Saturday, May 16, 2015

The $10,000 Mistake

So, this happened.

We tore out the entire floor of our bathroom. The shower floor, the stone kickboards, the cement float underneath, everything. Why, you ask? Well, it all goes back to 2009...

We had finished the bathroom, and it was glorious. We had taken it from looking like this:

To this:

There was only one problem. It didn't work. To start, the floor wasn't level. And we had installed a "gutterless shower" proposed by our designer at Home Expo. A beautiful design, but hard to execute. Our contractor didn't put the regulation 1/2" slope in the shower, so instead of the water staying in, it flowed out and then pooled on the other side of the bathroom. We always needed lots of towels to catch the flow.

At the end of every shower, I squeegied the glass walls, but then I also took to squeegying the water back into the shower.

I'd known since the very first shower that the floor had to be redone. I talked to my contractor, and he said he'd be willing to re-do the work if I just got him the materials. I began to gather them, and they collected in the space that was supposed to be a finished cabinet:

That junk pile sat in our bathroom for six years.

What happened in those six years??
  • The economy collapsed.
  • Home Expo went under, taking our designer and the archives of all we had ordered with it.
  • I stockpiled stone tiles, picking whatever unchipped remnants I could find from the remaining stock at Solistone out in San Bernardino.
  • I searched for the shower floor tile. Didn't know it's name. Didn't have a sample of it to take around. I searched in vain for -- not exaggerating -- two years? Finally got lucky and stumbled across a leftover remnant in our back yard. Found a match at Mission Tile West in South Pasadena.
  • My contractor disappeared, never to be seen or heard from again.
  • I tried to sue my contractor but could never find him to serve the summons. Learned about statutes of limitation on claims against contractors (2 years). 
  • Got angry. Got frustrated. Got wide-ranging bids from other contractors to fix the problem ($3,500 on the low end, $10K on the high)
I became suspicious of every contractor. The ones with bids too high must be gouging me, while the ones on the low end must be incompetent. And I battled with myself over spending so much money on the same job twice. Yet every day the water spilled out. Every day the clutter pile grew bigger. It was a crazy circle. And it was me driving myself crazy because I just couldn't deal with how big a mistake it was.

Then I finally found someone to help me chuck the albatross off the deck. Enter Benjamin, a contractor recommended by some good friends who regularly re-do houses. Benjamin was their man, and I figured that gave me some additional leverage. He wouldn't want to screw me and have it get back to my friends.

So we dove in at long last. We set out to rebuild the shower basin, raising it up, giving it a dam to keep the water in, and making a couple additional changes along the way.

We installed an infinity drain, which hadn't even been invented when we started the project six years ago: 
The first time around, because of the screw-up, we never really finished the bathroom. We never got to the finishing touches, such as towel racks and an actual toilet paper holder. For six years our roll just kicked stupidly around the bathroom space, usually in a puddle under the sink. But look! These small details made a huge difference!

And at Benjamin's recommendation, we installed a vent in the ceiling.

But most importantly, we built up the shower flower. And I don't really feel like we lost anything aesthetically in eliminating that smooth entry into the shower. Benjamin did a lovely job with the step, and it looks pretty slick. We also brought Aladdin Glass of Canoga Park back in. They did the shower walls the first time around, and this time they replaced the front panel and door to accommodate the new step up.

And so, without further delay, here is the final result:

We never did build out the cabinet in the space that housed the six-year junk pile, but we're working on it.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Target Eyesore in Hollywood: Blame the La Mirada Avenue Neighborhood Association

On the corner of Sunset and St. Andrews, directly across from a bustling Home Depot sits the unfinished Hollywood Target. It's an eyesore. It's a fiasco. And the blame for the construction stoppage falls squarely on one group: The La Mirada Neighborhood Association. This highly litigious organization filed the suit, along with a few other neighborhood groups, that resulted in the cessation of work on the Target retail complex as of August 2014. Their issue is that the building was designed to reach a height of 74 feet, in an area where heights are limited to 35 feet. This is one of many suits brought by these self-proclaimed saviors of Hollywood, who are opposed to growth.

