How to Have a House

Living with and understanding a home.


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Your house could be someone’s first job. Be a good boss!

I had two first jobs.  The first customer who hired me had a small two bedroom, cinder block construction house with steel window frames and sashes with single pain glass.  It was a building more than a house. It was built just after the second world war along with a dozen others on a piece of land that opened up in the middle of a suburban neighborhood – in nineteen forty something.  In September of  two thousand it was owned by my customer and between occupants. She hired me to shoot some trim in the kitchen, clean up and improve a floor drain where the washer went and a couple other things.  I had to buy a portable compressor on the way to the house because it was my first day self employed.  The woman changed my life by hiring me. She knew this, but really just wanted to get the house ready for the next family. We also knew each other as neighbors and she was supportive.   People are nice this way.  She was painting one of the days I was working at the house.  She cut in a room with a four inch brush like a draftsman – woman. The whole time she told me a couple stories and laughed the day away.    I finished the job and collected a check. She hired me for several years following that first job, she was a great first customer.
 
The other first customer lived across the side street from our house. She was single, raising two teenage kids and thought tearing the house to smithereens would help.  I was glad to be of service. I went to work there the day after the cinder block house.   This was the first job that was big enough to get me over the financial thirty day hump. That sink or swim trick you play in your head to go for it.   A room addition had been added to the back of a nineteen twenty-seven two story.  The addition was done in the seventies and never finished on the inside.  We chatted a little, ball parked some numbers and shook hands.  The job was great. The addition had to be drawn to scale for a permit that was needed, then another permit was pulled for some changes my customer wanted.  Paperwork, footwork downtown, then get to work. We replaced some floor to ceiling window sashes with insulated glass panels and vinyl sashes. A closet was added and a bathroom was finished that had been rough plumbed thirty years before I ever saw the place. We framed and lighted the original exterior wooden doorway. It had a great transom window at the top.  It was one of those doors that people loved.  The inside of the room was all studs so we did everything. Pulled electricity, insulated, foamed, sheet rocked, and flooring. The trim was the best. We matched the trim in the antique house, eleven cut pieces to case a door, one side.  Antique houses keep things interesting.  The woman fed me fresh coffee and fruit or deserts almost every afternoon when she got home from work.  This is another way people are nice.  About half way through the job during what I remember being one of the dirtiest days of my life I stood and turned around to see my father walking through my customer’s patio toward me.  He’d snuck from Oklahoma all the way to my house without me knowing he was coming. We were the best of friends.  I showed him the job sight, we talked for a few minutes and he headed back to my house.  It was late afternoon so I only had a couple hours to go then I’d be done working and hang out with my dad.  My customer sent me home right then.  Self employment was starting to feel like a good thing.  Finally we built a pretty stair case off the side of the addition where we added some french doors.  All along, for weeks, this is how we did it. We’d drink coffee and decide what we’d do next, change some things and agree to keep going.  She paid me a check every Friday.  By the time I finished her job I had sold more work and was thrilled to be moving along.
 
I’ve had a lot of first jobs since September of two-thousand.  First tuck point job. First lost job. First spray gun job. First snowed out job. Being someone’s first job takes a great customer. A great customer expects professionalism and decides when and how long the coffee and snacks go on.  A great first customer asks  for and expects a service person to be accountable for the billed hours and expenses. Don’t torture the guy, just ask some fair questions and review receipts.  Trusting someone doesn’t mean allowing them to run amuck.  In the future more new customers will be hiring me.  Between the variety of houses and the curiosities of customers the jobs always seem to stay fresh.  More first jobs. 
 
 
 
 
 
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Paint the chairs, wax the car. What’s the difference?

