Part 9g: So You Want to Buy a House and Fix It Up? Thirty Suggestions for Survival
[30 suggestions over 10 sub parts, starting with Part 9a. -ed.]
18. To be there or not to be there
Consider moving out during a major renovation, but try to stay close so it’s convenient to drop by the job site for meetings first thing in the morning, and for your own inspections at the end of the work day.
There are pros and cons to staying or leaving. If a renovation involves a complete gut of a house, you won’t have much choice but to leave. However, there are in-between situations in which the decision to stay or leave isn’t clear cut. We stayed in our house the entire time, because most of the work was on the lower level, and on the exterior, and we live on the upper level. But the renovation of the upstairs bathroom, the installation of new doors and windows throughout the house, and the associated interior trim work, required the renovation to come into our space for a period of time. And for a combination of reasons, we went for over a year without a furnace.
Living amid the pounding, shouts, dust, mess, screaming power tools, early starts, and the general torn-apartness of a major reno, all of it overlaying the ongoing demands of your regular life, is stressful. Although everyone understands the need for the crew to get full access to the areas under renovation, if those areas even partially intersect with areas in which you are still living, it feels like an invasion of your privacy. The longer it goes on, the more it can grind you down psychologically.
Moving out, if you have to pay rent, adds to the expense of the renovation. Perhaps you can stay with family, but prolonged cohabitation with people you’ve chosen to no longer live with can come with a host of familiar and unwelcome issues. If the renovation time line is repeatedly extended, as often happens, increasing tension between host and guest can result.
Think carefully about the specifics of any renovation, how it will impact your life, how long it is likely to go on (err heavily on the upside), and your tolerance for disruption and stress. The mental calculus becomes trickier as the number of family members increases. Paying rent to live elsewhere during the most disruptive parts of a reno — typically the earlier phases of demolition, foundation, and framing work — could be money very well spent. But it could also blow your budget. One option is phased renovation in which part of a house is always kept habitable and renovation-free.
19. Know your limitations and know yourself
This consideration is a big one. Many people overestimate their ability to do things themselves. They don’t understand the time and labour involved, often don’t have even the basic skills required, and perhaps most crucially, lack the foundational knowledge. Do It Yourself has become a mantra, heavily promoted by the consumer-oriented, big-box home improvement stores because they make a killing on the crowds flocking in every weekend, but for many people do-it-yourself can be a miserable trap.
The key is knowing your limitations and knowing yourself. If you’ve never done a particular kind of task before, the probability is high that you’re going to make mistakes. That’s the way we human beings function — we learn from experience, which means we do a lot of learning by making mistakes and then correcting them on subsequent iterations of a task. When it comes to renovating a house, the problem with this approach is that you do a number of the component tasks only once. By the time the task is complete, you’ve learned a lot and gotten better, but now all your glaring mistakes are there for you to stare at into perpetuity, or until you get pissed off enough and depressed enough about the results to either rip out your initial attempt and redo it with the benefit of your hard-won experience, or to pay a pro to fix it.
There’s also the issue of time and energy. I’m reasonably good with my hands, first started making things and building things as a kid, graduated to painting, wallpapering, and reglazing windows in houses owned by my parents, and worked as a junior employee in several different trades when I was in my late teens and early twenties, experience that included the foundation work and framing one summer of a 5000-square-foot house. So I have some skill and some experience, and I enjoy working with tools, and building things. But… I’m not 18 anymore, and I have a full-time desk job that I go to five days a week. What I found with our reno was that I was squeezing the work into weekends, and evenings when I was already tired from my day job, and I was getting physically and psychologically exhausted. I couldn’t pack endless wheelbarrows full of soil the way I could thirty years ago. Some jobs I could do as well as the pros, but it would take me two or three times as long because I lacked the speed that constant repetition brings, and I only gradually discovered some of the time-saving tricks. And I’d sometimes make elementary mistakes. Occasionally, I’d make a mess of something — for example, trying to parge the sides of our concrete front stairs, or that bête noire of do-it-yourselfers, caulking around a tub.
Our neighbours M and S have spent a decade transforming their 1920s builders special from a borderline tear-down into a beautiful house. I’d call M a very advanced do-it-yourselfer, with a knowledge of construction techniques and the anatomy of houses that probably puts him in the top 1% of non-professionals. He has completely re-wired their house, built-out an unfinished basement, and built a new double garage from the ground up — all the work permitted, inspected, and to code. He has some sage advice for prospective do-it-yourself home renovators, which I’ll pass along here.
• “If you have ever found IKEA furniture challenging to assemble, don’t think about fixing up a house! Similarly, if you are at this stage of life and don’t know a Robertson from an Allen key, or have never touched a power tool in your life — forget it. If you have the DIY gene, you will have somehow learned this stuff long before you can consider buying a house. If you don’t have the DIY gene, then you are asking for trouble.”
