In my years of evaluating properties, one type of house that has always amazed me is the one that time forgets. The house gets built in a certain period, and it stays that way, no updates, no modifications. When I get into them they’ve usually been vacant for a while and they can be in pretty rough shape. That’s not an idication of how they were taken care of, a vacant house can deteriorate very fast. This house is time frozen in the Seventies, which I thought was kind of cool in its own way. It was also sad when I thought about the people that lived in it. Here we go:
A panoramic view of the basement. The ceiling is false, the real ceiling is actually above the ridge beam. Apparently they put in the false cathedral ceiling to make the room look a bit more proportional. The ceiling tiles are of a wood veneer I’ve never seen anywhere else. At the time this house was built, I worked in a building supply store, so I thought I’d seen everything from the period, but I guess I missed something.
A built in entertainment center. This was the rage among people my parents age. Younger people liked the stereo components type systems where you had separate turntables, tuners, speakers, and 8 track tape player. So, whoever built this was probably either of WWII or Korean War generation. That means when the house was built, the owners were probably already in their mid-fifties.
The carpet hasn’t aged well. At the time we thought this was rather attractive.
This was a picnic pavillion on a slab behind the house. It was probably really nice in the day. I’m sure they had some really cool parties there in the day.
Another smaller picnic area. This is in a nice part of the yard, well shaded. I’m sure it was nice in the day too.
Whenever I see a house like this, I wonder what happened. It looks like whoever moved into a place put a lot of care into building it, and then never did anything to update it over the years. Did the people get sick? Did they start getting old, and let everything go? Did they have financial issues? Usually the story is the people live in the house much longer than they probably should, lack the ability to maintain it anymore. Should they have gone into an assisted living facility? I talked to an elderly lady about this once, and she said she figured she had about 5 years or so to live. She was going to spend that time living in her house where she was comfortable, and whatever happened to her house after that didn’t concern her the least. So, I guess I have to agree. I’d rather spend my last days in a house that looks like this rather than go to a retirement home and live in the sterile unfamiliar environment there.
Our company does a lot of structural condition assessments of residences, oftentimes for Architects when there is a planned major renovation of an old house. The City of Atlanta requires an engineer to evaluate the foundations of old homes if a second story is proposed, because there are often problems with the existing foundations. This house was at first unremarkable, it was an old home in the west side of Atlanta, and was a fairly standard small home built in the 1920’s for working class people that had employment in the cotton mills and factories that once dotted the City. However, this one had a surprise. Let’s look at it:
House view from side.
View of house from front
It was just what we call a “shotgun shack”, it was an old duplex that had been subdivided into apartments as the neighborhood got poorer. I was surprised though when I looked around the side
Notice the subwall is stone – that was not typical of these type of houses. Usually they didn’t have subwalls, they had brick piers and were open underneath. You usually see concrete block that was placed around the brick piers at a later date to close in under the house and add some space for storage and usually a washing machine. Also, what was the deal with the blocked up window? Around back the subwall changed to block, which was odd:
Block placed at the back of the house.
I thought the whole thing was rather unusual, but the answer came when I went into the basement. I found this:
Doorway to old house.
The house had been built on top of an older stone house! The stone house underneath has to date back to the mid 1800’s. It’s rare to find such things around here, most of the older homes were built of timber, which is long gone. Apparently when they built the shotgun house, there was an old house already on site, and the builder just built on top. Here’s some more photos:
Interior of older house – note the old window that was blocked in. Very impressive stone masonry around the windows.
The front corner – note the newer stone work – it is under a fireplace. Also, we see a window blocked in.
Old timber used to support first floor – this was also salvaged from even older buildings, it is rough -sawn.
Another view of the recycled timber. The workmanship here is very poor, unlike the workmanship on the original stone house. The builder simply stacked stone and set the timbers that he salvaged on top.
I have seen the older homes containing salvaged timber, that is rather common. Reusing timber from old houses or barns that were torn down would have made sense to the builder. The cost of materials vs. labor probably was more in favor of using the labor and trying to save on materials. Hopefully the investor that bought the house and the Architect will make use of the old house in the basement and make this a more distinctive house. This is one of the most interesting homes I’ve ever visited.
