Journalist, Author & Detroit-Home Renovator

We Found a Contractor! (We Hope)

Karl at PJs Lagerhouse celebrating our new contractor. We hope!

Karl at PJs Lagerhouse celebrating our new contractor. We hope!

Yesterday Karl and I met with a second contractor and think we may have find the right one. Ooo! Ooo! This is exhilarating and terrifying at the same time; it means the project is getting real.

The first thing I did before going to the meeting is call my dad for advice. For most of my life he owned a small excavating company in Colorado. And when I say small, I mean three employees: him, my mom and my brother, Matt. But while the business was small, it was anything but that in terms of the scope of work. We had a massive fleet of yellow iron and were equipped to scrape and rip in the most extreme conditions found in the hard rock of Colorado.

He didn’t do homeowner projects like ours. He dug giant pits in the earth to lay pipe for things like water-treatment plants and wastewater treatment plants. Or, he did the excavation work on million-dollar custom homes tucked away in the foothills.

And the few times he did do homeowner projects like mine, well, it never went well.

Homeowners are nightmare clients. They think that they should get everything right now and always for less than it costs to do the work. Because they’ve decided to embark on a project, they seem to think everyone is supposed to jump for their whims. I’ve overheard so many conversations between homeowners about how contractors are just rip-off artists and they charge too much, etc., etc., etc. But when I ask what the man’s profit margin is, they don’t know.

Let me just say this… contractors have a right to feed their families, too. They have a right to earn a profit — not just be on your job site toiling away for your dream and family. They have families and lives and dreams, too.

Of course, now I am a homeowner. Sigh.

So I want to be a good client. I want a symbiotic relationship. One where the contractor is honest and forthright, does excellent craftsmanship and is one time and on budget. Where we, as homeowners, are direct and decisive and know our costs and our budgets. We will expect good work and a fair price. We will understand our contractor is worth every dime because that’s the person who can make our reality a dream or a nightmare.

I can hear every contractor out there laughing. But at least that’s our aim. (My dad only chuckled a little.)

Side note: You just wanted house pictures? Here they are.

We were hoping to get three bids for the work. We don’t want to ask contractors to spend their unpaid time bidding a job just to make us feel better, to educate us. But at the same time, I want to make sure we have a contractor we feel comfortable with. It’s a delicate balance of needing information but not asking people to do an excessive amount of work that they likely won’t get paid for.

So imagine how surprised we are that it’s been challenging to find a contractor. We’ve reached out to people who have done this before for recommendations. We’ve gotten a few, but mostly for specific types of work. A plumber. An electrician. But what we need is a general contractor, someone who can manage the whole damned rodeo.

We talked about having Karl be the GC since he’s not working. And certainly, we could save money that way. But can you imagine Karl, who isn’t the most-handy person in the easiest of circumstances, managing contractors, scheduling work, knowing what to do next to keep everything on time and on budget? Yeah, me neither. Hell, I’m handy-ish and I can barely imagine myself doing it.

Plus, Karl is looking for the right programming job in Detroit and that will likely pay more than what we could save. So, off to work he will go and a GC we will hire.

But, and this is important, we don’t come with unlimited wallets We cashed out our live savings, sure, but we’re not coming to this project with trust funds. There is no safety net. My dad had to sell his business in December and must now figure out what he’ll do and how to get by as he faces 60. No, lest anyone pre-judge, we are not a wealthy New York couple coming with unlimited family resources.

The closest thing I have to capital M Money is the fact that I married Karl, a man who saved well in his 20s and 30s and spent little except on beer and whiskey. Karl for the win!

We also don’t want to be those people, who hire it done, hand the man a check and come back in a year when the project is finished. No, we want to be involved in the renovation; we want to do some of the work when it makes sense and doesn’t get in the way of the professionals. We do want to bleed and sweat over our house; we want to make it our own, not just buy our way in. (Remind me of this in six months when I suddenly remember that, oh yeah, I *hate* doing this kind of work. I actually want to be the person that just hires it done, except my raising won’t allow that.)

