Home Improvement Update

If you’ve been following along, you may recall that my husband and I are embroiled in something of a home improvement nightmare. If you haven’t been following along – or you don’t remember the details, and really, who would? – let me fill you in:

  • Almost 11 months ago we signed a contract with a home improvement company to renovate our house.
  • A team of people came, measured, and made a list of the work to be done.
  • Fairly shortly afterward they came and installed a new bathroom fan. It was nice. I was feeling optimistic.
  • Another team of people came, measured, and made a list of the work to be done.
  • Two months later we went and picked out the fixtures for our new ensuite. It took longer than promised to get to that point, but the explanations for the delay all sounded reasonable and I didn’t over think it.
  • A little less than two months after that they finally started part one of our kitchen renovation. They finished it – mostly. It was nice. I was feeling optimistic again.
  • A couple of months later our ensuite renovation still hadn’t started. After a flurry of emails my husband got our contractor on the phone and he apologized profusely. He said that since it was November at that point, it would be best to wait until after Christmas to start the work. We had a start date of January 13, and I was again feeling okay.
  • A few details were finished on the kitchen portion of our renovation, although they still haven’t replaced our light as promised, built the walkway connecting our new door to our patio, or installed gutters.
  • In early January our contractor explained that his project manager was having a family emergency and our renovation would have to wait. I didn’t want to be a heel, so I accepted that.
  • Another team of people came, measured, and made a list of the work to be done.
  • Finally, we had a confirmed start date of February 17. On February 16 Jon and I cleared out our closed and moved our bed downstairs to the family room so that we would be out of the way. They did in fact show up the morning of February 17 and started the demolition of our old bathroom and closet.
  • By the morning of February 19 the demolition was done, and by noon the demo team left. They explained that the next step would be delayed until the following Monday (February 24) as the electrician was in Disneyland with his family.
  • I didn’t hear from any one on February 24. On February 25, when no one had showed up, I started making phone calls. I called the project manager and didn’t hear back. Then I called the company owner and didn’t hear back. Finally, I sent an email to the owner. He replied, and his message contained these sentences:
  • Unfortunately a new problem has arisen over the last few days. As part of our organizational restructure to reduce overhead costs and become more efficient, and better able to properly service our customers, Ecowest has recently voluntarily entered into a creditor protection process … Therefore our goal of a seamless project timeline has not come to fruition. Unfortunately at this time I can’t guarantee that we will be back on-site over the next couple of days…

  • I freaked out. My husband contacted my father-in-law, who is a lawyer who works extensively with construction companies and he gave us some good advice. One of the things our contractor had done was arrange 12 month interest free home improvement loans, and we started rounding up all the paperwork on our renovation and our loan.
  • On March 2 we moved our bed back up to our bedroom, realizing nothing was going to happen anytime soon. We still have no closet, though, and are living out of suitcases.
  • Living in a construction zone

    Living in a construction zone

  • On March 11 we got news that our contractor was no longer in creditor protection, but was now officially bankrupt. My husband appeared on the local news to talk about it. The paperwork confirmed that the contractor was $2 million in debt, and had only $160,000 in assets. We also discovered that we were far from alone. There’s even a Facebook group dedicated to the situation.
  • At the end of March we got confirmation that the bank would be forgiving all of the home improvement loans. This was a big relief, because it meant that we weren’t on the hook for work that hadn’t been done. My husband contacted a contractor recommended by a co-worker.
  • On April 14 my husband and I picked out bathroom fixtures yet again. The good news is that our new contractor hooked us up with some more affordable options. He’s scheduled to start work on Wednesday, and there are no sketchy home improvement loans involved.

Until the whole situation was resolved I didn’t want to share the whole sordid story here. I alternate between feeling angry at the first contractor and feeling angry with myself. It has helped immensely to know that my husband and I aren’t alone – there were dozens and dozens of families listed on the bankruptcy paperwork as having outstanding work. I researched the company online. I verified that they were active and busy around town. I did my homework as best I could.

