Ralph Melton (ralphmelton) wrote,
Ralph Melton
ralphmelton

Fables of the Reconstruction


This is how our project snowballed:

The original problem that we were trying to fix was that the paint was peeling on the cedar shakes on the second floor of the house. It looked a bit ratty, and exposed wood is not good for the house. But although we were aware of this problem when we bought the house in 2000, financial cramps and slacking led us to fail to get around to this.

One year (I can't even remember when this was--probably 2004) we got an estimate from Tuition Painters, and were startled at the $6,000 price. This was the first step in the snowball of renovations, because this led us to think "at that price, we might as well get siding put on the house instead, to avoid having to repaint."

And then Lori's father said that if we were getting siding put on, that would be a good time to get the windows replaced. New windows would fix a lot of the cold spots in the house, saving on our heating bills. And replacing windows messes up the siding a bit, so if you're getting new siding as well, you can skip the cost of patching up the siding and dealing with patched siding.

Les also suggested getting blown-in insulation put into the walls. The blown-in insulation process involves drilling holes through the outer walls or siding, sticking in a hose, and filling up the space in the walls. So again, if you do that first, you don't have to worry about bolluxing up the siding.

And then, about the time we were ready to go with a contractor, Les started thinking about the gutters. The gutters have been leaking, he said. Which they have been, though that's been much ameliorated by our replacement of the downspouts. (And we have box gutters, which are more fiddly and thus more expensive to maintain than more usual gutters.) According to Les (and I have no reason to doubt it), replacing the siding would be a flawed and impermanent solution as long as water was still getting into the walls.

And once we were thinking about the gutters, Les started thinking about the roof, because of the box gutters. (This sort of connection is why people don't use box gutters much any more.) The roof was 18 years old, and warranted for 20 years. And the roof flashing involves the siding issues similar to the ones that made it a good idea to replace the windows before the siding.

So this what our renovations snowballed into:
- replacing the roof and gutters
- replacing the windows--all 31 of them
- getting insulation blown into the walls
- replacing the aluminum siding, vinyl siding, and cedar shakes with vinyl siding.
In short, we are pretty much completely replacing the exterior of our house.

I believe the implicit claim that if one has all the money one might want, it is cheaper to do this all at once. But it certainly adds up--the cost for all these renovations is around a quarter of the value of our house.

~//~

It took us quite a while to get the house clean enough to get someone in for an estimate, because for years, we'd been cleaning for major events by moving all our stuff into spare rooms upstairs. So we didn't get around to getting estimates until November or so.

Our first estimate was from Sears. The guy seemed very nice, and had a lot of impressive-sounding things to say about their windows. But his estimate was high enough to upset us, and he had a lot of suggestions of "do this opening this way instead of the way you like, because it will be cheaper." And when we accepted his offer to return for an estimate on siding, he never came.

Our second estimate was Windows Unlimited, from the man who runs the company. He had far fewer required compromises (though there were some, particularly with the unpainted wooden windows that he could only replace with wood-grain vinyl). And his estimate was about 60% of the cost that Sears had quoted. He said, "our prices are about in the middle, but our quality is excellent," and the first part of this statement was fundamentally plausible.

Our third visit was from Bonney Windows (I think; I forget the name), who had been recommended by someone in our neighborhood. But when he came, he didn't seem very interested in doing business with us. His sales pitch was laconic, and he never sent us the quote he promised to send.

We decided to go with Windows Unlimited (and have been very happy with our choice to do so).

It was at about this time that Lori's father started thinking about the box gutters and then the roof; after some discussion, Windows Unlimited gave us an estimate for the roof as well.

Jim Cavanaugh, the owner/salesman from Windows Unlimited, said that he was cutting his estimate to the bone for us and giving us every possible discount, even waiving his commission--and I think I believe him. I guess the reason is that businees is slow in winter, and keeping the business running smoothly and the bills paid is more important than maxing out personal profit.

~//~

Lori's father advised us not to get low-E glass for the windows, because he said it could make the windows dark and grey. But Jim said that the latest generation of low-E glass wouldn't have such problems. We waffled about whether we should get low-E glass or not, and eventually decided to do so. My argument was that we think of ourselves as liberal, energy-conserving types, and if we weren't willing ot take the steps to conserve energy, how could we expect others to?

(Jim turned out to be right; the low-E glass is not noticeably dark.)

~//~

Windows Unlimited would do most of our project, but they didn't do blown-in insulation. Jim suggested that the insulation backing the siding would be good enough that it wasn't necessary to get blown-in insulation, but Les argued (and I believe) that fuel prices are only going to go up, and if we're going to ever want blown-in insulation, now is the time to get it.

We'd gotten a couple of names from Bonney when he came to give us his estimate--but none of them returned my calls. Jim asked his foreman, Bill, and got a recommendation for Suburban Insulation, who called back after a few tries. They gave us a quote in early December, and the price was low enough and finding other insulators so difficult that we accepted that and stopped searching.

~//~

The roof work started in mid-December., though it was bogged down by snow. And then, while it was too snowy to work, the window orders came in, and over the course of three or four days in mid-December, the windows were installed.

