Longest Year Ever

So, here’s something I didn’t know when I decided to gut-renovate a house.  It takes almost an entire calendar year to finish partial demolition and masonry work.  We started in October 2016, and as of the time of this writing, we are getting ready to start the framing of the house in October 2017!

What took so long?  Well, if you’ve been following my blog, the town was very difficult to deal with at first, and then I’ve been mired in construction delays.  At times, I’ve wondered if I make a mistake by not completely demolishing the house.  I probably could have gained efficiency if the old structure wasn’t in place and then we would have had enough room to bring machinery in to assist in the excavation process.  It’s hard to tell exactly what the cost and time difference would have been had I done that, but we did get to save most of the original structure, so that should be worth something.

We Have a Drainage System

In June, we dug a trench where the old clay pipe drainage system used to be.  Apparently, the sewer connection is somewhere behind the house, not in front of it.  We were able to locate the connection, and hook the new PVC pipe system into it.

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The drainage system in the front driveway

Once the new drainage system was built, we had to call in the town to inspect before we could cover it back up and fill it in.  It took about 4 days lead time to call the inspector in.  He failed us due to the way the pipes were configured, I never got the exact detail why.  The plumber had to fix the problem and we had to get the inspector back in seven days.

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All of the sewage connections in the house come together in the garage

Just like that, an entire week was lost.  This may not seem like a big deal, but this is typical of a project.  A three-day setback here, a week setback there, a three-week setback for some reason.  It all adds up to major, major time lapses in between actual work.  I’ve come to learn that watching your construction project sit idle for any amount of time is a special kind of torture that I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

Let’s Button It Up

After we finally passed the inspection of the drainage system, we were able to build the basement floor.  We backfilled the dirt over the pipes and filled in the trenches.  We put a plastic sheet down over the dirt and then built a rebar mesh on top of that.  That required yet another inspection, one which we passed on the first try.

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The drainage trough at the foot of the driveway

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The plastic membrane and rebar

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The plastic membrane and rebar

It took a few weeks for the mason to come back, of course, but when he did, he poured concrete over the rebar and plastic, and I finally had a finished basement floor!

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View of the fresh coat of cement from the driveway

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The fresh cement in the rear addition of the house

More Demolition

Once the floor was poured, my general contractor called in the framer so he could get ready to get started.  They also called in my architect to walk through the plans together and get on the same page.  One of the things they reviewed was the remaining demolition work that needed to be done.  The house needs to be demolished in stages so the remaining shell can stay in place without collapsing during construction.

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Making a big mess out front

For reasons that weren’t too clear to me, we still hadn’t done a lot of the work that the framer required in order to start.  It could have been done while we had some downtime in between inspections, but it didn’t happen.

Somebody noticed that there was concrete between the garage and first floor that had to be demolished.  I don’t know why we didn’t learn this sooner.  So, they had to put plywood down on my brand-new garage floor and demolished the concrete, making a mess of the basement again.

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This is now on top of my new basement floor!  AAAAAHHHHH!!!!!

They had to demolish the original brick chimney while they were at it.  That was another bit of work that could have been done much earlier.  Finally, they had to strip the outside and inside of the house to the studs and plywood.  When it was all done and cleared out, there wasn’t much left but the outer shell of the house, and the ceiling and floor between the first and second floors.  The house was finally in a condition to be framed.

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What’s left of the chimney

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The spaces in between the joists were where the cement was between the first floor and the basement.  Nobody noticed it was here until we had finished the basement floor.  It had to be removed because it was potentially damaging to the joists.

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The hole to the sky where the chimney used to be

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What is now left of the front of the house. The garage door is gone, replaced temporarily with that blue tarp.

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All that is left of the second floor.  Only the outer shell and the roof will remain.  The floor will be completely ripped out.

OK, So Let’s Get Started

In late August, my GC e-mailed me to tell me the framer was going to start on September 20.  We had a week or so of demolition left and the house would be ready to go long before the start date.  Naturally, I called him right away to tell him we needed to move that date in.  He told me it wouldn’t be possible because the framing guy was working another job.  I told him that I really needed the house to be framed before the winter set in.  He emphatically stated that it would take at most two weeks to frame the house and I didn’t have anything to worry about.

September 20 approached and the GC told me the start date was now going to be September 21.  Then the framer declared that because it was a Thursday so we might as well start the next Monday.  I didn’t follow that logic at all, but I wasn’t going to flip out about four more days wait.

