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…

Is Your House Done Yet?

“Hey man, how’s your house?  You moved in yet?  I haven’t seen one of your blog posts in a while”.

This line of questioning is all my fault.  I’m the one that told everybody I knew that I bought a house in December, 2015 and planned to renovate it.  I made matters worse by blogging about and sharing it on Facebook.  I drew all kinds of attention to the subject so I deserve the litany of questions that go along with it.

The only problem is that I have had virtually no answer to that question for the better part of 2017.  This past winter was brutal for my project.  We started in October of 2016 and hit a number of roadblocks right away.  Not much can progress on the house until the masonry in front and back is complete.  Only when that is done can the house be framed and the rest of the work can start.

There is a whole litany of reasons the project moved so slowly, fitting mainly into three categories: Difficulty with inspections from the town, bad weather, and delays with the mason.  Weeks would go by with no progress at all, leaving me with an empty feeling of helplessness as my bank account was draining with nothing to show for it.

In January, there was some progress on the rear addition.  The footings were approved and the mason started to lay cinder blocks with a duro-bond wire in between every other layer.  Once that was done, my contractor called the building inspector and asked him to approve the rear addition.  On February 3, the inspector gave us our first inspection failure.

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My first inspection failure.  I think I’ll frame the original.

The basis of the failure was somewhat unclear at the time.  It seemed to hinge on a somewhat confusing conversation that the inspector and my contractor had.  First, the inspector said that we needed to check to make sure the foundation was built with the proper setbacks from the neighboring properties in accordance with the approved plans.  The contractor asked if that meant we had to have the property surveyed right away.  The inspector said that would do, or we could get a letter from my architect saying that we were building according to his design.

The second reason we failed was because the inspector wanted proof that we put the duro-bond where it belonged and that we doweled into the existing wall properly.  My contractor said that we had pictures and that the architect was supervising the project and could attest that we were in accordance with the building code.  The contractor pointed out that the only to prove everything would have been to have the inspector visit after every layer of cinder block was installed!

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I’m telling you, bro, we really did layer the blocks properly!

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It was kind of hard to prove once the walls were built.

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The view from the back looking towards the front of the house

We proceeded to get a letter from the architect explaining that everything was built according to plan and we sent that to the building inspectors office.  We really didn’t know at the time if that was going to be good enough, so we prepared to move on with building the drainage system.

The project had stalled a bit being early February.  The weather was poor and the mason didn’t have much of a window to work outside.  My contractor told me that he was going to meet with the mason on February 20 to discuss moving forward with the project.  I asked if he could let me know what time he was going to be there so I could meet them both.  I had that day off of work for President’s Day.

On the morning of the scheduled meeting, my contractor texted me and asked me to give him a call.  He said that the contractor was on an unannounced two-week vacation to Peru.  Of course, the weather broke and those two weeks were very temperate for that time of year, it would have been good enough for the masonry crew to continue on.

About three weeks after the supposed two-week vacation started, the mason announced he was going to return to the job.  That day it snowed and he couldn’t come.  The snow was heavy and froze over and set us back again.  All told, from the time of the failed inspection on February 3, we lost about 8 weeks to weather and the mason’s vacation before he was able to start back on the project in earnest.

The Drainage System

As I explained in a previous blog post, we had to build a pretty elaborate drainage system around the extension in back of the house.  We were required to drain all rain water into the sewer connection.  This is the opposite of what most municipalities want you to do, typically you are not supposed to overload the sewer system with rain water.  Union City works in mysterious ways.

We also had to fill in the trenches around the extension with rocks to aid in drainage around the outside of the house.  Since we couldn’t get machinery through the alley between my house and the neighbor, the masonry crew had to use shovels and a wheelbarrow to fill the rocks in around the house.

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That trench is where the rainwater drainpipe will be.

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One of the rainwater drainpipes in it’s fancy rocky bedding.

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An idea of the scale of the excavation we had to do to make room for the pipe.  The masons made this pile of dirt with buckets, one by one.

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The pipes in the aforementioned trench.

