How sweat equity and determination created a dream retirement home

(This article first appeared in Back Home magazine, April, 2013)


SERENDIPITY HAS A LOT TO DO with this story. If Laurel Sharmer hadn’t moved to Potsdam, New York to take up a new public-health teaching job at SUNY, if she hadn’t, consequently, purchased that wreck of a 1927 Cape Cod and spent 12 years fixing it up; if her daughter-in-law had never driven her, on a whim, to view lots in Monmouth, Oregon; and if she had never said, “This is where I want to spend the rest of my life,” I would never have met this gutsy, multi-talented woman.

Laurel Sharmer

Laurel Sharmer

When Laurel moved in next door she brought with her a set of quality power tools, blueprints for a 1,600 square-foot Craftsman-style cottage, the deed to a nearby corner lot, and $94,000—money from the sale of that now-renovated Cape Cod. The money would pay for four things: (1) a $12,000 building permit, (2) the foundation “dig out,” (3) a contractor to frame and complete the exterior of the house; and (4) another to bring in the electrical service.

Everything else she would do herself, relying on sweat equity and imagination to stretch her Social Security and “tiny” pension checks while living in the unfinished shell. It would take as long as it took, but she would have no mortgage. 

When Laurel told me this, I was stunned. 

“Really?” I said. She nodded. I asked the obvious question: “How do you know how to do all that?”

She laughed before she said, "Everyone asks that. I learned most of it remodeling my last home. If you're a woman though, it’s assumed you had to be taught—but no one asks where you learned to make pies or sew. I tell people my grandfather was a cabinet maker and that seems to satisfy them. Though,” she added, “he was a ship’s cabinet maker and died long before I was born.”

I liked Laurel and we soon became friends. But I kept wondering: How could this slim, 63-year old grandmother manage to do, alone, all that building a house required? My daily walk took me past her lot and curiosity drove me to stop often and view her progress. I was impressed when she installed the wiring and plumbing, and more impressed when I learned she was using copper tubing instead of the flexible plastic commonly used. Copper because this house would not only be fully green (her years in public health insisted on that), but built to last. It would be her legacy to her granddaughters. And always in her mind was the idea that it would stand at least a hundred years. 

But every planner, no matter how diligent, encounters pitfalls, and like many builders and remodelers before her, Laurel discovered her pitfall was an imperfect contractor. 

"I think the guy who did my framing was an honest man, but he ended up letting his son use my house as a learning laboratory, where 'close' was good enough."

 The failings of “close” were soon evident. Not only was the work done far more slowly than promised, it wasn’t always done right. She soon discovered that one of the two side-by-side bedroom windows was three-eights of an inch too low. Since a level headboard sat below them the discrepancy was obvious.

"It required a lot of finagling" to get the apron below the windows to match. And unfortunately, it wasn’t a unique problem.

"The rough framing has driven me crazy. There's little he did that's square or plumb," she said. "It can take a whole day to complete the finish framing for one window, because the rough is bad. Dealing with that has been my hardest task."

Overcoming such setbacks requires patience, and the gift of acceptance. Laurel had both qualities. Where others might have been angered by the imperfections, she plowed ahead, tolerating the sawdust-covered chaos, focusing on one room at a time, enjoying the process, and “watching the house emerge around me.”

First she completed her bedroom (which served, officially, as her general-contractor office), then the bath, kitchen, living area, and finally the hall and stairwell. For months her only water source, outside a toilet and shower, was a temporary utility sink in the hall. She had a stove, but no counters or cupboards. Visitors were treated to views of two-by-fours and plywood floors, but Laurel seemed unfazed. Yes, she admits, she was sometimes discouraged, but she told herself that "everything I do is putting me one step closer to being finished."

She struggled with doors (“door mortices for hinges have to be exact to 32nd of an inch”), and the stair well (“I wish I’d paid more attention to parallelograms in high school), but the task most revealing of her frugality and determination was the porch ceilings. She bought cedar fencing, planed off the roughness, ripped each board to 2.5 inches, routed it with tongue and groove, and nailed it up—using about 5,000 nails. After letting it rest for six months she climbed back on the ladder and applied three coats of Spar varnish. Total cost: $160.

The easiest task—installing the flooring throughout the downstairs—was a pleasant surprise. To save money she bought flat Douglas Fir seconds at 20 cents a foot and did the routing herself. Because they were seconds she examined them carefully and used the rejects as face frames for cabinets.

"It was pretty easy to hammer them into place and put down five coats of water-based floor finish. I did the entire great room for about $150, and the finish cost half as much as the floor."

Laurel in her workshop.

Laurel in her workshop.

Though an architect designed the house, the interior is all Laurel's. Often when I stopped by I would find her studying books of Craftsman and Shaker design—her two guiding principles. In designing and building her bath and kitchen cupboards she did what makes perfect sense but never seems to happen.

"I measured my stuff. How high are my shampoo bottles, how high my cereal boxes, books in the bookcase, photo albums, everything." Every cupboard in the house is built for specific items or purpose, including a “dining cabinet” in the kitchen island for her cat Spike, and a cupboard under the stairs for his “powder room.” The small utility closet that holds her ironing board and cleaning supplies is so well thought out that every item can be reached without moving anything else. I envy it greatly. 

The project she's most proud of is an alder trestle table, stained chestnut brown to match her granddaughter’s hair. When she’s alone, the feet slide into slots under a window seat, keeping the table out of the way. But when the family comes, "I pull the table out and use the window seat. Measuring stuff meant measuring the family too."

She did need help hoisting a few cupboards and hanging the large carriage-house doors, but without doubt she’s managed to do all but the heaviest tasks on her own.

“I was surprised a few times when I looked back, and said, oh my gosh, I have two x chromosomes. I can do this!”

Now, finally, she’s completing the second floor, a single large room divided into activity areas: sewing/crafts, reading, TV viewing, etc. And with the downstairs completed she’s able to take her time and buy better quality lumber. 

“Most of what I bought [for downstairs] was seconds or discards. What a difference it makes to be working with good lumber. Someday, I may redo my entire kitchen in oak!”

Laurel’s energy, creative solutions, and smart planning kept costs low and her vision intact. Despite her limited income, despite having to sometimes delay progress until the next check arrived, she never nourished her doubts or compromised on her priorities: solid construction, green components, energy efficiency, and building to last. The result of her hard work is a lovely, mortgage-free home that is everything she dreamed of, and a small but bountiful garden (as a vegan she grows most of her food) that is the envy of her neighbors.

But she’s not resting. Besides spending more time with friends and family, besides the year-round garden—and the preserving that goes with it—she’s learning to square dance and play the piano, and soon she’ll have a new Airedale puppy to train. And he’ll have his own dog-washing station beside the back steps.

“I love my house, says Laurel. “I’m so happy here. This is where I will spend the rest of my life.”

The house shortly after completion. Trees, berry bushes, roses and flowers of all kinds now surround the cottage.

The house shortly after completion. Trees, berry bushes, roses and flowers of all kinds now surround the cottage.