Home & Garden Columns

About the House: Home Repairs: Never Do Anything Twice By MATT CANTOR

Friday March 24, 2006

I was visiting with a client today and got into one of those if/and/or discussions that soon feels like your brain is stuck in either molasses or honey (depending on whether the job will actually pay anything). One possible course of action involved changing a faucet, which would have eliminated a broken component and almost certainly have solved a problem involving the reluctant flow of hot water. The other solution would make someone happy but seemed for all the world like the wrong thing to do.  

The woman’s husband wanted a new sink. Have you ever seen Jim Jarmusch’s extraordinarily inelegant, odd and fall-down-between-the-seats funny film Stranger Than Paradise? One of the main characters is given a dress. She tries wearing it but there’s just something wrong with it. At one point she changes into pants, leaves her building and stuffs the dress in a garbage can stating “This dress bugs me!” There was no need for further explanation.  

The sink bugs this guy. It was a perfectly good sink. It will cost a whole bunch of money to replace it, along with the faucet, drain fittings and maybe a disposer (although retaining it and keeping it from leaking in its new setting will be no small feat in any event). 

See, he just wants a new sink. But nothing’s ever simple and there are always attendant troubles to all these seemingly small changes. The change of sink isn’t a bad idea in and of itself. But the couple is planning on remodeling the kitchen pretty soon, and doing this whole body of work twice is going to cost a lot of extra money and, of course, impact their lives in a very Stranger Than Paradise sort of way. Doing the same job twice is a bit like déjà vu with extra nausea. 

It’s as though there were teams of small demons that come with various home repairs. Some are just annoying, but some will drive you seriously crazy. 

To minimize these visitations, I suggest an overriding strategy. Do things in groups and consider the overall value/desire/need of the entire body of work prior to entering into the venture. Make sure the mayhem is worthwhile. 

The first corollary to this is never fix one part of anything. The second is never fix anything twice when you can fix it once. 

This means that you need a long-range strategy. The idea is to stop responding to any one problem in an immediate or panic-struck fashion.  

The couple with the sink is a good example so let’s work with that. They had an additional problem beyond the fellow’s general disdain for this particular sink. The sink was leaking down below. The trap (that’s the U-shaped drain pipe below the sink) had developed a hole and was leaking pretty badly. Additionally, the faucet was not providing any significant amount of hot water. These are very real problems, especially when two little girls need to have their breakfast dishes washed. 

Here’s how I see the situation: 

The drain needs to be fixed but not in a manner any more complex than is needed to prevent damage to the cabinet over the next few months. The faucet also needs to be made workable so that dishes can be washed. Simple repairs are preferred in this situation and the highest-quality materials and methods are not required. Also, if a new faucet is obtained, they should probably consider re-installing it in the new sink as the kitchen is remodeled. This might make the most sense. It turned out, happily, that the faucet only needed to be meddled with and that it will likely function for a few more months. A new trap didn’t cost much and was installed imperfectly but in a fashion which should serve for a similar duration. 

The rest of the job should be looked at in a similar way. All the things that comprise a new kitchen should be on the counter (as it were) at the same time. This is the time to do everything.  

If one portion is left out, it may be very costly and troublesome to add later on. A good example is a dishwasher. Putting in a dishwasher once the cabinetry is all in place, whether in a old kitchen or a newer one, is a real bear and often results in an obvious butchering of the cabinetry and a misfitting of the appliance. It’s the sort of thing that can leave you kicking yourself. I’m not saying that one needs to possess a dishwasher, a disposer or a trash compactor (I will not be buying the latter item any time soon). I am saying that if you think you might want one of these at any point in the next 10 years, it should be made part of the plan before a drawing is made or bids are obtained. 

Good planning is cheap. Aesthetics are also cheap. In general, design is a bargain. The best designs I see tend to involve inexpensive material and simple methods. The trick is to think it all through before you buy anything. In the case of a kitchen, this might involve deciding to move (or remove) a wall. This can make a world of difference when you finally get done. Another thing I see a lot is an extraneous and outdated stove flue that eats up space between two rooms. If you explore fully before you settle on a plan, the flue might come out and give you a few extra square feet of counter space that turns a so-so kitchen into a great kitchen. 

Advice from designers and contractors is worth gold when it comes to making such plans. These people go through these trials on a daily basis and usually know lots of good tricks. 

If you’ve planned well and drawn (perhaps several times) your kitchen (or bath or deck or master suite), you have the basic resource with which to obtain a satisfactory and economical result. The person who does a job twice, even a rather modest one, could probably have bought themselves a five-star project for the same cost in addition to saving themselves the self-inflicted bruises. 

Take your time, plan one project, save your money, get lots of advice, shop, shop, shop and then have a ball watching it all come together.  

There are, in my personal estimate, few experiences in life more satisfying than a nice little remodeling project. So enjoy.