Home Improvements

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PlumberCan I just say that I hate contractors?

Seriously, is there a reputable contractor in existence? It’s really frustrating.

Over the past couple of years, we’ve done some pretty major renovations to our home. Back in December of 2006, we had our roof done. The original roof had two layers of the asphalt shingles and these were on top of a layer of cedar shingles which were likely original to our 100+ year old house.

Basically, it was a pretty big job simply because of all of the stuff that had to be removed and all of the additional material, like plywood, that had to be added before the re-roof even started. Total bill was around $14k.

It started off great, a HUGE dumpster was delivered and dropped right in our yard and work began. After a few days though, it was as though the dumpster was an afterthought. They were just letting the debris slide off the end of the roof. I can understand that — it would be a lot easier, but they dumped probably half of the roof onto decorative shrubs right in the front of our house?!

It got worse though. I didn’t mind that the debris had ripped probably 80% of the screens in our windows, whatever, but one evening I came home and found the window on our detached garage (which was not being worked on) was broken.

I went in, and noticed some finger dust marks (the car was in storage for the winter and it gets pretty dusty) over a deep scratch on the hood of my BMW?! No broken glass anywhere on the floor. Very odd. My wife and I went all CSI and came to the conclusion that they somehow managed to throw a brick from the chimney on the roof, through the window of my garage.

From there, they went into the garage, probably crapped their pants when they saw the car it hit, and they tried to clean up the evidence. I wanted to barf. Profanity was used.

I was upset about the car. I was upset they went into my garage. I was upset that they tried to cover it up. I was upset that they killed my bushes. While the did a nice job on the roof, in the grand scheme, I wasn’t at all happy with the contractors.

Making matters worse, the dumpster remained in our yard for an additional 3 weeks — on Christmas Day, yes, we had a 40 cubic yard dumpster along side our house. It was very festive. Adding insult to injury, the construction company was stopping by a couple of times a day, driving right up on our lawn, and dumping more into it.

Sure, the neighbors probably thought we were also having our kitchen remodeled, based on the additional debris from other projects piled high above the walls of the dumpster, but in actuality, we were just the contractor’s personal landfill.

The next project was the siding project that I detailed on the site last summer. The contractor we selected had a seedy sales team, you know, were the one guy just goes on and on and on about how beautiful your wife is (while it’s obvious he’s just a dirty pig), and how she’ll love this color siding (I hope so, she picked it…), and how he was a star baseball player for the Red Sox back in the day. I looked him up. He wasn’t. Besides, I hate baseball. Nice try there, bro.

Anyway, the cost of that project was over $26k. It was supposed to take 2 weeks to complete and work began on June 14 — two weeks earlier than it was supposed to.

Things looked good — everyone was happy. And then it took a turn for the worse. They ordered the wrong window for our attic. They put another window in the wrong place. They lost an employee so they couldn’t do any work. They put the wrong header on the front window of our house. They started begging us for more money?!?!

Then the siding on one section of the house wasn’t level — and it was obvious. They put the handles on incorrectly on our front door — and the locks didn’t really work. They even chipped a piece off of the trim on the new front door. They called it a thousand dollar door — though at Home Depot, they run around $300. Either way, they didn’t hang our door correctly.

At that point I just wanted them out of our house, I didn’t care. I’d go out and buy another $1000 door just to make them go away.

In the end, the project was finally completed in October. Hardly a 2-week project. It was a 5 months of hell. Just thinking about it makes me angry.

Making matters worse, have you ever found it funny how all contractors like to take pride in how they clean up after themselves? This specific contractor still highlights that “feature” it in their ads in the weekly paper. Hmmmm… my yard still has 100’s of cigarette butts that I’m still picking up, not to mention thousands and thousands of nails that my lawnmower will surely choke on this year.

Roofing shingle fragments are everywhere, vinyl slivers, styrofoam insulation pebbles, just crap everywhere. And did I mention all of the indentations in the lawn from all of their driving around they did in our yard? No, I probably didn’t. They ruined our yard. Then littered all over it.

So what makes me bring all of this up today? Well, remember that basement plumbing problem I mentioned last week? The one where the plumbing company was coming out to give us an estimate on Tuesday?

Well, they came out and said that they call us with the estimate tomorrow. That “tomorrow” was 3 days ago now.

They haven’t called. And our house still smells like sewage.

Can you understand why I hate contractors now (or again)?

You’d think that after spending in excess of $40k on renovations that your house would be better off for it — but in reality, I’m not certain that it is…

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In regards to our basement plumbing situation, a picture is worth a thousand words… and I’m not sure a thousand words would even begin to scratch the surface of describing the included odor.

