Home Renovation

A lot of what’s on television is insipid and inconsequential but I believe that home renovation programs are pure evil. I don’t know which was the first but the earliest one I remember was the one that Bob Vilas hosted. Were it up to me, Bob would be in prison. They would have to build a new wing onto the jail to host all the TV hosts that I would throw in there and as added punishment I would require them to watch their own programs all day long.

I have had to do both minor and major home renovations in every house that I have purchased. Some of that work is inevitable because things simply wear out and break. There is no escape from that and in each case you have to judge whether you can do the work yourself or whether you need professional help. I can accept that, that’s just life. But I am sick and tired of having to redo the repair work of incompetent previous owners that were too stupid to realize that they were out of their depth or too cheap to hire someone competent. Regardless of what work needs to be done or why, it is a dirty time-consuming chore and there are at most one in a hundred of us who have the skill or patience or time to do a good job. I personally hate doing that kind of thing and am not ashamed to admit it.

Don’t get me wrong. I have several friends and family members who really enjoy hands-on repair or renovation work and I have nothing but admiration for them. They can come over to do my repair work anytime they like. By all means, do what you enjoy, but my guess is that people who know what they are doing do not waste their time watching guys on TV. They do not fall for the con. They can tell when a job can be done in a day or whether it will take half the summer. They know when a project is too big for a single amateur to undertake alone.

I think what often happens is that people who have never used a tool in their lives, and they are legion, watch renovation telecasts and convince themselves that the work is easy to do. Sitting on a couch eating chips, they watch some smiling guy in clean overalls rebuild a basement family room in 30 or 60 minutes. I guess they think that the poor sap is hammering away like crazy during the commercials. Listen suckers, the reason the camera is taking narrow angle close-ups of the host is because they don’t want you to see the army of 20 or so paid professionals in the background who have been doing all the real work for the past month. Don’t fall for it. They are not there to help you repair your house; they are filler for the commercials that try to sell you expensive table saws and routers that you will not know what to do with once you bring them home from the sponsoring store.

If you have a full-time job it usually means that half your weekend is taken up with doing the laundry or driving your kids to hockey arenas. The reality is that with only 10-15 free hours per week, the simplest renovation project can last a very long time. A project that a team of professionals can do in 4 days could easily take a year to do if you are alone and only able to devote a few hours once per week to the task. Do you want to live in a construction zone for a year?

I had to replace the washroom medicine cabinet in the first house that I owned in Toronto. Conceptually, this is an easy task. The old cabinet was recessed into the wall so I was prepared for some dry wall repair before laying the new cabinet over the space. However, what a previous owner had done was to cut through the supporting wall studs to make room for the deeply recessed medicine cabinet. Anyone with sense would have bought a different model but instead this mouth-breather had chosen to destroy the inner wall structure so that when I removed the cabinet I found myself staring at the house’s outer brick. It took me a couple of days to rebuild the underlying support taking extreme care not to break through the brick work, add in a section of dry wall before screwing in the new cabinet. A four-hour job had mushroomed into a 2-day nightmare and I lost a weekend of my life doing something I hate.

In a subsequent house, I lived with a bad faucet leak in the washroom tub because the previous owner had installed exotic brass plumbing without also purchasing spare parts or leaving a panel in the wall behind the plumbing for easy access. In ten years of searching I could not find replacement seats or faucet inserts that would fit. And because the area was completely tiled over, and there were no extra tiles stashed in the basement, ripping the wall apart to replace the entire assembly would have meant remodeling the entire bath area. A mere $5 faucet insert replacement would have required a $5000 rebuild of the bathroom. I am convinced that if the previous owner had not watched Vilas or any of his cohorts on TV, he would never have done anything so stupid. (And by the way, although those brass handles are gorgeous in the showroom, at home they only really look good for about 48 hours after polishing them with smelly chemicals. For the rest of the year, they look awful so unless you have a maid or you deeply enjoy housework my advice is to stay away from them.)

I became incensed over an episode of Vilas’ program one evening. He was renovating an old New England farmhouse that the owners were converting into their primary residence. Most of the episode was focused on repairing one window. He had fallen in love with the fact the wooden window frame was made of 100+ year old hardwood, the bottom third of which had rotted. Instead of replacing the window he opted to chisel out the rotten bits, went to great lengths to find sections of matching hardwood and carefully joined the new sections to the old frame to make the repair appear seamless. This meant removing caulking and the historic glass, which he also wanted to preserve, and subsequently re-assembling it all. Of course on TV it looks as though all that can be done in 20 minutes but anyone who has ever done this kind of work knows that an entire weekend would not be enough time to do what he had just described. Who has the time or inclination to spend a whole weekend fixing one window in order to avoid the destruction of a couple of feet of historic wood? It’s not a museum you maniac, it’s someone’s house!

There are a several renovation programs on television these days where the focus is less on repairing structural problems and more on re-decorating rooms for fashion purposes, as though it were the equivalent of replacing your bell-bottoms with wool leggings. I have nothing polite to say about those shows.


At 1:19 PM, Anonymous Gregorio said...

There is show that breaks this mold... "Holmes on Homes". He is a professional contractor who goes into peoples houses after other contractors have made a total pigs ear of the job, then left the home owner high and dry (or up to their ankles in water as the case may be).

He is a stickler for doing things right, and for getting experts in a given trade to do the job.

The show is very much an indictment of the mostly unregulated building trade. It is also very good entertainment. You have to remember, that when it comes down to it, any TV show is just there to keep you entertained between commercials. Now I know that BV stared off with TOH on PBS and it was supposed to be educational – but it was just entertainment for most people who watched. Just like cooking shows – not may people actually go to the kitchen and make those dishes – they just watch to be entertained.


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