Attic Hallway The Victorian House Upgrades and Maintenance

Setbacks in Rewiring Our 1891 Victorian House

More progress has been made in the rewiring of our Victorian, but it has not been going well.

The problems all started when we lost power to the second floor in October, 2014. The electrical system was unsafe and we quickly had the problem repaired, but we discovered active knob and tube in dangerous condition throughout the house. Here’s what I wrote in an update from July of the next year.

“The light above the stove sparked and burned a light bulb in Brandon’s hand as he was changing it out one day, which was more than a little scary. In an unrelated event (I think), we mysteriously lost power to a portion of the second floor. While our electricians were fixing that problem, they found active knob and tube that was missed during our initial house inspection, and thus began the rewiring of the entire place. The bulk of the job is done now, but it was suggested that we wait to finish the rest when we didn’t have a newborn. We agreed and then we were waiting until after we hosted my sister’s bridal shower in the house (which I will share next week), and now we’ll be able to get back to it as soon as we can get back on the electricians’ schedule. A ceiling is coming down, walls are being opened, and the house is going to be in a state of chaos for a while, but I’m looking forward to getting this work done because it has been holding other projects back.”

Work resumed in November, 2015. When we tried to have our electrician back out to continue rewiring the house, we found out he had “left the company,” and we suspect that he may have been fired. We came to realize, after having a new team of electricians out, that we may have gotten screwed because at that point we had spent a lot of money and thought a lot more work had been completed. It’s a sick-to-your-stomach feeling, and I don’t feel great about putting this out there, but that’s the truth of what happened. Turns out “the bulk of the job” having been completed was pretty inaccurate.

The third floor, being farthest from the basement where the electric panels are, is the most difficult part of the house to rewire. The plan was to start there, working down floor by floor, until the whole house had been done. When we paused work the first time (because I was about to give birth and caring for a newborn is hard enough without having workers tearing apart your house everyday), the third floor was supposedly done. The whole house was supposedly 80% finished, which didn’t really sound right since they had only been doing the top level, but OK. Maybe because they had fished new lines up, it would all be easier to go from there? Yeah, no. Turns out the whole level was still on one circuit, meaning that a big portion of the work that we thought had been done had not. WTF.

Even the repairs attempted by that first guy’s team were done poorly. It sounded great, in theory, that one company could handle rewiring the house and fixing things up again after they were done, but after seeing what they did, we told them to stop. They’re electricians, we reasoned. Let’s not judge based on their ability to fix a wall.

Damage After Rewiring, Third Floor

You see why we told them to stop “fixing” the holes? We would do it ourselves, or hire somebody who knew what they were doing (and likely at a lower hourly rate).

Damage After Rewiring, Third Floor

Damage After Rewiring, Baseboard, Third Floor

There was also a new scuttle hole made in the hallway ceiling. They were super proud of the way it turned out.

New Scuttle Hole for Rewiring, Attic, Unfinished

Bad repairs, the work wasn’t done properly, and so much money was wasted. Brandon is angry about the whole situation; I’m just sad. I love this house, but it is not making it easy on us.

A new team of electricians started in November. They split the third floor up into different circuits, fixing problems along the way, and they rewired the second floor. They found a chase that runs all the way down to the basement, which they used to run new lines up. We had thought that the ceiling in the hallway would have to come down, but instead they ran conduit along the surface and we will have to drop a new drywall ceiling below, keeping as much of the height as we can. Our hallway looks like this right now.

Hallway Ceiling, Second Floor, with Conduit for Electrical Rewiring

Hallway Ceiling, Second Floor, with Conduit for Electrical Rewiring

It looked like this when we remodeled the second floor before Calvin was born, so we’re kind of used to this sort of thing by now, but still. It was finished and nice for a little while.

Second Floor Hallway being Remodeled

The cheap toggles for the hall lights will be switched out for the reproduction push-button switches we’ve installed elsewhere throughout the house, but they’re a little finicky, so we’ll put them up after the mess of drywalling, patching, sanding, and painting has been finished. The hallway will get sconces, too! It’s all going to look very nice, if you can see past its current condition.

