He got a much bigger surprise when he stopped to light a cigarette.
The ensuing explosion prompted neighbors to call 911. Firefighters arrived at the home in the 1200 block of 41st Street to find the front door had been blown off its hinges, windows were shattered and a little smoke was coming from inside the home. The home itself had been knocked off its foundation.
"Honestly, it sounded like a car hit my house," said neighbor Jon Hume.
No one was in the home when firefighters arrived, but a neighbor reported to officers he had seen a suspicious man inside the home immediately after the explosion.
"I noticed the guy still in the backroom," Hume said. "He ran back and forth three or four times in the doorway that I could see... and then he disappeared."
A few hours later, officers had a man in custody and determined he had been in the basement trying to steal the pipes for scrap metal.
Neighbors say the house was condemned, and they called police several times in the past to report squatters.
"The worry is they were cooking crystal meth and running a meth lab," said neighbor Cynthia Watters.
Police won't confirm or deny that suspicion. But whatever was going on in that vacant house, neighbors are relieved to learn it's now scheduled for a quick demolition.
"You don't know what's going on and what people are capable of when they do things like this," Watters said.