(Photo: Brian Powell/ Stocksy)

Up in Smoke: A Renovation Nightmare

After a couple of years careening back and forth between considerations about where to live, how to live and what we want to do with the next 50 years of our lives, my husband, Dave, and I finally committed ourselves to a big renovation project. It included an expanded living space, hardwood floors, new doors and windows, a new kitchen, new heating and cooling…the whole nauseating enchilada.

Exactly four months ago, we broke ground, planning to be back in our home in time to host Thanksgiving in our newly-expanded dining room.

But that was before the fire.

Allow me to back up a bit.

The decision to renovate was not an easy one. When we bought this house several years ago, the home inspector looked at its crawl space full of decaying joists, its attic full of black mold and the varmint hole as wide as a dachshund dug under the kitchen floorboards and shook his head and said, “Well, I can see why the price is so low. But listen. Do not invest any money into this place. If you decide to do anything, just tear it down and start from scratch. Build yourself a real house.”

We were purchasing it as a second home, close to my family and steps from the Delaware River. What care we for a little rot? We filled the critter hole with rocks, sprayed some Clorox on the mold, and shoved a few cinderblocks under the broken joists. Done, done and done. On to summer weekends full of kayaks, bike rides and barbecues in the big back yard!

Recent events, however, forced us to consider turning our vacation cottage into a full-time home. It was a lot to think about, particularly with the home inspector’s advice still echoing in the back of our minds. Ultimately, though, rather than tossing our house into a landfill, Dave and I decided to work with what we had. Moreover, we decided to keep the house small, adding only one room (a second bathroom/laundry room) and expanding another (the dining room). We realized that by doing so we could afford to add nice touches like hardwood floors, energy-efficient windows, cedar siding and high-end appliances.

We would live small but well.

And so began the odyssey of financing, planning and obtaining permits. This phase took us nearly three months — or approximately two months and two weeks longer than I’d expected. Ever the optimist, I honestly thought that both the bank and the local township would hand out cash and permits without question because really, what is the big deal?

“HA!” I say to my former self, that sweet innocent who knew nothing of lot coverages and snow loads and cavity insulation calculations. We wouldn’t be able to afford those aforementioned “nice touches” if we hired an architect and a general contractor, so I spent the entirety of last summer learning about building codes and drafting software, all while practicing to appear both nice and competent before the local zoning officer.

When the permits finally came in, the entire family moved into our detached garage. We fit two adults, a 13-year-old boy, a black lab and our necessary clothing, computers, furniture and seventeen or so remote controls into a space intended for two cars and a lawn mower. We jammed the rest of our worldly goods into a borrowed horse trailer in the driveway, and then we were ready to break ground. When the excavator lifted that first shovelful, Dave and I had that “oh hell, now we’re screwed” moment, and it’s been a non-stop rollercoaster ever since.

(Photo courtesy Annette Earling)
Annette’s husband Dave, son Calvin and her. Their 2016 holiday card, taken an hour before the fire. (Photo courtesy Annette Earling)

Anyone who has ever been through a major renovation can only nod their head in sympathy at this point. The endless decisions, the setbacks, the surprises, the bizarrely expensive things (digging holes and running electrical wires) compared with the crazily inexpensive ones (why are toilets so cheap??). And the non-stop intrusion of men…men banging, men stomping, men trailing sawdust, screws and blobs of spackle with every step they take. Where oh where are the women plumbers, painters, insulation installers and carpenters? We need you!

As the general contractor, I’ve barely been able to leave the house except for emergency runs to the Home Depot — once my beloved shrine to home improvement, now a despised den of confusion. Because it’s one thing to glide dreamily through the tile department but quite another to visit three different Depot’s searching for the exact adhesive that your tile guy wants because he’s cutting you a deal if you purchase the materials yourself. I haven’t had a haircut or a manicure or lunch with a friend in months because I learned early that the moment I leave the house is the moment we end up with a toilet in the bedroom or an electrical switch on the ceiling…all because I wasn’t there and someone thought it was what I wanted even though ‘yeah, it seemed kind of weird.’

But we were muddling through. We ate lots of dinners out or whatever we could nuke in our mini-microwave. We learned not to drink too much water after dinner so that we didn’t have to trudge through the yard at 3 a.m. to use the bathroom. We washed our dishes in the bathtub, never quite sure which was more unsanitary, the dishes or the shower later that evening.