Light Switches

Portions of the house did have newer wiring and therefore escaped with minimal damage, but nearly every room on the second and third floor is in need of at least a little repair. This is the wall in one of the bedrooms, on the other side of those light switches.

A Hole in the Wall

The house is still not completely rewired. The second and third floors are done though, as are the outlets on the first floor that were easily accessible from the basement. All of the ceiling fixtures and wall switches on the first floor still need to be done. Our potential kitchen renovation is off the table for now and we’re thinking that we shouldn’t even worry about rewiring it yet because there’s going to be a lot of damage (in a room with wallpaper, beadboard, and a tin ceiling) and it’s going to be expensive. It may be best to finish everything else and apply the money we would spend in the kitchen on a full gut reno, opening up the walls to reconfigure the layout and addressing the wiring then.

We are pausing the electrical work a second time because our finances need time to rebound a bit while we fix the walls and ceilings upstairs. A new ceiling along the entire second floor hallway won’t be cheap, but it will be a lot easier to knock out than the rewiring has been. It all needs to be done sooner rather than later, but the old wiring has been in place for decades and it can sit tight for just a little longer. Up next for us is the One Room Challenge, which I am ridiculously excited about because I need something back in order. I need a break to just concentrate on making something pretty! The closet/dressing room was a nice project — one that I thought was done. And then it turns out that there was an old line feeding the light fixture. Four new holes were made.

Holes in the Closet's Plaster Walls

Oh, and this person-sized hole on the third floor to access the closet’s ceiling fixture from above. Fun times.

A Person-Sized Hole in the Attic Playroom Wall

Two floors down. Sort of. One to go.

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  • Laura @ Rather Square
    April 4, 2016 at 3:09 pm

    Oh wow, sorry for all the setbacks you’ve been having! At least the new wiring sounds up to code now and hopefully no more lightbulbs will explode in your hands. And soon you’ll be back to “pretty” projects.

  • Laura
    April 4, 2016 at 3:17 pm

    How frustrating. I hope you are able to recoup some of the money you spent with the incompetent company.

  • JessiBee
    April 4, 2016 at 3:28 pm

    Oh man, that is terrible to hear! It’s an awful feeling to give your trust (not to mention your money) to people with less than good intentions. What a violation! Glad to hear that things are finally on the right track for you though and maybe you can finally really start enjoying your beautiful home!

  • Kelly
    April 4, 2016 at 4:04 pm

    I’m sorry this sucks. But it may be lucky you paused the work and had the opportunity to find out the work hadn’t been done. Can you imagine clients he’s had that think everything is okay when it may not be? Yikes! Can you report him to a licensure board?

    • Making it Lovely
      April 5, 2016 at 8:49 am

      Yes, that pause actually worked in our favor, thank goodness.

  • Lauralou
    April 4, 2016 at 4:43 pm

    Good grief. I can’t imagine how you are feeling but you still sound positive. At least you’ll have lots to blog about. And you could start training the kids on the fine art of drywall!

    • Making it Lovely
      April 5, 2016 at 8:57 am

      They’ve got to earn their keep somehow!

  • Danielle
    April 4, 2016 at 4:47 pm

    Oh no! I’m so, so sorry to hear of your troubles! Hang in there old house – and hang in there, Balch family!!

  • Alison
    April 4, 2016 at 5:04 pm

    Wow, just wow, what a cautionary tale for anyone considering buying an older home, including one in seemingly good repair per an inspection. Out of curiosity, did this work have to be permitted? Just wondering if you had to factor permits and inspections and dealing with that whole process into your timeline. Also, if you were buying an old house like this again, do you think you’d have the systems inspected independently, i.e. a separate electrical inspection, HVAC inspection, etc.? I’ve heard that recommendation made sometimes and wonder what you think of it given your experiences.

