Saving Etta - One Woman's Journey to Save a House Built in 1900 | Pretty Handy Girl

Saving Etta: Chapter 9: Life Changing Moments

Saving Etta - One Woman's Journey to Save a House Built in 1900 | Pretty Handy GirlSaving Etta: Chapter 9: Life Changing Moments

This is the true story about a house built in 1900 that is in serious disrepair. It’s also the story about my journey toward becoming a general contractor and my attempt to save a home from being bulldozed. I hope you’ll follow along as I embark on a journey into the unknown perils and rewards of flipping a home in downtown Raleigh, NC.

If you are just joining the story, you may want to read all the Saving Etta chapters.

Be sure to follow me on Facebook and Instagram as I share live updates about this project I’m calling Saving Etta.

While I waited in line at the DMV to pick up new tags for the truck, I scrolled through my email. The EMSL Laboratory email stood out from the rest. I clicked on the email and downloaded the attached lab results as I thought to myself, “Please be negative, please be negative.”

I quickly opened the attachment and let out a huge sigh of relief. All the samples I sent came back negative for asbestos.  This was a huge relief because tomorrow was closing day.

Monday morning arrived too soon. I didn’t sleep well because I had a hard time settling my mind. When sleep finally came to me, Mike’s alarm roused me from a light sleep. I laid in bed as long as possible just to give my body more rest. But, ultimately I knew I was going to have to power through the day.

The morning was the usual bustle of getting the dog and kids fed, then shoved out the door to school. The humidity in the air felt like a heavy wet blanket and soon the sky started to drizzle. I thought to myself, might as well enjoy the humidity and rain before the cold dry winter weather sets in.

I grabbed Bandit and headed to the bank in my truck. I figured it was a good opportunity to get him used to the new ride. Bandit, seemed excited to have free rein in the back seat of the truck, obviously an improvement from the confines of his crate in my minivan.

Walking into the bank, I found myself behind another customer. Anxiously, I waited and checked the parking lot to make sure that Bandit was behaving himself. The bank attendant called me into her office and I carefully slid the paper with the routing information and bank account number for the wire transfer. I briefly wondered what she was thinking. Perhaps she thought I was sheltering my money in a Swiss bank account. I snapped out of my imagination as she asked, “Foreign or Domestic.”

I quickly answered “domestic”, concerned she might think I was involved in some illegitimate money laundering. Then I checked my thoughts, remembering that Lori had told me all large home purchases are now handled via wire.

After the banker assured me that the transfer had been made, I headed out to the truck. Bandit sat patiently in the back seat. “Good boy, Bandit!” I praised him.

After droppinog Bandit off at home, I headed downtown to the attorney’s office for the closing. The weight of what I was about to do suddenly hit me hard. I had a rock in my stomach and a panicky feeling. What if I was throwing away all this money on a silly dream?

Before I had time to ruminate anymore, Lori stepped into the waiting area and asked if I was ready.

“As ready as I can be, I guess.” I replied to her.

We stepped into the small room filled with a big conference table. A gentleman about my age and a woman about 20 years his senior sat on one side of the table. Soon I learned that the woman was the daughter of the last owner of the house. Her father had lived in the house well into his 90’s. She told me that the house had been in her family since 1909. I was suddenly hit with the realization that this was a very bittersweet moment for her. The man at her side introduced himself as Anthony, the woman’s son. After all the paperwork was signed, Anthony graciously gave me his cell phone number in case I had any questions. I agreed to call him if needed, not realizing how soon we could be corresponding .

As I walked out of the law office, house key in hand, my legs nearly gave out beneath me. I was suddenly $180K poorer and had a humungous responsibility on my hands. I was one woman tasked with saving a house that has stood in the same location for over a century. I felt weak with the realization and overwhelmed by the work ahead of me.

I drove down to the house and turned the key in the front door, unsure what I would find when I opened it. Would there be lots of furniture? Would the refrigerator and freezer need to be cleaned out? I opened the door slowly and stepped into the front hallway.

The majority of the furniture had been moved out and there were outlined prints on the carpet where the furniture had been. I went through each room taking inventory of what needed to be cleaned out. Then I booked a junk hauler to help clean out the rest of the items in the house.

As I walked toward the back of the house the smell hit me again. It was a smell that will always take me back to that morning when my life was turned upside down. Little did I know it, but that smell would catapult me into an entirely different career.

It started that morning in October, 2012 as I was confronted with a foul odor. It’s only describable as that odor that usually lives in the high school gym locker room. I thought my 9 year old son’s feet were starting to stink. Unfortunately a stinky pair of shoes wasn’t the culprit, it turned out to be a very minor leak in the wall between the laundry room and the kitchen that turned into a huge renovation project.

We persevered through 45 days without a washer and dryer and many months without a kitchen. But, I equated it with being a contestant on Survivor. If we could last the year of construction (plus the set backs and sore muscles) we would be rewarded with a brand new kitchen in the end!

That little leak had turned into a full blown mold infestation when the water seeped between two layers of flooring and sat undisturbed for weeks. This was not a DIY task, we hired professional mold remediators. The remediation went on for weeks after we failed the first air test for mold. Later we found out that additional mold spores were sucked in from the crawlspace when the asbestos abatement team put the room under negative pressure. (Yes, they found asbestos while trying to remove the various layers of flooring.) As if that wasn’t enough to deal with, as I began to build the kitchen back, the electrician and I discovered a large amount of termite damage.

