The Day I Set the Porch on Fire (and Other Disasters)

TOH reader Mary Kayaselcuk commiserates with our editor on the heartache
of fixing up an old house

The Day I Set the Porch on Fire (and Other Disasters)
Illustration by Serge Bloch
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Last December, in his letter to readers announcing this special issue, This Old House editor Scott Omelianuk recounted the string of misfortunes that had befallen him since he'd bought his 120-year-old fixer-upper, including basement floods, roof leaks, ­electrical fires, termite damage, and invasion by flying ants. Then there was the bodily injury: a cracked rib, a shattered wrist, a ­concussion, and—his worst nightmare—weight gain from one too many Little ­Debbie chocolate marshmallow pies. The inescapable conclusion? The place was cursed, ­possibly haunted. But before he could make good on his threat to end his misery by ­hurling himself into the fireplace (and because he was afraid he'd just roll back out and light up the rug), he received the following words of ­encouragement from reader Mary Kayaselcuk of Newport News, Virginia. We liked what she had to say so much that we decided to share her letter with you.

Dear Scott,

In late 2004, I acquired a humble, 6,100-square-foot ­fixer-upper in Virginia that dates to 1900. The former owner had torn off the two-story front porch and demolished the two-story carriage house. In the previous 10 years, boarders had wrecked what was once a showplace. But my boyfriend, Bernie Bishop, and I thought we could rehabilitate it ­in a year or so and make it livable. Since then, we've spent all our spare moments—and cash—on its restoration.

Yet we still don't live there.
Last December, in his letter to readers announcing this special issue, This Old House editor Scott Omelianuk recounted the string of misfortunes that had befallen him since he'd bought his 120-year-old fixer-upper, including basement floods, roof leaks, ­electrical fires, termite damage, and invasion by flying ants. Then there was the bodily injury: a cracked rib, a shattered wrist, a ­concussion, and—his worst nightmare—weight gain from one too many Little ­Debbie chocolate marshmallow pies. The inescapable conclusion? The place was cursed, ­possibly haunted. But before he could make good on his threat to end his misery by ­hurling himself into the fireplace (and because he was afraid he'd just roll back out and light up the rug), he received the following words of ­encouragement from reader Mary Kayaselcuk of Newport News, Virginia. We liked what she had to say so much that we decided to share her letter with you.

Dear Scott,

In late 2004, I acquired a humble, 6,100-square-foot ­fixer-upper in Virginia that dates to 1900. The former owner had torn off the two-story front porch and demolished the two-story carriage house. In the previous 10 years, boarders had wrecked what was once a showplace. But my boyfriend, Bernie Bishop, and I thought we could rehabilitate it ­in a year or so and make it livable. Since then, we've spent all our spare moments—and cash—on its restoration.

Yet we still don't live there.
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On the day I took possession, the regulator valve on the furnace failed, causing a buildup of steam. The radiators went berserk, raining water from the third floor to the ­basement. Next, my ankle snapped when an overloaded trash bin filled with old plaster tipped over and trapped me underneath it. For months I limped around on a foot the size of a ­watermelon. In the winter a freak windstorm ­shattered the original old wavy glass in a dozen large windows. In the ­summer, I set the back porch on fire while ­stripping paint with a heat gun; an errant spark ignited some dry leaves ­under one of the cypress shingles. ­Fortunately, we were able to extinguish the fire with only the loss of a piece of trim.

Things went along fine until Labor Day 2006, when we came back from vacation to find a gigantic tree laid out across the restored porch, courtesy of Tropical Storm Ernesto. It took months of wrangling with the insurance company to obtain a settlement (the payout was $10,000 less than it should have been because of the tropical cyclone deductible.)

And in the "Oops! I Did It Again!" department, last spring I was stripping paint and set the side porch ablaze when I torched an abandoned squirrel's nest in the soffit. I didn't know there was a problem until amoke started curling out from both ends of the gutter. This time around the ­situation was far more serious, requiring the services of three fire trucks, a herd of firemen, and several chain saws. The firemen hacked and sawed with abandon through the porch's tongue-and-groove ceiling and ­interior soffit wall. They climbed out of the second-floor windows and onto the roof, punching big holes in it in several places. They also wrecked three interior plaster walls that were in sound ­condition ­beforehand. And, after they had accomplished their ­demolition mission, they toured the house, telling me what a neat old place it was. A year later, we are still ­rebuilding both porches.
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The break-in we had on the Fourth of July while we were away watching fireworks might have been the ­final indignity, except that the thieves took a look around and ­apparently felt so bad for us that they stole nothing except a pizza with freezer burn and our stash of ­strawberry ­MoonPies. In fact, they left some tools stolen from our neighbors—a box of rusty wrenches and loose bolts—so we could ­continue our work.

And like you, Scott, we have put on weight. Once a svelte 115, I'm now 130 and growing (I prefer Little Debbie ­honey buns to your chocolate marshmallow pies). I agree that our places may be cursed, but at least mine is not ­haunted...I don't think. Besides, if a ghost does decide to make its presence known, I won't have time for such foolishness and will order it to move on to another house down the block. Nor shall I throw myself into the fireplace, because that is such a painful way to die (and none of our fireplaces ­presently work). I'd ­prefer to hurl myself off the roof, ­because death would be ­instantaneous when I impale my body on the rusty spikes of the cast-iron fence. And don't even try to talk me off the ledge, unless the TOH crew members come with you and they're wearing their tool belts.

Sincerely, Mary Kayaselcuk

P.S. Have you ever tried heating your MoonPie in the ­microwave for 10 seconds? It ennobles this most ordinary marshmallow dessert to a culinary masterpiece.

 
 

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