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Walls are up!

This is exciting.  Sheetrock went up, and painting will begin this weekend, with cabinet installation on Monday.   I wanted to take a moment to share some photos of the new walls, as well as the details that I have been selecting along the way, which I have yet to post.  I promised I would not do any more “before and after” shots until it was done, but I think it will help to see a few of the spaces in their original form, just to give you, dear reader, an idea of how much the layout has changed, and how much cleaner everything is.

  • The laundry room before had a staircase leading upstairs, and no access to the other side of the house.


My 203K Loan Process and Lessons Learned

Hello!!  Since my big old farmhouse is finally a few weeks from being officially move-in ready, I thought it would be a good time to outline what the past year has looked like with regard to the acquisition and renovation process.  I went with a Full 203k loan, so I will be focusing on this gem of a mortgage product ; )

What is a 203k Loan?

The “203k loan” is actually backed by an insurance product developed by the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) back in the 60s.  It was authorized in Section 203(k) of the National Housing Act, and the insurance this section provides allows lenders to lend under the conditions outlined in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR).  We have come to know mortgages backed by this insurance as 203k loans, or rehab loans.

203k loans come in two flavors, if you will.  If the home being mortgaged required repairs of under $35,000, the process is streamlined, and overall the rehabilitation is a pretty painless process.  For more extensive repairs and rehabilitation, a full 203k is required, and this is what I will be outlining for you.  Both loans provide homeowners the opportunity to purchase less desireable homes, or homes in need of some TLC, that are not otherwise not eligible for other rehabilitation options (like Fannie Mae owned properties eligible for HomePath loans).

For more on the technicalities, I would recommend visiting the HUD website at: https://portal.hud.gov/hudportal/HUD?src=/program_offices/housing/sfh/203k/203k–df

1. Getting Started

The first 3 steps tend to happen all at once, but you may find you already have an agent, already have financing, or already have a home picked out.  In any case, proceed as necessary!

Get Pre-Approved

Most websites will advise that you get pre-approval before you start shopping for a home at all.  I would recommend this as well, if for no other reason that to see what you might qualify for.  You might be surprised at how much you could actually qualify for, so this is an important step. Along with your pre-approval, it is also smart to think about what you would be comfortable paying.   In my case, for example, I was comfortable with my $1,900 rent payment, but not happy I was spending it on rent.  While I qualified for much more, I stayed within the parameters I set for myself, and found an amazing property : )

A few things to remember – you do not have to obtain your mortgage through the company that pre-approves you, and typically the pre-approval is contingent upon you finding a home, providing evidence of income, etc.  Don’t waste time trying to find the perfect lender right away, but do start shopping around, talking to lenders about their process, familiarity with 203k and other mortgage products.  More on this later : )

In my case, I knew what I could afford, but was casually browsing when I stumbled upon my future home.  In my experience in real estate, this is typically the case with most homebuyers today.

Pro tip – Don’t bug your realtor to show you multiple properties until you are sure you are ready to fall in love with a home ; ) Some agents will not work with clients who have not at least been pre-approved, and considering the time it takes to set up walk-throughs, schedule with sellers or the bank, this is completely responsible.  Pre-approvals are quick (1 day max.) and really give you an idea of what your limits are.

Find an Agent

A responsible agent will be able to tell you a few things that will be critical to your purchase and investment:

Is the house properly listed?

This is critical because you will essentially subtract the initial investment (how much you pay) and the repairs, from the appraised value.  The FHA process has guidelines that help protect you (more to come on that), but a good agent will also help you negotiate the best deal, much like a lawyer defends your best interests in court.

What could the potential resale value be if it were updated? (Read – What might your equity position look like/Is this worth it?)

Again, an agent who knows the neighborhood and surrounding areas will be able to tell you about school districts, things that affect value, and what kind of rehab you will need to do to bring it up to snuff with comparable properties.  Your contractors and FHA consultant will be able to create your dream home, and make sure its safe, but if you are trying to do a low-budget renovation in an uppity neighborhood, your home may never sell with laminate flooring or anything other than marble countertops.  Similarly, going overboard on renovations may put your home out of the market for potential buyers, and your appraisal will never be as high as the money you put into it.  There is definitely a ceiling in most neighborhoods, and this ceiling tends to be lower in areas where there are a lot of distressed properties.

