September 13, 2009

Labor of Love

Uplifting Can Be Heavy

Over the next seven days we had to weigh our most essential priorities for reconstruction because moving into the house with the cat was going to be one of our greatest challenges yet.

There were three things we deemed more than essential: running water (primarily in the bathroom), at least one operable outlet in each room, and walls.

Since we both knew that only a crew of ten could get drywall up on every surface in five days, and that it would be a cold day in hell before Mr. ‘Slow as Molasses Uphill in the Winter’ would have our outlets installed in the same amount of time, we were forced to scale back on even the most basic of needs.

We finally settled that if we could get a toilet, sink and shower, two outlets (one in the bedroom for the alarm clock and one in the kitchen for the coffee maker) and walls up in the bedroom that we would at least feel more comfortable moving the cat in.

That first morning living out of Motel 6 Jerry miraculously beat us to the job. He proceeded to be there before us every single day for the next two weeks and since we were only coming from fifteen minutes down the road now, we were arriving fairly early in the morning.

At the time it was baffling but months later we discussed how he suddenly became so motivated to get the job done; why he was putting in such long hours. The only sensible conclusion either of us could surmise was that he felt nervous to allow us to move in without a C.O. since it was his name alone on the permit. Rightfully so.

Unfortunately obtaining a certificate of occupancy was the very least of our concerns at this time. Basic survival and the essential elements to achieve it for both ourselves and the cat were much further up the list of priorities so we started in the most critical location -- the bedroom.

While we were still in the demolition phase of the project, a couple of our closest friends, Sharon and Bob, were brave enough to trek through the ‘hood to come and help us tear down and clean up about four rooms worth of plaster and lathe. Those same friends, when called upon for another favor during this stage of the game were more than happy to oblige.

We headed back to the Boston area and picked up their drywall lift.

There are no words to accurately express the level of gratitude we had for their lending of the big yellow contraption. This beast of a machine is one of the simplest pieces of equipment ever constructed yet one of the most useful for any contractor doing a job like this -- it has two L shaped arm rests where the drywall edge is placed so the sheet is vertical, a pin that is pulled so the arms fall back flat to bring the sheet horizontal and a crank that essentially does the work of a professional body builder as it slowly snugs the piece of drywall just about right up to the ceiling.

With eight or more pieces per ceiling all I kept thinking was ‘and we thought it was heavy just carrying it into the house’.

When I mentioned before about the number of curse words we both uttered during the door installation I was simply preparing everyone for this part of the story. Seems the lack of level and plumb was a rampant issue throughout the entire house. So rampant that some walls were upwards of 3” out.

For those not in the know of the beauties of home construction, most contractors attempt to come within 1/16th of an inch out but anything up to 1/8th of an inch over about ten feet is considered acceptable. That leaves a difference of 2-7/8” out of level and / or plumb throughout the whole house.

Not one single sheet of drywall fit into a perfect square because not one single ceiling or wall corner in the entire house was a perfect angle. Every sheet in the house had to be scored, cut, shaved, retro fitted or simply fist-hammered into place before being screwed in.

While we crept up on the end of day four of our seven day stint in the motel, Jerry finally got us two working outlets -- one in the bedroom and one in the living room.

When we moved in we had a small dorm sized refrigerator, toaster oven, microwave and coffee maker to house in the kitchen. There was also our fourteen inch television, alarm clock and self cleaning cat litter box that would need to be run in the bedroom.

Walls were finally complete in the bedroom and in order to prevent the cat from pulling insulation from the cracks we tossed up some unfinished trim and I got started on joint compound while Matt began plumbing the bathroom.

Matt and plumbing became strange bedfellows over the course of this experience; a true love hate relationship was born out of applying heat to flux. He remains to this day one of the most skilled plumbers I have ever seen install copper. Unfortunately he is also the slowest and most meticulous pipe fitter I have ever wanted to take a torch to. It took him two full days to complete the shower install and toilet rebuild as well as shoring up the sink.

With just one day left before we moved in we had yet to install any walls or flooring and caulk was going to take at least a couple days to dry. We hugged each other then because we both knew after three more days of hard labor with no shower both of us were going to be wishing we had two bedrooms complete just so we didn’t have to smell each other.

