9. Tiny homes, sheds, and campers, oh my!

A tiny house possibility with lots of windows
Lovely TH park model in Spokane. Too many windows for high winds and summer hailstorms?

I was in the Spokane area recently. Beautiful surrounding wilderness areas. The city’s got character too. This was part family visit, part fact-finding mission to check out jobs, business opportunities, housing, property. I specifically wanted to look at tiny homes, and secondarily, campers.

Before I left home for my travels, I had a couple of calls with Tumbleweed Houses. When founder Jay Shafer owned the company, I attended some weekend DIY design workshops, hoping to learn enough to get started building my own. Shafer was inspirational, a true pioneer in the movement, if not the pioneer, and he’s brilliant. The company’s more commercial now, and feels less personal, less driven by design genius and mindfulness, but still seems committed to furthering social good. They sell plans as well as houses, and periodically have some pretty great sales prices.

Well, life happened, and I also despaired when I realized I didn’t have even basic tools expertise (let alone any hands-on power tool knowledge), nor any foreseeable help from family and friends. I back-burnered my dream. Ten-plus years later, as I clearly see the need for major home repairs here or a new residence, my goal is to resume the quest. Tumbleweed does offer financing – a big plus, and a necessity for me – and their prices are reasonable-ish, especially when they run sales. They offer a nice assortment of models. The ones I can afford are the right size, but don’t quite have the “wow” factor for me. Almost, though. Definitely almost. I like the rustic, simple look of a few of them very much. Others are more interesting, but bigger and less affordable. The jury’s still out.

Driving around Spokane, quite by accident I found Park Model Homes. A national company, they have a great selection of affordable, beautiful models tailored by region, e.g. for northern winter climates. Their homes are more upscale-looking, which has a certain appeal, but rustic is more my style.  If I want to buy a TH for delivery to Montana (vs. the Spokane area), my house would come from their Nebraska location. They also offer financing, with banking relationships in Spokane, although I haven’t gone too far down that road yet. At my request, they emailed me a price sheet, and I was informally given a verbal ballpark quote of $60K, including house, taxes, delivery, and hookups. The homes are on trailers, to meet RV zoning requirements. I’m still researching the company itself – the website is dated and a little hard to figure out their true ownership or distributed business model – but I liked what I saw on the lot. They appear to have a network of companies that either operate as Park Model Homes, or do business with them. On my end, I’d need to have a level packed gravel parking space installed. Do-able.

It seems a little weird that there are no standout choices for these tiny homes in Billings or really anywhere in Montana, but I’m still looking. There are a couple of companies I want to check out. And there are numerous seasonal popup lots in Billings and outlying areas displaying sheds, shells really, that look like TH’s or garages or feed barns. These are quite affordable and well-constructed by local Amish builders. Delivery is cheap or free. The landscape is increasingly dotted with these in small communities and along state highways. I’m considering buying one for a shed, but I can’t imagine doing the interior work to transform a shed into a home.

Another option is having a TH built. There’s a contractor in town who is interested, but I think I need to go the financing route; paying cash outright isn’t an option. Elizabeth Smart’s book, Under 55 and Faking Normal: Your Guide to a Better Life, has a dedicated section with good information about TH’s and financing. In fact, this book re-started my pursuit of owning a TH. I reviewed it here, on Marc Miller’s Career Pivot website (my favorite online community!). Smart’s book is exhaustively researched, with some real gems for any seniors questioning how they will survive and thrive in an economy that doesn’t know (or care about?) what to do with us!

I’ve also tentatively explored acquiring a vintage or new/retro camper trailer. There were some great options in Spokane, which, like Billings but more so, seems to be an RV sales lot hub. More on this in another post.

And finally, I’d love to work for a TH company or housing non-profit, because I believe TH’s can go a long way toward solving the affordable housing crisis for seniors and many others. If you’re making a living in the gig economy, as opposed to running a business or holding down a 9-to-5, TH’s solve the issue of getting, and paying on, a big mortgage. An Auxiliary Dwelling Unit (ADU) in a homeowner’s backyard is a perfect situation for an extended family member or a college student, or can be a win-win for a property owner and tenant with a work exchange deal. Or for digital nomads, RV-licensed TH’s are on wheels and travel with you, wherever you desire to go next. They are also one answer to providing dignity and shelter off the street for our marginalized homeless populations. The municipalities and NIMBY communities that are so adamantly opposed to TH’s are missing the boat. Lack of affordable housing, and homelessness are problems that impact all of us. We hide our heads in the sand to our own detriment.