• “Sit back and look at yourself, and think about how you are with tasks and projects of any sort. If you like starting and doing things, but not actually finishing things, then you are a process person and if doing DIY are doomed to live in a place that will always have missing tiles, insulation hanging out, or some such. It will never be finished! (That may be fine for you — but your spouse WILL see things differently.) If you like getting tasks finished without caring if you do them well, then go get a job as a builder in Vancouver rather than doing a shitty job on your own place! However, if you like getting tasks finished, while also doing them well, then you are a good fit for a successful DIY-er (subject to the DIY gene above).”
• “Think about the time/skill/cost trade-off. If there is a task you don’t like (drywall finishing), or aren’t good at (plumbing, drywall finishing), then hire someone to do it. Fixing up a place is a long process — save your energy for jobs you can enjoy and do well, rather than spending miserable weekends on something, and a miserable rest of your life looking at the second-rate result you produced. Pay the pros to do the things you don’t want to do or can’t do well.”
I don’t want to come off as a total downer here, just as a pragmatist. If you’re determined to do significant portions of a renovation yourself, then go for it. To give yourself the best chance of success, get that foundational knowledge first, so you’ll avoid making basic blunders, and depending on the task, consider first doing a few test runs using scrap material.
Here are some things with skill levels that the average do-it-yourselfer can manage, and maybe save a bit of money in the process:
• demolition (assuming no hazardous materials are involved)
• digging and modest excavation
• basic seismic upgrading
• seismic securing of appliances and shelving units
• cleaning up and transporting materials to the dump (mundane, but can be a real money saver)
• reglazing wood windows
• laying click-lock or floating flooring
• changing light fixtures
• changing door knobs
• changing taps and faucets
• installing closet shelving
• laying patio stones
And here are some things that require more skill and physical stamina than you might expect. Consider paying for a pro:
• painting (if doing large amounts)
• building decks and fences
20. Get the right tools for the job
Some advice from neighbour M regarding tools:
“Get the right tools for the job — they exist for a reason and make your life easier and the end result better. Beg, borrow, rent, buy secondhand, re-sell when you are done — whatever you need to do, but don’t try to skimp and get by without the right tools. And if you are doing any significant amount of framing or finishing carpentry, that includes air tools. Until you have them, you cannot realize how much time they save!”
I’d second that. When I started the seismic upgrading I was doing the nailing of the structural connectors by hand. The heavy duty joist hangers I installed in one area required 3-1/2 inch nails, 22 per hanger. By the end of that little job, my arm was numb. Other connectors required that I swing a hammer in the restricted space at the top of the cripple wall, between joists. I could manage only a few inches of backswing because of the floor immediately above, so I couldn’t contact the nails with any power. As a result, I had to slowly tap-tap-tap the nails in, which took forever, and because of the awkward angle I quickly started to get wrist strain. I had the entire perimeter of the house to do, so I knew I had to alter my method. I’d heard about the pneumatic palm nailer, a compact air tool that fits in the palm of the hand, and allows you to drive nails in tight quarters. I did a little research, identified an appropriate make and model, and bought one for a hundred bucks. I borrowed an air compressor and hose from another neighbour. In short order I was creating a horrendous racket in the basement, installing structural connectors in a fraction of the time they’d previously required, and with none of the previous discomfort. My only regret was that I’d spent the better part of a day installing the heavy duty joist hangers by hand when I could have knocked them off in a couple of hours using the palm nailer.
Don’t fret about the cost of tools, and don’t buy cheap tools. Cheap tools will only let you down, and are virtually worthless if you try to sell them used. Read online reviews to learn what brands of tools are reliable, and if the new price is more than you want to pay, look for them secondhand or on sale. Some good places to look for secondhand tools are Craigslist, eBay, garage sales, flea markets, thrift stores, pawn brokers, and ReStore (Habitat for Humanity stores). Some tool stores also have secondhand or clearance sections, but typically not the big box stores. Give yourself a bit of time. If you wait for the last minute to acquire a particular tool, the chances are you’ll have to pay full price.
21. Safety — you might need those fingers for your day job
Safety falls into two categories — avoiding accidents, and avoiding exposure to hazardous materials or conditions. For the do-it-yourselfer, inexperience can significantly increase the risk in both categories. If a circular saw kicks back is your thigh or trailing foot in the kickback path? If you decide to rip out some old ceiling tiles, do you know whether or not they contain asbestos? Leaping into home renovation projects without properly preparing yourself from a safety standpoint can have unfortunate consequences.
Power tools are obviously a major area for caution. I’ve developed the habit of always reading the instructions and safety warnings carefully before using a new power tool, and I review the safety material if I haven’t used the tool for a long period of time. A few years ago, I was testing a used table saw prior to purchase and picked up an innocent looking scrap piece of wood that was sitting on the table top behind the moving blade. No blade guard in place. In picking up the piece of wood I inadvertently made the slightest bit of contact between the wood and the blade. The wood and my hand were yanked suddenly toward the blade and I was lucky to be able to let go of the wood just in time. The table saw manuals I’ve subsequently read stress that you never pick up a piece of material lying on the deck of a table saw when the blade is moving. Inexperience.
Ladder safety is another thing to learn about. On the ground, not when you’re twenty feet in the air.
