Landscapes, Summer 2007
A Labor of Love
Wedding Date Sets the Deadline for House Move and Renovation
Photos by Geno Esponda
Most prospective brides and grooms are familiar with the old wedding-day advice to include "something old, something new" in their ceremony for good luck. For newlyweds Jim Fiero and Melissa Massingill, however, who married in May, that phrase took on a whole new meaning. To create a wedding site and their future home, they relocated and renovated something very old — a century-old farmhouse — into something very new: their dream home. And they turned to Farm Credit to make their dream a reality.
The couple met three years ago in Hattiesburg, Miss. After years of working "all over" in corporate marketing and public relations, Massingill had returned home to her native state to pursue a master’s degree at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg. Having dabbled in home renovations, she remodeled a Birmingham house after graduation, and soon friends were seeking her talents. She even considered venturing into remodeling full time before she was injured in a fall from a ladder.
Instead, she took a job as PR director for the city of Hattiesburg, where she soon met Jim Fiero, the city’s fire chief. After a 30-year career in the Austin, Texas, fire department, Fiero had moved to Hattiesburg but was homesick to return to the Texas Hill Country. He too was a longtime do-it-yourselfer who, as the son of a contractor, had tackled building projects from a young age.
Tuscany in Texas
"We started coming out to Texas and looking at land around the Austin area," says Massingill. "Jim really wanted something in the Hill Country. I love Italy, and the Hill Country is so similar to Tuscany." Their persistence paid off when they discovered a six-acre, gently sloping tract outside the tiny town of Oatmeal, Texas.
"We found this piece of property and bought it before we left our jobs in Hattiesburg," she says. The property slopes to a creek in the back, bordered by a wildflower meadow, the perfect setting for a spring wedding. Huge oaks ensure abundant shade from hot Texas summers, and a thick stand of trees along the perimeter offers privacy from future neighbors.
Initially, they began researching home plans and builders for their new dream home. But a segment on HGTV’s Mega Movers show spurred an idea. The show featured a Georgetown, Texas, house-moving firm that had recently moved an historic Salado church the couple had seen on a recent Texas visit. "We started thinking about the possibility of moving a house," says Massingill.
A Diamond in the Rough
An avowed Internet junkie, Massingill searched online, eventually finding a diamond-in-the-rough in Lampasas, just 65 miles from Oatmeal. The 2,600-square-foot house had been constructed in phases, the oldest parts pre-dating 1895, according to Sanborn insurance maps the couple uncovered. At $25,000, it would be a bargain if they could find a reasonably priced house-mover and financing for the improvements.
"Through the Internet, they found us when they were looking at land, and first came in to discuss financing the land purchase in June 2006," says Lee Loeffler, Texas Land Bank’s Lampasas credit office president, who structured a 10-year fixed-rate loan on the land.
"They didn’t have the land very long, when they started talking about moving a house onto it. Over the Internet, they found one here in town, and Melissa called and asked me about it," Loeffler says. Already familiar with the property, he took photos and gathered local tax records for them.
Land Bank Finances Property and Renovations
"We are more conservative on a loan like this, because there is more risk involved with moving the house and completing all the renovations," he notes. "Location is key, and the fact that Jim and Melissa’s property is in a quality, restricted area was important. The borrowers’ credit history also is very important. These were well-qualified borrowers with experience in home renovations."
With a Land Bank home improvement loan in place, the couple spent the summer preparing the house for the move.
To handle the relocation, they chose the Georgetown moving firm they’d seen on television. They removed the siding and gutted the interior, salvaging materials where possible. Because the two-story house was too tall to fit under utility wires, they cut studs from the top plates so the second floor could be removed. Crossbeams were placed perpendicularly across the plates, enabling two cranes to lift the second floor up and onto a trailer for transport. A second trailer already was positioned under the first floor.
In the meantime, Massingill and Fiero were busy adding a culvert and bridge to access the new homesite from the road. "Having grown up in this part of Texas, I knew how fast severe flooding can occur," says Fiero. "I knew the dry arroyo would channel a significant amount of runoff and a sturdy bridge was necessary." Part of the home improvement loan financed the bridge construction.
HGTV Films House Move
By December, the house was ready to relocate. To achieve the eight-hour, 65-mile move, the moving firm secured all permits, arranged for police escorts, coordinated with local utility companies to lift their lines, and checked bridge widths and load capacities. Documenting the entire process were three crews from HGTV’s Haulin’ House series, which aired the segment in January and March 2007.
With only five months to prepare the house and grounds for their May wedding, the couple knew they needed a dependable team of skilled craftsmen. "It takes someone special to work on an old house like this," Massingill notes. Relying on recommendations from the local building supply store, she found that special someone in local contractor Humberto Mejia. "It has developed into this incredible working relationship," she says. "We got very lucky."
While Fiero took a full-time job as fire chief for the town of Horseshoe Bay, Massingill took on the full-time job of overseeing construction, coordinating every aspect of the project. "Renovating an old home like this requires retrofitting everything," she says. "Houses of this era were built to breathe. You have to work hard to tighten them up."
New air-conditioning, plumbing and electrical systems were time-consuming and expensive. But the biggest challenge, she says, was getting the house weathered-in. "Because of its height, we had to remove the roof for the move. We covered it in huge rolls of poly, but we couldn’t avoid some spring rains before we could get the new roof dried-in."
Staying True to the Original Design
The couple’s goal was to remain as true as possible to the home’s original architecture. A claw-foot bathtub, original to the home, was removed from an upstairs bathroom by crane pre-move and lifted back into place afterward. Interior walls were stripped to their solid wood base, then insulated and sheet-rocked. Massingill knocked out walls in the main living area to expand the kitchen, which features tile floors, a farm sink and a vintage O’Keefe and Merritt gas stove that she bought on eBay.
Upstairs, the master bedroom opens to a reading porch lined in original windows — only one of which broke in the move — and a master bathroom with new walk-in shower and double vanities. Massingill salvaged two original kitchen cabinets to use above the vanities. A custom-built niche houses an antique drop-front secretary, which now serves as the bathroom’s linen closet.
New construction included an oversized rear deck off the kitchen, a barn and a gardening shed. "A local antiques dealer had some of the stamped tin roof tiles off the old Lampasas County Courthouse, and we’re using those for the gardening shed roof," she says.
Planning a Rural Lifestyle
The barn, also part of the home improvement loan, includes equipment stalls, a loft and a separate workroom. "As we look toward retirement, our efforts will become more focused on managing this property and a more rural lifestyle," notes Fiero. "A barn was necessary to house our 1930s tractor and implements, as well as provide a workshop and possibly an area to house animals."
The old-turned-new house was unveiled to about 75 guests at the couple’s May wedding. But, like most home improvement aficionados, they will likely always have another project on the horizon. "Once we finish everything we wanted to do on this house, we’ll probably start looking for another old home to renovate," says Massingill.
"We were really pleased to work with this unique couple, on a unique project," says Loeffler. "Their knowledge of restoring old dwellings, and their enthusiasm and commitment to creating their dream home made our part of this partnership very enjoyable. That is what Texas Land Bank is all about — helping people live in and enjoy being in a rural area.
– Article by Sarah Harris
– Photos by Karen Dickey