Their supporters talk a lot about the rule of law. They say it's not the size of the structure that's the problem — it's that the city council circumvented existing zoning laws to give special permission to Target. To this, I have two things to say:  YES they did. And THANK YOU, City Council. Sometimes, to make progress, you have to push the limits of a law — sometimes even violate it — to get the change you want. I shudder to think where the civil rights movement would be today without the courageous law-breakers who put their lives on the line toward the goal of changing the law.

The name and tag line of one of La Mirada's sister associations fighting for the same cause is "Save Hollywood." What, the ugly, seedy, wonky, run-down Hollywood of my youth? Back then the old 'hood was low-slung and sprawling with no reason to walk the star-paved boulevard other than the sidewalk itself. Look at it now! We are a pedestrian hub anchored by three glorious metro stops! Help me understand what it is about the old Hollywood you are trying to recapture. Was it the prostitutes or the drug dealers? The graffiti? What.

Sure, La Mirada would like you to blame the city council for the work stoppage. They would like you to blame the mayor. And if by "blame" you mean "give credit where credit is due," then in fact, I do blame the mayor. I blame him for backing projects that are taller and not perpetuating the sprawl L.A. is known for. I blame him for bringing retail shops to the sidewalks instead of pushed back behind an expanse of paved parking lot, creating a more pedestrian-friendly streetscape. I blame him for promoting density and making Hollywood more bike-able. I blame him for improving my neighborhood in numerous ways. Shame on you, Mayor Garcetti! I blame you!

But I'm not going to waste my time pointing fingers. I'm going to spend my energy on fighting to get this development finished. I've written to the mayor's office to ask what I can do to help. A petition? A protest? I’ll jump in with both feet. The La Mirada Neighborhood Association may like to think that they are the voice of the neighborhood, but they do not — DO NOT — speak for me. 

Friday, March 6, 2015

Four Years Later ...

OK, so it has been a little while since I last posted. Funny now to look back over my last few posts, which add up to a snapshot of a period in my life that was uncertain, scary and dark. I didn't know it at the time, but that last post about the garden was me at a threshold. After that, my world turned upside down. We halted all renovations on the house. My mom had been sick, and a year-and-a-half later she died of a lung condition that was never properly identified. I slid into a deep funk, accompanied by a long period of strenuous soul-searching. I kept trying to spin my situation -- our situation -- as temporary, like the dip in the economy. It would get better. But years go on, and it gets really hard to see what you're living as temporary.

But a couple weird things happened. For one, we survived. While my career fortunes waned, my husband's ascended, and we ended up scraping by with change to spare. We never lost the house or anything else. And all that soul-searching I did? It changed me. It gave me a better understanding of myself than ever before. After 20 years as a desk jockey, I realized I'd hated every job I'd ever had and found a new appreciation for the life I was leading outside of my career. I had little kids and a sick mom and I was there for all of them at a time when they needed me. I reshaped how I lived -- Like, instead of waking up in the morning and saying "What do I have to do to get by?" I said, "This is your ideal world. You have no limitations. What are you going to do today?" And then I did them. And this attitude brought me to do some crazy, interesting, fun, weird, sometimes embarrassing stuff. But that's for a different blog post on a different blog. This is a renovation blog.

So the key thing that happened that is pertinent to our house project is that I started working again. Yes, this was the undoing of a lot of the self-discovery I'd just been through -- but again, different blog. Working again meant moving forward again with the house project.

Or you'd think it would -- but it's been a year-and-a-half since I went back to work and the number of renovations we've done amounts to zero. But that's OK, right? It takes a while to build up resources, to get plans together, to hire people, to get bids, to pick materials, to make decisions and to GO!

So here I am at another threshold (I hope). And if the months to come bring all the changes to this house that I am hoping for, I will be sure to document them here, for your consumption. Feels good to be back!

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.