Larry’s Rant #8
I am pissed off today. I am not ticked every day, but everyone has their moments. I need to vent immediately, so it’s time for a rant. Sure, I am busy, and I may not finish this in one sitting, but if I don’t lay it out right now it may not have the tone I want to express.
It has been said that the customer is always right, right? It makes sense, as the customer pays the bills, so they should call the shots. I agree, but the customer is only right until they are wrong. And I guess, since I won’t be working for the gentleman who has inspired this rant, I will not be talking about a customer.
In order to be clear about my position on old houses and historic preservation, I admit to being a bit of a Nazi. Not in the brutal subjugation and killing of people sense, but in being a bit of a stickler, a bit inflexible. Lets just call me particular. I love old houses, the older the better. So when I went to my estimate this morning, I was excited. I was told that the house was built in 1860. Wow! That would be the oldest house foundation repair of my career, if I was fortunate to work on it.
I was a minute or so early, so I took my time walking up. I noted that the house appeared to be built around 1890. Too bad, but still a nice house, and it looks to be in pretty good shape. I do notice a few things right away. The front door isn’t square. And the deck has a coating on it instead of the original wood t&g floor. And, like I said, based on my experience and the architecture, built more like 1880 to 1890, but ok, I’ll just say it’s old and cool.
The client had called because he wants to put in a basement. In San Diego, basements are pretty rare. And putting them in on an existing house is even more rare. I have bid them a number of times, but have only done about one or two a year. Usually I replace an old worn one or add in something small. It can make sense, but there is a lot of work involved in doing them. When you do the math, the reality of what it costs doesn’t match what people think it should cost. In short, you have to excavate in a limited access area, typically without machines, haul away A LOT of dirt, support the house, pour lots of huge walls and seal behind them, and put in French drains, and pay for permits, engineering, finish work, etc. So unless you really wanted one and had money to burn, you probably wouldn’t do it. And if you are calling me for this kind of bid, I usually bring this up on the phone because I don’t want to waste my time (and yours).
However, when the “potential” client called originally, he had me with 1860. Kinda like bacon, I can’t resist it, so that part is on me.
I follow him under the old house, through a pile of stuff (yes, he needs some storage) and the potential of doing this project seems to make sense, due to the height of the rear sub area. But, when I look under the front, uncluttered portion of the sub area, the original foundation is so bad that it made me gasp. Let me be clear, you don’t want your foundation contractor to gasp. We see all kinds of stuff, and most times I yawn and measure for a bid. But this one is bad, as in top 10 bad, and that’s saying something.
The perimeter was supported on small stacks of bricks that may have been mortared at one time, but that mortar is now sand. The piers are 6 feet apart, and a large portion of the areas between was filled with stacked hollow blocks. The technical term in contracting speak is it’s a “P.O.S.,” or if you don’t speak contractor, a “Piece of S%#t.”
Upon gazing on this aged example of 18th century technology, I then said in the most positive voice I could muster (I am not sure my exact words but this is close) “Well this will make sense. You can put in the basement for the back portion of the house and at the same time address the foundation issue for the entire house and make sure it’s safe.” The client pauses as we walk out of the sub area to look at the exterior.
That’s when the client starts giving me the song and dance about how well the house is constructed structurally, in effect stating that there was not one crack in the house, how it’s been here a hundred years, and doesn’t need foundation repairs, just a basement. There’s nothing wrong with the house, The house is stable, blah blah blah.
Now, I know that isn’t true. You can patch plaster cracks all you want, and hide that fact the house has a bad foundation. I’ve seen the truth, and you can tap dance as fast as you want, I still see the man behind the curtain. If it looks like it came out of the back end of a duck, it’s crap, and I don’t need to taste it to know.
But, that’s not my issue. I said “Are you into old cars?” “Sure” He replies. I say then state that doing the basement without addressing the rest of the foundation is like rebuilding the engine and not addressing the rest of the drive train. He states that he doesn’t want to address it, he only wants a quote for a basement. That’s when I stop walking.
Okay, I got a little upset. Not screaming and yelling upset, but as mad as I get on a job site (I’m not a shouter unless I have a guitar strapped to me, and I don’t get upset then). I am happy to give free quotes and free advice, and you don’t have to accept either, but I won’t be party to a half assed job. At my age (I can now say that) I am not about to suffer fools. “Sir,” I said, “If you are not going to fix it right then I can’t be involved.” I thanked him for his time and I left.
Now, don’t think that I am mad at him personally. I don’t get every job, and I didn’t waste a lot of time here. I bet there are contractors who will want to do that job no matter what. I would love to fix that house, and if it’s done right, this is upwards of $100k in work. I am ok if he really can’t afford it. But it is extremely frustrating to see a house like that be neglected by its owner. Thinking you will spend money on a basement and not fix the underlying issues is neglect, especially since you probably have no idea the actual costs involved. I cannot be the only person who will tell him that the foundation needs to be replaced. I know most of my major competitors at least would mention it, and may even agree with me and also walk away from giving a bid. Any competent engineer would be aghast at the condition of the foundation. As far as I am concerned, if a true professional were to state this foundation doesn’t need repair, I want to know who they are so I can stay away from them.
I understand when someone cannot afford to repair his or her foundation. This is often expensive work, and money is tight. So start saving-but don’t bury your head in the sand. A bad foundation can last for many years as long as a major event (Katrina, Earthquake, etc.) doesn’t put stresses on the house, but ignoring it won’t make it go away. I have to assume this guy has some money, otherwise why bother adding a basement?
So bottom line, if you are a client (or a potential client) understand that I am only going to do it right. I can be flexible, but not that flexible. By far, most of the people I meet understand where I am coming from and I appreciate them. You probably would not have read this far if you don’t agree at least a little, and I am glad there are lots of people who appreciate higher standards. I am also thankful that I am not desperate enough for work to compromise my principles.
I think old buildings are a part of our heritage and reflect a level of craftsmanship that cannot be duplicated. I like my clients, and appreciate them, but they are separate from the house itself. The house should still be here after we are all dead and gone. Old houses have soul and we, as caretakers of these houses, have to make sure that they are preserved for generations to come.
Whew, I feel better already….thanks for reading!