Saturday, February 26, 2011

We Had Some Work Done

Before we bought our first place, property-owning friends explained to me that homeowners fall into one of two categories: Do-It-Yourselfers or Worker-Hirers. Being both frugal and somewhat of a control freak, there was no doubt in my mind that as a homeowner, I would be of the DIY variety.

Yes, I had visions of intsalling light fixtures wearing protective goggles and gloves, blasting music as I edged the walls with blue painters's tape, changing HVAC filters, retiling bathroom floors to coordinate with the seasons.

But then the kitchen drain clogged, and my DIY dreams sputtered and died along with the Insinkerator. After 45 futile minutes of jamming a wooden spoon down the drain and frantically flicking the garbage disposal switch up and down, I knew I had been defeated. A housecall by a burly plumber and $150 dollars later, I learned that the culprit was not so much a plumbing issue as a pasta one. Apparently penne must be completely pulverized in the disposal or it will expand and clog the system. Good to know. A little creepy to think about oozing, expanding cylinders of noodles, but glad to have been so edified.  

It soon became even more evident that we were not cut out to do any task that involved climbing a ladder, opening a compartment in a wall, caulking or grouting, patching, or virtually anything short of changing a lightbulb (oh yeah, only lightbulbs that could be changed without a ladder). We realized that we had significant deficits in the "handy" department.  We came to the sad realization that we were going to have to go to the dark side: Pay people to come to our house and fix things.

Truthfully, cheapness and laziness are not states (or traits, depending on how ingrained the behaviors are) that are easily overcome. We complacently lived with our 1970s-era bathrooms, including shiny paisley metallic wallpaper on the ceiling, and white carpet (seriously, in the bathrooms). We ignored a nonfunctioning wetbar (also crica 1970) by sticking an Ikea bookcase in front of it. I did eventually rip down the ornate old-lady drapery in the master bedroom with my bare hands, but that was after several years and a sneaking suspicion that there was something lurking in the folds of the curtain that was making me sneeze.

For us, there were only two motivators to hire help to maintain our place: imminent safety (and even then, only after we had a child) and profit. For the former, I truthfully can only think of one instance when we needed to drop a dime for safety: when our 3-year-old daughter figured out how to unbolt the front door of our current 1920s Spanish home. A locksmith specializing in vintage locks was called that day, and a functional-yet-historically-appropriate deadbolt was installed by evening. Again, $150. Maybe we have a reputation as being the "$150-a-pop" family. But other than that, the only time we deigned to alter anything in our home was when we were certain the change would result in dollar signs.

Enter Mr. Kim.  Ahhh, Mr. Kim. It is indeed a mystery how Mr. Kim--who could not utter a word in any language but his native Korean, even after decades in Los Angeles--communicated with property owners or his revolving cadre of day laborers. But he was perfect for a quick cosmetic job that only had to last as long as the escrow. He was cheap, semi-reliable, and licensed--or he had been at one time, before his license was revoked.

We found Mr. Kim through a shrewd and penny-pinching neighbor who had managed properties before retiring to become a condo board president. Who cared if Mr. Kim's electrician was his befuddled cousin who happened to have his own power tools? So what if his workers painted over wallpaper rather than remove it? We just needed the place to not look like a grandpa's bachelor pad so we could unload it in an up market and move on. And so we did.

When we looked for our next place, the house in which we hoped to raise our children, we had a different perspective. We had become more self-aware and knew that we did not want to deal with even the infamous "minor cosmetic changes" that realtors love to talk about. We were looking in a pricey town and were not going to plunk down absurd amounts of money only to have to tinker with our purchase. We looked for updated kitchens done well, but not with over-the-top Sub Zero fridges or Viking stoves to drive up the price. Floors and walls had to be in good shape. This time we were playing for keeps and there was no way the likes of Mr. Kim was touching this piece of real estate. Our first realtor considered himself to be a visionary and would point out rooflines that could be expanded, walls that could be knocked down, and pantries that could be moved. He did not last long as our realtor.

Recently a friend showed me photos of a condo she is thinking of bidding on. It is roomy, bright and in a great location. The walls were freshly painted in warm, neutral colors. The exterior was well-maintained. The problem? The only shower was in an idiosyncratic soaking tub in the only bathroom, five feet deep and 3-feet wide. She had flashbacks of Baby Jessica in the well just looking at it. The tub appeared to be original to the building, so no one had thought to change it in 40 years. She asked me what I would do in this situation. I thought for a moment and suggested she learn to love sponge baths.

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