The Sludge Source in the basement.

The plumber comes out tonight to give us an estimate and hopefully the problem will be corrected later this week — apparently it’s a pretty common problem for kitchen wastewater to back up like this.

Anyway, looks like this weekend is lining itself up for a fun clean-up project!

Alexander OvechkinI didn’t get much done this weekend. Motivation isn’t quite at an all time low, but it’s not far off either.

I’d had plans to spend some quality time updating the blog, but it never happened.

I ended up playing an NHL video game instead — for hours. I’m a little embarrassed to admit it, but according to the computer, the last time I played was back in October which makes me not feel so bad.

Jumping on the bandwagon, even though they’ve been eliminated from the real life playoffs, I played as the Washington Capitals.

Sometimes I wonder how I found the time to even play video games in the past… By past, I mean like over 10 years ago. Seems I never have that time anymore and I have no idea what I’ve filled it with.

I’d also planned on cleaning up the curbside on the far end of the property.

See, we live on a corner, so there’s twice as much ‘street’ to clear which entails picking up all of the leaves, sticks and plain old debris that lines the curb. Basically, you want to get as much up yourself so that when the street sweeper (eventually) comes by to pick up all of the sand that’s been spread on to the road over the winter, it leaves the pavement bare for the entire summer.

Yesterday, my wife and I did manage to get out there and get the job done.

Apparently the teenagers across the street from our open lot prefer Taco Bell and Marlboro smokes. Shocking, huh?

How do we know this? Well, our curbside is apparently their late night trash can. It’s also their overnight parking space for some reason even though the family paved their entire front yard (yeah, it looks, um, ghetto) and has plenty of room for all of their run-down vehicles.

In hindsight, I should have put the pieces of their broken glass water pipe on the hood of their mother’s car, but I just threw it out. She strikes me as the type of woman who’d pat her kids on the back for that sort of thing.

Really, who paves their entire front yard??? It’s a single family home with a parking lot for a front yard?!

I hope they move.


We’d also planned on getting the basement, um, well, decontaminated. The issue we have down there hasn’t exactly gotten worse, but it hasn’t gotten better either.

Thursday night we went out and purchase some kitty litter — and I can I just say, that stuff is a bargain! Really. I’ve never had the pleasure of spending so little money at Walmart for something so heavy that I had to struggle on the way out to my car.

The plan was to use the litter to soak up the pooling water — something we’d planned to do this past weekend — but it didn’t happen.

Friday, my wife, she does all the talking, called a local plumbing company to have them come out and take a look at our sludge problem. They’ll be stopping by tomorrow (Tuesday).

The good news from the call is that they confirmed that it was apparently pretty common for the kitchen plumbing not to be connected to the city sewer line in favor of a dry well.

That explains the plumbing that I see in the basement. It also explains the hole I covered with a big rock in the back yard — that’s the dry well and thankfully not some sort of outdated “little house on the prairie” septic tank of some sort like I’d originally worried.

The bad news is that the plumber also told her that, to him, kitchen wastewater is more foul than toilet wastewater. My take is that it was a warning shot meaning that this is going to cost us more than if we had a “real” sewage problem.

I don’t know why, but for some reason, I don’t consider the kitchen sink water to be sewage, but holy crap, it freakin’ stinks…

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Starbucks LogoSeems our first home improvement project of 2008 has snuck up on us.

It was only a month ago that we paid off the final bit of the vinyl siding project from 2007. We’re not ready yet?!?

But this one seems to be an emergency repair… See, our basement is filling with, well, crap. It is the most foul smelling black sludge…E V E R!

We noticed an odor a couple of months ago during a rainy week. We usually take on a little water when there’s a heavy rain, and over the span of a week, I’d say we had over 8 inches of rain — so water in the basement was to be expected. The water stunk a little, but we chalked it up to the spring thaw…

Once the water dried up, my wife and I went down there to shovel out some of the muck. I was thinking it’d be more sandy or silty than anything, but it was nasty foul muck. Dry heave city — no joke. I was completely useless in the clean-up.

Things seemed fine for a few weeks and, while we didn’t forget about the problem, we tried to ignore it.

Over the last weekend, I noticed that our kitchen kinda smelled like a skunk. Years ago, a skunk sprayed the side of our house — really, you could see it — and the “funk” lasted for nearly a year. I went outside, inspected the entire house looking for a repeat offense, but didn’t smell anything out of the ordinary.

Back inside the house, well, skunk. Or Starbucks coffee. They smell the same to me.