Whether you do the job yourself or hire it out, someone is going to get their hands dirty.  Half of getting used to working on a house includes learning to live with some dust and grime.  I recently re-painted some steel patio furniture.  The simple kind, spring chairs with mesh backs and seats. Some little cast flowers and leaves welded in the arms too.  Seven pieces of furniture and a few small cast iron decorations.  There’s a dozen ways to get almost any job done, prepping and painting patio furniture is no exception.  This week would be hand prep and application. Hand application work makes a difference.  It’s like the first time you hand wax your car and you see a bunch of scuffs you’d not seen before.  Hand application.  Until you literally rub out the whole thing by hand you just don’t see the details.

The furniture looked like it was in good shape. Just a  color change really.  Then I started cleaning the undersides with a wire wheel on a four inch electric grinder.  That did a great job. When the wire wheel didn’t quite get it I switched to a sanding wheel on the same machine to really clean things up. Blow everything off, tack cloth it down and good to go. This part of the work got my gloved hands so dirty I had to clean up just to paint.

Oil base rusty metal primer. Most of the rust was gone by this point, but the good primer is reassuring.  This stuff likes to dry overnight. More messy tool clean up. Latex gloves help, but they’re a mess too.  Next day for the color coat. Oil base, satin black to top things off.  I used a four inch wienie roller.  Instead of the usual three eighths nap I used “velour”.  Who couldn’t use a little more velour in their life? I know I could.  It’s a little shorter than a quarter inch nap, which made for a great finish. Plus, twice in two days I was lucky enough to work with “velour”.  I felt plush.  The oil base, black satin paint covered amazingly. I had to use a brush to work some paint into some tight spots.  This stuff looked great.  I like rolling paint onto steel furniture.  The paint gets worked into joints and inside corners.  The nap of the roller works the paint into imperfect surfaces too.  I feel confident when applying paint by hand.   

Latex gloves kept ninety five percent of the paint off my hands.  I use low VOC solvents to clean my brushes.  It actually makes them softer and easier to use.  I left the furniture in the sun for three days.  When I moved it to the upper deck of the customer’s house it felt like it would like to dry another day or two before setting the pads on.  

The job was a mess.  Rusty dust in the air. Hot weather. Wearing a respirator keeps the lungs real happy, but it’s hot too.  The clothes you paint in better be for painting.  Then at a friends a few nights later they asked about the black spots all over one of my shins. “Oil base black satin quality top coat” I blurted.  The furniture was impossible.  It had to be painted upside down first, then turned over and painted from every standing, half kneeling and sitting position imaginable just to see everything.  A little googly, really, by the time the painting is done.

This coming winter, looking out on that deck, all the dirt, sweat and grime will be gone. That machine sanded, hand primed and painted, black steel furniture will stand straight and stark in the snow.  A simple reminder that a few days of dirty work make for seasons of satisfaction. 

 

 

 

 

 


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Water.

   I’m crazy about water.  Not water parks or whitewater or water for the fun of it. Water.  The big one. The thing other than air that we have to have.  I’m not an activist or protester, I just get the mathematics. The fact is water is going to keep disappearing, become harder to drill for and more expensive in the future.  
      One of the great things about natural resources is that there are hundreds and thousands of people working on protecting, conserving and understanding natural resources-like water.  For many Americans before they even realize there’s a problem, some inventor, some person full of passion and love for the land has already been working on a solution, sometimes for a number or years. 
     I like to encourage homeowners to conserve water. Get ahead of the curve.  Do it quietly but with conviction.  Following generations will admire these choices.  Dual flush toilets save tons of water. High performance dishwashers and front loading wash machines are water savers too. Low flow faucets and showers heads save water.  So does micro irrigation.  I’ve installed a couple of these systems on patios and decks. They work great. A pair of scissors is about all that is needed to plug and play a system into a landscape.  The largest hose diameter is one half inch and reduces to one quarter inch.  Most of the sprinkler heads, drip heads and soaker attachments are smaller than a man’s thumb.  The system is easily concealed and managed.  The spikes holding sprinkler heads are small and manageable, the quarter inch hose can be pulled through flower pots for easy use and the whole thing can be set up on a battery operated timer for amazing low water use applied exactly to the gardens.  Plus the stuff is so small it’s barely noticed, even when operating.  In my vegetable garden I use micro sprinklers, hourly drip heads and ribbon style drip irrigation for long rows.  Around the patio it’s all micro sprinklers.  If you can assemble a fourth grade Lego kit micro irrigation will be a snap.  Once installed it’s easily added on to. It should be blown out and drained before the first hard freeze, but outside of that it’s pretty easy to own.
     Water is being used differently now in many homes.  Families are plumbing their homes to capture and re-use grey water.  Rain barrels are all over the place and cisterns are now made of high tech plastic systems buried in the yard and collect run off from the house roof and even from the lawn.  These high impact, super strong systems have man holes for pumps and service, they hold tens of thousands of gallons of water. It’s encouraging.  It’s almost a necessity in some regions.  We are learning to landscape our cities and lawns to capture more water. “Rain Gardens” are making lawn care easier for homeowners and commercial property managers alike.  Municipalities are learning that water is a lot more valuable when we allow it to soak in and sink down into the ground.  Flash flooding is reduced, down stream flooding is alleviated and the water table is re-charged.  Look around your area. You could be surprised at how much work is going into water preservation.  
      Cheers, enjoy and protect what is the second most important natural resource you may ever have. 
     


