Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Hammered and Nailed #2: Contracting stress with kitchen redo.

As an August respite from the nastiness of the news —for me and hopefully for you too—I'm reprising my 2002 home repair series. Part 1 can be found here. This is Part 2.

     In June 2000, my wife and I bought a 1905 Queen Anne near downtown Northbrook. The house was something of a ruin, with problems from basement to attic. But we loved the tree-choked lot, loved being close to the train and school, and figured we could remodel it into new life.
    This is the second part of a bi-weekly series cataloguing the work, which so far has included stripping the floors, painting the walls, putting in air conditioning, fixing a deck, repairing the gutters and—in today's installment—trying to find a contractor to rebuild the kitchen.

     I knew the strain of trying to get remodeling started on our old and decrepit kitchen had snapped my mind when the scam artist called.
    I don't know for a fact that he was a scam artist. But he had a patter that reminded me of time-share condo come-ons, fake police charities, and other such rip-offs.
    "Hello Mr. Homeowner," he said, or something very similar. "Our professional work crews are in your neighborhood right now, remodeling local homes, and because they have downtime, they can do any work you need on your kitchen or bath at an astounding discount. Would you be interested in having one of our professionals visit your home for a no-cost-to-you estimate of...."
     "God yes!" I screeched into the phone. "Please send them over right away. We've needed the kitchen remodeled for nearly two years and I'm GOING OUT OF MY MIND!!!" I was nearly sobbing.
Logo by Jack Higgins

     Not that contractors hadn't come through our house. For every five we called, one might actually show up. A large man, typically, solid, in jeans and a flannel shirt, with a cell phone and a tape measure hanging off his belt. They would step through the afflicted area, then gaze at the blueprints, occasionally asking a question or making long, ominous, "hmmmm ..." sounds. I would hover uselessly at their elbows, feeling as manly next to them as a 17th century French fop in a plumed hat, purple knee britches and a fake beauty mark stuck beside my rouged lips.
     The contractors would all troop down in the basement, for more "hmmm"ing, then check the ruined main bathroom—which, directly above the kitchen, needed to be remodeled first, since the antique iron pipes ran down through the kitchen walls. They'd depart, promising that their estimates would be faxed over in two days.
     We'd never hear from them again.
     After this happened a number of times, an estimate finally did arrive. And boy, was it a shock: $137,000. A big percent of what the house cost to buy. I stared at the paper as if it were a death notice.
     We didn't know then, as we do now, that contractors who don't feel inclined toward a certain job—and, flush with work, few of them are—will just conjure up a fantasy figure, plucked from their perfumed dreams of avarice, and see if you're dumb enough to take it. If you reject it, great, they'll grab the next job. And if you accept it, even better.
     Accepting wasn't an option. "Do you realize," I told my wife, in a hoarse, strangled tone not unlike that used by Katharine Hepburn during tenser moments in "The African Queen," "it would be more cost-effective for me to quit my job, spend six months learning the construction trade, then six months doing the work on our kitchen? We would come out ahead, financially."
     Then—thank God for small favors—a second bid arrived. This one was less than half the first, elephantine bid.
     "At least we're moving in the right direction," I said.
     We kept calling contractors—I approached a man who was in line at Walgreens after he mentioned, answering a question from the pharmacist, that he had a contractoring service. We flipped through the phone book, quizzed friends. My wife and I frequently discussed the best way to proceed—during one such discussion, I illustrated my point by kicking a pair of cabinet doors to splinters.
     I feel obligated to point out here that couples remodeling their homes should take care as to not get divorced in the process. Many a morning I awoke, kissed my wife and suppressed the urge to grab her by the shoulders and shake her violently, screaming, "WILL YOU GET SOMEONE TO PUT IN A NEW @#!$*& KITCHEN!"       

      For a while, I actually fell under the impression that it would be a good idea to, without telling her, take a can of black spray paint and write, "DON'T FORGET THE KITCHEN TODAY!!!" in 2-foot high letters across the entire kitchen wall, and refrained from doing so only because I suspected that contractors examining a room so decorated might detect a certain note of desperation and thus raise their price.
     With one guy, we got as far as a contract. Then everyone in his crew quit—the plumber, the electrician, the carpenter—and he came by with new guys, who seemed very young, and gazed around at our house, confused and apprehensive, not unlike a small child going into a barber shop for his first haircut.
     So we fired him, before work had even begun and—talk about happy endings—finally hired a group of Russians who amazed us by actually showing up when they were supposed to and doing work.
     That was three weeks ago. They've been working every day. We settled on a double pump contract where they'll do the bathroom upstairs first, then, if it seems not too much of a botch job, they'll continue with the kitchen. Work has not been flawless—the bathroom is between the boys' two rooms, and they've managed to burst through the walls into each of them. But they seemed to understand that this was a bad thing, and agreed it should be fixed, probably by them.
     People speak of the inconvenience of having your house worked on—the tramping workmen, the dust, the noise—but in truth, it's heaven. I'm so happy they're here, I can live with the rest. So far.

NEXT: To permit or not to permit

                                       —Originally published June 16, 2002


  1. When I worked for the state, I learned that Illinois government leased everything it did not expect to own for at least 10 years. So, I hope the improvements have lasted at least that long. And if a person cannot tolerate one teasing column, then Marching into home improvement sounds like a stressful life choice. Maybe renting isn't such a bad life.


    1. My favorite Illinois state lease was of the old Standard Oil Building at 910 S. Michigan.
      1. The state leased the entire building for 10 years for more money that it would've cost to buy.
      2. They never used the 19th Floor, where the Standard executive offices had been, as they were far too luxurious for ordinary state employees, so the state paid for an unusable floor.
      3. A classic case of pinstripe patronage, as the owner was a politically connected member of the Combine.

  2. I have three of the tools you're showing at the top.
    I have a Nye pipe cutter, then the monkey wrench & an old fashioned pipe wrench.
    The difference between a monkey wrench & a pipe wrench is that in a monkey wrench, the heel jaw moves, while in a pipe wrench, the hook jaw moves. That allows a pipe wrench to turn round objects, such as pipe.
    That is your lesson in tool recognition for today.
    Not sure what the plier like tool at the left is, unless it's some type of crimping tool or oddball pipe wrench. There have been hundreds of odd tools patented over the decades, especially in the early 1900s.

    1. Looks to me like an early version of channel locks, my favorite tool because of its versatility -- you can do most anything with a pair of channel locks and a screwdriver, if your standards are low enough.

    2. I actually hire a plumber to fix the girlfriend of the moment's plumbing.

      $150 is a good deal to get the plumbing fixed and be able to stay late at the
      office and get my job done right. (I hate taking my work home with me. I keep the
      company pens at work.)
      Oh well, maybe I should learn more about hardware, I am just a software guy.

      cowboy David (of Calif., not WY)


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