A Tree Grows in the Gutter: A Renovation of the Worst House on the Block

The Background Story

Posted in Ashburn, Chicago, Home Renovations, South Side, Wrightwood by ChiMama on November 1, 2009

It’s the year 2000. My boyfriend gets a phone call. His mother has fallen on hard financial times and her house, located on Chicago’s south side in the Ashburn-Wrightwood area is about to be taken away by the bank.

My boyfriend steps in and purchases this property. He is now the owner of a three bedroom, two bathroom ranch style home.

Front of house


He worked out a plan with his mother where she would cover 80% of the mortgage while he would cover the rest. She was by all intensive purposes his tenant.

For years this is how it worked out. Then my boyfriend and I got married, purchased our own home in the Wicker Park neighborhood and had a child. The mortgages on both properties were being paid and everybody was happy.

Over the years my mother in law would take in many house guests, but the house was already in a fragile state and in serious need of repair. Lack of money to get the repairs done made small issues larger. Now the house has some pretty extensive internal and external damage. It stands out as the worst house on the block.

A few years ago my mother in law could no longer afford to pay the utility bills and they began piling up. Because of this, my MIL was forced to live elsewhere.

My husband and I decided that it was time to do something drastic in order to save ourselves from this situation. We thought it was best to put the house on the market as is as we couldn’t afford to carry two mortgages on our own. So that’s what we did. Unfortunately this decision is occurring when the market is in a serious decline.  

We got a real estate agent and she listed the house on the MLS as such:

Ashburn delight, 3 bedroom 2 bath ranch needs tlc. full unfinished basement with full bath. loving care will make this a great home. seller is willing to help with some closing cost. property is not a ss or pre-foreclosure. please present pre-approval with offer.

According to dreamtown.com the Ashburn-Wrightwood Neighborhood in Chicago is:

“Located on the southwest edge of the city and is a diverse middle-class neighborhood of manicured lawns and yellow-brick bungalows that was recently cited by The New York Times as a model for successful, harmonious integration in an urban setting. Much like other parts of Chicago, in Wrightwood businesses and restaurants are concentrated mainly along the neighborhood’s major thoroughfares, while the rest of community is filled with neat residential blocks. Affordable housing has long made Wrightwood an attractive place to set up housekeeping, and the variety of architectural styles make sure every homeowner gets exactly what they are looking for in a home.”

We decided to list the house $5,000 above the cost of the mortgage, but that didn’t stop people from approaching us with insulting offers for about $40,000 below what we actually owed on the house. I understand that money is tight right now and I’m not knocking the hustle, but we just can’t afford to take those offers. We don’t want to be in a situation where we sell the house and then still owe the bank $30,000. We realize that this is OUR problem and that nobody is going to step in and help us solve it, but to be honest, we never expected anybody to. And that’s why we’re doing everything we can to get this house off our backs.

The house has been on the market for about a year now. During this year we got one offer on the house. At first we were excited until we found out that the offer was $21,000 less than what we owed to the bank. Oh and we were also supposed to pay the buyer’s closing costs. Then our attorney estimated the closing costs at around $13,000. It was then that we knew we’d have to go another route. $33,000 was way above what had access to.

I don’t know why, but I immediately called my dad and told him the situation. He said, “Don’t sell them the house. I don’t want you guys to be $30,000 in debt after it’s sold. That’s not good.” Then he offered his expertise to us. He wanted to come down to Chicago to help us out by restoring our second property.

I know my dad can do this because he is skooled in old world Polish values – one being hard work. He is one of those people that does everything himself. He is a jack of all trades if you will. He did all of the repairs on the home we were raised in and he also built the house he lives in currently. He is also a mechanic, an artist, and a welder. He does incredible custom work and has a serious eye for detail.

Our goal in this renovation is to fix the house quickly and sell it for what we owe the bank + the cost of renovations. That is all. We are not looking to get rich. We are not looking to put our kid through college. We just cannot afford to pay two mortgages.

We would love to find a buyer who will love and appreciate the house for what it really is – a gem in the Chicago housing market.

