ted & pamela

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Home maintenance, part 1

Thursday, October 15th, 2009

We haven’t even moved our furniture in yet, but Pamela and I are already learning the never-ending joys of home maintenance.

So far, I’ve had to deal with three main issues:

  1. The shower in the upstairs hall bathroom dumped out water and barely functioned as a shower.
  2. The downstairs toilet was loose and had water leaking from the tank.
  3. One of the garage doors got stuck halfway open.

The first issue was pretty easy to deal with.  After determining that the shower looked like it should fit a standard shower head replacement, we went to Home Depot to buy a new one.  We spent a while standing around confused by the assortment of shower head options from $2 to $80+, but eventually decided on a mid-range shower head with both a standard adjustable spray and a secondary head on a flexible pipe.

Upon returning home, we discovered that we couldn’t actually take the old shower head off.  We didn’t have a wrench that was the right size, and our attempts to improvise with pliers and whatever else we had around just scraped metal off of the shower head.  For a while, we doubted that we had a standard shower head that could be taken off, and we gave up for the night.

The next day, based on a suggestion from Pamela’s dad, who happens to be a plumber, I went to my parents’ place in San Jose to borrow an adjustable wrench from them.  The wrench had no problem getting the old shower head off, and the new one was fairly straightforward to install.  I guess it just goes to show that having the right tools makes things a lot easier.

I tried it out that night, and happily, it was much, much better than that sorry excuse for a shower head that we used to have.

Contractors and more

Thursday, October 15th, 2009

About a month ago (Sept. 9), we closed escrow on the house and officially took over.  Since then, we’ve primarily been dealing with moving all of my stuff from my previous place in Menlo Park to our new home, and researching, calling, and interviewing various contractors.

We decided early on that we’d want to remove the “popcorn ceiling” before moving in because of the mess it would make when removed.  This sort of ceiling has been out of fashion for the last 30 years or so, usually contains asbestos (ours was 3%), gets dirty easily and is hard to clean.  Also, removing a popcorn ceiling and replacing it with a smooth or textured finish typically increases the value of a home.

After calling four companies we found through personal recommendations and online reviews, we interviewed three of them, and eventually ended up going with CertaPro Painters of Silicon Valley for both the popcorn ceiling removal and the painting job.  We chose CertaPro primarily because their owner (Dan Ford) was the only person that consistently returned phone calls and emails within a day, and usually got back to us much sooner.  He was also the one person we interviewed that came prepared with lots of documentation (about his company, contractor license information, insurance information, how the job would be done, how we would coordinate, etc.)  We called his references – none of them gave us a stunning, super-happy review, but they were all satisfied with the work that CertaPro had done.  All of the other contractors didn’t seem as professional, and they were sometimes hard to reach or slow to respond.  For us, slightly lower prices didn’t justify the cost of dealing with potential communication problems.

While speaking to Dan during the interview, I had indicated that the work could start ASAP, and he said that his crews were typically booked 5-10 days out.  However, when I signed the contract, he told me that he could – and he did – have the popcorn ceiling removal start the next day.

Popcorn removal and texturing took three workers four days.  The first day, the foreman overseeing my job (John) and the main worker doing the popcorn removal and ceiling texturing (Alfredo) arrived promptly in the morning.  After talking about how the work would be done, John left and Alfredo and two guys that came after him (random hired goons?) started working.  They started by bagging up all of the upstairs rooms with 9-foot wide sheet of plastic, taped together loosely with something that looked like masking tape.  Alfredo was calling the shots, but the two other guys seemed to have some idea of what they were doing.  After bagging up the rooms, they connected a pump they brought with them to our outside water supply, and soaked the popcorn with it.  Then they just took a long scraping-tool and the popcorn came right off, onto the plastic covering the floor.

Pamela and I were under the impression that the popcorn was going to be treated as a hazardous material since it contained asbestos (that was the impression given to us by Dan as well), but the workers didn’t do anything that treated the ceiling material as anything but goop that could make a mess.  They didn’t have ceiling-goop fights, but they did manage to track it all over the front steps, and leave little bits of it everywhere after they left.  They didn’t ventilate the house either: when I came back in the evening to look at their work, I found the entire house steamy, presumably because they sprayed all of the ceilings with water.

