Archive for Home Renovation

Watching Holmes On Holmes Might Save You A Lot Of Money

Posted in Entertainment, Personal, Television with tags , , , , , , , , on March 10, 2010 by thelasthonestman

Mike Holmes, star of the show about renovations gone wrong -- Holmes on Holmes

Since I started my home renovation almost three years ago, I’ve found myself watching a lot of programming on HGTV and their sister channel, DIY.  On a lot of these shows, I’ve seen ordinary people — not trained or licensed in home remodeling or repair — tackling a number of hefty projects around their houses and making it look (relatively) easy in the process.

But it’s not anywhere near that easy for people to do a lot of that kind of work – something I’ve found out numerous times during my own project.  In cases where the job was overly complex, or required skills beyond our capability — like the plumbing or our bathroom tiling jobs, for example — we hired out skilled contractors to handle the jobs for us.  When it’s something that’s crucially vital to the safety and security of your home, hiring a professional should be the safest way to go, right?

Except it’s not.  I’m thankful that the people we hired were tremendously professional and did the jobs they were hired for in a timely fashion and correctly (according to the codes and standards required by the state), but it’s a fact that there are a lot of contractors out there who don’t know what they’re doing at all, or who bite off jobs that are well beyond the scope of what they’re capable of doing — and the homeowners who hire them often find themselves in situations that leave them with structural problems, unfinished jobs, and safety issues — all while costing them ungodly amounts of money in the process.

My education as to how prevalent these situations actually are has been coming lately from the HGTV show Holmes on Holmes, the current season premiere of which will air on HGTV Sunday night at 9:00 ET.  The show, which originated in Canada, follows around contractor Mike Holmes as he attempts to repair and fix botched jobs by contractors who range from the inept to the flat-out unethical.  The show has been one of the highest-rated shows on HGTV Canada during its run, and it’s been running almost daily in the afternoon on HGTV the last couple of weeks, where I’ve been able to catch it.

Needless to say, the show has been a complete eye-opener.  In episode after episode, I’ve watched families whose lives had been driven almost to ruin, whose finances had been all but wiped out, by contractors who either couldn’t — or wouldn’t — do the job properly.  There have been examples of contractors who literally stole tens of thousands of dollars from helpless homeowners, often leaving them with houses that were in ruin and — in some cases — unsafe to live in.  In every one of those cases, it was left up to Holmes and his crew of workers to fix the problems, with the price tag largely being absorbed by the show and on more than one occasion, Holmes himself.

In every one of these cases, the family afflicted hired a contractor who seemed to be the right person for the job.  But what I’ve learned over the course of watching the show is that there are far too many people out there who aren’t doing quality work the way it should be done — and that it’s really easy to find yourself a victim of a botched job if you’re not careful.  For anyone attempting to embark upon a renovation project who’s looking to hire someone for the job, just watching a few of these episodes could save you thousands of dollars and countless headaches.

MY spider-sense was immediately tingling when the contractor dodged the question of permits for our renovation project

How easy could it be to fall for a one of these con artists depicted on the show?  When my home renovation project was started, the first contractor my wife and I talked to about doing the framing on our extension seemed eager enough to take the job — but he wasn’t able to give specifics on budgeting for material or labor, he wasn’t able to give a clear and concise plan for how the project would unfold, and he was evasive when it came to discussing the needs for permits or adhering to code — all red flags according to Holmes (and to me at the time).  We thankfully passed on doing business with this guy, but I had a relative who did hire him for a much smaller job — and who got taken when he took money from her and never did the work.   I remember hearing about it and thinking “That could have been us — but far worse”.   As thankful as I am that we apparently avoided any mishaps along the way of our renovation, I wish we had known then what we’ve learned since — and that I’d seen a show like Holmes on Holmes way back then.

Holmes deserves tremendous credit for shining a light on some of the problems in the building industry, in which the contractors have all kinds of protection within the law, but homeowners have far fewer.  His show is well worth checking out if you have the time — and if you’re thinking of doing a remodeling project.  You just may end up saving yourself a lot of money down the road if you do.

