Setting and accomplishing small goals is very important to me. The “YES!” feeling when you can scratch a project off a to-do list feels rewarding in itself and builds momentum for the next task. This is why each December I make a list of personal goals—small and medium-ish—that I then try to tackle them the coming year.
In the past I’ve dedicated myself to practicing hot yoga (and feeling near-death from the experience), professionalizing my filmmaking, and taking my first trip to France. By picking bite-sized goals each year I’ve been able to realize a few small dreams and have been inspired to consider bigger aspirations.
Set, work and scratch off. Set, work and scratch off.
Last December I dreamt up the aspiration to buy a home in the Puget Sound and to improve it with my Dad, Rich. I pictured us working on the fixer-upper (the only type of home that my budget affords: the Puget Sound housing market is INTENSE) and spending time together problem solving decades-old wiring and ancient plumbing. I knew it would be “type 3” fun experience, but I loved the idea of building this memory. (And type three is kinda my thing.) Plus, homeownership just felt like the right thing to do. A decade ago I bought a condo and my Dad came out to help with projects then. While we replaced a window and did some decorating, the bigger changes had to wait until i owned my own single family property, unburdened by HOAs.
Now, at age 36, was the time.
While I began touring homes as a buyer last fall, none of the places I viewed in the Eastside of Lake Washington struck me as good values for the listing prices which stretched into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. “Why struggle to pay a giant mortgage when I’d be still living in a dump”—I thought. After a dozen home visits, I paused my search. The market just didn’t make sense.
This past spring I began seeing Emily, a lovely airline pilot and fellow runner. Our relationship moved swiftly and within a few months she and I shared an apartment in the Greenwood neighborhood of Seattle. Knowing her family lived around Tacoma I was inspired to restart my home search, but this time I pointed my attention south.
After ten tours I found a winner in the Central Tacoma neighborhood of 6th Ave. The 1948-build four bedroom was improved by the previous owner, but still had old bones (the bad type), so we had plenty of sweat-equity opportunities. I closed on the house at the end of June, and moved a week and a half later.
There is something magical that happens between touring and putting in an offer on a house, and when you move into it. The heavenly glow that emanates from the walls slowly starts to subside after the inspection, appraisal and closing. This happens so rapidly in fact that by the time you move in and look at the property at any real detail you suddenly discover broken fixtures, non-functioning switches and a certain stale odor upstairs.
What did I get myself into?
Luckily, I had hope and help: My Dad. Living in New York didn’t stop him from helping me imagine improvements to my new house. Using FaceTime on his phone, I virtually toured him around the interior of the house as he took copious notes that my Dad used to render an at-scale floor plan. I pointed out all the issues I could find as he suggested potential solutions.
Sure, we can take that wall down. It isn’t load bearing.
Within a few months, my brother, Mike, and Dad had a plan. They would visit along with my sister-in-law, Emily, in October for an all-work, no-fun visit. They would selflessly take vacation just to visit the NW and work on my new house. That’s love. That’s grit.
“Wait, you mean you’re going to visit and we’re just going to work each day—no vacation stuff?”, I asked.
“We just want to work. Load it up.”
Wow. Classic Ballezza.
In the second weekend of October the three Ballezzas flew West. I had a lengthy scroll of projects that I hoped to work on, but I honestly didn’t care how much or little we got accomplished. My “new“ home was livable as is. Any improvements my family could do would be a blessing and a ‘fun’ project.
Traveling for a work project is a very Ballezza thing to do. I can recall many trips home to New York on a red eye flight to visit my folks. Shortly after arriving after a night spent sleeping in coach, I’d arrive at my childhood home just above NYC. My parents and I would catch up for about fifteen or thirty minutes by telling stories in their living room. After a coffee, we’d all get started on one or another house project which might include cleaning the backyard water feature, boxing up donations in the basement or loading up a ton and a half of yard waste from a rental property. It was always dirty, exhausting and just what we do.
Wait! Maybe buying this 1948-built Tacoma house was really just an expensive and complex form of payback?
After reviewing my project list with my family, we built a work schedule. It was just the no-fun plan my family hoped for.
While my Mom couldn’t join in on the fun, she called and emailed and encouraged the construction from afar. Project House was a go!
