Adventures in hiring a contractor and other housey updates

by DaniGirl on February 14, 2011 · 7 comments

in The ongoing saga of the house

I dashed off this post on the weekend, and then I thought it was rather pointless and whiny and took it back down again, but apparently feedburner launched it into your feed-readers because a few of you took the time to e-mail me and commiserate and offer basement renovation advice and support — so I’ve reworked it to mitigate the whininess. A bit. Here’s the revised version!

I tell you, I’ve learned more about houses, structural issues, home repair and contractors in the last six months than I learned in the previous forty-one years! And this post has gotten so ridiculously long that I’ve tucked it beneath the fold. Settle in and grab a coffee if you want to stick around for the whole saga to date!

We’re in the process of hiring a contractor to rebuild the drywall in the basement bedroom that got torn out during the mould remediation in December. It’s about as satisfying as banging your head against a brick wall. Our original handyman totally flaked out on us, which was disappointing because I’d really come to trust him. Over the course of the last week, we had three different contractors come in to scope the job.

One seemed very mom-and-pop but his estimate came in about 50 per cent higher than we were expecting. One seemed very professional in that he showed me a handful of code violations like upside down junction boxes and places where there should be vapour barrier between the frame and the floor, and he had some professional-sounding suggestions for spray insulation. But, in a 15 minute consultation he also told me about his troubles with the tax department, made two vaguely inappropriate jokes and basically creeped me out. And when I asked for an estimate, he was distressingly vague except it was still in the neighbourhood of 2/3 of the price of the first guy. And the last guy seemed like a pretty good guy, but he too wouldn’t really come up with a firm estimate and was in fact so laid back that I thought I might have to check him for a pulse. He pretty much looked around and said, “Yep, I can do this.” No advice, no insight, no value-added, a flat rate of $30/hour and I pay for the materials.

The last guy seemed like an okay choice, but now I’m waffling all over the place about some of the things the other guys mentioned. Spray versus batting insulation? Vapour barrier on the cold and warm walls or just the cold wall? Should we use regular gypsum or special waterproof stuff? How the hell should I know?

I hate this stuff. Hate it! I don’t want to overpay, I don’t want to be fleeced, I don’t want to cut corners but I don’t want to sell the farm. I also don’t want to spend six or 10 hours in the house with someone who wigs me out, and I further don’t want to drag this out any further. Poor Tristan has been without a bedroom since November, and his own bedroom was supposed to be the big incentive for us to move to this house in the first place.

Since I first published this and revoked it, I’ve gotten a few more recommendations for contractors, so I’ll check them out this weekend. I also got a fabulous e-mail from Holly with all sorts of insight from her basement renovation, including the fact that spray insulation is more expensive but is also better in a potential moisture situation — which is exactly what we have.

Did I ever even tell you about the moisture issues in the house? Really, they’re at the heart of our house troubles. Tristan’s bedroom was originally a garage under the house. Somewhere back 10+ years ago, they bricked up the opening with cinderblock and finished the entire basement. The previous owner had some moisture issues and hired a company do install a basement drainage system that included putting a moisture barrier 2/3 of the way up the wall to the level of the grade. Unfortunately, the moisture was getting on the warm side of the moisture barrier, running down the inside and pooling in the frame — thus the mould. So they came back and ran the barrier all the way up the wall, except I just read in a CMHC guide that in fact you’re supposed to stop it at grade level after all. Gah!

I wish this were just a straight drywalling job, but we need someone we can trust to give us advice about the insulation and moisture issues. The last thing I want is to be worrying about this again in six months!

The house has some other moisture-related quirks as well. (Who would have guessed it, living on an island and everything? *eyeball roll*) The laundry machines currently empty into the sump pit, which is workable but not ideal and occasionally causes the sump pit to get skunky because of the grey water from the machine. We had a plumber come in, and he recommended we move the laundry machines entirely and hook them up to the septic tank, which we’ll likely do within the year. That takes care of the swampy smelling sump pit, but adds stress to our 40 year old septic system. (And it also entails cutting a new door to provide access to the former furnace room, which isn’t an entirely bad thing because it lets light into an otherwise closed basement family room — but it’s still not cheap!)

