Thursday, March 17, 2016

A few words on home ownership

Fair warning: most of them are curses and appliances.

Also fair warning: these are all totally #firstworldproblems. I know it. I feel an appropriate amount of guilt over it. It doesn't mean I haven't suffered through them.

But before I get to that, a little history (husband rolls eyes). Before there was the Black Plate Special, there were the beginnings of another blog, one whose stated purpose was to educate the blithe, giddy, and unsuspecting new homeowner about the woe, misery, and cynicism that was about the befall them. As dogged resignation took the place of rage and indignation, the need to write about this topic in particular fell by the wayside, and the blog was lost to the memory of the Internets.

But now... a small return to this origin is warranted. Why, you ask? Because tomorrow morning we will officially become the owners of a new home -- a home that is lovely and well-built and most of all, practical. It is for this reason, on the eve of leaving our first home, that it feels fitting to recount the first four and a half years of Mark's and my journey as homeowners.


Since moving into our house on October 11, 2011 we have replaced all but three of what I'd characterize as major appliances in the home. Another one, we scrapped altogether. It's grandfathered into this blog post because of how hard we got screwed in the decision to get rid of it. To whit, we have replaced (in roughly chronological order) all of the following:
  • The Refrigerator
  • The Furnace
  • The Water Heater
  • The Dishwasher
  • The Range (oven/stove combo)
The built-in coffee machine (don't judge me) met its end altogether. 

What does that leave, then? The washer, the dryer, the sump pump (a surprise appliance that we narrowly avoided replacing a month ago). That's it. 

Really. 

It all begins with the refrigerator...

In our infinite ignorance, Mark and I believed that refrigerators were solid, long-lasting, reliable appliances. I remember one that lived in the scary utility room of the basement in the house in which I grew up. This hulk was festooned with mustard yellow and shit brown flowers of a distinctly 1960s flavor. The compressor sounded like a freight train. It must have been 25 years old by the time I was born in 1984, and it was still chugging when my parents sold the house in 2004. This thing was no joke.

But our refrigerator... ours was a flower of a more delicate nature. Ten years old when we moved in, it was a "built-in" -- industry parlance for "more expensive to fix and orders of magnitude more expensive to replace."

So two nights before the actual move, we decided it would be a good idea to take a load of stuff over, and we might as well move the food, right? Pots and pans were packed. What were we going to cook? We merrily put all of our food into the refrigerator and freezer, took care of a few other things, and headed back to our apartment. Imagine our surprise when, less than 48 hours later, we arrived with the movers to discover a house that smelled of rancid shrimp. Which there were. In the freezer that was approximately 85 degrees.

It would ultimately take over five weeks to fix the refrigerator -- a visit to diagnose the problem, a visit to fix the problem, followed up by another visit to fix the problem when it turns out they had the wrong part on the first attempt.

Six months of pure agony later, during which time the refrigerator alternately cooked and froze our food at seemingly random intervals, it was time for a rip'n'replace. This is when we discovered the true "fuck you" of built-in refrigerators -- unlike their freestanding counterparts, built-ins start at about $8,000, a real finger in the eye to the newly house-poor.

Now, if you're wondering whether we spent $8K on a fridge... we did not. As the guy at Albert Lee Appliance calmly explained to us, spending $8K was not going to get us a refrigerator that lasted for 15 years, let alone 45. No, sadly, no matter what refrigerator we bought, chances were we'd be replacing it in 8-10 years. And so, for the past four years, we have been the satisfied owners of a much cheaper, free-standing, counter-depth refrigerator that cost less than half what it would have cost us to get the exact same model in a built-in form. It's not perfect, but it's damn near close enough.
#PROTIP: Refrigerators only last 8-10 years. Do not buy a built-in.

The dishwasher built by Satan

But while the refrigerator was the first cut, it was certainly not the last or even deepest -- not in terms of cost or time or WTF-ness. Which brings me to a small digression: expensive appliances are not better appliances. They are just more expensive. More expensive to buy, more expensive (and difficult and time-consuming) to fix.

Which brings me to the dishwasher. Somewhere, someone who is undoubtedly destined to rot in the eighth circle of hell, created the Fisher & Paykel two-drawer dishwasher. This appliance might have been conceived in the right spirit -- allowing for an energy-and-water efficient way to do small loads of dishes -- but in practical reality was an impossible-to-load, fickle beast with a particularly nasty attribute: where your standard full-size dishwasher is 24 inches wide, the Fisher & Paykel two-drawer dishwasher is 23.75 inches wide.

Why is this such a problem, you ask? Two words: custom cabinets.

And what happens when you build cabinets around a temperamental, barely functional, non-standard size dishwasher? You fuck over the future homeowners who will be left with this aging, useless hulk and a space functionally too small to fit anything else without ripping up the entire kitchen.

