Matthew and Sarah Johnson own a spacious two-flat in Logan Square, nestled in a tidy tree-lined street around the corner from the “square” proper. The house was built in 1896. It has five bedrooms, three and a half bathrooms, high ceilings, a spacious yard, and a quaint front stoop. Yet the Johnsons live with their two children in the basement.
Seven years ago the Johnsons purchased their home for $180,000, which was way under market, even then. Of course, there’s always a catch, and in this case it was a real fixer-upper.
Matt outlines the original state of the house thus: “It was full of cockroaches and rats. The kitchen cabinets were molding and rotting away, the toilets weren’t attached, and the whole house stank of animal urine and mold. The previous tenants were hoarders and they had giant fish tanks, which meant the humidity caused mold everywhere. Sagging floors, leaking roof, moldy basement, and rotting structure. The rats had made nests everywhere and chewed through studs. Nearly everything that had been done to the house by the previous owner was done cheaply, incorrectly, or both. The new windows were the wrong size, they leak, and many were broken. The vinyl siding lets water in, the roof was redone recently in [a] hilariously wrong fashion, and the . . . garage was amateurishly expanded.”
He expands on this description in an e-mail: “When we pulled out the kitchen cabinets it was like a sporting event had just ended with a mass exodus of roaches scurrying for cover in every direction.” He adds that the bases of support columns in the basement had rotted away and were steadied by load-bearing beer cans.
Despite possessing no major renovation experience whatsoever and a tool kit consisting of a hammer, a screwdriver, an assortment of nails, and nothing else, the Johnsons took the plunge to transform the two-flat into a single-family home. In January 2011, they started a blog, Two Flat: Remade, to chronicle their insanity. Today it serves as a reference for other Chicago DIYers. In confessing that they have no idea what they’re doing, the Johnsons have inadvertently inspired others who also have no idea what they are doing and created a community of home-rehab bloggers.
Marcus de la Fleur, for instance, posts updates about home-improvement projects he has taken on, with the goal to transform homes into sustainable, energy-efficient affairs. Yellow Brick Home follows Kim and Scott Vargo’s adventures in indoor construction, such as installing an entire wall of cabinets. The bloggers comment freely on each other’s sites, sharing advice and recommendations for local contractors. “I feel very connected to Matt’s trials and tribulations, as we both had to navigate the same maze and jump the same hurdles,” de la Fleur says. “I recall commenting on some of his posts with suggestions of what could be done different, if I thought it would make a difference. That kind of exchange is priceless.”
In Matt Johnson’s most recent entry, from March 2018, he describes his attempts to install an attic window. “The process took so long I only got the one side up, so I have yet to finish the window,” he writes ruefully. The post drew three commenters who requested window recommendations for their own projects; Sarah replied that they’d paid $4,800 for eight windows, including tax and delivery. The Johnsons always reveal the exact prices. So far they’ve spent $150,000.
When the Johnsons started their renovation, they optimistically divided the rehab plan into four “phases.” The first was to scrub every surface of the second floor, transforming it into a habitable space. The second was to demolish the first floor and rehab the basement and install a new boiler and water heater. The third, which began two years ago, called for the whole famly to move into the basement while contractors installed ducting, plumbing, electrical wiring, drywall on the first and second floors, and a new roof and porch. So far, only the move has occurred.
The family’s living quarters are roughly the size of a small one-bedroom apartment—800 square feet. The entryway is in the backyard, which is currently stocked with dozens of wooden boards in various sizes and a fine selection of dirt piles. There are many temporary walls in the basement. One divides the living-room-esque nook into a narrow TV space and the two bedrooms—one for mom and dad, one shared by the kiddos. On a recent tour of the space, Sarah proudly grabs the inside of a door frame and shakes it. The entire wall sways. Still, the basement is far more habitable than the rest of the house. Though a bit musty, it’s warm and cozy, furnished with a comfy couch and a small dining room table.
Though Matt says his children don’t mind living in such close quarters with each other and their parents, the house poses some hazards. When their six-year-old, Derek, was younger, he wanted to help upstairs, but a piece of flooring fell on him, cutting his head and hand. Four-year-old Emily was once tested for lead levels, and the results were disturbingly high—though they tapered off soon after.
Meanwhile, the house appears far from finished. The front facade is still covered in house wrap, and the inside resembles a large shed. The entry foyer of sorts overlooks even more boards, and a pile of insulation reaches the ceiling, enveloping a washer-dryer. The walls are missing on both the first and second floors. The Johnsons work during the day: Matt is in IT, and Sarah is a project manager for a supply chain and logistics company. What little time they have is spent with the kids, playing Diablo III, or inching through phase three. Matt hopes to hit phase four—putting the finishing touches on the house and landscaping—soon; during it the family will finally occupy both of the above-ground floors.
The Johnsons originally planned to spend five years rehabbing the house. Then that estimate crept to ten. With three years left, the Johnsons say they’ve seriously considered handing the entire project over to contractors, terminating their plan altogether. “I think part of what keeps me going, and keeps us wanting to stay in the house, is how much help [friends and family] have given us over the years, even if it’s just watching the kids so we can get some work done,” Matt writes in a follow-up e-mail. “If we gave up, it feels like we’d be throwing all that away somehow.”
As long as the Johnsons feel it benefits homeowners, they plan to keep Two Flat: Remade accessible, comprehensive, and regularly updated.
“There’s a lot of comments from people starting their own project that have found answers, inspiration, or even realized it’s too much for them to take on,” Matt says. “That’s the biggest reason I’ve kept up with the blog. I haven’t found a lot of other resources for this sort of thing, and while I’m not an expert, most experts just tell people not to do it themselves.” v