I called our termite treatment company and asked them to come take a look so we could recoup some of the repair costs. As I sat on the floor with my head in my hands, I wondered how many more obstacles would pop up in my path to a new kitchen. The termite damage was so extensive that I decided to call a structural engineer and the city building inspector.

I sat there and listened as “Mr. Termite” claimed the damage was previous to their insuring our house and therefore they didn’t have to pay for the damages. The city building inspector and Mr. Termite tried to make suggestions to “fix” the damage, not one of them talking directly to me. One involved pumping the rim joist full of concrete (potentially costing thousands of dollars.) Another suggestion was ripping up the flooring and floor joists to hopefully replace the damaged two joists. But, it was doubtful we could get access to the damaged area that was sandwiched between a concrete slab and another joist. Expensive and costly solutions were thrown out until the structural engineer came up with a brilliant solution.

“All you need to do is furr-out the wall to distribute the weight over the good joists. It shouldn’t cost you more than $200 in materials.” he explained.

Mr. Termite perked up, pulling out his checkbook to write off his responsibility. Then he said, “There’s your solution little lady! Now you just need to worry about how you are going to get your kitchen back. I mean, where is the general contractor and why isn’t he working on your kitchen right now?” he asked me.

I looked him square in the eye and replied, “You’re looking at the general contractor.”

His eyes turned to every male in the room until he realized I was talking about myself. I’d give money to see that face again! His jaw dropped and his eyes got wider than the termite holes in our studs.

After everyone left, the building inspector stayed behind. His warm smile thawed my icy glare after Mr. Termite left. The inspector asked if I was clear on how to proceed with the structural repairs. I told him I was and then he said something that shocked me.

“Say, have you ever considered getting your general contractor license?” he asked. “We need more women in the profession.”

I looked at him with my mouth agape now and replied, “No way! I just want to get my kitchen back and to go back to being a wife and a mom.”

Little did I know that a seed had been planted that day and it took two more years to germinate. Three years later I’d sit in front of that computer screen taking the license exam.

That kitchen project not only pushed me to become a general contractor, but it also prepared me in a big way for saving Etta. I knew that there would be bumps and setbacks, but I also learned that there’s always a solution (sometimes it’s not the one you want) and you will get through it. Until that day when you’ll look back from the finished side of that huge renovation mountain.

Today the smell of mold no longer scares me because I know how it is contained and remediated. I also know that it can be fixed with the right amount of money.

Before I left the house, I changed out the door knobs and deadbolts and put the few items into a box and loaded them into the truck.

When I got home, I cleaned off the items in the box: two vintage hats, an old change maker,  an American flag, a few photos and a journal. I texted Anthony, thinking he might want the photos and the journal since they were more personal to his family. He replied quickly that he’d like to meet me at the house that weekend.

I replied, “Absolutely.”

As I sent the text off, I was suddenly nervous about meeting Anthony at the house. I’m sure he wanted to know what I intended to do with his family’s home. At this point, I had no way of knowing that this house had more plans for me than I did for her.

Continued in Chapter 10. . .

If you are just joining the story, you may want to read all the Saving Etta chapters.

Are you enjoying the Saving Etta chapters? I’d love to hear from you! What are you enjoying the most?

25 replies
  1. Jenni
    Jenni says:

    It is so inspiring to see that you eventually followed the building inspector’s advice and pursued your general contractor’s license. I too am curious about the process you took to get there. It could be another series :). I am not ready to pursue that path right now, but I am curious enough about homes and how they work and I hyper-research a lot. We will have some renovating to do in the next few years and it would be nice to be better prepared!

  2. Tammara
    Tammara says:

    A cliff hanger…..aghhhh. Brittany, love this story can’t wait to read the next chapter. Reading about your adventure is getting me excited to try my tools and create!

  3. Brenda
    Brenda says:

    This is such fun – since I don’t have to do anything but sit here and read about your adventure. If I were waaaay younger, I would love to do some of these things. I’m rooting for you and Etta!

  4. Linda L Weeks
    Linda L Weeks says:

    I bet you could do it! You already have a ton of photos, it could be a very nice little book! Good luck with Etta!

  5. LoriA
    LoriA says:

    I am really enjoying reading about Etta. Have you considered writing more detail and turn it into a book someday? Just a thought I had. Sorry if I over-looked a remark.

  6. Elisabeth
    Elisabeth says:

    I’m loving this journey you’re taking, Brittany! I’m also totally jealous, but that’s a whole other story! Chuckle. Really looking forward to the next chapter. (You have an absolute flair for writing – Etta may just be the catalyst for ANOTHER new career!).

    I’m in Australia…. could you tell me where NC is? I’m thinking North Carolina???? Maybe????

  7. Julie
    Julie says:

    Hi Brittany. I know you knew a lot about construction before you even considered being a general contractor and this might be a ridiculous question but is it possible to not know much about construction, take the class and pass the test or do you need to have been around construction and have some prior knowledge before even attempting to take a class?

    • Brittany Bailey
      Brittany Bailey says:

      Julie, you have to know the basics of construction and how to read blue prints, but the test also covers the law, taxes, insurance and estimating. I took a review course that helped me get up to speed, but I also studied my butt on and read through the text books.

  8. Cyndi J
    Cyndi J says:

    I’m waiting with baited breath to find out what plans Etta had for you! Love the story about the building inspector and his comment about needing more women contractors. What a forward-thinking man.


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