How is the neighborhood?

You might find a cheap house, but is it really a place you want to call home?  Is it a place you want to raise kids?  Are there sufficient yoga studios and fresh produce markets? (Ok, that was my standard alongside school district ;)) If you are looking to flip, is it a place other people are willing to live?  Again, the neighborhood will contribute to your ceiling, and more importantly if you are living there, will have an impact on your quality of life.

When you are searching for an agent, find someone reliable who you trust.  My Realtor was recommended to me by someone who she represented on several transactions, and the first time we met at the huge scary property, she was as excited about the adventure as I was.  (If you are in the Southern New Jersey area, Gwen Mazzeo is the absolute BEST.  She stuck with me through the WHOLE convoluted process you are about to read, and I honestly do not think it would have ended so smoothly if she wasn’t representing me!)  A FULL 203k is not going to be a simple, 60 day closing in most cases, and hopefully this guide will help, but you NEED someone on your side who won’t give up.

Will the seller accept a 203k loan?

Sometimes this information is available online, but your agent will have more information than you about property details that may not be listed.  The MLS still contains a lot of information only available to agents.  For example, perhaps the seller mentioned foundation issues, or the home is being sold completely “as-is”.  In my case, there was a shared well on the property, and I was able to gather more information about that, the location of the updated septic, etc. by talking to my agent before we even visited.

Find a Property

I put this step last, of the three, even though it is typically first (I’m talking to you there, pro surfer at Realtor.com…..)  I admit that I found my house pretty much first too, but that did mean I had to hurry through the rest of the process (I fell in love at first sight).

You see a leaky ceiling, smelly cabinets, and a weird staircase…I see a future laundry room and extra prep space for DIY bath bombs! Did I mention 203k projects require a little imagination?

Realtor.com is a good place to start, but if you know you want a fixer-upper, and you have an agent and pre-approval, you are in a much better position.  Bonus points if you already have a contractor in your arsenal, and gold stars if they are certified as an 203k consultant).

To bring, or not to bring, a consultant and contractor…

On your first walkthrough, unless you have a full crew ready to work with you, it is not necessary to bring an entourage.  You will have several visits with the home before the loan closes, so my advice is to walkthrough first with your agent, and use your judgement based on what you see.  Take pictures, and if you think it might be feasible, re-visit with your contractor or consultant.  203k consultants typically charge upfront to prepare a feasibility study, and I did not have mine completed until after my first walkthrough, and after I had a structural engineer do an inspection.  I will discuss this further in a bit.

On our first walkthrough, even though my agent had scheduled the appointment with the selling agent (who worked in her office), the current tenants of the property refused entry at first.  My agent had to call the seller’s agent, who contacted the seller, who contacted the tenants (again) to let us in.  The point being, you never really know what you might be walking into on the first (or subsequent) walkthroughs.  Be safe, and ALWAYS head out with an agent to walk a property, even if it looks vacant, or you couldn’t imagine how anyone could possibly be living there.  I’m pretty sure in our case it was a misunderstanding, but safety should always come first.

2. Hire a 203k Consultant

The next step is to find a 203k consultant you can trust.  Along with your agent and bank, the consultant is an important (not to mention required) player dedicated to your protection.  203k consultants are typically current or past contractors with experience in the field, who can make responsible estimates of the work your potential home needs.  The consultant charges a fee, that is set by HUD’s fee schedule (so they can’t rip you off), and the total fee is determined by the cost of repairs.  The initial cost is typically a few hundred dollars (mine was $300).  With this payment, the consultant will conduct a feasibility study.

What is a feasibility study?

The feasibility study is an extensive inspection of the property that estimates the cost of mandatory and desired repairs.  As he or she conducts the study, the consultant will take note of anything HUD will required to be done to bring the house up to code.  Once the feasibility study is turned into to official specification of repairs, these will be marked mandatory, and must be completed to the specifications outlined.  If there is additional work you would like to be done, the consultant will estimate the cost, and tag it as desired.  Once the study is complete, you will have a good idea of what the repairs should cost, and the bank will have security that the house will be brought up to code, thus ensuring resale value.