At this point, I’m less angry at myself and more angry at the guy who was clearly facing financial difficulties and demolished my bathroom without any reasonable hope of finishing the project. It may be the case that he really thought he would be able to finish it. It wasn’t fair, though, to proceed without giving me a full explanation of the situation. I’ve now been living out of a suitcase, and been without an ensuite, for two months. If I’d had the full story, I wouldn’t have okayed the demolition. Is this a first world problem? Yes. Was I treated fairly? No.

I’m glad that there’s hope on the horizon. I am glad that this situation is being resolved as well as I could have hoped for. Next time I have to make the decision of whether I should renovate or relocate, however, I’m relocating. I no longer have the stomach for all of this stress.

Random Bits and Pieces

Every day I add write a blog post to my to-do list, and every day I don’t get around to it. Then every day I feel sad about it. Today, I have no brilliant ideas, and the writing muse has gone on hiatus. Being back at school, reading textbooks and academic articles, and writing papers for class, is using up most of my brain power. I’ll come clean and confess that when I’m not reading for school, I’m re-reading the 50 Shades of Grey trilogy. Right now, the poor writing quality and extremely easy-to-follow narrative is comforting. I’m looking for something that isn’t challenging, and it definitely isn’t.

Early this week we got a letter confirming that our contractor was no longer in creditor protection, but now officially bankrupt. Our names were on an attached document with more than 180 others, detailing a debt of over $2 million. The amount they quoted as being owed to us was low, however, so it’s definitely possible that the contractor was in the hole by more. It’s erupted into something of a story locally, and my husband was on the news talking about it on Tuesday. I was at class when the reporter stopped by. There was good news today, though – it looks like the bank that arranged all the home improvement loans is going to try to make good.

random bits and piecesThere are more bright spots, too – lots of them. The weather has been lovely this week. So lovely, in fact, that I planted spinach and radishes. I bought a mason bee kit a couple of months ago and the cocoons are currently in my fridge hibernating. I’m hoping to put those out soon, and I’m excited about that. I’m planning to finally paint the sunroom in my kitchen (the one part of my renovation that was mostly finished) this weekend. My kids are awesome. I bought a new organic wine today. I have new purple tights. Things aren’t so bad.

You would think that I would be at my wits’ end right now, but I’m actually not. Truthfully, I think I was more stressed out a couple of months ago. Right now there’s just so much going on that I honestly don’t have much time to worry. Also, I’ve started getting acupuncture to help me with my oh-so-delightful monthly mood swings, and I’m loving it. I’m not sure whether it’s the needles themselves, or the fact that while they’re in I get to lie in a lovely, warm, quiet, dark room that smells good and listen to music all by myself for 20 minutes, but going each week has been really positive. I’m a fan, and knowing that I have that to look forward to is helping to smooth out the rough edges. Plus my improved energy circulation, I am sure.

So yes, I’m here. I’m alive. Lots of things are happening, and I’m doing my best to take it as it comes.

What about you – what’s new in your world?

Some Weeks Are Like That

I love Judith Viorst’s children’s classic, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. The picture of the mother just looking down at the floor with no words left as Alexander destroys his father’s office slays me every single time. I think every parent can relate to the feeling of just being so done with the mayhem. And I think every person can relate to the idea that some days are like that … even in Australia.

My week is looking to be sort of like that.

Everything is coming to a head for me at school right now. I have a history paper due tomorrow, an education paper due on Monday, and a kinesiology midterm on Tuesday. It’s a whole lot of reading, writing and studying all at once. I’m having a hard time keeping up with anything else that I have to do, which is understandable. I’m trying to be understanding, and keep in mind that this will all be over very soon.

home improvementOn top of this, we’re in the middle of a home improvement fiasco. Last May we hired a company to do some renovations for us. There were a series of delays, but in late summer they came and did the first part of the work for us. Then there were another series of delays, but a week ago Monday they came and started the second part of the job. This part involved ripping out our master ensuite and closet. To prepare, my husband Jon and I moved our clothes into suitcases and our bed downstairs to our family room floor.

