It’s that time of year again. The time when the air conditioners get taken out of the windows, and the plastic film finally goes on. And I appreciate the biggest expenditure I’ve made on the duplex thus far — new storms and vinyl windows. When I first bought my duplex, the storm windows were in sorry shape. There were holes in many of the screens, and several broken glass panes too, which I got fixed immediately after I moved in. My floor had some rickety old two-track storm windows, and the upstairs had the very unruly three-track variety.
There are many electrical shortcomings in my duplex. Lucky for me, I have a friend who is an electrical engineer, and likes to work on houses. Of course, I don’t want to wear out my favors with him, but he’s started helping me with a few wiring projects here and there. I’m a bit sheepish when it comes to electricity (beyond installing new light fixtures, etc.), so it works out well for me.
About a year ago, I was sprucing up my rental unit so that it would look more attractive to prospective renters (either it worked, or I really didn’t have to, because I found renters within a week).
One of the improvements I made was replacing the old outdated square pull-chain light fixtures.
If you’re like me, you’d rather not trouble your contractors with endless questions about how much things will cost. Granted, I’m sure that they hear plenty of “so, just ballpark-wise, how much would it cost to…” But I know that it’s difficult to give an accurate estimate without knowing a lot of the specifics of the job, and they don’t want to throw out a number that they’ll then feel held to. I’ve found a good online tool, however,that I use for a lot of theoretical “I wonder how much it would cost to…” ideas.
As I began embarking upon my insulation project, it quickly became apparent why there was it hadn’t been modernized with insulation — a good share of the upstairs was still utilizing the old (original to the house, built in 1900) knob-and-tube wiring — which doesn’t necessarily mix well with insulation.
When I bought my duplex in 2003, at had a brand new roof on it — the previous owner had put it on just before selling the duplex. I can guess why the roof was previously in disrepair — there was ZERO insulation in the attic. None, zip, zilch, zero. In the year 2003!!!!! Now, while this may not be a big deal in some parts of the country, where I live the temperature frequently dips below zero in the winter, and insulation is a pretty important thing — for keeping heating bills low, as well as keeping the roof in good shape. What did the lack of insulation have to do with the condition of the roof, you might ask? ICE DAMS…
When I bought my duplex, the back stairway was a quite a menagerie: the walls were cracked, the ancient high gloss brown paint on the woodwork was coming off in sheets, there was faux wood paneling going halfway up the walls, and… to top it all off… dark green (argyle patterned!) shag carpeting. Oh, a bare bulb fixture and some stained curtains (those were easy enough to lose). It was only the back stairway, yes, but the trouble is this — every time I did a showing of the upstairs apartment, the tenants would want to see the laundry room. Which required parading them through this claustrophobic catastrophe. I could see on their faces how the stairway changed their impression of the apartment. And so began my first major cosmetic update project. After it was finished, the stairway had been transformed from mid-century tacky to bright and airy 1900s farmhouse — much better for showings.
In my very humble opinion, self-stick vinyl tile is a very, very bad idea. Yes, it’s cheap, easy to install yourself (well, relatively easy, anyway) and comes in some decent-looking designs. But for a duplex, it just doesn’t hold up.
The previous owner of my duplex installed some of the self-stick stuff in my rental unit, in the kitchen and bathroom, right before selling the house. It made the house look nicer for the sale, and he, of course, wasn’t concerned about the longevity of his improvement.
However, exactly 12 months after the installation, I got a note from my tenants, saying that some of the tile had started to “flip up.”
recently went apartment-hunting for a friend of mine, and found everything I had read about curb appeal to be very true. I formed a very sharp opinion of each property before ever setting foot in the door. I tried my best not to judge a book by its cover; the interiors of some duplexes were better maintained than the exteriors. But most people want to live in a house that they’re proud to drive up to. Somewhere that their mother can visit them and not feel that their son is living in dire straights. A few things screamed out at me as simple, inexpensive things that would have made the outsides of these duplexes much more appealing.
