Monthly Archives: April 2012

IRC codes

IRC, International Residential Codes, are as interesting as they are long. Here is a sampling related to the house I was going to purchase. I’ll be using them in discussions with the realtor tomorrow… as well as with the city inspector if the owner or realtor argues that I can’t back out of the offer based on the enormous number of concerns: Sec. 15.01.340. – Section 903. amended—Opening dimensions and access.permanent link to this piece of content

Chapter 9, Section 903. of the International Fire Code, 2006 Edition, is amended to read as follows:

[B] Section 903. Opening dimensions and access. Openings shall have a minimum dimension of not less than 30 inches (762 mm) in width and 48 inches (1219 mm) in height. Such openings shall be accessible to the fire department from the exterior and shall not be obstructed in a manner that fire fighting or rescue cannot be accomplished from the exterior.

Sec. 20.04.040. – Minimum standards for light, ventilation, electricity and heating.permanent link to this piece of content

4B Where the determination is made by the electrical inspector, upon examination of the existing electrical service supply, that the electrical service supply is being used in such manner as would constitute a hazard to the occupants or would otherwise constitute a hazard to life and property, such as but not limited to, overloading of circuits, unsafe wiring or inadequate wiring, then such conditions shall be corrected by a licensed electrical contractor of the city in conformance to the city electrical code.

Exception: If the owner-occupant of a detached single-family dwelling desires to install any electrical installations on the load side of the service panelboard in the main structure or in the usual accessory buildings thereto, the owner occupant shall obtain an electrical permit as required by the city electrical code upon fulfillment of exam and plan review requirements as administered by the electrical section of the office of central inspection. The owner obtaining said permit shall personally purchase all materials and shall personally perform all labor in connection with the permitted project. The owner shall call for all inspections and otherwise be responsible to comply with all the applicable provisions of the city electrical code.

5 Every dwelling or dwelling unit shall have heating facilities which are properly installed, are maintained in safe and good working condition, and are capable of safely and adequately heating all habitable rooms, bathrooms and water closet rooms located therein to a temperature of at least seventy degrees Fahrenheit. Such heating equipment shall be operated as reasonably necessary to allow maintenance of a temperature in all habitable rooms of seventy degrees Fahrenheit at a point three feet above the floor;

10Every residential structure shall contain ceiling insulation material that meets the requirements of Federal Specification HH-I-515C including a flame spread factor of fifty or less and that achieves a minimum rating factor of R-19 as approved by the superintendent of central inspection. Any ceiling insulation material that is installed hereafter in an existing residential structure shall meet the requirements of Federal Specification HH-I-515C including a flame spread factor of fifty or less as approved by the superintendent of central inspection, and shall, in addition, contain an R rating factor label. The ceiling insulation material shall be installed in accordance with the manufacturers specifications and in a manner that achieves a minimum rating factor of R-19. R shall be defined for purposes of this section as that term is defined by the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning;


Sec. 20.04.060. – Minimum space, use, etc., requirements.permanent link to this piece of content

(2)Every room occupied for sleeping purposes shall contain at least seventy square feet of floor space for the first occupant, one hundred square feet for two occupants, and at least fifty square feet of floor space for each additional occupant thereof. Every egress or rescue window from a sleeping room must have a minimum net clear opening of 3.3 square feet with minimum net clear opening dimensions of seventeen inches by twenty-four inches, and a minimum overall breakout area (including frame) of five square feet.

