Monday, February 20, 2012

Hardly Handy Man

Improperly covered gable vent
The reasons I'm not ready to live in a house become more obvious every time I enter a house. I burn everything I cook because for the first time in months I can walk away from the kitchen. Also, I still piss in empty milk jugs out of habit and empty them on the lawn. But most importantly I am making real progress with the details of my van. It's a closed system, you see, and it's actually possible to know everything about it and carry the tools to fix what breaks or at least understand why it broke. The van is my shepherd and teacher; every day in the van leads to self discovery and the expansion of my world view.

Houses, on the other hand, as simple as a 1.5 story brick house with 80 year old effects and a forced hot air heating system and not much else, totally confound me. It's like starting from scratch. And I only learn by doing something wrong and then fixing it but with houses that can take forever and cost thousands of dollars. So I read and read on the internet but if you don't know what to look for then you can easily read the wrong thing. A few home inspection sites gave me some good tips. For instance, what is a soffit vent? Or a gable vent? or a ridge vent? Why are they important? How do you lay fiberglass insulation? What kind of fiberglass insulation? The questions go on and on and lead to still more questions. The easy answer is ask a professional. Well, from the reading I've done the ratio of professional to fraud posing as a professional is about 50:50. A guy could come along and say, "I'm going to save you hundreds of dollars by installing vinyl siding over your out dated gable vents. It will keep you warmer and save you money. Sign here, I've been doing this for 25 years....blah blah." Well, that person will be a fraud and will cost you thousands in the initial useless procedure and then when your attic becomes filled with black mold it will cost you thousands in repairs. And it probably won't help your heating bill. That's not a hypothetical story but something that happens every day. The stories I have read are basically of people as ignorant as I am but with more ambition going around pretending to be handymen and doing HORRIBLE THINGS TO HOUSES that later cause terrible problems. They aren't bad people but they are broke and they know just enough to totally destroy your house...not on purpose but because they have no idea what the consequences will be when they cover the gable vents with vinyl siding. So, in another light, I guess they are talented at putting up vinyl siding but don't know where to put it. And to quote myself when I was building pcb boards in Los Angeles, "It takes as much work to do it wrong as it does to do it right." But what is right?

Anyway, I am a third category who doesn't know what to do and won't charge anyone to do anything but who will try to follow my instincts which have been sharpened in a 1969 Econoline van. I am starting from scratch when it comes to home maintenance and I'd be better off if I forgot everything I know and paid Tom Villa to teach me the difference between recessed lighting and a joist. I am curious about home maintenance only because I'm in a house that needs a bit of maintenance. Shelter is one of the basic necessities of life and this house is shelter but the Amish philosophy of living within your knowledge is something that Thoreau adopted with his "Deliberate Living". Self sufficiency is impossible with computers because the raw materials come from Zambia. The Amish aren't Luddites, they don't disdain technology but they know it's beyond their ability to maintain it on a farm in Pennsylvania. And dependence on Steve Jobs or a Tantalum warlord in Africa is against their they simplify. They are masters of their domain because their domains include water wheels made from fence posts and windmills that pump water from wells. They don't use power tools. They pull their tractors with horses. I don't think they are purists because you don't see many Amish steel refineries but they are practical and live within their means and understanding. That appeals to me but with computers and houses and basically the modern's not possible and is driving me slowly insane trying to understand a world that is steadily growing more complicated.

