Thursday, April 21, 2011

Random Act of Journalism

So a few weeks back, I wrote about the house for the Monterey County Weekly, where I'm the editor. A friend suggested wryly on Facebook that the story was a result of either an "egomaniacal editor, or a slow news week." In reality, it was time for our annual home and garden cover feature, it was my turn do to a cover piece and it's sometimes good to write what you know. Not that the egomaniacal part isn't correct. Being unsure of yourself is not a quality you can possess when you edit a newspaper.

Blogger, for some reason, won't embed the link. I'll copy and paste the whole thing at the bottom of the post.

This story prompted one city planning department employee to ask— out loud, mind you, and not as part of any internal or existential dialogue— "I don't know if I should be mad about this story or not." My theory is, if you have to ask the question about whether or not something should piss you off, then the answer is no. With a sharp blow to the head. Believe me, when I piss you off intentionally, you'll know it.

Housewise, there's more movement than before. We hosted a friend's birthday party last Sunday, which required us to get our acts together, clean a bunch, put a bunch away and socialize. But then the floor guy came on Saturday and started sanding the first floor, which means everything is all torn up and dusty again. He put the first coat on the living room and hallway, and it's lovely. Tomorrow he finishes the kitchen and I think, although I'm not sure, he may do the dining room as well. Next weekend, we start the great push to turn the front yard into a micro-farm. That should piss the city off too.

How renovating a house was as much about building tension as building a home.

By Mary Duan Thursday, April 7, 2011

How long into a renovation project is it reasonable to begin fantasizing about taking a hit out on your contractor? And by fantasy, I mean talking to a friend who happens to be a criminal defense attorney about the mechanics of actually taking out a hit on my contractor.

“No no, I really want to know. What are the chances of getting caught?” I prod my friend over coffee at the Cherry Bean in Old Town. “I mean, where in Salinas does one even go to hire a hit man?”

“We are not having this conversation,” he says flicking an imperceptible piece of lint from the collar of a very nice dark blue suit. “But if you get caught, remember to keep your mouth shut and invoke your right to counsel immediately. And then call me.”

He knows, and I know (and any law enforcement types who happen to be reading this should know) that I have no intention of actually killing anyone, or hiring anyone to do it for me.

But on Jan. 5, the desire was certainly there.

That’s the day that I realized I was fully caught up in the home rehab vortex.

It’s a place where actual time has no meaning, a bizarro land in which our contractor and the fire sprinkler subcontractor had so antagonized each other that the sprinkler company slapped a lien on the house – conditional lien release notwithstanding – and the contractor, in turn, threatened to sue them. It’s the day the architect hired by the contractor had metaphorically raised his middle finger to my husband and me from the safety of his office 157 miles away in Santa Rosa, saying, “I don’t work for you, I work for your contractor.”

It’s also the very same day a building inspector from the city of Salinas, a man known around town as “Red Tag Dave,” came full bore into my life.

If you’ve driven through Old Town any time in the past 121 years, you’ve probably seen the house. It’s the stupidly large Queen Anne next door to the mortuary, the three-story monster with 13 separate kinds of architectural gingerbread work, a turret and (strange in landlocked Salinas) a widow’s walk on the roof. Depending on which decade of rumor you’re listening to, the house has been a whorehouse, a halfway house, a flophouse, a meth house or a crash house where bored teenagers used to break in, break windows and banisters, get drunk and have sex.

One of those rumors is true. Based on the number of broken windows and banisters that had to be replaced, and the number of beer bottles we had to recycle when my husband and I bought it in February 2010, there has been nothing much else for the 13 – to 19-year-old set to do in South Salinas for the past three years other than break stuff, drink and fool around in the sad wreck of a vacant Victorian on Pajaro Street.

It wasn’t always sad, and it wasn’t always vacant. For 109 of the last 121 years, it had been a home owned only by two families: The Iversons, who built it in 1890, and the Rudolphs, who bought it from the Iversons in 1896.

