Home Improvement

Leak Lessons: Volume 2

Lemme tell you, our master bathroom’s wallpaper wasn’t its only problem-to-be-remedied recently. So brace yourself while we weave a little plumbing tale that spanned over the last few weeks (in fact it just wrapped up a few days ago). You know how we solemnly swear to share the good, the bad, and the ugly? Well, this one can be filed under “the bad” and “the ugly” with a side of “the gross.” So for everyone’s sake, we’ll leave out the graphic pictures.

During the process of buying this house we noticed a very small, dried out water stain on the ceiling in the living room, right below where the master bathroom was. We and the inspector concluded it was likely from a toilet overflow from long ago, since the stain was only about 3″ wide and long dried up. So we weren’t too alarmed and just figured it was solved decades ago, so a little primer and ceiling paint were all that it needed. We never even photographed it, but here’s a hint as to where it was.

Then this fall, the toilet started to act up. Namely in that it would occasionally clog (this is your first hint to put down your breakfast) and when we attempted to plunge it, well, it would back-up into the shower. If that first hint didn’t work, something tells me you’re putting your breakfast down right about now.

Yeah, it was gross. And since a certain half of this relationship was already queasy from growing a tiny human, I was the only one on duty (a little pun to lighten the mood). Usually a bit more plunging and maybe a bit of snaking would fix the issue. I say “usually” because this happened more than once. And before you start judging our gastrointestinal prowess, I should note that this sort of back-up sometimes happened when the toilet wasn’t even involved  – maybe after a shower or after I shaved in the sink. We googled for answers and contemplated calling in a pro, but the “incidents” were few and far enough between that we figured we could hold out ’til we remodeled the room.

But last month came the back-up that plunging could not conquer.


And in all of my furious plunging, I managed to create a new water stain in the ceiling below. I’d later learn that all the pressure of such vigorous plunging had compromised the wax ring and water started leaking again. That was our cue to call in a pro. He removed the toilet, ran an 150 foot snake and dislodged what he concluded was “years worth of paper build-up” way down in our pipes somewhere. Phew! Problem solved.

Except it wasn’t. Fast forward another week and the shower starts to back-up again. In fact, it happens as I’m using the tub to fill up the steamer during may latest wallpaper removal spree. So not only was that process miserable on its own, I was doing it with a less than fresh-looking (and smelling) shower nearby. Not to mention that we’re both beyond frustrated that our first call to the plumber didn’t solve the problem. So yeah, clearly the picture below was taken before the back-up happened. Just look at me all footloose and fancy free.

Remember when I called this post-wallpapered look: “gas station bathroom.” I was really thinking it was more reminiscent of that scene in Trainspotting. Yeah, you know the one. And if you don’t, well, I highly suggest that you NOT google it right now. Okay, maybe our bathroom wasn’t that bad. But it was bad enough that I was embarrassed that this was the state the plumbers would see it in.

Then again, things didn’t get much prettier once they arrived. Now that I think about it, I guess they’ve pretty much seen it all.

The plumbing company sent a different guy this time and, after explaining the series of events, he had a pretty solid theory. But it meant cutting into our ceiling to confirm it. Welcome to our crash course in two-story home issues. Kinda made us miss the days where virtually everything was visible from a crawl space or attic.

His hunch was correct. All of the master bathroom plumbing was configured wrong. And it had been for 30+ years since they built this house. A key element – the slope of the main drain pipe – was incorrect. So rather than having gravity to help water leave the vicinity, it was actually sloped uphill – so water and sewage that should have been flushed down and out of the house would collect and pool and eventually back-up into the lowest opening in that bathroom (i.e. the shower). In the words of Clara: yuckaroo.

The only solution was to cut a bigger hole in the ceiling and have the experts replace all the plumbing. It even meant cutting out one of the load-bearing joists and reinforcing it with a new one so the new pipes could be configured at the right angle, so it was nothing that we dared to attempt ourselves.

Did we like having our house torn apart? No. But we were pretty relieved that the root of the problem was finally getting fixed. And I’ll admit that we were pretty entertained by the view through the floor.

