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Dream cottage on Buffalo’s West Side turns into a bottomless money pit

People will look at the building someday and smile. They will utter such words as Quaint. Cute. Adorable. They will be right. One day, in the distant future, at the end of a long, winding money trail, the one-bedroom, circa-1875 bungalow will be all of those things. That’s how it will look. That’s what people will say.

I doubt I will ever say any of those things. Or think any of those things. I know too much. The building, I fear, will leave with me one lasting impression, one deep and intractable wound, one ever-present scar.

It will, now and forever, to me be the Place of No Mercy. The structure that brought a grown man to his knees. The cottage that clamped a vacuum hose on my and my wife’s collective wallet, sucked the naivete out of our boomer souls, wiped the stardust from our eyes. When – because, as improbable as it seems, there presumably will be a ‘when’ – this 10th-circle-of-hell rehab is done, it will have exacted a toll on our psyche as formidable as the chasm in our bank account.

This was a bargain with the devil we didn’t bargain on, when my wife and I bought an investment property on Buffalo’s West Side 15 months ago. Opportunity had long knocked. Semi-retirement finally brought us time to bring color to the cheeks of a long-neglected building. It was a second career, a third act, a new lease on life, via a pair of leasable three-bedroom apartments.

Tucked deep behind the main house stood what at the time seemed like a gift – a rustic cottage. Its slumbering charms were blanketed in neglect: A classic clapboard hide wrapped in mud-hued asphalt siding. A hardwood floor marred, incomprehensibly, by blue spray paint. A brick chimney hidden behind a drywall. Scrollwork obscured by a dropped ceiling.

There were busted water and gas lines, rotted eaves, a leaky roof, decrepit kitchen and a pink-porcelin bathroom ‘update.’ The bright butterfly was trapped in a dull cocoon – awaiting the freedom granted by our nurturing hands.

I recently recalled these dreamy musings, while lurching on all fours through the dirt of the cottage’s underbelly. This is what happens when a building has something called a ‘crawl space’ instead of an actual basement. The flip side of ‘Quaint’ is a dim, damp, 3-foot-high, unpaved cavern accessed through a panel in the foundation. In this sub-chamber a gas line runs, water pipes splay and – as of a month ago – a furnace suspends from burly cross-beams.

Until the furnace joined the party, the cottage had no central heat source. Which is presumably why no one had lived there since the pre-Facebook era. Warmth, as it were, was apparently provided by an assortment of space heaters, connected to the frayed knob-and-tube, parallel-track wiring familiar to Thomas Alva Edison. It’s no small miracle that the place hadn’t years ago gone up like the Olympic flame.

To be clear, the furnace did not magically appear (although – given the expense – if granted three wishes by a genie, that might have been one of them). We paid someone to put it in. I have not the time, inclination, tools or know-how to install a hot-air source with requisite duct work, returns, supplies and connections. Even if I did muster the will, there was no way. Given the length of time it would have taken me to complete the ordeal – uh, project – in a confined dark space, I fear I would’ve developed a pointed snout, beady eyes and a tail. Yes, those are the creatures that commonly call crawl spaces ‘home.’ Don’t try petting them.

So you pay people to do things you cannot, or would rather not, or would take so long it doesn’t pay not to pay someone. And that was the problem with this cottage. It needed ‘someone’ to do virtually everything. My skill set is limited to painting, demo and hammering an occasional nail. The project-related endeavor I’m most adept at is writing checks. Of which there have been many.

The cottage needed to be gutted to the proverbial studs, the interconnected 2x4s that commonly support dry wall or lathe. Except there were no studs. When the structure arose in 1875 (during Ulysses S. Grant’s tenure, for those keeping a presidential scorecard), builders cut trees into thick sections, nailed them to cross-pieces, stood it up and proclaimed it a wall. Called ‘plank construction,’ it was common to barns, lean-to’s and, well, bungalows. While admirably sturdy, the structures come with enough cracks, knotholes and crevices to render air conditioning redundant. Which is a problem in, like, January.

So we got a guy to rip off the drywall fastened to the wavy boards against the planks, and add 2x4’s. Since the wall was open, we got an electrician to re-wire the place. To fill the gaps and crevices in the planks, we got a guy to spray in foam insulation. Since you can’t nail pictures to foam insulation, we had guys who put up walls.

And so it went. Month after month. Dollar after dollar.

Yes, we saved thousands of dollars by painting the place ourselves, inside and out. I nailed up a few boards. I ventured into the crawl space with a can of foam insulation and, over the course of a (very long) day, sealed every foundation-wall crevice. So there was some DIY action. But mostly, we hired ‘guys.’

I am not relating this to discourage anyone embarking on buying and rehabbing – for sale, for rent, for a home – a building on the resurgent West Side. The neighborhood’s revival in recent years is, to my mind, one of Buffalo’s happiest tales. Presumably most people venture into the fray with a better idea of what he or she is up against than we did.

It is six months since we placed our healing hands on this cottage. We have spent tens of thousands of dollars. Invested countless hours. Received a rehab education. And the ‘when’ of an ending – with the sweet deliverance of an actual tenant – remains nowhere in sight.

But I think we see a light. Hopefully, it’s not a crack in the foundation.

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