Front Yard Painting and Landscaping

My 2016 exterior blitzkrieg concludes here, in our front yard. When we bought the house, it looked dated and lifeless. The awning darkened the front (both inside and outside), the bushes didn’t offer much curb appeal, and the siding and stucco were in bad need of paint. Oh, and a section of our roof was on the walkway.

house-front

Julian Collins has been our go-to guy for several projects since buying the house. He demoed our basement and hauled it away, he painted our exterior, and he helped us remove this hideous awning. I highly recommend him anytime you need extra muscle – he’s fast, affordable, and insanely hardworking.

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Jarrod and Julian conquered this awning – my contribution was suggesting they use a board to hold it up and push it away. What I lack in muscle I make up for in smarts.

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Removing the awning made a huge difference in our living room and sunroom.

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Our landscapers dug out the bushes in early spring, and then it was time for house painting. (The landscapers took out that dead light post as well, after I had an electrician sever the power connection.)

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I came to a decision on the exterior paint color quickly, which isn’t usually like me! I tried three swatches and had a clear winner: Gunsmith Gray from Benjamin Moore (the bottom swatch). It’s a gray-green; Benjamin Moore calls it a “deep, blackened gray.” The color is from their Williamsburg Collection. The historical vibe works well on our 1913 bungalow: it contrasts the red brick really nicely, and I feel like it adds some much-needed life to the front of the house. The white is off-the-shelf Benjamin Moore white. We used MoorGard Low Lustre Finish in white for the trim, and MoorLife Flat Finish on everything else.

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Julian power washed the exterior and then returned the next day to paint. He charged around $800 for everything: the siding, trim, stucco, and back mudroom. He and a helper knocked it out in a single day, working from early morning until after the sun set.

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When Julian found out I had bought Benjamin Moore Regal Select paint, he said “Thank you, thank you.” Apparently the coverage is significantly better than Behr, which makes his job easier. I definitely noticed the difference in quality when we used it on the garage. So, I’d recommend it and will use it again. If you’re on the north side of Chicago, JC Licht on Irving Park is a great paint store.

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After painting came landscaping. Here’s the plan Monica from Red Stem put together:

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We used all native plants and shrubs, as we did in the backyard. We disconnected our northern gutter downspout from the city sewer system, extended it to the garden area, and buried it so provides water to the garden area. (“DS” in the diagram above – we didn’t end up doing the southern one because we didn’t want to dig under the sidewalk.) This guide was helpful for us as first-time homeowners: Understanding Your Sewer: An Introduction to the Chicago Area’s Combined Sewer Systems. Did you know there are no ninja turtles in Chicago’s sewer system? That’s unique to New York.

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Of all the things we planted, I’m most excited about the multi-stemmed serviceberry tree. It flowers in the spring, produces berries in the summer, and turns bright reddish-orange in the fall. It will grow as tall as our front porch roofline. The cranberry viburnum bushes flower and berry as well, and they’ll grow at least 6 feet tall.

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The Red Stem crew was great. Really nice guys, who shared a meal on our new patio and were so considerate of our yard. I love this photo with Doozy overseeing the job from the window.

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Plants and sedges are interspersed between the bushes. Everything will fill in and fill out in the coming years. I will also replace and enlarge the windows someday with something more bungalow-appropriate (similar to this).

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One last before and after:

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And that is where I’ll leave you for now. I’ll return in early January with a list of everything I hope to tackle in 2017. Happy New Year!

Backyard Patio, Painting, and Landscaping

The 2016: Year of the Exterior blogging bonanza continues with painting, patio installation, and landscaping. This is where we started:

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Let’s dive in!