Make sure that the feasibility study includes everything you want done at the property.  When I walked through, I thought it was too early to think about things like layout, grade of flooring, etc.  You can generalize, but make sure the “big stuff” is included.  It is better to overestimate than under estimate.  After my study was completed, I had to remind my consultant to add in things like the heat service being transferred from oil to gas, and the kitchen being remodeled.  Once everything was accounted for, I had a better idea of the renovation cost and could think about the offer I wanted to make.

3. Make an Offer

Assuming you have your pre-approval ready to go, you can proceed with making an offer on this property.  Typically agents will recommend that you get a specific pre-approval for the offered purchase price of the property.  You never want to disclose your purchasing power to the seller or seller’s agent, since their on the other end of the deal.  Be aggressive but reasonable, considering what you know about the property.

Pro-tip: You may be able to renegotiate based on further inspections, and the appraisals and score of work that you will develop with the help of your 203k consultant.  The offer should be made based on what you know, and while you are technically under contract once the seller accepts, there are certain timelines written into your contract that protect you against unforeseen circumstances.

In my case, the home was listed at $111,000, and had been on the market for about 6 months.  We made an aggressive offer at $85,000, plus $5,000 in closing costs, considering the work that needed to be done (the feasibility study revealed more work than the listing outlined), and after the seller countered, we finally settled on a final price of around $90,000, with $5,000 toward closing.  This offer included that the seller would pay for the installation of a new well on the property before closing, and the contribution to closing costs would reduce my required liquid funds at closing.  The property currently shared a well with the home next door.

When the loan was in underwritting (more on that later), the FHA did not want to risk the seller not holding up his end of the bargain, and required that the well installation be included in my scope of work.  We renegotiated to reduce the cost of the house by $5,000, and I included the cost of the well installation in the scope of work.  I ended up buying the house for around $85,000.

Finding a Lender

The next section will begin discussing how to go about choosing a lender for your 203k renovation.  I went with the lender who offered me my pre-approval, but had I shopped around or understood the process, I may have been able to save a lot of time.  Grab a big  enormous glass of wine, and join me in the next post, where you will learn about how to manage the relationships between your lender, consultant, and contractor…

Operation Flower Farm is a Go!

I have been longing for a nice cutting garden for years.  Anyone who knows me knows I am into vegetable gardening, and have a pretty good grasp on herbs and roses.  Truth be told, I have never been wonderful growing flowers.  I remember grabbing colorful seed packets when I was a kid and attempting to grow bright zinnias that claimed to grow 3 feet high, and launching wildflower seed spread into the yard before “seed bombs” were a thing, and nothing ever grew.  In recent years, my MO has been to buy pretty annuals from the Amish markets around May, stick them all over the place, water indiscriminately, and pray…a lot.

Last winter and spring marked my first gardening season in an apartment, and the death of a few purchased plants poised on my shady apartment balcony only added to the frustration of not having an appropriate garden, or even access to a garden hose.  Compounded with all the emotions that went along with temporary living, I leveled with the fact that I would soon have the ability to garden again, and it was time to start dreaming.

When I found my old farmhouse in May, and went under contract over the summer, naturally the first thing I did was start spending way too much time on Pinterest dreaming of the kinds of gardens I would have.  Vegetable gardens are wonderful, and in no time I had a plan to use some of the old storm windows to make a dreamy greenhouse.  I have always wanted lavender fields, and I missed my mint garden like nobody’s business.  I wanted a different kind of challenge though, and after seeing some inspirational flower fields and flower farms (did anyone know that was a thing?) I was hooked.  I had planned on planting in the fall, but since I didn’t settle until November, it was not until recently that I really started thinking about what I wanted to do.  A few flower beds turned into a tiny micro-sized farm, and I am learning now all the reasons why my past flower-tending was futile.  At the risk of making a cheesy sales pitch, I never thought I could grow flowers, and now I can…and you can, too!

I will do my best to document the cutting garden progress.  If you are interested in planting along with me, PLEASE DO!  This year, I will be focusing on my experience and likely linking to the resources I found helpful.  I am by absolutely no means an expert, but I have been learning a ton about the process of growing your own cut flowers from seed, tuber, bulb and corm!

