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Tools can't fix this renovation drama
The infamous pass-through window - photo by Charlie Ribbens

THE TIMES are tough when it comes to finances and real estate. So I thought it would be easier to renovate my house rather than sell it and upgrade to a better one.

After all, the hardy professionals on the home renovation shows make it look so easy. Don’t believe them.

My historic Thunderbolt house has a great layout and a spacious backyard under a serene live oak canopy. However, it also had two ghetto-fabulous rooms, bless its heart.

The tiny kitchen was cobbled together with office ceiling tiles, cheap wood paneling and press-on linoleum flooring. The yellow laminate countertops had been sponge dabbed with forest green paint — a craft project only the previous owner/artist could love.

Upstairs, the bathroom had a raised floor to make room for plumbing, yet the door was set flush with the outside floor. This made the top of the doorway perfect for forehead bashing when I stepped up into the bathroom.

And when I did step up, I had to step aside too because the toilet was six inches from the doorway and so close to a Barney-purple vanity that I couldn’t sit on the toilet with my knees together. I learned to hang my long legs out into the hall.

In the kitchen, I wanted only three things: new counter tops, an upgraded fuse box and a pass-through between the kitchen and the living room. These desires triggered a frightening, though exhilarating, cascade of demolition that revealed a boarded over window, rotten floor boards, rusted out plumbing, lack of insulation, and knob-and-tubing wiring (common in houses built before the 1930s).

With all that gone, there was no reason to keep the washer and ancient hot water heater in the room, so we ripped them out and found a pile of tiny fang-filled skulls and skeletons covered with delicately thin skin. But that graveyard was nowhere near as exciting as the newly exposed electrical outlet that scared even the electricians.

“One spark away from burning down!” Guss the electrician exclaimed, rushing to his truck to get a camera. Old, but live, fabric-wrapped wires led into a double-plug wall outlet.

This kind of outlet was only supposed to be used inside a protective box inside the wall, yet this one had just been nailed to the baseboard and wrapped with black electrical tape. Prongs from some device had been broken off inside the bottom plug. A lamp cord was stuck in the top plug, and the cord trailed up the wall and into the back of another outlet nailed to the wall above the counter.

“Your insurance paid up?” Guss asked.

Kitchen demolition continued, the costs kept mounting, and the pace kept slowing down as new tasks appeared. For example, late one night, tired and cranky, I threw a hammer at the dirty yellow concrete pillar in the corner of the kitchen. The resulting gouge revealed a beautiful red brick chimney — thus creating six more hours of work to remove the rest of the concrete.

The demolition finally stopped when there was nothing but empty wall studs and the view of the dirt below the floor joists. All but the kitchen sink ended up in the dumpster in the front yard.

And then the bathroom became incontinent.

Telltale stains grew on the dining room ceiling below it. Under the raised bathroom floor boards, I discovered that someone had tried to repair a leaky pipe by pouring concrete over it — idiots. The bathroom plumbing had to be replaced at the same time as the bad kitchen plumbing.

The plumber my contractor recommended caused so much stress that the thought of him still makes me mumble curse words. Like a politician, this man said all the right things, but sent two assistants to do the actual work.

Evil versions of Laurel and Hardy, they appeared on unpredictable days, littered my driveway with Pepsi bottles and Dorito bags, and purposely put dirty handprints on the freshly painted walls.

Each instance left me feeling violated, but I held my temper. I had already paid $1,500 and owed another $1,000 for the rest of the job.

When one of them put out a cigarette on the bedroom hardwood floor, I called the plumber and demanded he come to the house to talk about the problems.

“My guys would never do that,” Alan said defiantly.

“And my boyfriend wouldn’t do that, and he’s the only other person with a key,” I countered with a sinking acceptance that the conversation was pointless.

I felt cornered. The pedestal sink and repositioned toilet hadn’t been reconnected, there wasn’t plumbing in the kitchen, and the new hot water heater wasn’t hooked up. Fortunately, I could live with my boyfriend until the chaos was over. My mantra — “I’ll move back to my house next week” — lasted seven months.

It was only days later when the assistants’ next offense shoved me over the edge. They slammed PVC pipes against my delicately aged fence, breaking out wooden slats and leaving the pipes where they fell.

When I saw the damage, the thunderous clouds of my rage parted, and my course became clear. I changed the locks.

I randomly picked a plumber out of the phone book, who came the next day. For less than the remaining payment due, Curtis finished all the plumbing jobs in less than eight hours.

He also found a way to work around the fact that the assistants had put in the wrong plumbing for a pedestal sink (the pipes should come out of the wall, not the floor). My hero.

It took five days before the plumber realized he was fired. During an angry phone call, he threatened to put a lien on my house.

“I would love, absolutely love, to tell a judge and the public — for the record — what I have had to put up with,” I taunted. “I have photos of the damage and kept all the little gifts they left behind. You wanna bet your business on whose spit is on that cigarette butt, bring it on!” He hung up.

I never heard from him again, but he got the last laugh. A few days later I found one of my empty cat litter buckets upside down behind the petite greenhouse in the back yard. While they had been working on the house, the assistants had cut a hole in it and used it upside down as a toilet.

This never happens to Norm Abram. cs

Kristine K. Stevens is web content producer at SCAD.