five months later and finding the contractor

We breathed a huge sigh of relief after seeing Carl’s charming drawings of the cottage. Will and I figured we were onto something we could manage within our budget if we heeded Carl’s advice to preserve as much as possible in the cottage, keeping it simple, maintaining the charm. Buoyed by our new found confidence we were eager to find a contractor who could help us execute this modest renovation.

Again, as luck would have it, finding the right contractor fell directly into place. Will had collaborated with a new local contractor, Jason Richardson, of J. Richardson Contracting LLC.

J. Richardson Contracting LLC.
J. Richardson Contracting LLC.

whom Annie Selke had retained for her latest home renovation project in Lenox, Massachusetts. She had brought in the renowned architect John Gilmer to head up the re-design. This renovation was no small under taking. Jason, who had recently formed his company and employed a crew of four men, was highly skilled and knowledgeable. Will was very impressed with the quality of Jason’s work, and that of his diligent crew. After wrapping up Annie’s renovation, Jason and his crew had begun to tackle another house renovation project for one of Will’s colleagues who also gave Jason and his team raves reviews. We were confident that Jason would turn out to be the perfect fit for our project.

We walked Jason through the cottage, damp, moldy basement and all.

Stairs to the basement- it takes a lot to get me to go down these
Stairs to the basement- it takes a lot to get me to go down these

He looked at our drawings and nodded as he listened to us explain some of our ideas. Jason was quick to point out where he could improve upon our plans, and prepared us to anticipate that some things may not be possible once he could look into things a little deeper. All in all he felt that the house was in fairly good shape on the interior and the structural improvements needed would not be complicated.

A week later Jason presented us his estimate- it was completely reasonable with allowances for details we hadn’t ironed out such as the kitchen and bath. After five months of thinking and rethinking this tiny cottage we were finally all systems go.


UN-condemning the white cottage- part two.

I have to admit Will and I were rendered speechless by the enormous price tag of the estimate we had received from that boutique carpenter-but it was so far out of the ballpark, so outrageous, that it was laughable at the same time. Somehow that eased the pain.

Now what? The architect we had agreed to work with on the red house was still engaged in another project for the next few months. Will began his search for other potential contractors. And self-doubt washed over me.

“Be careful what you wish for” kept looping in my head. Had we gotten ourselves into a real mess? Had we really been so off our own estimates of the scope of the renovation?  How much money were we willing to put into this anyway?  I feared common sense would force us to put the whole thing back on the market.


After a few nights of tossing and turning and anxious ruminating Will and I decided to go over to the cottage armed with a tape measure, paper and pencil, and masking tape, determined in our mission to map out another plan reconfiguring the cottage for a fraction of the price.


It was a sunny mild weekend afternoon.  Our talented neighbors Susan Merrill and Carl Sprague live directly across the street. Carl had recently arrived back home from one of his art direction projects and was eager to pop in and see the cottage. It had become an item of infamy and curiosity in the neighborhood as it stood deteriorating for the past decade plus.



As we walked around the outside of the house to point out all the fire damage, Carl told us he had actually been at home the night of the fire and regaled us with a detailed account of the evening sky lighting up as the barn was engulfed in flames and subsequently rescuing the television in the cottage for the tenant.


When Carl stepped inside he saw only the quaint charm of the cottage, appreciating the quirky windows and slanted front porch, the vintage cast iron sink and tub, the generous kitchen pantry. As we walked him through the four small rooms pointing out some of our ideas to modernize the cottage – tear off the burned shed, open up the house to the yard, Carl nodded. I could see the wheels in his head turning. He cautioned us that construction costs often escalated and we could easily be carried away from the budget we had in mind. We knew all about that! And so he urged us to maintain the integrity, to keep things as they were. Maybe move a wall just a tad to create enough space for a bed, but keep the charm…use the windows…repurpose what you can…rebuild the shed.


I think we had been so bent on opening the house up that it took some re-shifting to drink in Carl’s vision to restore it back to the original 1920s simple cottage.