Getting up to speed

So far, I have (with the help of a ton of research and pinspiration) mapped out my flower beds, ordered seeds, and started germinating.  If you are looking to start this year, NOW is the time.  In fact, you might already be behind depending on where you are, but it is better late than never!  Here is what you will need to do to catch up:

#1 Dream BIG!

This part is fun.  Hey, if you read my New Year’s post and are looking for something to work toward this year, this would be a fun start and truly embodies the process of setting out to do something you didn’t think you could.  So, start by dreaming.  I love Pinterest for this, and magazines, garden shows, whatever gets you feeling joyful.  For me, a huge source of inspiration was finding flower farms already in existence across the country.  Floret is a HUGE help.  Erin’s fields are gorgeous, and her photos make you want to reach inside the screen breathe deeply.  This is an extremely important step, because when you screw up a packet of seeds, or overwater by accident and drown seedlings, you will want to give up if you don’t have a big dream to keep you motivated.

#2 Consider what you can plant

We are lucky here in zone 7 because we can grow pretty much everything.  Our bulbs can typically stay in the ground, are properly overwintered, and pop up every spring, and our summers don’t come on too hot too fast.  You should absolutely check your hardiness zone, because even here in the tri-state area, our zones change from zip code to zip code.  I am technically in zone 7b, but an hour away you may find yourself in 6b, which is about 10 degrees cooler.  Check your zone with the USDA here, and consider the plants you already have growing to determine what might be best for your area.  So much of this will be trial and error as well, so you will get to know your garden, your plants, and your area over the course of a few years.  Again, I believe you will be able to plant most anything, though your climate will determine what amendments you need to make, when to start planting, etc.

#3 Pick your flowers and plan your gardens

It is OK to start with a small patch of garden.  Whether you are turning over an existing bed, or creating a new one, make sure it is in a location that will receive the kind of sun the flowers you plan to plant need.  This is why I do not break these steps apart.  You will constantly being getting inspiration, finding new plants, re-thinking your design and needs, and growing your space into a micro-farm…ok maybe that last bit is just me.  Honestly though, if you go overboard, you might get frustrated and overwhelmed fast, so do not bite off more than you can handle.  You might find you plan out your dream garden, then think about what part of it you want to work on this year.  I remind myself constantly that it is better to work in small chunks with a big end goal in mind, rather than trying to do it all at once.  I’m pretty stubborn, but when I heed this guidance it typically works out better, and I have more fun.  If it helps, keep a list of things you want to consider growing next year (an A-list and a B-list if you will).

Once you have your flowers picked (pun intended 😉 ) map out your final garden plan.  For me in the past, I have done everything from sketching rectangles on a post-it note, to drawing it up in Photoshop.  It really depends on my mood. This year I have been really into SketchUp, so I planned them out there.  I probably would not recommend it if you do not already know SketchUp, and honestly if my sketchpad and colored pencils were not still packed, I would have probably just used that.  Here is what I came up with though, for this year:

You will want to denote the size of the gardens, to determine how many plants you can squeeze in there.  This will also tell you how many seeds or tubers to order.  To give you an idea, the large rectangles are mostly 4’x16′.  I find that 4′ is a good size to be able to reach into the garden without having to step into it. I use 4′ beds for my veggies, so for me it works.  Each 4′ section will fit between 3-5 rows of flowers, depending on the size of the flower.  I will go more in depth  when I plant everything, but I would recommend Floret’s website again and also any book on lean farming.  Many farmers not use a close plant spacing technique which maximizes garden space.  For example, if a seed packet says a plant needs 12″ spacing, really you could probably get away with 9″, and by staggering your rows of plants, you end up with more plants per square yard.

#4 Buying seeds, tubers, corms, oh my!