My tiny house concerns and questions for further research
1. The PMH models I like have many different-size windows, letting in lots of beautiful light. We have hailstorms and high winds. Will the windows all break? Can they be easily replaced, or should I stay away from those models and opt for one with fewer, standard size windows?

2. About those winds… Will the TH on its trailer bed tip over? How to prevent that?

3. I’d like a wood stove. Can I have one installed by the TH company?

4. I’d like solar. What’s involved? Cost? Can it be installed before delivery?

5. Can I finance based on my work as a 1099-contractor, supplemented by Social Security and a tiny retirement pension? Or do I need to find a full-time job to show income?

6. If I want to move my TH to the Spokane area someday, where are they allowed, zoning-wise? Vacant lots in the area are pricey and limited, due to rapid in-migration from Southern California, et al., and heavy encroachments on remaining wilderness by developers.

7. Are there any TH companies with a social conscience who are hiring an administrative assistant, copy writer, or digital content marketer?

All for now. To be continued…


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8. The pink stuff is safe to drink, but I wouldn’t.

Upstairs brick chimney remnant, sealed but still standingIt’s been cold here (Jan 31-Feb 1 2019), but we didn’t make the news with our temps. It’s Montana. Bitter cold is normal. We were hardly mentioned in the news of the Polar Vortex, which sounded like a made-up marketing term to me anyway. I create marketing campaigns for a living. I recognize shorthand buzz-speak when I hear it.

This old drafty house is a challenge to keep warm. My great-grandparents and grandparents did it, so it should be doable. Right? I know they had a wood and coal cookstove in the kitchen, and in later years a fuel-oil burner, and in the main room a furnace of some sort with a stovepipe that fed through the ceiling to the upstairs bedrooms and chimney.

The chimney was dismantled when I got a new, metal roof in 2007. The hole for the pipe had been long-since sealed, but it is still visible, mostly because a couple of years ago I ripped the horrible pressboard panels out from the living room ceiling. (They were falling on my head one day as I was trying to work on my laptop.)

Upstairs, about three feet of the bottom of the deprecated brick chimney is still fastened to the wall. It’s a prominent unmovable fixture, painted a tired shade of mint green to match the walls. Which continue to separate as the house shifts on its unstable gumbo foundation.

I was doing fine with the cold, even though my propane and electric bills were sky-high. I also have a beautiful, efficient Jotul 602 woodstove which keeps the kitchen toasty warm as long as I keep the fire going. It’s got a cooktop in case the power goes out, so I’m all set. The situation changed when the temperatures started plunging into negative double-digits Fahrenheit overnight. Miraculously, my indoor worm farm survived. The first such night was not even -10F. I think it was -8F, but it was still cold!

A kitchen bright spot, my jotul stove with a cooktop, and my non-electric eco fan

Next morning, I got up and flushed the toilet. No water filled the tank. I moved my little ceramic space heater (of which I have many!) closer to the uninsulated south wall of the bathroom. Hot water wasn’t working in the kitchen sink – same pipe. I lit a fire in the woodstove. A little while later, I heard the welcome sound of water running again, except that it was spraying out underneath the kitchen sink. I figured the PVC trap had cracked. Wouldn’t be the first, or last time. But closer inspection revealed the pipe had pulled apart at the slip joint. A big relief. A huge relief.

When the pieces were pushed back together, no more spray. I learned my lesson and put the bathroom heater right next to the pipes the next night. Before the freeze, I’d had it a couple feet away, and thought it would do the job since the bathroom was so small. Like I say, lesson learned.

I tried to wash a load of clothes, and ended up bailing out a whole washing machine tub of water. Fortunately, I was able to use my amazing, life-changing Underhill Gulp Ultra manual siphon pump. Emptied the water into a galvanized pail, then slogged outside into deep snow a dozen times or so to dump the water. About 15 minutes total. Disconnected the hoses after an inspection revealed ice in the tub. The motor wouldn’t turn by hand, and due to the floor slope, the whole machine was angled severely downward, so I decided it would go offline till spring. I would just use my trusty hand-cranked WonderWash. There’s a lot to be said for having grid-independent backups when your essential electrical appliances are unusable.