So, yes, despite all this, we’ve struggled to find a contractor. We met with one man two weeks ago. At the end of that conversation we were so depressed we were second-guessing our decision and possibly driving our car straight into the Detroit River. He asked us things like… “Have your friends all been hiding all the bad stuff about Detroit from you? You know you’re going to come out and find your car up on blocks, the rims gone. You know you will be robbed, right?”

No, our friends haven’t been hiding that. We know what we’re getting in for. We’re not moving here from the suburbs; we’re coming from Red Hook, what was once the Crack Capital of the United States, according to Time Magazine. So, yeah, we’ve got this. We are appropriately wary. But still man, WTF? Do you purposefully try to scare off all potential clients? We’re you testing us?

We will never know because, despite us sending him a long email and all the architectural plans, he hasn’t gotten back to us with a bid. Another contractor can’t start until September. Yet two more have just never bothered to call Karl back. We don’t think we’re being impatient, though we have discovered that people definitely operate on Michigan time.

So we were feeling a bit leery and concerned when we met with – let’s call him C — on Sunday. C is the sellers’ current contractor and Karl had spoken with him on the phone and was feeling very positive. I, however, wanted to have my multiple bids and feel like I’d done my research to know if this was the right contractor or not. At the same time, I just wanted the search to be over and to get moving. Plus, the current sellers gave us the impression that C was good, but maybe too expensive for our budget.

When C pulled up, I was immediately uncertain. He was wearing a Brooks Brother-esque button down, slacks and loafers. There was no grease under his fingernails. He had long, delicate fingers that boasted not a single callous. “He, I thought, is not a contractor. He is not my people.”

But he already knew more about this house that me, having worked with the current sellers over many months to refine their ideas and their budget. And when he walked in and started talking, I changed my mind. He was asking all the right questions, wanting to know how we want to use the space, wanting to understand our priorities so we can focus the budget in those areas. He was even making suggestions on what we can do to change the plans and save money. C was doing all the things my dad had put in the hire-him column.

He was comfortable with the idea that we need to do this project in phases. He thinks we can get us into the house by early August – in an urban-camping kind of way. Even better, he lives in the City of Detroit and worked in the Buildings Department for most of his career. He was a city inspector, which means he can help guide the project through the necessary channels.

I suspect he may have been wary of us, too. I think New Yorkers come to Detroit and other areas one of two ways:

  1. We have tons of money and know what we want and it. will. be. perfect. even. if. it. means. sacrificing. small. children.
  2. Holy crap, it’s a house! With more than one room. Okay! Amazeballs! It’s ours? Um, now what do we do with it?

I think we’re in the No. 2 camp, but C asked us to send him an email list of our priorities as we understand them. Then he said he would go back to his original bid, adjust it for our needs and get back to us.

So what did we decide is important?

n A kitchen that functions the way we live. So much of our activity is focused on the kitchen. It’s where we cook, entertain, hangout, work, connect. But what we don’t need is a big formal dining room; we just don’t host dinner parties for 20. So we want to open up one wall and connect the living and dining rooms so they become a casual entertaining space. We’re willing to not add a bathroom on the ground floor, as the current plans call for, to accomplish this.

  • A master bathroom that is separated from the bedroom – or sound proofed – so that Karl doesn’t get woken up every time I’m blow-drying my hair.
  • A good closet or room for me. A boudoir.
  • A back porch rebuilt. Someday.
  • Good lighting in the kitchen and bathroom; I’m tired of working in shadows or seeing myself in fluorescent light.
  • A linen closet and washer and dryer on the second floor, where the bedrooms are. It would be so joyous not to have to trudge up and down the stairs with loads of laundry.
  • The attic turned into a library. Again, someday.

Yep. That’s it. I know, we’re very exacting; very particular. But there you have it. We are buying an old house. We want an old house, not something that is a completely new home inside a historic shell. Hopefully that means good things for our budget, too.

Now we just wait for C to get back to us. Fingers crossed.

2 Responses to “We Found a Contractor! (We Hope)”

  1. Monica

    So, in addition to affordable land and the opportunity to help build community, you’re saying there’s also work for contractors in Detroit? Delightful!!!!

    Enjoying living vicariously through you Amy!!!

    xoxo monica

  2. Greg

    I so understand the desire not just to have it done, but to be part of the doing.


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