Burt and I perched an hour from the border between the USA and Mexico. Tomorrow we plan to meet Rosemary and Ed and cross over into our winter in Baja. More and RR and Ed later. Today I want to try and cover a subject that was set aside when my mom died: What could have gone wrong working in Virginia and did not.
When we agreed to take on the rehab and remodel of a home in Alexandria, Virginia we did so with a couple of caveats. One, we bid the job high because we had no idea what we would find when we physically arrived on site. We had a home inspection report but those are not reliable and certainly not geared towards home remodeling and repair. They are for home sales and negotiation. Burt and I are not impressed with the industry on a whole. Both of us have had home inspections fail to turn up fundamental flaws and over blow minor problems. Two, we could get kicked off the job at any time by either the building department for not having permits or the police for illegally camping on the street. A quick perusal of Fairfax county building codes revealed only a couple of areas where permits were required. Small, inconspicuous areas. When we learned that the most disruptive and visible work (replacing all windows) was permit-exempt we thought the job was a low risk enterprise. Still, we can’t guarantee a neighbor won’t turn us in. Our client was ready to take that chance. She knew we were fast and reliable. Her efforts to manage local builders from 2,000 miles away had been frustrating and expensive.
Dear readers might wonder why the owner didn’t simply get a permit. It’s not that easy. There are many reasons. Permitting a kitchen remodel can add significant time. Time means money. Also, permitting required an application by the actual owner. The boss on the job was the owner’s child. The actual owner is 89 and in poor health. No chance the owner was coming to Virginia to fill out paperwork. The only work requiring a permit was minor electrical and plumbing for the kitchen. Demolition, cabinets, windows, floor, painting, cleaning….all of this did not require a permit. Weighing the options it was worth the risk to the owner. Remember, a permit issue is the owner’s problem. We can legally work for anyone, anywhere. But as responsible business people we don’t want to knowingly get a client in trouble. We let them make the choice.
So there we were enjoying our season of no work when this job offer came our way. Consciously we debated the sanity of taking a job in a place far away with cold weather coming. A job in a place notorious for rules, crowds, Type A personalities. We discussed my mother’s health. We knew we could tack on a visit or two to see mom and dad. My brother and his family were near. The job was in a new area of the world. Google earth photos showed room for us to camp in the back yard. We could say we worked coast to coast. Mom’s health and our interest in the area tipped the scales over to, “Let’s go!”
Here’s what we worried about:
The camping situation.
Ordering windows, cabinets, counters, appliances. How long would it take? Could we get done by Christmas? Could we do it under budget?
Disposal of debris.
The size of the job.
How much could I work on my new heart meds?
On this job, nothing went wrong.
At first it looked like our camping situation was destined to cause problems. The Google Earth photos didn’t show the fence around the yard. For the first two weeks we parked road side. It felt like everybody was staring at us. The neighbors were watching but they were watching with delight as we made the worst eyesore in the neighborhood look clean and welcoming. They were thrilled we were in town and on the job full time. After 2 weeks we took a week off and towed away to visit my folks. This was the last time I saw my mom. Our timing was good. Some might say miraculous. After the visit we figured out a way to pull into the driveway and become less conspicuous.
Building inspectors never showed. Happy neighbors? Discrete work? We kept all debris out of sight and hauled it away frequently. We were quiet. The job was mostly unpermitted work.
After decades of working in the wilds of Montana and the intermountain west the ordering of supplies in the east coast megalopolis was a revelation. Everything is seemingly available at your finger tips. Things that take 6 weeks in Montana take 10 days in Virginia. Half the windows we needed were in-stock. The furnace had to be replaced and they had a new one in two days. Granite counters showed up five days after the cabinets were installed. This job had a coefficient of efficiency we never imagined possible. We had time to play bridge.
The job was just big enough and not too big for two. My heart meds slowed me down but I could work. Overhead stuff is really hard with low blood pressure. I grew frustrated changing light fixtures when my hand and arms didn’t have enough blood and I was gasping for oxygen but I got most of it done.
And then the real miracle. As we closed in on the last week of work my mom began to die. She could have gone mid-job and caused a ruckus. Surmountable but logistically hard. She could have waited until we were three weeks down the road. When turning back would have been costly and time consuming. Nope. She died two days before the job was done. Mighty convenient mom. Thanks for thinking of us. Living this wandering life makes traveling easier and harder. Timing a person’s death and the upheaval it causes is never convenient and always troubling. My mom could not have made it easier for us. It’s crazy that way back in August we thought about how nice it would be to be nearby and we could visit. We even thought about the end. We wondered if she might die while we were there. Someone somewhere was listening. Mom heard us? We heard mom? Our client heard that thing called god? I’ll never know.