"Hey, if you can’t trust your carpenter, who can you trust?"
|Hunter’s Money Pit
Summer of 1995, Lake Forest IL.
As a young remodeler with a crew of 4 carpenters, I was really excited to get this job.
It was a massive 1940’s Cape Cod style house with big plans for a covered porch off the back of the kitchen and a simple addition to be used as a mud room with cabinets, lockers, and a 4 ft. bench for the four growing boys and all of their stuff like hockey equipment, skate boards, school back packs, coats and boots -- you name it.
The clients also wanted to add a covered breezeway to the garage, replace several windows and the entry doors, and remodel the kitchen. Our summer was officially booked.
I'd worked on previous jobs with Steve, the Architect that referred me, who was also their friend. He couldn't take on the job himself because of other commitments, or it may have been that old adage: "You don't work for your friends." Either way, after several meetings we could tell this was a good fit. There's nothing better than that feeling of trust you know they have in you. But then, I wouldn’t do the job if I thought they didn’t trust me.
"Hey, if you can’t trust your carpenter, who can you trust?"
The clients were very excited that first Monday when we showed up to dig the new addition foundation.
We removed the old aluminum siding and discovered the original 5” cedar siding that seemed to be in decent shape. It needed to be completely stripped and repainted but it was Original!!
The homeowners fell in love with it and decided it looked better than the aluminum siding we had planned on using to match the existing. So, tear All of the aluminum siding off and restore the old cedar siding. The job just doubled in size.
Change order # 1 - day one.
As we continued to demo the old house to make way for the new work, we discovered more surprises including a 3 ft. wide paper wasp nest and a Huge infestation of black, wood eating ants. The outer rim joists and sill plates under the kitchen were completely destroyed by water damage, which housed the large army of ants. We spent a day getting an exterminator in there and figuring out how we were going to fix this…or even worse, just how much damage is there around the rest of the house.
Change order # 2 – 5 - day 3.
The more we uncovered, the more we found.
Behind the aluminum siding, the old house was rotted and full of ants, the door and window sills were destroyed from water damage and full of ants, the soffits and fascia were rotted and had to be completely reframed. All of the exterior trim looked good on the outside but fell apart the minute you touched it -- followed by a black swarm of ants.
Remember that movie: The Money Pit, with Tom Hanks? “How long is it gonna take? Two Weeks!” HA!
I don’t remember any ants in that movie.
The new foundation went in without a problem as we scrambled to replace all the rotten sill plates and framing. But after that first week it was obvious, we needed more help, so I called my friend, Dave who has a siding company and asked him if he wanted to work on the project. He said: “Sure! I need the work!” and the next day, we met to figure how much work this was going to be and how the heck do you estimate it.
The new plan was to remove all of the aluminum siding, patch the existing siding as needed, then the painter would strip, prime and paint the whole house. We looked closer at the existing trim and decided most of it also needed to be replaced. I always want to try and save the old trim but it never turns out to be worth the effort. We had to order the new cedar siding right away, which wasn’t cheap, so we could have the painter prime both sides. It wasn’t available pre primed back then.
Change order # 6-7, day 7 - another Sunday.
The next Monday, eight more guys showed up eager to start the new siding project while my crew framed the new addition and the porch deck. Dave showed up and took charge and the job came alive… setting up scaffolding, staging materials and tools, nail guns blasting and guys yelling measurements, the dumpster arrived, the clients headed for work, the sun came out and made the day perfect.
I told myself: “Now we’re talking. This is how it’s done.”
Well, the pace lasted for about 3 or 4 days but by Friday, Dave had pulled half the crew off the job to start another job “that was already scheduled.” The guys he left behind needed to be managed and he just disappeared. They continued to pull off more and more of the old siding.
It was just impossible to remove the bad sections without destroying the rest. It looked OK but it was so old and brittle, to the point where you’d have to say, just take it all off. We also discovered there wasn’t any insulation in the exterior walls! Every single window had to be replaced along with the interior trim.
Time for another meeting with the client. Change order # 8 - 11. - Day 14
Usually by this time, I’ve made friends with the owner’s dog or the kids decide they want to be my little carpenter’s helper. They had a six year old son named Mikey who was quite the little tough guy. He had no problem walking right in to the middle of a progress meeting or a lunch time conversation and stealing the show. I gave him a small tape measure and a fat carpenter’s pencil which he had to show to every new worker that showed up.
As we continued the demo around the house, it became even more evident, everything we touched was only held together by ten layers of paint and had to be replaced. There was so much damage from the rot and ants, it left you wondering what was holding the house up.
Another call for a meeting with the homeowner, estimate the cost, order more materials, and deal with the growing pile of paperwork.
Change order # 12 – 16 - Day 30
As if we didn’t have enough going on, the husband decided he wanted us to build a weight room / office above the three car garage which included a big 24 ft. dormer and a stair well. We had to bring in another contractor friend who had to completely reframe the roof and the floor to support the weight room. Turned out it was just as rotten and full of ants. The back wall was the only original part left by the time it was completed.
