The New Bathroom

The demolition starts. Photos by Kate Shuster.

Regular MML readers may remember that last year around this time we finally got around to fixing a classic Cloverdale problem: doors that wouldn’t close properly. Our house is coming up on its mid-80s, and some of its moving parts need a tune up every once and a while. As we wrote last August, we were lucky to find the guys from Southern Builders to come and fix our doors. They worked like a charm. Until they didn’t, in December, when we got them back out to fine-tune our bedroom door. Then again, in May. At which point even our intrepid door guys, faithful believers in the gospel of “Oh, all Cloverdale houses are just like that,” said we probably needed to get someone to look under the house. All was not right – our beautiful home had a touch of the leans.

We called in the Rolodexes of our friends at the beginning of the summer. We had a few people out to poke around and give reports and diagnoses and estimates. The first few people seemed nice enough and came highly recommended, but we weren’t sold because they never actually got under our house. Sure, they laid down and shone a flashlight in the crawl space, but this didn’t seem satisfactory to us and their explanations of what was causing the lean seemed not to make a whole lot of sense.

Then on the recommendation of a trusted friend, we called John Aspinwall, from Aspinwall and Associates. Not only did he personally get under the house in July’s oppressive heat, but he spent a lot of time under there. He took pictures with his camera that he was able to show us immediately and share with us by email. He walked us around the house and carefully explained how each of the pictures we saw matched up with what was happening above-ground.

Turns out one of our floor joists was sagging. Big time. This happened to be in a place right near the trio of disobedient doors. No wonder they kept bending out of their frames. Why was it sagging? Here’s why we needed someone to get in there with a camera: there was old termite damage in the beam and water damage under the floor of our guest bathroom. The joist runs in front of the bathroom.

Now, let me emphasize that we do not have termites. We have a termite bond and have never had termites. But some time in the past, many decades ago, there was a water leak in that bathroom somewhere. And termites love a water source, especially if it’s near some tasty wood. So they got in that bathroom and did some eating. And they got into the joist and did some more eating. Time passed, the termites went away, but their damage remained. Sometime in the modern era our house got some fancy central air conditioning. This involved running big ducts under the house, concealing the damage to the joist and the teeny under-the-house entrance to the guest bathroom plumbing. When we bought the house, those ducts were still there and couldn’t be moved by the inspector or anyone else. Nobody knew there was a problem.

But last year we had all those ducts taken out. They were rusting and on the floor and not up to code, and we found ourselves air-conditioning as much of the crawl space as the indoor space, so our friends at Tillery ripped them all out and replaced them with a fancy new super-efficient system that lives in our attic.

Thus, only now could the old damage be seen by an intrepid explorer like John. The joist was eaten out and sagging, while the bathroom floor itself was basically gone through a combination of old termite and water damage. It was being held up by an improbably large amount of cement and multiple layers of tile, but even in there you couldn’t miss the little cracks, slightly moving bathtub and telltale signs of shifting.

Diagnosis: bathroom and joist repair. Solution? Rip out the bathroom, fix the joist, straighten up the house, rebuild the bathroom floor, and make this part of the house all sturdy and new. Not especially cheap, but not as expensive as you might think, particularly considering that we decided to go for all new fixtures and a period restoration of the room (mostly). Now we are two weeks in and the new bathroom is scheduled to be unveiled later today. Next week we’ll show you what the new one looks like and explain why we made the choices we made and how we found the fixtures we put in.

For now, here’s what we learned: termites are really bad. We knew this already, but seriously, you do not want to risk having these things in your house. It is shocking how they eat between the fibers of wood, turning a sturdy old beam into dust that crumbles in your hand. Second, it’s worth it to shop around for contractors. Find the person whose diagnosis makes sense, whose rates are reasonable, and who comes with the right recommendations. Finally, some repair is just part of what it means to live in and love an old house. We think of it like seeing the dentist – nobody likes to do it, but regular maintenance keeps the whole thing looking nice and functioning well. Way better than getting major surgery later.

Now our doors close, there’s a bathtub in our yard, a sink in our hallway and a toilet in our living room. By the end of the day, we’re hoping these all come together in our beautiful and sturdy new bathroom.

Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with a cat, a dog, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.

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There Are 2 Brilliant Comments

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  1. Sara says:

    Yep been there and done that but love it and so glad we are done, just need to rent it now, and bath is really nice
    You will make it, watching DIY helps, love that show

  2. Penny Weaver says:

    John Aspinwall is the best!

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