Thanksgiving came and went as new surprises cropped up. Three joists were completely rotted through in the living room. The sill plate that once supported the rear of the house was decayed to dust. Our deck supports were barely woven together by threads of rust. We simply re-adjusted our budgets and forged ahead. Who needs granite countertops when butcher block will do? Maybe only the rear of the house needs to be sided with cedar; the rest can be done in pine.

We rolled through it all.

Until the fire.

We fit two adults, a 13-year-old boy, a black lab and our necessary clothing, computers, furniture and seventeen or so remote controls into a space intended for two cars and a lawn mower.

It was the week before Christmas, and we were getting ready to move back in. We had recently installed our beautiful kitchen and our stunning new stove, above which I had spread a large piece of cardboard to protect its glass top from the hustle of contractors. I wrote in fat letters with a black Sharpie: DO NOT PLACE ANYTHING HEAVY HERE.

That Saturday, Dave and I were preparing to install our gorgeous stainless steel range hood, leaning over the stove together as we measured the wall above it. Our measurements taken, Dave said, “Let’s go grab some breakfast.”

“Great idea,” I said. “We’ll work better if we eat something.”

We went just ‘round the corner for breakfast. I had the spinach and swiss omelet and chatted with a few old friends. We were back in our driveway within 30 or 40 minutes.

And opened the door to pure chaos.

The smoke detectors were screaming and the house was so full of black smoke that we couldn’t see three feet into the house. All we could do for the first few moments was stare in confusion. What was causing all this smoke? Could it be…


Dave dialed 911 as I ran to the back of the house and opened the rear door to let the smoke out of there as well. When I peered through the open door, I saw it.

It was so small, just a sweet little campfire, really. A sweet little campfire burning on top of my kitchen countertop.

I always keep a fire extinguisher in my kitchen, and if you don’t, you need to go out and buy one TODAY. I ran in, pulled the pin and sprayed the base of the fire. I couldn’t stay long thanks to the smoke, but in the few moments I was there, I saw two things: One, a drill battery in its charging station directly behind the fire.

“GODDAMNED CONTRACTOR!” I thought to myself. “His cheap-ass battery has set our beautiful house on fire!”

The second thing I noticed was a glowing orange light, off to the right of the fire. It wasn’t affected by the extinguisher, but merely glowed steadily as I sprayed.

The electric burner. Either Dave or I had turned it on with our hip as we were measuring above the stove, and it had ignited the cardboard that I’d spread across it. To protect it. From the contractors.

The cardboard went up first, igniting the butcher-block countertop on either side of the stove. The burning counters destroyed the cabinets above them. Then the cardboard dropped to the floor and burned a long slash of newly installed oak flooring, which in turn charred the cabinets above it. That entire side of the kitchen was lost.

But this was nothing compared to the smoke. Oh, lord help me, the smoke.

Firefighters inspecting after the fire. (Photo courtesy Annette Earling)

The firefighters came quickly, and they were wonderful at pulling out the worst of the burned items, checking for any remaining embers and clearing the house of smoke. But they couldn’t clear out the soot that it had left behind. Black, greasy particles covered every single millimeter of the house, in every nook and in every newly mitered cranny. Our brand-new insulation was now saturated with soot. Our new heating and air conditioning ducts were lined with black dust. Our fresh white spackle, now suffused with smoke.

It has been almost three weeks since the fire. Our insurance company has been phenomenal and is covering all of the cleanup and the repairs. Since we already have a slew of contractors on hand, it has been easy to get people in to replace the insulation and heating ducts, pull out the burned cabinets and replace the charred floor.

Tomorrow, the new kitchen arrives, and if all goes well we may be able to move out of this garage and into our house on Saturday.

We keep reminding ourselves how lucky we are. Most of our stuff — clothes, computers, 47 remote controls — was out of the house. Our beloved dog was safe in the garage. No one was hurt, and nothing irreplaceable was destroyed.

The firefighters told me that I may have saved the house. “You’re lucky,” they told me. “This entire place could have burned down.”

“Hmm,” I thought to myself, remembering that home inspector’s words. “Yes, so lucky.”

So for now, I continue to renovate our renovation. But someday soon, we’ll be snuggled on the couch together, trying to figure out which remote will take us to Amazon Prime. We’ll be drinking big cups of tea, knowing that we have two bathrooms within walking distance. The dog will be fighting for someone to scratch her on the chest, and the dishwasher will be humming away in our sparkling new kitchen.

Then it will sink in.

Yes — so lucky.

(Photo: Brian Powell/ Stocksy)

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