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.

Friday, November 17, 2006

I assure you, we're open!

The amount of activity on this blog has been only slightly less than the amount of progress at the houses, so it's time to bring in a new subcontractor. For the blog, that is.

This post comes to you from Mr. Nola, a.k.a. the husband of this blog's executive officer, Nola. I think there had been some confusion on that issue already. I've considered taking the helm for a while now, as Nola is far too busy to manage the blog on top of her other responsibilities. The final straw came when Nola told me that we had been solicited to audition for an ABC reality show as "a homeowner that is in over your head" with renovation projects! I'm sure the offer went out to anyone with a houseblog, but part of me suspects that the scope of our projects and recent silence on this blog were factors.

Nola didn't think she had enough to do already, so she started law school this fall. Until her schedule lightens up and/or Stella's overall health and development rockets forward, blog entries will be submitted from Mr. Nola instead of the original [Ms.] Nola. I hope that this discontinuity will be offset by the additional content.