Friday, June 29, 2007

The meeting of the engineers

Yesterday I was messing around on the city’s website and discovered there’s been a complaint filed about the condition of our yard. Oh dear. Well, I concede that we don’t cut the grass as often as we could, and the contractors haven’t been very meticulous about containing the debris into tidy piles. However, this program is intended for people to report abandoned and neglected properties, which is obviously not the case with our house. It seems that about a dozen houses on our street have been written up for similar problems - mostly uncut grass and weeds - and really our street is not one that is notable for nuisance properties. I imagine one of the neighbors is putting in the complaints as a gentle nudge to remind everyone to clean up their yards. Meh. It worked though - we had the yard guy over today to give a thorough buzz to all the growing things, and got the contractor clean up the scattered debris.

Our bigger issue, that I wouldn’t fault my next-door neighbor at all for complaining about, is the chimney that has sagged about 6 inches since the house got lifted. It hasn’t been properly supported, and is just suspended on the side of the house right now. The fireplace is non-functional anyway, probably since the last big hurricane blew through, so we want to just take the whole thing off, unless it’s cheaper to shore it up and fill in the gap with masonry. Evidently there will be a meeting of the engineers today to decide how to proceed. Each of the contractors and the architect have engineers on the job, so you’d think we’d have avoided the sagging chimney to begin with. I keep telling them I don’t care what they do with it, I just want it done before the whole thing falls on my neighbor’s driveway, or even worse on his car or house.

The meeting of the engineers is also going to discuss the columns supporting the center of the house. The specs from the architect’s engineer called for 8x8 wood columns and laminated wood beams running the length of the house. Mr. Nola, the contractor, and I would like to see something more substantial given the insane weight of the house and the tenacity of local termites. We’d feel better about concrete columns and steel beams - but then we’re not engineers so they ought to tell us the best materials to use. I realize wood has some properties that make it stronger than steel in some applications, so maybe it’s just psychological, but then again I really don’t want to replace a column in five years because some formosan termites have taken up residence in it.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Status update on the big lift

Those with long memories might recall that our house was elevated last November so that we could 1) repair the foundation damage from Hurricane Katrina's flood, and 2) raise the house high enough that we won't have to worry about flooding ever again. The pictures of the big lift are on Flickr, and it was pretty cool to watch. Anyway, this kind of project doesn't just get done in a day. Or a week, or a month, or a year, for that matter. Since November we've seen a few periods where there is a flurry of activity, followed by several weeks of nothing. Mostly we just nod at the contractors and write checks. My primary involvement with the process is securing the financing, which is ongoing and brutal.

We've got scores of guys working on it: our architect (mostly useless, it seems), his engineer (also mostly useless), the foundation contractor (generally good, but hard to get a hold of), his engineer (rumored to exist, I've never met him), his various subs, the general contractor (whom we love), his engineer, his various subs... you get the idea. Sometimes the engineers have to pow-wow over what specs are needed to keep the house in place. Hopefully this results in the best quality outcome as opposed to too many cooks spoiling the broth.

There have been a few hiccoughs along the way, of course. We got a stop work order from the city shortly after the house was lifted, because somehow none of the contractors involved realized we lacked a permit to raise the house. Since we'd been downtown with the plans more than a few times to get sign offs from safety and permits on the project and the funding, I'm baffled as to how nobody at the city ever pointed this particular permit out to us, either. Anyway, the stop work order came in the day before the concrete guy was scheduled to pour the new foundation, and evidently the concrete guy takes weeks to schedule. The foundation contractor's secretary wound up holding a sit-in at the safety and permits office until somebody signed off on the permit. I suspect they just wanted to get rid of her, but I really don't care.

So, the foundation got poured, and the general contractor subsequently began building the framing to go between the foundation and the raised house - basically the walls of the new ground floor, which will be our garage and workshop. This takes a while. Eventually we get word that they're ready to lower the house onto the new walls and foundation, and we were all excited about getting to that milestone. But wait! The day before the house was to be lowered, one of the engineers realizes that one wall of the foundation was POURED SEVEN INCHES OFF FROM WHERE IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN. Seven inches isn't normally a big deal, unless you've got a six-inch wide wall that is supposed to rest directly on top of it.

Houston, we have a problem.

Remarkably, the concrete guy who previously took weeks to schedule came out the next day and poured a new foundation right next to the old one. Fortunately the footings underneath had been poured wide enough to accomodate both. Unfortunately, the wall built by the general contractor has to be taken down and rebuilt. Because it's structural, they can't reuse the same panels, and a decent chunk of work has to be replaced. The foundation guy doesn't seem to know it yet, but they're paying for it. Our best guess is that whoever measured to lay our the foundation forms started from the inside of the opposite wall instead of the outside, which is an understandable mistake, but it still set us back about a month, and cost several thousand dollars in materials and labor. Feh.

