20 Years and Counting
Here it is 2015, and I am realizing that 20 years ago I first got my contractors license. Other than obviously feeling depression about how old I am getting, I can say that maybe, just maybe, a little knowledge has fallen in my lap over that time. They say you learn from your mistakes. If that is true, just call me “Super Genius”. Yes, that is a Wile E. Coyote cartoon quote, which again shows my age.
I am feeling good though, as I have been playing lots of guitar lately. Yes, I am a musician too. My stage name is “Chickenbone Slim”, coming soon to a town near you. I play the blues, which is more of a starving than a living, but it’s good for my mental health.
Usually, a little anger is motivational. However, I find myself less angry than just mystified. I feel like I have a lot of repeat questions that seem to repeat themselves over and over again. Did I mention they repeat? It’s my personal groundhog day. I may not be the coolest beer in the fridge, but I’ve been in the fridge a long time, so I have found out a few things.
First, I get a lot of calls from people and their agents who are buying houses. This is really where the bulk of my business comes from. When someone buys a house, possibly the scariest issue is the foundation. I get that, and I am grateful for those calls, because that is how foundation issues get dealt with. When you buy a house, you need to know how much it costs to get the house you are expecting to buy, and since foundation issues are a bit out of most people’s experience, it can be a little intimidating.
One typical thing that cracks me up is the real estate agent who feels they need to spell out what they want. “We need a cost estimate on the foundation repairs so that the buyer can understand what needs to be repaired and we can negotiate with the seller.” Usually it takes much longer to get to the point. No, really? As of today I have done over 12,000 estimates, probably 75% for real estate transactions. So, I get the drill. Yes, some of those estimates are the fifth estimate for a particular problem, (you may be surprised how long it takes for some of these issues to be addressed. The record for me is 14 years) but nonetheless, I think by now I understand how the process works. I am not saying I’m perfect, but the horse knows the way to the barn.
That just makes me laugh inside. But when I get the request to “make the estimate as large as possible so I can get a better deal on this property,” I get a little concerned. Is that what I am in business for? I thought I was trying to earn a living for my family, to pay my workers a fair wage so they can pay their bills, and trying to make my client’s homes safe and secure. I didn’t realize my free estimate was something that you really aren’t getting for the purpose of actually doing the work, but your are hoping I will basically lie about the issues, just so I can get you a better price. While I am not the cheapest in town, I will do it right for a fair price, not make up crap for your deal. It’s just not the way I roll.
Of course, there are lots of stock phrases I hear. After requesting a written lie from me, (oh, was that too harsh? How about a “factually variable cost opinion’?) the next thing I hear is (if we are still actually talking at this point) “Oh, once we buy it, you will be who we use to do the work.” At a lower price, of course. Or I will hear, “I will get you lots of work down the road (because I am the next Donald Trump)” or “I have lots of friends who will hire you (but not me)” or “I am looking for a foundation repair guy for my vast real estate holdings (cause I have never had this work done before and I am clueless but really just want to ignore the problem and not fix it because I really just want to flip this house and conveniently forget there is an issue or cover up the problems and make my money and retire to Tahiti).” Like you aren’t the first guy to try this scam. Do I sound bitter? Not as bitter as the poor buyer who inherits the problem.
This is my answer (I have practiced this so I can say it in my sleep). “When I do a bid on a property for sale, it is likely that you will not end up buying it. I will then have an unrealistic bid on that house, and when the next buyer or seller sees it (and gets other bids) he is going to throw it in the trash and I will not get the work. I bid it to get it, not to get you a better deal.” So, don’t ask me to lie for you. I admit, I am here to make money, and I do so by helping people fix their homes, not by making up foundation problems and over-pricing repairs.
A more benign issue is the unknown slab problem. I live in a slab house,and like them fine, but I prefer older raised foundation homes. Why? They are easy to see. I can look in the sub area, and the problems are easier to figure out. Slabs are hidden by flooring. So the typical conversation goes like this-
Client: “Can you come out and look at my slab foundation house and tell me if there is a problem?”
Me-”Possibly. Why do you ask?”
Client-”I am concerned there is a foundation problem.”
Me-”What makes you think there may be a foundation problem?”
Client-”I saw a crack in the drywall.”
Me-”How long since you’ve painted”
Client-”I don’t know. Maybe 10 years ago.”
Me-”How long have you seen that crack?”
Client- “Two years ago.”
Me-”Can you see the concrete slab? Is it cracked or tilting?”
Client-”No, I can’t see the slab. It has tile and hardwood and laminate and carpet flooring covering the slab.”
Me”-Is the slab sloping? Do the doors and windows work?”
Client-”I can’t tell. The doors and windows work”
Me-”Is there a evidence of a vertical crack in the edge of the slab that goes up and down on the exterior?”
Me-”So, again, what makes you think there is an issue?”
