Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Home-Improvement Chronicles: The Floors

ready to come inside? are you sure you’re ready? are you positively sure you’re sure? because there is something in here that will rival the ridiculousness of the speaker that’s implanted into the ceiling.

it’s not a mirage: the floor in the living room really is ceramic tile. and that thing in the center really is a medallion.

star of Chuy: Mo and i have created a character named Uncle Chuy whom we blame for all the ugly in the house. he’s the evil mastermind behind the pepto pink paint, the shit-smeared room, the speaker in the ceiling and medallion in the living room. although this isn’t saying much, the medallion is actually one of the few things in the house that Chuy must have executed when he wasn’t totally drunk. it was clearly his passion project.

check the wheelbarrow! Mo’s painstaking project was pulling the tile up, which he did, one tile at a time.

the ripper stripper: that piece of machine couldn’t cut water. we rented it for the day, hoping it would speed up the floor demo like the guys at the rental shop said it would. sadly, it did nothing but make a lot of noise, and was returned the shop two hours later with regrets. i almost ripped a new one into the store guy for suggesting that i should pay for the rental. (clearly, i was not at Micky Mouse Hardware.)

meanwhile: i was pulling up the laminate flooring in the bedrooms and throwing the boards out the window.

damn you, Chuy! underneath the laminate were hardwood floors. hardwood floors!! who the hell covers up perfectly good hardwood flooring with laminate flooring, huh?

nevermind: a consultation with my contractor revealed that the hardwood floors were in pretty bad shape and not worth salvaging. the wood was douglas fir, which is one of the softest wood species around. contractor said he could refinish the floors, but that they would look wrecked again in three months.

still plugging away: Mo spent a few days working on the floors, saving the demo of the medallion until the very end.

ghost of Chuy: the tile was cemented to big sheets of wonderboard, which Mo pulled up after the tile was done. it was actually a little sad to see the medallion go. it served as the target of so much good-natured ridicule that i began to imagine Chuy as a real uncle to me — the type of uncle who would have sold me this old house. i imagined inviting him over for dinner once the house was done and him noticing all of his handiwork destroyed. he would ask me why i found his beloved medallion so offensive and i would look down in embarrassment and not really know what to say. then i would offer him a drink and we’d get drunk together and laugh it off, making jokes about that one time he tried to touch me inappropriately when i was a teenage girl.

heart of Chuy: Mo made sure to pull up the center of the medallion in one solid piece. we didn’t have the heart to throw it out with the rest of the broken tile, so we stored it in the garage for safekeeping, with the promise that we’ll find some way to incorporate it into the house’s ultimate decor.

more hardwood: pulling up the wonderboard revealed red oak floors in the living room, also too busted to restore. when it was done, we noticed that the floors had some soft spots that would give a bit too much when stepped on. there were some lumps and dips, too, with the floor in the hallway noticeably sloped (a sad harbinger of things to come).

at this point, Mo and i stepped away from the house, our muscles sore and faces covered with muck. with the demo done, the time had come to bring in the contractor and his crew, whose work would involve putting down new bamboo flooring, among other things like priming, painting and moving the plumbing in the kitchen around.

sounds simple enough, but there have already been a slew of unexpected delays and surprise expenses, with move-in now pushed back to mid-may instead of may 1. i have noted this as my first lesson in homeownership: it takes twice as long and costs twice as much as they said it would.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Don't Try This at Home

(cue drumroll)

by popular demand, i present to you the shit-smeared room. apologies for the glare in the first photo. hopefully you can still make out the hideous sponge-painting (or ragging?) approach employed in the coloring of these walls. looks like crusty monkey shit to me.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Not About the House

just kidding! all roads lead back to the house. i don’t remember the last time a thought that did not concern the house floated through my head. every time i sit down to engage in a little harmless web surfing, i end up googling things that involve the house. the house! the house! the house!

it’s my new boyfriend. not to be confused with my human boyfriend who is equally obsessed with the house. it’s quite the ménage a trois. if we go out to dinner, we bring his notebook along so we can add to the pages already filled with sketches, layouts and notes. we spend our weekends working on it, breaking our backs, visualizing the outcome.

i have to throw him some love here because he’s been a tremendous help to me in this whole house pursuit. beyond just enduring my months-long bad mood during the house hunt and escrow, he’s a design marvel who dreamt up a kitchen that was far more fantastic than the one i had in mind. handyman Dan is also pretty fantastic as he comes equipped with lots of tools and electrical know-how.