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Fights I’ll Never Forget.

  I met Jim about eleven years ago.  He walked up asking me to come look at his house when I was working on one a block from his.  He needed a few little things done.  After work I went by. The house was gorgeous. Two stories, only a few years old and built federal style. Tabletop roof, lots of big crown, inside and out and all paneled doors and cabinetry.  Jim’s jobs were pretty simple. The house was real new. I did  a lot of painting, replaced all the screens in the storm windows and pretty much kept up with the little stuff.
     Jim had the coolest early American art collection I’d seen in a house.  There was no furniture younger than about a hundred and thirty years.  He had some very early cartoon style prints of congressmen and senators, these were my favorites. Jim was a lobbyist in the seventies and eighties for the copper mining industry.  My favorite part of working for Jim was painting while he sat around chatting.  I learned he had lobbied Jimmy Carter during his work as governor.  Jim hated Jimmy Carter and used old school language for a man I had learned to admire.  When I told Jim one of my sons had written a paper on Jimmy Carter he had more foul language.  He was ticked.  Seems Jimmy Carter wouldn’t let another state pour copper mining debris in the rivers upstream of the state line Mr. Carter governed.  Jim chatted politics like most people mention baseball. His preferences were clear and loyal.
      One year I had Jim hire a hardscaper I run with. The front terrace engineered wall was crumbling from the enormous amount of ice melt being applied by the ground keepers in the winter. The repair was to a course of wall beside the handrails I was always painting.  These had to come down which required cutting and welding, that was my part.  The guys on this crew were about ten years younger than me.  They couldn’t get enough of Jim. He tried to intimidate them with his perfection and demands.  No problem, these guys were on it.  He tossed out the expense bomb.  These guys knew their value, had a contract and stood their ground. All the while these arguments went on Jim stood on the front steps telling stories, asking them how they voted and generally kicking their asses.  The guy who owns that company talks about Jim to this day.
       Jim took great care of the house.  Any small cabinet hinge, any slight stain in the paint, the front door and hand rails were painted almost every year.  Jim’s roof was a joke, it leaked. Then after I helped get the roof ironed out the chimney started joking around.  The house seemed to be designed to stain ceilings at least two levels below no matter where the water came in the top.  Jim tirelessly repaired it all.  I probably painted Jim’s closet ceiling three times.  He quoted the cost of the previous repair, comparing it to the one I was busy doing.  He wasn’t worried about the cost, his financial resources were not a problem, he just liked seeing me sweat.  The house Jim had before the one I worked on was in Washington DC.  It was a historical house that needed some work. Jim said he had almost a million dollars wrapped up in the place, noting the neighborhood and names involved my guess is this estimate was not an exaggeration, just a simple fact for Jim.
       This was the awesome part of working for Jim.  Jim didn’t mind the cost if it was accounted for.   Jim didn’t care if I voted the same way as him, and he’d ask.  What Jim wanted was a fight, some haggling and a good laugh along the way.  He was way past his lobbyist years when he met me, but he treated me like an issue. He’d moan about privacy, dust and security of his belongings. I’d rebut.  He’d act like a can of paint would drive him into the poor house, I’d explain.  He called me a liberal and a pinko and a fool for my vote. I’d suggest it took one to know one.  He’d really laugh at this.  The guy could have fired me a dozen times the way I argued with him over things having nothing to do with actual work. Of course he didn’t, he was happy to be fighting again.
     Jim quit answering his phone a couple years ago.  One of his neighbors said he had moved to a memory assistance facility.  I know what that means.  The neighbor didn’t have his new location or I’d go start and argument with him.  That’s one thing I’m sure Jim’s not forgotten .


