How to Have a House

Living with and understanding a home.


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Long Drives.

How far do you drive for work? I drive about 1-7 miles one way most of the time. I drive to the urban core of a large city near my house, to the suburbs around me, maybe to the outskirts of the city. I don’t like driving my truck a long way to work, and I’m surprised when I do. I laugh at myself, knowing other guys, who drive the length of our metroplex back and forth 5 or 6 times a day in some cases. I feel spoiled when I realize how easy my commutes are.
Several years ago a customer hired me to work on their house at a lake about 45 minutes away. I know garage door installers who drive 45 minutes a hundred times a month, but for me it was like a planned trip. After I talked to the customer a little bit we agreed I’d come out and work on the house un-seen in person. I was pretty sure I’d be able to do the work she showed me pictures of. It was a dare job on a drawer modification and wood finish. After I set the date on the calendar the customer said, hey, why don’t you just spend the night and hang out on the dock.
I was as stumped as you. I don’t know where this stuff comes from. Who offers a room to a worker, plus a beer and a chair on the dock? Well these people did, and because I love a dare, I packed clothes and drove further than I ever thought I’d go in a 27 year old truck, worked all day, and sure enough spent the night in a brand new customer’s house. It was a lake house, and the guest room was basically in the lower level, it had it’s own entrance, kitchen and bathroom. So I was not even in their space. And we did hang on the dock and drink a couple beers. The next day they fed me breakfast, and I finished the work on the house just like a normal day, and headed home. My little monkey brain kept counting those 90 minutes of driving I saved by staying at the lake house, but mostly I just laughed at the fun of it all.
This summer a couple in a town about 32 minutes away hired me to work on their house. Again, about four time longer than I’d drive to go to work around here. The house is nice, pretty new and out on a big lot with a private gravel road. This group of houses really choose to manage their own space. I go out to do a mile of trim. The customer who lives at the house meets me at the end of the driveway with a trailer and his SUV to help me haul my shop around the house. It was wet and he buried his car and the trailer in the yard the first drive in. He was real calm, and we hauled the gear from the sunken car to the house in a soft rain. The customer was cool as a cucumber, and obviously just saved me about 700 pounds of hauling on my own. Again, this gesture of kindness and service. After we got all the gear in the house and I was setting up my shop I asked the customer, “what’s with hiring a guy to do fairly simple trim from 32 minutes away?”. He said he had a hard time getting good help in his own area, and was glad to have me out. When I finished the job that week he helped me haul the gear back out to my truck. This time across the seemingly 20 mile front yard in some serious summer heat. We were glad to have the gear out of the house after 20 minutes of this. The woman who lived in this house was the same way. She brought a cup of coffee to me every morning and never complained when I spent a minute playing with the dogs in the front yard a couple times. Regular work. Exceptional customers.
In the last several years I’ve seen plenty of friends loose jobs. I’ve never hoped for them to get another job. Instead, I’ve always encouraged them to seek self-employment. It’s a longer drive than you wish sometimes. It is full of nights and days of un-sureness and trial. But to me, it’s the most rewarding job of all. The work is great enough. If you have half a heart, you’re always hoping and trying to do your best at the craft chosen. But real reward comes in levels of freedom, and the truly human experiences. The customers. People, who out of thin air, extend an unexpected hand of compliment and support.
Guys with job like mine go home happy at night. We spend months behind on paperwork and bookkeeping. We lay under trucks in lousy weather fixing things. We laugh with our families about the funny dogs and cats we wrestle, and we acknowledge our days of service, and the customers we have. And when something as simple as driving further than we are used to adds to the experience, we feel even more texture and depth than ever before.
I have to admit. Those 32 minute drives home were kind of nice. My truck is so noisy I wear a head set and listen to the radio. I know it’s agains the law and all that, but who cares. I just drove 32 minutes to play with dogs all day while a put a little trim up.

 

 

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Life is a mosh pit.