Sec. 20.04.180. – Designation of unfit dwellings and procedure for correction.permanent link to this piece of content

The designation of dwellings as unfit for human habitation and the procedure for correction of such unfit dwellings shall be carried out in compliance with the following requirements:


The superintendent of central inspection may determine that a dwelling is unfit for human habitation, if he finds that conditions exist in such dwelling which are dangerous or injurious to the health, welfare, safety, or morals of the occupants of such dwelling; the occupants of neighboring dwellings or other residents of the city; or which have a blighting influence on properties in the area. Such conditions may include the following without limitation: Defects therein increasing the hazard of fire, accidents or other calamities; lack of adequate ventilation; air pollution; light or sanitary facilities; dilapidation; disrepair; structural defects; uncleanliness; overcrowding; inadequate ingress and egress; dead and dying trees, limbs or other unsightly natural growth; unsightly appearances that constitute a blight to adjoining properties, the neighborhood, or the city; walls, siding or exteriors of a quality and appearance not commensurate with the character of the properties in the neighborhood; unsightly stored or parked material, equipment, supplies, machinery, trucks, or automobiles or parts thereof; vermin infestation; inadequate drainage; or any violation of health, fire, building or zoning regulations; or any other laws or regulations relating to the use of land and the use and occupancy of buildings and improvements. The determination that a building is unfit for human habitation shall be predicated on the fact that such effects as aforesaid are a serious hazard to the health, welfare, safety of the occupants or of the public, or that such defects constitute violations of four or more of the standards in the other sections of this chapter; or are continued violations of such standards. The health officer and fire chief shall cooperate with the superintendent of central inspection in determining that a dwelling is unfit for human habitation where health or fire regulations are applicable.


Small House Workshop

I just returned tonight from a small house workshop. It was interesting, and I learned some things, though not what I had thought I would.

The first thing I learned is how very grateful I am that I didn’t get the job I’d hoped for in downtown Kansas City. I do NOT like city.

Sadly but gladly I also learned that the house I’d hoped to buy and renovate into a smaller house isn’t a good idea. Not because renovating a house isn’t a good idea, but because the particular house I’d hoped for is a fire trap… and if there were ever a fire in it (which is likely unless wiring is brought up to code) probably one or more people would die before the smoke detectors ever went off.

That house is a 1900, story and a half house. It has very old wiring, but rather than properly rewiring, someone installed a breaker box to replace the fuse box, and left the old wiring in place. The old wiring is the type that has no ground and has bare wires wrapped around porcelain knobs. The wood is old and well seasoned due to the climate here (dry), perfect tinder. There is no insulation, which would help with fire retardancy, but above that, it has “balloon framing”.

With a balloon framed house, studs are run from footing to rafter, and there are no cross bars to help stop a flame that might start in a wall. So if a spark ignites, rather than a fire being contained to one part of one wall, the fire goes straight up the entire wall and catches in the rafters. Which in this particular house hold up another tinderbox in the form of a shake shingle roof covered by asphalt shingles. So the fire would ignite, run between the studs straight into the roof, and burn to the ground before the volunteer fire department could ever arrive… and worse, could take the roof down before a smoke detector ever went off because the smoke would be contained within the studs of a plaster and lathe wall.

There is one other problem with that house though, and  this is the one I learned at the small house workshop. The stairs to the second floor bedroom are too narrow for an equipped fireman to ascend. Anyone (most likely a child) on the second floor would be trapped between a burning shake shingle (wood) roof and a steep, narrow stairwell in the middle of flames and smoke that would be, in itself, disorienting.

I woke up in the night last night with a vivid picture in my mind of someone (not me) dying in a house fire there within the next 5-10 years. That doesn’t mean it will happen, but that my intuition sure got my attention with the image!

So the house is a no-go, and I’m sad and nervous about that, but also relieved. At least I learned it in time that it won’t be my risk. I might loose my earnest money, but even if I do, I won’t lose my life. Or spend the rest of my life bothered because I rented or sold a fire trap to someone with a child who might live upstairs.

The small house workshop was informative. Most of the information in it could be found online, and I would have said it was overpriced-especially considering that it wasn’t geared for regional codes-except for me the information was invaluable and timely. The one comment about the space needed for a firefighter in full gear to walk through probably saved me at least $20,000.