In 1999, Diana Rudolph, the widow of Rudolph grandson Bertram Rudolph, looked around. She and her husband had raised their children in that house. But they were grown and gone, and so was he. She didn’t need that much space anymore, and Bertram had left her a wealthy woman; she sold the place for $240,000 to local real estate developer Eddie DeCarli.

Remembering the Salinas Valley real estate market of the late ’90s and early aughts is to recall the start of the insanity. Salinas rapidly became a bedroom community for Silicon Valley. Housing prices soared, business was good all over and DeCarli, by all accounts a smart businessman, bought the house as a side project with plans to turn it into office suites for attorneys or accountants.

He gave it a new roof, installed new rough plumbing, jacked it up and poured a new foundation. Workers gutted the inside to the studs, installed cabling for high-speed, Cat 5 ethernet – and tore out everything that made the place a Victorian. A 7-foot, hand-made copper bathtub was tossed to the curb. Hand-carved fireplace mantles were torn out. The pocket doors that separated some of the downstairs rooms also were tossed. (I’m told a guy named Mike has those. Mike, if you’re reading this, call me.)

Then in 2007, with the interior still gutted and the project incomplete, the dominoes began to fall. The bubble burst, and work on the house and several other projects DeCarli had going came to a complete halt; DeCarli, I’m told, used to spend long hours standing outside the house, smoking and staring.

“It was an ocean of pain,” says someone who watched it happen. “I’ve never seen anything so sad.”

The keys went back to the bank in 2008.

It’s discomfiting, knowing the way you’re trying to live your life has been born directly from someone else’s despair. But before we could wrap our arms around buying a house out of foreclosure, we had to wrap our minds around getting out of Berkeley.

We moved our family of four from Salinas to the East Bay in the summer of 2008, lured by a great tech job for my geek husband and the potential of a more lively atmosphere for the family. We bought a tiny, overpriced house in North Berkeley (home to the “North Berkeley Entitled Elite,” as my Stanford Ph.D. neighbor wryly quipped in his British-Indian accent) and tried to settle in.

A year later: Chuck and I pay an Oakland business called “The Rat Patrol” $500 to deal with an overwhelming rodent infestation. Tales of drug dealing, theft, fights and weapons at Berkeley High became routine dinner conversation. I nearly get run over every time I step out of my house (hey Berkeley drivers – you suck!). Don’t get me started on the needle exchange truck parked outside the entrance to my youngest’s summer camp. I look at Chuck one August night as we sit in our rat-tastic house three blocks from Chez Panisse, and say, “Not one more minute. I won’t stay here, not one more minute. Take me back to Salinas.”

Berkeley had rubbed off on us a little bit, though. Going into house hunting, we wanted two things – a walkable neighborhood close to things (coffee, movies, groceries), and enough space to raise a few chickens and grow our own vegetables. In Berkeley, urban chickens are nearly a requirement of home ownership.

But finding a house even while millions of people frantically mailed their keys back to various banks proved a challenge. We lost out on two places in rapid succession, our VA-guaranteed loan trumped by all – or mostly cash offers. Chuck was driving down Pajaro Street when he got the news about the last one, a mid-century marvel on a cul de sac near Hartnell College with a brick-hearth fireplace in the kitchen, a wood-paneled bar and rec room a la Mad Men in the basement and a neighbor with, gasp, chickens. Chuck saw the enormous “available” sign from Pacific Valley Bank in front of the Victorian, figured “Why not?” and headed to the bank.

Ben Tinkey, then PVB’s president, looked at Chuck for a long minute when he asked about the house. He reached into his desk, pulled out a key, handed it over and said, “Go take a look and see what you’re getting yourself into.”

As Chuck says now, a fine covering of drywall dust powdering everything we own, “When we decided to do this, I asked the wrong question. I asked ‘Can we do this?’ I should have asked, ‘How hard will it be?’”

“Why is the architect in Santa Rosa?” someone asked me. “They have perfectly good architects here.”

