Saving Etta: Chapter 14 –
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 for more of the back story.
As I sat on Etta’s front porch trying to envision what it would be like to live downtown, I saw Ellen pull up. She stepped out of the car with two wine glasses in one hand and a bottle of wine in the other.
“Congratulations on your first investment house!” She greeted me with her big genuine smile.
“Thanks.” I laughed nervously, hoping this would be an investment and not a money pit.
She poured some wine and we clinked glasses. “To Etta,” she said.
“Are you ready to see inside?” I asked. “Be prepared, it’s in rough shape. Here’s a dust mask if you want one.”
I swung the front door open and stepped inside. The smell of mold still hung in the air. I turned around and saw Ellen’s smile disappear.
“Oh boy, Brittany,” Ellen said. “This is going to be a big project. But, it’s nothing you can’t handle.” Her smile reappearing on her face.
I quickly showed her through the house and then locked the door as we headed into town to have a girl’s night out. We talked about our kids and some of the houses she had flipped and others she wanted to flip. It was reassuring talking to someone who wasn’t scared off by mold or asbestos, and had been through the ups and downs of flipping houses.
After dinner I went home and right to bed. I needed to get some rest before tackling the jungle that was Etta’s backyard.
On Saturday, Mike and I piled into the pickup truck with our boys, Nathan and Gabe. The boys hadn’t seen the investment house yet and were anxious to put eyes on this house that consumed our conversations lately. The bed of the truck was loaded with yard tools and a mower. We looked like a start up version of a landscape business. The goal was for Mike and I to do some clean up and make sure the fence was secure enough to let Bandit join me on site. We decided to “pay” the boys by putting money into their college accounts. Nathan (age 13) would mow the lawn at the house. While Gabe (age 11) could pick up trash from the overgrown weeds and bushes. There was plenty for him to pick up, by now I realized that the property was a cut through to the adjacent street. There was a liquor store sized collection of bottles, beer cans, fast food containers, and lots of other discarded trash in the yard.
After pulling into the driveway, the kids anxiously hopped out of the truck and started running around the third of an acre that made up Etta’s property. The lot was very long and deep with a grassy area in the middle. Most of the lot consisted of overgrown weeds, shrubs, and ivy. After exploring the wooded back portion of the lot the boys began poking around the port-a-potty and the dumpster. (What boys find fascinating will never cease to surprise me.)
Mike and I started removing the tools from the truck while the boys clamored over the sides of the dumpster, each landing with a hollow metal thud.
“When can we go in the house?” Nathan asked
“Yea, we want to see the house!” Gabe demanded.
I looked at their eager faces and told them okay, but both had to wear dust masks. After showing them the proper way to wear a mask, we headed toward the front door. I turned the key and both boys pushed past me to run inside. I quickly grabbed Nathan’s sleeve and yelled for Gabe to stop.
“Listen up boys. You may not go running around. This house is still unsafe and there are many dangers. If you want to see the house, you must stay with me.” I said.
They controlled their energetic bursts as I showed them around the entire house. When they pointed at the insulation dangling from the hole in the ceiling, I explained about the roof leaks.
The curiosity was overwhelming for both boys. They wanted to peek inside each closet, peer behind every door, and made me pull down the attic ladder when it was determined to be the last spot unexplored. After a thorough examination (worthy of a home inspection), we headed back outside.
As Mike and I surveyed the yard, it was difficult to know where to focus our efforts. Ultimately we chose to tackle freeing the gate from ivy growth and dirt so we could close it again.
As Mike and I hacked at the ivy and shoveled mounds of dirt from around the base of the gate, Nathan started cutting the grass out front. Meanwhile, Gabe was in heaven finding glass liquor bottles from the brush and launching them over the dumpster walls. Each time the glass hit the bottom of the dumpster, it exploded scaring the heck out of me. I resisted the urge to complain, knowing as long as he was having fun he’d keep working. By the end of the afternoon, he told me he had found 20 bottles, a bike, and numerous cans (which he added, didn’t make as exciting a noise in the dumpster.)
