3 Things I Wish I Knew To Ask For, Contractor Edition

The Gingerbread Diaries

To say that buying a house is a learning experience is an understatement. Pair a home purchase with am immediate renovation and you’ve got education out the wazoo! As much as I like to learn things, and as often as not I tend to learn them the hard way, here are three things I wish I knew to ask of our contractor before we got started.

Maybe it will help someone else getting their school of hard knocks degree in contractor negotiations.

1. Where will they pee?

Yes, it sounds funny that this is the first question I wish I’d known to ask, but it’s indicative of all those little considerations that just don’t occur to you until after the fact. This particular one (of asking the contractor to include a Port-o-Let in their estimate) was suggested by an article on Houzz after our renovations had ended and I really wish I’d read it 6 months sooner.

I remember thinking, after discovering the busted pipe a few days after closing (that Todd was able to fix, thankfully) that we needed to make sure it was safe to leave the water on while the workers were here so that they’d have access to the facilities and to water and whatnot. It was a kind thought, and I give myself credit for that, but I regretted it soon.

The first week the work crew was in they used up almost all the paper goods we’d bought right after closing. That amounted to a case of paper towels and a a large package of toilet paper, and left trash everywhere. And if that wasn’t enough, they also helped themselves to a pair of work gloves Todd had left out on our makeshift dining room table, ruining said gloves by using them to remove the old roof, and sopping up who knows what with one of the bath towels I’d brought up, leaving it crumpled and soaking wet (and filthy) and thrown into the closet under the stairs. Had we put off our next trip up by a week, May’s heat and humidity would have rendered that a mess of mold and mildew right behind our downstairs a/c filter.

It was a small but shattering sound heard as my goodwill towards the work crew evaporated.

Lesson learned: hide everything you don’t want them touching. Which we did in a giant storage tote tucked into one of the downstairs closets.

2. Who will actually be on-site?

This doesn’t mean I expect to vet the work crew before agreeing to the bid–that’s a lot to ask even of the most corporate outfits. No, I mean who’s actually going to be on-site and in charge during the day-to-day of the project. It never occurred to me (that’s a theme, here) that the contractor I made all these arrangements with might leave someone else in charge of the work being done on the biggest single purchase of my life. Especially not when this is, ostensibly, a one-man-and-his-crew operation and not some big corporate contractor.

But that’s exactly what happened, at least in certain instances that I can be sure of. Overall, I’m left to wonder how often the man I trusted my home to was really there.

The first inkling we had was when we discovered the house key sitting on the top ledge of our front door. Apparently no one person could be bothered to be in charge of our key, so they just left it “hidden” for whoever showed up first the next day. Another time we found the key in the lock on the back door when we came home (after we’d already moved all our stuff in). To say I was not pleased was an understatement, but at least they were making sure the doors were actually closed and locked (more than once in the early days I came home to find doors yawning open).

But the most damning evidence came at the end of the job, when they started to work on the exterior. They’d removed the loose materials and the first coat of our chosen color (Del Coronado Peach, from Valspar’s National Trust for Historic Preservation color line) was going up! Only problem was, it looked like crap.

Not the color (though haters of our peachy-pink might disagree), the surface. They put the first coat of paint on (no primer, by the way) and that same afternoon Todd went by and the paint was already bubbling, peeling, and showing every single rough edge where the still-adhered previous paint was firmly stuck. When I voiced my concern our contractor explained that it was just the first coat and that once 3-4 were on, none of that would be a problem.

House Photos 017

Ignore the purple-look in this picture, trick of the light or something. But it’s a great example of the insta-peel paint feature we didn’t ask for!

House Photos 009 House Photos 011

So then I sent these pictures of what we were seeing on the front of the house, to be very specific of what we saw as the problem. That’s when he replied, “oh, I wasn’t actually there, yes, we’ll make it right” and they spent the next week prepping the entire exterior, feathering out the edges of the well-adhered paint and sanding the bare clapboards, like they needed to do in the first place. And when the weather cleared (barely) enough for them to start painting again? A coat of primer was also used.