I went out to one of my camper trailers to grab a jug of RV antifreeze to pour in the washing machine. Years ago, when my dad winterized before we left at summer’s end, we used regular full-strength poisonous antifreeze in the water lines. I don’t know if RV antifreeze wasn’t a thing yet, or if there was another reason not to use it. Now, I wouldn’t use anything but the RV stuff. It’s non-toxic, drinkable without fatal repercussions I suppose, rated for -50F “burst protection,” and pink. Very pink.

By now, the daytime low was -23F, so I needed to act fast, if it wasn’t already too late to save the washing machine. I had no idea that antifreeze could, well, freeze. The fine print, which I’d never bothered to read, said the stuff would get “slushy” below zero. Mine was beyond slushy. My antifreeze was frozen.

I’m beginning to come around to the idea that I may actually need a new house. A real house. Preferably a tiny house. A friend once unfavorably compared my Southern California ranch home to other people’s “real” houses. To this day, I don’t know quite what he meant, but it made me feel like a societal impostor. I mean I had decent furniture and all the normal appliances, and the darn thing was worth over $750K at the time. I never did want to be part of what we used to call The Establishment, so maybe it was a backhanded compliment. He wasn’t exactly the poster child for the mainstream himself.

My new goal is to learn all I can about tiny homes and figure out how to buy or build one here. Meanwhile, I’ve got to keep this house standing and survivable in all weather. I said to a friend recently that no one ever said Montana winters were easy. No one. As long as I have heat, I’m OK. But when black goopy creosote started dripping from the seams in my woodstove pipe onto the floor, it was sadly clear that my stove was likely not safe to burn until the chimney was cleaned out. I accomplished that with the help of a friend, but not immediately. So I had to rely on space heaters for a few days. Lesson learned there? Don’t burn pine. Don’t burn old telephone poles (for many reasons!). Burn cottonwood.

Okey dokey. Guess I have an axe to grind.


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7. Flange thingy

Split flange around pipe
Split flange around water pipe, creosote drippings from stovepipe.

Why would anyone cut a big rough hole through the wall for a small-diameter pipe run? Typical, I thought angrily. I googled and found an interesting solution for $1.32 plus $5.00 shipping. It’s difficult to search when you don’t know the name of something you’re not sure exists. But I took a chance on this thing called a split flange pipe covering. They came two to a pack. There was no room on the bathroom side, but I put one of the pair around the pipe on the kitchen wall. Problem solved. There are only about 20 other possible rodent entry points along other walls, under doorsills, and in the ceiling, but at least I shut down the kitchen-to-bathroom mouse-track expressway. The only tool I needed was a screwdriver. I just loosened the fastener and opened the hinge like a handcuff, wrapped it around the pipe, then closed it back into a circle. An ingenious way to pop on a decent looking flange instead of cutting and reconnecting the pipe. (As if that was ever going to happen!) I think I was supposed to screw or glue it to the wall, but it felt tight enough to let it be rather than try to squeeze between that darn water heater and my wood stove, and try to drill arguably unneeded holes in a wall I’m going to paint or replace if at all possible. Please note the word “try.” I’m chalking this up as a success. I’m kind of proud of myself. Note to self: Clean up creosote drippings from the stovepipe and paint the wall!

These mini-projects of mine are always 50/50. They can go either way, resulting in dejection or elation, and are usually deliberately conceived as a temporary fix. I don’t want to commit to a solution using something I’ve repurposed in a way it’s not intended for. But I do love to roam hardware aisles imagining unorthodox uses for all those amazing tubes and connectors and caps and endlessly fascinating man-made parts and pieces. The real way to do things requires tools and expertise. I’m not opposed to that. I have great respect for those who are knowledgeable and do things the right way. In fact, I try to learn from them whenever I can, and use their kindly shared tips and shortcuts whenever feasible – or necessary for safety’s sake. It would be foolish for me to spend a lot of time or money on the small stuff in this house with all its problems. The big stuff – replacing wiring or jacking up the floor or reattaching the porch – may be worth it just to keep the place standing.

I’m not a hunter and don’t like killing things, but I’m just not a fan of indoor wildlife. Unwelcome critters have thrown me into utter panic more than once. While I’ve been writing this, no kidding, I’ve heard at least a dozen suspicious sounds in the living room and kitchen. Probably just the house shifting and settling. Yeah, that’s it. Or it’s the water heater struggling against its coming obsolescence.