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Exiting Remodeling Hell

Posted in Personal with tags , on January 19, 2010 by thelasthonestman

Somewhere in Dante's Hell, there exists a place for those of us foolish enough to remodel our homes

I’ve already written at length about the extensive remodeling project my wife and I began almost four years ago — when that piece was written in February of last year, I thought that my massive home renovation was finally nearing its end.

Turns out I was wrong.

For the past eleven and a half months, the road to completion has been filled with hurdle after hurdle, and there’s been times where I was firmly convinced that we were never going to finish the house.  I’ve had more than a few visions of everything getting completed — in some point in the far distant future, right before we end up selling the place and before we could even enjoy the fruits of the hard work ourselves.  The words “This just isn’t ever going to be over, is it?” have come out of my mouth several times, and I suspect that they’ll come out again several more in the upcoming weeks and months.

The main culprit?  Unfortunately, the main amount of blame ends up on my shoulders — largely because I overestimated what could be done ourselves in the amount of time we had, and also largely because I trusted in the assertions from people I was counting on to help me.  The latter has been crippling to both the time line and the budget; as I mentioned a year ago, my father-in-law, a handyman with experience in a number of fields, had been a huge contributor to the project in its initial stages — but the key word to focus on there is had.  Sadly, as the project stretched past one year — and then two — he seemed to lose his stomach for the job, along with the will to push it forward, as I believe the scope of what we had undertaken finally overwhelmed him.  And while I’m eternally grateful for all he did help us do (and for the money he helped us save along the way by lending his expertise), this has meant that, for almost the entire last calendar year, he’s been a no-show more often than not at the house, leaving crucial projects unfinished — and others completely unstarted.

Which would be less of a problem if I were more capable in my own right.  Unfortunately, I’m not.  There’s been plenty I have been able to work on finishing in the past year, but larger-scale projects — like tiling the new master and guest bathrooms, finishing the brickwork in the front of the house, installing the hardwood floors, and finishing the electrical work — that we were supposed to be working on together have been far beyond the capability of me to do alone, so they’ve either be left unfinished or they’ve been contracted out to professionals, adding huge labor costs to a budget that was already strained by the weight of the project.  When you add in the fact that a home refinance is on indefinite hold until the project in complete — as well as the fact that I took a year off of work partly to focus on working on the house (only to be left twiddling my thumbs idly when my father-in-law doesn’t show) — then it should be easy to understand why the whole situation is starting to leave me with a sense of frustration and a regret that I even began the project in the first place.

But those obstacles aside, we are still fitfully forcing our way to the finish line, even if it’s not along the way we intended to get there.  We’ll be about 90% complete by April, and nearly 100% done by the end of the summer.  And with the benefit of my experience, here’s some of my own remodeling tips for anyone reading this who wants to try their own huge project (and by huge, I’m not talking about simply changing the paint color in a room or installing new cabinets, for example — though a number of my warnings can still apply to even the smallest of home renovation projects).

— Whatever you think your time frame is going to be, you need to double it — at least

We thought we were going to be finished in two years or so — we’re now headed onto four.  The reasons for the delay?  Well, they’ll be the same ones that’ll plague your home renovation as well.  Projects are harder and more complicated than you anticipated they’d be.  People get sick, or are too tired from their everyday jobs to put in the hours necessary to finish the job.  Holidays mean that nothing gets done until afterward (without fail, mid-November to the first week in January was always our dead zone for getting anything done around the house).  People you think will help you, won’t.  All of these can — and likely — will happen to you, so be conservative in coming up with whatever time frame you think you’ll need to finish the project — then double it, to be safe.  And then don’t be surprised when you’re still not done at the end of that time period as well.

— Whatever you think your budget is going to be, you need to double it  — at least

Like the time frame, the budget is going to be one of those things that, no matter how conservative you think you’re being with the numbers, you’re probably going to be coming in over.  We were very careful to price out as much as we could in material before we even started the job, and we’d thought that we’d taken into account everything that could come up during the process.  And we were wrong, of course.  Things happen along the way that you’ll never expect, and there will be snags and unforeseen complications that will invariably drive the budget up.  If you’re not going into a remodeling project with a good chunk of money held in reserve for that inevitability, then you’re going to be looking at having to scrounge up the money somewhere (not a pleasant option) — or worse, you may have to make sacrifices on your remodeling vision or even shut the entire project down midway through until the money can be found (an even worse option).