Of course, we didn't know this right away. For the first three years, all that we knew was that one of the drawers had long since ceased to function but was too expensive to fix, and the other drawer was fine for plates but could not accommodate -- let alone actually clean -- a bowl to save its life. But by September 2014, my darling husband, washer of the dishes, keeper of the dishwasher, was done. It was time for a new dishwasher. It was to be our anniversary gift to each other.

So I researched. We visited a large home improvement center to look at options. We made our selection.

The new dishwasher arrived, gleaming and perfect, a few days later. Before the installation team had so much as taken off a shred of its foam padding, however, they glanced at the dishwasher it was replacing. They flinched. My heart sunk.

"Ma'am, do you know that the dishwasher you have is not standard?"

"What do you mean it's not standard?"

"The two-drawer dishwashers are a quarter of an inch narrower than the standard 24 inch dishwashers. The dishwasher you bought isn't going to fit."

Then basically this happened...

Image courtesy of Hyperbole and a Half, a blog you should definitely go read...as soon as you've finished this blog post. 
That was followed pretty immediately by desperation.


"B-b-b-but if I can't have this dishwasher, what can I do? I can't bring myself to spend 4x the amount on the newest model of the worst dishwasher ever made, and I can't afford to rip up my whole kitchen just for a dishwasher..."

Luckily, the install guy from Lowe's had a solution. He'd seen this before. And there was a dishwasher that could be rigged to fit into the smaller space. A Bosch. It wasn't perfect, but it would be fine.

So two weeks later, a new dishwasher arrived. It was removed from its foam casing. Its side panels were stripped off. And after much struggling with the old dishwasher which was wedged in so tightly that the install guy speculated whether the cabinets were literally built around it, our new jerry-rigged dishwasher was in.

#PROTIP: Do not build custom cabinets to fit a non-standard dishwasher. Two drawers = at least quadruple the agony.

On water heaters and walls

Sometimes you look at things in your house that the previous owners did, and you think, "wow, they really cheaped out," or "huh, that's a little odd."

Sometimes you look at things and think: what. the actual. fuck.

Case in point: embedding a water heater in a wall.

Just in case you are not familiar with the finer nuances of water heaters, these are not things that go in walls. Indeed, they are hulking behemoths designed to hold somewhere between 30 and 50 gallons of water (for a standard single-family residential property). See below.


But because our house is essentially cobbled together with questionable decisions, why not try to embed a water heater in a wall, right?

Okay, "embedded in the wall" may be slightly hyperbolic. Of course, the whole water heater didn't fit in our wall. That would be crazy. But someone -- presumably the people who owned the house circa 1992 which is about when the water heater would have been installed -- decided to wedge the water heater back between two wall studs. It is unclear to me if they did this because there was no drywall at the time and it didn't occur to them that someone at some point might want to actually put up drywall in the utility room, or if they actually went so far as to cut a hole in existing drywall in order to give themselves about four more inches of space in a utility room that had (and has) plenty of it.

It is also somewhat unclear to me how I didn't notice that the water heater was partially embedded in the wall for the better part of three years. After all, I spent those three years going through the motions of laundry right next to it. I watched as the rust stain on its top slowly branched downward, and as an ominous ring of water appeared at its bottom edges. And yet... and yet it was not until the water heater installation tech started laughing that I realized we had an altogether more WTF problem.

I was upstairs when I first heard the beginning gasps of incredulous laughter. I froze. We'd been through this enough times to make the sound cause the hairs on the back of my neck to snap to attention. And then I heard the dreaded, "Ma'am?"

I know that sound. It's the sound of "I'm fucked."

"Could you come down here, ma'am?"

Don't make me.


"Ma'am, are you aware that your water heater is partially embedded in your wall?"

Um... no...
"Ma'am? Ma'am? I don't think I'm going to be able to handle this today. It's gonna require a specialist."



Because of-fucking-course it is!

Yes, yes. We had to schedule a new install appointment for a different day so that a different install guy could come out, remove the old water heater from the wall, build scaffolding on which to hang the new tankless water heater (one of the many investments we made because we were fucking delusional and thought we'd be living in this house for the next 20 years BAHAHAHAHA), and then do the install.

And no, he could not patch the drywall for us. Sorry.

The real kicker is that when the new specialist install guy came out in order to fully expose the incredible short-sightedness and stupidity of the former homeowners, he also found out that the gas lines were improperly run. So now, in addition to a gaping hole in our laundry room drywall, we have a series of poorly patched holes in the ceiling that had to be cut to reroute the gas line.

#PROTIP: Always assume that someone at some point is going to want to install drywall. Plan accordingly. 

A home for the range

For those not as well versed in the nuances of appliance terminology, "range" is the term used to describe the all-in-one, freestanding oven/stovetop combo that graces pretty much every kitchen in the developed world. Straightforward, you think? It's okay, I thought so too. Turns out, not so much.

The range, as it were, comes in a range of options. Electric stove / electric oven. Gas stove / gas oven. Gas stove / electric oven. There are others, but those are the basics and it gives you what you need to know for purposes of this story. 

Electric stoves are terrible. They take forever to heat up and make it hard to control temperature quickly. 