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Two Customers are Moving Away. Whose losing who?

 Two of my customers are moving away. They’re great accounts and are fun to work for.
     One’s a four thousand square foot place in Midtown about a hundred years old.  The only basement remodel ever done was in 1937, it’s in perfect shape and well preserved.  The first floor is grand and about nine and a half feet tall.  A lot of the original equipment is still in this house, including all the steel frame and sash exterior windows.  The customer knows these things are cold in the winter and hot in the summer.  She loves them so much she won’t have them cut out and replaced.  Even though I’m a energy conservation nut, I’m kind of glad.  I’ve worked on this house from the basement to within about eight feet of the roof ridge.  All over the house inside and out.  I love this place.
The other is a twenty two hundred square foot ranch, with a nice size lot.  It’s about 60 years old is Pennsylvanian in style and has a great covered deck on the back.  Same thing, top to bottom.  I’ve been all over this house too.  The foundation had to be repaired several years ago.  When the foundation project was being done things went awry.  Over several months I spent several days of service assisting the customer’s negotiations to finish the mess that occurred.  It’s one of those days I was glad I brought my box of brains.  I love his house too.
         Both of these customers are like most of my customers. Amazing.  They are selling, packing and sorting furniture and house wares. The grown kids are getting the things they like.  And, they are both making repairs.  This is the amazing part to me.  This is what house people do.  These people are getting ready to sell and move in the next one or two years, and they both have a certain something in their heads about the condition of the house before it’s sold.  No crazy stuff, they’re not worried about kitchens or baths.  But a lot of paint and touch up.  I’ve done tuck point repairs, all kinds of metal window painting, tightened door knobs and cabinet hardware, refinished attic stairs, cleaned six foot deep window wells and lots more paint.  A mechanical inspection listed a couple things so an electrician will make some improvements.  These customers are determined to sell their houses in just right condition.
         I’m going to miss these two.  They’re both characters and have let me do a lot of good work on their homes.  I’ve worked there long enough to lock the place up when they’ve already left for the evening.  We joke about me following them to their next town and getting the next house in shape for a few weeks.  This is crazy of course because one is going to Denver and the other to Virginia.
        I’ll check my calendar.
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The Little Jobs Can Be The Hardest.

