Bringing an old home back to life

#93 in a series of true experiences in real estate
January 2007, Hills Newspapers

We’re working on a big old house that we’ll be putting on the market soon and my mind is just full of all sorts of delightful details.

Like yesterday, I decided to wash the window sills and surrounds on the long front porch. They were painted long ago and mostly the paint is in good shape but years of dirt and dust and fly specks make the light yellow paint black and dingy. To get to the front door you have to walk close to these windows and I decided they’d benefit from a bath.

Well, wow, what a difference, at least to my eye. I stood up on a ladder and washed with hot water dosed with a little dish soap and a little ammonia, going over with a sponge, then wiping dry with a cloth. This last – wiping dry with a clean dry cloth – seems to make all the difference. It buffs the painted surface and makes it glisten.

I am an inveterate cleaner, just can’t help it. I also am aware that people coming to an unoccupied house see the details as they never would otherwise, and so I go around the houses we list before they are on the market and I clean tiny little details. My own house is not this clean.

For example, after the cleaning people were at the house, I noticed that there were spots on the stoves (there are two nice old gas stoves in this house) – sprinkles from paint from long ago, a ring of an unknown something, also small hardened grease globs.

Using a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser, a favorite of mine, and a single-edge razor blade, a sponge and a clean towel, I went over the stove surfaces and found that removing all of the spots was easy. I was gentle and slow and enjoyed myself. I held the razor blade at a low slope making sure that I did not scratch the stove paint.

On the chrome trim I polished with 0000 steel wool, then wiped all those funny little speckles on chrome that come from exposure to moisture. They look like they are permanent but they almost always come off with fine steel wool. It worked so well on the stoves that I carried my steel wool to the bathrooms and used it on the chromed toilet paper holder and the faucets.

There is nothing, by the way, to equal Magic Erasers for cleaning appliances – white exteriors of a refrigerator, dishwasher, stove, etc. and for getting black marks left by pans in white enamel sinks. They’re also excellent at wiping spots off cabinets painted with enamel, but not so great on flat wall paint which they scuff slightly.

The house we are working on was built over a hundred years ago and probably originally had gas lights. These were replaced with some electrically powered ceiling lights with push-button wall switches and brass light sconces that switch at the lights. Most of the switch face plates we found in the house were plated metal that looked bad.

Also some of the wall-mounted lights had been replaced with shiny-metal fixtures from Home Depot, the kind that have scalloped-edged glass fitted in them around a light bulb. Ugly and not right for the house. So Anet and I brought home all the face plates and the shiny-metal fixtures and cleaned them. Still bad, we thought, so we “bronzed them” – that is, we spray painted them with a metallic bronze-colored paint. On a few we used dull metallic-gold paint. Can’t tell you how good they look.

We found new glass for the light fixtures, glass minus the wavy edge, and like it much better. In this same make-the-visuals-better category, wire mold was used to extend electrical plugs around the original dark paneling in the living room. Wire mold is that square metal or plastic covering for electrical wires. For some reason the electrician chose white wire mold rather than brown. The white stuck out like a sore thumb against the beautiful wood walls so we bought some brown Rub n’ Buff at the hardware store, a fabulous product we have found useful on many occasions, and rubbed on a brown finish.

And we had our contractor change out the plugs themselves with brown ones, added brown face plates, and viola, the entire thing just fades into the woodwork.

We brought home quite a few pieces of brass curtain hardware and old-fashioned coat hooks that had paint on them. I can’t get paint off of all the hardware in the house but I though I’d do what I could. I found that soaking a few pieces at a time in water and dish soap overnight loosened the oil-based paint that was on them, and I could fairly easily nudge the softened paint off before polishing with fine steel wool. Some of the pieces were solid brass and that was gratifying. It would be difficult and expensive to find others like them.

Part of what is so exciting and fun about doing this kind of work is figuring out how to solve the problems. Almost everyday for weeks now we have spent hours shopping for parts, researching fixes or instituting them. It’s not the best way to get rich but it is otherwise extremely rewarding.

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