I can only hope.


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6. The Dogs Just Don’t Care.

My big water heater in the corner of the kitchen
In the corner, the water heater grins and I bear it.

I was sitting at the table with a next-gen family member one night after supper, lamenting the condition of my house, making the case that I very much needed assistance with repairs. I was feeling a definite lack of sympathy; I was getting no traction with my argument. In fairness, I was probably whining. I could hear my own strident broken-record voice, and I hated it.

Then something small ran across the floor into the corner.

I screamed. A wild thing was loose in my kitchen.

I’d known it was only a matter of time. Earlier in the week tiny holes had appeared in the plastic wrap over a batch of biscuits on the counter. Possibly, I’d inadvertently poked the pliofilm with a knife tip. Preferring to err on the side of caution, we didn’t eat any of the biscuits on that side of the pan after I thought I saw the tiny, micro-tesimal, nano-sized, barely there, probably not really there at all, holes. But then, the morning before the night of the small alien sighting, there were undeniably bigger holes puncturing a loaf cake on the table, also covered with plastic wrap (torn). My alternative rational explanations were irrational and highly unlikely. Of course there was a rodent in the house.

No matter how often this happens (more than occasionally), I’m always surprised, but as a preventive measure, I had set out mousetraps behind a pet-proof barricade. One of the three then-visiting dogs got around my stack of bricks and got his paw caught. He thrashed and smashed the trap till it broke in two and let him go. He limped around moaning for a day, and then was fine, but clearly the mousetraps had to go. The latest expat from Mouseville had the run of the house, and S/He/It knew it.

On the night of the incident, just when I figured the little squirt had left the premises and squeezed through a crack in the wall to find better hunting grounds outside, I looked around to see two tiny beady black eyeballs studying me from the microwave counter, less than a foot away from my arm resting on the kitchen table. Where we had eaten 30 minutes earlier. Whiskers twitching. No fear. On Her/His/Its part anyway. For my part, I was screaming.

The canine trio paid no attention. We grabbed the likeliest one – the victim of the previous mousetrap mishap who should have been righteously indignant at the very least – and held him up face to face with the evil scourge. They stared quietly at each other. Relaxed, mildly curious. Not worried. The others were screaming too. Not at the sight of the mouse. At me. “Don’t kill it. Don’t kill it! It’s so cute.” That mouse was surely mocking me with silent laughter.

Someone urgently demanded a box or a bucket, or something to catch it with and let it loose outside. Were they freaking kidding?? They were serious but couldn’t get near enough before the thing started running around the kitchen floor, up on the counters, over the table, and behind the water heater.

I don’t think a bathroom should be adjacent to the kitchen, but since my W.C. was an afterthought in the 1930s, it was added onto the enclosed back porch. Right off the kitchen.

The water heater is a big ugly 40-gallon monstrous appliance. I can’t get behind it or next to it to clean. I try not to think about or see that corner of the kitchen, but pretty much it’s what you do see when you walk in. The water pipes enter from outside to beneath the sink, connect to the water heater, and pass through the wall to the bathroom, through the shower, out a wall to the porch, and over to the washing machine. The pipes are not aesthetically pleasing, even if I was going for post-modern industrial. (I’m not. The walls are pink.) This corner is on my list of things that I can’t stand any more. I don’t know how to replace a water heater. I’m waiting for it to quit working so I will be forced to do something about it.

Water heaters in this climate are tricky. If you leave for any length of time, you better leave the heat on so the water heater doesn’t freeze and explode. That happened once in the little house next door; we had our own indoor skating rink. I had to wait until the spring thaw to mop out the water. That was also the spring I found tadpoles under the house, with no pond, lake or river within even reasonable walking distance. So, what, they swam here??? I do not have central heat in this house. I have a little propane fireplace in the living room, space heaters in different rooms, and a wood stove in the kitchen. Obviously, I can’t leave the house unsupervised for days and expect any of those to keep the pipes from freezing.

The mouse on this particular night knew its way about. I had been hearing little scritch-scratches, and bumps in the night for a week or so. I told myself the house was just shifting and settling. Well here was proof that I hadn’t imagined the noises. I darn well did know all along what they meant. This was a classic case of denial, like a toothache that gets worse not better, no matter how hard you try to ignore it. 99% of the time, that kind of problem does not go away by itself – a life lesson I keep relearning.