It happened again.  It happens all the time.  So often, I got used to it years ago.  My friends and professional buddies are always amazed that this kind of thing goes on at my job sights.  Some people call it unprofessional and risky.  They say they would never take the risk and steer clear from these moments all together.  These things strike fear and anxiety in a lot of peoples hearts.
My customer asked me who I’m voting for this year.
That’s not  a question that comes and goes quickly. Especially in this year’s America.  Sitting on a flight of stairs, painting a handrail I had put up the day before, my customer was at the table feeding one of her kids.  The conversation broke out on her accord.  I almost always wear head phones and listen to the news while I work.  All the news.  The liberal news, the conservative news, news from every direction I can find.  This customer was sort of asking questions and just chatting.  To be polite I put the news away and answered.
I don’t know how she swung the chat around to the Presidential campaign, but she did.  We talked about the issues, candidates and the state of our nation.  Like my private friends, half my customers are surprised to find out how liberal I am, while the other half is surprised to figure out I’m quite conservative.  It’s why I love the system so much, I can see both sides, all sides really, because there are a bunch.  I’m not interested in being labeled.  So don’t do it.  I am interested in being considered.  I’m interested in many things being taken into consideration, which is why I don’t pick sides.  Issues propelling America into the future are more than us versus them.  I’d rather mosh in a pit and get action from every direction, than to line dance and stay in step.  It keeps things exciting.   After several minutes of talking I had rounded the corner and headed up the stair hall, my customer moved her chair to keep talking.  Again,  these things happen pretty often.  By the time we both shared our ideas and told our truths, it became clear, she was definitely way more conservative than me, but we both agreed our nation needs help.  We agreed it’s our job as voters, no matter how different our friends, habits and lives may be, to speak up and lead our nation in our homes, neighborhoods and communities.  Some of you reading this would never imagine a conversation like this with your handyman. That may be because your handyman doesn’t have the capacity to have a civil discord.  It may be because you don’t.  I can assure you, if I reacted in these conversations to things I hear the way I see other Americans react, this woman would have turned around and fed her kid again.  But that’s not my style.  My joy is finding the place where two opposites blend into a united cause.  A place where a conservative and liberal can agree to bring our intellectual tools to the “let’s be in charge of our nation” job.  As if this kind of thing isn’t amazing enough, the next question came,  “where do you go to church?”.
Some of you think I’m making this up now.  I’m not.  It happens all the time.
At this point a lot of people in this situation would unite and relax.  But I don’t go to church.  So this created a friction for my customer.  When someone who is involved in their church finds out you don’t go to church, curiosity gets the best of them.  They keep asking the questions.  I answer.   I went to church for years, decades really.  I just don’t find myself in that place in the last several years.  The conversation continued.  We talked about our faith, where god is and how we love others.  Funny enough, as a secular kind of guy, I usually come out with the broadest brush in this area.  As the woman continued to chat it up, I had to tell the truth.  I live quite fully without fear.  While I fear acts of terror, I care for the terrorist, and know where they have come from.  While I do not fully understand the complexities of human sexuality, I support and care for the right to happiness for the LGBT community.  While I fear the gun on the woman’s hip at our local restaurant, I feel compassion for a woman who is so scared she can’t leave the house without it.  This is the dance I love.  The mosh pit.  Throwing myself into an arena of human experience knowing full well I could be hurt, but unwilling to pass up the opportunity to feel the energy, the truth and the life.  If you ask a guy where he goes to church, be ready to hear almost anything.  The mosh pit has very few rules.
After I finished the repairs on my customer’s house, I typed up a ticket and collected my check.  The customer booked more time.  Even after she learned I probably won’t be voting the same as her.  Even after having to consider employing a guy who would rather sit at home and write on Sunday morning than go to church, she hired me for more work.  This is true love.  This is when courage wins over fear and anger.  This is grass roots commitment to move our nation forward when the rest of the nation is calling names and throwing people out of each other’s rallies.   This is when people shake hands and agree to do a great job on the house again on the next visit.
I share this with you to remind you how valuable your are when you hire someone to work in your home.  Your opinions, your beliefs and your interest in who we are.  To remind you that when I sit and have lunch with my hardscaper, plumbers, electricians, roofers, painters and other home service pros, we are talking about you.  We talk about the experiences we have in customer’s homes. Your home.  We talk about the things you say to us and how you treat us.  We talk about the stupid, clumsy things we do and how we hope you’ll hire us back.  We talk about what we learn about you and what you learn about us.  And when the talking is all said and done, the food is gobbled up and the bill is paid, we can’t wait to come back for more. To come to your house and take the dares. As Kidd Rock says, to “get in the pit and love someone!”.  See you in the pits.  IMG_5065


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Fall changes moods.