if anything, i’m more the useless helper circling around them all day asking if they need anything — screwdriver, hammer, lemonade? "yeah, bring us a wheelbarrow." i started to chuckle until it sunk in that they were serious. a wheelbarrow? really?

so i drove to the hardware store to get a wheelbarrow, an object i never imagined i would be purchasing for myself. the house has created many of those moments already. thankfully, the store had only one type of wheelbarrow so i didn’t have to choose between several models, because if there’s one thing we’ve already discovered, it’s that i shouldn’t be sent to the hardware store alone to choose anything, especially primer (long story, don’t ask).

the guys were super nice at this hardware store, which i’ve lovingly nicknamed Mickey Mouse Hardware in honor of how shoddy some of the work in my house was done. i imagine the house’s previous owners frequented the same local store to buy the scotch tape they used to hold together the broken mirrors on the closet doors.

i had no luck fitting the wheelbarrow into my car, so the hardware guys disassembled it and even threw in a wrench so i could reassemble it when i got home. they also knocked 10 bucks off the price, which is the discount i’m sure they give all the big-boobied girls who come in. i’ll definitely be taking myself and my boobies in there often in the coming months.

there’s a lot to do, and if there’s one piece of advice i’ve heard countless times already, it’s “don’t try to do too much at once.” my main objective for move-in is taking care of the floors and paint, though this is proving to still be a complicated endeavor as i have to make decisions on colors and baseboards in a jiffy. given that i’m the type of person who spends two months researching a printer before deciding to buy it, i don’t really excel at jiffy decision-making.

luckily, i have a little help from the trusty “design folder” i’ve been maintaining for the past few months. i got the idea from Pardon Our Dust, an LA Times blog on design and remodeling. (i seem to be addicted to these LA Times blogs.) i sent in a question to the editor last August, asking what i should keep in mind, design-wise, as i begin my house hunt. she suggested i subscribe to a few design/home magazines, which i did, and tear images out of the magazines that i find appealing, to be kept in a design folder. (she also suggested i start a separate folder for the things i dislike, but i just kept one folder with the love stuff.)

my folder of love has been growing since August and is now filled with photos of these ultracool things i can never afford. thanks, Dwell magazine! but it has provided me with some guidance. judging from the images i crammed into it, i guess my design aesthetic could be described as… eclectic? yeah, that’s right. eclectic. i’ll take that. don’t box me in, man!

there does seem to be a bit of everything in there. i certainly do like modernism, but not in every corner of the house — more so for the exterior. for kitchens, i like them to be bright and colorful, fun for cooking, so no stainless steel appliances for me. (i’d rather have the Big Chill Fridge, though it’s too pricey.) i seem to also be partial to vintage-type things and find myself leaning toward darker woods over the more honey-colored hues.

my ideal house would be fun, cozy and unique. i’m not exactly sure how to achieve this, but i’ll start by imbuing some whimsy into the scenery. this means filling my home with oddball tchotchkes so it doesn’t look like every item in the house came out of a Crate & Barrel catalog, though there will likely be plenty of items that have, because i do love my C&B. if you recall how i decorated the living room in my apartment last year, it’ll probably be more of the same.

although i didn’t keep a folder of things i dislike, i can already tell you that you’ll never find wrought-iron anything in my house, nor will you find horribly girlie stuff like pillows with hearts or butterflies on them. i also refuse to buy blinds or carpet. so far, i’ve decided on the flooring — and very reluctantly because i only had three weeks to do research for it. next, i need to decide on paint, which must be the hardest decision of any remodel. it’s causing all sorts of anxiety. i simply don’t know, and being constantly told that it will look totally different on the wall than it does on the swatch isn’t helping, people.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The House-Hunting Chronicles: LA Landing

i have been reading this LA real estate blog published by the LA Times, LA Land, for about a year now. i became a frequent reader when i first began researching real estate prior to my house hunt. the editor of the blog seemed terrific and provided tons of timely and useful stories about the local market, and though the blog’s regular commentators are not nearly as fantastic as the commentators here, they are — how you say? — rather colorful, and staunchly anti-buy.