Yesterday, I ventured down into our scary basement. There’s some standing water, some orange/rust colored goo on top of it, some white fuzzy stuff, and a lot of that wonderful black sludge at the bottom. Crap.

The stench wasn’t so bad — until we disturbed it (Yikes!) with one of those sponge-on-a-stick style mops my wife apparently received from Santa Claus years before I met her. Really, it still had a sticker on it.

Seriously, who get’s a mop for Christmas? My wife, that’s who.

Anyway, the good news is that we can see where it’s coming into the house. I don’t think it’s seeping up from the drain in the basement — it actually looks like it’s coming in through the old rock foundation (if you’re interested, I can take pictures!).

My wife and I followed all of the pipes down in the basement, and to me, it doesn’t look like our kitchen sink or dishwasher were ever hooked up to the city sewer line — basically, they never link up to the pipe where the downstairs bathroom or laundry room exit the house. Or, if they do, it’s not obvious to me.

My theory is that they still link up to the original septic tank the house must have had — the house is well over 100 years old — and that’s not getting the job done anymore. The only problem with that thought is that I’d think that our wastewater from the kitchen would stink of Cascade, Palmolive, and Joy — not, well, I can’t even explain what this sludge smells like…

Imagine a giant skunk drinking a grande Starbucks coffee.

Gag me now.

No, really, I can smell it.

So, the plan now is to call in a plumber for next week. I’m hoping it’s as simple as rerouting the waste water from the kitchen to the main sewer line and capping off the old line that exits on the far side of the house (where the sludge is coming in). Hopefully, then, it will clear up on its own.

As I’ve said, we’ve lived here for 6 years, the house has been there over 100 more, and this is a new problem — so perhaps this isn’t the answer, but I really hope it is — because I can’t imagine it will be very costly.

I mean, how much can a plumber possibly charge to re-route a 4 inch pipe ten feet in the opposite direction? I’d do it myself if not for my gag-reflex.

No, that’s not true — I’ll find comfort in having someone who knows what they’re doing come in and tell me exactly what they think the problem is…

I’ll keep you posted on the situation *and* the bill.

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I’ll never bag leaves again…Last week, for the first time ever, we hired a local landscape company to come out and pick up our leaves.

It’s something that we’d normally do on our own, and in the past, it has been something we’ve done on our own, but it’s probably not something we’ll ever do again.

(Before anyone points it out, I know, I know, wrong time of the year for that sort of thing north of the equator.)

Next door to our house is an open lot which we also own. In the fall, it could be summed up as a leaf magnet.

Each year, we clear the main lot to make the house look nice; raking and blowing towards the empty lot.  Probably not the best strategy, but making sure the main lot looks nice takes priority.

From there, our city requires that we bag the leaves in those giant brown paper bags — like in the picture.

Idea is, you bag the leaves, leave them at the curb, and the city will come around and pick them up over the span of about a month — usually in November.

On paper, it sounds like a great idea.

But there are a few problems…

The first problem is probably unique to our situation — lack of time.

Working for the hockey team all of these years has sucked up our weekends. It’s difficult for us to find the time required (during daylight) to rake and bag the leaves at that time of year because, well, simply put, we didn’t have weekends from September through May.

Now that I’ve left the team, that should no longer be a problem.

The next issue is a financial one. The leaf bags aren’t free. They come in bundles of 5 and you can buy them at Home Depot, Lowes, Walmart, Stop-n-Shop, and pretty much any where else that has some sort of “hardware” aisle.

You can price shop all you want, but bottom line, they come out to around 50 cents per bag. Sounds like a relative bargain, huh?

Typically, at the start of “leaf season”, we’d pick up around 10 bundles. Let me tell you, there’s nothing more upsetting than walking out to the car with a bunch of oversized lunch bags that you just paid over $50 for.

And then it really hits you like a punch in the stomach… You just spent $50 on something that you’re just going to throw out in a matter of hours.

Making matters worse, we’ve always had to go back and buy even more bags. As a result, we’ve never actually cleared and bagged the *entire* yard. I always end up mowing the crap out of them with the lawn mower — finally chopping them into a fine powder by around August. It’s embarrassing to admit.

In the end, I’d say that over the past 3-4 years, we’ve averaged between $60 and $80 spent on those paper bags. That’s PER YEAR.

Add in the time it takes to bag over 100 bags of leaves. It hurts.

Once bagged, we’d end up building a huge pyramid of paper bags at the curb — it actually looked pretty neat.

But then the city wouldn’t come on the day they were scheduled.

Some children would topple the pyramid.

It might rain.