Real flower farmers might be screaming at my through their monitors right now, but it is not too late to buy seeds, tubers, corms, and even bulbs.  Typically, especially here in zone 7, fall is for planting.  Many of these perennial flowers (the ones that come back every year) need a winter cold to go dormant.  They set roots while snow is falling, and pop up in the late winter, flowering in early spring.  While your spring-planted flower crops will be less prolific, you can still have beautiful harvests planting in the spring.  The most important thing to remember, though, is to PAY ATTENTION to the best planting time for each type of flower.  If you will, be the flower and think about what it needs.  This will help take the mystery and anxiety out of growing flowers.

I will get to planting momentarily, but for now, the buying.  Consider how many plants you need, remembering that growing from seed is so much more economical than buying flowers in pots from the greenhouse.  I would recommend purchasing seeds and tubers from reputable vendors online, not necessarily from the hardware and grocery stores.  While these could bloom, you will have more fun buying flower types and varieties that are more rare, and often the distributors take great care to sell seeds with high germination rates, and tubers from plants at their own farms from mother plants that have been selected for excellent production.  This year, I purchased from the following:

Assorted seeds including Sweet Peas – Floret Flowers Excellent seeds, beautiful packaging, and a great resource for how to plant and grow

Dahlia Tubers – Swan Island Dahlias (the #1 source for Dahlias…they have everything, and their website is dahlias.com…come on.)

Ranunculus Tubers, Anemone corms, and some bare root plants – Bulbsdirect.com Straight from Holland!

Assorted Seeds – Swallowtail Seeds I purchased backup seeds because they sell poppies in packs of 2,500.  They have a pretty large selection of other varieties as well

#5 Planting Schedule

While you are waiting for seeds to arrive, and truly during your research process, write down what kind of flowers you are growing, and what germination conditions they require.  Some varieties has special needs, for example, wildflowers (like Poppies, Snapdragons, Foxglove, etc.) produce tiny seeds and scatter them all over in the fall after blooming.  These seeds sit on the surface of your garden and soak up sunlight to start the germination process.  Keeping this in mind, you do NOT want to push them into the soil.  Make a note of this!  By contrast, some seeds must be completely covered.  Some need warmth, some require cold to sprout.  Some can be translated, and others resent root disturbance.  Many can be planted right in the garden as soon as the soil can be worked.  A spreadsheet is a good stay to stay organized.  Here is mine:

I will continue to add to this should I need to, and it is also handy to add notes as I learn more about this area and what my plant babies need to grow.

#6 Prep and Plant!

This is where the fun really starts!  I have started several of my seeds indoors, per my chart.  I have soaked and and pre-sprouting my tubers and corms, and am ready to prep my garden site.  When you make it here, you will be all caught up and we can start gardening together!  The most important piece here is to monitor your plants and pay attention to what they need.  TEST YOUR SOIL and if you need to make any amendments, do so.  I purchased a soil tester from the hardware store, which you stick in the ground and read the soil acidity.  Be sure to test all over your garden site, as a few feet can make a difference.  Proper preparation will make a difference (I know this from veggie gardening as well).  Do not slack on prep or anything relating to germination.  Soil prep may also include loosening the soil, hydrating it, or ensuring proper drainage.  Again, seeds may need cool temperatures or warm ones. Sweet peas, for example, germinate well at about 70 degrees so I have them on a heat mat, but once they sprout, they will go out into the garden where they can get lots of light and benefit from cooler temperatures.


I will continue to post about this exciting adventure, so feel free to follow along in your own garden!  If you have any questions, please ask them in the comments below.  I will be back soon with more as I continue to prep and plant outside!


The House Research Struggle is Real

As most people know, I am a relentless research buff.  I love to get caught up in the story of things, so it was no surprise that this old farmhouse had me curious from the first time I saw it.  When I find antiques, the first thing I usually do is research it, so I can share its story and value it even more, and this place is by far my biggest antique purchase to date.  I should have expected that with such a great find, it would also give me the biggest research challenge I have ever encountered!  When I started, I naively thought that researching a structure would be easier than researching a family.  I do a ton of family history work, and follow ancestors around using documents, photos, and stories as they traverse through time.  A structure, I figured, should be less of a hunt.  Boy, was I wrong.