September 6, 2009

Labor of Love

Leaving on a Jet Plane and When You Get Back, Get Out

It became clear that not only had I reached a glass ceiling at my day job, but that helping out on weekends alone was not going to cut it, so the moment we were able to refinance I joined Matt in making the house a full time thing. We were now commuting in one car together from a family member’s house in the Boston area. Each morning we headed out at about 8:00 and did not arrive back home until well after all of the members of the household had gone to sleep.

It was May so with Jerry stumbling in here and there and our newly acquired pile of materials secured in the front bedroom, we wasted no time doing all of the things that could be done before the inspector came to give the final okay on the permit; the day we would finally be able to put the house on the market.

Matt located a builder’s supply center in Rhode Island that was a fairly lengthy drive but worlds less expensive than Home Depot for windows. He picked up nine standard sized, wood ones there and we custom ordered eleven more in vinyl for some areas that were a little bit quirky in size. While on the spending spree we also sprung for eight new interior doors and the front and back exterior doors.

That is when Matt found Phil.

Phil and Jerry were definitely both sent to the same school for odd ducks, but Phil was just an all around funny guy. He was big and burly and drove this beat up maroon pick up truck with his company name on the side. That was more than poor Jerry had to show for credentials.

We hired Phil and his crew to do some demo work for us that was a little out of our comfort level; we paid them to rip out the shed in the front yard as well as the two and three season porches on the back of the house that were only still together because the termites were holding hands.

In three days all said structures were down, cleaned up and the guys were out of our yard. It was tempting to ask if they also knew how to hang drywall. Or could run wire.

On the back of the house the three season porch was accessed through a slider door in the kitchen. The slider was an older style aluminum type and the only locking mechanism it had was the block of wood that had been cut to fit in the lower channel on the static door side. Needless to say we were anxious to remove the entire jimmy-rigged contraption and replace it with the locking door.

We both agreed that this would be the last thing we did before going away on our vacation because we were looking to firmly secure the premises prior to being gone for a full week.

The day came and while we replaced the door Matt got a call from Jerry that he was having shrapnel removed from his appendix and would not be able to get back for a couple weeks. By this point we both held nothing back with the world’s slowest contractor and Matt simply told him that we were running low on some materials over at our place so since he was likely on his way to another job for a couple weeks, he might want to pick up a check from them to pick up the stuff for our job.

After a very long day, and lots of curse words flying out of both of our mouths at the lack of not only level but plumb in a 150 year old house, we managed to install the door and window on the back of the house. There were some cinder blocks lying around from who knows what and we used them to makeshift a set of stairs out the back door.

We stood in the yard and admired the first truly noticeable exterior change then we headed home to pack for our trip the following morning.

After 9/11, as many may recall, flights were somewhat off for a while and many airlines were offering amazing deals on tickets as well as additional incentives to keep people up in the skies. Just before our wedding I had come across an impossible to pass up price on tickets to Arizona so I jumped on it.

Neither of us ever imagined we would still be working on the house in early June of 2003 but we were so I began looking into the options of what we could do about not going away. Sadly, it would have cost us substantially more to transfer the tickets than the original tickets cost to begin with so we found ourselves heading out for sunny weather.

The trip was just what we both needed and we came back rejuvenated, refreshed and ready to tackle whatever the house could throw at us next. Even if it meant we had to corral and hog tie Jerry for him to actually finish before the anniversary of our closing date.

The people who were letting us stay however must have felt that the vacation was a bad idea because the day we returned one of them sat down to talk to us. The conversation went something like this: “He wants you out tomorrow.”

We had no electricity, no walls, no bathroom and a cat.

Matt went to pick up some rope for the necessary kidnapping of Jerry and while I located a local motel that took pets, Matt called our friendly electrician to explain that we would be moving in just five days from that moment so he had better get his act together.

We packed everything we owned that night and made it to Motel 6 in Springfield the following morning by 9:00 AM.