Client-”I am just buying the house/inherited the house/lived in the house for 20 years/ want to paint/want to remodel/my contractor, relative and friends who have no experience in foundations think there might be an issue, I am nervous and haven’t had anything to worry about lately.”
Me-”Have you had an engineer look at it and make recommendations?”
Me-”Are you willing to pull up the flooring?”
Me-”I am afraid I can’t really bid anything unless I see some sort of damages to repair.”
Client: “But don’t you have a way to see if there is a problem”
Me: “Sorry, I lost my x-ray glasses” (Okay, I don’t usually say that)
At this point I explain that I am a foundation repair contractor. I give bids for repairs. Often, I can see exactly what is going on, and can get a good price for repairs. However, I don’t like to guess, and I don’t like to make up repairs that are unnecessary. So, if I can’t see anything, I can’t really give a bid, right? That’s when I recommend an engineer. Just so you know, I have engineers I like, but don’t pay them and they don’t pay me. I just expect them to do good work.
Engineer’s are hired for their professional opinion. A Civil Engineer can look at the structure, etc. and make a determination about what should be done. They don’t have x-ray glasses either, but can measure floor levels, etc. If there is an underlying soils issue they may refer you to a Geotechnical Engineer, which is a civil engineer who understands the dirt. They can tell if you are on fill soil, clay soil, etc. The engineer makes recommendations (usually in a report) and we can provide a bid based on that report. Yes, they charge for their service. They carry the right insurance to perform their work, and (if they are competent) have the knowledge and experience to back up their recommendations. They are all different, so talk to one or more if you need that kind of help.
I am not trying to get out of anything, but I don’t want to waste our time (mine and yours) by not being able to give you anything useful, and only sending you to the engineer anyway. Again, my job is to bid jobs, and if that takes some diagnosing and insight, fine, but I have limits.
Next is a simple question I get before every job on a house with a raised foundation. People assume that they need to move out for us to perform the repairs. Generally, you don’t need to. The work is done outside and underneath, and we really don’t want to be in your house. When we replace a foundation, we do not lift the house in the air and then set it back down. That’s the old way and it stinks. You have to disconnect the plumbing etc., and then you would need to move out (unless you hate showers and like using porta potties). We do it in place, which means you stay in place. We adjust the house and get it level, then pour a new foundation in place. It’s dirty and take a long time, but you can stay home.
This leads to another question. People ask “Will you break my house?” The answer is Yes. But to really answer your question, we have to define that we will not break your house in half. When we replace a foundation or level the floors in your house, we are going to break something in the house. Not maybe-for sure! Maybe we will just crack some plaster. That is par for the course. I guarantee, if I am working on your house, it’s already cracked in the plaster. Perhaps it is repaired, but it’s cracked underneath,a and that crack will likely reoccur. Maybe a door will need adjusting, or a window. Tile will crack. The list goes on. I tell every client, and I put it in my contract, and I put it in the estimate, so this is usually well understood. Inevitably, for some people it is a surprise
that something broke. Usually, the damage is minor, and the client gets it. We really try not to break things, but when you lift a house, put it on jacks, and push a rigid structure around, things can and do break. These damages are generally cosmetic and specific.
If you have an old house, and it has plaster, that plaster has cracked before. Look close, and you will see patches and old cracks. When you push the house back to level, those cracks will reappear. You will need to fix them, and you will need to paint. If a door was adjusted to latch when the house settled, then you will need to readjust it when the house is leveled. I can’t predict the extent of repairs that will be necessary (or it’s cost) but it’s not $20. I cannot bid work that I cannot define, and that I don’t do (like windows). Like a boy scout, you need to be prepared.
The biggest issues of things that can break are plumbing and chimneys. While generally plumbing does well, cast iron drain lines are rated at 50 years. Unless your home was built after 1963, then you are living on borrowed time with your drains. This doesn’t mean it will break, but please don’t be shocked if it does. We get pretty intimate with the bottom of your house, so we may find existing issues such as leaky pipes before we even start lifting the house.
Chimneys are a special case. I have broken maybe a half dozen chimneys over my career. The old ones have brittle mortar, and are connected to the framing, so they can be affected. Breaking a chimney is something we try very hard not to do, but I never, (again for emphasis) NEVER guarantee them. We can push a house nowhere close to a chimney, and it can still break. I will now quote my contract- “Contractor is not responsible for any and all damages resulting from this work to unreinforced chimneys in any way.” I know this will not stop people from being upset when the chimney does break, but at least I can say they were warned. It’s like skydiving and being surprised when the chute doesn’t open. We can’t take the risk for you. If we don’t level the house
the chimney (probably) won’t be affected, but if we do then you take the chance. So please don’t try to take it out on me. You can cry on my shoulder, as I feel your pain.
Wow, I feel better getting that off my chest. If you have read this long, thank you! If you haven’t read to this point, then you are a slacker. Of course that’s not you! If you skipped forward you are just like me, a bit of slacker sprinkled with curiosity, which I respect.