Old house meets cold snap

It looks like that subzero weather is going to be with us for a while. As the owner of an ancient house, I have had to deal with frozen pipes a few times. We have a sink with


plumbing inches away from the northwest corner of the house. My goal is to keep it from freezing so that I don’t have to thaw it out. Right now I have a short piece of heat tape wrapped around the pipe and I check it frequently when the temperature gets to -8 or less.

The last time the pipe froze was when the temperature dropped to -27. We turned the faucet on and after about 10 hours the pipe thawed on its own. The best way for a homeowner to thaw a pipe is with a hairdryer. It takes patience but it works. Turn the spigot on and aim the hairdryer at the frozen pipe. Be patient it takes time.

Having a plumber thaw the pipe is an even better idea but when we get the super cold weather plumbers are busy and they charge that extra emergency fee too.

Drains can freeze too. They can’t freeze unless there is water in them. A faucet that drips can cause a drain to freeze. Putting a stopper in the drain or putting something under the drip to catch the water will work as a temporary fix.

I have toured houses that were damaged after the pipes were frozen and burst as they thawed. It isn’t a pretty sight and depending upon the circumstances homeowners insurance may not pay for the repairs.

Homeowners who plan to have their vacant house on the market in the winter should have it winterized. Most plumbers can do this and some homeowners do it themselves. Winterizing involves turning off the water and draining the plumbing and water heater.

Homebuyers should insist that the water be turned on prior to a complete home inspection. I like to put the request right in the purchase agreement.

When I sell my house I will need to disclose that we have had frozen pipes.

Also, see It is never too late to winterize


Those darn ice dams!

Bathrooms demystified

If you are looking for a house to buy you may want one that has more than one bathroom. You may find a listing for a home that has two bathrooms only to find that one of the bathrooms is a 1/4 bath which consists of a shower in the basement.

It is helpful to understand bathroom definitions.

A full bath, which counts as one bathroom has a shower, tub, toilet, and sink.

A three-quarter bath has a toilet, and a sink, and a shower or a tub and counts as one bathroom.

Most half baths sometimes called a “powder room” have a toilet and a sink and counts as one bathroom.

Quater baths which also count as one bathroom may have a toilet, or a sink, or a shower, or a tub.

In the older parts of the city quarter baths in basements are more common than they are in other parts of the region.

The most unusual combination of baths I have ever seen in a house was one where there were a tub and a sink on the second floor and a toilet and a sink on the first. That house had 2 half baths and was listed as having two bathrooms.

Bathroom definitions are likely local so don’t take this too seriously if you are house-hunting outside of Minnesota.


Bathroom – full

In St. Paul we have old houses

The wonderful thing about houses is they can be retrofitted. I live in a house built in the 1850s.  It didn’t have wifi back then and there was an outhouse in the backyard. Central heating was added at some point and so was a water heater.

Today it has “smart home” technology, which in most cases is super easy to install and use.

Understanding old houses is an important part of my job. I have rarely met an old house that I don’t like. Sometimes people ruin them when they remodel so that the house has some character from the turn of the century and some from the 1980s.

The oldest houses in St. Paul are those that are the closest to downtown. The newest houses are in the Eastern and Western edge of the city. There are newer houses here and there and even some new construction.  Half of all houses in St. Paul were built before 1920. The chart is a screen print from a city of St. Paul planning report.

age of houses
Age of housing stock

The house I grew up in was a beautiful craftsman-style house in the Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood. It was built in 1926 and is the newest house I ever lived in. It had an ancient boiler that burned oil.  I well remember the great oil shortage and taking turns with my dad hauling containers of diesel fuel from the local gas station and using it as fuel for the boiler. That same boiler was later converted to natural gas.


How is your furnace?

The weather has me thinking about the furnace. We bought a new one back in 2014. The older models can last a long time. Most are not as energy-efficient as today’s models but they will heat your house.

Some of the companies that service boilers and furnaces are quick to suggest buying a new one when a part is all that is needed. Do a little research and get a second opinion before you replace your furnace or boiler.

Here is a collage of old furnaces and boilers that are still hard at work in St. Paul homes.  There are some fine old heating plants in the picture. The furnace that is pictured on the top and in the center is an ancient gravity furnace. They can take up most of the basement.

If you are buying a home with an older unit in it I recommend having the furnace or boiler tuned and certified by a licensed HVAC specialist. The best time to have a furnace put in is during the cooling season. The oldest boiler dates back to the 1920s.

Even though central heating seems essential for Minnesota homes there are a few in St. paul that do not have it.

Furnace collage

Historic but just on the outside

brick turret
Historic brick and stone

What is historic on the outside may look like it was built in the 1980s on the inside. There must have been a lot of condo conversions in the 80s. 

The original woodwork was replaced with blond oak and the floors are carpeted. The “old world” charm can not be found on the inside. In fact, sometimes there isn’t anything charming about the interior.

There are several buildings in downtown St. Paul that were factories or warehouses that were converted into condos. The kitchens are all new but the buildings still have exposed brick and timber. They retain their historic charm.

The developers restored unique historic features rather than just gutting the building and starting over. River Park Lofts, The Great Northern, and the Rossmor in downtown St. Paul were all converted from industrial buildings to condos while retaining original walls, windows, ceilings, and flooring.

Some of our historic buildings are disappointing on the inside because they were chopped up and made into small apartments that don’t make sense. Who wants a north facing condo with one window? The original flooring is gone and brick walls are covered with drywall.

Historic preservation districts have rules about how the outside of a building has to look but no rules about the inside. You can’t judge a building by how it looks on the outside.

Tasteful furnishings

Ramsey Hill Condo

Over the years I have worked with many clients who have “good taste”, yet I can only think of a few instances where tasteful the furnishings in a home helped make it more saleable.

The furnishings that appeal to one generation may not appeal to another. There are some classic pieces of furniture that have a universal appeal, they are smaller more versatile pieces like chairs, end tables or must-have furnishings like kitchen or dining room tables.

Sometimes removing the furnishings actually helps sell the home especially if it is a smaller home. Staging also helps make homes look more appealing but staging is sometimes misunderstood. It isn’t about filling a home with furniture. It is more about using a few items to show how the space could be used or decorated.

The condo in the picture sold quickly and the owner sold some of the furnishings with it. It was staged by taking some of the furniture out and rearranging what was left and adding some lighting. Rugs were removed and so were family photos.

Less is usually more and having no furniture is better than having the wrong furniture.