    • Making it Lovely
      April 5, 2016 at 9:19 am

      Permits had to be pulled, but that the quickest and easiest part of the whole project. As for what we would do differently next time, I don’t know, I would have to think about it. The obvious answer would be to perhaps hire an electrician to inspect the property before buying. We did have both a general inspector and a structural engineer. The inspector noted knob and tube that was visible in the basement but it was inactive. Some new electrical work had been done, so that coupled with the inactive old wiring (and not finding anything else alarming) led him to believe that the electrical was fine. It wasn’t until we started opening walls that we found the problems and in hindsight it’s easy to say we should have done X, Y, and Z, but I can’t say that we would have found the old wiring easily.

      • sarsk
        April 5, 2016 at 3:35 pm

        I had a slightly similar surprise with my new-to-me old home. The house was rewired with two electrical panels, so we assumed that all of the knob and tube was gone. When we started plaster repairs, we discovered that on the second floor it was all still present from the lights to the switches. Luckily, it wasn’t in bad shape, so our electrician was able to sheath it in some protective covering that essentially negates the danger it could present. That was a $500 fix versus $3,000 to rewire the entire second floor. The electrician actually said he didn’t think it was worth it to the spend the $3,000, so we went with that. Spending money on structural things is nowhere near as satisfying as pretty things. Good luck!

  • stephyod
    April 4, 2016 at 7:05 pm

    oh my goodness. All of that is horrible and stressful. I’m so sorry you’re going through all that!

  • Liz @ It's Great to Be Home
    April 4, 2016 at 9:02 pm

    Ugh, that makes me feel sick to my stomach on your behalf. :( Thanks for your honesty on this whole thing – making things sound rosy is much easier, I’m sure. I hope this is the end of the saga for you guys!

  • Tina
    April 4, 2016 at 9:11 pm

    I know this sounds negative, but I’m just speaking from experience. Houses this age can continue to need repairing (at a very high expense) on a regular basis. As much as you love the home, it may not be worth the money in the end. Maybe once the wiring is finished, you might fall in love with a home that has character, but isn’t old. With the improvements you’ve made, you might make some money on the sale. Over the years, this may become a huge money pit and disruption to your family. But I understand how much you love it.

    • Making it Lovely
      April 5, 2016 at 9:23 am

      We expect repairs and general maintenance with an old home. Perhaps more than with a newer home, but the I think the tradeoff is worth it. I do love this house and I’m happy to take care of it. Obviously I wouldn’t say that we’ll never move — situations and feelings change — but we plan on staying here for a long time.

      • Tina slocum
        April 6, 2016 at 1:20 am

        It’s totally worth it when you’re in love with your home. And you’ve made it such a beautiful one. And as a reader, it’s lovely watching you decorate and design and be so creative with a Victorian home.

  • Kimberly
    April 4, 2016 at 9:50 pm

    I am so, so sorry :(

  • Jennifer
    April 4, 2016 at 9:50 pm

    I’m afraid I must disagree with the comments about older homes being “not worth it” or this story being a cautionary tale about buying old homes in the first place. So are we all to build brand new homes all over the place, and let all the old ones rot? These fine older homes have incredible heritage and architectural value. There is often work involved in updating their systems, yes, and anyone that’s fallen in love with one in their lifetime deems it worth the work and the expense. I am sure Nicole regrets the dodgy electrician, but not the purchase of the house in the first place. Keep up the work, Nicole – it is so worth it. You are preserving and improving a beautiful piece of history for future generations, and are lucky enough to have a hand in passing it along some day in much better condition.