A bag would tip over, spilling leaves all around.  You know, that sort of thing…

Worst case scenario, and one that happened last year — an early snowstorm before the we’d even started bagging. Sigh…

Basically, there are a myriad of problems to be had each year… One big headache… Alongside a back ache, a butt ache, and two heavily blistered thumbs.

But this year, we solved it all with a phone call.

My wife called the company one morning before she went to work last week, and when I arrived home for lunch, our extra lot was clear.

We haven’t received the bill yet, but when you combine the savings on the bags and the time and the lack of blisters, we’ll, I’m pretty certain it will end up being a great deal.

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Harvey WindowsIt’s been well over a month since my last set of remarks regarding our big home improvement project this summer.  Well, the contractors finished on September 1st.

An 81-day project.  The funny part is that the contract stated that work would be complete on July 15.  Ha!

I can now say that the house is sided. We have new doors.  The new attic windows are in.  You think I’d be happy, right?  Well, I’m not.

See, the duration of the project aside, the last thing to be completed was an attic window for the front gable.  My wife and I picked out a nice window by Harvey Windows — paid a pretty large sum too for such a small window.

Harvey custom made us a defective window.  It’s not square.  Not even close.  It’s… a trapezoid.  Yeah, it’s only about an inch off of having 90 degree angles, but it’s enough that when it’s up there on the house — it looks crooked. 

The decorative window, the center piece, on the front of our house is visibly crooked.  Level, but crooked.  Can you believe that?

Well, the contractors put it in anyway, and sided around it. 

It’s a Harvey issue now — they’ll have to replace the window. 

But now, what about all of the siding that’s flush with the crooked window?  That will need to be replaced as well… and I can imagine it already, they’re not going to want to do that.  Or they won’t be able to match the color.  Or the style.  I could go on and on…

Now, after contractors complete a job, they go through a punch list — you know, correcting all of the little things and details that the homeowner points out.  The company we hired has worked on this punch list at our home on at least 4 different occasions.  The two major “issues” still haven’t been resolved — and these are 15 minute projects for a seasoned pro.

It is just so frustrating to deal with contractors — I’m not sure a reputable one exists.  I mean, if I were to run my company, and treat my customers and projects, the way a typical contractor does, well, I’m not sure I could look myself in the mirror.

We’ve moved on to some interior work again, where we’re doing the work ourselves, but at some point we’ll have to call in the professionals to do some electrical, flooring, and drywall and I’m already dreading dealing with a bunch of people who do things half-assed and lie to your face.

Don’t get me wrong, the house looks good.  I guess I’m happy with the work, but when you look at the details, in the corners and things, it makes you wonder what the hell they were thinking — I could have made it look like that myself and I’ve never done it before in my life?!

And really, was it necessary to use my entire lawn as an ashtray?  Okay, that was a low blow…

No, on second thought, it wasn’t.

Oh yeah, and thanks for leaving dirty finger prints on a window 3 stories up that doesn’t open.  I’d love to know how they expect me to wash that…

With the renovation work at the house still ongoing (an attic window, the basement hatch, and some last minute touch-ups left), we still haven’t made the last payment to the contractor. Progress has been very slow for the past few weeks,

It’s tough because now, over month later, I’d like to have begun putting a real dent in the debt we took on to finance the project… but there is still one payment to go.

Seems like it’s something that would be easy to work around but I’m generally of the type that likes to pay all of my regular monthly bills and then send every last remaining cent, down to a $1000 buffer, to the credit card companies. It’s a method that’s always worked for me in the past.

With a $4k bill looming, I’m not comfortable doing that.

I know, I know… I could make my “new” buffer the $5k mark, but with things still up in the air, I want to make sure I have as much cash on hand for those last minute unexpected expenses. You know, like the additional $2500 we paid to have the porch rebuilt.

I want the house to be done.

I want to write that last check to the contractor.

And I want things to get settled so I can put my head down and start paying it back, aggressively, like we did with the last loan (for the roof) where we paid the last $8k off in a couple of months.

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As mentioned earlier in the year, I found out the hard way that insuring a newly purchased older home is near impossible.

Now that we’re in the final stretch for the exterior renovations, it’s time to start thinking about acquiring some conventional homeowners insurance.

Currently, my carrier is a state run plan, called a FAIR plan. Most states have them, and I’ll be the first to tell you, they’re anything but FAIR. The premium is generally double what you’d pay to an insurance company you’ve heard of, and you coverage is half what a real insurance company would carry.

Illinois’ FAIR Plan website looks to be one of the best in the country, so I’ll use their definition:

The FAIR (Fair Access to Insurance Requirements) Plan Association offers property insurance to qualified applicants who are unable to buy insurance through the standard insurance market for reasons beyond their control.