The mouse had no intention of going away. It walked with impunity – calmly walked – on top of the water pipe along the wall from under the sink through a bigger-than-silver-dollar size hole into the bathroom. And then, disappeared into thin air. Nowhere to be seen or heard. I have to confess that I quietly set a trap next to the toilet before going to bed and shut the door to keep the dogs away. Sometime in the night Ms./Mr. Mouse returned. I threw out the evidence the next morning before anyone could find it and accuse me of unconscionable cruelty.

# # #

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5. An outdoor shower sounds nice.

Vinyl ofuro-style tub.
Just add water!

Back to my shower. That same handyman who built the throne platform, bless his soul, laid in low-end laminate paneling over the back wall of the shower without consulting me. I was out of state, not yet living here full-time, and came back to find top and bottom in two pieces, patched together with caulk. Later, a friend put up some sheetboard for the side walls. Water eventually started leaking out onto the floor and through the wall to the porch. I recently painted it all again, but the walls are warping badly. New stop-gap caulking has been employed. We’ll see how that goes.

My dream is to create a (seasonal) outdoor rustic shower and galvanized tub oasis, surrounded by a pretty cedar privacy fence. I picture a steamy bath, looking up at the stars, with candles and incense burning on little log stands while I sip wine or homemade kombucha. When I propose this out loud, I get puzzled looks. Is she unhinged?? I’m sure not getting any buy-in to help me build my dream.

I’ve bought lots of parts, gizmos, and gewgaws that I thought might solve my problem. When the shower was offline, I got a solar shower bladder. One of those bags you fill with water and leave in the sun to warm up. It warmed up just fine, and the water came out nicely enough, but there was nowhere to hang it. Even if I wanted to spritz off outside (fully clothed), there are no big trees near the house. Inside, it was too heavy for the shower pipes, and it had to be positioned somewhere near a drain. After I bought a heavy duty, 5-foot-tall shepherd’s hook plant stand that kept tipping over, I nixed the indoor solar shower bag except for emergencies.

And I have looked at outdoor shower enclosures, but I’ve got no fence to hide one from plain sight. I wouldn’t blame any looky-loos passing by. I would look too if I was driving down the highway, and saw someone showering. It’s not like this is the beach. I can get real nostalgic about the ‘sixties in Santa Monica — my friends and I bikini-clad, dancing in the sand. “Those were the days… we thought they would never end.”  Well, many decades later, in this tiny Montana prairie town, we have pretty fierce weather that comes up on a moment’s notice. A shower enclosure would soon be gone with the wind.

I bought a stock tank with a drain plug. It actually might have worked in the mudroom (back porch) — except for the floor-on-an-angle issue. After I spent quite some time and several trips to the hardware store figuring out how to more or less securely attach a hose to drain the bathwater out the back door, I didn’t have the motivation to find new homes for all the stuff I would have to stash somewhere, and then possibly discover a fatal flaw in my plan that I hadn’t thought of.

I bought a plastic inflatable ofuro tub, a circular Japanese soaker with high sides that you step into. Surprisingly, that thing is almost usable. Almost for sure.

This whole thing started about 10 years ago, actually, when I bought a pre-fab shower surround, the smallest one I could find, RV-size. It was still too big. It would have needed to be cut and then jockeyed into place behind the exposed pipes. I gave up trying to find anyone supportive of this solution, so it’s sitting out in my garage (“garage” being a term I use loosely). Ultimately, I gave up and had to go with the sheetboard, with quarter-round in the corners. I’m so tired of settling for workarounds that are third-class makeshift survival hacks, I want to scream. In fact, I have screamed (into the wind) about this. Many times. In the end, I always end up taking what I can get. And I need a damn bathroom, no matter what it looks like. (A “damn bathroom” being preferable to none.)

In warm weather, the plumbing is reliable at least 80% of the time. In the winter, I keep a space heater going around the clock so the water doesn’t freeze. Leaving town for an extended trip means getting help to winterize the house – blowing out the pipes and turning off the water. It’s also prone to backing up. Last year, I bought a highly rated compost toilet that would be easier to deal with in the winter if I left, and would be a backup the rest of the year. I can’t quite figure out where, or how, to install it. Or find anyone who believes that these things are worthy of consideration. And this from a community where outhouses are still a vivid memory. My current plan is to get a big shed, and stick it in there.

You are probably head-scratching at this point, thinking WTH? Why is she living like this? I’m not ready to go there yet.


