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Columnist’s third career: Rehabbing houses on the West Side

The water was not just dripping from the ceiling. It was streaming as if someone with a particularly cruel sense of humor had opened a tap. I should have grabbed a cup and taken a drink – a long, cold, plaster-flavored quaff of reality.

Illusions die quickly, when one buys what is euphemistically called a “fixer-upper.” Any remaining ones I clung to vanished less than a week after closing on a West Side double last October. Reality dialed up a torrential rainstorm, presumably with the intention of de-tinting my rose-colored glasses. What I’d convinced myself was a tiny leak on the second-floor porch was clearly more like an open wound. Standing in the downstairs foyer, watching rainwater dissolve ceiling plaster and mar wooden window frames, I realized: “Illusion” is just another word for a lot of work to do.

My wife and I last fall joined the legion of people who in recent years have bought and rehabbed homes on Buffalo’s West Side. Having written about the neighborhood’s revival since its embryonic stage, I was long familiar with the investment potential. But I didn’t want to jump in until we had time to do it responsibly. With my wife recently retired, me working part time, and our kids in college or beyond, the future was finally now.

The idea was to embark on a new adventure, revive a needs-TLC house, become a minuscule part of a neighborhood’s resurrection and – this, after all, being America – make a little money.

After months of searching, we found a 3/3 double in decent shape (e.g., no missing furnaces or water tanks), with an uninhabited rear cottage. Sold.

I assured a friend with rehabbing experience that we’d have the place turned around in six weeks. Because he is a kind man, he suggested that the timetable “might be a little ambitious.” Had he been less generous, he would simply have uttered the obvious: “You’re out of your mind.”

Indeed, after three months of cleaning, painting, repairing, replacing and updating, we just in recent days whipped one apartment into rentable shape. It’s a lesson familiar to all the rehabbers who came before us: It always takes more time than you think.

Things might have gone more quickly if yours truly had handyman skills. Sadly, mine don’t extend much past tightening a screw, changing a light bulb and attacking inconvenient objects with a hammer. Left alone in a room with a circular saw and a 2-by-4, I am more likely to emerge with nine digits than an acceptable cross-cut.

Indeed, the sole DIY endeavor I feel comfortable with is painting. It’s a legacy of my adolescence, when Dad recruited me for various room-freshening projects. When I had the audacity to suggest that sacrificing weekends to a brush and roller merited a bump in allowance, he regurgitated the line he kept handy for just such occasions: “Your reward,” he intoned, “will be in heaven.”

Actually, those painting skills paid recent dividends. Many of the apartment walls were covered in colors seldom found in nature. Taste is a subjective thing, but a kitchen where the dominant hues are day-glo red and mourning black seemed more appropriate for a death metal band’s clubhouse than a family gathering space. As George, our contractor, deadpanned upon first eyeing the room, “Ah, the devil’s playground.”

Given the enormity of the twin-apartment task, we bought paint in 5-gallon buckets, brushes and rollers in multipacks and enough tubes of caulk to re-assemble Humpty Dumpty. We then prepared for a rapid diminishment in dignity. Appearing frequently in public after a day’s labor with paint spattered on hands, arms and face reduces one to a walking, talking comedic straight line.

“Do you actually,” a friend asked, only half-kidding, “get any paint on the walls?”

Uh, occasionally.

The key to a successful renovation, for us and many others, is help from hired hands. Through word of mouth, previous association, incessant queries and pure dumb luck, we procured a capable electrician, roofer, welder (for an in-pieces porch railing), plumber and George, our jack-of-many-trades contractor. With their able assistance, rain-assaulted ceilings were dry-walled, absent bathroom tiles replaced, cracked walls made whole, fuse boxes discarded for circuit breakers and porch roofing installed that actually repels water, instead of handing it a free pass.

Although all the money with this “investment” has thus far been outgoing, there have been intangible rewards: The satisfaction of reviving a worthy older house. The pleasure of meeting interesting people. Getting on a first-name basis with hardware store clerks. Realizing that “Goof Off” is a grime-removal product, not merely something done when my wife’s not around. All good.

The wild card on our property is the rear cottage. Built in 1875, it’s a one-bedroom Private Idaho that I like to describe as “rustic.” Admittedly, this slice of country-in-the-city currently lacks some amenities demanded by fussier tenants, such as heat, electricity and running water.

To some, the place is a shack. I see it the way a benevolent parent regards a chronically misbehaving child. Instead of viewing the reality of the situation, I instead focus on that elusive quality known as “potential.” I see space-enhancing high ceilings, not the chunks of plaster dangling from them. I see hardwood floors, not the vivid blue streaks spray-painted across them, perhaps by a crazed Pollock disciple in the grip of a fever dream. I see a clapboard exterior, not the wrapping of sludge-brown asphalt siding that currently obscures it. Technically, the cottage is occupied. Unfortunately, the current tenant is a squirrel. I wouldn’t mind, if he paid rent.

Because the West Side real estate market is hot, it is best when bidding on a property to be prepared to pay cash. Which does not imply that I somehow became wealthy on a journalist’s salary. No, the source of funds for our investment is a tempting pot o’ gold known as “home equity.”

We happened 20 years ago to buy a house whose value – by accident of location and forces beyond our control – has grown like a mushroom in a dung field. Which makes bankers eager to lend us significant amounts of cash, using the value of our home as collateral. For a brief shining moment, this allows one to experience the heady sensation of feeling “rich” – a misconception that dissipates with the arrival of the first monthly loan payment. At that moment, I realized I was not wealthy, but – to the contrary – deeply in debt. If this investment-property venture goes south, yours truly will be living in a lean-to. Or, perhaps, with a rodent roommate in a dark, unheated cottage with plenty of “potential.”