On Monday, I texted the GC and asked him if we were starting.  Heard nothing back that day.  On Tuesday he texted me and said he was aware I was waiting for an answer and I’d hear back from him by the end of the day.  No word for the rest of the day or all of Wednesday.  Thursday, I called and got him on the phone.  He told me he was very embarrassed, but the framer wasn’t going to take the job.

Things took an interesting turn after that.  I repeated my original deadline that the house had to be framed before the winter or the project would be in serious jeopardy.  I would at some point just run out of money, having to pay two mortgages.  I’m already well over 10 months past my projected worst-case scenario of being done from when I bought the house in December, 2015.

My GC proceeded to get very worked up in explaining to me that he’d figure something out.  He said he was embarrassed and upset about the situation and he felt that his entire reputation was on the line.  I ended up having to calm him down and tell him not to get bent out of shape.  It was almost as if our positions were juxtaposed.  I should be the one that is bent out of shape!

I started to consider my options in order of preference:

  1. Wait for my GC to find a new framer
  2. Find my own framer
  3. Fire the GC and quickly find someone else
  4. Stop making mortgage payments and let the bank foreclose on the house

Each option had pros and cons.  At that point, as much as I like the guy, my confidence in my GC was pretty much shot.  I didn’t have a framer or a new GC in mind and it would be difficult to make a big change like that given my time constraints at work.  The fourth option was a nuclear one, but it’s not as bad as it sounds.  I’d lose about 15 years of savings with everything I’ve put into the project so far and my credit would be ruined.  But I’d stop the bleeding.  I wouldn’t need my credit rating anymore because it would be years before I could save up enough to try again.

Anyway, on Friday, I got a series of text messages from the GC that he had found a new guy and that he might be able to start next week.  They met at the house that day, and by Saturday, we had a quote from him.  After a day of pondering my options, the first one looks like it was going to work out.

I have it in writing that it should take the new framer about three weeks to finish, and that includes installing the windows that I ordered in August.  The framer has a job he needs to start right after that, so he is incentivized to hurry up!

In a way, this is almost too good to believe that we found a reputable guy just in time that has nothing else better to do for the next three weeks.  But, this is pretty much my best choice right now.  So, on Monday, we are going to order $16,000 worth of lumber from Kuiken Brothers, and we are going to get started.

How Did It Come to This?

When I started this blog, I had figured that it would be an interesting story about design decisions, construction, and decorating the house over the course of many years.  I thought I would be living in the house by the end of 2016, and would have sold my Hoboken condo, rolling the proceeds from the sale into a much smaller mortgage on the new house.  Instead, this blog has turned into an infrequent, long-winded complaint about not much getting done!

I don’t live life with regrets.  I believe in taking measured risks in order to get better outcomes for yourself.  This was definitely a risk, and so far, it has not worked out at all.  I am certainly not going to say I regret this decision, I know that I wouldn’t have been happy had I simply stayed in my small Hoboken apartment with no eye towards the future.  But, this certainly now falls into the category of a BAD IDEA!  I’m never going to make up all the money I lost paying the double mortgage for so long, and as of this writing, I can’t see how it’s even going to get done before 2019, a full three years and more after I bought the place.

This is a pivotal week.  If they start framing the house and come even close to their self-imposed three-week deadline for completion, my whole outlook will change.  I’ll be in a position to tell my contractor that he’d better have someone working on this job every single day until it is done!  All work can proceed on the house once the framing is complete, and weather will no longer be an issue.

Wish me luck…

And We’re Off!

“Hey man, how’s your house coming along?  You moved in yet?”  When you start a blog that promises everybody in your friends list that you are about to get started on a construction project, you set yourself up for this question from just about everybody you run in to.  Unfortunately, I had to deal with an incredibly frustrating and expensive wait from the Union City Construction Department to get the construction permits finalized.  I had hoped to have permits done in March, 2016, which was a buffer of about three months from when I bought the house in December, 2015.  It wasn’t until October, just a few weeks ago, that I finally got permission to build the house from the city.

I didn’t intend to make this blog about dealing with city hall, but I guess it is part of the story so I’ll explain it as best as I can.  Honestly, the process dragged for so long that my memory is already kind of fuzzy on the subject.  But I can break down several reasons why it took over 10 months to get the permits, at least from what I can tell.

If the permit process doesn’t interest you, scroll down to “Project Start”.  If not, here are the three reasons that I believe it took so long.