Lipstick on a Pig

Here’s the situation with the tacked-on room at the back of the house: it used to be an exterior porch. At some point, it was enclosed – very, very poorly. So poorly that they didn’t even finish the job, even though they started it years ago. The drywall on the interior was never mudded (you can get a glimpse of it through our kitchen door). The proportions of the windows don’t make any sense. The siding was installed totally incorrectly (visible screws!). It freezes in the winter and bakes in the summer. It’s a cobbled-together garbage mess… but it’s sturdy, and it’s not unsafe. Fixing it will essentially require that we tear it down and rebuild it ($20k-ish?), which isn’t in the budget for the foreseeable future and simply isn’t a priority. It may never be. It functions fine for what it is (a mudroom), and my goal was to make it look as decent as possible for as little money as possible.

Which is a long way of saying: I put some lipstick on that pig.

When I posted about re-routing our dryer vent, I mentioned that it previously vented under the back porch: that’s what led to the mold you see on the siding. I scrubbed it and power washed it.

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I hired a pro to paint the front of our house (more on that in the next post). I planned to paint the mudroom myself, but we were on a tight schedule with only a few days of cooperative weather, so I added $200 to our painting bill. Worth it, especially since there were ladders involved.

Behold the wonders of paint.

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The light is from Amazon (Outdoor Aluminum Barn Light). I installed it myself, and it fits perfectly under the eave.

Jarrod and I did paint the garage on our own:

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Goodbye Deck, Hello Patio

The existing deck had to go. It was rotten and splintering. It also had no stairs, so you couldn’t access it directly from the yard.

I stressed a little about the decision between building a new deck vs. putting in a patio, but it was pretty clear that a patio was the right choice for us. A patio makes maximum use of our available yard space. The deck took up far more room than just its footprint – it loomed over the yard such that no one (people nor plants) would want to hang out around the perimeter. For example, there was a good 3 feet between the fence and the deck that was wasted space.

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I chose Brussels Block paving stones from Unilock. We used the Limestone color, laid in a random-ish pattern. I like the tumbled, worn finish. It’s a nice break from the brick city that is our house.

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I try to be upfront about costs around here: I hope it’s helpful, not obnoxious. Paver patios are incredibly expensive – there’s just no way around it. To be very honest, this luxury wouldn’t have been in our budget had we not made some bonus money by renting our house out for filming (see Let’s All Watch Easy on Netflix). Since that money was unexpected, it felt like ~fun~ money, and it seemed fitting to put it toward something we really wanted.

Which is a long way of saying: we paid $6,800 for the patio plus the corner seat wall. That includes installation and all materials.

This patio could very well outlive us. If we spend decades in this house, it will have been a smart move. If something unexpected happens and we move in 5 years, it will have been a foolish purchase and a cautionary tale. $$ ÂŻ\_(ツ)_/ÂŻ $$

Thanks to our drive-through gate, the crew was able to back up right next to the deck.

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Demo went very quickly. They sprayed the patio outline (that’s a pano photo – it’s not curved) and then dug it out.

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Next came a gravel and sand base, which was compacted.

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I went to work the next day and when I came back we had a patio. Magic! Well, kinda magic. There was still a lot of work to do.

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Another Coat of Lipstick on the Pig

Again, my goal was to make the mudroom as decent as possible for as little money as possible. I’ve done a few things to make it look more intentional, and have a few things left to do.

I started by washing and painting the wallboard below the beam.

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Then I bought two pieces of cheap lattice, which I cut to fit.

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I stained them using Ready Seal and a pump sprayer.

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And then I affixed them to the wall using decking screws.

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Yes, it looks weird to have a sliding door to nowhere. I’m not sweating it. I actually see these a lot around Chicago – people use them as big back windows with Juliet balconies. In 2017, I’m going to put up a railing, plant some tall grass/sedges, and make a better area for our grill.

Plants, Plants, Plants!

As low-grade hippies, Jarrod and I decided to go with native landscaping. That means all of the plant varieties we used grow naturally in midwest prairies and woodlands. They contribute to the ecosystem of birds, bees, and other animals that live in Chicago. (If you’re interested, see the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Landscaping with Native Plants.) We hired Monica of Red Stem Native Landscapes. She was great to work with. In the future, we’ll tackle smaller landscaping projects on our own, but there was so much work to be done that it made sense to get help.