Front Masonry

The front of the house wasn’t nearly as elaborate as the job in the backyard.  We aren’t extending the house in the front, but we are building a second story where the original mud room front porch was.  This required first that we demolish the mud room and check the existing foundation to see if the footings were deep enough.  On the left side of the house, the footing was deep enough to pass inspection.  On the right of the house, there was no footing at all, requiring us to demolish the existing wall and excavate enough ground to pour one.

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Nope, no footing in here.  WTH?

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So, we just poured our own footing.  Better make sure it is 42″ deep, not just 36″. Don’t want the house to fall over!!!

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And we have a new wall in front.

The dangerous front steps were also slated for replacement.  They were demolished and the skeleton of the new steps were put in place.  They seem to be a lot more even and less deadly than the old set of steps.  They still need to be finished with concrete.  We’re not going to use any brick finishes, the design we are looking for is a simple one with a skim coat of stucco.

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The hole where the old steps used to be.

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The foundation of the new steps, all with uniform height!

The Inspector Is Our Friend Now?

Before we could backfill the backyard, we needed to have the inspector come and check out the drainage system.  We also wanted him to review the front footings, the existing one we planned to retain, and the new one that we dug out.  He no-showed our first window, telling my contractor while he was at the house waiting that he couldn’t make it.  He made it the next day, and things went decidedly better than any of our previous inspections.

The inspector reviewed the drainage system in back and determined that it was adequate.  He gave us the go ahead to back-fill the dirt back in the trenches without issue.  There was, however a problem in the front.  The new footing was only 36 inches deep, according to the plans and building code, it had to be 42 inches deep.  The contractor realized there was a mistake but was taken aback by the response the inspector had.  He told the contractor simply to dig the hole six inches deeper, send him a picture, and that we’d be good!  From the explanation of the story that I got, I think my contractor nearly fainted from the shock of this act of kindness and common sense. This was the go-ahead we needed to build the new foundation wall on the right side of the house which was the last bit of foundation that needed to be built.

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The backyard now that the trenches have been back-filled.

So, Where Exactly Does the Sewer Drain?

Now it was time to hook into the existing sewer connection as per our design.  The mason ripped up the basement garage floor where the house trap is.  We found a clay pipe that we originally thought drained out the front of the house to the sewer in the street.  The plumber visited and pointed out that the pipe was pitched towards the back of the house.

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The clay pipe, pitched down and away from the front of the house.

It turned out that the clay pipe was just a rainwater drain from the front of the basement and that the sewer pipe heads out the back of the house.  We couldn’t figure out exactly which direction it heads.  When we excavated the back extension, we never hit the pipe.  It either took a sharp turn to the side under one of the neighbor’s houses, or went straight down.  Whatever the case is, they tested it out with a hose and water seems to drain well through it, so who cares?

Hopefully this is the last “mystery” in this house.  There’s going to be so little left of the original house that there shouldn’t be much guesswork with the rest of what we have to build since most of it will be from scratch.

The mason took out the existing machinery from the basement (none of which was working anyway) and excavated all the spots where we will run the drainpipes from upstairs.  He also ripped out the clay pipe, we’re going to replace that with PVC piping.  When it’s all done, there is going to be very little left of the original basement floor and I’ll have a nice new coat of concrete.

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The remnants of the machine room, along with a trench for drainage.

What’s Next?

We started masonry work in October, 2016.  As of mid-June 2017, we are almost done.  I thought the entire house would take about that long to build, so feel free to call me a dumbass the next time you see me.  Anyway, we can’t move forward with anything else until that is done.

All that is left is for the plumber to hook up all the drains from the inside and outside into the sewer connection.  We will then ask for another inspection.  If we should be lucky enough to pass, they can backfill the dirt in the basement.  We will finally be able to start the framing process.

I met with the framer two weeks ago with my GC to over the project.  When my contractor originally explained the process to me, he said that framing would take “one week, two max”.  I asked the framer what his opinion was and he said it would take “three to four weeks”.  So, I’m guessing it will take three months.  If I’m lucky, he’ll be done by mid-October, but that’s only if I’m lucky, which I’m obviously not.

Is Your House Done Yet?

So, back to that original question.  No, it’s not done, but now I think I have a better idea of where we are at.  Once framing is done, everything else can get started, some of which can be done in parallel.  There also won’t be weather delays for anything on the inside.  We can put siding up, install windows, rough the electric and plumbing, put drywall and flooring in, and install the kitchen and bathroom fixtures and finishes.  Piece of cake, right!