Misunderstandings

My architect asked for a meeting with the construction officer at the beginning of the process to discuss the project.  The officer reviewed the drawings and noted that we were adding a third bedroom but only had two parking spaces.  He said that city zoning ordinance required a third parking spot if we were adding the third bedroom, but that he’d let it go and we’d get approved as-is.

This turned out to be a huge mistake on our part.  One of the biggest misunderstandings we had was the third parking space.  My architect took him at his word that we would be OK with just two parking spaces.  Turns out, we failed zoning review because of this.

We failed a few other times even after we re-submitted the drawings with the third parking space.  Despite the initial meeting my architect held with the construction officer, he still didn’t know exactly the level of detail they needed to see on the drawings.  It took quite some time to decipher what the city was asking of us and we had to re-submit the drawings several times.

Inefficient Processes

In all my years in the private sector, I’ve never seen a more inefficiently run business process than the Union City construction permit process.  It was shocking how long it took for them to perform the simplest of tasks.

At first, we had to submit for zoning review.  For inexplicable reasons, they didn’t ask for drawings at that time and we just had to fill out a form.  About a month later, we were given zoning approval, meaning that we were within code.

When that was done, we proceeded to submit the drawings.  Then the fun began.  A month later, the town failed the drawings for a multitude of reasons for building, fire, electric, and plumbing.  Even more maddening was that they revoked the zoning approval and didn’t tell us why, only saying that we needed to talk to the construction official to discuss.  I went with my architect to the meeting, and that was when we found out that we failed zoning due to the third parking spot.  At first, he didn’t even know why we failed, he had to call some guy from his mobile phone and ask him if he remembered why he failed us!

My architect had to add the third parking spot and re-submit the permit for zoning and the drawings again. A month later, we got zoning approved (and this turned out to be for good) but they failed the drawings again.  My architect had to meet with them again to understand why they failed us and had to do another drawing iteration, which cost us yet another month.

Sometime in August, someone from the building department called my architect and told him that we were about to get approved, pending some sort of fee calculation.  We thought we were ready to go any day.  Another bad assumption on our part.

I got a call at work from the building department (after really not talking to them directly at all throughout the process) and didn’t pick up the phone right away.  I called back just a few minutes later when I was free and the conversation went like this:

Me: Hi, did someone there call this number?

Union City: Yeah, we left you a voice mail.  You have to take care of the [inaudible] fee.

Me: I didn’t catch that, what do I have to do?

Union City: Check your voicemail! (click)

There was no voicemail on my phone.  While I sat there, bewildered, the phone rang and it was Union City again:

Union City: Your voicemail was full.  You need to take care of the [inaudible] fee.

Me: Could you please spell that?

Union City: C-O-A-H.  You have to pay the COAH fee.  Go online and send in the form. (click)

Before I go any further in the story, let me state for the record that my voicemail was not full.  Anyway, I googled COAH and didn’t come up with much.  I called my architect and he said that he had never heard of it either but he’d check it out.  A few minutes later, he sent over a form he found online, and asked me to print, sign, and scan it, and then send it back to him.  I did that as soon as I could and he said he’d drop it off the next day.

Then the wait began again.  Several weeks later, when my architect was on vacation, I called the city to see if the permits were ready to pick up.  The woman I spoke to told me that they were still waiting for the COAH form to be dropped off.  I told her it was there already but there was no arguing with her.  She told me I could fax it to her.  I said I don’t have a fax machine but I could e-mail her a copy.

I hung up, found the signed COAH form on my phone and immediately e-mailed it to her.  She replied right away in all caps: “THANK YOU FOR SENDING, BUT YOU NEED TO SEND IT TO THE TAX ASSSESSOR.”  Not sure why she didn’t tell me that on the phone, nor am I sure why she couldn’t just forward the e-mail to the dude herself, but I did what she said anyway.

The tax assessor was responsive when reached by phone.  He said that the COAH fee was a fee that the state made them charge because I was renovating the house.  It would be calculated based on the assessed value of the finished house.  As he promised, about seven days later, he came back with a handwritten form that said I had to pay a $2,300 COAH fee for the right to develop my property.  He promised to walk it up to the construction department right away.

This was not the best news I got all week, but at least the ball was rolling again.  I called the construction office and they told me that they had the COAH form and the permits were back under review with no ETA for completion.  I pleaded my case and told her that the COAH process alone had gone on for over a month and asked that they kindly wrap things up as soon as possible.  She said that there was no ETA for completion.

I called the following Tuesday to politely ask if there was anything else they needed from me.  The woman on the other end said “You are still under review, we’ll let you know when it is done!” and hung up the phone.  I started to think that these people really hate their jobs, their lives, and the general public.