As it turns out, researching a structure has less to do with its construction date (which is also, by the way, difficult to pin down), and more to do with everything moving around and through it.  Deeds go missing, land is transferred and divided without paperwork, and just as soon as I think I have an owner or inhabitant, I find out I am in a house down the street.  By contrast, I have come across several townsfolk who seemed trivial at the time, but ended up being extremely relevant.  I still have quite a bit to do, but I wanted to share some of the difficulties in researching my property that I was not expecting, and how researching property is vastly different from the research I’m used to.


Paperwork Goes Missing

This photo depicts John Hazelton (middle back), the son of Stacy Hazelton. The porch behind them looks a lot like mine – the glass above the front door is identical, as is the section jutting out from the left. While they lived in the home, there is no way to be sure this is mine.

This, in all actuality, is not uncommon when researching people; however, with ancestors, you can typically pick them back up at some point and fill in the gaps by telling the story.  When decades go by though, on a property, it is dangerous to just assume what transpired during that period.  In my deed search, I was able to go back to about 1950 before I hit the bottom, which is not all that far.  I used Gloucester County’s online deed books to trace purchased back to the 60s, and from there was able to read through the actual deeds to determine past ownership.  If you are lucky, your deed will actually give a bit of history.  For example, after the land description, the deeds in my county will say something to the effect of, “Being the same lands conveyed to XXXXX by XXXXX in 1959”.  The deed prior to the one you are looking at should have previous information as well.  The problem arises when this “recent” history comes to a stop.  In my case, recent history ended with the sale of my property from Freeman and Anna Loveland to the more recent owners in 1950.  In a small town like Harrisonville, I learned quickly that the transfer of property was typically among family, or was done without much paperwork.  Land was transferred commonly through wills (which I will get to), or sold at public sale with little documentation.  Only in recent history are well drafted deeds on the books.  My sale, for example, was online within days of closing!

Mixed Uses are Misleading

Because my property has also operated as the town’s General Store since the beginning of my research (dating back to 1846 so far), census records can be very misleading.  The census was typically recorded during the day, and the census records on those homes that also operated for commercial use contained a lot of folks outside of the family.  Did the clerk live in the building?  What about the owner?  Did the owner of the store rent from the homeowner?  Did the homeowner even occupy the property?  In my case, after researching the folks on the census for my house, the answer was yes, no, and perhaps…?  Often I am finding individuals appearing on multiple census records, sometimes in multiple enumeration districts.  In one case, a man, Stacy Hazelton, who inherited the store/home from his father-in-law in 1883, continued to operate the farm during the day, while his wife and mother lived in the next town in another home he owned.  He appears on both records, since they were taken on different days.  What does this mean in terms of ownership and inhabitants, and what does this really tell me about the home itself?  At the same time, the merchant/shop keeper living in a small family home down the street could very well be the person I am most interested in.  But what shop does he keep?

Marion Bartholomew (right) served as postmaster general from 1926-1931 and a clerk in the store during this time, but it isn’t clear whether she lived in the house.

One route I am trying to take advantage of is the oral history of this particular store also operating as the town’s post office, until recent history (about 1950).  The town has an extensive list of postmasters, but did they all live in the home?  Did the keep shop there?  Or did they simply manage the mail?  There were also a few general stores in the small town, so it is also unclear which store these folks could have managed.  The post office was typically housed within a store itself, but it is hard to tell exactly which store would have housed it at any given time.


Photos are Deceiving

Upstairs in the attic, you can see where an addition was added and the original roof is still in place beneath. As contractors open walls, beams are present indicating the original home was much smaller.

If you saw the photos of the interior of the home, you probably saw the “scary attic” where the original roof is visible from the inside. The house has clearly changed over time, in drastic ways.  Aluminum siding replaced old clapboard, additions changed the home’s original Greek Revival silhouette, trees have been planted and removed, and even roads have been commissioned in the past 150 years.  Remember when looking at old photos and sketches, that the home you are searching for may not look like the home you see today!

This is the home of the Dunn family, from the 1876 atlas. Joseph Steward, who lived next door in 1870, took over as postmaster general around 1900. Is it possible that this could be my house? If not, where does a home with this silhouette exist in our town? There is so much evidence of farming on the property it is possible the landowner used it as a farm, while the store was operated by someone else at the same location.

