Reluctant Remodeler by
(194 Stories)

Prompted By Home Repair

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My parents were very handy as far as home repair. I grew up in a household where my parents fixed nearly everything. My father did a lot of interior and exterior painting, repairs, and electrical work. When my parents decided to add a second bath onto their main bedroom in our 1950s split level, as a licensed mechanical engineer, my dad even stamped the inspection papers. The building process was a lot more relaxed back then. I am not handy, but more than skills, I lack self confidence, although I’ve improved. I belong to the Hippocrates (do no harm) school of thought for home repair, which has served me well.

The house being located in Palo Alto, one of the pickiest cities in California, the restoration process was far from relaxed.

After college I became a renter for about a decade, until I married and moved into one of my architect husband’s homes, an 1897 Victorian that he intended, with professional help, to restore. Although a small place, this was no home for beginner DIY-ers, the home having been transformed into a duplex and then somewhat trashed, the plaster and lath walls turning to powder. Fortunately the builders and plumbers were the best, having worked with my husband’s clients. That said, money was always an issue, so progress was slow and filled with drama. I witnessed a carpenter’s foot going through our ceiling, and the shower regurgitating strange substances reminiscent of The Exorcist, among other dramas.

The house being located in Palo Alto, one of the pickiest cities in California, the restoration process was far from relaxed. The city tried to fine us for not painting the exterior (their frustration with the previous absentee owner boiling over), until we demonstrated that we were restoring the interior first. They then disputed our plumbing plan for our antique bathtub fixtures until I wrote out a protest and proved the near impossibility of the scenario cited: if someone left the tub faucets running AND the water reached the tap level, AND at the exact same instant a fire broke out in town AND the fire department maximized the water pressure, it was theoretically possible that “gray” water could be sucked from the bathtub into the city water system. The probability did seem rather ridiculous, even to the city code enforcer, so he backed down.

My major task during this restoration, other than gritting my teeth, was to be the color expert. This was not a trivial task for a Victorian home, with complex sets of walls, moldings, and trims, both interior and exterior. My then husband was severely color blind. (So much so that in his other home, to surprise me he repainted the wood trim around the kitchen cabinets and countertops blood red. When I walked in, I began screaming because it looked like an axe murder scene.) After a failed test attempt at a color scheme on my own, we hired a designer friend, who came up with a lovely gray exterior scheme, and an interior palette of pale blue, aqua, and vanilla.

Michael, our wonderful painter, was doing the interior trim one day when I walked in. It positively glowed, looking beautiful. Michael was proud, he told me, of his secret recipe for the shine. While I was talking with him, I started feeling dizzy, then started to see double. “Michael,” I asked, “does your secret recipe involve a solvent? Did you put something in the paint?” as I sank to the floor.

“Oh, my god, yeah!” he replied. The solvent extracted chemicals in the paint, making them easier to inhale, and I was highly allergic to them. After a visit to the ER, I was fine, but told not to hang around inside when buildings were being restored, or, god forbid, live in a house while it was being remodeled. My DYI potential was now limited. I need to be careful about paint, carpeting, and the like to this day.

Speaking of god, she wreaked her revenge on the painters, when a few days later, the roofers were in process of replacing part of the roof, and a freak rainstorm blew off their tarp. Water soaked the newly painted walls in the living room, drizzling down to the floor. I inspected the damage and ended up on a sofa in a fetal position for a few minutes. Fortunately insurance covered the rework.

The last house my husband and I bought was a small postwar dwelling in a transitional neighborhood in Menlo Park. I’ve written about this home in several Retrospect stories. My now ex-husband got the 1897 Victorian and I got the the Menlo Park house in the divorce. One of the first things I did was buy a home repair book. It said it was for the equivalent of dummies, but no dice. I’d never seen most of the tools pictured, and it assumed you knew how to take apart a toilet before providing guidance on reseating it. This was 1994, with no YouTube videos to help, so I prayed a lot, and the house largely cooperated.

By the time I bought my condo in 2000, I was delighted to have fewer home responsibilities. I’d had enough experience to know I needed an electrician to add 220 voltage for a clothes dryer I was having delivered, but other than that, projects were absent. Once I met Dick and we decided to buy a house together, we agreed to get a brand new home. I was ecstatic to move into our present house, where everything worked. What a delight.