As you may recall, I closed on the house in December, 2015.  I thought we’d have permits in a month or two, start building in March 2016, and be done in time for me to move in before New Year’s 2017.  Given the pace we are at, and how long just the masonry phase has taken, I have a better idea of my estimated completion date.  I think my best-case scenario at this point is December, 2018.  That would be a full three years from when I bought the house.

This situation puts me in serious financial jeopardy.  I budgeted for a year of paying two mortgages out of my savings, not three.  Additionally, the bank I work for had to pay a $7.2 billion fine to the US Department of Justice in January as a result of some improprieties from 2005-2007.  They had to cancel our bonus pool entirely, which was a nice kick in the gut on top of everything else.  The assholes that broke the law are all gone from the bank, playing golf and spending the summer in their Hamptons mansions.  Now I have to figure out how to make up that cash that I was desperately counting on coming in this year.

I’m not sure what’s going to happen other than I have to move forward.  I can’t sell the place as-is, it is a shell right now. I can borrow against my current apartment in Hoboken which is the likely course of action.  However, the plan all along was to sell my condo at the end and use the proceeds to refinance the jumbo mortgage I took out on the new house.  Anything I borrow against my condo eats into the profit I will make when I sell, giving me less money to pay down the principal on the new mortgage, increasing what I’d have to borrow.

I can hope for the best, but there is a slim possibility that I will have to turn around and sell the new place immediately when it is finished.  If that happens, some lucky person is going to get his or her hands on the best house in all of Union City.

I walked through the house yesterday, the entire property is a complete disaster.  The backyard is a muddy mess, there are trenches in the basement, and the frame of the existing house is partially demolished and littered with debris.  It was a “what was I thinking?” moment.  But I regret nothing, I knew I was taking a risk and had bitten off more than I could chew.  If I pull this off, I will be living in my dream house someday.

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Just a crazy mess right now.

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What’s left of the insides, the flooring was removed.

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The clay pipe is gone, leaving this disaster of a trench inside the basement.

There’s a sliver lining to this dark cloud.  Count on partying at my place in Hoboken on the first Saturday of March, 2018!  It’ll be cramped as usual, but we always manage to fit somehow.

The Dig

Just over one calendar year since I closed on the house and construction has just started to get underway.  I keep getting questions like “You moved in to your new house yet, bro?” or “You sell your old place yet?” so I figured I should explain that we are really just getting started and I am staying put in my cozy Hoboken condo until my new place is livable.

I took fewer days off this year during the summer than I normally would. I reasoned that I needed my vacation days to spend time with the contractor and to go showrooming to shop for finishes.  Due to the delays we had in getting started, I never used those vacation days and I was set to lose them at the end of the year.  So, I put in for the week off with a loose plan to meet with my kitchen designer, my contractor, and to do some shopping for finishes.  I managed to get a lot done, both in learning the process for how a house is built, and making some finishing decisions.

The First Non-Budget Expense

You’re supposed to double the original time and budget estimate when you build a house, right?  We’re already double the time estimate, but if we double the budget estimate, I go bankrupt and move back in with my parents.  Let’s hope that doesn’t happen.

Anyway, it wasn’t entirely unexpected, but the gas regulator happens to be right inside the garage door.  The garage is already very tight and one wrong move when parking the car, and I could rip the thing right off the wall.  We called PSE&G, filled out a few online forms, sent a few e-mails back and forth, and finally convinced their engineers to come to the house to assess the situation.  They seemingly came up with a plan to move the regulator to outside the house, and they will re-route the pipe so it is nowhere near the car anymore.  They decided that the exact amount of $2,294.59 will cover their troubles.  I’m waiting to hear back from them as to when they are going to come and do the job, but it is good to have it paid for and know that it will be taken care of.

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The gas regulator which would be about four inches from where my car is parked if left there.  PSE&G will relocate it to a safer spot.

Masonry

Construction work has begun with the masonry phase of the project.  As I mentioned in my previous blog post, there were special considerations with this project because there is not enough room on either side to bring in construction equipment.  We had to find a mason who had a crew with shovels and wheelbarrows that could dig out the basement for the rear extension by hand.