    • Jess
      April 5, 2016 at 8:15 am

      You know, this and the comment about older homes not being worth it do bring up some good conversation. And I actually agree with parts on both sides. Often times to own and update an older home it costs lots and lots of money, and I’d imagine that most people just don’t have it. Older neighborhoods fall into disrepair and are neglected, offered for rent at low prices because there are so many issues. This can set up a circle of poverty in what was once a gorgeous area has fallen into basically a “bad part of town” simply because people can’t afford to live there. On the flip side, we now own a newer home (20 years) vs. our last home that was 50 years old. Our new house is 3x the size of our old home (we have a family of 7 and our first home was 1,000 square feet) and our costs to heat it are 50% cheaper than our older, smaller home. It’s hard to argue numbers like that. I love older homes with all of their unique architecture, but we literally can’t afford them and everything involved in their upkeep. Is it better to save old homes and fix them for the select few who can and want to do it, or to knock them down and build housing that is cheaper to live in? No right or wrong answer, just good stuff to think about.

  • lchimitrisLolla
    April 4, 2016 at 10:54 pm

    When we tried to have our electrician back out to continue rewiring the house, we found out he had “left the company,” and we suspect that he may have been fired. We came to realize, after having a new team of electricians out, that we may have gotten screwed because at that point we had spent a lot of money and thought a lot more work had been completed.

    So-have you sought a refund from the first company-Im sur you had a written contract covering the scope of the work and the payment and had any change orders. if you paid for more than was actually done then they owe you a refund. I hope you pursue it.

  • Pamela
    April 4, 2016 at 11:19 pm

    We’ve been in our “older” house for some time now. One week in we had to have almost all the plumbing redone. Then my husband and my father redid all the knob and tube wiring (under the supervision of an licensed electrician). Over time you learn how to do, or oversee, these repairs. It’s not joy, and the kitchen reno waited for more years than I care to count, but we love our home and wouldn’t trade it for a new-built (although we looked at one point).

  • Catherine Ford
    April 5, 2016 at 1:14 am

    You poor guys, I am so sorry to hear of all your electrical woes!

  • jenw
    April 5, 2016 at 8:43 am

    Oh, how terribly disappointing for you. Mad and sad…that seems about right. I hope you can pursue some compensation from the shoddy first company. Good luck, and I’m glad you have a fun, pretty project to work on soon with ORC!

  • sarah
    April 5, 2016 at 8:49 am

    Setbacks like this are SUCH a bummer. But with every behind-the-scenes repair and project you undertake, I feel so grateful to glimpse the wonderful care you’re taking of that house. My parents lived in a 1929 house they spent a decade renovating. In addition to restoring the character (stripping and restaining woodwork, repairing windows, etc) they also undertook updating/replacing all of the plumbing and electrical. They loved the pride and peace of mind that came with being great caretakers to an awesome house.

    That said, I understand some of the other comments here. Owning and caring for an older home is absolutely not for everyone. It can be time consuming, stressful, expensive, and confusing. Setting aside the expense, there’s a certain amount of dedication and knowledge (or willingness to learn) that comes with properly maintaining houses like this. I’d much rather see someone recognize they’re not up to it and buy a lovely newer home that may not need as much, than go for a gorgeous old house and not take care of it. I think you’re doing a fantastic job of giving this house what it needs, Nicole, and love being able to see the entire process–no matter how un-pretty.

    PS: I should note that when my parents got older and decided it was time to move on from their labor-of-love, they purposely invested in a new home built in the 2000’s in order to take a break from all the maintenance…only to end up spending a ridiculous amount of money and time fixing all kinds of poor construction. So much was done wrong when their current house was built (they don’t make them like they used to!), it ended up being a brand new money pit!

  • Whitney
    April 5, 2016 at 9:09 am

    oh wow that sucks. We’re about to rewire our house that we are about to move into in Oak Park as well and now you have me terrified about electricians. Do you mind sharing who you ended up using?

  • Vj kohout
    April 5, 2016 at 9:49 am

    You fell on love with the wrong house, Nicole. With three or is it four now kids and one breadwinner you are in it to not win it. You will be relieved when you get out of this house and finally get a house more suitable for your family. You need a comfortable house with nice kitchen, some yard and just enough space. You will need college money.
    Double parlor, library? Get a house that you can heat and change light bulbs without risking your life.
    Old houses are nice to visit on house tours.