Four things I noticed that I wouldn’t have realized online: most of the people were around my age or older, rather than being 20-something tree huggers or singles like I imagined, a number were from large cities, most were considering a small house as a secondary dwelling for travel or a summer home (which doesn’t reduce footprint, but increases it!), tiny houses are not as economical and off-grid as what I’ve read online if comfort level is maintained, and apparently most people who own one don’t live in it, at least not full time. And a good number left either having decided to delay building or to do something different than they had planned.

I still want a small house, and I still know I wouldn’t want to live tiny. I’d want a house with new (and more expensive) components. Yes, those increase the footprint of the house. But they also decrease the footprint later in terms of heating costs. I would also want something heavier and more wind resistant than a tiny house would be, because my goal isn’t to live with as little as possible, but to live comfortably and efficiently with the least impact possible for the first two.

It’s about goals, and about ideals. I think if all of us learned one thing, it’s how unique those are to each of us, and that we should respect those whether they completely match our own or not.

Regarding the safety issues in the old house I won’t be buying: “most of these roofs also have a lower ignition point than a lit cigarette.” “Many types of roofing, including roll roofing and asphalt shingles, should never be placed over the top of wood shingles, such as cedar shakes. If you must reroof directly over cedar shake shingles, you should do so only with new wood shakes, though reroofing over old shakes still isn’t advisable.” “The one rather large drawback to balloon framed houses is their fire risk. With wall cavities that are typically uninsulated and run the entire height of the building fire is able to spread quickly and often without notice. Balloon frame houses should be be retrofitted with insulation and fire blocking between stories to retard the spread of fires within the home. This risk is not one to be understated.”

A new education in old construction

Buying a 112 year old house has been interesting to say the least. I have learned:

Always check the water in the toilet bowl to see if the floor is tilting. That’s one place you can see a tilt right away.
Shake shingles don’t have plywood under them. Guess I should have known that one, since they were around before plywood.
Balloon framing has studs that run straight from floor to ceiling with hollow walls. Bad for heating purposes… and fires that start in them spread quickly throughout the walls-floor to ceiling. (Answer: insulate.)
Kitchen cabinets at the time were PAINTED! From the start, they were painted white, rather than left with a wood look. Enamel paints were new (lead based) and could be washed more easily than wood.
Radon gas detector is a must.

But also, framing was simpler. Construction design was sturdy, but would be easier for an amateur to duplicate.

I still plan to redo the wiring. And insulate the walls. The back porch (with the bathroom on it) is sagging badly, but “sistering” the joists with new boards, releveling them and jacking the old ones up would help a lot. So would two layers of subfloor…

On to purchasing…

I have the last inspector scheduled to look at the house I’m considering tomorrow. The foundation man came today and said that the foundation of the main home is in excellent shape “for it’s age”. Considering that the house is 112 years old, I’m not sure exactly how to take that, but since he also said there wasn’t really any foundation work needed, I’d say it’s a good sign.

BUT he also said that the addition to the house, an enclosed porch area on the back, has sunken four inches. He recommended removing it. I’d considered that anyway. The problem? The bathroom, heater, water heater, and laundry are all on that porch! Looking at the house today, I’m hesitant. The main floor area is roughly 22×20. Kitchen, dining room, living room, bedroom-with each room approximately the same size, 10×11. There is a built in cabinet in the way in the dining room, the living room is farthest from the pipes, and the bedroom is the one room I’d prefer not to shrink in this house.

I’m considering what he suggested, removing (or very deeply renovating-with new foundation, joists and floor) the bath area, and making a larger floating deck where the old enclosed porch has been. Or simply removing the whole thing and then adding a bathroom/laundry back on. I have a feeling this is going to be a rather long process. I should learn a lot from it if I undertake it though.

