by Nick Heil
I bought the place from the elderly widow next-door for $150,000. No brokers—just a one-page contract from Office Depot.
Pity the man who comes bearing pre-fab Purchase Agreements and romantic renovation fantasies in the Mountain West. I already owned a small, bland townhouse, but this was my chance to acquire an historic home with real character in a beautiful town at 7,000 feet where I could ride my mountain bike from my back door and drive to a chairlift in less than 30 minutes—all while reaping double-digit appreciation!
Never mind that the sum total of my investment and remodeling knowledge was acquired by skimming "The Idiot's Guide to Real Estate." Or that the renovation entailed the ground-up reconstruction of almost the entire structure (new roof, electrical, plumbing, etc). Or that my entire collection of tools fit inside a five-gallon plastic pail. Or that the nation's real-estate bubble was fast approaching a loud pop.
Some disasters unfold slowly over time—others don't. Had Joseph Hazelwood, the captain of the Exxon Valdez, stayed on the bridge instead of retiring to his stateroom on March 24, 1989, 10 million gallons of crude wouldn't have poured into Prince William Sound. If I had listened to my architect and hired the reputable local builder he recommended, I might today be enjoying the benefits that investing in fixer-uppers can bring. Instead, thinking myself a clever cost-cutter, I hired an itinerant contractor from Arizona, a friend-of-a-friend who would help me reach the brink of personal bankruptcy.
Let's call him Andy, since that—not Beelzebub—was his name.
Andy was tall, mid-30s, with a wide, stubble-shaded jaw that hid his forked tongue. The first thing he did after arriving from Arizona in November was to open an account at the Cowgirl, a local bar. Over margaritas, he outlined all the great ways he was going to save me money, like the non-opening windows he could build himself with a simple wood frame around single-pane glass. "Fancy windows are a total budget-buster," he told me. "Just replace 'em later when you have more money."
I didn't really need a kiva fireplace, he insisted, or vigas (exposed log beams), or diamond-finish plaster, or any of the nice-but-costly details that give northern New Mexico homes such charm. He proposed that the bathroom be a "wet room," meaning that, in lieu of a proper shower stall or tub, he would rig a shower head sticking out of one wall, with a drain in the floor. I felt my heart sink.
"The urine stream of the average American male is six feet long," Andy said. "It's one of the great problems of domestic hygiene. Think about it. You'll be cleaning your bathroom every time you take a shower!"
True, Andy was working for a total greenhorn (me) whose concept of the project was evolving daily—the bane of every contractor/homeowner relationship. When we ran into permit delays, tensions spiked and I grew nervous. It wasn't just that Andy wanted to construct a house that would resemble the county jail, or that he billed me for time he sat drinking at the Cowgirl, or that one of his big money-making schemes was to create nutrient-rich edible cubes he called "People Chow." It was mostly because we'd blown more than a quarter of the budget before we'd even built anything—$7,000 of which remained unaccounted for. I shut the project down until I figured out what to do next.
Andy and I had one last meeting in a dirt parking lot—a sort of contractor's version of Tombstone; the two of us walking toward each other wielding manila folders like six-shooters. "You're fired!" I exclaimed in my best Donald Trump. "You'll be hearing from my lawyer!" he shot back. Andy left for Arizona, taking some of my equipment with him. A few weeks later, as promised, his lawyer sent me a copy of the mechanic's lien he'd filed. We squabbled via $200-an-hour attorneys for nearly two years until the lien expired. It would have ultimately been cheaper to just pay him the additional $7,000 he demanded but I was too stubborn.
The project sputtered along for another 18 months before I finally received my CO—Certificate of Occupancy. The ordeal last nearly three years from start to finish and it severely cut into my skiing and recreation time—the reason I wanted a mountain home in the first place. The construction was snake bit the entire way. One of my workers shot himself in the foot with a nail gun. Hoodlums broke in and stole my tools. With my funds running out, I persuaded interns from my office to pound nails for minimum wage. It didn't help. I was forced to sell my townhouse to avoid filing Chapter 7. When I finally moved in, friends came over for a potluck wearing grim expressions and bearing evil-banishing talismans like smudge sticks and skeleton dolls along with the guac and chips.
I've been in the place for three years now. Even though it's furnished in a style best described as Target Aisle 14 and the yard looks like something from Sanford and Son, I content myself by gazing at my kiva fireplace, exposed vigas, and polished plaster that glows in the firelight like a Vermeer painting. The worst is behind me now. And while my experience was expensive and hard won I suppose it has served me well. Despite the admonishments of friends and family I recently bought the dumpito next door—even smaller and more dilapidated than the first. It took a mere six months to renovate and pretty much went off without a hitch.
From the Early Winter 2009 issue