Houses look pretty now.  It’s that time of the year in this region.  Blooms of color, the size of trees, right in our front yards.  Last year the color was a warm yellow with spots of orange and crimson.  This year a full burnt orange.  Same tree, different weather, water and exposure.  Kind of like us.
The houses we live in and the houses we view are reintroduced year after year thanks to fall.  Trees are organic creatures, slipping into winter dormancy, letting the colors appear as illustration of the year preceding.  And there’s the house. A little less covered than summer and not yet left standing stark in winter wind. Houses love this season.  Surrounded by the fall colors and flattered by holidays, houses provide shelter, utility and security.  When these things are lasting, legacy sets in.
In America, almost anywhere you live, between September and February, there’s a bunch of holidays.  I like this part of the year.  Customers are surprisingly busy during these months.  It seems homeowners think nothing of renovating a room right in the middle of it all.  I’ve been lucky to stay busy through a lot of holidays working on homes.  And alongside the customer I watch these houses in different seasons.  Doing a bathroom in a south facing bathroom one winter, I felt the full effects of the sun passing the sky during my work days.  It felt cold, even in a perfectly warm house.  Summer time is the season that basements and window wells call.  And now fall.  The third act of spring’s renaissance. For me fall is the season of cool, dark evenings full of festivities and food.  It’s not dead cold yet and it feels good to get out of the heat.  Customers live in these things.
The march of the homeowners is steady and diligent.  Some use riding mowers to vacuum up leaves.  Other homeowners use services to pick up bags of leaves they’ve collected.  As if, smartly dressed ants in a forest.  In tiny urban yards a rake seems to work.  The greenies like me mulch the leaves in or blow them into wild areas around the yard. All in changing light, cooling temperatures and the wind picking up.  It feels good to feel fall.
Here’s a list of things you might check around your house this fall.  Disconnect all your garden hoses from the spigots.  This prevents freeze damage to the frost free spigot.  If you’re really energetic pull the hoses out long and downhill to drain. Roll them back up with way less freeze damage in the spring.  Make sure all the gutters are clear.  Leaves and dirt collect ice.  If anything grows over the house the gutters need to be cleaned pretty often. Keep leaves blown off steps, porches, decks, patios and walks. Leaves get slimy and slick when wet.  Watch your underground drainage grates and drains for leaf clogs. Money spent on underground drainage can loose it value if they fill with sediment.  At the end of fall clean the window wells.  Keep them dry and empty during the winter.
Having a house often occupies years of time.  That’s a lot of seasons.   Next time you come home this week. Look at your house.  Enjoy the season the house sits in.  The colors, the tilt of light changing and leaves settling into their fate on the ground.   It’s nice to know the colors we enjoy this year will be a little different next.  Something to look forward to.
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You don’t see these things coming.

Customers grow on me. I can’t help it, it’s like making friends with someone you never imagined you’d be friends with. It just happens. You work in someones house for days or weeks at a time, and chances are conversation more than pertaining to the job will break out. I don’t think this goes on with all craftsmen, some guys are just pretty quiet. Most of my customers make an effort to get to know me. And I’m not so quiet.