I already learned two things: 1) if the floor seems to tilt somewhat, check the toilet bowl water and see how it sits in the bowl, and  2) a 100 year old house is not meant to have insulation in a crawl space, no matter what insulation experts say. The lack of insulation won’t significantly increase my utility bill or comfort, and is probably part of the reason the foundation is in such good shape. (If anyone ever reads this who has a very old house, one thing I did wonder about was installing radiant heating of some sort under the floor instead. I don’t know if it would work, but it might be an option.)

I get a week’s vacation this fall. If I buy this house, I’m going to need it. But I’ll also learn a lot about building, plumbing, old houses, and recycled materials. I want to talk to a couple locals and get some estimates on the work, though; I’d love to try the work on my own, but living without a bathroom in town isn’t an option.

Selling out

The article link above has a compelling interest for me. Isn’t this man doing something similar to what many in the small house movement are? He isn’t doing it in the same way-but I do believe he is viewing things in a similar mindset. And I think that mindset is becoming more popular. Another man gave up all electronic communication for a month. Some live out of back packs. There are some who’ve gained attention in the small house movement for decreasing to 400 items or less. And all are finding contentment in less.

Why would people go back to the basics when they have so much at their fingertips? I’m not sure there’s an easy answer, but I think that for most it has to do with one or two of a few factors:
tiring of over-emphasis on consumerism
a desire for less debt
earth consciousness
desire to prove self-sufficiency
desire to reconnect

That’s a pretty wide variety, but almost everyone I’ve heard from has discovered that they are happier with less. Most who write about their experiences enjoy the feeling of pioneering-no, they aren’t moving to somewhere unexplored, but into a relatively unexplored mindset in today’s society.

For me it’s financially sound, and after years of a highly consumeristic subculture I am thoroughly looking forward to doing things more simply. Curiosity, the challenge of it and knowing that I can do this on my own, is very much a part of it as well. Designing, planning, and pursuing my goals are often more thrilling than accomplishing anything for me. And perhaps, just maybe, it’s a bit of mid life “crisis”. At 40, I’m thinking about what I’ve done and what I’d like to do, and realizing that the path I’ve headed down in the last 7 years will not take me where I hope to go, but that other options may very well be within my grasp. And more, I’m realizing that due to the success of the last few years, I can live on momentum at this point, and do what I truly enjoy. That, above all, is probably the reason for my interest in downsizing and living more simply. And it’s the reason the article got my attention as well. Because it appears this man has evaluated and assessed and done the same thing.

Back to the drawing board

I went to the realtor today and told her I was done with the house for sale by owner. She wants to give it a couple more days. But I think we both know the deal’s off at this point. The area I will be in for the next year or two is a haven for camping spots. A fifth wheel might just work. I’d really like some land, but maybe not this year. I think I can get some pots, fill them with dirt, and make my own “land” without the cost if I do get a fifth wheel. Several people are encouraging me in that direction… they think it would be wiser than buying and more in keeping with what I want. I’m surprised they’re encouraging it. But after talking to my parents last night, I think I could almost convince Dad to go that route. And that seems virtually impossible. So maybe…

The amazing thing about RV’ing in this area is that a lot costs $300+ per month. But it includes utilities worth at least $125, even on a very conservative scale. And that doesn’t include the savings in taxes (around $500-1000 for me) or any insurance differences. $5000 for the first year and $125/month in lot rent isn’t bad, and I think I could find an RV for that. I’m going to think about it pretty seriously this weekend. The hardest part for me would be giving up my books. They wouldn’t all fit in a standard RV. Only in a custom built tiny house. That will come later, maybe.

Quick update

Just a quick update. Apparently I will not be buying the little house I had my heart set on. The sellers won’t sign anything! I’m not sure why. I’m not sure they know. But they are afraid they’ll be held responsible if anything goes wrong, and are reluctant to sign anything. Well, I can’t buy a house on a handshake, so it seems the house is out. I’m looking into a couple other options. There are a couple 500-600 sq ft houses for sale. I’ve also considered an RV.