We complained about the mess to the owner and foreman, and John came over the next day to look at the work.  He was significantly less concerned about both the mess and its possible toxic attributes than we were, but to placate us he spent about 40 minutes cleaning the place with a vacuum, rag, and hose.  It looked significantly better after he was done, and we agreed that as long as the place was clean and looked great after the work was finished, we’d be happy.

Four days later, the painting crew, Raul and Carlos, came to do the priming and painting.  Raul spent about half an hour with me looking at the place and going over how the job would be done.  During that time, he discovered that we didn’t know what color we wanted the ceiling.  Oops.

Pamela and I just kind of figured we would paint the ceiling white, but unbeknown to us, Kelly-Moore sells dozens of slightly different shades of white, with names like Pale Face, Acoustic White, New Linen, and White Dove.  Our house already had Antique White, Navajo White, and Swiss Coffee – which sounds like it should be a brownish color, but is actually a bright shade of white.  Apparently the Swiss like their coffee with a lot of cream.  This was in the morning and Pamela was in the middle of teaching third period, so it was up to me to select a color.  With Raul’s help, and a little bit of wandering around with color cards trying to figure out what colors each shade of white matched/clashed with, I settled on a shade Kelly-Moore calls White Shadow.

While I was deciding on a paint color, Raul and Carlos prepped the work area.  They placed large cloths on the ground so that paint wouldn’t fall on the floor, wrapped furniture in the same kind of plastic that the popcorn removal guys used, and taped sheets of paper over baseboards, railings, wall light fixtures, etc.  Next, they caulked the edges where the ceiling met a painted wall – according to Raul, this makes it so that they can get clean lines and avoid cracking where the ceiling paint meets the wall paint.  After caulking, they went over the center of the ceiling first with primer on large rollers, then primed the edges with a brush.  Then they did the same thing with the paint, and touched up everything with paintbrushes.

Their original estimate for the paint job was 2-3 days, and they barely managed to finish all of the painting the third day.  However, John had also asked them to put up all of our light fixtures, drapes, blinds, etc. when they were done.  Apparently this isn’t something that painters normally do, because they spent the next few hours, with my help, figuring out where each object went, how to attach it, and then attaching it, often incorrectly the first time .  By 7pm, we were all exhausted, and mutually agreed that we’d leave the rest of it for another day.  John came back the next day with a helper, and managed to get everything back up in a few hours.

Overall, the job took eight working days over two weeks.  It wasn’t perfect – there’s a spot of popcorn behind a railing they missed, and some of the texturing isn’t smooth – but overall, I’m pretty happy with the job.  I’m lucky that my work hours are flexible enough that that I could take off some mornings and afternoons to watch the contractors.

Home hunting, part 2

Saturday, August 15th, 2009

On Friday, August 7, right in the middle of my workday, our agent (and Pamela’s uncle) Don called to tell us that one of the townhomes we really liked had an offer that the seller was going to look at that day, and that if we wanted to place a competing offer, we had to let him know within two hours.  Naturally, I freaked out.

Although Pamela and I both liked this home and had been considering making an offer on it for some time, we were hoping to leisurely look at homes until we were really, REALLY sure that this was the best place for us.  I called Pamela and asked her to come to Google that afternoon so that we could discuss whether we wanted to make an offer.  I also called my parents, but my Dad told me that he would be fine with my decision either way and that I should decide for myself, and my Mom wasn’t home.

Pamela drove over, and we talked.  We went over our finances to make sure we could afford it, then talked for as long as we could about whether this was the place we really wanted.  We never really came to a conclusion — we both liked the place a lot, but neither of us could shake the lingering doubt that there might be an ever better, cheaper place somewhere out there.  All too soon, our time was up.  We called Don and told him that we wanted to place an offer, and worked out the logistics of getting all of the papers signed.

The seller’s agent was a nice lady named Trish, who we had talked to a few times when we visited the home.  (We visited the home on three different days.)  On Sunday, Trish let us know that our offer would probably win, and we negotiated the terms of the final offer.  There was a lot of back-and-forth with emails.  Basically, for each document that was part of the contract:

  1. Don or Trish would email out the document as a PDF
  2. Pamela and I would go through it with Don to make sure we understood it
  3. I would initial or sign every page, sometimes multiple times on a single page
  4. I would scan and email it back to myself (yay for fancy office printer/copier/scanner machines!)
  5. I would email it to everyone else.
  6. Repeat for each person whose name/signature needed to be on the contract.