after closing on my new buy, i wanted to shout from the rooftops, so i sent a pitch to the editor, asking to be a guest blogger and write about my home-buying experience. it would be a contrarian viewpoint to dispute the greek chorus of commentators who constantly piss on the housing market. he has had guest bloggers in the past and agreed to publish my essay, first asking if he could publish a few lines from the email i sent him, with the full essay later. i agreed, thinking nothing of it as it was a short post on recent homebuyers, profiling two others in addition to me.

so he published. and then... well, you can read the comments for yourself. in short, i came under heavy fire for my decision to buy, my ability to afford my house and for things i’ve said on this blog. i had all sorts of insults hurled at me, ranging from the always creative “you’re DUMB!!” to accusations that i was subprime or without steady employment, would be in foreclosure and going to be living in a barrio. and my personal favorite: “Milla will be in a world of hurt - shortly.”

funny that i was taught to say “congratulations” when people tell me they bought a house. not to say there weren’t many kind folks who offered their well wishes for the future, which i appreciated, but sadly the bitter trolls outnumbered them. also interesting were all the angry demands i received to reveal my annual salary and monthly mortgage payments, which must be the tackiest question of all time. people were literally sitting there with calculators and throwing out their expert estimations of my financial situation, complete with “Assume state and federal taxes, SS, medicare, unemployment lop off 30% of Milla’s check...”

all i can say is wow. WOW.

i understand this is the internet, which Mo always reminds me is the bathroom wall. having a blog for the past four years has made me less sensitive to the judgment of others, which i know i invite with each post. it’s the cost of doing business and i accept it without complaint. it’s just shocking to me that there were so many armchair experts on my situation. i can understand someone’s decision not to buy in the current market — prices will likely fall more, loans are hard to come by, LA is a tough market — but i’m disappointed that my decision to buy was not met with the same understanding. and not just lack of understanding, but outright cruelty.

because many of the commentators have revealed themselves to be well-paid people unable to afford a house in LA, i imagine the anger stemmed from the viewpoint of “why do these poor people qualify for breaks that i can’t have? why am i punished for making too much money?” part of me can understand this viewpoint, as i one day hope to be better paid. (and my desire to buy a house is in many ways preparation for that day.) but the bigger part of me, the immigrant part who saw my parents work multiple jobs to afford our little starter home in Van Nuys can understand that sometimes people need a helping hand as they work their way up. because, truly, the reward for having money is having money. and i refuse to believe that those six-figure earners cannot afford a house. they probably can’t afford the house of their dreams — the one they desperately want to impress all their friends and coworkers — but they can afford a condo in a decent area, and to claim otherwise implies that they’re doing a poor job managing their money.

if i can afford, they can afford. i know i went in as a lower-income person, which is comical to me seeing that i’m not exactly a single mother raising three kids on a minimum-wage salary, which is my impression of low income. instead i’m a nice jewish girl from the valley with a master’s degree and a good job in finance. perhaps i’m the new poor: the type of educated, struggling poor one finds in metropolitan cities like LA and NY, where the cost of living is alien when compared to the rest of the country. maybe we’re the suckers who value location over lifestyle (though for me, the two are one in the same). in any case, i consider myself middle class and know i played by the rules — strict ones — when receiving my government assistance.

and personally, i’m happy with my decision to buy. i can honestly say that these haters have not pissed on my parade in the slightest. for me it’s a matter of whose opinion i value. if these people were all friends or regular readers who questioned my judgment, i would perk up and listen. like all humans, i want to win the approval of the people closest to me, who i know have my best interests in mind. but the opinions of strangers, not so much. so i’m able to dismiss the vitriol as standard bathroom splatter motivated by people wanting to justify their own decision not to buy. still, it was a shit storm i did not expect to be caught in the center of, however entertaining.

and it WAS entertaining: “she says she doesn’t make six figures, and has to beg money off her parents, that really is too much money for her to handle” and “You’ll be sending in the keys within 18 months I bet” and “Milla’s story is just another example of creatively stretched financing.”

wow. i will say that my house cost $410K, which is a public fact anyone can easily find on Zillow. it appraised for more than i paid for it, and the comps were excellent. i took advantage of terrific first-time homebuyer programs offered by the city and state, which i will sing the praises of until the end of time. the income limits of those programs are published online, and will reveal that i make — gasp! — under six figures. i understand if you want to delete me from your Blackberry now.

my only goal in all of this was to prove that you don’t have to be rich to afford a house in Los Angeles and that the housing market is more alive than people might imagine. and i’m proud of my house, i’m excited by it and see it as far more than a money-making machine. but these people would not have it. no sir, they knew better. i was a fool who would be in tears, in a world of pain, and shortly. ok, sure.