My car broke down this week-hole in the gas tank, gas landing on the exhaust pipe, potentially explosive situation. So it wasn’t really down, but I didn’t want to drive it for obvious reasons. So I haven’t been able to look for something like I wanted to. The driving back and forth and not knowing how to plan is getting to me. Well, that and the fact that my cats are stuck in my old house while I figure this out.

Cheap, quick deck railing

I’m no carpenter. But I decided several years ago that I could do a deck rail. So I told the carpenter to knock $200 off his fee and I’d figure out a rail myself.

That was several years ago. There’s still no rail. So today I started. It’s raining, so it isn’t complete yet (I want to put the sealant on it before putting it up–quicker that way and no standing on my head to get it done right). But wow, it was fast.

The railing will cost about $100 for a 10×15 deck. Four 2x4s, brackets to hang it in place, and some pvc pipe spray painted to suit. No screws. I simply marked an x every 5″ or so in the center of the board and drilled 1/2″ holes with a 7/8″ boring bit on the x’s. The 3/4″ pipe fits perfectly in the holes. I’ll cut each pipe into 4-5 pieces each and drill a second hole into a second 2×4. As long as the holes on the 2x4s match up, the rail will be done!

Later: It’s taking longer than I thought due to the weather, but I think it’s going to work. I’m sure it’s not the cheapest alternative, but it still seems to be simple enough that it makes up for my lack of carpentry skills. Screwing pieces of rail into place would have been very difficult for me, even if I started by drilling guide holes. I’m the kind of carpenter that can drill guide holes and STILL put a screw in crooked so it splits the wood or pops out the side of the board. So far, my worst accident has been bending one bracket.

My new old big small house…

I put an offer on a house today. If all goes well, I’ll have a “new” house built in 1900 soon. It’s now listed at 734 square feet, but I’ll be measuring and hopefully taking out some of that footage. The downstairs seems huge to me because it’s laid out better than I’m used to. But if I close off the upstairs (at least in the winter-in summer I may run a whole house fan through the window up there and get the heat out without air conditioning) and make the back porch back into a porch, I should have about 500 square feet, I think.

If it needs less work than I think, I’ll be measuring across the back alley… if it’s within 300 feet of the vacant lot that’s for sale not far away, I may be able to build an “auxiliary” building, which will turn into a tiny house in disguise, on that lot. Who knows? I may not live in the area long enough to want to do that. We’ll see!

Dishes… and a consideration of what makes me happy

I’m still living between houses… the realtor apparently could care less about selling what I want to buy (partly commission and status issues, I’m guessing), I don’t really trust the kids that are selling their house by owner, so I want a buyer’s agent or representation of some sort, and I’m living in a borrowed house that is for sale by the lazy agent in the interim. It’s  wearing on me. Especially the house I’m staying in, because it’s 3000+ square feet. I hate it. If I don’t post for awhile, I’ve probably gotten lost in there somewhere. It’s not only huge though, it’s also cheap. Chintzy. Low grade flooring, things that are in poor repair… but not noticeable. It takes awhile to see little problems when they’re spread over 3000+ square feet, after all.

Living between houses has taught me a few things though. In the big house, I live out of a suitcase, a cabinet, and a drawer. I keep my clothes in the suitcase, my bed in a cabinet, and my food and dishes all in one drawer. And the longer I’m there, the more I wonder why I need much more than what I already have there.

Consider pots and pans. I thought I would buy a set of “nesting pans” that campers sometimes buy at fancy outdoor stores. Very nice pans. Light weight, and they all fit together, one inside the other, to save space. Crashing at the big house for two weeks, I finally realized I already have two sets of nesting pans. They aren’t new, but they are very good pans. And better yet, they won’t cost anything.

My wardrobe should be reduced a bit more, but I need to work a few more weeks before I’ll know what exactly I need and don’t need on my new job.

I haven’t missed anything else at the house I’ve been camping in except a space heater and some cleaning supplies. And my cats. Not even the computer.