Change order # 17- 21 - Days become months.
So now there’s a huge dumpster and an outhouse on the driveway, 12-14 construction trucks lining the streets, 4-6 siding installers crawling all over the house along with the panicking black ants, 4 carpenters framing the addition, 6 carpenters noisily framing the garage, 4 painters priming the siding in the back yard, playing Mexican music at a distorted volume, 2 electricians and a plumber grumbling something about the ants in the crawlspace, there’s a lumber yard truck with more siding blocking the streets and honking his horn, the kids missed the buss and now, Mom wants us to let her out.
Just a typical day, and I love it.
We finished framing the addition just in time for the roofer. He managed to find a place to park on the next block and walked up to me and said: “a little busy today?” He looked up at the carpenter/ant covered house as if he was regretting taking on this job that has now tripled in size… and has major problems he hasn’t even seen yet.
I told him: “ Don’t worry, it isn’t that bad, just a lot more of the same.”
We went up on the roof to take a look and he quickly noticed the old chimney was in really bad shape. In fact, it was dangerously close to crumbling and falling down. He said it had to be fixed first before he would even start.
Also, the shingles that were installed right before they bought the house were laid on top of the old wood shingles that were rotted and letting the shingles come loose. We could barely walk on them. All of the gutters were rusted and there were leaks around every dormer which were also full of ants and bees.
Another meeting with the client along with the Architect, the roofer, and my trusty mason. They decide to return the house back to original and install a complete new cedar shake roof, and a new chimney.
Change order # 22 - 26. - Months add up to a year.
Despite the never ending: “Hey Mark! Better come take a look at this!” The job moved along at a respectable rate. At least nobody’s fallen off the roof or started a fist fight, the homeowners are still smiling and the checks are clearing the bank.
There was this one laborer named Bob who worked for Dave that seemed to be the fall guy for any pranks or harmless insults around the jobsite. He always laughed it off and didn’t seem to mind, but to me it never seemed right. Heck, I remember being the new guy once and getting hammered for doing something stupid or just because it’s my turn to be picked on. It ain’t fun, trust me.
A gentle giant at 6 ft. 4 inches, about 240 lbs. but it would be hard to imagine him in a fight. I also couldn’t help notice that he was always smiling and the first to show up and the last to leave.
Then one day, he came up to me and said that Dave had let him go but he wanted to thank me for the work. I was very surprised Dave would fire him considering we were short handed and in my opinion, he never really did anything wrong. It seemed to me he did well on his own. The perfect solution was to give him his own position. So I hired him and gave him a dollar raise.
He was now the official caulker and ant killer.
I’ll bet we went through 20 spray cans of ant/ bee killer and 75 tubes of caulk on all the new cedar siding and trim on this house. Bob did all the caulking, instead of everybody getting caulk all over themselves and the tools. He made up a five gallon bucket tool kit and became really good at laying down a nice consistent bead of caulk. The guys were really glad they didn’t have to do it and took notice how well Bob was doing in his new position.
A simple thing, but to see all of them joking around with him at lunch time with a little more respect and kindness, it made my day. The week before, he wanted to quit.
I also gave him all the scrap aluminum siding which he took charge of recycling and ended up making $800.00! I had no idea it was worth that much! Good for him.
The job progressed, day after day, summer fades to fall and the leaves turn to golden browns. Winter comes and turns everything white, then spring brings the sun back and saves us from the winters cold.
Almost like a light at the proverbial end of the tunnel.
The chimney was replaced, the new cedar roof looked fantastic, the painters were finally wrapping up on the outside and we were down to the punch list on the kitchen remodel.
At this point, the worn out home owners had lived for almost a year under construction, dealing with work vans and dusty carpenters, constant banging and sawing, rotten wood and thousands of ants, numerous decisions and change orders, and an occasional salty phrase that Mikey just loved to repeat at the dinner table.
“Quit lookin at it Einstein! Just do it!” Uh, I think I may have said that before. Oops.
To show my appreciation to the homeowners for their trust in me and patience through one Huge project that none of us had a clue we were getting in to, I gave them a plaque made from a rotten piece of the old sill plate riddled with ant holes and a rusty nail and a brass plate on it that said:
I survived The Hunter’s Whole House Remodel of 1995-96.
On the last day, almost exactly one year from the beginning, we met to sign off on the completed punch list and say goodbye. I presented the plaque to them and we all had a good laugh at it.
I shook hands with Mr. Hunter who was still smiling and the Mrs. gave me a big hug as I was leaving.
When I put my hand on her shoulder to hug her, a big black ant crawled off her back and on to my hand and somehow, I managed to remove and smash the little home wrecker without her even knowing it.
But, Mr. Hunter saw the whole thing.
He smiled at me and winked as if it would forever be our little secret.
A job well done.