When I bought my first house I had three desires driving my purchase. First, I wanted a place that was mine; not a rental, not my parents’, mine, all mine so that I could do whatever I bloody well pleased with it. If I wanted to paint a room bright orange in honour of The General Lee, I could do that. If I wanted to decorate the living room with Smokey and the Bandit memorabilia, I could do that. If I wanted to eat every meal in the den while watching TV, I could do that. If I wanted to secretly wire the guest bedroom and bathroom with hidden camer…uh…, never mind. The point is it would be my place.
Promotes Chest Hair and Mustache Thickness
Second, I only wanted to be in this house for five years, tops. It wasn’t so much a flipper, I wasn’t quite wise to the ways of Home and Garden TV then yet, but I still hoped to be moving on to bigger and better things in short order. This was to be a starter home in every sense of the phrase.
Third, and most importantly, I wanted a house that needed some work done; a fixer upper. I was a wide-eyed, fairly young whippersnapper with an unwarranted sense of manliness and I wanted to cut my teeth on some renos. You know, power tools, lumber, sweat, the stuff that promotes growth of chest hair and mustache thickness. I worked in a Home Hardware store during my teen years, after all. I knew what I was doing with the hammers and the saws and the twisty metal bolt tightening device thingies.
All three were realized with the purchase of an early eighties four storey split former rental house with original finishings, an untouched basement and a sloppy coat of white paint over the entire interior just prior to sale. It was the real estate version of the cougar wearing a tight, short denim skirt, smoking menthol cigarettes, and double fisting Jack Daniels on the rocks that you took home from Nashville North at closing time last Calgary Stampede.
This was the tattered canvas upon which I learned some valuable lessons regarding do-it-yourself home renovations. For one, the destruction part is the easiest and, by far, the best part. No need to worry about aesthetics or details here, just get in there and do your best bull-in-a-china-shop routine. It’s like being 28 and suddenly getting permission to do everything you were punished for when you were 6.
Also, proper tools are an absolute necessity. Just buy them! You can only do so much with a hammer, screwdriver, tape measure, drill, and circular saw; even less if they are 40 year old hand-me-downs from your father. Whatever money you saved by using such inadequate tools will be wasted ten-fold in bandages, therapy, and alcohol.
Finally, you may think that because the long-haired skid from high school that always wore a Slayer tee and ripped jeans and took grade nine math four years in a row studied the trades they are dead simple to do, but you’d be dreadfully mistaken. Home renovations may not require honour roll academics but it certainly takes an incredible amount of skill. I began to figure this out after I’d finished applying an entire 20L pail of drywall mud on a 10’ x 10’ room and promptly sanded 99% of it off and still ended up with bumps along every seam that cast shadows. Anybody can do home renos; very few people can do quality home renos.
As years passed and renovations either stagnated or were finished in an unsatisfactory manner a lovely wife and child entered my life. It became obvious that my dreams of handyman grandeur were fading into obsolescence and so I swallowed my pride and hired a “professional”.
Like Chocolate Bars and Intercourse
With a pro in the picture we decided to up the ante a bit and settled on a substantial renovation to finish modernizing most of the house. This involved gutting and rebuilding two full bathrooms as well as a full basement completion. I’d framed and insulated the basement myself which seemed a rather ridiculous accomplishment for a seven year time span but I’m sure it provided the contractor and tradesmen with some good chuckles.
We went by the book when hiring for this renovation getting several quotes and researching the contractors, finally choosing a company we felt comfortable with giving our precious money to. Things started off exceedingly well. The employee they sent to start the bathroom work was friendly, considerate, and genuinely showed concern that we were happy with his work. But like chocolate bars and intercourse, all good things must come to an end.
The fact the guy didn’t show up until 10 or 11 each morning should have been a warning sign that trouble was coming. To be honest, I liked these late starts since it meant the renos progressed at a reasonable pace giving me ample opportunity to review each day’s work and find issues or make decisions on little items such as wood or tile baseboards in the bathroom. The big boss, however, didn’t share my appreciation of the late starts and friendly discussion with the tradesman.
A week into the job, the big boss, who was actually quite small, decided things weren’t progressing sufficiently which he felt was a slight towards me, the homeowner. He never asked my opinion, of course, just assumed. Suddenly, the next day there were six guys in my house causing one hell of a racket in order to get the job back on schedule.
The resulting chaos was comical; or would have been had it not been occurring in my house. One guy was in the master ensuite finishing that portion of the project which was already 75% complete. Another fellow, delightful and polite but dumb as a box of ardox nails, was in the main bathroom ripping out the old fixtures. Four more guys, including the increasingly maniacal big boss, were in the basement finishing the framing and moving plumbing and stuff.
