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hammerAfter I purchased my bungalow, I had plenty of hard knocks, expensive repairs and unsightly cosmetic problems to fix (as well as learning a thing or two about how contractors can get on your nerves).

My contractor, *George, and I had a very complicated relationship made even more complicated by my utter lack of experience and his complete lack of professionalism. Looking back on it, managing a home renovation gave me a much better outlook on how hard it is to manage the intangible – I’m talking about people, personalities and attitudes. It’s not easy, but I often found myself tripping head first into scrapes and lots of scares.

Create a binder

In other words, get organized. Don’t delude yourself into thinking, “Oh, I can keep all my expense reports, contracts, hair scrunchies and clothes for tomorrow morning all on the desk and remain organized.” Keep things separate and in one place. For me, I had to create a binder that detailed my home renovation project by project so I could keep up with what was going on.

I kept notes, paint color picks, repairs and bills all in one (tabbed and categorized) binder. I even supplemented that organization with a spreadsheet on my computer. My hyper organization came in handy here, but it also created a physical manifestation of my work.

There was proof that I was getting something done. When working on various projects in the workplace – the same approach is invaluable. Keep things organized – it’s the first stepping stone to completing anything.

Show up

If you care about something getting done you show up to do it. Just because someone tells you they are doing a job doesn’t mean they are actually doing it. It also doesn’t mean they are even doing a good job if they are actually performing the work you gave them.

How do you know? You have to be there. Show up. This is not micromanagement, this is people management. When work finally started on my bungalow, George would complain that I didn’t come to the house a lot. I thought, “Why should I be there all the time? He’s doing work – I can’t even live there right now.” The problem was, I would eventually live there.

You can’t magically appear after the work is over (if it ever gets finished) and be pissed because something didn’t go right, got left out or just plain looks bad.

After a short while, his complaints died down and I didn’t hear from him as much. In short, I’d only get a call when he wanted money or to jealously complain about other contractors working in the house. 

When I would visit the house, work seemed to be getting done, but not nearly as fast (or as well) as it should have been done. I began to ask,”When is this going to be complete? What about this?” 

George would spout something pretty meaningless and mutter about needing to get more paint.

In hindsight, because I wasn’t there as often as I could have been, George took it to mean I didn’t really care about how stuff got done. I hate to say it, but sometimes, people will tell you whatever they think you want to hear if it means you’ll leave them alone (especially when they think you don’t care). 

What this means for you is that you have to look for proof – show up at the house (or workplace) and make your presence known. People always seem “busier” when the boss is around. Ask questions – channel your inner Sherlock sleuth and dive deep for the details. Showing up only requires that you be there – which is only half the battle.

Expect set backs

The price of metal had gone up and my heating contractor insisted that I install a security alarm before he installed my copper baseboard heating system (he was fearful that they would get stolen – and rightly so, all the steel radiators in my bungalow were ripped out by squatters and vandals before I bought it). If you remember, I bought my home in the dead of a Chicago winter – so waiting for a alarm system installer in the February freeze of an unheated bungalow was no picnic.

The set backs can be for your own good (like installing a security alarm) and others can be just plain time wasters (like haggling over the price of installing a shower head). Home renovation is never just a time line that can be followed in a 1-2-3 fashion. 

Things have to be fixed before they can be painted, you have to get a permit before you can have a system installed, you have to pay for this in order to get that. There are a lot two steps forward, one step back scenarios that can frustrate you. Yet, if you learn to expect them (and reasonably plan for them), you avoid becoming insane and getting premature gray hairs.

Have a spine

Standing up for yourself doesn’t involve becoming a fire-breathing dragon from the land of Mordor (sorry LOTR fans!), but it does require standing your ground and not tolerating bad work. Nice, generous and kind-hearted people can have spines, too! In some cases, people do manage to get away with bad work – that comes from poor management.

Eventually, such antics will catch up with them. However, it’s your problem (as a manager) now to deal with any slackers, laziness and outright poor performance. Let people know what you expect.

After a while, it seemed that I was adhering more to George’s schedule than vice versa. It got so bad, he was pretty much telling me when he was going to work in the house and he didn’t care about deadlines. 

My advice: don’t tolerate it. Be firm – never frame requests in the actual form of a question for example, “Could you finish by X date?” It leaves too much room for people (like George) to take advantage of your precious time. Instead, say, “I will need you to finish by X date so that the heating contractor can come in by Y date.”

When you couch requests in that gentle form of a demand, it makes people accountable for their work. This is especially important when other factors are dependent upon them to finish. I got better at this, but it took some getting used to.