    • Sarah
      April 5, 2016 at 10:27 am

      Nicole, don’t listen to these downers. Old houses have soul and tremendous architectural value, and they need people like you who are willing to love and protect them. Some people just aren’t house lovers, and I’m sure they are very happy in their low-maintenance McMansions. The beautiful architecture in Chicago and around the country isn’t going to take care of itself, but should we just let the historic areas crumble and live in a country full of big box stores and subdivisions? My in-laws live in the Chicago suburbs, and I have to say their town is one of the ugliest I’ve ever seen, with miles and miles of cookie-cutter boxes sitting next to strip malls. I’m sure the homes don’t require much maintenance, but they have no beauty or soul. Instead of moving there, we chose to buy a gorgeous 1865 Victorian in a scenic little Victorian town in Pennsylvania. It has knob and tube wiring too, and soon we’ll have to spend a fortune to update it. But I feel like a house that has stood for 150 years deserves love and respect, and I hope that we can continue to be good stewards of it. Best of luck to you, your children will have wonderful memories of growing up in such a magical house.

      • Becky
        April 5, 2016 at 2:46 pm

        I agree with Sarah. Some houses have value beyond how “easy” they are to maintain. I grew up in a very old house (it will be 140 this year!), and it needed work throughout my childhood and continues to need work now. Overall, though, it is a very sturdy house, in addition to having character and history. It has proved itself worthy of every repair and update.

        Anyway, new houses are not necessarily free of problems. My husband and I bought our first “newer” house four years ago, after a lifetime in old homes. Honestly, we wanted another old home, but careers placed us in a city that has literally NO old houses. Our house is 25 years old and passed an inspection with flying colors. The first night after we moved in, the basement flooded. The next day, the plumbing broke. Within a year we discovered a roof leak, foundation problems, rot behind the siding, and a host of “smaller” issues. Fixing what’s wrong with this house will cost us about a hundred grand, and that’s before we do any of the fun stuff, like a new kitchen. It isn’t even a house we like!

        I know its frustrating to discover new problems and spend more and more money on repairs, but at the end of the day you are saving a great house that you love, in a wonderful old neighborhood. Honestly, I would give my eye teeth to be repairing your big old Victorian rather than my boring Suburban box. I wish you luck, and I look forward to seeing what you do next. Keep your chin up!

  • Anna
    April 5, 2016 at 11:13 am

    We have a house built in the 1950s that still had some original aluminum wiring. A couple months ago, a fire started at the connection to the breaker box, and we had to re-wire the entire house due to the damage. It was crazy messy, destructive (so many holes in the walls! So many scratches on our beautiful wood floors from careless electricians!) and EXPENSIVE. I feel your pain. BUT – it is so worth it to have a house that is safe!! Hang in there!

  • thirtyyearhouse
    April 5, 2016 at 11:52 am

    You fell in love with a GREAT house, Nicole! You’re gonna get through this, and you’ll come out the other side wiser and in possession of such great knowledge to share. And great stories! You’re not half-living your life, that’s for sure. Also, it’s nice as a reader to watch a house develop over time. I’m looking forward to a long haul story with lots of holes in walls and ripped out plaster & lathe. That stuff is SO FUN TO READ ABOUT and zero fun to live through.

    Thanks for sharing your story with us, and keep going. :) You guys are great stewards for your house.

  • AshleyM
    April 5, 2016 at 2:41 pm

    Wow! People have such opinions! I can’t imagine saying the things to a person in real life that they’ll say over a keyboard. I am sorry. I have owned a house and I know the feeling of “ah, did we make a mistake?” And also the feeling of, “I’m going to improve on the way I bought it.” So goes life, right. Anyway, sorry this happened and I hope the rest of the electrical goes smoothly for you.