The window installers were amazing. They did a stunning job of cleaning up after themselves, and their lines of caulk were beautifully smooth. I was very impressed.

And the effect of the new windows was amazing. We saw several signs that they really were doing a better job of insulating:
- I took a walk around the house before the windows were installed, and I realized that in the livingroom, you could feel the cold spots where the windows were just walking around with your eyes closed. No longer!
- We had our annual Christmas party the weekend after the windows were installed. Every year previously, the large picture window in the living room would fog up completely--I regarded that as a sign of a good party. This year, the window stayed crystal clear all night.
- We hosted dinner on Christmas day. As in previous years, we put dishes on the radiator next to the window in the dining room But in previous yers, the food got cold quickly there; this year, the food stayed warm.

And the cosmetic issues were very satisfactory. We'd worried about the glass seeming dark, but I saw no difference between the newly installed window and the open space where the workers were installing another window. We'd worried about the wood-look vinyl not looking like wood, but I wasn't bothered by the look at a distance of three feet or so.

~//~

The price tag on all this work was substantial, of course--over a quarter of the assessed value of the house. (We hope, of course, that this work has increased the value.) We knew that we could afford this work because my Apple stock options have been doing very well--but we weren't sure whether we should cash them in, or get a loan in hope that they would appreciate further.

But it turned out that we didn't have enough equity in the house to cover the whole bill with a home equity loan, and I didn't like the interest rates for the sorts of loans we could get. And more importantly, I didn't like the idea of taking on more debt. I've been very happy about paying off Lori's grad school loans, and I didn't want to be paying off loans for years and years.

However, there were some beneficial tax implications of selling the options in January instead of December. We'd already sold options in April to buy a car, so deferring the sale wouldn't push us into a higher tax bracket for 2005. And by waiting until 2006, we could collect a minor tax credit for our improvements. So we borrowed money from my parents for just a month to let us time-shift the sale.

I sold options just before MacWorld at a price of $76.81, because I needed the money to become available in time for me to pay some of the bills. During MacWorld, the price climbed up over $86, and I tried to suppress my regret at not waiting. In February, though, the stock price has dropped below $70, and I feel much better about selling when I did.

~//~

We'd originally been told that the blown-in insulation would be done before Christmas. There was one project ahead of us, the owner said, and if the weather permitted, they'd be there soon.

But it didn't happen before Christmas, due to the weather. And it didn't happen in much of January. From time to time, I'd call up the company and ask what the holdup was. He' explain that he still wanted to do our work, but he was having troubles with the weather and with people quitting...

And on the other side, Bill (the foreman for Windows Unlimited) would call me from time to time to ask about the insulation, clearly eager to convert siding from warehoused material to paid-for product.

The second time Bill called, I said, "I'm not sure whether I'm getting a run-around from Suburban Insulation or not. Here's the guy's number; I invite you to call and light a fire under his tail." Within half an hour, Bill called me back and said that Suburban would schedule a visit for the next week. Yay Bill!

~//~

Through this process, the walls to be sided have been looking more and more decrepit. The roof replacement knocked a few holes in the shakes; the windows involved removing the shutters; the blown-in insulation left visible marks where the holes they'd drilled had been corked up. And of course, the siding process started by ripping off the old siding, which looked bad too.

But now the siding is going up, and it does look nice. The sage green of the accent color is a lot more drab than the pastel green that we had before, but it will look as solidly handsome as a man wearing a suit.

~//~

I was surprised by a phone call when the siding began asking what we wanted to do with the extra window. It turns out that there was an extra window that was only visible from the outside; inside, it was behind the enclosure for the bathroom. It was visible from the ground, but only at an awkward angle; we had apparently managed to overlook it (or forget about discovering it) for five years.

I had the window removed and filled with insulation and boards; it will take even more archaeology than before to discover that it was ever there.

~//~

The project snowballed one final time: Jim suggested that since the siding installers would have to remove the exterior light fixtures and remount them, we could buy new fixtures from Home Depot, and it would be just as easy for the installers to install the new fixtures as the old.

So we went forth to Home Depot on Friday night. And we left empty-handed. Home Depot carried only a very few ceiling-mounted fixtures, and those it did carry were ugly and/or hard to reach into to change light bulbs from below. Busy Beaver and Lowes were likewise inadequate to my desires. It was extremely frustrating, because I thought my desires were reasonable ones, and yet they were completely ignored by the big hardware stores.

(This, in a nutshell, characterizes my experience of retail; I identify reasonable, feasible criteria for something I want, and then am unable to purchase it. I do not enjoy shopping.)

After striking out at Lowe's, we asked a staffperson where we might be able to get satisfactory fixtures. He suggested Electra Lighting, out in Monroeville. We went out there and got lucky; they were able to order something that will suit our needs. (Although this will involve some cutting and reconstruction of a ceiling piece--the world really doesn't conform to me.) The price was twice that of Home Depot or Lowe's, but it's only a few hundred dollars extra for something that will last for many years; it's fine to spend a bit more to get just the right thing.
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