I’ve worked for a couple for about 6 years now. Usually every winter they hire me to do a room in the house. The jobs are usually fairly involved, they like hand built cabinets and wood ceilings. The wife always got the job started and the husband supervised after that. He loved having things done just about perfectly and was great to work for. The husband would always visit the house during the lunch hour. He did this, preferring to not be visited by supervisors, who turned his lunch back into work, so he came back to the house. He always walked into the room I’m working on to let me know he’s in the house. He’d stand around and ask about the materials, then he’d tell me the chemical compound and organic construction of said material. He was a scientist. He’d hang around and ask a million questions about the work I’m doing, then subtly tell me his dad was an 82 year old master carpenter, who will check out my work the next time he’s in town. Nothing like a little pressure to get things just right. The guy coming home for lunch made my day. His visits broke up the long day of no one else in the room, except the cat who comes and goes. In it’s previous life the cat was a lab cat, which means by osmosis, even the cat was smarter than me. I paid it extra attention and if it acted out and clawed my arm to smithereens, I’d chalk it up to the lab life it had. The guy coming home for lunch taught me about chemistry, lab politics, film photography, industrial organic coatings, protective jump suits in desert conditions and threw in some audio amplifier stories just to keep things cool. I learned to like this guy, and honestly I know he liked me.

As the years went on I would go to the house to see our next job together. When I arrived, and went in, the lunch hour guy started calling the cat into the entry to announce that “uncle Jonas” is here. What can I say, now I’m family, at least for the cat. I’ve done some of my best work in that house. I’ve admired the couple who live in a full three stories with no kids, just a cat. When the house turned 100 they threw a birthday party for the house. Everyone dressed in period clothing. The house was quietly flattered. At the party I wasn’t just the guy who did the bathroom, I was Jonas. The couple was complimentary of my work and practically insisted their friends hire me. And of course, I was introduced as uncle to the cat.

Early this spring I called the lunch hour guy to swing by and touch up some caulk in a bathroom. We talked briefly and he asked me to call him back. We texted a couple days later and he said he’d have to get back with me, that he was up against some health challenges. I’ve kept that text for months now, because the lunch hour guy died a couple days later.

It’s not the first customer funeral I’ve gone to, but this one felt kind of close. I’m sad for the widow left behind who is a strong, intelligent, professional woman. A woman who up to this point had rarely, tearfully admitted, “I don’t know what to do”. I’m sad for a neighborhood that knew this guy for the quiet, smiling guy he was. I’m sad for the house with so many hours of improvements that were all carefully discussed and supervised, during the lunch hours.

I’m sad for the cat, sitting in a window, watching carefully, for the lunch hour guy to come home.

I’m sad for me, because uncles have feelings too. 

 

 

 

 

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It’s wet around here.

We’ve had a lot of rain around here lately. Sounds like we may have even had some records broken for the month of May. It seems like the drought we’ve been watch should be over, but it takes years to soak in and fill underground aquifers. Looks like all the flash flooding is mostly a big hassle. To add to the frustration, since we have been in drought conditions, there’s a lot of shrinking and cracking in the soil around the foundations. Of course when we get a big, heavy rain the water runs right down the gaps and cracks on the exterior of the foundation. This is when water comes in stone foundation walls, and sometimes floods poured concrete basements too.

Go ahead and panic. But just long enough to pick up the perishables from the floor of the basement. Once that is done, keep a cool head. If water is simply running across the floor into the drain, mop or wet vac the water and get one or two oscillating fans running and leave them running 24 hrs a day. Add a de-humidifier specified to the square footage of the basement. Set it up so it has a drain hose attached, set the machine to come on and run at around 50% humidity. In other words, set the fans and dehumidifier to run automatically, pretty much year round. In stone wall basements move all the storage three feet out from the foundation walls. This is opposite of what most people do, but when personal belongings are moved out from the walls, the belongings start to dry out better, and the walls sweat less because the fans keep air moving past. When a basement is set up and kept dry and fresh it will smell better and the stored items will be in better shape when brought back out.

The first thing to confirm when water comes in the basement is the proper function of the gutters, downspouts and splash blocks or downspout drains. Make sure the water is getting away from the house through the gutter system. Then make sure the house has good negative slope all the way around the foundation, even under the deck or open porches. The function of good negative slope is again to move water away from the house. If your house has a gap along the foundation wall from the effects of drought, fill the gap and tamp the soil in. This will deflect water. Concrete flat work poured up against the foundation will benefit from a mortar or flexible treatment to keep water from running in any gaps.

