Home Sweet Home

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Several
months ago, I bought a new house. I had decided to sell my other
house, and downsize to something more manageable on my own, as my
son is now 18 and about to head out into the real world. At least
I think he is. Someday, anyway.

The
house I bought was categorized as a fixer-upper. That is, as we've
all heard and I can assure you is true, the nice way of describing
a dump. I thought I knew what I was getting into, and looked forward
to creating, within my budget, a house that would be perfectly me.
Well, fast forward a few months, and I'm now living in a war zone
with no end in sight to the work in front of me.

Early
this year I read an article on LRC that extolled the virtues of
do-it-yourself home repairs and remodeling. Not only is the work
satisfying, it is a way to keep more money for yourself and less
for Uncle Sam. You don't have to pay someone else money that would
have to be shared with the government in the form of taxes. That,
along with the knowledge that I really can't afford to pay someone
else to do all the work I need done, made my decision easy. I would
become a do-it-yourselfer.

Because
I've been single for a long time, I've become somewhat handy with
a hammer. At least I think more so than the average woman. But I
had no idea what I was getting myself into. Luckily I have a large
family and friends willing to help, and between all of us we've
managed to make it this far.

One
of the most critical early tasks was to replace the portion of the
roof over the garage. It was in such terrible shape all the plywood
had to be replaced, so it would be cost-effective to take this job
on ourselves. I've now learned that roofing is about the most difficult
job one can do, and I spent a long weekend working harder than I've
ever worked in my life.

I
also learned never to apply sunscreen immediately before heading
out to spend a very hot day on a roof. The combination of sunscreen,
sweat, sawdust, and shingle soot makes quite an interesting, um,
paste. One brother told me I looked like a Klingon and a friend
said I resembled a "dumpster diver." I'm not really familiar
with either of those things, but I was assured they were not compliments.

And
finally, I learned that unless I wake up feeling suicidal one morning,
I should definitely hire someone to do the rest of the roof.

I've
spent so much time painting I've gone from being a horrible painter
to merely a bad one. I still have trouble picking out the right
color, and the "pale" yellow I painted the laundry room
makes it necessary for anyone entering that room to don sunglasses.
But it does put a smile on my face, and that counts for something.

It
didn't take long for my crew of workers to determine those chores
best suited to my skills. As the only female, I've been assigned
the clean-up, lunch, and shopping duties. I'd actually rather wield
a broom than a hammer (fewer opportunities to injure myself), and
don't mind hitting the various lunch locales to bring back food
for the gang. But the shopping part isn't all that fun – it involves
making 2 or 3 trips a day to Home Depot or Lowe's to pick up some
small necessity.

My
trips to those mammoth home improvement stores are so routine I
now have my own sales person, and as long as he's around I get all
the help I want. This is in sharp contrast to my earliest trips,
where finding anyone to help me became quite a challenge.

"Excuse
me," I ask the gentleman sorting through the bins of screws
and nails, "where might I find phone wire?" "Aisle
42" came back the grunted reply. 42? I look up and see I'm
currently in Aisle 3, and spend a minute wondering if there might
be a shuttle bus to 42. 42? My gosh, how big is this place? So I
set off for 42, only to find it has no phone wire whatsoever. It
takes me at least several tries to get the right answer. I now realize
most employees would rather spout a number off the top of their
head to get rid of you, sending you to the far corners of the store,
because they know you'll never make the return trip back to Aisle
3 and let them know just how wrong they were.

But
it turns out, as with most things we undertake these days, doing
the actual work is really the easy part. Because even as a do-it-yourselfer,
you are not permitted to keep the local government completely uninvolved.
I find it interesting that every person I speak to about my project
asks if I've gotten the necessary permits. I'm not sure why they're
interested — do they care enough about me to want someone looking
over my work? Have they fallen under the spell that because the
government SAYS we need permits, we must need them, and we really
can't do this without them?

I
had no intention of inviting the government into my house, into
my life, any more so than they already are. But out of curiosity
I called the permit office in my county to ask for more information.
I went undercover, using an assumed name, as if the person answering
the phone would really care whether or not I did the "right"
thing and called the inspector at each phase of my remodel.

The
conversation was humorous and irritating at the same time. The woman
on the other end of the line was actually pretty patient with me
and my 400 "hypothetical" questions, and I made myself
laugh with my attempts to remain anonymous in this conversation.
I was born without the "lying" gene, and this conversation
just hammered home the point that one would never need to administer
a lie detector test on me. Just read my face or listen to my voice,
and you would know.

But
at the same time, the complete inability to get a definitive answer
to most of my questions was very frustrating. It wasn't because
she didn't try — it seems there are very few definitive answers.
If I'm remodeling my kitchen without moving any appliances, I don't
need a permit. But if I'm putting in "higher end" appliances,
I may anyway because the electrical requirements may be different.

So,
after quite a while I decided to end the conversation since I really
wasn't getting the answers I needed. She offered to send me a booklet,
an offer I accepted (giving the address of a friend, of course),
and within a few days a small packet arrived for me. The booklet
was a bit more clear than the woman at the permit office, but not
by a lot. However, I do think I have figured out what the government
requires of me in my attempts to remodel my house. With the exception
of a few very basic improvements each project would require the
submission of plans, the application for a permit, and the inspection
of my work by some highly-paid "expert" of the county
government.

The
electrical permits are tricky business. It seems the government
will not even allow me to apply for a permit unless I have an electrical
license. I have to take a test to be able to change a switch in
my own house. And as it turns out, I did have to call in an electrician
to upgrade the electrical panel, a job he couldn't do until applying
for the required permits.

Because
of this, I've now had my one experience with the county inspector.
The county requires that the panel be inspected twice — once immediately
after installation to see that the circuit breakers are hooked up
correctly, and then assuming it passes muster, again after the electrician
returns to hook up the main line from the house to the source of
the electricity.

I
have learned that each time an inspector is scheduled to come to
your house, you must plan to be there from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. No shorter
window will be provided until possibly that morning, by which time
you have to have arranged to take the day off from work. If I were
to get every permit I am theoretically required to have, I would
use up all my vacation time and more waiting at my house for the
inspectors.

The
plumbing rules may be the worst. There are a few basic things under
the heading "Plumbing Work by Homeowners." But on the
following page, there is a quite extensive list of projects shown
as "work that may NOT be performed by homeowners."

It
seems that the government is not stopping at telling me I need permits.
It is telling me the work I can and cannot do in my own home. The
government, as always, finds it necessary to watch out for my well-being
by telling me I am not capable of installing or replacing a hot
water heater. Well, okay, I'm actually not capable of it, but I
don't need the government to tell me that.

It
never occurs to them that it behooves me, as the homeowner, not
to undertake any project that will soon result in my house burning
to the ground, blowing up, or otherwise becoming uninhabitable.
I have more of a vested interest in the work done to my house than
any professional or government employee ever will. And they don't
realize that if I do hire an electrician, I won't hire one with
a reputation for careless work. I will pay the market rate for a
professional job and don't need an overpaid county inspector to
come by and tell me that what I did was fine.

I
have hopes that someday, they will all get it. Until then I will
continue to muddle along, dealing with the government when I have
no other choice, but always striving to find a way to minimize that
involvement. Even if it means I have to do every bit of the work
myself.

I
see more Klingon in my future.

August
15, 2003

Allison
Brown [send her mail] is
a financial officer in Maryland.


        
        

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