Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Brightness in the dark

As you already know, if you read my previous post, this hasn't been a particularly sunny period of my life. Since I lost my job in March, I've had the displeasure of watching our family sink into an ever-deeper financial abyss, bringing our home renovation to a screeching halt. But I don't want to dwell on that today. In fact, I'd like to do just the opposite. At times of darkness, sometimes that stupid cliche about looking on the bright side holds some merit. So I offer you a subject of brightness. Here it is:

This is the parkway in front of our house as it looks today. At this size, it's probably kind of hard to see anyway, but this picture doesn't really do it justice. The flowers when you see them live and in person are pretty spectacular, and walking along side them makes you feel like you're strolling through a lush suburban garden. It is exactly as we intended it to be. But better. Just looking at these flowers brightens my mood. Just tracking their progress from little sprouts into glorious, bloom-happy full-sized plants has been an inkling of pleasure in a period where such delights are too few.

This brings me to another bright spot: Our neighbors. With the spring and the explosion of flowers and blossoms all over our property, I've had the happy occasion to speak with numerous residents near to and far from our house. My encounters with them are not accidental. They stop me cold, usually as I'm climbing into my car, so they can rave to me about the work we've been doing on our property. It almost never fails. As soon as I walk out of the house, whatever person is there, walking by, walking a dog, delivering mail, jogging — whatever — that person feels compelled to come tell me that they love what we've done with the house. They wince as they describe the house as it was previously. A blight on the neighborhood. An eyesore. A shit hole. On one occasion, a woman ran nearly half a city block to get my attention. She said she lived up the way in Beachwood Canyon and had been hoping to catch me for a while.

These encounters make me feel like a movie star who just appeared in that role that for some reason everyone connects with. I guess a renovation isn't only about what you get out of it. It can also be about what you give.

If it sounds like I'm bragging, let me say here that I am fully aware that my husband and I can't take all the credit. It has taken a cast of thousands to get the front of our house looking the way it does from where it was when we started. Notable among the players are:
  • Pia Dominguez of Barefoot Landscaping who did our initial landscape design including choosing the plants on the front parkway — though not on the side parkway, which is fodder for another post.
  • Stumper Landscaping — They did the actual work on the landscaping. Bill Weber at Stumper, I must say, is a sprinkler genius and one of the nicest men I've ever worked with.
I'll post a more thorough list if and when we ever finish the front of the house. For now, the parkway will have to suffice. I guess a dark side of this bright side is how crappy the curb looks, broken and crumbling in many places. With the city and its financial crisis, I'm not expecting any repairs soon.

And at least I know with our own financial crisis we're in good company.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Money Talk

I’ve been fighting with myself over this post for a while now. Like a lot of people, I was raised to believe you don’t talk about money — at least not any of the money matters that actually matter. You don’t tell people how much you make, and you never, ever ask what they make. You don’t ask how much a person paid for their house, their car or really anything, though you are free to discuss whatever figures a person volunteers. But on the flip side, you don’t volunteer that information either. Money is sensitive and relative and can cause hurt feelings or jealousy or disrespect when people know the actual numbers. You’re just better off not talking about it.

And yet, what is more crucial to a renovation project than money? And what benefit is this blog if it doesn’t help you through the big decisions in a renovation – and don’t so many decisions revolve around money?

What makes me think about money today is that I lost my job again. It’s actually the second time I’ve been laid off in two years. Both lay-offs were not performance-related, just the economy doing what it’s want to do. But regardless of the reason, I’m out of work, which cuts our total household income almost exactly in half.

After my first layoff, I was out of work 10 months. As frightening as that was, there was also a lot of joy in it. My previous job environment had been pretty ugly, and being free from it held some relief. I’d been burning to work on some of my own projects and potentially start a business. And as a working mom running a home renovation, I’d had so little down time that boxes from our move — two years earlier — still lurked in corners around our house, not yet unpacked. Having some time to cut through the household clutter was just a delight, whether or not we would sink like rocks financially. And don’t get me started on having more time to spend with my kids.

This time around, the situation is different and more dire. I relied on my credit card a lot during my last lay-off, and in fact ran the card to its limit. And there at the limit it remains, leaving me without any credit cushion this time around. This time around the layoff was so sudden and so unexpected that it happened to catch us right in the middle of landscaping the front yard — a moment when we were particularly cash poor with all the payments to landscapers and fence-building contractors. In fact, my last conversation with the fence builder went a little bit like this:

Fence-builder: So, we are finished with the fence and ready to take it for powder coating. Oh — we mentioned before the powder coating would be extra, right? That will be an extra $1,800.
Me: I don’t have that money.
Fence-builder: OK, then we won’t do the powder coating. That means the fence is finished, so you need to make the last payment it. That will be $2700.
Me: I don’t have that money. I can try to have it for you in a week.
Fence-builder: We need it today.
Me: I don’t have it today. I could write you a check, but it would be bad. Can you wait just a week so that I can gather my resources a bit? I just lost my job.
Fence-builder: You lost your job? Then we definitely need that money today.
Me: Well, I can give you blood. Perhaps that’s worth something on the open market? I do not have $2700 today, but I have blood.