— Be prepared to go through a lot of discomfort along the way

We were prepared at the beginning of our project for our life to change — but we had no idea some of the trials we’d end up going through.  There were the two winters we went through without any heat in the house, except for what we could muster from our wood-burning fireplace and a pair of space heaters.  We’ve spent four years with only one bathroom, and part of that time without hot water.  We went most of a summer without air conditioning,  a whole year without sheet rock on the walls, and more than three years with cement and plywood for floors.  We’ve had flooding, rodents,  and bugs that invaded our home.  We’ve got lights that still don’t work, a second heating/air unit that isn’t hooked up, and a number of other things that are 95% completed but not all the way done.  Add them all up, and it equals a lot of days and nights spent living in conditions that have been less than comfortable.  At times it’s been more than stressful and put both my nerves and my wife’s on edge.  No matter what your renovation project is, you’re going to have times when it’s not going to be enjoyable to live in.

— Try to keep the big picture in focus

The last one may have been the hardest for me to do.  It’s been difficult at times to keep the eye on the prize and focus on the completed project, especially when there have been so many delays and obstacles along the way.  But that’s exactly what I’m motivating myself with now, with the end of the project finally close in sight.  Along the way, it’s been tremendously satisfying for every part of the house that has been finished, but it’s been tough not to get complacent and to forge forward onto the next step.

As a number of other people who’ve tackled major renovation projects say, I’ll never do this type of thing again.  Hopefully, if you’re reading this and have thoughts of your own about doing something dramatic with your house, what I’ve gone through might help you with what to do — and what not to do.

Welcome to the Money Pit

Posted in Personal with tags , on February 3, 2009 by thelasthonestman

I’ve always heard before that people who renovated their homes — and by “renovated”, I’m talking about larger-scale jobs, not simply changing the carpet in one room and rearranging the furniture — were usually of one common view by the time the project was finally over:  It was worth it, but we’d never do it again.

So when my wife and I started our major renovation project almost two and a half years ago, did I think I’d being saying the exact same thing today?  Of course, I didn’t.  I knew better than that.  Whatever problems other people had, we’d avoid, and besides, I knew what we were in for from the start — how could there be any issues for us to worry about?

My construction hat

My construction hat

Okay, okay — maybe it hasn’t been the smoothest of sailing while we’ve been working on the house.  To get a good idea of how a lot of this project has gone, just rent The Money Pit sometime and you’ll get a pretty good idea.

When did I first get a clue that our nifty home renovation wasn’t going to go exactly the way we’d planned?  Well, it should have been the first afternoon after the main construction started when, while breaking for lunch, I was flipping through the channels on TV and saw the aforementioned movie playing on Cinemax.  Now I know there’s a lot of time to fill in their programming schedules, but what were the odds that this 20 year-old+ movie of all films would be playing on that particular day?  I knew it was an ominous sign from the start (and commented on exactly that to my wife and others), though if I took nothing else from watching it that afternoon (how could I not have?), I appreciated the sense of irony involved.

My wife and I own a home in one of the nicest areas of the town we currently live, a place where there’s older homes mixed in with newer construction.  We’d bought our house in 2001, before the real estate market had really started to boom in the area, and in time, we’d already seen a decent appreciation on the house’s value.  But while the home rests on a nice sized plot of land (we’re not crammed in one of those sardine-like lots in a subdivision — a priority when we’d bought had been to get a house where our neighbors couldn’t hear it every time I shouted at one of my fantasy baseball pitcher’s to start throwing strikes), it was one of the smaller homes in the neighborhood (though at 1700+ square feet living, it was certainly far from cramped).  There were things I would have liked to change about the house — there was no formal dining room, and the master bedroom and master bath in particular were on the smaller side) — and I had tossed around some ideas about adding on to the house, but we’d never looked into them seriously, even though I knew, as a real estate agent at the time, that building up to the level of the neighborhood would be a pretty smart investment.

