The Money Pit: A Cautionary Tale

Money Pit - HazmatBrace yourselves for another yarn from Cubert today. A trip down memory lane, where I share a tale of woe so YOU can avoid the same mistakes. The money pit I refer to in the post title is our house, of course.

If you’re not familiar with the term “money pit” or the movie that made it famous, you should give it a watch. Just be sure to ignore those rotten tomatoes.

Our very own personal money pit adventure might not warrant so much as a titter, much less a chuckle. But you might come away informed and mildly amused…

By the end of it all we’d sunk north of $10,000 into an otherwise pretty solid old house. It’s not an astronomical amount of money and we didn’t come away with anything glamorous like a bidet mind you.

Nope. This whole sordid affair was simply a chain of events that started with a common problem in many old homes: water in the basement. I’d have preferred the bidet.

That familiar problem – Water in the basement

Old houses often come with two features: One is a basement. The other is cracks in the foundation. So when the monsoon rains fell one hot and humid August day, Mrs. Cubert and I came home to find the carpeting in our finished basement soaking wet and spongy.

Since we were still paying the credit card bills on our honeymoon to the British Virgin Islands, I had a mustachian notion of fixing this problem all on my own.

I spent the entire day one weekend digging all the dirt out of our front flower beds. I put down heavy plastic and glued that shit to the foundation walls. And I even shoveled the dirt back on top of the plastic. We were impenetrable!

Until it rained again.

We were greeted with still more water in the basement. This time I said, “Screw it. We’re getting drain tile.”

Mrs. Cubert was cool with that. She felt bad about my sore back and calloused hands from all that manual labor for naught. The seeds of our love affair with Mike Holmes were planted.

Money Pit - Mike Holmes
Did you know they made these? Christmas list!

The Drain Tile Project – Full of Surprises

Right off the bat things went pretty well with this project. The contractor decided that we only needed half of our basement drain-tiled to solve the water intrusion problem. This was great news, since we’d save over $5,000 and avoid having to rip out drywall and bathroom tiling in the finished half of our basement.

We spent $2,500 for the drain tile / sump setup, and now we’re on to new carpeting. $800. Ring it up! The basement looks great, and it feels great. No more worries about stepping into wet, spongy carpet. No more fears about mold. I even took the bull by the horns and redid a section of drywall all by myself.

Total invested: $3,300.

The thing about drain tile and sump systems is…

If you’ve never heard of the dangers of radon gas, it’s definitely worth a few minutes of your time. The stuff creeps up through the foundation of your home and is odorless. It can cause lung cancer.

From The US EPA has set an action level of 4 pCi/L. At or above this level of radon, the EPA recommends you take corrective measures to reduce your exposure to radon gas. This does not imply that a level below 4.0 pCi/L is considered acceptable, as stated in the BEIR VI study.

After our drain tile was installed, our contractor, by law, ran a radon test in our house. The level of radon came back at 11. The second test (to be sure of things) came back at 13. Break out the hazmat suits.
Did you know they made these??? Christmas list!!!

Radon mitigation, here we come

Already in for $3,300, we now had to spring for a radon mitigation system. Radon mitigation works something like this: imagine sticking a straw in your Mentos-agitated Coca-Cola, and sucking on it forever to keep the fizz from pouring over.
Here’s the “straw” of a radon mitigation system.

The cost to run the PVC tubing that taps into your drain tile, all the way up behind wall cavities and through the roof of your house? $1,600. There’s a little fan that constantly runs up in the attic, attached to the end of the “straw.” This little hummer eats up about $5 a month in electricity.

We’re now at $4,900 total invested. Not including the ongoing cost of running the radon fan. At least our radon levels are lower than the outside ambient air.

A few byproducts of a radon mitigation system: One, since the “straw” is constantly extracting the damp air from under your slab, you get a much drier basement. Within a day, we noticed how much less damp it was downstairs.

On the downside, the constant pulling of air out of your house creates negative air pressure. That means your gas-firing appliances (like a hot water heater) can leach carbon monoxide into your living environment with ease.

In the on-deck circle: Sidewall Insulation

Thanks to the radon fan creating negative air pressure, the house now tends to get a bit drafty in the winter time. With newborn twins we’re no longer willing to put up with it. You can’t have cold air making babies (or their parents) cranky. Oh, and we’ll have to eventually fix that little carbon monoxide nuisance too.

The solution? Let’s cut softball-sized holes all around the outside of our house in an uneven zipper pattern, and pump in newspaper filling.

That’s exactly what the contractor did. And for the privilege of making our house look like it’d been shot up in a tee-shirt bazooka-gun clown-car drive-by, we paid about $2,000.

To be fair, the sidewall insulation had the effect of throwing a blanket on our house. The furnace now runs much less often, and the house is much less dry and drafty in winter.

The problem (as we soon learned) is that sidewall insulation turns your house into a wine cellar. The climate stays more constant and that’s a good thing. But there’s also not much air exchange going on.

All of the sudden, the stale, clammy, and moist air starts to form droplets on the insides of our windows. From the street, you’d think we were running an illicit Finnish sauna. If there’s one thing you should know as an aspiring home owner: moisture in all forms is a plague from the gods to be purged at all costs.

Total invested: $6,900. And we’re not done yet.

Heat Recovery Ventilation System (HRV), where have you been all my life???

The granddaddy of comfort living in northern climes. The ultimate deliverer of fresh air in the darkest, coldest days of Canadian-induced Minnesota winter. Welcome, HRV. I love you.