My father is the main player in this renovation. He has also recruited my cousin.

Here is the current state of the house:


The First Day of the Rest of My Life

Posted in Home Renovations by ChiMama on October 29, 2009


My Dad!

My Dad!


I woke up to a beautiful Chicago. It was the kind of day you wish for in October. It was over 60 degrees and sunny. My dad arrived at O’Hare at 7:55 a.m. We picked him up late, but that wasn’t indicative of the day.

After we scooped him up, we drove to the south side. The traffic was terrible and we arrived around ten o’clock in the morning. 

My dad walked throughout the house. It was then that he realized how much work actually needed to be done, but he wasn’t giving up. 

The house had been neglected for over fifteen years and it showed. No change of fixtures or hardware, old yellow wallpaper covering white tiles in the kitchen, along with cracks in the cement. It was sad. But hidden behind this sad facade is a comfy home waiting to bust out. There are beautiful original old wooden cabinets, molding, and floors. You can tell that this was a pretty nice home back in the day. 

My dad started writing an invisible list of everything we would need in his head. Then we went to get breakfast. Everybody needs to eat right?

Afterwards we headed back to our place and my dad started calling the other players. My cousin showed up at the house and he called some of his friends. They were willing to help us and they were willing to work for cheap. He also had a serious hookup for paint. These twenty-five gallons will not only cover the entire top floor, but the basement as well. We couldn’t be more grateful to him.

 Then we stopped by the house for a second time. My cousin looked around and was overwhelmed by the amount of work to be done, but is dedicated to the project. He also noticed that the garage door was shot. Luckily he has a garage door business and he had an extra garage door that was ordered in the wrong size.

Thank you family!


Thank Goodness for Home Depot

Posted in Uncategorized by ChiMama on October 28, 2009

The last few days have been nothing less than frantic. Will post details later.

Demo a Go-Go

Posted in Home Renovations by ChiMama on October 27, 2009

The last few days have been nothing less than frantic. I thought I would have a rather large team of people to help out with the renovation, but it didn’t work out that way. The universe would have other plans.

My father and my cousin were the only ones in the house and they decided that it was time to bring in the heavy artillery. So they went to Home Depot and picked up a painter looking for work.

Then it was time for the demo. The painter pulled up the decaying rugs in the living room and that’s when we saw it – the hard wood floors. Score! 

After that, the painter began prepping the walls. Over the next couple of days he would bring in a friend. They would paint the entire living room, hallways, and all three bedrooms and closets.

 Old huge mirror removed from wall

The wallpaper was the next order of business. My father and my cousin used a spray (I’m not sure which) to get the wallpaper damp. It released the glue and made it easy to peel the paper off section by section.

Kitchen Windows Kitchen Demo

After careful consideration we also decided that it would be best to just purchase new cabinets. For one, the old cabinets were in rough shape. For two, we would have to spend a lot of time sanding them down to make them look good. And for three, the new cabinets would make the kitchen look a lot more updated and we’d probably make double what it cost us.

We purchased unfinished oak cabinets from Menards. We intend to stain and varnish them to match the moldings. I’ll post pictures of the new cabinets soon.

We also bought the tile for the backsplash. It’s ceramic, but made to look like natural stone. We also mixed in some real natural stone to make it look extra nice.

Half of the outlets in the living room were shot. The heat also wasn’t working. My dad took a look at it and noticed that somebody tied wires together which made them melt. He took them apart and replaced a fuse. Now we have heat to dry the clear that we intend to put on the hardwood floors after they’re buffed out.

Today it rained. That’s when we realized that there was a leak in one of the bedroom closets. My dad ripped out the old rotten wood on the roof, replaced it and sealed it. Tada. No more leak. Now that was priceless. 

We got my husband’s uncle to rip off the old soffit and fascia on the garage. He literally ripped it off in about thirty minutes. 

It was a good day.

