Home & Garden Columns

About the House: No Professionals Need Apply

By Matt Cantor
Friday August 17, 2007

Every once in a while I meet someone who reinvigorates my excitement about what I do. This encounter reminds me that remodeling is not so much a business as it is a passion for a lot of people like me. 

The fellow I met (we’ll call him Miles) was in last throes of a multi-faceted home improvement project in Oakland just last week. If you’re looking at houses, you might be lucky enough to meet him. He proudly thrust his album of photos into my arms at one point and waited, like a kid in the tenth grade, to hear what I had to say. What I had to say was that his work was truly outstanding. 

Now, Miles is not a construction professional. He’s a regular person who just happens to be incredibly excited about houses (well, they are exciting, aren’t they?). Miles had actually done a little construction work here and there as a helper in the last few years and, like his father before him, took an everyday interest in fixing things. But there was more. Miles had the vision to take each job a little further than most people would. He sought out advice, read books, looked at other people’s work and did each job with care, genuine curiosity and zest.  

He told me that when he met with his municipal inspector, he got the fellow’s number and called him scores of times with small questions about the best way to do something—he estimated at least 40 times! Now most people are afraid to meet their city inspector once. Miles was so far outside that box that he wouldn’t have been able to read the label.  

He saw the city inspector as a collaborator and—guess what?—the guy was probably so flattered that he couldn’t touch the ground for a day. Remember that city inspectors take a lot of abuse when, for the most part, they’re just interested in preventing bad things from happening. 

Miles didn’t rush. He worked slowly, cleanly and deliberately. That’s important. He hadn’t actually done a huge amount of work but it sort of seemed like it because each job was so beautifully done. He also did something else that was very smart. He knew, somehow, that his aesthetic sense (his ability to pick colors and such) was not as refined as other people he knew and so he got help. He sought out someone (or several someones) who picked really GREAT colors and some amazing tile (the bath employed at least three kinds of glass tile, which I personally love). 

It was clear that he hadn’t just gone down the Home Despot and picked out what was cheap, what was easy to install or what they happened to put on the end-cap that day. He took the time to plan out each phase. He worked out tiny details at doorways and counter-to-wall junctions so that they all looked just so. This sort of thing does not necessary require any special education. What’s most needed is patience, thoughtfulness and a bit of creativity. Contractors often fail at these details in pursuit of a quickly finished job and final check. It’s also why the best contractors are easily twice the cost of the cheap ones. You could say the devil is in the details but I’d like to thing that there are angels there instead. The details (and this is what ultimately wowed me by Miles’ remodel) are not exactly everything, but they get darned close. Actually, I think that ordinary tile, sheetrock and lumber can make for fabulous rehabs if the tiny details are well managed, but if one adds in some nice shopping choices, it can send the whole thing right over the top. Again, this never happens by rushing or by following the standard playbook. It happens by staring at something for half an hour until it’s clear just what needs to be done. It happens by being willing to take it apart and do it one more time so that it’s just right. 

One thing that was really fun for me on Miles’ job was the fact that he was just as dedicated to the mechanical as to the aesthetic (this is where I live). I get very excited (medication may be advised in such cases) about a fully re-routed gas piping system that employs the minimum number of fittings, is well clamped in place, and tightened so as to never leak and arranged to make it easy to connect all the appliances. Welcome to my world. The water piping was similarly done. This was a fairly new skill for our hero but the truth is that this is not actually all that trying a task for any reasonably intelligent individual. Learning to “sweat” pipe takes about an hour or two for the basics and a few days for the more complex parts. 

Miles could have shopped out many of these jobs or, as far too many do these days, tried to get a day-labor crew off the street to perform tasks that are simply beyond their ken. You know, construction really isn’t rocket science. There are enormous opportunities to refine, improve and generally raise the bar but most of what remodeling and construction entails is not beyond the average school-teacher. If you can learn to do algebra, you can remodel a bathroom. If you can sew a quilt, you can re-wire your house. Most of what’s required is patience and curiosity. 

Miles has been working on this house for about 18 months and is getting ready to sell. He’s put his heart and soul into this project and I earnestly hope that he’ll be fairly compensated. I don’t think he over-improved for the neighborhood, but it’s a genuine concern. I’ve seen it done and there are sometimes tears and regrets.  

If you’re thinking about Being Miles, be sure to look at closing costs, comparable values, interest rates and the whole financial picture. Be a SMART artist so that when it’s all over, you’ll be a happy little Picasso, ready to go out and commit verve once again. 


Got a question about home repairs and inspections? Send them to Matt Cantor at mgcantor@pacbell.net. 


Matt Cantor owns Cantor Inspections and lives in Berkeley. His column runs weekly. 

Copyright 2007 Matt Cantor