I was going through my photos this morning, and I found this one:
Basement Subwall Failure
This was the subwall in an apartment building. The building was built back in the 70’s, and was built as part of a development of low income apartments. If there is ever a case for proper building permitting procedures, these types of apartments in the Atlanta area make it. In every one of these buildings it appears to me that there was almost no structural engineering, the foundations are often minimal or non-existent, the structure is all wood and all of the members are overspanned, there is no consideration for wind bracing, and as you see here, the subwalls are never strong enough. I suspect all that was done for the design was a floor layout, some elevations, and that was it.
It also appears that there was no inspection in most of these because the errors in construction are often so extreme that even the most inexperienced building inspector should have caught them. I always wonder how this worked. I assume the that at the time the builder submitted the floor plans and elevations, fees were paid, and the permit was issued and that was that. I suspect there was no inspection at all, or maybe just plumbing and electric.
In this one the subwall was not reinforced properly, the site wasn’t drained properly, and there was not a working underdrain system. As it rained, water pressure built up against the outside wall and we had a catastrophic collapse. Fortunately, no one was hurt. Sad thing is, I have been in one building where a tenant was seriously injured in a failure – while he was in bed the ceiling collapsed on him. The ceiling was not nailed to the joists above, it was glued. In time the glue deteriorated and the ceiling fell loose and seriously injured the person below.
View of Outside – Note the bracing.
The brick wall in in danger of collapse. By this time the building was condemned and apartments cleared out. It could have been much worse. The repairs were done (by replacing the subwall with an engineered one) and the building put back in service.
Every time I go to the old low income apartment buildings I come back away irritated. The shoddy construction is downright criminal, and shows a total lack of concern for the people that live in the buildings. The structural problems are many, and in addition the bathrooms are never adequately designed to contain the moisture. In every building of this type you will find rotted wood all around the bathrooms. This is not only a danger for the structure, but presents a great place for mold to grow. Also, the windows are usually improperly flashed, so you will see moisture in the structure around the windows – again, causing structural issues and mold.
How was this allowed to happen? Were the building officials corrupt? Were they incompetent? Were they racist (figuring it was primarily minorities that would live in these buildings and thus they didn’t care)? Was the system itself too lax? Most likely it was a combination of all. The sad thing is it hurts people that have no other options in life.
By the way, every time I go to these buildings I talk to a lot of the people that live there. They don’t seem like the stereo type “welfare recipient/drug dealer/thug” to me. All of the ones I’ve talked to just seemed like regular people, the kind you’d be happy to have as a neighbor. They have jobs, families, hopes and dreams. They just are poor. That makes it even more irritating to me.
Above all else, it shows how when people don’t do their jobs, it can seriously hurt other people.
I just got back from checking out a foreclosed house, and I am always surprised at what stuff people do to houses. Look at this:
Do you know what it is? It’s a WINDOW through the basement subwall. The only thing holding the dirt back is the geo fabric that you see. Obviously, it’s not working so well, the floor of the basement is covered in mud. When I was in college, a couple of friends of mine and I were discussing the idea of underground houses, and one of my friends said they weren’t a good idea. If you opened the windows, dirt would come in. Well, here they opened the window to the dirt.
Every now and then you come across construction that is so bad it takes your breath away. This house is the most extreme example that I’ve seen. It’s not uncommon to see shacks out in the woods put up in a haphazard manor, usually that’s because the people that are putting them up have very little money, so they get stuff to build with as they can. They also have little in construction skills and can’t afford to pay contractors to do the work. This house was in a very nice suburban neighborhood, and actually looked somewhat OK from the street with the exception that it was on temporary power. It hadn’t gone to permanent power because it hadn’t passed any inspections and there was no certificate of occupancy.
The homeowner called me because the county had shown up with an order for them to vacate the property. Apparently they had bought the property “as is”, and they wanted to sue the seller. I was asked to do a report on the property, and I knew immediately after I entered the house that I’d never get paid for my work. However, curiosity took over and I did the evaluation, wrote a lengthy report, and of course got stiffed for the fee. I never did find out what the final disposition of the house was. I talked to one of the senior county inspectors about it, and he said the house had changed hands numerous times and the ownership wasn’t too clear. That should be expected, because it’s hard to believe any financial institution would lend for something like this.
While this is an extreme example, there are a fair number of houses out there that have similar defects. Towards the end of the housing boom a lot of people jumped in to build houses that shouldn’t have, and many of the foreclosures on the market have very significant construction defects. What looks like a bargain price may be in the end an expensive transfer of misery.