They had to start by removing the one-story kitchen, the basement underneath it, the backyard stairs, and the basement wall.  They did a very good job of keeping the job site clean and orderly as they did all this.  They pretty efficiently removed all of the debris as they created it.

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The one-story kitchen was removed and the basement underneath it was demolished.

Next, they had to grab their shovels and start to dig.  They dug out the area around the perimeter of the new basement extension, and the outdoor kitchen wall.  They built trenches deep enough to make room for the concrete footings at the depth specified by the city.

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The crew digging out the basement the old fashioned way.

Following that, they built a frame and outfitted it with steel rebar.  We had to pause at that point in order for the town to come to inspect the depth and construction of the frame.  Of course, this lead to about two weeks of delays.  First, despite the fact that 2016 has been a very dry year in New Jersey and we are in a drought warning, it rained the day the inspector was supposed to come.  So, that pushed us back a week.  When he came back, he complained that he didn’t like the fact that the vertical rebar wasn’t yet installed and that there was no bonding wire attached.  My contractor argued that it wasn’t necessary to show the vertical rebar at that point in the inspection, and that there was no bonding wire in the drawings (that he personally approved) but we had to make the necessary changes anyway.

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The frame for the footings.

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The frame with the rebar, both horizontal and vertical.

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This is the description of the foundation detail from the drawings that the city approved.  The same guy who approved the drawings said we needed a bonding wire attached to the rebar in order to pass inspection, despite the fact there is no bonding wire in the drawings.

On the day of the next inspection, it rained again and the bottom of the trenches filled with water.  The inspector claimed he couldn’t see the bottom so he couldn’t pass us.  My contractor had to argue that he was just there and already saw how deep the footings would be and the inspector gave in and passed us.  He cautioned my contractor not to pour concrete in the trenches until after the water drained, as if he were some sort of idiot that would do something like that.

The mason poured the concrete footings just before it got too cold to do so.  The concrete hardened and they began to layer in the cinderblocks to frame out the basement.  This is where we currently are in the process as of this writing.

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The concrete footings.

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Laying cinderblocks for the new basement.

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The short wall they are building is the frame for the outdoor kitchen.

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Bonding the new basement wall to the existing structure.

The next step is to finish the drainage system, not only for the new addition but for the entire house.  A local ordinance requires that all rainwater is drained into the sewer.  We can’t have gutters that just drain to the yard.  The way my architect drew it, he has the drainage pointing to an abstract new sewer connection.  My contractor would prefer to use the existing sewer trap so as to not have to dig in front of the house, or possibly even in the street to create a new one.  We are currently working with the architect to make this decision so we can move forward and finish the back extension.

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The plumbing plan with the reference to the “New House Trap”.  We hope to be able to use the existing house trap and to not have to dig up the sidewalk and street.

Kitchen Planning

While all this is going on, I’m trying to get ahead of the kitchen planning.  I’d like to have the cabinets ordered well in advance so my kitchen designer can build them in parallel with other work that is being done in the house.  I also needed to pick out a countertop so we can decide on coloring for the cabinets, the backsplash, and the rest of the downstairs.  Due to the arrangement of the kitchen island in the middle of the open layout of the first-floor great room, I considered the countertop to be the most important finishing decision I’m going to make.

I had gone back and forth on this decision for some time, trying to decide between several kinds of engineered or natural stones.  Each had some good and bad things about them.  I noticed right away that I hated most standard quartz samples that every kitchen showroom had in stock.

In particular, every place I visited stocked Caesarstone quartz samples.  There could not be a less inspiring and classless collection of quartz than what they have to offer.  Each stone is more boring and dull than the next.  While their quartz may be very durable, there is no way I wanted that look in my new house.

I was intrigued by recycled glass countertops, and took a look at IceStone and Vetrazzo.  Both had distinct looks to them and were visually much more stimulating than regular quartz.  I went so far as to order samples of both and even priced out a full Vetrazzo fabrication and installation.  It was a tough call, but I had to pass on both.  The price I was quoted was very high.  Also, the slabs have a physical size limitation so they can’t be very big.  As such, I would have had to have several unsightly seams on the island.