My architect stopped by a week after that and asked if they were done.  After a few moments, they said to him “We need the COAH form.”  I think at this point, he was wondering if Alan Funt was about to run in to the room and tell him that he was on Candid Camera.  Either way, he somehow managed to convince her that it was on top of the pile and that they did indeed have the forms.

A week later, about 7 weeks after the COAH form process started, and about 8 months after the permit process began, they called my contractor to tell him that the permits were done and we could pick them up for a total price of $9,200, inclusive of the COAH fee.

Sheer Incompetence

Friends and family gave me all kinds of useless advice during the process.  Their hearts were in the right place, but there was really no way any of it would work.  Some examples:

  • Hire a Cuban lawyer and have him take them to court.
  • It’s Jersey, bro! Bring an envelope full of cash!
  • Call the mayor and complain.
  • Call them more often and politely ask them to move the form along.

The reason that none of this common sense advice was going to work is because the people who work in the construction office in Union City are terrible at their jobs!  They push paper all day and barely use computers.  Almost everything they do is still handwritten.  They are late or don’t show up for their own appointments.  They have no interpersonal skills.  What good would it have done to bribe someone if it still would have taken them weeks just to do the math for the permits?  What’s the mayor going to do, review the zoning himself?

Some of my favorite examples of their utter incompetence:

  • I visited the house on July 6 to check the mail. There were two letters from the city, both had handwritten address lines.
    • The first envelope was post-marked July 1 and it was made out to a Hispanic variation of my first name. Inside, the letter was dated May 28.  I guess it took them 6 weeks to handwrite the envelope to the wrong name.
    • The second envelope was post-marked July 2. It was made out to “Pavel Rodenski” at my address.  Inside, the letter was dated July 1 (they’re getting better at sending mail quickly) and it was also made out to “Pavel Rodenski”.  I keep this blog semi-anonymous, but I can assure you that Pavel Rodenski doesn’t even resemble my real name.
  • Their inability to just take care of the COAH form was very frustrating. All they had to do was talk to the tax guy, ask him to fill out the form and send it back to them.  It should have taken one day.  I can’t figure out they wanted my architect and myself to push a piece of paper around city hall.  A piece of paper that they lost track of at least twice.
  • The permit receipt was written by hand. At no time in the last 30 years has anybody in Union City figured out how to use Microsoft Excel to create a simple template that can be used to do math for them.

Anyway, this is it for me regarding the permit part of the story.  I’m sure the inspections and the CO process will go smoothly with these characters in charge.

Project Start

I am happy to announce that work has started today.  My contractor texted me a few pictures because he thought I wouldn’t believe that we are actually underway.

The first phase of the project is the masonry work.  This involves extending the back of the house by building a new foundation behind the existing one.  It also includes knocking down the misshapen and dangerous front stairs and replacing them with a safer set.

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The incredibly dangerous set of front stairs.  Take a close look, none of the steps are the same height.  The one in the middle is the worst, it is three bricks tall!

To begin, we need to rip the front of the house and the back of the house off and throw them away.  We also have to knock down the basement walls in the back of the house and remove a steel staircase.

The house only has a three-foot alley on the right side and a one-foot alley on the left.  This will prevent any mason from bringing in equipment to help the excavation process.  Therefore, we had to find a crew that was willing to dig out the new basement with shovels.  We also don’t have room out front for a dumpster, we have to remove trash one truck-full at a time.

These constraints proved tricky for my contractor to find someone that we could use.  Several people he brought in to look at the job refused to even bid on it.  One of them gave a bid of over $70K which we rejected.  He finally was able to find someone that was willing to take the job at a reasonable price so we could get started.

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Working hard on ripping out the entire back of the house.

This part of the project has already presented me with my first finishing decision to make.  What should the front stairs look like?  I posed that question to the architect, since it is job to mind the modern design aesthetic of the house.  He responded that “The front steps should be a concrete block with a cement skim coat finish and precast treads.”  OK, sounds good to me!

My contractor is already working on the next phases of the project.  He has the framer lined up and already got me a lumber quote from the lumber yard.  He also has two window quotes, one from Andersen, and one from Marvin.  He told me that we should order the windows now so that they’ll be ready once the masonry and the framing are done.

I am behind before we even got started, but the overwhelming amount of decision making regarding the finish of the house is about to begin.  I can’t describe how excited I am, and I’m looking forward to every bit of it.