Hurricane Katrina changed all of that thinking.   Thankfully, we weren’t in a hard hit area, but the high winds did end up blowing part of our roof away — and the resulting water damage we suffered as a result left us needing not only an entire new roof, but several rooms that needed ceilings and walls to be ripped out and replaced.

We could have just repaired things back to the way they were — no, make that better than they were — but it was then that the idea that had bounced around in my head over the years took form.  “If we have to tear all of this out anyway, why not use this as an opportunity to embark on the full-scale renovation we’d always talked about doing?” I had asked my wife.

Again, in case you forgot, here’s the hat I was wearing when I suggested this:

Nope -- Im still not any smarter

If you're wondering: Nope -- I'm still not any smarter

My wife agreed (Because she thought I had a brilliant idea — or just to shut me up?  Only she knows for sure.)  And best of all, we decided that, in order to really stretch our budget and get the most bang for our buck, we were going to do the bulk of the work ourselves.  My father-in-law is a electrician and had worked in air conditioning and heating before, and he had a lot of connections with other contractors who’d be able to give us some great deals on what we couldn’t do.  Clearly, with those advantages and the three of us working when we could (which due to those pesky everyday paying jobs we all had, meant mostly nights and weekends), we’d have this project knocked out in no time.

Errr … ok, maybe not.

Finished in slightly less time than my home renovation

Finished in slightly less time than my home renovation

To say that we got in a little over our heads would be an understatement somewhere along the lines of saying “Paris Hilton’s not a really good actress”.  Part of my plan had involved converting unused attic space into living space, but I miscalculated on just how much space that was going to give us — and by the time the walls were up and the roof was on, we had more than doubled our existing living area;  great for the value of the house, not so great for spending Saturday afternoons doing something other than holding a nail gun or running electrical wire.

On the bright side, I’ve definitely come to appreciate the little things that I, like many people who never get to tackle such a project, had come to take for granted when living in a home.  For about eight months, I went without air conditioning (including during the sweltering heat of the summer), and for most of two winters, I lived without heat as well (never have I been so happy to have a fireplace in the living room, and never did I think I’d own a space heater until then).  My wife and I learned quickly to get by without things such as working lights, cold and hot water, a floor beneath our feet — even sheet rock on the walls.  At one point, being opened up to the elements left us vulnerable to an invasion from the outdoors, which came first in the form of small, cute furry mice — and then later, in the form of much larger, more aggressive and definitely not so “cute” rats.  Trust me, you can’t say that you’ve truly lived until you’ve faced off with a charging rat and only the business end of a cement mixer to defend yourself with in a duel to the death.

Pretty much like this, but with rats

Pretty much like this, but with rats

Another positive is the fact that I have learned a great deal about things I’d never thought I’d know squat about.  Three years ago, I couldn’t use a power tool to save my life;  today, I’m versatile with any number of saws, drills, or nail guns.  I know how to run circuits and wires to bring power to any part of a house and how to lay a proper foundation.  I learned how to put on a roof, run plumbing, and install air conditioning runs.  Literally, I’ve learned almost anything I needed to build a house from scratch — and best of all, I’ve managed to do all of this (so far — knock on wood) without in any way maiming myself — though a couple of times, I came awfully close.

Thankfully, there’s finally light at the end of the tunnel — and it’s actually not a train waiting to run me down.  Rooms are finally starting to be finished, and a definite end to the project is in sight at last.  Unlike Tom Hanks and Shelley Long, my wife and I never had our relationship strained as a result of this endeavor — if anything, the ordeal we’ve shared has probably made us closer as a result.  And we’re not going to be selling the house either, even though we could still return a hefty profit at this point, even in a troubled economy and struggling real estate market.  We plan on this house being the one we raise a family in, and hopefully it won’t only be the first house we ever bought —  but the last as well — even if you can barely recognize it anymore from when we started.

And when we’re finally done.  I’m going to kick back, relax, and take a deep breath — though the next time my wife has the idea to flip the channel over to HGTV — I might just have to take the remote from her and break it.  Either that, or fish out my dunce cap from the closet and see if it still fits.