More is Being Revealed, Money Pit gets Deeper

In my last post I got started on our structural woes and launched the first post in the category of “Our Philly Money Pit”. You can file this post under that category as well. As bad as things seemed in my last post, the insanity of it all only gets better (or is that worse?), and the money pit has gotten deeper.

After agreeing to go ahead with the work proposed by our contractor (whom, by the way is very good, and I am grateful he is on this job), we got started on a Tuesday near the end of May. On the first day, the crew of six guys went to town on various items on the list, but first and foremost, they got a start on uncovering the plaster on the walls to see to what degree the structural damage is. I will post separately about some of the other items, but this post will be all about all that is hidden.

By this point, my curiosity and determination to get to the bottom of all this unveiled several clues that this issue has been going on for many years, even decades, and some people in the past knew about it, but others were blindly oblivious to it and really had no idea what was lurking behind the walls. How did I get to this point?

This is the result of a few glasses of wine, a hammer, and my unending curiosity to find out what was going on behind the drywall.

First, when I broke through the drywall on that fateful night with my glass of wine in hand, I could see that the wood used for firing out the wall was definitely not new, but yellowed with time. I’ve had enough building experience to know that wood ages, even behind drywall and it was clear that this had been there for probably 20 plus years. That coincides with the fact that before the woman we purchased the house from bought it in the late 1990s, it was owned by an investor and maintained as a rental unit for some time before that. According to our neighbors, this investor owned several homes on our block at one time, and sold them all off in a few short years. Our next door neighbor bought his home from her, and he could attest that she was not very good at the maintenance of the homes. He inherited a lot of problems in his house that weren’t visible at first.

Knowing this explains several design choices in our home (or lack thereof). Our kitchen and bathrooms were remodeled in the 80s and 90s with cheap big box cabinets and fixtures, and the kitchen design was clearly an afterthought. All of this is indicative of a landlord looking at the bottom line before aesthetics. From what I can assess, our house was gussied up like lipstick on a pig and sold to the woman we bought it from and she had no idea of the problems. To add to this, we met the woman we bought from at the settlement, and while I believe she was not completely ignorant of some of the problems, I genuinely believe that she did not know the extent of any of the problems. In a nutshell, she had to be aware of the cracks in the walls, but I am pretty sure she really didn’t know what was going on.

She also didn’t fully understand the types of maintenance required of a house, especially an old one, and I have since come across many maintenance issues which have been differed for many years out of pure ignorance. When she did have work done, it looks like she hired unqualified handymen to do the work not knowing they were doing substandard work, and not understanding that cheap labor generally is not very cheap at all in the end. Only now we are stuck with it. I know this because we discovered such odd things as paint stirrer sticks from a big box store used to level out some flooring (visible from the basement), and shoe polish used to stain part of the floor where they haphazardly patched in some new pine.

OK, back to the crew and the first day of work. Most of the crew got to work in the basement and attic, but two of them began the task of removing the plaster in specific areas noted by the engineer. As they removed the plaster a clearer picture of the problems began to emerge. The issues with the back wall of the main house are really not that complicated, but to understand it will take a lot of explaining. So I decided to make a couple of nifty diagrams to help it make sense. The first one shows the floor plans with the highlighted yellow area being the wall which is the problem. This wall is the rear wall of the three story main house where it connects to the two story rear wing (highlighted in purple). The rear wing has low 7′ 9″ ceilings on both floors and was used as the kitchen on the first floor and living quarters for the servants on the second.

The nature of the structural issues are complicated so I created this diagram of the entire house (less basement) to show where the problem was.

The red numbers on the diagram correspond to the images which follow to indicate what area the image is showing. Some areas have several images with the same number because they are either different angles or were taken at different stages in the process. The second diagram is of the rear wall itself. This is to clarify where the wood beam is located and to show how the interior stud wall connects the front main house to the rear wing. The 12′ long beam connects the party wall to the intersecting brick side wall of the rear wing where it literally rests at the top of the end of that wall, carrying the weight of the entire third floor brick wall in this one small area.

This is a diagram of the rear wall of the main house. You can see that a good part of it is a basic stud wall with lathe and plaster above which is a beam which carries about 8,000 pounds of brick for the third floor.

The images that follow are in order of when they were taken and grouped by the number corresponding to the area they are showing. (Gosh I hope this all makes sense).

Area 1 is the ground zero area of the damage.



Area 2 is the corner of the 2nd floor rear bedroom in the main house and is about four feet away from area 1.


Area 3 is the same corner as area 2 but on the third floor. This area shows the crack to be quite large and much scarier!



Area 4 is where the rear wall of the main house meets the ceiling of the 2nd floor. The stairs are right there. Initially the crack did’t seem too bad, but when the plaster we removed, you could see how bad it is.



Area 5 is the view from the other side of area 1 as seen in the guest room on the 2nd floor of the rear wing (the original servants quarters). From this side, you can see the beams are rotten on the underside where they connect to the intersecting wall. This was a total surprise and unexpected. It wasn’t discovered until more than a week into the work when they finally got to this area to work on. The solution ended up driving up our costs on the project by a few thousand dollars.


Area 6 is on the stair landing between the 2nd and 3rd floor. It is very close to area 1 which is on the other side of the wall to the right.




Area 7 is in the first floor dining room in the rear wing. I will show that image in the next post. So, now you have seen what we uncovered. For the next post, we will be On the Mends. Stay tuned!





Till next time. . .

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  • Alice says:

    Just reading these posts made me feel sick–I can’t imagine what it was like to be there uncovering all this stuff. That inspector has a lot to answer for (I understand some of it wasn’t immediately visible, but still!). Glad you got it fixed!

  • […] month of work crews fixing problems beyond the seriously scary structural, which we discovered was actually worse then we first thought. In addition to the crumbling rear wall, they also worked on shoring up the sagging second floor, […]

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