Gas ovens are terrible. They take forever to pre-heat, and even when they get hot, it's not even throughout the oven or even remotely reliable. Planning to pop that cake in the oven and forget about it until the timer goes off? Not if you have a gas oven, you won't, unless of course you want a half-charcoal, half-gloop pile of inedible crap. 

How do I know this? Because the range we had when we moved in was all gas. Stove? Great! Oven? Nightmare.

Not only was the oven an abomination, incapable of evening heating to even the remotely correct temperature to save its life. Adding insult to injury was the fickle, delicate broiler, which seemed to work only when it felt like it and never when I actually needed it. 

Mind you, this was a Viking range, which seems like a good time to reiterate that when it comes to appliances, more expensive does not mean higher quality. As far as I can tell, Viking is to the kitchen appliance what Jaguar is to the automobile: a glossy brand masking a shitty product. 

Let me assure you, it didn't take us very long after moving in to figure out that a little lipstick did not make a lady of the pig. 

So in September of 2015, four years and innumerable blackened cookies later, we decided to buy each other a new range for our wedding anniversary. The year before, we'd gotten the dishwasher, and the year before that was the water heater. It was my turn.

We bought a Kitchenaid. It wasn't fancy, but it was the all important dual-fuel gas stove / electric oven combo that I so desperately wanted. It even came with some kid-safe features. I was pumped. I also knew from experience that, in all likelihood, the former homeowners had not planned for the notion that anyone might install a dual-fuel range, which meant that the outlet to plug in my glorious new appliance wasn't going to work.

Turns out, I was more correct than I'd feared.

In order to swap the existing 110 volt outlet for the now-required 220 volt outlet, we brought in a special contractor to do the install. More money, but worth it, right?

Ha! *Rachel makes plans, Appliance God throws sucker punch.*

The easy installation I'd so carefully planned was not to be. Upon arrival at our house with the oven, the install crew discovered that, not only was there not a 220 volt outlet to be found in the vicinity of the range, the former homeowners had failed to properly wire the circuit to allow it to be converted to 220 volts. Instead of a few hundred dollars, our little problem required an electrician and a full day install that cost roughly half of what the oven had cost in the first place.

Let me give you a little taste of what that feels like (fair warning: there is sound, which is totally unnecessary and possibly even harmful to your enjoyment of this video).


#PROTIP: Wiring properly for contingencies is easy when you're remodeling the kitchen. Not so much when you're just trying to replace a damn oven. 

The shame appliance

When Mark and I bought the house in October 2011, one of the most awesome and simultaneously embarrassing things about it was the built-in espresso maker. Although this particular appliance no longer occupies space in our kitchen, I was able to source a picture of it courtesy of Zillow, which still hosts pictures of our house from the 2011 listing. The built-in espresso machine is clearly visible on the left edge of the picture. You can also see the two drawers of that motherfucking dishwasher and the deceptively lovely pig of an oven.


I'm not going to lie. The espresso machine was amazing... when it was working. When it broke, it became considerably less so. A replacement would have cost more than the refrigerator that we bought to replace the built-in. And repairs were... ugly. Like, only-one-repair-company-that-is-certified-to-do-it-and-parts-that-require-a-lien-on-your-first-born-child ugly. When it broke again less than a year after the first repair, it was time to say buh-bye.

And so we did. The space it had occupied was ideal for an appliance garage -- cabinet space that we desperately needed. And so we proceeded with sourcing a door to match our existing cabinetry. This was June 2015. You'd think we would have learned our lesson by that point, but apparently, we're either incredibly stupid or gluttons for punishment.

We found a place that could get a cabinet door for us in June. It was well into July by the time measurements were completed. And then, we waited. And waited. And waited. Six weeks to get the parts. We're now toward the end of August. We picked up the parts. We opted to have the same kitchen install specialists whom we'd hired to put in our new range do to the cabinet as well.

As it turned out, the day did not go well for them. Not only was the wiring required for converting our outlet outside their expertise, the cabinet manufacturer had sent us the wrong parts. Completely, utterly wrong. It was not going to work.

Another two trips to the cabinet dealer, a conversation with the ~60 year old proprietor who spent at least 45 minutes fucking mansplaining the cabinet to me, and a second expensive trip from the kitchen install guys later, we had a new appliance garage... roughly four months and countless hours of rage and frustration after it was first conceived as a cheaper, less frustrating alternative to the built-in espresso machine.
#PROTIP: If you think to yourself, "welp, that sounds easy!" you're wrong. You're dead wrong. 

And finally, the furnace

Of all of the appliances we've replaced in our house, the furnace, of all things, turned out to be the least painful. Oh, don't me get wrong. It was expensive. Believe me. But it was installed without requiring multiple visits. No new holes had to be drilled through walls. I did not have to witness an installation specialist pause, scratch his head, and ask me "now why do you think they did it that way?"

As if I have a fucking clue, sir. As if I have a fucking clue.




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