My consultant, inspector, and contractor all agree that the home was once smaller, and additions were added over time.  The original home would have consisted only of the front room, shop area, and bathroom on the first floor, and bedrooms on the second floor and attic.  The mudroom, kitchen, dining room, and porch were all additions, as well as the front porch.  The side door, facing the side yard, was probably the front door of the house, giving it a traditional Greek Revival shape, which would have been standard in the 1840s.

The Dunn farm, zoomed in, and my house from the same direction.

Photos are Scarce

Laura Loveland (standing) lived in an owned the home for some time, and served as postmaster for years, being proceeded by her son, Freeman (the baby in the photo). That porch in the background is entirely too high to be mine, but has the same kind of Swedish cutouts below, and Victorian style posts. This actually looks a lot like a home down the street.

When researching as far back as 100 years, or even 50 for that matter, it is important to remember that technology was not as prevalent.  Were the farmers and shopkeepers who inhabited my home wealthy enough to own a camera?  Artistic enough to sketch a photo?  Chances are, probably not…because I haven’t been able to locate a single photo before 1950.  I have been lucky to find many photos of the inhabitants of the town, which would make me thrilled if I were conducting my genealogical research.  This is just the point, though.  If someone were to take a photo, they would spend the film on the people, not necessarily the surroundings.  I find myself constantly squinting at the background of photos at roofs and halves of porches of homes, wondering if they are mine, or one of the other 10 Greek Revival/Victorians on the street.

Research Plans Change

At this point, I have scoured ancestry.com for everything I can, and I am planning to do some more work at the local historical societies to see what I can find.  At this point, I have my list of potential homeowners and shop keepers, and if nothing else, I know a ton about the town’s history.  This will give me an educated idea of what questions to ask, and what to look out for.  I started developing a timeline of hard evidence, as well as filling in the gaps with hypotheses.  Like I do with family, telling the story in narrative based on the facts I have helps.  In the end, I am learning about the lifestyle of the folks who created my town, and whether they lived in my house or not, they are all an important piece of its history.


Adventures in Cosplay: Part Two – Fabrication

GenCon2016 was a BLAST, and Cosplay on Saturday was fantastic.  Here is an overview of how I constructed Anthony’s Sunny costume.  This is in no way intended to be a tutorial, but should provide some tips for coming up with your own costumes by using existing patterns and a bit (OK a lot) of creativity.

When I am Frankenpatterning, I first start out by taking a look at the costume components and trying to break them down into small parts.  I outlined how I went about choosing a few patterns as a base in my previous post.

When I begin, I take out the pattern that I am using as a base and typically draw all over the illustration on the inside.  This gives me a visual idea of what I need to cut, and where I need to make alterations.  In this design, I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do, so it was relatively clean.  When you open your pattern, you should study the pieces to get an idea who which ones you will be using. This also gives you an idea of how everything will go together.  For Sunny’s jacket, I knew I needed the main breast of the jacket, and I knew the collar area in the front would fold over to create the mandarin-style jacket front (instead of folding it down to make a deep V shape).  I also knew I would need the tail pieces.  I discarded the accessories, pockets, and jackets I did not need.  One thing to remember is that the pattern will come equipped with pattern pieces for ALL jackets.  It is up to you to decide what you need.


Next, I cut out the pattern pieces for the parts I knew I needed.  In this case, it was the breast (jacket), sleeves, collar, and tails.  Remember to regard those notches…they are extremely important as they help you line up pieces later on.



I trace the patterns onto the fabric and cut.  On the breast of this jacket, I knew I wanted the jacket to form more of a V shape at the waistline, and the jacket price was suited for a higher waist.  You can place the cut pattern piece on your dress form (or model in my case) to see where it will hit.  When selecting a size and cutting, remember that’s your pieces will be bigger than seemingly necessary.  You need to account for hems, and it is always better to cut larger and trim down.  It is much harder to add fabric to your design!



Follow the instructions in the pattern to assemble the jacket.  This one was straightforward because it came with a Left and Right front and back pieces, which are typically sewn together at the shoulders after being stiched in the back to form a seam.  With Sunny’s jacket, however, there are no seams on the shoulders!  So, I added a bit of fabric to account for the folds I had to make (see below), and I cut the front and back pieces as a full Left and Right peice.  I laid out the provided Left front and Left Back peices on the fabric at the seam to determine the size of the peice I needed to cut.