The FAIR Plan may be an answer for responsible property owners or homeowners who are having a problem obtaining property insurance in the standard market.

Many insureds use the FAIR Plan as a temporary market for a year or two until they qualify for coverage in the standard market.

It’s been nearly 5 years since Allstate cancelled my policy. Surfing the web, I’ve yet to find a “successful” journey from the depths of the FAIR plan. Seems once you’re categorized as high-risk, it’s damn near impossible to get normal coverage. I’m hoping I can blaze a new trail.

One thing I have read is that when an insurer cancels your policy, they must send you a letter explaining why they’ve cancelled you. Over the weekend, I peeked into the old filing cabinet in search of the old Allstate folder.

I was skeptical that I’d still have the letter. At the time, it was like a punch in the stomach. I’d just paid my first ever mortgage bill, I had no money left to my name, and now suddenly, I was about to let my insurance lapse before the second mortgage payment. I thought I’d likely thrown it out in anger.

To my surprise, there it was…an interesting read. It almost made me more angry seeing how trivial all of the ‘problems’ were. I kept thinking that they were nailing me on the electrical system, but in fact, there is no mention of that.

Here is what the letter listed:

  • The roof of the dwelling is damaged and lifting/buckled.
  • The soffits/fascia/eaves are damaged and needs paint.
  • The renovations are not completed.
  • The detached structure has dry rot, glass broken, trees overhanging and needs paint.
  • Your chimney is crumbling, separating, in need of tuckpointing.
  • The foundation of your dwelling or garage is crumbling.
  • The siding or frame exterior of your dwelling is damaged, has peeling paint.
  • One or more of the trees on your property poses a risk to your property because it is overhanging.
  • The windows of your dwelling or garage needs paint.

According to much of what I’ve read, technically, if I correct Allstate’s laundry list of problems above, they should take me back. That said, since they burned me so bad back then in 2002, they’re not exactly my first choice.

Cancellation Letter from Allstate.  I’d love to know why they didn’t even sign it.Oh, and Allstate is no longer issuing homeowners policies in my state because we’re apparently in a hot hurricane zone.

Um, yeah… One, Hurricane Gloria in 1985 — 22 YEARS AGO!? — and it was just a heavy rain, but whatever…

A little back story first… when Allstate sent out their inspector, I was having a cable line added to the second floor of the house so I could have cable internet in my home office. Being broke at the time, the cheapest route, rather than snaking it through the walls, was to have the electrician run the line in one of those PVC tubes up the side of the house.

Apparently, while the electrician, a fellow in his 70’s, was working on the side of the house, the Allstate inspector stopped by and asked to go inside the house. The electrician said, “No.” When I arrived home that evening, the electrician explained to me that he’d had a “run-in” with an aggressive insurance inspector trying to enter my home.

I thanked him for not letting the inspector in my home. I was never made aware that an inspector was coming by, and thinking about it, I never recall having an insurance inspector ever enter our home when I was living with my parents. I was thankful that the electrician hadn’t let some stranger in my home without me there.

Then the cancellation letter came and it all became clear. I’d guess that the insurance inspector thought the electrician was the homeowner and refused to allow him entry. Ticked off, he essentially checked off every box on his standard form, in an immature “I’ll show you!” act of rage.

Windows need paint? Um… they’re vinyl windows. At that time, they were only 2 years old. That aside, you don’t paint vinyl windows.

Renovations incomplete? Um, okay, the contractor was there working on them at the time you stopped by without notice.

Trees overhanging the home? This is New England. I challenge you to find a residential home within a 100 mile radius of my home that doesn’t have a tree limb near the structure.

Those boxes were checked out of spite. Pure spite.

The rest of them… I could call legitimate… at the time. Which is why I didn’t dispute the letter.

The roof was old. The roof was ugly. But you know what? It didn’t leak. But I still spent $14k replacing a roof that didn’t leak.

The chimney was crumbling…we had it removed entirely.

The foundation was crumbling…we had it repaired.

All of this business about needing paint and peeling paint — well, vinyl siding is taking care of that.

All of that aside though, it is a little troubling that your insurance company can essentially cancel your coverage because your house could use a new coat of paint.

I can understand the “crumbling” brick work being a bit of an insurance problem, and realistically, that is where their list should have begun and ended. And I would have taken care of that immediately, but to pile on all of the additional cosmetic issues seemed a little unjust.

Especially when they agreed to insure the home for the closing, and then cancelled the policy less than 30 days later.

Hopefully we’ll have normal insurance in the coming months…

Can You Dig It?


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