My kitchen designer sent me to the NY Stone warehouse in an industrial section of Jersey City, beneath the Pulaski Skyway.  I never would have known it was there until she sent me.  I was taken back by the sheer size of the place, it was huge and separated into four distinct bays.

The receptionist explained to me how the warehouse was laid out.  I could walk through the four bays, taking pictures of the stickers on the sides of the slabs that I liked.  When I was done, she’d help me compile a list.  Bays #1 and #2 were regular slabs, bay #3 was mostly limestone and not really for kitchen use, and bay #4 was the exotic section.  Bay #1 and #2 didn’t impress me at all, they were mostly bland slabs of white and grey with very little color to choose from.  Most of the customers in those bays were couples fighting over which boring shade of white to buy.

I made my way over to bay #4 and was really excited by the exotic selections.  There were a lot of very colorful stones to choose from.  I had a preference for something in blue headed into the decision-making process, and they had many stones to choose from in various shades of blue.  I took pictures of about 7 or 8 slabs and brought them back to the receptionist.  At first, she said “You were only there for about 10 minutes, most people take much longer!”  She then complied my list of slabs and then exclaimed “Wow, you have very good taste!” This compliment, of course, came as no surprise to me.  It was still nice to hear.

I didn’t want to purchase anything without discussing it with my kitchen designer, so I made a return trip with her a few weeks later.  We found a new set of slabs that really struck us both.  Of course, it was one of the most expensive stones they had in the place, but I had to buy it.  The NY Stone folks used a crane that is built into the warehouse to pull all 8 slabs they had for me to view them separately. I picked out the two best ones they had and paid for them.  I am now the owner of two slabs of Labredorite Lemurian from Brazil!

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One of the slabs of Labrecorite Lemurian I bought.  This picture really doesn’t do it justice, but it is a very striking piece of stone.  The blue accents change color as you change your viewing angle.  They are highly reflective and add a distinct characteristic to the stone.  It will match well with a number of shades of blue and gray on on the cabinets and walls.

The slabs are still sitting in the NY Stone warehouse. At some point in the near future, they will be sent to the fabricator to be cut up in the shapes I need them for my cabinets when they are built.

It is quite a relief to have this decision made, I’ve been working on it for almost a year.  Now that we have the color of the stone that will be on display in the middle of the house, I can work on coloring for the cabinetry and then the walls.

My kitchen designer also advised me that I should pick out kitchen and bathroom faucets in advance of the plumbing being done.  Each shower head and faucet require their own diverters and valves that need to be fitted before the walls are built.  So, I have to pick out everything by the time the house is framed so I don’t hold up the start of the plumbing installation.

On her advice, I visited the AF Supply showroom in Fairfield, NJ.  I walked around somewhat aimlessly for a bit until somebody had mercy on me and asked if I needed any help. I explained her my predicament, that I need to build two and a half bathrooms and a kitchen with a modern design aesthetic.  I have no interest in any transitional-looking fixtures.

With that in mind, she helped guide me through the showroom.  We went bathroom room by bathroom room and discussed how each should look and function, and what fixtures would go with each. I learned about wall mounted sink faucets, vessel sinks, and three-way diverters for bath-shower-body sprayer combination setups.

By the end of our walk-through, we had picked out fixtures for all three bathrooms, as well as the kitchen.  I even picked out a vessel sink and a waterfall faucet for the downstairs bathroom.  When combined with a cool vanity, tile, and lighting fixtures, it will have the vibe of a bathroom in a trendy restaurant.

She sent me a PowerPoint presentation with pictures of all of my fixtures, as well as a cost breakdown.  I wouldn’t say that I fully made a hard decision on everything just yet, but I certainly have something to work with and I anticipate that the end result will largely look like what we picked out that day.

Next Up

Next up for the contractor is to do the front masonry work.  We will partially demolish the front of the structure and check the footings for suitability for the two-story addition we are putting there.  When that is complete, we can frame the house.  And when the framing is done we really can start almost everything else, roofing, siding, insulation, plumbing, heating and cooling, and electricity.  Needless to say, I am very anxious to get the house framed so the real fun can begin.

No, I am not moving in anytime soon.  Expect an invitation to a Hoboken St. Patrick’s Day party at my current home sometime soon…

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.