With bated breath, I agreed to the black-market permits.
Publish date:
October 8, 2012
home, renovation

After having to forecefully concede to local authorityand get some damn permits, we were what felt like on our way. Mostly. We could stop tiptoeing around the outside of the house for starts, as we were officially on record as permit-holding home renovators.

By the way, do you know how nosy permits are? They list your name, projected fee for project, residence address, and phone number -- and then you have to tape it in your front window for all to see. I didn’t like that at all, but beings as they didn’t fine us or seize our tools, I kept my head down and agreed.

The permit was a game changer. Originally, we toyed with running electric and plumbing ourselves. D’s done it before, but he’s no master plumber/electrician, and, thus, it would ONLY be done as a means to money save. Wiring a house for electricity and running complete plumbing is one of the most expensive things to be done in a gut. That said, it’s also super important that it be done right. Both things can cause a boatload of future issues -- leaks, flooding, fire, etc.

After going back and forth for a few weeks (prior to licensing and inspection busting in on us) as to whether we’d actually do it ourselves or hire out, we came across a low-key electrician who did plumbing, too. He had just finished doing a house down the street (we never actually validated this claim) and was a good friend of the man who ran the demo crew we hired. He gave us an unbeatable price (like, jaw dropping price) to do both. DING DING, warning sign. (Which we ignored, I mean, people can be multi-talented, right?)

It was a relief to hire someone to task these key pieces. Even though it’d cost some dough, at this point we hadn’t spend very much, only a couple thousand, so we were comfortable moving forward with M. Plus, it was a step up from us actually doing it ourselves.

We planned to keep close tabs on all his work and bring someone in when he was done to check over it to ensure against future fires, or any other horrific event that could destroy what we spent months creating.

Then the permit debacle happened and we were on the bureaucratic radar. Guess who wasn’t a licensed master plumber or electrician? Mdawg. He was undeterred by the permit necessitation. He had a "friend" who could procure needed permits. They’d even send in a proxy for inspections as needed.

I didn’t love it. But I also didn’t love the estimated $20,000 we’d spend otherwise on real-deal electric and plumbing companies. Additionally, we’d already partially paid M. I knew we couldn’t get that money back from him, and the thought of taking the loss was equally cringe inducing.

This is perhaps my least favorite thing about home renovation. When hiring out, partial payment is generally expected before work actually begins. Sometimes people have requested up to half upfront. We’ve shied from this, negotiating closer to 25%.

Both sides assume risk in these deals -- we’re paying money upfront for work we can’t force to happen -- or happen correctly. On the other hand, someone is coming to our home, buying materials, doing work and trusting we’ll actually fork over money upon completion. It’s certainly fair. But since I knew we were a safe bet, I trembled the times we had to write out that first check to an unknown entity, wondering how it’d play out.

We felt obliged to M. He was a nice, older gent who seemed like a hard, honest worker. We had promised him the work and, again, had already paid our fair share upfront. He had even tinkered around a couple days of preliminary work and everything seemed satisfactory.

With bated breath, I agreed to the black-market permits. We started tentatively by only agreeing to the electricity one for a cool $600 bought on a grimy North Philly street corner. By the way, in a more honest situation, whoever is hired to do the work pays for the permit. Oh, and it costs about $100.

Beyond the permit drama, we were busy assembling a team to help D get a jumpstart on building. As I work a regular full-time job, my hours of housework were limited to a couple hours during the week after work (basically, before it got too dark), and the weekends. As spring approached, we felt our rental days were numbered as house showings steadily increased. We needed to get a move on and be prepared to move into our house at a (30 days) moment’s notice.

D had a few friends able to come down here and there to help out on days when their own work was slow, which was super helpful. It was a morale boost for D to have someone there during the days helping him out -- particularly with things I was useless at, like moving radiators (hello, several hundred pounds of metal) and installing new joists.

We aimed to pay everyone who came through our door with tools in hand (except kind family, love you guys). While it’s totally cool for a friend to help you out, our renovation was going on in extreme conditions. It was bitterly cold, dirty no matter how many times we ran the shop vac (on hands and knees no less), and if you had to go to the bathroom you had your choice of empty home depot buckets; there was no running water. That said, we weren’t able to pay premium rates, so we balanced somewhere around, like, “Hey we’re friends, but I get this sucks -- here’s a check.”

I think (hope) it worked out for all involved. But I will say it’s kind of awkward writing a check for $15/hour for someone used to, say, $40.

By this time, March or so, the house had totally spread like thick ivy across our lives. D would be completely disheveled, dirty and exhausted by day’s end, and I scrambled to at least make sure he was eating a proper meal before passing out for the night. Who would have thought I’d finally learn to cook via home renovation? Our schedule quickly evolved into a mundane house-construction-oriented routine:

  1. Work.
  2. Go to house, work/clean/carry tools home.
  3. Cook.
  4. Make sure D’s not going to die from whatever he did that day.
  5. Drink tea/go to bed.
  6. Repeat.

Four months in, the stress of what exactly we’d gotten ourselves into started to take its toll. I constantly worried that D would relapse and end up back in the hospital (where he could then take up to 2 months to recover). The hospital was a big enough threat, but then there was the added dilemma that construction could potentially seize for a couple months, our rented house could sell and and and. Stressful.

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: If you are thinking of doing something like this, add at LEAST 3 extra months to any timeframe (and double the loot)!

Without realizing it, we slowly stopped hanging out with friends and doing things we enjoyed. All of our energy was funneled into the house, not unlike what I imagine happens when one has a new baby -- except you don’t really get visitors, which I imagine is because you turn into a total grump, and who wants that?

It felt like we had nothing to talk about except the house -- even to each other. At night I’d toss, inflicted with worry over what needed to happen "tomorrow," and other boring shit I never thought would consume me. For example, “Are the horrors of sprayfoam insulation true?”

Our wardrobe quickly became overstocked with thermals (so unchic) from working in a house with no heat daily and we quietly started to wonder what we’d gotten ourselves into. Visions of roaring West like a modern day "True Romance" and not stopping until we hit Mexico danced in our heads like sugarplum fairies. I mean, really, what if we just left? What was stopping us? The mind can make justifications for just about anything in times of desperation, when you’re in over your head.

What kept us going, I can’t say. I paraded around to outwardly lift D up, cooing over progress daily and ensuring anyone who asked that we were fine and all was coming along. And part of me really meant it. Enough so that I actually did keep going, I suppose.

Things started to look up when our house grew a skeleton, which is how I fondly referred to the framing for walls. And when we finally took care of the missing 2nd story floor. So, that was pretty sweet. Some sunshine after winter rain. Can’t stay down forever.