It’s true, they do. But the architect is in Santa Rosa because our contractor is in Santa Rosa. And the contractor is in Santa Rosa for a few reasons: We were working on such a severely restricted budget that I couldn’t get anyone local to take me seriously, and…

We were working on such a severely restricted budget that I couldn’t get anyone local to take me seriously.

What we were getting into was a wholesale rehab of the gutted interior DeCarli left behind, with our only means of financing it an FHA Section 203(k) loan. The (k) is vehicle of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that allows a borrower to take a percentage of the loan amount to fund fixing up the house. With the loan comes the need for a contractor who can deal with the small mountain of paperwork the FHA requires – and a contractor with enough liquidity to wait patiently to get paid. Because after the city signs off on a section of work, the FHA has to sign off as well. No signatures, no cash, and the money is doled out in stingy increments.

That’s where Contractor Al and his sidekick, Architect Josh, come in.

We closed on the house in February 2010 and submitted our plans on March 13. On April 16, I started calling the Salinas Planning Department just about every day. On May 4, we got our permit to work on the 700-square-foot basement apartment. And on June 15, we moved in to that basement – me, my husband, two hormonal teenage boys who tower over me and love to wrestle with each other and a smelly, aging Jack Russell mix with an ever-worsening gastric disorder.

In the basement we stayed, until about three weeks ago. We moved into the big house during the worst cold snap in decades, and did it without having a working furnace.

The cataclysm of events that brought Architect Josh, Contractor Al, Red Tag Dave and us together built slowly over the last six months of 2010. Yeah, Josh technically was subcontracted by Al, but Al was relying on us (hamstrung budget, remember) to deal with a lot of local paperwork. The architect would do little things, like completely fail to address something the city required after a first round of comments – for example the location of the sewer hookups. When we pointed out to him that his error would cost us three weeks, and that he should expedite the plans at no cost to us, he said simply, “My contract isn’t with you, it’s with [Al] and will be billed accordingly.”

By January we’ve hired a separate crew to replace the Swiss-cheese roof on the garage, which looks like a set straight out of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, only with fewer cannibals. The work has been included on the plans; we know this, because we told Josh, “Hey, put the garage on the plans.”

Red Tag Dave arrives to do a screw inspection. (Consider the irony.) He sees the crew working on the garage and says, in essence, “Hey, what are they doing? You don’t have a permit for that.” But of course we do, we counter. Josh put it on the plans, because we told him to.

Sure enough, it’s not on the plans.

The inspector comes back the next morning and gives us 24 hours to pull a garage permit or the entire project – fixing the house we are desperately trying to move into – will be shut down. I can’t fault Red Tag Dave, because he’s doing the job the city has hired him to do – keeping people from getting away with substandard shit. But panic sets in.

Al rounds up his drywall crew with the rallying cry, “We’re out of here!” – because surely there is no way we can rectify this in a day. Chuck reminds him that Josh was supposed to take care of this. He uses the word idiot, he uses the word schedule. Al shrugs his little shrug, and the team goes back to work.

And then Chuck picks up the phone, calls the planning department, starts working on the garage permit and negotiates a truce.

I’m an architecture junkie. The best Christmas gift I received last year was a LEGO architecture kit. It came with an 800-piece set of Frank Lloyd Wright’s famed Pennsylvania masterpiece Fallingwater.

It will take hours to put together. Once I’m done, I’m going to put it on a shelf in the library and attach a little red tag to its facade.

And then Chuck and I will go outside and start work on our urban chicken coop. Salinas Mayor Dennis Donohue once told me it will be easier to open a medical marijuana shop in the city than it will be to convince the council to pass an ordinance allowing chickens in Old Town.

Our relationship with our contractor appears short-lived at this point – the rehab money is almost gone and what’s left on the interior is all cosmetic. Contractor Al even reached detente with the fire sprinkler folks, and the lien went away.

But Red Tag Dave and me?

Given the fact that we don’t yet have a final permit for the house, he and I have a long and egg-filled future ahead of us.

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