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4. Jolly times and fun facts

Lurking behind the linoleum wall covering in my old bathroomI’ve pulled the toilet and reseated it on a new wax ring twice in the last year, and it needs doing again. A handyman built a wooden platform for the “throne” so to speak, but the boards are now warped and popping up. Did I mention the floor is sloping down at a steep angle? Hard to level a toilet on that. Hard to stand up straight sometimes too. I got tired of rocking when seated, so I inserted little plastic shims under the base. I figured they’d also help stop the water leaking out around the sides. But like I said, the floorboards are warped, so this was not a perfect solution. A friend came over and tightened the two bolts holding the toilet down, but he’s not sure they aren’t going to work loose again. (They will.) A non-working bathroom is one of the situations that makes me really want to cry. Once, a handyman who sadly is no longer with us came, worked on it, couldn’t fix it right away, and left me with no bathroom. I was not a happy camper.

Moving on to the walls – someone in the fifties or forties thought it would be a good idea to cover them with sheets of linoleum. An inch-wide strip of black faux-tile linoleum was added as a decorative touch, an attempt at wainscoting I guess. All that linoleum is now coming unstuck, just hanging there, revealing a pervasive layer of haphazardly spattered black unremovable mastic. I’m going to tear off the linoleum, then try to primer and paint over the gob-smacked walls, and just ignore the bumpy texture. The stuff won’t pry loose, and it’s supposed to be hazardous if disturbed anyway.

That’s another fun fact about this house. It’s got toxic stuff in and on the walls. Lead paint, of course. That’s not remarkable for a house this old. But that black mastic, oh my. And then there’s the insulation. One summer in the sixties, I remember my grandparents being excited about just having had this installed. A contractor cut knotholes around the exterior, and blew Zonolite (vermiculite) into the house. This horrible substance was touted as a great way to insulate the houses in this area. It was from a now-closed mine in Libby, Montana. A superfund site. There was a class-action settlement many years later. I got authorization to claim $4000, and I still could do that, but hiring a certified crew for any remediation work would cost a lot more by a longshot. As the homeowner, I could do the work myself. Seriously, that is not going to happen. As long as I don’t disturb any toxic substances, I can make do. So that’s what I am doing. Making do.

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3. This is one hard-water town, Mabel.

Showerhead and pipes in old bathroom
Maybe I could sell it on eBay as a vintage plumbing fixture?

The water here is terrible. Technically, with all the softener chemicals added to it, it’s potable, but I don’t know anyone who drinks it out of the tap. Well, I used to know one person who did. She was a pretty tough cookie; one of my heroes. She also ate apple seeds, cyanide and all. And thrived.

Sediment builds up in all my fixtures and water-gulping appliances. Thick white salty crusty layers coat my dish drainer. The showerhead, old and rusty, plugs up all the time, then the faceplate flies off its stem. I’ve got the original, no-frills wetbath. If I notice the problem before the disc loses its grip, just as water starts to spray out from the perimeter, I can take a nail and a toothpick to open the holes. First I have to unscrew it and clean it with vinegar. This is, unlike rolling canned goods in the kitchen, not my idea of fun, particularly.

I look longingly online at beautiful showerheads that promise a selectable perfect-pressure flow, lit by a soothing palette of colors. With a nice handheld attachment. I’d need a custom-machined adapter of some kind because this one cannot be removed without cutting it off and replacing the pipe with new threads. Since all the water pipes in the house are exposed, this shouldn’t be too hard, but I’m not a plumber. Plumbers are hard to come by in these parts. Most people here try to do their own work. And learn the hard way what not to do. I’m not going to tempt fate. Even if I could find some encouraging You Tube tutorials, I don’t have the tools.

The bathroom door doesn’t fit anymore because of the floor-slope situation. There are big gaps top and bottom and on the sides of the door. It’s homemade out of beadboard. When I was a child visiting here in the summers, it latched. Recently I screwed in a hook and eye to hold it shut to make guests more comfortable. A friend sawed off some of the sides and bottom to make it closeable; too much, unfortunately. So now there are gaps. The hook and eye are too high for the grandkids to use, but at this stage they’re not too picky about privacy. They’re not due for another visit till next summer, so I’m not going to sweat it.