The fellow ripping out bathroom fixtures, in a brief flash of competence, turned off the water to do so. Big boss, however, was down in the basement and decided that the water needed to be turned on. So he ordered the water to be turned back on. As you may have suspected, litres of water spewed from faucet free pipes into the now drainless tub upstairs cascading into the downstairs bathroom where the ceiling had been cut away in order to access the aforementioned, and removed, tub drain. It made for a lovely water feature momentarily leaving me to wonder if a two storey indoor waterfall might be a valuable selling feature for the home.
Things would deteriorate from there. Two days later, the tension between big boss and the initial worker, whom you may recall I really liked, finally peaked just before lunch. An hour long verbal altercation resulted in the worker leaving. He said he was fired; big boss said he had quit. Many reasons were offered for this turn of events. All I knew was that the guy I really liked and had been doing a great job on our home was now gone.
Big boss then decided that he, himself, would come in on Saturday to do some catch up work on the second bathroom. He did. And boy did he really make up time, for the first half of the day. The second half of the day he spent taking down everything he had put up during the first half of the day; namely tiles. A full day’s work resulting in absolutely no change from when he’d arrived that morning.
I told big boss that he keeps saying he’s doing all this in order to keep me happy but it’s having the exact opposite effect. I might as well have been discussing quantum physics with the squirrel stealing seed from the bird feeder in our crab apple tree. Nonetheless, my persistence in expressing displeasure finally paid off and that Monday yet another new worker showed up to finish the entire job.
The new guy was alright and eventually finished the reno with relatively few additional hiccups. Oh sure, our identical bathrooms were painted a slightly different colour for some unknown reason and the grout colour and width differed but it did look nice enough and I’m sure nobody else would ever notice the differences. There were several other items of contention too, but by this point, nothing worth getting into additional arguments over. It was just a lot of stupid stuff that didn’t need to happen had screwy, hyper, cuckoo big boss not kept showing up and throwing everything and everyone into disarray every second day. And I told his business partner as much.
Partner dude, the other big boss, is actually big. He’s the size of a small mountain and seems to have indigestion issues most likely attributable to a daily diet of liver and onions with beer. He spends his entire day driving around to various active and potential job sites providing estimates, delivering missing items, and collecting money. It’s a great gig and one I would love to have. I told partner dude that I thought big boss was borderline psychotic and that he caused more grief on the jobsite than anyone. I said he alone is the reason we’ll never hire this company again nor recommend them to anyone but our most hated enemies.
Don’t Pull Any Punches
Partner dude, shockingly, wasn’t surprised by this at all. It would seem that I am not the first person to have such feelings toward big boss. Partner dude said this has been a problem for some time and that big boss just doesn’t get it and refuses to listen to anyone at work when they tell him he’s causing all the trouble. Then partner dude asked me to do him a favour and he did so with what are now infamous words. Words you all will find both humourous and frightening. The poor man had no idea with whom he was dealing. Partner dude asked me if I could … … WRITE A LETTER!
Oh, I can write a letter. Partner dude told me to put everything in the letter. All the issues I had with the job, the flippy big boss, everything. He said not to pull any punches. And so, I wrote a letter trying to refrain from abuse but not pulling any punches. A couple days later I gave my masterpiece along with the final cheque to partner dude and figured I’d never see them again.
I thought that for exactly 18 hours 24 minutes 38 seconds. That’s when boss man showed up at my door and asked if he could come in and talk to me about my letter. My heart sank. It would seem that some of those unpulled punches might be coming full circle and landing in my own gut.
We sat at the table and big boss proceeded to tell me that my letter was going to do wonders for helping his business. He was going to use it to improve everything about the business. He was going to copy it and give it to all his employees as a reminder of all the things they should not do on a job (odd since he was the problem, not the employees). Yes, it was an impressive letter indeed.
He then proceeded to explain how tough it was for him to run a business and that he is not a very good businessman and that his employees try to make life difficult for him (odd since he was the problem, not the employees … am I repeating myself?). And then it happened. There, right in front of me, at my kitchen table, he started to cry.
I had made a contractor cry. A manly, hardened contractor. Now THAT is awkward. He momentarily composed himself and offered to do additional work to make up for my disappointment with the work already done. There was no way I was going to agree to that but I was terrified what further rejection might do to this guy. I just wanted him gone but he kept talking and apologizing and excusing.
Eventually he paused for a moment, looked at my daughter who is sitting on my lap for all of this, and bursts into tears again. My poor daughter is only two years of age, bless her heart, and hasn’t a clue what’s really going on other than this gruff man is looking at her and making odd faces and sounds. So she does what any two year old would; she starts laughing at him.
I thought surely my death was imminent but he resisted any such urges. And then fate pulled one last nasty joke on me. When at last big boss had run dry of tears and of things to say to me and finally appeared ready to leave, he had one final piece of business to ask of me. He pulled out the final cheque I had written and asks me why the bank won’t cash it. OH CRAP! After all that unpleasantness, frustration, awkwardness, all of it, my damn cheque bounced.