September 3, 2009

Labor of Love

Materials Witness

We decided it was finally time to have the re-construction materials delivered despite the fact that Jerry was stringing us along with stories of his wife’s, cousin’s, landlord passing a gall stone, or something just as ludicrous. That way, we figured, we would be able to begin putting her back together before a year had passed in our three month renovation.

We waited out on the stoop one warmer spring day in 2003 for the eighteen wheeler flat bed truck to show up. When it pulled in I believe I simply mumbled a fearful ‘um, is that seriously all for us?’ Matt just nodded. I think I saw his eyes well with tears. Mine immediately followed.

That day we had delivered sixty bundles of cedar shingles, 176 sheets of drywall (packaged in twos), twenty rolls of R-19 wall insulation, four packages of R-38 attic insulation, twenty rolls of drywall tape, four 5 gallon buckets of joint compound, three packages of roofing shingles, two 2-1/2 gallon buckets of textured ceiling paint, six boxes of industrial staples, a few sheets of paneling, ten sheets of pressboard, a crate of drywall screws and very likely a slew of other things my brain has purged because the day was simply too traumatizing.

The truck arrived at about 9:00 which means we had risen that day at about 5:30, hit the road by 6:30 and arrived just before the materials were to be dropped.

Total time for truck driver to back in, exit vehicle, get in attached little forklift truck thingie, unload all our stuff and leave? Approximately twenty minutes.

Home Depot doesn’t bring your materials into the house, they forklift the palates onto the front lawn then wave goodbye with their middle finger which they just used to point at the storm cloud moving in, and then they laugh as they peel out of the field.

We stared at this material in front of us, looked at each other, sighed and started moving it all into our storage room. The size of the pile was daunting; it was definitely taller than both of us when stacked on top of itself. We knew there would be no lunch until this was finished but we doubted it would be done before the rain.

Trouble with drywall is getting it wet renders it useless.

The other trouble with drywall is the stuff is insanely heavy and neither of us had built up any real stamina or muscles yet. We had to cut apart the double sheets and carry each individually. For those who are counting, that would be 176 trips up the four front stairs with just the drywall. My calves were rockin’ by the end of that day.

The real trouble was that we had no choice but to secure all of these materials before we left for the day no matter how long it took or we would never see them again.

We got a couple of our tarps out as we watched the ominous storm clouds race across the open sky as fast as we were racing up and down the front stairs.

After about forty sheets we felt a drop. Both of us hustled like maniacs attaching the tarps to the two piles; something we became pros at by the end of the day.

There were at least three separate times when rain came through. At one point we half considered just giving up and saying oh well, that was at about 5:00. We decided that one of us should just run out for food instead.

We ate dinner and felt completely recharged to tackle the rest of the pile. With only a handful of drywall sheets, most of the paneling and all of the cedar shingles left to redistribute to secured locations we figured we were home free.

The last bundle of shingles made it into the basement just as all four of our calves tore away from the bone while we were on the basement stairs, sometime around 8:00 in the evening. We never had a more physically exhausting day than that during the entire remainder of the project; we were wiped out but miraculously Jerry had called and would, by some miracle of chance, be showing up the next day.

In order to ensure he would, we knew it was vital that we did too, even though all we really wanted to do was lie down and sleep the next four months away. Luckily we had a vacation coming up and we were both pushing so we would be able to take full advantage of the recovery time our bodies so desperately needed while we were away in the sunshine.

September 1, 2009

Labor of Love

A Pirate’s Life for Me

I am not one of those girls who goes all ga-ga for electronics, but pulling the electrical nightmare wiring out of the entire house was one of the happiest times in the whole project. At that moment we knew the only way the house could ever go up in flames would be because of the punk kids who lived behind us.

At some point we prayed that very thing would happen; alas it never did.

That first winter we had saved up enough money for Matt to quit his mortgage job and go work on the house full time. He was going to complete the demolition of plaster and the subsequent clean up, frame out the concrete block room and a couple other places while our electrician ran all the wire into the brand new, super shiny, battleship grey, 200 amp circuit box.

Perhaps I should back up to explain how it is we arrived at winter as some of you might be scratching your heads in wonder for the “couple of months” we had promised ourselves as a completion date.