i must be a masochist, because i still sent in my full essay for publication, knowing full well that i would open myself up to all sorts of criticism. the comments are already quite rich, very good for a laugh. don’t worry about me taking them to heart — i’m still smiling. and i’ll be smiling wider when i’m finally moved into my new house, sitting on my deck with a glass of wine after a long day, appreciating my view.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

The Home-Improvement Chronicles: 3 to 2

welcome to the new chronicles! now that the house hunt is over, the home improvement begins. i expect this latest series to run for a long while, as countless homeowners have told me that home improvements are never-ending. i don’t intend to document every new nail i hammer into the house, but the big changes will be highlighted. i imagine they will also be plentiful in the coming year, as the house needs TONS of work.

i’m not exaggerating when i say this. trust that i saw plenty of fixers that were in way worse shape than my little castle on the hill. if i wanted, i could move in tomorrow if i didn’t mind the tacky flooring and garish paint, but i do mind them. i mind them very, very much. this means that April will be absolutely insane with fixing the place up for a May move-in. last week, i hired a contractor i like a whole lot after interviewing tons i didn’t like at all. he and his crew will be doing the bulk of the heavy lifting over the next few weeks. but because my budget is laughable, i’ll need to do as much as i can, too, to cut down on expenses.

so far, working on the house has given me tons of gratification. it’s this warm fuzzy feeling of self-satisfaction that i’m sure all DIY homeowners are familiar with. i’m surprised at how much i can actually do — and i’m desperate to keep learning. i’m thankful as hell i proofed that carpentry book a few months ago as a freelance project. i’m also thankful that i have a terrific architect boyfriend helping me do the work and considering things like traffic patterns and natural light in the planning of the remodel.

i’ve gotten a few requests to post interior shots of the house, and i will once i have “after” shots to accompany them. it’s not that the previous owners didn’t maintain the house; they lived in it for 10 years and did plenty of upkeep. it’s just that their upkeep was always cheaply done — usually by the dad, who i’ve heard was a drywall guy, meaning he did most of the work himself with scrap materials gathered from the junkyard. there are plenty of mismatched cupboards and poorly cut countertops to confirm that.

the family’s aesthetic decisions were also rather questionable. there’s tile throughout the living room and laminate flooring of different colors in the bedrooms. the house’s exterior is painted two different shades of barf, i mean, peach. and the interior is painted in the most ridiculous combination of pepto pink, lavender, mossy green and a cartoonish shade of maroon on some of the walls. one of the bedrooms was even painted a poopy brown in that do-it-yourself sponge-painting way they show on the home-remodeling shows. i’ve gotten into the habit of calling it “the shit-smeared room.”

legally the house is listed as a three bedroom, though every inspector who looked at it said that because the third bedroom didn't have a closet, it couldn’t technically be considered a bedroom — it was more of a “study.” the troubling thing about the house’s layout was that the no-closet bedroom was adjacent to one of the house’s regular bedrooms, separated by a wall and joined by a door.

well, no more! the first order of business was taking down that wall to open up those two bedrooms into a larger — yet oddly shaped — master for me and my Mo. it’s oddly shaped because the walls of the bedrooms don’t align perfectly, as the third bedroom is a bit wider than the second. the ceilings are also of different heights. but as i'm not a stickler for geometry, that’s ok by me.

ugh, that paint: also notice the two different colors of laminate flooring laid out in different directions. truly charming. this shows the door joining the two bedrooms.

i will crush you! me in my demolition gear ready to make the first strike.

pow! there goes my investment.

thwack! Mo showing me how it’s really done. apparently i demolish like a girl.

digging in: behold, Mo the demolisher!

two hours later: the great wall of ugly had fallen.

that’s dan: he’s our handyman who brought the sawzall.

when it was finally over, i seriously could not stop smiling. i know that a house with three bedrooms is better than one with two for resale purposes, but i refuse to make decisions based solely on resale. this is my home, first and foremost, and it made much more sense to remove that dumb wall and create one big bedroom. the demo experience wowed me tremendously because a) i've never done it before, so i got to see all the assorted stuffing and things that actually reside in a wall, which was eye-opening, and b) i've never done it before because i never could as a renter, but this wall i could make decisions about because i owned it.

and that felt mighty fine.