For two and a half days, they worked, and then they explained that their electrician had taken a sudden trip to Disneyland and we’d need to wait until Monday for him to show up. I wasn’t thrilled, but I didn’t overthink it. I agreed that we would connect again on tge following Monday. Come Monday morning when I hadn’t heard anything by about 11:30 I made a phone call. Later in the day my husband made a phone call. We didn’t hear back. Yesterday – Tuesday – I made some more phone calls. Finally I got an email, and it didn’t contain good news.

Our contractor announced that his business was entering ‘creditor protection’. As a result, he didn’t know when he’d be able to come and resume work on our house. Of course, this announcement only came after our closet, toilet, shower, sink and walls were removed.

So. Not. Good.

Now, on top of my school work, and everything else that comes with my daily life of working and parenting and what-have-you, my husband and I are dealing with this. We’re figuring it out, and we will be okay. We have excellent advice, in the form of experienced friends and family. All the same, it looks like we’ll be sleeping in our family room for the foreseeable future. It’s so fun being woken up at 3:00am by the cat using the litter box a few feet away.

I guess some weeks are like that. Even in Australia.

Home Improvement and Blogging Conferences

I spent the weekend shopping for bathroom fixtures for my upcoming ensuite renovation. It was by turns exciting and aggravating, poring over cabinet options, granite remnants and shower head options. Sometimes it felt like the whole experience was bringing more questions than answers. I don’t know the first thing about choosing tile. Who thought that it was a good idea to let me loose in a tile store?

home renovation blogher blogging
My kids built a tower while I chose cabinetry

At one point I found myself walking down the street in my neighbourhood with my family, headed to a store that is only a few blocks from home to choose my new shower surround. It was a sunny day, and as my son insisted on pausing under a shady tree to take a rest (something he does every three minutes, whether he’s actually tired or not), I smelled a smell that brought me back in time. It was a spicy sort of smell, that speaks of hot dry days going on hikes with my parents. It smells like flowers and trees and alpine meadows and, most of all, summertime. It’s one of those elusive scents that you strain to pick out, and that hides from you until, suddenly, it hits you full force and you just want to bathe in it, it’s so perfect. But then, just as quickly, it disappears.

As we resumed walking, I looked around at my view. I saw a car repair shop, a vacant lot, a local sushi restaurant, houses and trees and cars and the mountain looming up to the north. Above the suburban ordinariness, there was the most perfectly blue sky. As I looked, it occurred to me that instead of standing in that spot, looking at my neighbourhood around me, I could have been in Chicago for BlogHer 2013.

I attended the annual blogging conference in 2011 and 2012, and I enjoyed it immensely. When you work online, as I do, you make a lot of friends who live far, far away. It’s easy to forget that these are real people, with real families, living real lives. They have funny little idiosyncratic turns of phrase. They are taller than you think, and their real-life voices sound totally different from the voice you read their blogs in. They may be funnier than you expected, or more reserved. Behind it all, though, the truth is that no matter who they are, they are part of your community. Getting to actually meet them in real life is an amazing opportunity.

I am proud to be a member of the blogging community. I am proud to have created an online space, and kept at it for over 10 years. I am proud of the other bloggers who pour out their hearts and souls online. The people who inspire me, educate me, make me laugh, and bring me to tears. Having the opportunity to get together with so many of them in one place was completely fabulous, and it’s something I hope to do again.

This year, I couldn’t make it happen. Between my family trip to Disneyland in March and the home renovations that are just getting underway my budget wouldn’t allow it. Instead of dancing at Sparklecorn, listening to amazing panel discussions, or enjoying three kid-free nights in a hotel, I found myself walking down a suburban sidewalk in search of tile. For this weekend, it’s where I belonged. It doesn’t mean that I don’t still belong to the blogging community, though. They are my people, whether I get to celebrate with them or just read their tweets and Facebook updates and be present with them in spirit.

Thinking about my friends getting together and having fun, I started to smile as I walked. For another fleeting instant, I caught a whiff of that beautiful and elusive scent of summer. In that moment, I knew that we were all just where we needed to be.

Don’t Encourage Me!