Once you’ve taken these measures, the only place water will come in the basement is up through a cracked slab, which is common in antique houses, or under the footing and into the basement. At this point a sump system may be needed.

Take your time. Start on the outside of the house first. Lots of basement water problems are solved in the gardens outside. Don’t tear your basement to pieces until absolutely necessary. Keep the fans and dehumidifier going and you’ll have a fresh basement.

 

 

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Moving walls.

I need to be fair about something.  Sometimes I get pretty ticked off about things.  I see something I don’t agree with and I get cranked up.  I guess I could be relaxed and just not worry about things, but I’m not like that.  I’d rather jump up and doing something. Almost anything.  Just feeling like I’m getting it out of my system is good.  I think a lot of people are this way.  Stand up comedians are the epitome of this.  They basically get to laughingly get it all off their chest.  Three nights a week, free drinks.  What a job.
     In the last several years I’ve watch home improvement shows gut first floors of homes and install the “new open floor plan concept”.  You’ve seen this. They go into a home, sell an upgrade or home renovation and remove most of the walls on the first floor.  They install beams to carry loads, blend all the ceilings into one big plane and floor the place front door to back smooth and uninterrupted.  I get this.  The simplicity of one big room is why a lot of people live in lofts.  The ease of movement in an open floor plan is unquestionable and quite freeing.  Only one TV is needed. It can be seen from virtually the whole floor, it’s 70″ across and over the fireplace if there is one.  When company walks in the front door they can see all the way to the back yard.  I think they could simplify things and just say “open floor”.  It’s not really new, warehouses have done it for centuries, there not much of a plan, the bathroom is always enclosed, other than that, it’s open.
     So buy a loft.  Get a ranch.  Move into an open mid century modern.  But think about keeping that antique house original. Welcoming others into an entryway means you have the luxury of privacy from the rest of the floor.  The cold winter air slows down and settles in a little while the other rooms are kept away and warm.  Guests move into the dining room to have dinner anticipating the room’s decoration, the seasonal ambiance and reminded this is a place where food will be.  Living rooms with no TV are general use areas ranging from quiet chats to board games on a coffee table and uncle so and so asleep on the window seat.  There’s almost always another room on the first floor where the kids, tv and dogs are tearing things up.  And of course there’s the kitchen, often considered cramped by today’s standards.  This is where too many people always pile in. Usually after dinner.  Shy people love small kitchens, they gather there.  Like fragile birds, happy to have a safe place to snack and share drinks.  There are inside corners all over the first floor.  Because there are walls.  Big pocket doors separate areas.  These doors are historic crafted slabs of wood, glass and metal.  Cast iron radiators quietly warm the house during cold weather.  With the right furniture a half dozen conversations can be going on, somewhat privately.
     I worry about all the old trim being pulled out and possibly sent to the land fill.  Same for the radiators.  The doors and lock sets might be saved in the basement.  The little windows inside entryway closets get forgotten and walled over. The wood floors, almost a hundred years old by now are hauled out, sometimes re-used, but none-the-less gone and forgotten.  I loose sleep thinking about the second floor and it’s new beam and load transfer.  I hope the old place doesn’t settle hard, or loose it’s integrity if the engineering isn’t just right.  I know, in 200 years most of these houses may not even be here.  That’s fine, I’m happy to worry about them right now.
      I settled when the laws of statistics clicked in my head.  Lucky for me, only a small percentage of the these homes are being shelled out.  When it gets right down to it, not that many antique houses are being heavily modified.  I can sleep at night knowing the trend could come and go pretty quickly.  I’m glad.  I like how antique houses are laid out.  Once I got it into my head, that almost all my customers would never dream of gutting the first floor of their antique house, I relaxed.  In fact one of my customers has been talking about moving from her amazing two and a half story antique home to a loft.  She’s already said she wants me to do the bulk of the work.  I can’t wait.  I’m hoping we’ll be building a new open floor plan concept.
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