How to Know When It’s Time to Give Up and Call a Contractor

Photo credit: Courtesy
Photo credit: Courtesy

From Popular Mechanics

Last year, my wife and I bought our first house, a 70-year-old Cape Cod with a little rot on the porch and a few cracks in the ceiling. Of the 14 windows, not one had a screen. The color scheme was pink and mint green. In real-estate parlance, the house had “charm.” We moved in the day we signed the papers.

We made quick work of painting and patching drywall holes, but the bigger challenges were the two upstairs bathrooms. The guest bathroom—specifically the shower—required immediate attention. The plastic stall had yellowed like a used cigarette filter. It had no doors. And when we finally got around to turning on the water, we discovered it drained freely into the room downstairs.

In an act of hubris, I decided to tackle the project myself. I wouldn’t necessarily do all the work, but I’d at least corral various handymen and save myself the expense of hiring a contractor. First, I brought in a plumber to saw up through the downstairs ceiling and assess the damage. The previous owners, come to find out, were brazen DIYers with a penchant for avant garde plumbing. The P-trap beneath the shower had been built from pipes of various sizes glued together with caulk. For some reason, it didn’t hold water.

The plumber fixed the P-trap, a second handyman repaired the downstairs ceiling, and my father-in-law and I tiled the shower stall. I ordered doors for $800, and after hanging them, proceeded to shower. In a few days, there it was: A new wet patch on the fresh ceiling below.

My wife and I stood beneath it and watched a bead of water slowly gather at the lowest point. “So what’s wrong with it?” she asked, politely giving me the opportunity to criticize myself. “Maybe it’s supposed to do that?” I suggested.

I called the plumber, and after re-opening the ceiling, he discovered that the shower pan—the one structural element still remaining from the previous owners—was improperly set. Under the weight of a human, it flexed, wiggling the drain seal loose and letting water drip through.

“We should have caught that,” said the plumber, and he agreed to pay to fix the second ceiling hole. But I was still on the hook for removing the tile and the shower doors again. After the plumber had reset the pan, I’d retile the stall and rehang the doors.

I couldn’t bear to let my father-in-law see the mess I’d made of our shower project, so with the intention of speeding things along, I hired a handyman to destroy and rebuild the shower. With me overseeing the scheduling of various appointments, the project stretched on for nearly two months. The bill ran to about $2,000. And get this: Once this project was complete, the shower continued leaking. We had fixed the P-trap and the pan, opened and closed the ceiling twice, and the water kept coming.

Before you get wrapped up in technical questions like “How is that even possible?”, take a moment to chew on the existential impact of the situation. I’m bailing water from a ship with a hole in the bottom. I’m Sisyphus, condemned to spend eternity pushing a boulder up a hill and watching it roll back down. I’m burning time and money, and I have nothing to show for it. It was maddening.

Now here is the story of my second bathroom: This one’s in the master bedroom, and its primary offense is that the shower is built from chipped tiles that seem to close in on you like a trash compactor. Some previous owner built this monstrosity beneath a roof dormer, so it’s the size of a closet with a ceiling that pitches sharply downward. The taller you are, the closer you have to stand to the shower head whether you like it or not.

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Upon seeing this horror show, friends who tour our house generally offer condolences along the lines of, “You can move a shower easily enough.” On the day we finally decided to take their advice, I was still locked in a war with the other bathroom. I was a one-man army in need of backup. So I went to HomeAdvisor, found a contracting company called ProBuilt, and called.

Lou Monitto, a fast-talking Italian in a paint-stained flannel shirt, showed up promptly for our scheduled 8 a.m. meeting. “I’d never shower in that,” he said, pointing toward the trash compactor. We talked, and Monitto laid out a plan that would fit within my $5,000 budget. He’d convert the closet-size shower into an actual closet and build a new shower where we currently had an unused jacuzzi tub. He’d also paint the walls, re-tile the floor, install a new vanity, and hang a shiny new towel rack. He could have it done in a week.

Photo credit: Courtesy Clint Carter
Photo credit: Courtesy Clint Carter

I liked Lou so much that I didn’t even get a second bid. Within days, three guys were in the bathroom with power tools, ripping out old tile and sawing the old jacuzzi tub in half to fit it through the doorway. They filled a trailer with garbage and hauled it to the dump, and then returned with tiles, grout, and paint. They carried in a standard steel tub. They picked up and delivered the vanity I’d purchased online from Lowe’s. They hung new light fixtures. Instead of seeing expenses pile up, I watched value expand to fill the fixed price I’d already agreed to.

Did things go wrong? Sure. But it was Monitto’s job to come up with solutions. When his team found rotten wood beneath the old shower, he texted me a picture and then laid fresh plywood while I was still at work. When they removed the jacuzzi tub and found water lines routed improperly, he called the Probuilt plumber to come out the next day.

The hiccups added about $800, and I was happy to pay it—even if it put me slightly over budget. If you could put a price on stress avoidance, I’d guess I saved thousands of dollars. And when Monitto left, I had a new bathroom. One in which everything worked.

Photo credit: Courtesy Clint Carter
Photo credit: Courtesy Clint Carter

As I stared into the empty closet that once contained the shower I hated, I vowed to limit my DIY efforts to small projects only. Sure I like swinging a hammer, but what I really like is having a job done. I like moving on with life and tackling new problems. If Sisyphus could hire a team of professional stone pushers to get his boulder over the hill, he should do it. That’s just sound advice.

A week after Monitto left, I called him back to assess the guest bathroom. “Water likes to look for imperfections,” he told me, pointing to the uneven tiles and various other signs of amateur work. He didn’t diagnose the leak, but I didn’t ask him to. I just wanted the thing done right—a new pan, new tiles, new P-trap—all of it, built from the floor up. It’s what I should have done as soon as we moved in.

Lou bid $2,800 for the job. A week later the shower was fixed.

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