One of the reasons that engineering was not the best fit for me, career-wise, is that I don’t handle adversity well. When I have a big task in front of me, or when things aren’t working the way that I think they should, it pushes all of my buttons. I become irritable and obsessive and just not that much fun to be around. When I was a programmer, dealing with big tasks and broken things was more or less my job description, which wasn’t always great for me or the people around me. Leaving that career behind didn’t remove adversity from my life, however. I still get triggered and become irrational – it just happens a little less often.

Now that we’re embarking on a home renovation journey again, I’m running into many adversity-filled situations. Situations like having to remove all the old drawers and shelves from my pantry cupboard, in order to make way for the new unit. Our old cupboard was one of the things we didn’t tackle when we moved in, and it’s been a constant aggravation. Some of the pull-out drawers refused to pull out. Others pulled out too well, spilling spices all over the lower drawers and floor. The door was constantly falling off its hinges, damaging the wall around it and just generally looking bad.

home improvement pantry cupboard

Mid-project, puttying and sanding the holes

Before I continue, let me own my privilege. Having a less-than-ideal pantry cupboard is very much a first world problem. I realize that there are countless people living far more serious circumstances than drawers that don’t work that well. Having too much food to fit into a suboptimal cupboard is actually not a problem at all, but a sign of affluence. I know that.

Knowing that I really am very lucky didn’t help me earlier this week when I found myself crawling on the floor, struggling to take apart one of the drawers that wouldn’t open. It was hot, the angle was difficult, I was inhaling dust and things weren’t going well. All of my adversity-related buttons were being pushed, and I was becoming irritable and angry. I was half-crying, but that only made it harder to see what I was doing. I knew that I would be glad once I had my new cupboard, but lying on that floor I was just not happy.

home improvement pantry cupboard

The finished product

My poor eight-year-old daughter came along at this moment, and made note of the progress I had made on the cupboard. An upbeat soul at heart, she tried to offer me something by saying, “You’re doing a really good job, Mom!” Hot, sweaty, with blurring vision and covered in dust, I was not in a place where I wanted to be cheered up. I was unhappy, I hated what I was doing, and the suggestion that things were going well just felt patronizing. This is why my less-than-graceful response was to growl, “Don’t encourage me! I don’t want to be encouraged!”

I am happy to report that the drawers and shelves were all removed. The holes in the pantry wall were puttied and sanded, and I gave the cupboard a thoroughly mediocre coat of paint. As of this morning, the new shelves and drawers (these ones actually open!) are installed, and the pretty new door is hung securely on its hinges. It is lovely, and I am very pleased with the result. However, I can also see that this home renovation journey is going to be a long process. I’m going to need to learn how to be a little more gracious the next time that one of my kids tries to tell me I’m good at painting.

Do you have any tips for getting through home improvement with your sanity intact? I could really use them!

We Didn’t go to London

When we bought this house 10 years ago, we had no idea what we were getting into. As young professionals with two incomes and no kids, we had saved a fairly sizeable nest egg. We planned to buy our house, do some renovations, pay off the moving expenses, and then take a trip to London, England a few months later.

Ha. Ha ha. Ha ha ha ha ha.

home improvement renovations moneyIt turns out that renovations don’t work like I had anticipated. For all the schtick about getting a written estimate in advance and planning your expenses and so on, the truth is that renovations just get bigger and bigger as they go. Contractors find unpleasant surprises when they remove your old bathtub. Materials don’t arrive on time. The retailer decides to increase the price on that bathroom tile you looked at two months ago. On and on it goes, until you’ve spent twice what you had budgeted and it’s three months after your anticipated completion date and the end still isn’t in sight.

We didn’t go to London.

It’s now almost 10 years to the day since we took possession of this house and started our renovation journey, and this morning I called up a local contractor and gave him the go-ahead on more work on our house. After we almost bought a house in our neighbourhood last month, we’ve been keeping our eyes on the local market and visiting some open houses. We haven’t seen anything else in our price range that really tickles our fancy. So, instead of moving, we’ve decided to invest in the house we already own. We know we like the neighbourhood, all of our stuff is already here, and we can side-step the expense of taxes and realtor fees and all that jazz if we just stay put and do some work to make our current home more liveable.