It only took them a day to complete the task (they came back a few days after their initial diagnosis to get it done) along with a somewhat painful $650 check, but we were relieved that this hidden-behind-the-walls issue that had plagued this house for over three decades was finally solved. Which meant we could finally get back to our little bathroom update. And hey, while the toilet was removed, we were able to strip that small swatch of wallpaper that had been hiding behind the bowl, so that was kind of funny (very marginally at the time, but more so now).

But we were still left with that gaping hole in the living room ceiling well after the bathroom was trimmed out and painted.

We went back and forth about drywalling it ourselves – which basically involves mudding, taping, sanding, re-mudding, and re-sanding. Smooth ceilings are especially tricky (imperfections are a lot more visible up there) and we knew any remaining dents or seams would have bugged us forever, so we finally just pulled the trigger and called a highly recommended local drywall guy.

He fixed it flawlessly in a few hours for around $100, and was also very nice (he said Sherry looked like Topanga from Boy Meets World, which pretty much made our day). So now all we’ve got to do is prime and paint it.

Update: A few folks have asked if our home warranty would have covered this issue (that actually ran out before this fiasco) but it most likely would not, since this was an “existing condition” (the plumbing didn’t break after we moved in, it was configured this way for 30 years, so that’s not something typically covered by a home warranty).

These unplanned homeowner curveballs never feel good (especially when we’d rather be spending that money on fun updates that we can actually see and enjoy) but it’s nice to have things all put back together again. The irony is that we have another “oh the joys of home ownership” story unfolding (it’s still halfway-solved, so we’ll wait for the full resolution before crying on your shoulder). Please tell us we’re not the only ones. Regale us with some of your tales of woe in the plumbing/heating/other house systems arenas. We’re all in this together. Right?

Psst- The “Volume Two” part of this post’s title is thanks to this original leak lesson that we dealt with a few years ago at our last house. Best thing about that one is that it was something we could solve ourselves (read: zero benjamins).


The Bathroom Blues

Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day, guys. We’re back with a fully finished bathroom paint & trim project (we mentioned our plan here last week, and you saw a sneak half-done peek of it in the house tour video on Friday). So here’s what it’s looking like now:

Which is a pretty stark contrast to what we started with. You might remember that we removed the glass shower doors pretty early on, but then we didn’t touch the room again until recently waging war on the wallpaper.

It’s a tough room to photograph due to all the doorways and nooks – especially when trying to get the ceiling and the floor in one shot. So forgive all of the super vertical crops and choppy shots. We hope they at least give you a sense of what the room looks like now.

As we mentioned in last week’s post, the thought behind the blue ceiling was to balance the floor. We’re actually charmed by the blue hex flooring, but we thought some up-high interest would be a nice counterpart. Heather’s bathroom below (and this similarly blue-floored inspiration image) helped to guide our vision – especially the part about adding some simple architecture to create a transition between the colors.

The first step was taping a horizontal border around the room where we wanted our blue color to start. We landed on about 8″ down from the ceiling, since it meant the border wouldn’t be interrupted by door or window trim but would still be substantial enough to look purposeful. I just held up my level and drew a pencil line along the wall… which then acted as my guide to apply painters tape. I wasn’t super meticulous at keeping my tape lines perfectly level since ultimately the paint edge would be hidden under the trim (so as long as it wasn’t majorly crooked, the trim would hide any small wavers or dips).

The next challenge was picking a paint color. We started off by doing some test swatches of colors we had on hand, like Nelson Blue (from our kitchen), Sylvan Mist (leftover from book projects), and Spirit In The Sky (a losing test pot from when we picked a front door color). Normally we’d go for subdued blues with a good amount of gray in them for the walls (like the two on the left) but with the low bathroom lighting and the primary blue tiles on the floor, the grayed-out tones actually looked more gray than blue in here. Spirit In The Sky was exciting in a small swatch because it was bold and very obviously blue, but we worried that once it went around the whole room – and covered the entire ceiling – it would be too intense for us (paint tends to magnify itself from a small test swatch and looks a lot bolder when it’s all over the walls or ceiling). So you see how Sherry’s holding up another swatch?