The right tools for the job include the proper safety supplies. Protective eyewear, a respirator, earmuffs or earplugs, and work gloves comprise a minimum safety kit. Forget those little white dust masks they sell in home improvement stores. They may be fine to use while sweeping out a garage or attic, but they won’t filter out any of the nastier things like asbestos fibers, or silica or lead dust. Get your equipment from a dedicated safety supply dealer. A half mask respirator will run you $30, will last for years if cared for, and if properly fitted is comfortable enough to wear for hours. You’ll spend a lot more than $30 for disposable dust masks over the same time period, for much less protection and comfort.
22. Hazardous materials — a big pain in the ass
Asbestos. Lead. Silica dust. There are definitely some nasties associated with renovation, and from what I’ve observed, the construction and renovation industry doesn’t always protect adequately against these hazards. As the homeowner, the ultimate responsibility for properly dealing with hazardous materials rest with you. If a demolition contaminates your house with asbestos, who’s going to continue living amid the contamination — the construction crew, or you?
Assume that any house built before the early 1980s contains at least some asbestos, and perhaps more than just some. Drywall joint compound (‘drywall mud’), vinyl sheet flooring and flooring tiles, ceiling tiles, and ceiling texture are just a tiny fraction of the 3000 building materials that commonly contained asbestos at one time, and these finished surfaces are some of the most common things to demolish or remove during a renovation. The breaking apart of these materials during demolition or removal is what can release asbestos fibers, which until that point may have been relatively safely contained.
Perhaps the best-known residential asbestos hazard is vermiculite attic insulation, asbestos-containing pellets that were sold under the brand name Zonolite well into the 1980s. The vermiculite, contaminated with asbestos, came from a mine in Libby, Montana, but was processed in plants all over North America, including one right here in Vancouver on Industrial Avenue. So there’s a good chance that a significant number of houses in the Lower Mainland have vermiculite sitting in their attics, perhaps hidden under subsequent layers of blown-in insulation. If you find yourself considering the purchase of an older house, a thorough check for vermiculite is something you should insist upon from the home inspector, or better yet, you should purchase a good quality respirator, learn how to check safely for vermiculite (basically, disturb as little as possible), and check yourself. Because it’s you and any other family members, not the home inspector, who are going to be living in the house. Well-contained, undisturbed vermiculite insulation poses a low health risk. But if a renovation requires removal of ceilings, or getting into the attic space, you’ll need to bring in a reputable hazmat company to remove the material safely.
Lead dust, created by sanding, scraping, or otherwise disturbing lead-based paint, and silica dust, created by sawing, drilling, grinding, or jackhammering concrete, or cleaning concrete forms, are two other hazmat concerns associated with renovation.
A bigger problem than the hazardous materials themselves may be our collective attitude toward them. Do-it-yourself renovators and professional construction crews both tend to be pretty cavalier when it comes to demolishing old drywall and pulling up old flooring. Why? I suspect because it’s easy to start tearing things apart, because we tend to be impatient and want to get on with the job, and because working the safe and proper way — performing proper hazardous materials testing in advance of any demolition, and bringing in a specialized hazmat crew if the results come back positive — is time-consuming and expensive. At $40 or $50 a sample, testing the multiple materials and multiple layers involved in a pre-renovation demolition can easily cost more than a thousand dollars. It did in our case. Demolition and disposal using proper hazmat procedures probably costs at least twice what it does to do it without following hazmat procedures. Safely and professionally removing vermiculite from the attic of a typical house can be a $10,000 job. So not surprisingly, there’s a temptation to cut corners, to push concerns about hazardous materials out of our minds, especially for some contractors during a construction boom, when securing the next big, lucrative job may be more of a focus than properly completing the one at hand. Many construction workers also assume, probably correctly, that they’ve already been exposed over the years, and again, it’s not them who are going to be living in the renovated house. This last statement isn’t intended to sound cynical, it’s just the reality of who has the most vested interest in your renovation and your health.
Hazmat abatement is a big, slow, expensive pain-in-the-ass most of us would rather not deal with. To which I’d counter, what dollar figure do you place on your lungs and the lungs of other family members, and if they become diseased, where do you buy new ones?
There are a number of good resources linked from WorkSafe BC’s hazardous materials page.
“Identifying Asbestos in your home”. Short overview, from Jon Eakes’ web site.
“Overview: Vermiculite, Zonolite, Asbestos and your health”. Good overview, with Canadian perspective, from Jon Eakes’ web site.
“Lead in Your Home”. Free download of CMHC booklet.
“Avoid Risks to Children’s Health During Renovations/Energy Retrofits, Experts Urge”. Canadian Environmental Law Association, 6 Mar, 2011. Article and downloadable full report.
“WorkSafeBC cracks down on asbestos removal in demolitions”, The Vancouver Sun, 24 Mar, 2011. Story about unethical contractors evading hazmat regulations.
Coming soon: Part 9h: So You Want to Buy a House and Fix It Up? Thirty Suggestions for Survival – Suggestions 23 – 26.
Part 9 subsections are posted every Tuesday and Friday.
Read them all before you call the Realtor. -ed.