Our Philly Money Pit – Surprise!

Surprise! Our 165 year old brick rowhouse has structural problems (and our worst fears about it are coming true). But let me start with noting that this post will serve to launch a new category: “Our Philly Money Pit”. Remember the Tom Hanks movie; The Money Pit? Read on….

Oy, where to begin!?
When we had our inspection in January, the inspector missed a few things which were obvious issues. But he also passed a few things off as being not that out of the ordinary. This included some cracks in the plaster walls on the rear of the house he said looked like settlement cracks. When pressed about the cracks, he did say, “You could bring in a structural engineer” and left it at that. His response didn’t seem alarming or of real concern, so we didn’t do that.

This was one of the cracks which was cause for concern when our inspector basically said it was likely a settlement crack.

Instead, we allowed our hearts to make our decision and moved forward with the purchase hoping that the cracks were not a big deal. The day we took title of the house and I had the opportunity to really examine the cracks much closer, my concerns about the cracks began to grow more serious. During the initial tour of the home in January, and even during the almost two hour inspection, I was not able to see what was before my very eyes. Cracks, cracks, cracks, everywhere on the rear wall of the main house. Mostly hairline which are generally of no real concern, but a few looked like they had been patched and painted.

A few days after settlement, I contacted a couple of structural engineers for feedback, both of them very highly credentialed and respected in the Philadelphia area. One of them wanted $750 just to look at it, and the other would look at it and put together a proposal for $400. I set up an appointment with the lower priced one.

Another crack which gave me a reason for concern.

It was a bit of work to get the appointment set up, but I was able to meet with her about a week later. She came to the house and immediately noticed that our front wall was also bulging horizontally along the second floor. She looked at the cracks in the rear of the house and said it didn’t look too bad and the wall could be stabilized with star anchors, and we needed about five of them at a cost of about $900 each to install. She raised some other issues as well (which our inspector had also noted), and told me that we needed to address them, but not immediately. She then said she would put together a proposal and send it to me with a bill.

Fast forward a few weeks. No word…. Because our house had knob and tube (k&t) wiring (shocker!) we discovered that getting home owners insurance was nearly impossible unless we had the k&t removed and the wiring brought up to code. After getting a few estimates which went as high as $27k (we didn’t pay anywhere near that), we got started on the electrical about a month after we took possession. (Read my full post on it.) On the Sunday evening before the electrical work was scheduled to begin, I was on the phone with my bestie on the West Coast and after a couple of glasses of wine, I decided I wanted to investigate one small area on the second floor rear wall which I suspected would be trouble. I knew this because this particular area is the only area in the main house that has drywall (other than the wall that partitions our half bath from the hallway on the ground floor). Anyone familiar with old houses can very quickly detect drywall vs plaster. This area was obvious because the window in this area was missing the original millwork found on nearly every other window in the house.

With glass of wine in one hand and a hammer in the other, I discovered this. A coverup from more than 20 years ago.

With my glass of wine in one hand and my hammer in the other, I tore into the wall (we were planning on renovating this area, so I wasn’t concerned about doing a bit of demo). As I broke through the wall, I began to see scary things. First, I could see that someone in the past had haphazardly covered the area with 1×4 firing strips to build out the wall enough to add the drywall. Then I saw the cracks and crevasses! Big cracks and big crevasses! The crevasses were mostly stuffed with insulation. Houston, we have a problem.

That is fiberglass insulation stuffed into a large crevice where the brick is disintegrating.

It was at that moment that I knew that star anchors were not going to resolve this problem. My heart began to sink, dollar signs began to flash in front of my eyes, and the terror that we had purchased a money pit started to sink in…. The wine did it’s best to comfort me in my sudden terror, but nothing prepared me for the sense of “Oh Shit, Oh Shit, Oh Shit” that took over my thoughts. What do we do now? It was time to bite the bullet and call in the other engineer for $750. Within a few days, I set up an appointment for him to come and inspect.

Unfortunately, because of a last minute work commitment, I was not able to go to Philly that day, so my amazing husband Yoav went for me. He met with the engineer, and a contractor whom he brought along with him to put together an estimate. Fortunately, because I was not able to be there, Yoav was able to video record the hour long inspection. The engineer started at the top and worked his way down. He was very thorough and looked at all aspects of the house. He raised issues with the basement walls which we already knew about from the inspection, as well as other issues we weren’t aware of. As suspected, the problems with the rear wall are indeed big, but they would need to open up the walls all around the problem areas to allow the engineer to come back and assess next actions.

The next week, we got the estimate for repairs from the contractor. Included in the estimate were several areas we needed to have done, and some of which were part of the original inspectors report. The repairs include the following:

  • Open the rear walls of the main house to expose the cracks and repair as determined by the engineer (This is the biggest item and the reason I called him in the first place).
  • Repair of a sagging second and third floors where a perpendicular wall on both floors crosses above the living room. (which I didn’t even know was sagging.)
  • Remove the bricks on leaning chimney in the attic (missed by the inspector) below the roof and patch the roof where the chimney was. Also do repairs as needed on both roofs and cover with silver paint to reflect light.
  • Repair and parge the basement walls, which includes removing the existing loose parging, cleaning out the joints, patching with mortar, repairing a few areas which need to be addressed, and add new parging where needed throughout the basement. (I had planned to do this later, but it just makes sense to get it done now.)
  • Repair an area where the heating system exhausts outside with a better barrier than the poorly executed aluminum sheeting previously done.
  • Sealing the front wall and caulking around the windows and door with a siloxane water repellent.

The basement as it was on the first day.

Well, as you can imagine, this does not come cheap  (but aren’t all old houses money pits?). After asking several questions and evaluating if all of this was necessary right now, Y and I decided that we just needed to get it done. Several of these items we had planned to do over the next few years after we have settled in (parging the basement walls was one), but it makes sense to just get it done now as it is easier to do when we aren’t living there and our house is not full of furniture and possessions.

Next post…. The work begins… And the surprises keep coming.

Till next time. . .

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