While Mike cut small trees out of the chainlink fence with loppers, I began to attack a large weed tree next to the neighbor’s driveway. I made my first cut through a secondary branch. It resisted my saw, but eventually gave way tumbling onto the neighbor’s fence. Mike heard me yelling for help and came running only to find me dangling on the end of the branch to keep it from falling over the 6 foot fence into their backyard. He and I muscled the limb back onto our side of the fence and pulled it into the middle of the neighbor’s driveway. It’s funny how a seemingly small tree is actually much bigger than it appears. At about 20’ tall, this skinny tree proved to weigh more than I expected. Regardless, I was on a mission to cut back everything that was encroaching on the neighbor’s yard, driveway, and over their roof.
Out of nowhere, a woman walked out and gasped, “Whoa, what’s all this?” It was the neighbor and suddenly there was a large pile of limbs between us.
“I’m sorry, I think I got a little carried away trying to clear the brush. I’ll clean it up right away,” I replied.
She said, “No problem. Keep it up! It’s been a long time since anyone did any yard work back there.”
We both looked at the tree growing out of the side of my house and nodded in agreement.
She introduced herself as Natalie and said I had met her husband Eric, the first day I looked at the property. Natalie told me she’d let me get back to work and thanked me for my efforts.
Mike and I finished cutting down the weed tree and pulled all the branches from Eric and Natalie’s driveway. By the time we finished, we had a four by twenty five foot pile of yard debris.
The afternoon weather had settled in with a thick layer of heat and humidity. The boys, whose hair was plastered to their foreheads, stopped to eat lunch while perched on the tailgate of the truck. Mike and I decided it was a good time to take a break as well.
I had just finished the last bite of my sandwich when a car pulled up out front. A man in his mid-forties got out of the driver’s side and strolled up the driveway toward us. He wore jeans and a baseball hat with a flat brim.
“Anthony! How are you doing?” I called to him, recognizing him from closing day. I had texted Anthony after finding a few family photos and some jewelry while we were clearing out the house. He agreed to meet me this afternoon.
He smiled kindly as I introduced him to Mike and my sons. Anthony shook each of their hands and I explained to Gabe and Nathan that his grandfather had owned the house for a long time. The mention of his grandfather seemed to conjure up memories for Anthony as he shared some stories about the adventures he and his cousins used to have in the backyard. He told us they used to play in the woods at the back of the lot where they were hidden by the trees and brush. His grandmother would sit on the porch of the house and call back to them to stay out of trouble. We laughed knowing how much fun kids can have when not under the watchful eye of an adult.
I handed Anthony the photos and jewelry. He looked through them and told me the names of the family members in each picture. I felt relaxed talking to Anthony casually about his family’s home. I know it was a tough decision for them to decide to sell it. In my mind, this was still his family home and he and his mother had entrusted me with restoring the home that held so many memories for them.
I asked Anthony if he wanted to come inside the house to see the progress I made.
He said, “Oh yes, I’d love to.”
As we walked around the front of the house, Anthony stopped and looked up at the big rotting tree out front. I saw his gaze and told him unfortunately I had to cut the tree down. It was completely rotted inside the core and was beyond saving. Anthony nodded and told me he and his cousins used to climb it, each daring the other to climb higher and higher. Ultimately, only one cousin of his cousins had the guts to reach a much higher branch than the rest of the kids.
“Would you like me to save as slice of the tree when they cut it down?” I asked him.
“Yes, I’d really appreciate that,” he said.
We walked through the house and he told me when each section was added onto it. I absorbed each piece of information he shared about Etta’s past. I told Anthony that he was welcome to stop by and see the renovation progress anytime he saw my truck in the driveway. He seemed very appreciative of the offer.
We stepped back outside into the heat of the afternoon. Nathan had started to mow the backyard. He aimed the mower toward a patch of overgrown ivy. Anthony suddenly rushed out of the house running straight toward Nathan,
“Stop, don’t cut there!” he warned.
…to be continued
If you are just joining the story, you may want to read all the Saving Etta chapters.
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