cheaper and many more expensive than the Option) but all of them are beautiful and manufactured as LEED and Energy Star efficient homes.
These are just a preview of what is available on the market today. Modular homes have come a very long way since the 90s. They are a great option for the environmentally and health conscience buyer. If we move beyond the Austin house, we may very well buy a modular home (I’ve fallen in love with Living Homes’ C6, pictured here).