So my inclination is to refrain from going further down that path. To empower myself to my own satisfaction in the realm of home ownership would take decades of practice at the cost of guitar practice. I don't learn very well reading about concrete aspects of homes or cars but if I get my hands dirty then I'll remember forever. But getting your hands dirty with a motorcycle is totally different from getting your hands dirty in a house. My whole van cost $1200 and that would cover the cost of 6 windows in a house which translates to $2400 after I destroy the first 6 attempting to put them in. See the problem? Hands on learning in a house is too expensive so it pays to hire someone who knows what they are doing. But that means knowing someone who knows what they are doing and there's a 50% chance you'll get someone who is good at pretending to know what they are doing. And it also means not knowing what to ask for and getting fucked over as often as not.
I go to a great forum
 where both the people like me who don't know shit and the 30 year pros will discuss a variety of projects. The casual user can determine quickly who knows what they are talking about. And there is also a consensus reached by forum users that will narrow down the best procedure. But even there you will find disagreement. Basically, cookie cutter contractors can not afford to do a good job because A) it's not their house and B) their overhead makes such a tight margin of profit that all corners must be cut or else they paid more money than they made. So they will do the absolute minimum and hopefully it will be more or less correct. But chances are that after they are done and you have written a check for $3000 a specialist will look at it and say, "That's done all wrong."
This aggravates me because I am obsessive and after this much time with houses we still have not reached a conclusion that everyone can agree to proceed with or else get out of the way. No, there are still flim flam contractors and fly by night Mexican roofing crews who work fast and get the job done and are later responsible for a complete rebuild and head scratching mistakes that baffle every inspector. You do get what you paid for but good work costs so much that you have to be a defense lawyer to afford it. But you are better off not bothering to hire a Mexican crew to reroof your house because they'll do a shitty but cheap job.

$175 for caulking because Oggy doesn't know what to look for
Right now we're paying $175 to fix a terrible roofing job. The shingles don't go to the side of the roof and no caulking or flashing was used so the water leaked into the brick walls and ruined the plaster inside the house. I opted out of attempting a repair because we have no ladder and even if we had a ladder I don't know what to look for. A roofer come over and said he would caulk the whole area that is missing shingles. That's the simple fix. The DIY forum all said it should be completely torn apart and reshingled and new flashing etc. But that's because they are being picky/thorough loudmouths and also they aren't writing the check. So, this repair will be tested by the wet midwest winters and rainy summers with tornadoes. Will it last?*

Homes have many systems and taken one at a time you could conceivably understand them all and how to repair them. That's all I could expect of any home owner but I don't think it's in the cards for me. I only learn by doing and unless I build my own house then I won't live long enough to work on every system of a house and make enough mistakes to learn the right way to do it.

For instance, I went up into the attic and saw two big windows open to the outside. What? The house is freezing. I'll close them off. Then I read that these "windows"  are called gable vents and should never be closed off. The problem isn't the gable vents but the lack of insulation on the floor, the uninsulated window fan area and the uninsulated attic hatch letting hot air escape into the attic. The vents had nothing to do with it. Brick houses are poorly insulated, the windows leak etc. etc. Coal was cheap when it came off the river three blocks away. They kept it nice and toasty in 1940 using coal but natural gas sucks money out the windows. So my instinct cost me money to insulate the gable vents and then tear it down when I realized that was wrong. If I had left it up that could've caused real problems. So we spent $300 to add insulation in the attic and I'm hunting for something called a soffit vent because you aren't supposed to block them. Well, there are no soffit vents in this house. There are only 4 gable vents.
And that's only one tiny portion of a simple house that has me running in circles and looking like an idiot on my DIY forum.

No, if I want to play jazz guitar like Jim Hall and piano like Ray Bryant in addition to keeping my antique van running I will have to sacrifice a steady 9-5 grind job and working knowledge of a house. And since I don't believe in being dependent on the suspect knowledge of someone else for my shelter I don't belong in a house.
Maybe I'll build a yurt.

 Here are some comments from my DIY forum friends when they saw the repair picture:
*"The 1st. pic shows it was never flashed. It's still not fixed. That's also obvious by the lack of any flashing work by the door, to that chimney. More water is coming in from the valley than the gutter anyway. A crew of slobs did that make-believe roof."
"OMG! I am a painter, not a roofer, but I gotta say that's the worst repair job I have ever seen! That slopped on caulking will last maybe til the end of summer. WOW! I am speechless."
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Man in the Van by Oggy Bleacher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.