Take all threats seriously – but while you are at it, don’t make threats

People who make threats are either bullies, desperate or unquestionably stupid. There is no exception. After playing phone tag for several days to set up a payment schedule, George “threatened” to call my mortgage broker. In actuality, that was just really dumb. But, it was a threat, nonetheless. When people start giving you ultimatums or threats, you have to treat each one seriously – no matter how idle you actually think it is.

After the shock subsided, in no uncertain terms, I politely let George know that contacting my mortgage broker would be fruitless since I was the general contractor and any payment he would receive would have to come from me. Period. It doesn’t matter if I already knew there weren’t any real consequences to calling my mortgage broker (as I’m sure George knew as well) – you have to establish a position of power (and accountability) and let people know you are not interested in playing games or taking “threats” lightly.

Threatening others makes you look undeniably weak, while not taking them seriously when they are made against you serves to have you appear naively out of touch. Threatening is bad. And stupid. Did I mention stupid?

 Get rid of illusions (or delusions)

My contractor, was a mediocre, below average handy-man trying to pass himself off as seasoned and talented home remodeler (later, I found out he used to work for Arthur Anderson as an accountant). I, on the other hand, was a naive, 1st-time homeowner who believed that her hyper organization was all she needed to manage a $25,000+ home renovation project.

If George and I had been a little more honest with ourselves (and each other), I probably wouldn’t have been so disappointed in his work and he wouldn’t have been so frustrated and annoyed with me. As a manager, you have to be realistic about who you are working with and what kind of results you can reasonably expect from such individuals. In the less than promising situations, you have to “move on” from such “partnerships” if they aren’t giving you what you need.

No, George wasn’t exactly fired -but I’d never use his services again. I still need work done in my house and I can reasonably assume that he’s still working as a home remodeler. But, I know much better now. I won’t take a contractor’s word for it when they promise to do a good job just because they say so and (hopefully) they won’t assume that I’m a naive homeowner who will say she expects a good job to be done and not demand it.

*Names have been changed to protect the not so innoncent

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You probably didn’t think that my previous post about buying a home had much to do with job hunting. Oh, but dear, unsuspecting readers – it did!

When I looked at the three potential homes I was going to buy, it took months and months of hard searching. This consisted of cruising online sites, constantly checking the MLS, asking new (and not so new) homeowners about their hunt and nagging my Realtor to death. I used a number of methods to find what is now my little dream bungalow. The reward I got out of it (a house I wanted at the price I could afford) was only matched by the effort I put into it (various methods of searching, networking and wild goose chases).

Each home in which I submitted an offer, I had to keep in mind that it could potentially be my home. But, being a careful buyer, I wanted to be certain each house was the right fit for me. There were also other outside factors I had to consider in purchasing the home. How would the location affect my commute? Would my sister need to change school districts? (yes, my family lives with me) Is the neighborhood my “cup of tea”? How much work do I want to put into repairs and cosmetics?

The questions go on and on. Amazingly enough, some people are no where near as questioning or detailed about their own job/career searches. The wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am approach is what leads to most career unfulfillment. Taking a job without thinking about what you may get out of it is the equivalent of buying a house with a guaranteed $50,000 repair job in the basement. It’s a disaster waiting to happen – and it can cost more than you imagine.

Furthermore, job hunting is about negotiating, taking chances and fighting for what you want. When I was in the process of buying my bungalow, the home was in absolute squalor – in short, not move in ready at all (not that I could move in right away, anyway). I demanded that the finance company give me money towards cleaning the place out. I wasn’t some investment flipper – this was going to be my home!

I’m sure I was a low priority on their list since they probably had other, more valuable foreclosures to get off their books – I still had to swing what leverage I had. If I’m going to invest my time and money (whether it is 30 years or 5 years), I want to make it worth my while in the meantime. Don’t underestimate your ability (or position) to negotiate for what you want. Life’s too short to only take what people are mostly willing to give you up front.

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I had no idea what I was doing when I purchased my bungalow. I didn’t really plan (OK – that was a lie, I did a little planning), and I sort of flew by the seat of my pants. Even the initial reason behind purchasing my home was done for – what some might say – a less than logical reason.

I wanted a dog. Yep, that’s right. I wanted a pet. After being refused by my landlord the offer of “puppy rent” –  I decided that being master of my domain was better than having to beg someone to own a dog.

The process took one incredible year. Yet, looking back on it, the journey just reminds me of how far I’ve come (and how much further I have to go). But, in all honesty, a dog was not the sole motivation for my home purchase, but let’s just say it was high on my list of reasons, OK?