Let’s start from the outside:
This is in the rear of the house – where do you start? The stucco is totally jacked up, look at how it’s peeling from the house. There are no joints in the stucco. The deck is made from untreated lumber and is not supported correctly from the post. There should be a concrete landing outside the door, and there is no drip edge under the stucco. The paint is peeling off the windows, there is excess erosion, and it’s not a good idea to leave trash around your foundation, it attracts insects and vermin.
No gutters, the roofing is sloppy, look at the garage door opening, it’s a mess too. The difference in color of the stucco is due to lighting, it doesn’t actually have multiple tones. Here’s a close up of the electric meter:
The holes are supposed to be sealed to keep the weather, insects, and rodents out. I don’t think that meter was hooked up by the way. Let’s go inside, it gets much worse:
Ok, the wallpaper is peeling off. It also is two clashing styles. The house was moderately messy, I’ve seen worse. It was the rotting garbage in the sink that made it uncomfortable, but we’ve only just begun.
Let’s go up into the upstairs:
Yes, those wires are hot. In the upstairs they didn’t finish the wiring, and it was hanging out of the junction boxes and fixtures. By the way, the wires aren’t supposed to be all the same color. Typically black is hot, white is neutral, red is hot, green is ground. That’s so the electrician can wire things right and you don’t get electrocuted in your shower because the wrong wire was grounded. Now we better go up and see what awaits us in the attic:
No junction boxes, the condensate piping is all wrong (note the tees are in for some unknown reason). The framing is chopped up, and water damage is apparent in the right side. How do you like the way the wiring is wrapped around stuff?
I couldn’t for the life of me figure why the vent pipe had the tee in it and branched out through two different outlets on the roof. Note the wire that was used as a support. The framing is completely wrong, and space doesn’t permit me to outline everything. Note how the rafters aren’t properly supported at the bottoms, and the purlins are wrong too.
Look in the rear of the photo wher the braces for the roof come down onto the beams. There is nothing to keep those beams from twisting, which they will ultimately. The framing is more or less randomly done. Note the orbs in the center lower right – some believe those are spirits caught on film. I think they’re dust particles, but maybe being confined to this attic is some poor soul’s punishment for misdeeds in a previous life…
More random framing in the attic. Note the ceiling joists seem to be placed with no rhyme or reason. Also, look at the lower right and see the water damage.
We can’t stay in the attic forever, so we’re going downstairs. But first, look at this wiring – it is sandwiched between the floor sheathing and ceiling joists. That will wear the insulation off the wire and start a fire ultimately. Although it will be a race between that and all the other wiring misdeeds to see which one will ultimately burn the house down, if it doesn’t fall down first.
Now, before we go in the basement, I want you to look at this shower:
This is the shower. I’ve seen worse, but usually in places where the people are really poor, or in third world countries. I wouldn’t step in here barefoot though. However, look at the underside:
The shower doesn’t connect to the house sewer. It just drains into the basement. That sewer line slopes upward by the way. They kept a plunger by the toilet to help things on their way. Now, even though the shower didn’t drain into the sewer, the people here in this house were very clean. Look:
They showered and bathed anyway! Look at the water in the basement, AND the black mold. The sheet rock was put up to cover worse mold behind it. I am highly allergic to black mold, and I should have left. However, like watching a train wreck, I couldn’t turn away. I ignored my sinus pain and kept on…
While bathing may be healthful, it probably is risky in this house. The rotten floor joists are under the tub and you might make a very quick trip to the basement.
Ok, they were roughing in a bathroom in the basement. Look how close the sink drain is to the toilet. That way you can sit on the throne and do your business while you brush your teeth. The pipes were above the floor slab, so they never finished.
Part of the basement was bare ground, and that’s where the water heater was set. The installation wasn’t quite completed. Note the there is no pipe attached to the temperature and pressure valve, and the panels were left off.
Well, we’ve been here long enough, and just looking at this makes me have an allergic reaction, so let’s go, but…
Be careful going up the stairs. These look like something you tried to climb in college after a night of heavy drinking, don’t they?
I hope you’ve enjoyed your visit in the House of Pain. Please don’t buy anything like this. If I find out what happened to the house, I will update this page.