Now the house is 18 years old, and Dick isn’t able to do much maintenance, so, ironically, a lot falls on me. I’ve stepped up where I can, helping to replace toilet flushing mechanisms, recaulking the undermount sink in the kitchen, and recently repairing a loose sweeper seal on a shower door. And, I remember to take the old parts to the hardware store so I can get the proper replacements. With the current shortage of tradespeople, I’ll have to step up to the extent I can.


Profile photo of Marian Marian
I have recently retired from a marketing and technical writing and editing career and am thoroughly enjoying writing for myself and others.

Characterizations: right on!, well written


  1. Khati Hendry says:

    Talk about challenging DIY projects–redoing an old Victorian! Good thing your husband was an architect and keen on taking the lead. Your tales of contractor, inspector, and insurance experiences are familiar. I commiserate with the challenge of choosing colors too–my area of supposed expertise. As well as-how did a brand-new house get to be 18 years old when you just moved in “yesterday”?

  2. John Shutkin says:

    You have certainly had your share of remodeling adventures, Marian, and you have triumphed (or “stepped up,” as you put it). And having both paint allergies and a color blind husband sure added to your challenges — but, I must admit added to the fun of reading the story for the rest of us.

    Incidentally, I, too, have now learned — the hard way — the wisdom of saving (or at least taking photos) of the old parts when trying to find replacements. “Almost the same” ain’t “the same.”

    • Marian says:

      I’m generally OK once the paint has dried, but a few years ago when I worked in my company’s office and it was being repainted, I needed to move to another wing until it was over, because I felt dizzy the second I approached my desk. Further complicated by windows that didn’t open. And yes, John, “beginner’s mind” is really good when finding replacement parts or trying to figure out what needs repairing.

  3. Suzy says:

    Great story, Mare, and I’m very impressed with everything you have dealt with successfully. I also like the “Hippocrates school of thought for home repair,” very clever! The effect of the paint that had solvent in it was incredible – did he have to strip off all that paint, or were you okay with it once it had dried? Or did the freak rainstorm take care of the problem? Glad the house you and Dick bought 18 years ago was new and relatively problem-free. Or did I just tempt fate by saying that?

    • Marian says:

      I’m mostly OK after paint has dried, so the painter didn’t have to remove what he’d done. I stayed out during the repainting of the damaged parts. But I choose low or no-VOC (for volatile organic compounds) paint when I can. We’ve had some minor glitches, and one plumbing problem that didn’t require putting holes in walls, in our current house, but given its age, not too bad at all.

  4. Betsy Pfau says:

    What a saga, Marian! You’ve been through it all – can’t believe you took on the suits in Palo Alto and got them off your back! The blood red paint experience from your color-blind ex had me howling too! But how awful to be allergic to the paint your painters were diligently putting all over that Victorian! And with all the delicate trim, those are so difficult to get right!

    I’m impressed that you have taken on simple tasks in your “new” home with Dick. 18 years have gone by quickly, yes? But, as you point out, since it was new when purchased, at least everything was up to code, so hasn’t caused too many problems yet. I hope this continues to hold true.

    • Marian says:

      Thanks, Betsy. Once the painting in the Victorian got done, it was exquisite (thanks to the helpful color consultant), and I had to describe it to my husband because it just looked gray on gray to him. Made me grateful I could see color. The builder of our current home has a good reputation, and well deserved, since the house has held up very well.

  5. Good for you Marian!
    My parents were both handy with tools, but the best I can do is hang pictures, and I’m afraid my husband has two left thumbs.
    So we usually call the super!

    • Marian says:

      I hear you, Dana. It was both frustrating and intimidating to have parents with those talents when we have few. Although at least I seem to have what’s termed good mechanical reasoning ability, so I can often figure out what’s wrong–but I still can’t fix it.

  6. Laurie Levy says:

    I’m very impressed with your DIY skills, Marian. I’m sure growing up with parents who knew how to fix things helped. Mine were the opposite. Whenever anything broke, huge arguments also broke out. Old houses are money pits, but even new homes have things that break, as we are learning living in a relatively new condo. Can’t win.

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