As someone who loves plants, I cannot tell you exciting it was to have a truck full of trees and shrubs arrive. Some of these were for the backyard, some of them were for the front, and some were for other people that I wanted to steal.

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We got an Armstrong Maple for the back corner. These trees grow fast and tall – but not wide – which makes it perfect for a Chicago backyard.

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We put shrubs and plants around the patio. They’ll fill in and envelop the space, softening the hard edges of the patio. The Blackhaw Viburnum shrub in the corner, for example, will grow at least 10 feet tall.

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Here’s a shot after the shrubs went it, but before the plants arrived:

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For fun, let’s compare that to a before:

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Yep, that’s better. Let’s keep moving. When the baby plants arrived, we still hadn’t totally finished painting, because painting is the very worst thing in the entire world.

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The plants weren’t much to look at during the toddler stage. Most of their energy is spent establishing roots. Monica said the rule of thumb with native plant growth is “First year sleep, second year creep, and third year leap.”

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With that in mind, I was pleasantly surprised by the growth and flowering we saw in our first year.

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Ooof, this post was a beast! Thanks for sticking around until the end. See you tomorrow for the final post: the front yard.

Chainlink to Cedar Fence Upgrade

The 2016 change that made the biggest impact was absolutely our new cedar fence. In only two days, it transformed the way our backyard feels: we have more privacy, better security, and a lot less alley trash blowing across our lawn.

Previously, our yard was more-or-less enclosed by a metal chainlink fence. The section you see leaning against the garage was what we removed from the alley (see my garage clean-up post).

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I got bids from two reputable fencing contractors: they were comparable, and I chose to go with Advanced Fence because their quote was very detailed and they were remarkably responsive.

I selected a board-on-batten style (AKA “layered traditional”), where the cedar boards are slightly overlapped. This offers total privacy, even when the cedar contracts with age. The desire for privacy is why I ruled out a horizontal fence, although I prefer that modern look (see, for example, Deuce Cities Henhouse’s lovely fence). All totaled, the fence cost $5,175. That includes removal of the chainlink fence, labor, and materials. It was approximately 137 feet of fence, plus gates. If you’re thinking of doing a similar project, note that the gates do increase the cost more than simple linear fencing. This was a major check to write, and it was worth it.

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In Chicago, as you can tell, houses are close to one another – and we have a lot that is 15′ wider than a standard Chicago lot. When you buy a house, you get a plat of survey that carefully details where your property lines are and what they include. Ours indicated that the chainlink fence on the south was on our property, but the north fence was on our neighbor’s. That meant we could build our fence right up next to the existing fence, but I suspected our neighbors would probably prefer to have it removed and enjoy the cedar fence instead.

I wrote a letter to both neighbors, informing them of our plans and the work dates, and Jarrod dropped them off along with a bottle of wine. The new fence was well-received by both families, and our northern neighbors pitched in $130 to have the chainlink fence removed from their property.

Fence installation day was really fun to watch – it was so nice having professionals handle everything with zero work on my part! They quickly removed the chainlink fence and got to work on setting the posts in concrete. They hauled the dirt to the north side of the house and spread it evenly along our foundation.

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The entire fence was constructed onsite (some fencing companies bring in pre-made sections).

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I chose to install large swinging gates in the back, so that we can open the fence for extra short-term parking and for ease of access when we do major house renovations down the road.

Before (looking south):FenceBefore2.jpg

After:
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There are three other gates as well: one on either side of the house, and one next to the garage, which we use to exit the yard on bike or on foot.

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After:
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Before (looking north):
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After:
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And there you get a sneak peak of the next things we tackled: that deck is no more, and those dying bushes got upgraded.

2016: The Year of the Exterior

This past year, most of our money was poured (and painted and planted) into our home’s yard and exterior. The other projects you’ve seen here (e.g. bathroom, bedroom, and desk) were smaller-scale improvements I tackled myself. Our big ticket projects involved plenty of our own labor, yes, but also a lot of contractors and a lot of dough.