As I stare down the home improvement barrel once again, I’m reminded of the first time. I’m working more right now, my husband is in line for a promotion, and soon my son will be going to public school (which is free) rather than daycare (which is not). I’ve been contemplating a trip with my kids. Not to Disneyland, this time, but to someplace more ambitious. Today, however, I authorized a whopping deposit on my credit card. That trip won’t happen. My daughter probably won’t be going to day camp all July, as I’d been contemplating. All of those little expenses are going to be eaten once again by the renovation monster.

This house I live in has seen a lot of my life. I’ve spent more time here than in almost any other house I’ve lived in. In a year or so it will surpass the place I think of as my childhood home. This is the place I painted and landscaped and installed baseboards. This is the place where I found out I was expecting two babies. These are the floors where my children took their first steps. These are the rooms that have provided a landscape for my life for a decade now, and these are the rooms that my family will fill for the foreseeable future as well. It is my home in every sense of the word. This is the place I was sitting when I got the news I was being laid off. This is the place where I write.

Instead of traveling, I invested in my home. Instead of buying clothes or fancy new cars or going back to school I invested in my home. Its walls are my London, and its bathroom tile is all of the other things I could have bought but didn’t. And, truthfully, I don’t regret that. When my daughter tells me that she loves her home, and I remember all the times we’ve shared here, I know it’s been worth it. Creating a place for my family to be is maybe the most important thing of all.

My problems are first-world problems. Which is to say, they’re good problems to have. Trying to decide whether I’m going to spend my money on a new ensuite and an updated sunroom, or a family trip to Hawaii, means I’m really very privileged. So I can only feel thankful, as once again I wade into the waters of home improvement, and hope that this time I can swim through them smoothly.

One Green Thing: Home Improvement

One Green Thing Strocel.comIt’s the first Thursday of the month, so today I’m tackling my One Green Thing for May. This month it’s all about home improvement. But first, I’ll talk about my cycling adventures last month.

While I really, really, really loved the Ivanna Urbanista from Opus Bikes, the truth is that my cycling experiences were a mixed bag. I found that I didn’t use the bike as much as I had hoped, which is particularly galling because I only had it for two weeks. I knew my time was limited, and even still I was only able to get out on two wheels a few times. The first time was for a coffee date and some errands, and I totally overdid it. It drove home that cycling isn’t exactly super-easy, especially if you have anything to haul with you. I also went cycling with my eight-year-old Hannah, and while that was fun, it was also fairly stressful even on our not-so-busy suburban streets. I honestly can’t see cycling with my kids for anything other than recreational purposes. I am still seriously considering a bicycle, but I doubt I’ll become a serious cyclist anytime soon.

home improvement

Me, 10 years ago, cutting baseboards

This month I’m heading in an entirely different direction, by setting my sights on some home improvement. After our misadventures in real estate in April, in which we put forward an offer on a house in our neighbourhood that wasn’t accepted, Jon and I have decided that we really need to focus on fixing all the things that need to be fixed in our current house. Maybe in the process we’ll create a home that meets our every need. Or maybe we’ll just be ready to sell if another house comes up. Either way, 10 years after buying this place it’s time to do some more renovating.

My goal for May is to learn about green home renovations. We’ve had one quote on some work from a company that advertises itself as doing sustainable home improvement. We’ve got another company coming by this weekend to size up what needs to be done. I want to do some background reading of my own, so that by the time we’re actually signing on the dotted line on any work, I know a little bit more about how I can minimize the environmental footprint, and maybe even make my home a little greener in the process. I think I’ll start by re-listening to my podcast with green building expert Anna Hackman.

This feels like something of a full-circle moment for me. Strocel.com started 10 years ago this month, as a blog about home buying and home improvement. Now I’m re-entering that world, but with an eye towards sustainability. If you have any tips to share around green home improvement, I’d love to hear them. Also, if you’d like to get in on the act and take on One Green Thing of your own, I’d love to hear about it. Feel free to grab the button from this post if you’re blogging about it, and spread the enviro-love.

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