So much to do, so little time

Posted in Ashburn, Chicago, Home Renovations, South Side by ChiMama on October 26, 2009

You don’t realize how much work there is to do until you actually start doing it. Replacing cabinets, putting on the backsplash, sweeping the area to keep it clean and organized, scrubbing the moldings and window frames that haven’t been cleaned in over twenty years, removing items from the house, prepping to sand the floors, removing the old disgusting tile in the kitchen and bathroom, as well as the wall paper. And as a side note, I must say, I think all wallpaper should be banished from human existence.

It’s a lot of tedious work getting the house back into its original shape. This is what happens when a house is neglected for over twenty years.

In the next couple of days, the roof should be finished and they should be starting on the concrete, which is another thorn in our sides. 

We decided to simply paint the basement and do nothing to the floors except replace a few missing tiles.

Throughout this process I’ve learned that it’s extremely important to have dedicated friends, family, and workers. People say they’ll help out, but when push comes to shove, who is really there? I was surprised at how many people didn’t offer to help us out or told us that they couldn’t help us, but I am more surprised at the people that did come through like my dad, my cousin, and my husband’s cousins Bak, Bryant and Anthony as well as his uncle Buck. My husband’s brother Andre also came out to help us. We also got help from my friend Kyn and some of the members of his church group for free. 

I want to thank all of the people that offered to help and actually came through. We couldn’t have gotten as far as we have without you.

A special thanks goes out to Bryant and his wife Toni. They gave us a beautiful stainless steel sink that they no longer needed. We are using it in the kitchen. They also gave us two beautiful fixtures that we are going to use in the hallways. Thank you again. You guys are awesome.

Finally, some progress

Posted in Home Renovations by ChiMama on October 23, 2009

New cabinets in the kitchen

Wow, my dad has been working overtime and he’s doing a great job.  

This morning we got up and went to HOBO’s, an uber cheap builders supply store on Grand to buy some materials. We purchased the front and back door, the locks, and the tile for the bathroom.

The doors are gorgeous. I know it’ll make the house stand out. I want to paint the front door a rusty red to give it a little umph, but my dad is trying to convince me to stay neutral. We’ll see. 

You know, I never noticed how expensive tile is. We bought four decorative pieces and they were over $6.00 a piece. I couldn’t believe that it cost that much for ceramic. It was a serious learning experience for me.

We’re going to use stick tiles for the kitchen, but we’re searching for the perfect style in the perfect color. We are going with something simple and beige. They didn’t have the stick tiles we wanted at Hobo’s so we’re going to give Home Depot a try.

Right now my dad is still patching up the roof on the house and then he’s going to move to the garage. It’s actually dry today so he’s going to hustle to see how much he can really get done.

My cousin is working on finishing the backsplash in the kitchen and then he’s moving onto the bathroom. We still need to figure out what color to stain the cabinets, but luckily my dad found a solid countertop in a laminate that resembles granite. We’re going to go with that to save some time.

My husband’s uncle Buck is going to paint the basement and his other uncle William is coming in the afternoon to help my dad out.

Because a lot still needs to be done, we are searching for a concrete company to redo the concrete on the side of the house. I found three companies off of the internet yesterday that are near 50th and Western. Hopefully one of them will give us a good price. I’ll keep you all posted.

We are also looking to rent a dumpster to get all of the materials out. Those things are so expensive! Who knew?

The renovation is moving along. Thank the universe. It’s going to be a good day! 

Here are some more pics:

Painted bedroom

Painted bedroom

The old hole in the roof is fixed and sealed. No more leak.

The old hole in the roof is fixed and sealed. No more leak.

The New Kitchen

The new and improved kitchen

Bathroom is ripped and ready to go

Bathroom is ripped and ready to go

Still Working

Posted in Home Renovations by ChiMama on October 22, 2009

Yesterday the basement was painted. Yea! I haven’t seen it, but I’m sure it looks much brighter. It was a dingy mess.

Last night my dad and I stopped at Home Depot and purchased the ceiling fan and the light fixture for the kitchen. They are gorgeous and cost us a little bit over $110.00. We also looked at the sticky tile. They have some really nice pieces for about $2.00 a tile. The one we want looks like marble.