That’s Spring Mint (in an eggshell finish). Since nothing we had on hand was working, we decided to spring for a quart of a new color that was further from the blue-gray category, and more in the “pure blue” arena. Something like Spirit In The Sky, but a bit lighter and more subdued in intensity.

It took us two coats, but by that evening we had the blue border and ceiling that we were going for. As we peeled off the tape, we both wondered if we should leave it as is (i.e. forget adding molding). We decided it was definitely an option (especially if you’re someone who doesn’t have the time/money/tools to add it) but we wanted to take ours a step further. Mostly because we’re a little too in love with our nail-gun, and lattice strips are nice and inexpensive.

Speaking of lattice, we used the same pre-primed strips that we used for our last hallway’s board & batten. They’re super thin, light weight, and just 77¢ per foot from Home Depot. Sherry measured and cut the strips using our miter saw, and we taped them into place as she brought them up, just to keep track of how it looked and what walls were still incomplete. Despite all of the nooks and crannies in this bathroom, it took us under an hour to get everything cut and taped up… though it did involve about two dozen trips up and down the stairs between the two of us. Go quads!

As we took them down to paint them, we labeled each one on the back so we knew exactly where they went when it was time to nail them into place. Many of the walls are similar in size, so we figured it would save us the frustration of putting the puzzle back together by trial-and-error.

In addition to putting a coat of white (Simply White by Benjamin Moore) on the pre-primed slats, we also painted the walls the same color. Once that dried, we could finally attach the trim. This is one of those easier-with-two-people projects, so Sherry was with me holding things (the nail gun, the other end of the lattice strip, the level, etc) which made it go faster. We started with me nailing one end of our first strip with the nail gun (it was loaded with 1.25″ brad nails). Note the ear plugs, since in such a small space the sound of the gun was crazy loud.


Then I held my level across it to make sure it was straight before handing the nail gun to Sherry so she could nail in the other end. This is a rigged photo since Sherry had to hop down to take this picture, but in real life it was a lot easier for her to hold the other end of the lattice up, and I’d check things with the level, say “good!”, and she’d fire a nail into her end. Then we could just continue around the room, making sure each piece lined up with the one before it.


Once we had all of the lattice hung, I went around the whole bottom edge with a bit of caulk, since our walls weren’t flat enough for them to looks seamless. I also used caulk to fill the tiny nail holes that we fired into the lattice on each end as we hung it. When the caulk dried, Sherry went over the trim with one more coat of paint – just on the front and under the bottom edge – to make sure it looked as crisp as the freshly painted wall.


There are still lots of little tweaks that we’d like to do to this room for Phase 1 (see that light fixture above?) but so far we’re really happy with this slice of personality that we brought back into the space (you know, after ridding it of its wild wallpapered persona).

And I don’t want to ignore the power of the white paint in all of this too. Here’s the difference between our post-wallpaper-removal “gas station bathroom” look, and the post-paint after that we have going on now.

We also hung some art on the wall behind the toilet. These are prints we had from our last house (the top one is a page ripped from Real Simple magazine that hung in our guest bathroom, and the bottom one is a print by Sally at sadlyharmless.com that was given to us during one of our book tour stops last year and used to hang in our sunroom).

When we held them up together we initially worried they were a little too similar to be so close to each other, but decided just to work with what we have for now. The gradient of blues (the top print is a little lighter) actually seem to connect the lighter blue ceiling to the deeper blue floor in a nice subtle way.

At the end of the day, our entire master bathroom update so far clocks in at a little over 50 bucks. Here’s the breakdown:

* If you don’t have a shower curtain, wall & trim paint, and art on hand, you might spend around $100 grabbing those.

We still have a few more inexpensive updates in mind for this room, but it’s already a lot nicer to walk into than the dark blue wallpapered space that we started with. What did you guys do this weekend? Any bathroom or trim projects in the works?

Psst- Last week we woke up to some surprise snow, and Clara really got into it.