  • Judy
    April 5, 2016 at 3:29 pm

    Thanks for telling this part of your story, Nicole. It must have been hard to write it all out, but hopefully a little cathartic, too. With all the beautiful pictures out there of remodeled homes and successful diy, it is important to see and hear these stories as well. I love the old homes and neighborhoods. New ones just don’t have the same character and appeal to me, so I applaud everything you and your family are doing as caretakers of this home and area. Keep up the good work and positive attitude, and thanks so much for sharing the bad along with the good.

  • Allison F
    April 5, 2016 at 4:24 pm

    I am sorry you are going through all of this! It is a good lesson for ALL of us that homes can be expensive…YOUNG OR OLD. Our furnace broke the FIRST NIGHT we were in our (new to us) home that was built in 2003 by a very reputable builder. I am glad you are sharing the real story. I am hopeful the worst is behind you.

  • kimbydee
    April 5, 2016 at 5:13 pm

    I can’t even write what I want to say. It’d be too long but I’ve been in your situation and it will get better! New houses don’t necessarily mean competent work. It’s really scary and finding good tradesmen is tough. The really good ones are terribly busy but worth their weight in gold!

  • Julia H.
    April 5, 2016 at 8:25 pm

    I am sorry you had to experience problems with a sketchy electrician. I hope there is some lucky with the next round of wiring. I will say that a good electrician should be concerned with the visual result of his work. He doesn’t have to be able to hide it completely, but the end result should be coverable aesthetics wise. My father-in-law is a Chief Electrical Engineer, and he performs electrical odd jobs around our house. Whether he’s running wires in the kitchen or installing outdoor lights, he’s always concerned about aesthetics. He tries to run wires behind existing infrastructure with minimum damage (walls, wood, brick etc) or camouflage with white ducts. I’ve seen him blindly run wires through walls by using two tiny holes and he left zero visible damage in the end. It’s a big red flag to me when an electrician doesn’t take aesthetics into consideration. I can’t believe some of the work your electrician performed, especially the damage he left behind. I hope you have better luck with the next one!

  • Vanessa
    April 5, 2016 at 10:50 pm

    I love older homes and older neighborhoods, gosh they just feel right. The new stuff sucks! But I have become really fond of insulation over the years and there are some very good things about modern codes. We are in our 6th house and our two oldest, a 1906 and a 1952 had the best feel to them. The other 4 are all from the 70’s and I have enjoyed working on them, they’ve had big yards and decent sized rooms. They aren’t lovely though, just comfortable. I am actually becoming interested in building a new home in an old style. That is probably a few years away though. Each house teaches you something and it’s all worth it in the end.

  • coral sayer
    April 5, 2016 at 11:10 pm

    This is completely self-preserving on my part (I don’t live in Chicago though!), but you should really consider hiring an architect. They could help you figure out a master plan or phasing of work so that you’re not tearing into walls more than once, they typically have an arsenal of contractors (electricians, plumbers, etc.) that they’ve worked with and trust and can recommend, and they can create construction documents that clearly state the standards of work required so you’re not surprised by what you didn’t know to ask. It’s what architects do every day, no one should expect every homeowner to know all of this!

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  • Stacy
    April 6, 2016 at 3:47 pm

    That sounds really rough. I don’t even know what to say. We have had excellent luck finding people on Angie’s List. We were new to the area, and we knew no one. That resource continues to be helpful, and maybe it could be a good resource for you too. Since our house was built in the 1880s, I try to make sure that the people who work on our house have experience with old homes. Fortunately, in my town the majority of the homes were built between 1850-1960. We are gutting our kitchen next month, and I am pretty sure we are going to have some “creative” wiring to update.

  • Julia
    April 13, 2016 at 4:42 pm

    So sorry to hear this! Just wanted to add a voice to the chorus of support and encouragement – I love reading the blog and your posts are always inspiring and educational. Best of luck as you navigate these waters!

  • kate
    May 9, 2016 at 4:10 pm

    ugh, i feel you. I just bought an 1890’s farmhouse on chicago’s northside and we are re-doing all the electrical now. laying that conduit is so rough! gaping holes everywhere! chicago has some strict electric codes!

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