Remodeling Santa Barbara

What's a Homeowner to Do?

Credit: WikiCommons/Daderot

(Based on a true story. Though all the names are entirely fictitious, the experiences are pretty much as described. Except for the doghouse.)

Have you tried to hire a contractor in this town lately? Everybody has spent so much time in their homes during the pandemic that apparently everybody decided the same thing at the same time:

“I’m sick of this place — I need to remodel!”

Available contractors in Santa Barbara have become as rare as parades on State Street. And, due to demand and transportation glitches, prices for materials have skyrocketed — for example, a ship gets stuck in the Suez Canal, the price of plywood triples, and a family of four on Anapamu can’t even afford to build a doghouse. In fact, some people estimate that it now costs more to build a doghouse than it does to enclose a porch. Which explains why so many of our new dogs are now living in our new porches.

I decided to remodel my kitchen, so I hired a very tall man named Lincoln, who owns and runs Grouse Construction. No one had actually recommended Lincoln, but he was the only contractor who answered my emails.

It turned out that his entire method of operation was to write emails. He inundated me with emails about the meetings we were having, the meetings we’d had last week, and the meetings we were going to have next week — he was also good at emailing me lists of things to check out: sinks, faucets, door knobs — I finally figured out that he sent me the lists in order to keep me so occupied that I never had time to wonder just what he was doing. Which, as it turned out, was next to nothing. Except generating lists of things for me to check out.

Lincoln promised to email estimates weekly — as in, “They’ll be ready next week” — but he never sent them. So he had almost emailed the project to death before he ever asked his “Head Carpenter” to raise a hammer. Which, when he finally did, was a big mistake. Let’s pretend that his Head Carpenter’s name was Bob. Because he was a Bob kind of guy — a big talker and a good guy. Just not really all that good at doing anything. Except talking. For which I apparently paid him quite a bit.

Whatever Bob was in real life, he was not a carpenter. Putting a hammer into this guy’s hand was like handing a rifle to a cross-eyed sniper: Shots will be fired but what is hit is anybody’s guess. He decided to open up an exterior wall to see what was inside.

Because Bob saw brick beneath what he called stucco, he declared that I had a brick house. The fact that the brick was not attached to the wood framing of the house, which made it only a brick facade, apparently escaped him. As did the fact that the exterior of my house was covered in the second layering in the process of stuccoing, but it was not finished with hard stucco, an idea that bewildered him when a stucco expert later pointed it out to him.

So, after hearing Bob declare that my house was currently stucco — which it was not — and then declaring that it was a brick house – which it was not — I began to wonder if he would next declare that my house was made of straw, and that, in order to demo it, all he would have to do is to huff and puff and blow it all down — but he did not.

An unretouched example of Bob’s handiwork. | courtesy Rick Doehring

Instead, he covered the holes he had made in my house with scraps of wood he had apparently found discarded outside a jigsaw puzzle factory. Of course, there are other explanations for his work. Take a look at the photo and make one up for yourself: Perhaps he just decided to see if he could do the patch job with his eyes closed. Perhaps. Bob will return. But, for a moment, let’s turn to my architect.

I nicknamed my architect Spiderman because his tape measure seemed to emanate from his fingertips at will; he loved measuring things. But this Spiderman didn’t actually know how to measure things. He made several attempts to measure the kitchen, but all his measurements were always off by a few inches that he couldn’t explain. The island in our kitchen was off by a foot and a half. Which is a pretty big mistake considering it is only 7 feet long. Even on the blueprints it didn’t fit into the kitchen. It would have been like trying to get an aircraft carrier into the berth of a sailboat in Santa Barbara’s harbor: Everyone knows it just ain’t gonna fit.

But Bob didn’t notice the impossible sizes in the blueprints. He spent two hours using a Sharpie permanently marking up my wood floors trying to make the aircraft carrier fit into the sailboat berth — until I pointed out to him that the old measurements were wrong and that he should use the numbers that weren’t crossed-out.

Bob decided he had to make a hole in my wood floor so he could look at the crawl space underneath. I instructed him to make the hole beneath a mobile cabinet so that it would be hidden when I rolled the cabinet back into place. You can see in the second photo how close Bob came. Perhaps he had asked Spiderman to measure it for him.

Bob strikes again. | courtesy Rick Doehring

I should have realized that Lincoln was learning on the job and not leading the job when my partner had to teach him how to use Google (spread) sheets, but I finally realized it on the day that I met Lincoln’s “heating expert.” Lincoln claimed to have worked with him before, but it became clear right away that he was meeting this man for the first time that day in my kitchen. I had found a very small furnace made in Canada with the right amount of BTUs and which required two or three vents to work. I emailed all that information to Lincoln, who, it soon became obvious, knew nothing about heating systems.

Lincoln’s “heating expert” was one of those guys who tells you that he “has been in the business for 30 years” — which means that he knows everything and that he resents you telling him anything. He declared that no furnace existed with that BTU number. Lincoln said nothing, so I showed the expert my email. The expert said the unit might have that BTU but it was not a furnace. I showed him the website which stated that it was a furnace. He said it needed at least six vents or it would blow up. I showed him that it needed two or three. He shrugged and said he’d never heard of it and doubted that it even existed. This made me wonder if he’d ever heard of Canada.

The “heating expert” was so typical of the type of subcontractors that Lincoln paraded through my house that I decided I would hire someone else to finish the remodel. I again asked for the estimates that Lincoln had collected from all the subcontractors. In response, Lincoln emailed me his “Grouse Policy,” which stated that he did not provide that information to his clients even though they had paid him to collect that information. He then asked for more money, which meant I would be actually paying him to refuse me information. If you have trouble understanding Lincoln’s Grouse Policy — like I do — here’s a metaphor that might help explain it:

You go to the Grouse Restaurant where the tall owner tells you about the menu over and over again even though he obviously knows nothing about cooking food, and then he has a waiter take your order. The waiter tries to level your table but leaves it worse than when he started. Then he spills water on you. The owner comes back to see you several times, each time telling you that your meal is almost ready. Finally you decide to leave and you ask for your meal to go — but the owner refuses to give it to you and instead hands you the bill, expecting you to pay for a meal which has been prepared for you but which he will never give you … Who would go to a restaurant like that? I know, I know — I must have been very hungry.

Grouse Construction and I parted ways not long after the “heating expert” incident. Metaphorically, I never did get my meal, but I don’t regret it — I don’t think it would have tasted very good. Because, you know, Bob was the Head Chef.

So, good luck with your remodels, Santa Barbara — just don’t shop hungry. And I heard that plywood prices are coming down. Maybe one day soon we’ll all be able to afford to build a doghouse again.

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