Since we purchased the house just before our wedding we wanted to get through that insanity first. There went ten weeks right down the drain. Of course another week for honeymoon and another for catching up with work once we were back and, well, you probably get the idea. Our couple of months was over before it even started.

During the winter, while Matt was working in sub zero temperatures with little to no block from the elements, he tracked down a couple reasonable priced electricians who could come in to complete the work; he chatted with all of them and made a decision to hire Jerry.

There are times when a spouse is supposed to bite their tongue and allow their other half of the equation make their own choices, regardless of the outcome.

This was definitely not one of those times.

Matt was all kinds of excited that Jerry would be able to finish the entire project from running the wire, attaching outlets, baseboard heaters, smokes and pulling it all back into the box in just a few weeks.

Again I will pause because I think it is important for everyone reading to run right out and pick up a copy of The Money Pit, watch it and pay special attention to the standard line that flies out of the mouth of the General Contractor who handles their project. I will wait.

Contractors in Massachusetts are required to become licensed and many of them must complete ungodly numbers of hours of training before the licensing can occur. In some instances certain classes are even required. I am convinced that the “How to tell the client two weeks no matter what” class is the first they are all sent to. It is an ongoing educational endeavor they all must refresh each year to stay quick on their feet when asked how long a project will take.

Matt gave Jerry a key and entrusted him to get in there and get the job done with little to no supervision because after all, he was a professional and Matt may or may not be able to be there every day. Silly, silly Matt. Jerry started the work sometime in early part of the Spring of 2003. A few weeks in we headed on out one weekend to check out the progress.

I was still going with that original few week estimate. Silly, silly me.

Our electrician had drilled a bunch of chase holes in the studs, haphazardly hung switches and outlets from the boxes with just one screw and hundreds of feet of wire were coiled up all over the three floors of the house but not attached to anything. He had assured Matt he would be done by the time we showed up that weekend. The two of us just looked at each other and Matt dialed the phone to find out where he was at.

While this was going on, our apartment, which was one floor of a two family house, had gone under agreement and we were being forced to find an alternate place to live. A family relation allowed us to move into their basement area for a short time.

On top of all of that the city had failed to turn off the water so although we had shut things off on our end, there was a trickle from the street. As one of the coldest winters on record the plumbing slowly filled, so did the water heater and furnace.

All of the above burst. Luckily we had been given the Home Improvement 1-2-3 book from Home Depot for our wedding (yes we registered at Home Depot) and Matt read the plumbing section like a bible. The inspector told him there were professionals who didn’t do such quality work and he should consider getting licensed.

About a week later, Jerry arrived back on the jobsite and Matt did a double take. He was wearing a gauze patch over one eye. Turns out although he was cutting for a ceiling fan box above his head, straight into horsehair plaster, he saw no reason to wear safety glasses. The plaster had gotten in there and he wound up in the hospital.

This is the second class contractors are forced to attend, the “How to come up with the most outrageous excuses on the fly so as not to simply admit to the client that you ran out of money and needed to front load at a different job for a few weeks”. If he was telling the truth I certainly felt bad for him but his overall wishy-washy work ethic told me otherwise. I had never seen any contractor go so far as to don a costume to drive the point home however, so I had to give him a solid A for effort there.

Jerry worked for approximately one more week, which brings us up to about mid May, and then he simply vanished. Matt blew up his phone leaving countless messages. We threatened not paying his final installment, we threatened going to the licensing board. Nothing worked, he had just disappeared. We were ready to get going with reconstruction so we called in a new electrician.

He sadly told us that because the permit was in Jerry’s name he would be unable to do anything.

I went looking for sharp, pointy things to stick in my ears while Matt utilized the tools of the mortgage trade and tracked down Jerry’s address and home number. We contemplated going by, ringing his bell, snatching him and tossing him in our car to take him back to the job, but figured that might be a little harsh so we went with a call instead.

He answered.

“Surprise Jerry, its Matt. Miss us? I expect you to be here tomorrow, finished by Friday or your license is going to be yanked so fast your head will spin.”