Currently, we’re a little behind schedule, but there are about eight people working in the house today so I am hopeful. We still need to sand and seal the floors, fix the soffit and then scrape and paint it, pull shingles off of the garage, put up the new tile in the bathroom and put the stick tiles on the kitchen floor, put in the new ceiling fan and kitchen light, haul all of the debris to the dumpster, clear out the garage, put in the new garage door, fix the concrete on the side of the house, change all of the outlets and face plates, fix the outlets that aren’t working in the living room, put in the cable wires, and put in the new front and back door among a couple of other things. 

My husband Ced took seven broken windows to Ace so that they could be fixed. I’m so glad that the windows are finally getting done.

We are trying to order the dumpster so that it can be delivered today so that we can get rid of all the junk.

The concrete company just came and said they would frame out the concrete and pour it, they just need to get back to us with an estimate. I’m scared that it’s going to be too expensive. We’ll see. Hopefully it won’t be so much that we can’t do it.

I can’t believe how much work this house needed. It’s like a complete overhaul.

I want to thank my dad. I’d also like to thank my husband’s cousin Bak for sending over one of his friends who was out of work. We need all the help we can get. We have also hired two other guys. I’m so glad all of these people showed up today.

Mood: Hopeful.

More pics: 


First Bedroom

sanding the floors

About to sand the floor

It’s Day 10

Posted in Home Renovations by ChiMama on October 20, 2009

It’s day ten. The renovation isn’t complete, but it is coming along quite well. Today we picked up the seven windows from Ace Hardware. We also bought a new laminate countertop. In addition to this, my cousin Danny is working on sanding the floors. There is serious damage in two of the rooms, so it is taking him a bit longer to get the sanding done. My dad was working on the electrical again. He is updating the outlets to flip switches. There are 42 outlets and light switches in all. I know, it’s craziness. My dad also added an outlet to the bathroom since there wasn’t one.

I was thinking about why this renovation is going over and I’ve come up with two reasons: 1. the weather and 2. unrealiable workers. The weather these last ten days has been rainy and sometimes cold. You can’t get on a lader in wet weather, cause you might fall and break your neck. Although I am greatful to the men that came to work with us, I also know that if they came every day, the house would be complete.

Here are some photos of the work done thus far:

New Beginning

Posted in Uncategorized by ChiMama on October 19, 2009

My dad and I!

My dad went home today. That sucked, but we put him to work before he left by making him put in the windows. I know, we’re horrible. Lol! I’m so grateful that he came out to help us though. He did a great job. My cousin is now managing the project.

Today we also met up with our real estate agent. She came in and was immediately blown away by all of the work we’ve done. She was impressed with the kitchen backsplash and the detailed work in the bathroom. We still have to do a bit to do, but she was pretty happy.

The tile for the bathroom is done as well as the roof on the garage. We are hiring a concrete contractor to fix the cement. He’s coming to frame out the concrete tomorrow morning.

Check out the latest pictures:  


Finished Bathroom Tile!


The latest roof work.

The Good

Posted in Uncategorized by ChiMama on October 18, 2009

In the last couple of days, we got the dumpster delivered. The workers cleaned out the garage and threw away all of the junk from the house like the old cabinets among other things. I should have taken a picture of the 15 foot dumpster filled to the top. The house and garage looks so clean now and the new front and back door are on.

One of the workers even started painting the kitchen. Here’s a photo:


The kitchen partially painted

My cousin started staining the cabinets, but they still need the clear to be put on them. The other workers have prepped the kitchen floor for the stick tiles.   

The big news is that the concrete contractor came through as well as the ready mix concrete company. There were a few steps to getting the concrete done. First, they had to set the wooden 2 x 4’s to frame the concrete. Then the ready mix concrete company brought the concrete to our location. After that two of our guys had to wheelbarrow the concrete from the truck to the frames. Then the contractor smoothed out the cement. He did a great job. The concrete looks a million times better than it ever did before.

Here’s a picture of the finished concrete. It looks amazing doesn’t it? I’m so glad that the companies we hired came through for us.

Concrete on the side of the house 3

Concrete on the side of the house (Before)

Finished Concrete

Concrete on the side of the house (After)