On the other hand, the plumber is also reversing a stress we introduced into the septic system by diverting our reverse-osmosis filter from the septic system to the sump pit. Apparently for every gallon of water our reverse-osmosis filter produces for drinking (RO reduces the salination of the water, which is already naturally salty and even more so with the water softening system) another gallon and a half of wastewater is produced and dumped into the septic system. It’s clean wastewater, though, so we can divert *that* to the sump pit at little cost.

And just yesterday I bought a new dishwasher to replace the circa 2005 one that has been slowly dying since the day we moved in. A new dishwasher ought to be more water and energy efficient, right?

Oh, and the basement toilet is acting up and I’m pretty sure it needs to be replaced. And the connection to the basement shower is leaking. And there’s a ring in the sewage tank connector that needs to be replaced. So yes, we have a *few* moisture issues. All of these are fairly straight forward home maintenance jobs that one might expect to encounter over the years — just not all in the first six months!

The good news is that by the time we’re done, our house will be as perfect on the inside as the light pouring in from the outside. It’s a big investment now that we’ll reap for years to come. At least, that’s what we keep telling ourselves…


{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Coco February 14, 2011 at 4:08 pm

It is a good thing you all love this house. Once fixed up, you will laugh at the present problems. Think your bloggy peeps will find you the perfect contractors.

2 Paula February 14, 2011 at 5:40 pm

If you don’t own Mike Holmes’ *Make It Right* book, buy it! Read it and make your decisions after doing so. It may be the best $20 you ever spent as a home-owner.

If you are waffling back and forth on a contractor, ask for three references from each, call them all and then make your decision.

3 Cath February 14, 2011 at 6:40 pm

I really agree with Paula – check references for sure -it saved our bacon once. (I am one of the least handy people on the planet).

4 Marianne February 15, 2011 at 9:12 am

Sprayfoam is a very effective type of insulation and I believe you’re right that it’s good in potentially damp/moist places. I’d investigate the possibility of off-gassing however. I don’t have any actual information about that but it just seems to me that it is a type of product that would release chemicals into the air for some time after installation. It may still be the best product for your situation, but worth checking out.

5 Annika February 15, 2011 at 9:33 am

Good luck, and I second the recommendation to get at least THREE references for the contractor! As someone who ended up in small claims court (and won), I can tell you it’s darn stressful when you get the wrong person for the job. And expensive.

Sending you good vibes, thanks for the update, I had been wondering lately. Tell Tristan his room will be better than new, and hopefully ready soon.

6 Chantal February 15, 2011 at 2:47 pm

OMG Dani! I have no advice to offer, I have never had to handle anything of this scale. I hope everything works out.

7 Mary @ Parenthood February 15, 2011 at 10:09 pm

Ooh boy. Sounds like you have problem on top of problem. Yikes!

We’ve done a lot of renovations ourselves (actually we joke that renovating is our hobby!). Aside from reshingling and installing ductwork for a/c we’ve done everything ourselves – my husband is very handy and a very competent electrician and plumber. But even so we sympathize with not knowing who to trust or what to do!

We own a copy of Mike Holmes’ book but it is very superficial and doesn’t begin to cover your situation. I believe the library has a copy but I personally wouldn’t buy it. If you really wanted to read it you could borrow ours too.

The main thing that struck us about your description is the sheer volume of water you must have to be getting water on the warm side of your system. You are absolutely correct in thinking this needs to be addressed before drywalling. Just sprayfoaming the wall isn’t going to solve your root problem, although it will maintain its insulating value. It can still grow surface mould. There is also rigid foam that you can use which is cheaper than foam but has the same moisture resistance. But first fix the moisture. The first thing is to verify that it isn’t a water table issue. Is the water coming through the walls or floor, or both?

Sounds to us like your basement waterproofing was done on the inside of your house, when it should have been done on the outside. In the case of a serious water table issue both may be necessary, from what I understand. If it were us we’d probably start with a waterproofing / drainage outside. Keeping in mind that this is all speculation based on your post!

Also checking the basics like making sure your grading is away from your house and installing eavestroughing. Rain barrels can also make a big difference. Although make sure if you do eavestroughing that it gets done right because
done wrong it can make the problem worse!

In any case I regret to say that there isn’t a quick solution. You’ll have to try things and see if they work.

In terms of some of your other problems, unless your toilet is cracked it is unusual to have to replace it entirely. They are pretty simple mechanically and fixing them is usually a case of replacing the parts, or reinstalling the parts the last guy installed incorrectly! They aren’t expensive though!

Hope you find someone who can guide you through!

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