The Reno: When Your Builder Is More Important Than You Are

As we celebrated the purchase of our first and only home, we took time to toast Washington's then-Mayor Marion Barry.
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Danielle Crittenden's 1905 house in Washington, D.C. has been undergoing a major renovation for the past year (and off and on for over a decade). In this weekly summer series, which appears Fridays on HuffPost, Danielle records what it has been like for her and her family to live through the construction with their builders, Virginia-natives Brent and John.

As we celebrated the purchase of our first and only home, we took time to toast Washington's then-Mayor Marion Barry. The cocaine-abusing mayor's squalid misgovernment had enabled us to afford a much grander house than we could have possibly have afforded across the city line. The seller grumbled, "One day you will make a lot of money on this house." What he didn't say what that any profit we might someday claim would be paid to Brent.

Brent basically carried over with the house. He'd worked for the previous owner for a decade. He was our home's family doctor. He was familiar with all its internal eccentricities, its circulatory systems, its patched bones.

A native Virginian, Brent's bedside manner was gentle and unflappable. Your whole ceiling might collapse under a burst pipe (it did), there could be muddy water streaming down the handscreened William Morris wallpaper (there was), and he'd just stroke his scruffy, reddish beard, and say, "It's not too bad. We'll fix it."

And he would fix it! He wielded a brush or putty knife as finely as a scalpel. There were never drips, bumps or sloppy edges. He could make an incision into an horsehair plaster ceiling and patch it so you would never know it was cut. He hung wallpaper with the skill of a couturier. On the (many) occasions when I chose a disastrous color for a wall, he'd cheerfully remix and repaint on the spot, all the while calming me down ("I thought it looked a little bright too, but it's okay, I'll just squirt some umber in it and see if it comes out better..."). The few times I "helpfully" suggested some shortcut to him, he nodded respectfully and said, "Well, I suppose there are some people who might do it like that." I learned to shut up and allow him to do everything his way.

For the first few years we lived in the house, we were happy with it--and to the degree that we weren't, we couldn't afford to do much about it. Brent entered our lives for good only when the house's wooden clapboard had deteriorated to a point that could no longer be ignored.

While we'd been lucky in the timing of our purchase, we discovered ourselves desperately unlucky in the timing of our first major home improvement. As our exterior paint chipped, cracked, faded and peeled, the rest of Washington was repairing and renewing. Mayor Barry had at last departed office and been replaced by a capable and honest new mayor, Anthony Williams. Crime rates fell, employment quickened, the downtown revived --and the renovation business boomed.

And Brent--good old, reliable Brent! Brent, who'd come on a weekend evening to patch up the aforementioned burst pipe!--that Brent was now playing very hard-to-get.
When we booked him a year in advance to paint our house, Brent promised us we would be the first customers on his list come spring. By the beginning of June he still had not arrived. But did I call him and harass him? Oh no. For now he was like a Hollywood producer, and me, the would-be starlet. Sometimes he might return the call. Other times I couldn't get through. I'd leave messages at his home, with his wife, his colleagues, on his pager. (Ah yes--the pager. That was new too. When I first met Brent, he drove a battered old pick-up that always had some bits of lumber sticking out the end. These days he pulled up in a new Chevy Suburban. And in the spot where some old tool once might have hung from his jeans, there was the pager. )

I left obsequious messages: "Hello Brent? Um, it's Danielle here. Gosh it's nice weather we're having. Good painting weather!! Perhaps you might want to check in with us--let us know when it would suit you, uh, to come by...."

When he returned the call--sometimes days or even weeks later--he was unfailingly polite, but now in an abrupt, important way. Yes yes, he hadn't forgotten. Would get there as soon as he could.

I cleared my throat. "And when might that be?"

A wearied chuckle. "Soon." Click.

My neighbor, who at that time ran a decorating and design company, commiserated by telling me that she'd just been fired by her painter.

"Excuse me?"

Yes. The painter had fired her. Her husband's boss had hired her to redecorate a room. She'd hired a painter she had known for years - and unwisely paid him in advance. The painter did a sloppy, fast job. He used the wrong paint. My neighbor was horrified: What would the boss say when he returned from vacation? She called the painter to complain. He reacted as Michelangelo might have reacted to some critic of the Sistine Chapel that God's finger looked a bit pudgy. No, he wouldn't "fix" the work because there was nothing to be "fixed." The painter told my neighbor, his client, that she was fired and hung up on her.

My neighbor was left stranded. It was 1999! The tech boom was roaring! There were no painters to be had, not anywhere, not on any terms. So she and her husband, a partner in a downtown law firm, trudged off the next night in old clothes and Home Depot ladders to redo the job themselves. They spent the following two evenings painting until midnight. Her husband--only recently recovered from heart surgery--spent the next two weeks recovering on his back.

So when Brent finally showed up, I was awfully eager to please. In person, he was his reassuring old self. After inspecting the outside of the house, he announced he would have to replace a few rotting boards and shutters, and re-side the house's front facade. With so much new wood going up, we decided we might as well repaint the whole house, lightening it from battleship gray to a fresh, Colonial yellow.

In any other economy, at any other moment in history, the whole job might have taken a month to complete, six weeks at most. But seven months into the project, I felt absolutely blessed every time I was awoken by the banging of ladders against our bedroom wall. My husband observed that the United States had achieved through capitalism what Marx had imagined for socialism: The working man's foot was firmly planted upon the neck of the bourgeoisie.

As the job drew to a close, Brent began to emit warnings that we might face a small cost over-run. How small? Brent sat down upon a paint bucket to figure it out. A few minutes later, he presented a new estimate on a scrap piece of clapboard. (I have never known Brent to use paper: his bills always arrive on fragments of wood or drywall). The new total was nearly four times the original estimate. My husband practically fell over backwards.
"How did this happen?"

Brent, in his always reasonable and unflappable way, explained that he had discovered much more rot than expected. Several of the walls had turned out to be entirely uninsulated. There had been other problems as well that he had not wanted to bother us with. But no worries, he'd taken care of everything, and now here was the bill.

Did we argue? Did we refuse to pay?

Of course we didn't. We had just completed Renovation 101.

This series originates in the National Post.