Now, this part was tricky.  For the arms, Sunny’s coat has ridges that follow the armhole.  This was a perfect example of how difficult it is thinking about a 3D shape (like a human) on a flat surface (like the floor).  To determine how much extra fabric I needed, and in what shape to cut the armhole to allow me to made these modifications, I almost had to start “ripping” before I even cut.  I envisioned what the coat would look like “undone”, and cut accordingly.  Luckily, it worked out and I was able to made consistent ripples that left me with a shape that fit the measure of the [left front+left back] peice that I needed to complete the jacket to size.  WHEW!



I figured that was a good time to have Anthony try on the new jacket…or at least what was done!  Luckily, my modifications worked out, and it was beginning to take shape!  You will see on the “ripples”, I stitched about 1/8″ topstitch to hold these in place.  They are not hems, just decoration really.  This stitch held these ripples in place.


It is a good idea to check frequently, even if it means sticking your model with a few pins (sorry Ant!). This helps you determine how much you need to trim down the product.  In this case, I tailored the back quite a bit, to accommodate the difference in Anthony’s shoulder to waist ratio.  Then, I stitched up the sides.

Next it was time for sleeves.  Sleeves are another special challenge is you are not used to pattern design.  The pattern calls for you to pin the right sides together, but the shapes are not identical for the inner and outer sleeves.  This accommodates a 3 dimensional arm attached to a shoulder 🙂  Also, in this particular pattern, I also stitched in an allowance for elbow room, which allows the arm to bend without causing a bunch of fabric in the elbow crease.



Once I had the arms stitched, I duplicated the pattern for the lining, and slid the lining into the sleeve, wrong sides together.  THEN, I slid the arm wrist first into the shoulder hole, with the jacket inside out.  Effectively, the sleeve and the jacket hole should be right side together.  It might help you visualize to get a jacket and tuck the sleeve inside.  You will better I understand how this works.  It is worth noting that this is a cosplay costume and not a “real” jacket, so I did not mind that the seam showed inside the coat.  Make sure to line up the longest point of the sleeve with the middle of the shoulder.


Now, I pinned the heck out of this mess.  You may have some puckering.  Try to spread the sleeve out to fit the armhole.  I had a bit more puckering because I had to abandon the pattern to accommodate the ripples on the shoulders, else it would have fit more nicely.  If you do have puckering though, fear not.  Just try to make the left and right sides as even as possible, including where any puckering lands.


Turn the jacket right side out, and it will look like a real coat!  Topstitch your seams to make them lay nice and flat.

For the tails, I used the pattern, but ended up free-styling for the most part.  I wanted to line these with a nicer deep red satin, and measured against Anthony to make sure they were the right length.  The important part here is to make one giant peice that will be folder over to make the tail.


Stitch along the length and the bottom.  You will turn these inside out and slide them up under the jacket and lining, then topstitch.  For these tails, I wanted a front “facing” in leather, so I made the leather part a bit bigger than the satin.  That way when I folder over, some leather showed on the front facing side.


I have a special place in my heart for top stitching.  It makes everything look so clean!



Slide the tails up inside the lining, and create a hem by folding both the leather and lining under, the pinning. Stitch away!



Following the coat, I followed a similar process for the vest.  This was pretty straightforward.  I used a velour and an armory-looking leather from the cosplay section of Joann’s for the vest.  These shoulders were seamed, but the sides were not stitched.  Instead, I used eyelets and leather to bind the sides of the vest.  I also created a binding for the armholes to give it a clean look!imageimageimage


That is pretty much it!  I did create some belts and straps as accessories as well.  The finished product came out looking GREAT!  I will leave you with this comparison.  Thank you for joining me on this adventure in Cosplay!  For a walk through of how I created mine, visit my YouTube channel!  This will also explain some of the techniques I mentioned in this post.  Happy sewing!

Anthony as Sunny, and me as the Widow…but more to come on that 😉
Daniel Wu as Sunny – Into the Badlands