Sometimes there’s only so much you can do about curb appeal. Since I’ve bought my duplex, I’ve done a lot to improve how it looks from the street. I’ve removed four overgrown bushes in the front of the house (you can see the windows now!) and planted hydrangeas, tulips, daffodils and crocuses in the now open flowerbed. I’ve scraped and painted the foundation, painted the front railings, painted the front steps, replaced the front storm door, painted the front door, removed the faux wood paneling and three-season carpeting from the front porch, replaced the dirt driveway with stylish brick pavers, and kept the grass neatly trimmed. Especially when I’m trying to rent the duplex. Everyone I know has remarked on how much better it looks — like they’re walking into a whole different house.
However, my next door neighbors nearly always have a front yard that looks like a prairie. The backyard is also a prairie, with the slight variation of bikes, tents, furniture, toys, clothes that have fallen from the line, and other sundry eyesores.
Eventually, once I’m a seasoned landlady, I’ll have my crew assembled: Electrician, Plumbing, General Contractor/Handyman, Appliance Repairman…. As it is right now, I have one drain-clearing guy that I like, and an appliance repairman. Luckily, I haven’t had to call in that many professionals. Right now, though, there is an issue with the upstairs tub drain that is beyond my skills and frustration level, so I went onto Angie’s List to find a good plumber to call. Here’s how I went about interviewing contractors, and making the final decision:
I’ve always vacuumed the stairs going up to my rental unit. The tenants are the only ones who use them, but I figure its part of my common area responsibilities.
Until the new people moved in, and asked if there was an outlet in the hall, so they could vacuum the stairs.
Bonus! Self-cleaning tenants!
Perhaps my father is right; I am officially too old to be pulling all-nighters. My friends who own rental property were all very impressed with me and my overnight industriuosness; their duplexes are all in much better shape than mine, so they aren’t quite as motivated about fixing them up.
Last week I had the pleasure of turning over my upstairs apartment in only 24 hours. Actually, it was less than that, because the old tenants were an hour or so late in vacating the apartment, and the new ones called early in the morning on the first, wondering if they could start moving some things in. Valiantly, I pulled an all-nighter working in the apartment — doing general turnover maintenance and also squeezing in some improvements. I got a lot done, but it took me a few days to recover (as my father thoughtfully informed me, “I’m getting too old to be pulling that kind of thing anymore”). Thanks, Dad. Yes, and I also know that I’m an old maid for not being married at 30…
I had my to-do list all worked out, but things rarely go according to plan.
My new tenants will be moving out on May 31st (at noon), and the new ones are moving in on June 1st (at noon). That means that I have precisely twenty four hours to:
- Clean the apartment thoroughly if the current tenants fail to do so
- Change the locks and get new keys made
- Replace the batteries in all of the smoke alarms
- Replace the outlets and outlet covers that the tenants have (unfortunately) painted over
- Paint the bathroom walls and ceiling (this is the only room that didn’t get painted during the last turnover)
- Caulk and paint the old wainscoating in the pantry
- Stain and varnish the new windowsills in the sunroom
- Any other miscellaneous fixes and spruce-ups that I discover while I’m up there.
- If I have extra time (which I doubt that I will) I’d really like to paint the ceilings. We’ll see.
THE PULL CHAIN SOLUTION
I had an epiphany while I was at the store the other day, waiting for them to mix my (Ralph Lauren) paint. I was browsing the ceiling fan aisle; they’re expensive, but I was thinking of putting one in the living room upstairs. It’s mostly pull-chain lights up there, so I thought that was my only option for replacing the ugly, out-dated fixtures. and then…. I found them. Ceiling fan light kits. With optional semi-flush installation! They work with pull chains! They look great, a million times better than what’s up there, and for a lot less than a ceiling fan. I buy them. I’m putting these up before the apartment showings on Saturday. this will be great.
When I moved into the duplex, there was an old coin-operated washing machine in the basement laundry room. It worked fine, except for that it left the clothes really, really wet. But only sometimes. I had bigger initial issues to deal with, and my first group of tenants brought most of their laundry to their parents’ houses, so I got used to using it as-is.
My current tenants recently asked me if I could have it looked at. I try to keep my tenants happy (I want them to stay forever!), so I looked into getting it fixed or replaced.