So here's a picture of the house with the framed in garage, just before it was lowered into final position.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Come to New Orleans

Let's all drink a toast to the New Orleans Saints, who have done a fine job of reminding the country that we're still here and we're coming back. Even though our Cinderella season is over, the season of celebrating in New Orleans is just getting underway. If you want to do something to support one of America's great cities, you should come on down. Come to Mardi Gras. Come to Jazz Fest. If you want to look like a cool insider, come to French Quarter Fest, which is less crowded than Jazz Fest, and it's Free!

If you can't afford a hotel, you can pitch a tent in my yard. You could volunteer with a clean-up team somewhere if you're so inclined, but you can also help out just by eating in some fabulous French Quarter restaurants. You can join the paparazzi stalking Brangelina outside their Quarter mansion. You can hear legendary jazz musicians, check out our world-class zoo and aquarium, or if you're a history buff, visit the National World War II museum.

You'll have a great time, and you can do your good dead for the year just by taking a vacation, and then telling your friends back home to do the same.

Monday, December 18, 2006

I hope we never have to move...

Because so help me God, I am never applying for a mortgage again.

Most housebloggers have mortgages, or at least have had one in the past. There's a Byzantine application with loads of records to produce. Even so-called "low-doc" loans require a lot of documentation. But once you get approved, you set a date to close, sign your name a million or so times, and the loan is done. A pain in the neck, but not unreasonable given the amount of money involved.

Then you have the SBA. Because our property was damaged in a disaster, I am eligible for an SBA loan to pay for damages not covered by insurance. Until August of 2005, both Mr. Nola and I had very good credit histories. We met the loan requirements pretty easily, filed a fairly standard mortgage application, and were approved for the loan a little over a year ago.

12 months later, we've still only received about 10% of the approved loan. It has been a constant struggle to move our loan through the SBA's system. Every few weeks, I call asking about the money. Every few weeks, they come up with another hoop for me to jump through. I've visited the office multiple times to turn in forms, paid multiple processing, application, or title fees, and it's just never done. I paid recording fees in August, and again in October (when they realized they charged me the wrong amount in August.)

Most recently the SBA lady told me I had to get title insurance - even though I still had a valid title policy at the time the loan was approved, it has expired during the processing period so it has to be reissued. Who do you suppose will pay for that? Nonetheless, the rest of the funds cannot be disbursed without a title policy naming SBA as a co-insured, so off to the title company I go. And what do I learn there, but that the SBA has not recorded the mortgage with the city, despite my having paid nearly $500 in recording fees. So I can't get the loan money from the SBA because they have failed to do their own paperwork. Meanwhile, my house is eight feet in the air, and Boudreaux the contractor wants his money.

I know government programs are supposed to be bureaucratic, but really. This is Kafka-esque.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

FEMA Study Shack

'Tis I, Nola, ensconced in my FEMA trailer while I study for my first-ever law school exams. To my right, I can see Mr. Nola and his dad painting in Maison Derriere. To my left, I can see straight through to the street around the lincoln-log type pilings holding That Old House off the ground. The lone remnant of landscaping is there, a sad little desiccated camellia, the only one in the hedge that survived the flooding, but not the subsequent neglect. All of the other trees/shrubs have gone the way of the dumpster.

Earlier, some of Boudreaux's crew were here, jackhammering the walls of the old basement. The rubble from the walls is being tossed into the area below ground level, so less fill will have to be brought in to eliminate the sunken basement. Around the perimeter, all of the old foundation has been removed and a trench dug for the new chain wall. There were at least four different types of structure used as the old foundation. No wonder the house settled crooked.

It's very comforting having the whole thing resting on steel I-beams right now. Something about all that steel just feels more solid than wood beams, even though I know intellectually that wood beams have physical properties that are in some ways superior. I kind of hope we can keep the steel beams. We certainly wouldn't have to worry about termites getting through them.

The guys with the jackhammers are back, which tells me that I should get back to work as well. The FEMA trailer may be completely impractical as a dwelling, but it's a great study shack. I've got a table to work at, a bed to nap in, a refrigerator and microwave for brain food, plus there's nobody around to object if I cough my head off. Beats the heck out of the library.

Monday, November 27, 2006

But wait, there's more!

Mr. Nola posting:
While the work at TOH was rocketing ahead, there was also a flurry of activity at Maison Derriere. A nasty flu conspired with my complete inability to estimate a realistic schedule, putting us several weeks behind on the painting. This was going to be a problem as soon as the cabinets were delivered because I had scheduled SurferDude's crew to receive and install them. So the weekend was spent in a marathon paint blitz in a house with no power nor water, taking occasional breaks to look next door and see the preparations underway to lift TOH.