Homeowners call contractors all the time to find out the job they want done isn’t going to get done.  Take a small specialized job out in the yard or gardens.  Maybe it’s a job stuffed into the side area of a garage and fence.  It’s a mess, there’s a property line, some water problems and no room to turn around.  You could get two grown adults with shovels, drills, a few tools and some buckets but they’d be stuck trying to get by each other.  Forget where a wheelbarrow is going. The contractor says the job is too small, or maybe writes a bid high hoping to not get the job.  It’s hard. Homeowners feel a little ignored in these cases. 
      For some handy workers and one person business’s it’s perfect.  Some individual service workers have just enough mule in them to dig, move, shovel, scrape, bucket and haul twenty or so gallons of materials out of a tight spot and to a truck. Then crawl back into the space with some materials, a couple too many tools they don’t need and run back and forth for the rest.  Some of these workers have just enough tools and skills to handle these jobs.  There probably won’t be a bid written and the worker is most likely time and materials.  This is hard for some homeowners to grasp, it requires trust.
       Pound for pound the job may seem a little expensive.  But hauling in a load of tools, driving around for a tiny bit of carefully selected materials and staying focused on a small task take guts.  It takes the ability to do enough of these a week to make a living.  It takes courage to charge a price that keeps one in business. It requires humility and self confidence knowing these are the jobs a lot of others ignore.  When these small jobs are taken seriously and performed with pride just like the big ones, homeowners feel good. Like someone cared enough to get that little thing done that’s been driving them nuts. They  see the value.  They hire the worker for another job, maybe a bigger one.  
     And so it goes.  scratching out negotiations, sometimes with no more than a conversation and handshake.  A relationship and fit between homeowner and worker that takes trial and risk to see if it’s going to work.  And when it does, it gets to the point service workers feel as cared for as the ones they serve.   It’s a lucky day on those days. 
 
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Time Will Tell On Quality Materials.

When I tell my customers I’ve got a degree in fine arts they are never surprised.  I like to think it’s because of my fantastic use of colors and composition.  It’s good to imagine I’m a free spirit living on the goodwill and commission of my fans.  Mostly I think it’s because I drive a pretty old truck, I’m a little tight with my money, I have earrings and dress like a grubby hippy when I’m working.  
     Sometimes I come across a job at a house that blurs the line between art and house maintenance.  There’s always some machine work.  Attention is required or the chances of sanding, sawing or shooting a finger off increase.  Then there’s the choice of material application.  Lumber, wall board, panelling, trim, stain paint urethane ….you know the finish work.  Preparation is important but the application of color and finish become encompassing.  I’m a hand application kind of guy.  I like to brush and or roll, primer, paint, stain and finish.  I’ve got a spray gun, but by the time I sand out a project I’m pretty committed to the hand work approach. 
     About eight and a half years ago I refinished a front entry door on a house.  This house was built in about 1930 something and has an arched front door.  The original lockset and appliqué hinges were there.  I polished the lockset and hinges and started to sand out the front door.  It was forgiving.  Good finish had been used over the years and it sanded out nicely with no gumming up.  I used my favorite stain, Old Masters.  I’m not an old master myself but I was hoping for good results and a happy customer.  First dip in the can and the stain reminds me of the oil paints I used in college art class.  The color is beautiful and flows almost on it’s own.  It merged with 80 year old wood flawlessly and had the substance to blend with some old blemishes.  It hung nicely and stayed soft enough to rub out with a cloth the next morning. Then two coats of oil base urethane with a light sand between coats.  Reinstalled the lock sets and decorative hinges.  I collected from my customer after gaining her approval and went on my way.
     I’ve driven past that door a hundred times since then.  I’ve looked at the door and laughed at how many times it must have been refinished in the last eight years to keep it looking so nice.  I’ve hoped the woman living there who has become a widow since I refinished the door is well.  I’ve remembered the joy of the craft that day with such wonderful materials. 
      Last month she hired me again.  A ceiling repair in the upstairs hall where a whole house fan used to be.  When I visited her to set the appointment I was pleasantly surprised to find the front door just as beautiful to the touch as it was from the road.  And, it had never been touched.  For eight years the door stood. No re-coating, no wax or polish.  Guests had come and gone, a loved one buried and the years continued on.  The door stood in quiet beauty shedding cold and heat and the outdoors. 
       It took hard work to get those materials on that door eight years ago.  Faster, less expensive materials could have been substituted.  But not that much cheaper, and fast does not always mean careful.  I worked there for three days last month.  I passed that door fifty times doing the ceiling repair up stairs.  I left the house wondering how many years that door will go on again with out me. Image