The fact that this conversation took place rather noisily in our front yard did not, I imagine, do wonders for our reputation around the neighborhood.

If you don’t know me personally, perhaps this whole story sounds a little trite. The economy has, after all, been bad for a good, long time. How long, exactly? Let’s see — how long have we been in this house? Four years? Yes. The economy has been bad approximately four years. And maybe, if you don’t know me, you are thinking that I am irresponsible. I ordered the fence — how dare I order something that I don’t have the money to pay for?

But my point is that this is a really integral, fundamental part of a renovation for any regular working person. There are times when your chips are up and other times when they are down, way down. For us, at this moment, the chips are so far down that it’s hard to imagine there is a place called up. It’s funny — I thought the chips were down back in 2007 when we spent six months without a kitchen and washed all our dishes in a decaying green pre-renovation bathroom sink. I thought they were down when we slept with our six-month-old baby on an air mattress in the only room in the house that had finished walls and an actual light fixture (but no curtains, mind you). I thought they were down when we had to have hydraulic pumps brought in to actually lift the entire house from its center because we learned a pipe had let sewage seep for nearly 20 years, causing the whole structure to sink. The list goes on and on. But the hardest of all to face is the idea that after suffering through trial after trial, our efforts may still be for naught. We could lose it all. Even if we don’t foreclose, if we have to sell (clearly at a loss in this market), it means some other person or family will reap the benefit of our efforts. The house we custom-designed for ourselves and our family will be someone else’s property.

Standing where I stand today, I don’t know what’s going to happen. I have no job and no job prospects. Maybe some great job will come my way tomorrow — or maybe we will stop paying our bills and watch as the empire slowly crumbles around us. If you are reading this post because you stumbled across this blog while trying to decide for yourself whether to take on a renovation, I hope it does you some good. I hope it forces you into a gut check of sorts. If you found yourself in the same situation, would it all be worth it?

This isn't my last post on this subject. There is a lot left to be said about the money issues surrounding a home purchase or renovation. And maybe if more people had put their manners aside and had these conversations five years ago, the housing crisis would never have happened, the economy would never have slowed to a near stand-still, and I'd still have a job.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Instant Grassification

For a while I was chasing my friend Alex's landscaper. Alex told me that the guy put a lawn in his yard and took a lot of pleasure in calling it "Instant grassification." That's kind of how it works with sod, though. It really is kind of instantly wonderful. Ours went in this week, along with a few plants, and I am enjoying this feeling like I suddenly live on a golf course.

Here's what I see when I step out my front door:

I never did find that landscaper friend of mine. After about 3,000 calls, I gave up. But I'm glad I found Stumper Landscaping, because Bill is a true expert when it comes to lawns and sprinkler systems. I bet he could grow grass on the Mojave.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010


We planted a bunch of trees. Actually, I say "we," but I actually mean Stumper Landscaping, the little mom and pop operation that has taken our singular request for sprinklers into a full-fledged front yard makeover.

But before we look at the trees we planted, I want to take a look back — pay homage, really — to the trees we removed from our property. I think they are worth documenting if for no other reason than their sheer weirdness. If trees were beauty queens, neither of the ones we removed would be a Miss America. But one of them was an arborial wonder so odd that it even stumped the Stumper, our landscaper, Bill. He — and just about every landscaping professional and non-professional alike — said he had never seen anything quite like the Chinese Elm that the previous owners of our property had trained to grow over the chicken wire fence that surrounded the property. If you look at the pictures below, you can see how the thing — at least a branch of the thing — had woven its way like a vine through the fence.

I was a little sorry to part with this tree because with its great height it provided a modicum of privacy to the master bedroom on the second floor. But I have to say, once it was gone I was pleased with the change. The tree was simply planted too close to the house. The roots were growing under our front entryway and generally shrouding the area around our front door in shade and darkness. The zombie branch thing was weird and the variety of tree very common — nothing really special or worth saving. It just had to go. Here is a look at our house pre-tree removal:

That is not a hedge, it's a branch.

My camera was out of batteries on the day I took these shots, so I just snapped a bunch with my phone.