Enough of the walls were painted that SD was able to install the cabinets, but there remains a lot of painting to finish. I need to accept the fact that I am not a fast painter. Unfortunately, I have fully embraced the fact that I'm too cheap to pay a professional to do the job, causing Nola no small amount of consternation.

I have mixed feelings about the previously mentioned "disappearing roofer." Whenever I have him on the phone he seems like a sincerely nice person. The problem is that his promises to finish the job, or even to call me if he can't make it, have gone unkept for too long. I had him on the phone again today and I heard the same line that I've heard every other day for the past month. If he shows up to finish the job, I might dignify him with a nom de blog; at the very least I shall stop complaining about him. But the smart money bets that he won't show up tomorrow. I will say this in his favor: at least he doesn't screen incoming calls. I have seen a dozen contractors who decided not to pick up the phone because a current or former client is calling-- I always worried that it would be my call that they ignore next time.

I met SD's plumber at Maison Derriere this afternoon and remain cautiously optimistic. The utility room floor plan has been reconfigured to something a little more workable. This new layout can be completely buggered with a poorly placed pipe, so the plumber has to think in three dimensions and use (gasp!) a certain amount of common sense when re-plumbing for the contents of this room, or the adjacent kitchen, or the two bathrooms that are directly overhead. Admittedly, this isn't the easiest problem that the noble trade of plumbing has ever seen. If it were easy, I would do it myself.*

* The agony you Jedi just felt was Nola, flinching at the idea of me taking on any more DIY projects as part of this undertaking.

Airborne House!!

That Old House is up in the air! Mr. Nola here, and I guess I brought this upon myself. A few well-intentioned updates to Nola's blog and suddenly EVERYTHING happens at once. It's been almost a year since we told the foundation guys that we wanted to save the house, which meant lifting. We started hearing rumors of "two weeks" back in April, and "any day now" promises such as this one ever since.

Frankly, I did not believe it when I was told that a crew was going to drop off lifting jacks over the weekend... we had heard this before and it never came to fruition. But I am astonished over how much happened in the course of three days. The entire lift happened while I was at work-- about eight feet in less than six hours, so I missed the whole thing. I'm told that the lifting process was slow enough to be imperceptible, something along the lines of 15 minutes per foot, pausing between each lift to reset the equipment and supports. Neighbors didn't report any cracking nor crashing sounds, and the proof of the result is in the pictures. Not a lot of advance notice, but we FINALLY have something to show for all this waiting.

Unfortunately the time-lapse photos did not work out as planned, so there will be no movie to post. There are a bunch of pics taken at various points of the lift over on Flickr.

This was apparently a very big deal to more than just us. Despite the shoring contractors having been in the business for six generations, most of Boudreaux's family (including Mama and Papa Boudreaux) came out to witness the lift in progress. Now that TOH is in mid-air, it has more people snapping it's picture than Lindsay Lohan's boobs. The former owners, on vacation at the time of the lift, received no less than four phone urgent calls regarding "what happened to their house." I even saw a fender-bender caused by a pair of rubbernecking gawkers who were more interested in our airborne house than the road - I really thought that New Orleans had seen it all by now, but it's good to know that total strangers share our excitement.

This is probably one of the points where work seems to grind to a halt, but the timing could be worse. The old foundation needs to be ripped out before the new one can be poured, and then the concrete must harden for a few weeks before anything should be built on top of it. Each of these milestones comes with an invoice, and we still need to come up with a *huge* wad of cash for the work that was already done in the last week. Even though we're approved, the funding sources need to move money from their control into ours. This takes time, but our contractors want to be paid about as much as I want to keep them working at a good clip.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Mr. Nola is determined to make this blog current

Since TOH is stuck in purgatory, and we are desperate to get out of a suburban apartment complex and return to our lives in Uptown New Orleans, Maison Derriere is our big priority. Unfortunately we had a run of bad luck with subcontractors.

Our plumber was great... couldn't think of a bad thing to say about him. Note my use of the past tense. After Katrina, he started to miss appointments, rarely returned calls, and eventually his overflowing voice mail was simply disabled. I have no idea what happened to him, nor what changed, but I have yet to find a plumber who was anything like this one. Matt, if you're out there, please CALL US!

The electrical work on Maison Derriere was supposed to have been done by Sam, the electrician we've used for a decade. We scheduled his start date before purchasing Maison Derriere and were understanding when he said that he was running late, but he later announced that his wife convinced him to retire, so he would not start our job. I wish him well and he certainly deserves it, having worked as an electrician twice as long as Ms. Nola and I have been alive, but we didn't know where to turn.

Not wanting to leave us hanging, our retiring electrician recommended another guy. Turns out that this electrician, let's call him Bubba, employs Sam JUNIOR. Sam Jr. doesn't want to run his own business and is content to be dropped off at a jobsite and do what Bubba tells him to do. With the exception of picking up checks, Bubba has yet to show up on time for a single meeting. Bubba has lied about work that would be done, about work that had been done, and about the paperwork.