Now, some of this might have been unfortunate timing: we’d had to push back the closing so many times and then wait on the last-minute update to the contractor’s license before permits could be pulled and work could begin. I fully acknowledge that the more than 2-month delay made it necessary for our contractor to split his time between our job and whatever came up in the mean time, but I still think it’s a question I should have asked.

3. Can I get that in writing?

And by “that” I mean the warranty–not just the contractor’s guarantee of their labor but, and perhaps more importantly, the materials warranty on something like your roofing shingles. According to my contractor, he (verbally) guarantees his labor for 2 years. Okay, so for the first two years if something goes wrong I can call him and he’ll deal with it. Sounds good (and this conversation was had when I’d already had to do just that, the week after we moved in). The shingles he put on our roof, though, they come with a 20 year manufacturing defect warranty. Now, a lot can happen in 20 years. Our contractor may have picked up stakes and moved away (or worse) by the time something comes to light with the shingles. Could there be a recall down the line? How would I know?

These days when you buy electronics or appliances, there’s a little warranty card and lots of legalese in the packaging. That plus your receipt can help you out of jam should something go wrong sooner than normal usage would allow. But a roof? I didn’t purchase the materials outright so that’s not much help, and aside from the conversation we had while he was back up on my roof, I’ve got nothing to go on. As much as it pained me to contact him (dislike of confrontation and/or rocking the boat, I admit it), I did put on my big-girl pants and email him a request for something in writing. We’ll see what becomes of that.

There’s more to this story, of course (isn’t there always), and I’m almost ready to tell it. Almost. This first year of home ownership has not been the easiest. Every time we think we’re finally past the triage stage, something else comes up. We knew it was going to be a long term project and that we weren’t in a hurry, but, well…

That’s a story for another post.

Tuesday Reviews-Day: The French House

Tuesday Revews-Day


“An American Family, a Ruined Maison, and the Village That Restored Them All”

Who wouldn’t be curious about a book with such an intriguing subtitle. Especially if that who happens to be me, at the time in the throes of purchasing my own home (which some would also have considered ruined where we just saw potential). In The French House, Don Wallace tells the story of how he and his wife Mindy came to own a falling-down house on the island of Belle Isle off the coast of Brittany, back in the 80s as fledgling writers living in Manhattan. 30 years after they purchased the home, almost sight-unseen, at the urging of a local friend and former school mentor of Mindy’s, the house went from ruin to what I would call full of character and quirks, and a fitting retreat in a French village that has staved off many of the modern advances and tourists threats over the decades.

The writing is infectious. Take, for instance, these passages from early in the book, a page of Instructions they uncovered in some old notebooks.

Bonjour et bienvenue

There are a few things that have to be done immediately when you open the house. Please read ALL these points carefully.

3. Water heater. To turn on the water for the water heater, go to the closet across from the cabinet. It is full of sporty stuff (tennis rackets, golf clubs, swim fins, masks and snorkels, spear guns, wet suits, Frisbees, bocce balls, all of which you may use after you complete every step of these instructions).
You want to get water going into the heater. To do this, peer behind the water take–at the base near the wall you will see a black switch. Turn it parallel to the floor. You should hear a clunk. Note: do not touch the red faucet. Nobody knows what it does. We think it connects to the secret core of hot magma that lies under the island and, if thrown, will result in worldwide catastrophe. You will have hot water in about three to four hours. And it will be hot. Very! Be careful not to scald yourself….