Over the next few days in between assignments, Carl spent some time to measure the house and draw up a new plan. When I looked at them I felt as if I was being transported back in time. Carl, a visual conjurer extraordinaire created drawings of a sweet, innocent cottage for us. It was not as grand as the Grand Budapest Hotelbut just as magnificent. These were no typical linear renderings.  When I looked at them I imagined the curtain drawing, and being captivated by the set that Carl had drawn for us.

White Cottage captured by Carl Sprague
White Cottage captured by Carl Sprague


Floor plan - Carl Sprague
Floor plan – Carl Sprague

How to Un-condemn the white cottage- part one

The white cottage had been condemned 10-15 years ago after suffering extensive damage from a fire that burned down the barn behind it. The previous owner ran no interventions to restore or repair the cottage, leaving it to deteriorate. Even the water main pipes running from the street to the cottage had crumbled in the decade plus of neglect.

After the closing Will and I walked through the cottage making a long list of the improvements necessary to bring everything back up to code. A moldy damp basement with antiquated heating system, a rotten front porch, a bathroom housed in a fire damaged shed, a fireplace and chimney in questionable condition, roof and siding in serious states of decay.

The list was endless, almost overwhelming, but the bones were good; the vintage 1920s charm resonated despite the decrepitude.

The architect we had planned to work with on the red house was unable to begin work on the cottage for several months. Because it was just shy of 625 sq. ft. we decided we could shoulder a lot of the reconfiguring ourselves and reached out to a well known “boutique” carpenter who had a wonderful sense of the period, a real traditionalist with clean Shaker sensibilities.  He drew us two floor plans to work with, one with the existing walls, and the other simply a footprint.


White Cottage existing floor plan
White Cottage existing floor plan
The footprint of the white cottage including the front porch and shed
The footprint of the white cottage including the front porch and shed


Will and I played around with reconfiguring the space and along with the carpenter came up with a workable floor plan which included tearing off the back shed and absorbing the bathroom into the main house space.

White Cottage - Floor plan proposed by boutique carpenter
White Cottage – Floor plan proposed by boutique carpenter

It was fairly modest plan but accented with a few extra touches that transformed it out of the ordinary-transom windows, opening the back exterior wall to the yard, exposed fireplace…and then we got his estimate! Approximately $450 a square foot to renovate………ridiculous!

Back to the drawing board.


 The negotiation process involved in most real estate transactions is a progression of offers and counter offers between two cautious parties, each holding their respective cards close to their vests. In a negotiation every thing is contingent upon some thing.

Will and I had had no upper hand in the initial negotiations. Within the first four days on the market the seller had received several competitive offers on the property. We believed our first offer was attractive, but so were the others.

The seller, confident and buoyed by the number of immediate offers she had received in a relatively down market, held fast to her asking price. Our poker game began. We increased our offer. She remained firm. We inched up again but she remained solid. One more tweak up in our price and the seller began to counter, coming down a smidge and revealing her contingencies, her bargaining chips. The closing date must be as soon as possible. The current tenants must remain for another next year, at their modest rent.

Closing date? No problem we said- we’re nimble. Our purchase was not contingent upon a sale. We required no mortgage qualifications.

Tenants to remain? No problem we said. It would be a year or so before we could get started with the renovations we had in mind. It was a win-win for all.

This was our trump card that clinched the deal for us. All the other offers fell by the wayside.

But now we were faced with readjusting it all, based on the inspection results and the amount of work we had in front of us. Tim and I put in a call to our lawyer.  My heart began to pound as Tim presented our request. I wondered just how attractive we were as potential buyers. Where would the give and take come in? How eager was the seller? Nothing short of nail biting.

Tim artfully and calmly conveyed our request for a drastic reduction to the lawyers. He stressed how qualified and amenable we were as prospective buyers. He also made it clear that few others would be interested in this property given the current condition. I held my breath wondering if this would blow the whole deal.

The next day the phone rang…announced with another “Be careful what you wish for!” from Tim. The seller accepted the reduction as long as the tenants could remain.