We haven't seen Bubba for over two months, despite numerous promises that haven't been fulfilled. If we fire him, we're out $3k for work that I paid for but later learned wasn't complete. Worse still, the sheetrock is now up and several electricians have told me that they will NOT finish a job started by another company. So unless we want to hire somebody who is disreputable from the start, or rip out all the wiring that's already finished, we're probably stuck with Bubba.

The roofer... oy. People in New Orleans will tell you that a good roofer around here was worth their weight in gold BEFORE Katrina, and that's about what you would expect to pay. After Katrina, there are plenty of roofers around and the prices are lower, but it's anybody's guess if the roofer will do a decent job. With plenty of roofers setting up shop on the Gulf Coast hoping to cash in, you may imagine that there are plenty of scam artists, and even some of the good guys will abandon current jobs and customers in favor of a bigger/faster payday. This trend proved reliable, and we had arrangements with three roofers in a row who never got around to starting our little job. One even started but then took off after the first day when a better offer came in. We managed to find someone --I'm not even going to bother with a nom de blog-- who seemed nice enough and eventually (5 weeks later than promised) started the job. The only problem is that the employee he sent up to our roof left one vent unfinished, promising to come back the following day. The office manager came to pick up a check, having assumed (as did I) that the job was finished. I have been chasing these guys for weeks, getting one promise after another that the job will be finished immediately. Finishing the small job that they were already paid for isn't nearly as profitable as moving on to something else, so they never keep their promises to show up. Filing a complaint with the contractors' licensing board is very time-consuming and mostly ineffective, so that's truly a last resort.

There is one shining star in our contractor mess-- I call him SurferDude. He defies every single contractor stereotype you could come up with. If Nola were to have a crush on him, I wouldn't blame her a bit. Making matters worse for me, his carpenters are young, good-looking guys with Scottish accents... Nola swoons. They are a relatively inexperienced crew, so mistakes happen, but SurferDude always acknowledges if there was a problem and [gasp!] he FIXES it! Occasionally the lack of experience shows in the details --remember not to place a lightswitch where it would be blocked by an open door-- but they are minor and manageable if you know what you want and can present a clear plan in advance. SD and his staff always show up when expected, they are enthusiastic and honest... I just hope that our jobs are finished before these guys burn out!

Mr. Nola Continues

The nice pace of progress at Maison Derriere has stalled. Badly. Yet work there has been moving at a lightning pace when compared to the progress at That Old House.

As mentioned by Ms. Nola, there is very little that can be done at TOH until our shoring company finally comes and gets the house up in the air. If we replace the roof, it will surely be damaged while lifting the entire structure eight feet. Same for sheetrock inside, and even most framing changes. So we're at the mercy of a shoring company that has been promising to begin work "in two weeks" or "next week" since May. The current promise (from Monday) was to have started moving equipment to our site by the end of this week... Saturday is upon us and nothing was done. The idea that we could have hired a different company --perhaps an out-of-towner that wasn't already familiar with the this house-- and had the work finished by now is frustrating, unsettling, and oddly comforting, all at the same time. Rather than play armchair quarterback, I just hope that our contractor will do a better job than another could have. If, of course, they ever get started.

Another issue which has represented at least part of the delay is funding. Our insurance settlement --the part that we did receive-- is being held hostage by the mortgage company. They won't issue any part of that until we can show progress, but we will need to write some enormous checks on the day that the contractor starts working. We're keeping money on hand, but we're broke. Go figure. The FEMA/SBA loan is a similar challenge, further complicated by the arcane bureaucratic quagmire that you've probably heard others complain about endlessly, and I'd rather not go on about here. The sad thing is that we're not asking for a handout... this is a freaking LOAN that we pre-qualified for within a couple weeks of Katrina. But all the red tape has required the effort of a full-time job just to cut through. Ms. Nola is a real trooper here, and she deserves a lot of credit for her persistence and organization. Without her, the entire financial side of this equation would simply not have gotten off the ground.

Speaking of funding and the SBA loan, Chateau Danneel can't put on the market yet. It would be nice to cash out and run, but there is some complexity with new liens on that property. To be on the safe side, we would like to make a big dent in the work for TOH (and its associated cash outlay) before we list CD for sale. Hopefully we can sell it before the larger capital gains tax kicks in, which is (I think) 2 years after moving out of a property.

The lawsuit against our insurance company, who "forgot" to activate part of our flood coverage, is going to be a longer battle than we hoped. A settlement would have been the smart thing on their part, but they seem to think that we can be scared off if they drag this on long enough. So this case will probably go to trial, maybe sometime in 2008, and we eventually expect to win. Our lawyer is skilled and enthusiastic, and the facts are solidly in our favor. But it will be a long and frustrating fight.