Check this thing out: It’s a whole-home air-exchanger that brings in fresh, cold, dry outside air, and passes that air over exhausted stale warm air to warm it up. Hence, “Heat Recovery.” The things people think of these days.

Money Pit HRV
I should mention it costs about $10 a month in electricity to run this bad-boy during winter months.

An HRV is worth every penny. It solved the problem of too much moisture in our house, while bringing in fresh air during a period when viruses run rampant. Our HRV solved the problem of low-level carbon monoxide creeping in from the negative air pressure caused by the radon mitigation system.

Some might ask, “Why don’t you just open a window?” It’s a great point. But to fully resolve the dripping wet windows we’d have to leave all of our windows open while running the furnace fan constantly. That’s (ironically) how effective sidewall insulation can be.

The benefits of conditioned air during the winter months are impressive. Our heating bill is roughly a third lower than in previous winters. Also, the improved air quality helps us all sleep better at night.

It’s really important to clear out trapped particles that accumulate when a home is all closed up in winter (carbon monoxide, smoke from cooking, radon, diaper stink, etc.)

Total invested: $9,500

The rest of the story

Hanging in there? We also put in a range vent during this five-year saga. Our home air quality has improved significantly, now that our frugalicious home-cooking cooks can send those smoky particles up and out through the roof.

That was a DIY project. Yes, I managed to sneak in more than just a little drywall repair from the original drain tile effort. However, I will tell you with all vehement honesty that installing a range vent sucks. The only enjoyable part was poking a hole through our roof to put the vent cap on. At least I was outside.

Money Pit
Moving the heat supply duct from up there (why??) to the toe-kick under the kitchen sink was another fun side project…

The worst part? Chiseling away ever so gently on a section of roof framing inside the attic during a hot summer’s day to allow a duct elbow to connect to the roof cap. See, this project sucked because attic work sucks. Ever wonder why you don’t see Mike Holmes up in attics on his shows?

Anyhow, that project ran about $500. I got a really nice, used range vent from Craigslist. About half the cost was having an electrician hard-wire the thing.

Total invested: $10,000

The point of all this

Home ownership ain’t cheap. Moisture and water intrusion can lead to a chain of events you can’t always anticipate. And when you’ve got perfectionist tendencies and a honey badger mindset like I do, things get complicated. That said, I’m confident the $10,000 invested has increased our home’s market value, dollar-for-dollar.

For now, we’ve got the freshest air on the block, a cozy “blanket” to keep our house warm, and no threat of water to send us off the deep-end worrying about mold. Safety of the air you breathe is all too important, especially with kids in the mix.

Now I’m off to find a Gus Fring action figure for my wish list.

Comments 16

  1. You aren’t making me feel better about home ownership! At least you found solutions to everything – I didn’t even know that something like HRV’s existed for residential applications. I really like the idea of improvements like this, but everyone on HGTV freaks out when the contractor recommends insulation or something else very necessary.

    May your days be deplete of attic work.

  2. Oh my god, reading this gave me palpitations. We moved into our home over a year ago and we were comparatively fortunate with the little annoyances we’ve had to fix. I think the most expensive issue was our A/C going out, but it was covered by our home warranty, thankfully.

    Sorry you had to go through this; it aaaaabsolutely sucks.

    1. I must confess, the issues were spread out over an eight year span, like I mentioned to Dylan. Now, if I had to deal with all this in a single year or two, I’d be having MAJOR palpitations myself.

  3. Haha – thanks for the shout out! UPDATE – she messaged me to see if the plumber could come install the bidet for her. Ugh. I have yet to find out the outcome of that but no news is good news I hope.

    As for your story…holy shit! I mean, I have definitely been there when we gutted and added on to our home but reading it all post brought me right back. Home Reno PTSD is a thing… I am glad you got it all under control for now. Radon is no bueno nor is carbon monoxide!! 10k is certainly worth all the peace in mind you could buy.

  4. First off, I love the Breaking Bad references. Secondly, you are right about the cost of owning a house. It’s always something. We had to install the radon system before selling our former house. $1200 for us. It measured just slightly higher than the cut off. Son of a…..Our new place tested below so the sellers got off lucky.

    We have drain tile and a sump which runs once in a while if we are getting dumped on. We haven’t had any substantial rains (3 inches plus) yet since we’ve been here so we’ll see how it goes when we do. Such a pain to worry about that stuff though.

  5. ah yes, radon. Unfortunately we didn’t have it tested here when we move in 3 years ago. I decided about a year ago to test it after reading that our area is prone to high levels of it. First test was around a 10. I then found an airtight (bombproof??) cover and installed it over our open sump pit. Re -tested and now it’s a 7.1. So that made a difference, but still not within EPA guidelines. Our basement isn’t finished so other than laundry we don’t use it too much other than to store things. My understanding is as you move up from the basement the number usually falls??? I haven’t tested it and should probably do so. Oh, the joys of Eff’ing home ownership!! 🙂

    1. Hey Matt! I would still consider the mitigation route. In winter time you’ll get the stack effect and that basement air will find its way into your upper levels. That also holds true in summer air conditioning season. I’m no expert in this, so I urge caution. Thanks!

    1. Good luck, Ms. 99! Please do get it checked out. I know that some regions of the U.S. are more susceptible to radon than others. Here in the upper Midwest and in Minnesota in particular, radon levels can be high in one house, and very low in the next.

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