On Thursday afternoon The Ballezzas arrived at SeaTac. After I drove my Dad to my house in Tacoma he immediately began measuring the layout of the structure to confirm the sketches he did previously on FaceTime. Can’t you chill for a minute in the City of Destiny? Crazy! My brother and sister-in-law rented a car and soon followed.
That evening we dined on Lasagna cooled by my girlfriend Emily.
After a breakfast of coffee, tea and cereal, I helped my Dad and brother as they documented the electrical circuit of the house including all outlets, switches and lights. They were experts. I was just the tool holder.
As an old home, my house had multiple renovations and additions over the decades that made the electrical system a mystery so it was only practical that we started there for the tour-du-house. In a meticulous fashion my Dad and brother tested and charted out every switch. As an electrician at the West Point Military Academy my brother was experienced working with very old wiring and troubleshooting how ancient systems work. His talents were well used on my Trafton St. home.
In addition to charting the electrical system, we also paid a visit to Home Depot and picked up supplies my brother used to install front and rear all-weather outlets. He also fixed faulty kitchen outlets and switches and added an outlet where a non-connected switch previously sat.
Lunch was cold-cut sandwiches and no one breaked together. We just ate and dove back into our projects spread through the house. For dinner we all dined at Taste of India, including my Dad (Indian: a new experience! WOOT!).
On our second full day of work we followed the same beautiful morning ritual: coffee, tea, cereal. My girlfriend and I completed yard work on the front and rear lawns while my brother installed a box extender for the new proximity switch he was adding to the upstairs closet.
(Switching to bulleted list due to the monstrous schedule.)
That day we also…
Installed front all-weather box for power outlet
Surveyed attic for possible fan and register issues
Surveyed crawlspace under addition
Relocated cable from bedroom to kitchen and built modem storage shelf
Fixed rear light fixture on addition and placed cover over power box
Inspected chimney bricks
Installed chimney flue cap
Closed off unwired outlet by kitchen counter
Lunch again was cold-cut sandwiches following by a backyard BBQ with friends for dinner. It was the perfect day of work, work, work and play. I got teary-eyed in the evening. The scene of my family working around together on a common goal was beautiful.
Plus, in the evening we stopped by the 6th Ave-staple, Ice Cream Social. Mmmmm.
On our second to last work day, we repeated our morning ritual and then dove back into the remaining projects. My girlfriend Emily and I continued with the yard work on our front and rear lawns. My brother and Dad cut an access point to route a new power circuit to the second floor and attic crawl space, then Mike pulled the new power wires from the kitchen breaker through to the second floor and onto the attic. Monster! This would have cost thousands if I had hired an electrician, and my brother had it done in minutes. The electrical circuit could later be used to install attic ventilation.
I crawled under the addition crawlspace and installed half of the under floor insulation. This was one of the crummiest jobs I could do, but the weather was dry and it felt like now or never. While I was finishing I also fixed the return vent for the house’s rear room. My Dad installed drywall in the second floor closet where my brother had just pulled wires through to the attic minutes before. We were like clockwork. The dusty, dirty type.
For dinner my Dad wanted seafood, so we visited Johnny’s Dock and Marina for some PNW salmon, a favor of my Dad’s.
On our last work day I had to head in to my job for a half day of work for a morning project. After I was done I darted back to Tacoma to join my family who was once again quick at work. This is what they knocked off:
Applied second coat of drywall to repaired closet on second floor
Fixed dining room ceiling light
Interior spackling of various holes
Caulked outside holes and new cable modem entry point by kitchen
Installed TV wall mount
Balanced fridge and installed range tip guard
Created and installed covers for interior and exterior crawl space entry points
Painted front door
Removed dead branches from back plum tree
Removed back of nails on sliding barn door
Food: Thai food for Mike, Emily, Joel and Emily, pizza for Dad
After a few last minute touch up paint work by my Dad, the projects were done. We had breakfast at the 6th Ave staple: Shakabrah. Then Emily and I said our thanks and reflected on all that was accomplished on their sprint, sufferfest visit. We hugged and then it was done. Emily and I teared up as my brother pulled away from the house in his rental car carring himself, my sister-in-law Emily, and Dad to SeaTac. The visit was over, and it was the best/worst vacation that we could have hoped for. Terrible only because it was not longer, or restful, but I wouldn’t change a thing.
Ballezza, I love you big.