That last tree is actually an ornamental pear that was right at the edge of the property. There was nothing really weird about it except that it was planted too close to the sidewalk, but other than that it was just untamed and scraggly and just your run-of-the-mill eyesore. It too had to go.

Since we removed the trees we've actually done quite a lot of work on the yard. (Again, we being Stumper Bill.) We took out an entire dumpster full of soil, weeds and debris that had collected on the property over decades. We flattened and graded and laid weedblocker. We built a retaining wall at the corner to give shape to an area that will soon be a seating area.

And we planted trees. Here they are:

Dodonea Viscosa Purpurea
(Hopseed Bush)

Ornamental Plum

Pomegranate Wonderful
(Crape Myrtle)
Willow tree
Eureka Lemon tree, came with a couple lemons already on it

(Pink Trumpet)
on the parkway

The willow again, with 2-year-old Blaise.

They may not look like much now, when it's the dead of winter, but I am thrilled to know I don't have to go through another spring and summer with nothing green to show for it. I so look forward to seeing these things grow, take shape and bloom over the months to come.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Painted Lady


The house is painted! And there's not much more to say than that. I'll let the pictures speak for themselves.








Sunday, June 6, 2010

Painting Commences

I was going to begin this post by saying it was like Christmas morning here on Friday when the painters arrived to begin work on the exterior of the house — but then I realized I must have used that opening line before. The fact is that every time we begin a new project, the day the workers arrive is like Christmas morning. It's exciting. It's full of promise. And the biggest gift of all is to make progress.

And so it was. The painters showed up and began their work. In case you're interested, we are using a company called Detail Painting, Inc., based in Hollywood not far from here. I chose them because their ratings on Angie's List were through the roof, and so far they have lived up to their reputation. They have gone over the house with a fine-toothed comb, repairing plaster, propping up rotted wood exterior beams, and scraping away the old to make way for the new.

And what colors, you ask? Well, in the end we caved and got some professional help with the decision. A new but dear friend, Catherine, recommended Teresa Grow, who is the principal designer and owner of a company called Madison and Grow, which makes the most exquisite wallpaper. (She showed us her portfolio.) In fact, Jim and I liked both her and her wallpaper so much we are strongly considering using both inside the house. But that might take a while. I'm on a roll with this exterior stuff.

So the colors we finally chose were all from Dunn Edwards, and they are:
Dunn Edwards Paints DE6231 Shaker Gray
LRV 13:

Main body of the house

Dunn Edwards Paints DE6222 Weather Board
LRV 28:

Garden walls, front door, garage door, side garage door
Dunn Edwards Paints DEC761 Cochise
LRV 58:


Now, despite what it might look like here, in all its digital glory, that Shaker Gray color is DARK. We put big swath of it on the front of the house, and I've seen caverns in New Mexico that refracted more light. But I'm both trying to keep an open mind and genuinely liking the contrast between the window frames and fireplace and this dark, rich color. We'll see how it looks when it's covering out entire house.

Until then, I leave you with our house, as it looks today, as yet unpainted:

Monday, May 3, 2010

What Color Should We Paint Our House?

Antique Earth (top) Manuscript (bottom)

Gargoyle (top) Dark Olive (bottom)

Samples on the garden wall

Left to right: Antique Earth, Manuscript, Gargoyle, Dark Olive

So, our renovations took a bit of a hiatus. It gives me kind of a thrill to write that in the past tense, because it's nice to think of myself as looking back on it rather than seeing it as a scary part of my present life. I was unemployed for 10 months, but now I'm back to work with a steady income, which means that we can continue what we started with this house, now three years ago. The Great Recession may not be over, but it's over for me.

One of the biggest challenges for a renovator in being unemployed is that suddenly you are spending so much time in your home space, and you have a chance to really contemplate all the things you want to do. But you don't have any money to do them, so you have to just sit on all those desires. I guess the silver lining is that during my time off, Jim and I had a lot of time to talk about the order of progression for the next steps in our renovation, and about which of the renovations top our list. I had lots of time to book contractors to come out and see the place and bid on various projects so that when I went back to work I could just hit the go button.

We agreed that exterior paint needed to be the next big project, primarily because it's messy. If we waited to do it, we'd probably get paint on whatever other projects we would have done. So that's the plan. And we've narrowed our choices down to a range of colors, as you can see in the pictures above.

Here is a picture of our house as it looks today:

(You can click on it for a closer look.)

Our initial thought was that we wanted something dark. Our windows are a fixed color. They're almond vinyl and can't be painted. So we're going to make the color of the windows the accent color for the whole house and paint the trim the same color. So we're looking for something kind of dark, with a hint of green.

And here are a few photo references from houses around West Hollywood:

What do you think? Which one works for you?