Home Sweet Home

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