Needless to say, it was quite a process.

At the same time, Pamela and I worked with Don and Trish to get some home inspectors into the house.  We had to prod Don a few times to get things moving, but by Wednesday we had a general inspector and a hazardous materials inspector lined up for the next day.  Basically, the general inspector has a huge checklist of things to look at in the interior and exterior of the house, and produces a report about what’s okay, what should be fixed, and what needs to be inspected by a specialist.  We brought the hazardous materials inspector in to check for the presence of asbestos and lead paint, primarily so that if/when we remodel, we know what needs to be treated particularly carefully.  We also considered having the inspector test for radon, but after doing some research, I found that it should be pretty easy to do this particular test ourselves.

We’re still waiting for the formal report from the general inspector, but his verbal comments that day indicated that he thought that there wasn’t anything we should be really worried about.  (i.e. nothing that can’t be fixed or will require ripping apart the place to fix.)  We should get the results for the asbestos and lead inspections by the middle of next week.

In the meantime, I need to get all of my money together and lock down a loan rate so that I know how much this place will actually be costing me…

Home hunting, part 1

Sunday, August 9th, 2009

We made an offer on a home today.  That’s the end of the story so far, but I should probably start at the beginning.

For the last month or so, Pamela and I have been going out once or twice a week to look at homes.  I needed to find a place to live, since my household is disbanding in September: one of my roommates is getting married, one is looking for a home, and one is moving to Los Angeles.  Pamela and I decided that this would be a good time to figure out where we would live after getting married.

We didn’t really know what we were looking for at first, and actually, we didn’t even know whether it was a good idea for us to buy a home.  We’d both lived our entire adult lives in small houses or apartments shared with multiple people, and we had no idea what we would do with an entire house to ourselves.  We started, as expected, by looking online for help.  We found the New York Times article on the cost of buying versus renting, CNN’s article on buying a home, and lots of other resources.  Of course, we had also heard that this was a great time to be buying a home, since home prices had fallen quite a bit after the real estate bubble burst and interest rates were at historic lows.  After all this research, we still didn’t know whether we should be buying a home, but we decided that we should at least consider it.

We went to a bunch of open houses to scope out some neighborhoods and took notes on what we liked and didn’t like about each home.  It was a bit overwhelming; the only parameter we really started with was that we wanted the home to be between our workplaces.  There were literally hundreds of homes in our price range that matched these parameters.

The first weekend, we started off by looking in Cupertino, since it is basically at the intersection of highways 85 and 280, right between our workplaces.  From there, we branched out to Los Altos to the north and Saratoga to the south over following weeks, and then to Mountain View and Los Gatos.  We never really looked in Sunnyvale; we had the notion that Sunnyvale was sort of a bland, nondescript city in the middle of the valley with nothing to recommend it but lower home prices than its surrounding cities.  Same goes for Campbell, except that at least Campbell has Dance Spectrum.  =D

We quickly learned more about what we liked and disliked.  Luckily, in most cases our preferences were similar.  We both liked places with lots of natural light, open floor plans, and quiet, shady neighborhoods.  I had a thing for cathedral ceilings, Pamela for secluded backyards and deer.  We both disliked communities where all of the houses looked the same, and homes where the whole of your outdoor view consisted of your neighbor’s window and nearby buildings.  Also, after living in a house 500 feet from the highway, constant traffic noise was an absolute showstopper for me.

Even though we did some research on every home we considered, we found that it was hard to predict how much we’d like a home before seeing it.  Some homes had great online photos and descriptions, but looked so bad in person that we didn’t bother walking in.  At other homes, we wondered how the home owner managed to take such bad pictures of a good property.  Most of the places we looked at landed somewhere in the middle:  generic homes neither wonderful nor horrible.  Oftentimes we’d see homes that were wonderful in some ways, and fatally-flawed in others.  For example, one home looked pretty nice… until you saw that it was directly underneath a electrical tower.  Not one of those little utility poles that provide power to nearby homes, but a full-blown tower.

As of last Friday, we had looked at ~32 homes.  That’s when circumstances forced us to make a decision.