Making a trio of sad houses happy

#492 in a series of true experiences in real estate
July 2005, Hills Newspapers

For the last couple of months we’ve spent quite a lot of time fixing up and grooming several houses. The most consuming are two houses on the same lot in Berkeley, a listing that we will be putting on the market soon, and a third is a house I own in Napa.

We have excellent workmen to help us in Berkeley, painters and floor people, stagers and contractors, all of whom we have hired on behalf of our sellers for years. But in Napa, I’ve had to find people to work on my property.

My mother bought the Napa house thinking that she might live there near her sister later in her life but she never did. After she died, my brother didn’t want to keep the house so I took out a loan and bought him out.

We had general inspections on all of the houses, also furnace and fireplace reports. Then Anet and I spent time looking carefully at condition and attractiveness of each making long lists of items that weren’t quite right. Which would it make sense to fix?

Floors, for example. Were there stains, scratches, holes? How could these be fixed? Would sanding and recoating be necessary, or maybe just waxing? How do the vinyl floors look? Should they be replaced?

Faucets. Do they leak? Finish look good? Are new ones needed or just washers and some polish?

Walls and ceilings need paint? Hardware and locks – do they work? How does the basement look, and the garage? In fact, what are the visuals in every corner of the house?

There are so many parts! Insides of drawers and closets, windows, refrigerators, drains.

For just about every part of every house, we considered the effect of cleaning, repair or replacement, plus the likely cost. In some cases we suspected that finding a replacement would be difficult or impossible.

An electric stove top in the Napa house, for example, was installed when the house was built in the 1960s. Gas would be preferable but could we find a cooktop – gas or electric — the same size today? What would be involved in changing to gas? What would be the cost and who would we get to do the work?

In Berkeley, our workers gave us bids. We made decisions, talked over an acceptable budget with our out-of-town sellers, and made up a schedule. In Napa, we went shopping, researched materials, and I tried to find good workmen. I looked at ads in the phone book and the local newspaper and made a lot of telephone calls.

Some never called back. But others did go to the house and estimated for me what the cost of a new garden deck would be, how much I’d have to pay for a garage door opener, the charge for mowing and edging the wide front lawn.

Anet and I needed to find various parts to be installed in the houses. Doormats, curtains and a screen door for Napa. A new kitchen sink the right size for Berkeley. Address numbers, furnace outlet vents and filters, and numerous light fixtures.

Light fixtures are hard. Many are ugly and even so, expensive. We found a few we thought would do fine at Home Depot and Ace Hardware. We bought a lovely old Victorian brass fixture from a friend, then had it rewired. We purchased all the pieces needed for two other hanging fixtures and our trusty contractor assembled and hung them.

I feel like we’ve been inside various Home Depots and any number of hardware stores a hundred times lately. We bought light bulbs and smoke detectors, sink drain baskets and mailboxes. As the houses began to look better, inevitably, we saw other things needing attention.

In the Berkeley garage we’d found the original glass and wood doors for the fireplace built-in. They could be rehung but the right hinges would be needed. The newly laid carpet in the bedroom looks wonderful (heaven knows how many hours we spent before deciding on that particular carpet) but the doors won’t swing over it. We didn’t think of that, don’t know why, and now we need someone to plane the doors down.

In Napa, the shower door handle was missing. One place I called said it was a $3 piece if only I could find one. Tried a number of places without luck, so ended up having a new door and frame installed – $350.

The edge of the mirror in a bath was discolored. The painter took it down and found a recess where a medicine cabinet had once been. We measured and noted and went on a hunt for a medicine cabinet that would fit. We searched a zillion stores, or so it seemed, for a cabinet with the dimensions we needed, and finally did discover that it exists. Unfortunately, the store was out of stock and not sure when to expect new.

So we went to Ikea where they had good looking flush-mounted mirrors and bought one. It wasn’t until we unwrapped the mirror, anticipating how quickly we could hang it and get that room finished, that we discovered on the back the slots for hanging. Do you know the kind?

The slots are parallel elongated holes, a screw needed for each, and both screws must go into the wall precisely the right distance from one another, sticking out just far enough, and of course be level or it will list to one side.

It’s a maddening job, and it took awhile, but Anet did it. She got the screws into the wall, then tapped them with her hammer until the spacing worked and the mirror was secure.

Our Berkeley workmen are terrific, and I was lucky to find some very good people in Napa, too. Good painter and good garage door guy, excellent work, fair prices. The window washer offered to wash all the window screens too. And the lawn man did a fine job.

Bids for a redwood deck, and later for a concrete patio when I just couldn’t believe how expensive a deck would be, ranged enormously. $2500 was the low for concrete but one man wanted $5200. That last was even higher than redwood.

All three houses are looking so much better than when we first saw them. They’re light and clean, and they feel good, but we’re still taking care of a few last things such as recent leaks.

Anet says that almost every house “cries” when the people move out. Some pipe or faucet or toilet suddenly begins to drips water.

In Napa, both bathroom faucets leaked and were replaced. In Berkeley, we’d already had a couple of leaks fixed and thought that was the end of it, but on the same day the bath sink drain in one house began dripping plus the toilet started running.

Anet hopes that the flapper she bought will fit, and if it does, she can get it to work. Or do we need to call someone?

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