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2. Barely a headroom with barely any headroom

Christmas lights are my favorite thing about the holiday season. They lend such a warm, cheery glow indoors that I’m inspired to make every visible surface, nook, and cranny in this old house pleasing to the eye. It’s going to take some work!

I thought it would be a good idea to start my personal housing repair it/tear it/or forswear it venture by making a list of everything about this house that needs fixing that I couldn’t stand anymore. Not a list of everything that needs fixing, because that would take a week or more to write out and I don’t have enough whiteboard space. But everything that I can’t stand anymore. Turns out, I still don’t have enough whiteboard space (on my grandkids’ Fisher Price easel that I’ve co-opted for my weekly action plans). So I jotted down the most egregious house issues in a spiral notebook; I filled 2 pages with more to go. I’ll share some of these later if I can stand to overcome my mental paralysis when I look at this list. I know the right advice is to just do something. Start somewhere. The journey of the thousand steps, etc. But I have to constantly fight the overwhelming feeling of being stuck and wanting to give up. It’s hard not to think that this house is a bigger problem than my personal capacity to solve.

The main part was built as a small one-story farmhouse in about 1916 as far as I can tell. My dad was born in 1913, and the two sets of grandparents and his parents moved to Montana from Osakis, Minnesota when he was very young. More research is needed because the house only shows up in the county courthouse records starting in 1920 – the year it was moved into town from the homestead property, the latter later given up for taxes. Sometime after the building was moved into town, by mules (so I was told), a second story for sleeping, a kitchen, and front and back porches were added on. Hence, the seams. These are now separating as the unstable gumbo underneath shifts, buckles, cracks, and slopes. I can roll a can across the kitchen or out the back door just by setting it on the floor. Cheap amusement.

Here’s my plan: work toward my goals room by room, starting with the bathroom. In the early 1930s, a bathroom was added to the back porch. When the indoor plumbing was first installed, it was probably a stretch to trust it. When I was a kid in the 1950s there was still an outhouse in the yard. I thought it was quite a novelty, something I could brag about to my friends back home in the city. Believe me, there have been many dismal days and nights when I have wished that primitive privy was standing and functional. Portable potties are not a good substitute unless you’re camping. Sometimes I feel like I am. When any of the indoor systems stop working, I become an in-town boondocker. Back to nature is one thing. Living off-grid has always appealed to me. But surviving inside a dysfunctional house that depends on archaic infrastructure to deliver the bare necessities – forget about amenities – that, my friends, is a challenge.

The bathroom is little more than a water closet, 75 inches long by 32 inches wide. Toilet, small shower. Overhead lightbulb. No sink. The only code it would pass would be some mythical frontier days Code of the West. That’s assuming cowboys and townsfolk were much smaller in stature back then. It’s become pretty clear that this house was never intended to last 100 years.

Talking about people being generally bigger now than in the early part of the 20th century, I have to walk upstairs sideways. I’m not a large person, but my 7-1/2 size shoes just barely fit going forward on the stairs. For safety, I walk at an angle as I grab the handrail which stops shy of the last two steps on either end. But I digress.


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1. Stick-built in the ’teens and still standing.

My fixer-upper life front of house imageThis is the story of my house. It needs fixing. Maybe it needs to be torn down. Maybe I should abandon it and build a tiny house. Maybe I should move into one of my travel trailers. Or into a new trailer. Maybe I should move into my 2-room + storeroom/no bathroom little house next door. Maybe I should go live full-time in my vintage 1962 trailer sitting in one of the last throwback trailer parks in the City of Los Angeles. Maybe I should move somewhere completely different. Maybe I should build a miniature golf course on the lots north of the little house next door and make some money. And a name for myself. So many options! So little money. So few hard DIY skills. Well, you heard it here. I’ve got to do something. This is my shout-out to the universe and anyone who’s reading this that the clock starts now!

This old, dilapidated, stick-built relic of a house that my two great grandfathers built sits bravely right off a two-lane state highway running through a remote area of Eastern Montana. It’s on the edge of what some would call “nowhere,” but there is a town here (population ~96). I’ve got roots here, and I own a whole block and then some.

The house has been in my family for four generations. It is not an exaggeration to say that it is falling apart at the seams. Quite literally. I mean, you can feel the wind and see daylight in places where some of the corners don’t line up any more. I love it, I’m embarrassed by it, I’m fiercely proud of it, it depresses me, it makes me cry, it makes me laugh. I am going to fix it or leave it or both.

Things are going to change.

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