Monday, August 23, 2010

Ode to an in-law unit: Cowboy poetry

Murphy Ranch hands getting ready for the 1936 Olympics
There's never enough room in a book to include everything you'd like. So when it came time to edit In-laws, Outlaws and Granny Flats, one of the first casualties was an honest-to-God piece of cowboy poetry--and about an in-law unit, no less! Fortunately, the Internet has no such constraints, so here is an excerpt from “A Quiet Day on the Murphy Ranch,” written about 1940 by one of the ranch hands, Olaf P. Olsen. The Murphy Ranch, built in 1857, has the oldest in-law unit in book. Here's Olsen's ode to the bunkhouse:

The ancient bunk house still may know
The many men who come and go.
But it’s no longer weatherproof,
Rain floods in torrents through the roof,
And chilling winds and drenching rains
Blow through the broken window panes.
To keep dry in his room, a “fella”
Would have to park ‘neath an umbrella,
Be careful when he planked his seat,
And wear galoshes on his feet.
Indoors, he’s fully clothed and cloaked,
And lest his bed be water soaked,
A heavy tarp protects his quilts
And all his gear’s stashed high, on stilts.

The bunkhouse, its repairs complete, in 2010
Before we leave Olaf and the leaky in-law, one more aside. Modest though the bunkhouse was, living in it was a job perk conferred on ranch hands who had proven their worth. New arrivals and unproven hands slept in a barn or an outbuilding and a surprising number of them were foreign born: waves of Swiss Italians or Irish farmers fleeing famine or Chinese who’d come to work on the railroad. Anyhow, as farm lodgings went, the bunkhouse was pretty cushy. Partitioned into tiny rooms, it offered each man a modicum of privacy and a bed. And because one doorway opened into the dining annex of the main house, bunkhouse inhabitants generally got to the breakfast table first. It also had its own woodstove that cowboys could sit around and shoot the breeze if they weren’t too exhausted from working dawn to dusk.  

Sunday, August 22, 2010

R3 archives: Undoing the dings of life

So. We're standing around in the master bedroom, beaming at the cherry renovation that is just about complete. My buddy Dean Rutherford, his clients and me. It's late afternoon, the sun is golden, the woodwork glows and love is in the air. Just about then one of Dean's crew, some sweet Hispanic kid, enters carrying something long and metal. He threads his way through the room carefully but pivots a half-second too soon and the trailing end of the metal thing whacks the flawless face of a $300 fir door. The smiles on four faces seize up and, one suspects, four people are about to pinch a deuce. Make that five. The kid looks he's swallowed his paycheck.

But Dean, who once aspired to be a priest and worked in the barrios of Chile, is nothing if not compassionate. And calm. "Oh," he says, regarding the 1/4-in. deep gash in the door. "I can fix that. Got a steam iron?" I am skeptical and the clients are very quiet. But he does it. He holds a slightly damp cloth over the ding, and applies a steam iron to the cloth till the wood swells slightly. He takes his time and checks his progress periodically. It takes maybe five minutes. Once the heated wood has filled in the gouge he allows the wood to cool, then lightly sands the raised area till it's level. The door had been finished, so later on Dean uses a small artist's brush to apply the same finish--thinned slightly--to the damaged area. May all the dings in your life iron out as nicely.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

From the R3 Archives: Tapping your tiles

 When researching Renovation 3rd Edition a few years back, came across this nifty trick for aligning mosaic tiles, courtesy of Wayne Brasher. Mosaic tiles come in sheets, adhered to a paper backing. Once you set tile sheets in adhesive, the paper backing starts softening almost immediately. Using your palms to slide sheets into alignment just doesn't work because tiles come loose and everything's soon out of whack.
Instead, do as Wayne does: place the straight edge of a trowel against each row and tap the trowel lightly with a hammer handle. A rubberized handle delivers a softer tap.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Twelve reasons to create an in-law

After remodeling and selling my sixth house in 1999, it was time to take stock. Was I really up for another rehab? With the kids gone, did I really need all that space? And what was up with housing?

I'd like to say I saw it all coming--the housing bubble and the economic meltdown--but my decision to not buy another house had as much to do with cold feet or, as my financial planner politely puts it, risk aversion. So I parked my money in the bank and moved into an old farm whose outbuildings had been converted to an in-law unit. The site was stunning. It adjoined national parks and thousands of acres of open ranch land. Wild turkeys, bobcats, deer and coyote dropped by from time to time. It was the first time I had rented since 1972 and I had some self-esteem issues around that, but I got over it. The year after I moved into my in-law, the housing bubble popped.

I really got into the in-law life. It offered flexibility and freedom, which I appreciated when the economy got weird. I started reading up on in-law units, learned how widespread they are and in time wrote a book about them, which will be published in Spring, 2011 by Taunton Press: In-laws, Outlaws and Granny Flats. I was blown away by all the reasons why people create in-law apartments and cottages. Here are twelve:

1. Build a nest egg. 2. Provide a place for your old ma, pa--or your old self a couple years hence. 3. Swap rent for services. Get a tenant who will look after your children, help with housework, and so on. 4. Create a private second unit for an adult child who needs to live at home. 5. Shorten your commute: your in-law can double as a home office. 6. Afford a house. Rental income from an in-law can help. 7. See the world. Many homeowners rent the house and travel once the kids leave home. 8. Invite friends and family for an extended stay. 9. Rekindle a romance. Turn the in-law into a master bedroom and stash the kids out of earshot. 10. Express yourself. Because in-laws are modest, they’re often more fun to design. 11. Live in the in-law while renovating the big house. 12. Build and live green. Thanks to their compact size in-laws are among the greenest ways to create a second dwelling

Thursday, August 19, 2010

On the edge of a continent

In the thirty-some years I’ve been renovating houses or writing about them I’ve owned six, fixing each one up and then moving on, in rural Vermont, suburban Connecticut and Northern California. Now I live on a sweet piece of land that was once a small dairy farm above Tomales Bay, which empties into the Pacific. The farmer built his house on this gentle hillside because his cows found it peaceful here. So do I.

It’s a different living arrangement than any I’ve tried before because the property has two homes on it: A main house (the original farmhouse) and an in-law unit created from a pair of outbuildings that once housed tractors and other agricultural paraphernalia. I live in the in-law part, which has 12-ft. ceilings and quarry tile floors throughout, and though it’s a bit smaller than my other homes, it’s comfortable, affordable and commodious.

And it’s nice having a neighbor close by. We don’t see each other all that often—no more often than you’d see a neighbor across a fence—but every now and then we stop and chat or maybe share a chore.

The longer I lived in this set-up the more I wondered why more people don't live this way. Well, as it turns out, they do. And my explorations into shared housing eventually led to my writing a book about it. As you might have guessed by now, it's called In-Laws, Outlaws & Granny Flats, and it will shortly be published by Taunton Press. This blog will tell how the book came to be, the people I met along the way and a lot of great stories that didn't make into the book for one reason or another. So thanks for stopping by and check back often. I'll be posting something new every few days.

Mike Litchfield