4. Bathroom. Go upstairs to the bathroom. By the toilet you will see boxes of the septic tank chemical that will keep everything smelling sweet. Put two packets in the bowl and flush.
Despite this, you may notice a sort of sickly odor that rises like a miasma at night when the entire village is humming behind closed doors and windows are fogged from all the shower baths taken in succession. This odor should be ignored; taking notice of it will only encourage it.
For Women Only: You will note that there is only one tiny mirror in the bathroom and no mirrors anywhere else in the house. This is deliberate and done for your own well-being…we recommend cultivating the Belle Ile look of bohemian-athletic-seaside dishevelment to go with that Coco Chanel suntan you’re working on. The same goes for clothes….
For Men Only: If you have any male children, it may be wise to have Daddy demonstrate how the toilet lid works, or fails to, if you’re attempting to take a whiz while standing up. Just when you least expect it–bang!–the lid falls like a guillotine.
Don’t worry if you botch this demonstration. Even if your son starts wetting the bed because you nearly amputated your own unit, you’re in luck–not for nothing is Belle Ile known as “the island of psychiatrists.” There are two in Kerbordardoue, another three in adjoining villages, and then all sit down at the beach together, which makes an informal consultation easy to arrange.

5. Stove/Oven: France uses propane for cooking, which is interesting if you think of her distinguished pedigree for cuisine and how, in America, a propane tank is associated with backyard barbecue or football tailgating.
Under the sink is a blue bottle with a round disk valve on top. Turn this all the way open. Wait a minute and turn on a burner and light a match to test it. Note: We turn off the blue gas bottle at night. (Just our neurotic American ways, I guess, but once you read about the the oven you will understand.)
Important oven note: sadly, the oven has become so unpredictable we have to say: try to avoid using it. The dials mean nothing, so you may think you have turned it off and it is merrily filling with gas.  There’s a reason the knobs are unreliable. One afternoon our son Ror’s older cousin Devo filled the stove with gas before lighting the oven. The resulting explosion removed his eyebrows and budding soul patch. It also blew the knobs across the room….I think one knob is still embedded in the wall, the others dangle on the stove, looking deceptively functional….

6. The fireplace: Works well….just keep the fires small, especially at first, so the smoke has a chance to draw up the chimney and dry it out after the long winter….
P.S. The barbecue in the fireplace goes outside, to the right, where our house’s white wall meets the rough stone of the shed….
P.P.S The bicycle in the chimney is also to be removed before starting any fires. If you can get the chain to stay on, feel free to ride it. Don’t ask why it’s there. That’s a story for another time.

Reading this before bed that first night I stopped and reread the entirety of the Instructions to Todd, stifling some giggles along the way. I don’t think the author would mind in the least, though.

Go ahead and laugh–at the joke, at the house, at us. We’re used to it.

With an introduction like the above, you might get the idea that The French House is all droll humor and quips when in reality it gets real, fast. They buy the Belle Ile house, their building in New York City goes co-op. They have a child. They have career struggles, are unable to make it to their crumbling island paradise some summers due to family and financial dramas, all while trying to orchestrate needed repairs on a shoestring via letters and phone calls.

Frankly I find it frustrating to deal with a contractor 30 miles and a state line away, I cannot imagine how it was for them; or, rather, couldn’t if not for Wallace’s way of getting to the point while maintaining a gallows-humor even through the rough patches. There were highs and lows, as is to be expected in a story that spans three decades, and the “end” is bittersweet as so much changes in this village we come to know and love through the story-telling skills of the author.

It’s not just the story of a couple or their home, it’s the story of a way of life, both one that pre-dated them and the one that will follow.

I read this book in spurts. It was easy to devour (just another section more) but I wanted to spread it out. Unlike a series where you know there’s more to come, I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to the Wallace family or their village, so I would force myself to stop, put down the Kindle, and go to sleep. Now that I have read to the end, I’m left with the feeling of having had a wonderful, virtual vacation on that island, leaving behind good friends and fond memories.

For the rest I’ll just have to subscribe to his tumblr feed: DonWallaceFranceBlog.tumblr.com

***I was provided a digital review copy of The French House for purpose of review. All opinions expressed are my own. The French House was published June 1, 2014, by Sourcebooks.***