This is where we started:

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Our house’s exterior isn’t necessarily the most pressing issue on our property, but it’s what I chose to prioritize for 2016 for three primary reasons:

#1. It’s an investment in our neighborhood, which I hope will continue to grow and improve. There are several nice properties on our street, but there are also a lot of homes in need of major repair. Should any of those houses go on the market, I want potential buyers to see that there are neighbors putting money and care into their home.

#2. Tackling the landscaping early on in our home ownership will pay off in the years to come as the plants mature. We plan to stay in this house for a long time, so we’re playing the long game.

#3. In the short term, there were major wins that we could benefit from immediately: most notably, a new fence and patio.

I’m going to break up this into several posts, because a lot has changed and I haven’t covered any of it on this blog yet! I’ll start with what we tackled immediately after buying the house: the garage.

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For reasons unknown, the previous owner blocked the garage with:

1) A chainlink fence
2) A wood fence
3) Several solid steel posts planted in the asphalt

Those aren’t multiple choice options: he actually used three types of barricades. We wanted to park our car in the garage – crazy, I know – so all that had to go.

We started by cutting out the overgrown alley jungle.

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Then we took out as much of the fence as we were able.

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That left us with the steel posts. I bought a $30 angle grinder, psyched myself up, and went out to do battle. Coincidentally, there was a contractor 20 feet away, working on a neighboring building’s metal parking fence. He watched me work for a bit (barely making a dent in the post), and then he shouted “I’ve got something that would probably do that job better.” I walked over and he threw open the back of his van, which was FULL of metal-cutting equipment. (Note: If I get abducted, it’ll be because a man led me to his van with the promise of tools.)

We talked about the options for a couple of minutes, and then I had a stroke of brilliance: I asked “Are you free when you’re finished with this job?” He was. I offered $50, which he happily accepted. He thought he’d be able to cut them out pretty quickly.

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He worked on them for over an hour, returning to his van repeatedly to get progressively larger and more terrifying saws. My piddly angle grinder never stood a chance.

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Moving along: the garage was full of crap left behind by the previous owners.

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The only upside was that I inherited a lot of a nice scrap wood, with which and for which I built a corral in the back corner.

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Before:
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After:
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(Our second car is a Wavewalk kayak that my stepfather handed down. Jarrod wheels it from our garage, down the sidewalk, to the nearby river.)

Before:
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After:
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Everything feels more organized when it’s up off the floor, but there’s no need for for fancy garage organizers. I drill holes through the handles of things, run twine through them, and hang them up. Voila!

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Finally, the biggest expense was a new garage door and opener – the previous door was rotted and there was no motorized lift. We paid $1k, including installation, from Roberts Garage Door. Great reviews on Angie’s List, very cost-competitive, and really nice to work with.

Before:
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After:garage-door-after

I mean, it’s a Chicago alley in the dead of winter, so let’s not get too excited, but it’s still a big improvement. And, you see a sneak peak of two upcoming posts: exterior painting and cedar fence installation.

Cheap Bungalow-Friendly Light Fixture

Just a quick post with one more before and after from our bedroom – I wanted to spread the good word about this inexpensive semi-flush ceiling light I found on Amazon.

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What a world of difference paint and caulk makes!

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The light fixture is only 36 bucks with free shipping: World Imports Lighting 9007-88 Luray 1-Light Semi-Flush Light Fixture. I like that it feels period-appropriate for our 1913 bungalow, while still looking clean-lined. It’s a steal for such a nice fixture and, if you’re on a budget, it’s a great alternative to Rejuvenation/School House Electric.

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I bought two but have only installed one so far: the other stairway light fixture is 12+ feet above the landing. The fixture there currently does not have a globe or working light bulbs. Eventually, I may want to have a big chandelier of some sort here, but I want to pick out all of the first floor light fixtures first. In the interim, the Amazon light will work great, if I can get it up there!

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I need to buy a taller ladder or teach Jarrod how to install a light fixture: I’m not sure which is more dangerous.