Thinking it would be super cool to buy a house and fix it up, I purposely looked for homes that needed a little TLC. In reality, homes that needed work were all in my sustainable (and tolerable) price range, therefore, I virtually had no choice but to buy a fixer-upper. My Realtor didn’t do a great job helping me, I guess he figured that since I was dead set on buying a piece of crap, it wasn’t worth it to push me into higher price points. I’m sure he spent more of his time paying attention to clientele with more advanced tastes.

So, all in all, I had to search long and hard for my fixer-upper. This meant having to drag my Realtor with me on weekends so that he could punch in lock box codes, get keys and contact selling agents. A real thrill for him, I’m sure.

I put an offer on 2 homes before I actually purchased the one I live in now. They all had their individual repair nightmare list, but I loved them anyway. Also, unfortunately, they were all foreclosures – sitting vacant for a number of months (or years) and showing obvious signs of disrepair and long overdue maintenance.

The first home I fell in love with was a stucco, California-style bungalow with bright, shiny oak floors, a huge backyard and a terra cotta tiled sun room that was perfect for lazy, summer day reading.

But, that deal fell through for reasons too long to list here.

The second was a stately, American four-square brick home with built in kitchen cabinetry, leaded glass windows, a huge fireplace and deep, dark wood trimming. My home inspector said that I would have to spend at least $50,000 in the basement alone (and perhaps there was an issue with asbestos?!). With nothing but a heavy heart – I withdrew my offer as fast as I got my 55-page inspection report detailing more house repair drama than I could handle.

Third time’s a charm, right?

Right.

The house was an undeniable mess when I saw it. Cosmetically, it was in worse condition than the previous two homes I looked at before. Also, the house had been vacant for quite some time and various squatters made it their preferred place of (illegal) residence.

But, she was gorgeous. A rusty brick bungalow with lots of room, a marble fireplace and plenty of closet space. If anything, my Realtor gave me one good piece of advice about home repair projects. Being a professional flipper, he advised, “Be careful when you buy a home like this – once you start fixing it up, more stuff comes up to do- and once you’re in it, you’re in it.”

Exactly. I closed on my home in January and couldn’t move in until July. Yeah – that’s how long it took for me to get the house in only liveable condition. I still have more stuff to do -but isn’t that the familiar song of all homeowners?

I can’t say now if my decision was wholly unwise and irrational if it made me happy in the end – so, in the end, it made sense, right?

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This American Life produced an excellent segment detailing the American economic meltdown (is meltdown even an accurate description?). The three part series includes a medley of interviews with players within various points of our current financial conundrum. The series would be more aptly called, “The Wall Street Trail of Blunders, Lies and Greed” – I think my title is a little more transparent, if I do say so myself.

Essentially, NPR gives a condensed review of the systematic breakdown of (what should have been) a sound financial infrastructure fueled by a combination of capitalistic greed, short-sighted fiscal responsibility and plain ol’ stupidity.

But, am I telling you anything new? Of course not. Yet, for anyone still wondering how we got into this mess, (or, you are a glutton for punishment) I suggest you listen to it – it’s definitely an eye opener.

Unfortunately, no one likes to ask questions when money is flowing freely beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Personally, wild dreams and greedy imaginations are what got us where we are now. The bailout totally tanked  and Washington is scrambling to pick up the pieces. The Dow plummeted over 700 points and Democrats and Republicans are pointing fingers at each other on who is to blame for the House failing to pass the bill.

All this bi-partisan bickering doesn’t change anything. Americans are still losing jobs, having difficulty paying for basic necessities and economic growth remains in question. If anything, we should learn how greed (Swedish style) was solved abroad – we aren’t the first country to screw ourselves. Also, I’m not so sure a bailout would even work, especially since Congress seemed especially queasy about even passing it.

Well, Republicans seemed more queasy about it than Democrats, but, I digress.

It also doesn’t help that the resounding cry from Wall Street is, “Well, everyone else was doing it – and we wanted those profits!” It’s the economical equivalent of the twinkie defense in regard to the financial system.

No wonder why American’s aren’t sympathetic.

Oh, did I also mention that the $700 billion bailout roughly calculates to $10,000 per American family.
(Cha-ching! Why doesn’t someone give me a bailout?!)

The ridiculously bad decision making of banking institutions won’t be solved by a swift punch of money from the government. It may be years before America recovers from its mistakes. Government reform seems to have such a nasty habit of being reactionary rather than preemptive (at least, where it matters). Without implementing better oversight, regulation and performance measures of financial industries to keep greed at bay – we will only find ourselves in the same (if not worse) situation again.

And frankly, I don’t think America will have another $700 billion to spare.

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