House Rules: You are quality control

Thursday, July 9, 2009 at 12:00am

Over the last few years, I’ve decided that whether we like it or not, we’re going to have to learn how to make and fix our own stuff. As proof, I offer the following: About this time last year, quite a few folks out in Whites Creek found out that their new — or newish — air conditioners either didn’t work right, or didn’t work at all. So, the overheated and rightly disgruntled homeowners called the company that installed their air conditioners and asked that somebody come out and fix the things. What did these homeowners get? Well, they got a promise that the air conditioners would be inspected.

Now, a year later, in the same part of town, some people can’t get their air conditioners to work. So, they called the air conditioning company, and asked that their air conditioners be fixed. What did they get? Another promise of inspections.

Last time I counted, I’d done about 5,000 inspections of houses and house parts. Believe me when I tell you, inspections don’t fix anything. At most, an inspection just finds the problem, and maybe leads you to a solution. If you want something fixed — working like it’s supposed to — you have to find a real enough sentient human who’ll not only inspect the malfunctioning equipment, but also grab some tools out of the tool bag and actually work on the thing that needs fixing. With each passing day, there are fewer and fewer people who know how to make a hammer work, let alone an air conditioner, what with all those pipes and fans and switches.

A few years back, co-inspector Rick and I were summoned to a newish house where the occupants were suffering from air-conditioning deprivation. Neither Rick nor I are air-conditioning experts, but in about 10 minutes’ time, we figured out that the two air conditioning systems in the house were working in reverse. The ducts that should have been sucking were blowing, and the ducts that should have been blowing were sucking. You just can’t cool a house that way.

At another house — a big one, occupied by folks who were quite well-to-do — a heat-and-air company “solved” the homeowners’ problem by installing new heat-and-air units in the crawl space and leaving previously installed units abandoned there. The technicians didn’t install any ductwork. What with the straight-piped mechanically cooled air, that crawl space was the coolest such space I’d ever encountered. There were about a dozen air conditioners stuffed into that crawl space, each blowing a mighty wind. I hope the owners changed heat-and-air vendors, because if they didn’t they probably have a huge collection of duct-free units now, each of which would’ve cost several thousand dollars.

Given that the recent crop of unskilled laborers have scattered to the winds, given that the somewhat-more-skilled local tradesfolk are having a hard time finding a supervisor who’s hiring, and given that it’s almost impossible to find a skilled tradesman who can flash a chimney, lay a course of brick or stomp out a brushfire, you might as well train yourself in the art and craft of building.

But before you start swinging a hammer or trying to judge the distance between your fingers and the whirling circular saw blade, do all you can to educate yourself. Home-improvement stores are full of useful how-to books. Amazon has an endless supply of how-to books. A person can learn a whole lot from magazines such as Journal of Light Construction, Family Handyman, Fine Homebuilding and Old-House Journal.

I know, I know. Working on your own house can be expensive, dangerous and messy, and it can cause family discord. But if you learn how to use your tools right, budget your time, and keep your flesh, bones and hair out of the saws, planer blades and router bits, you might just add some new function and value to your house.

That said, I must issue this warning: Don’t watch do-it-yourself shows on TV. With precious few exceptions, everything you see on TV will be done wrong. A typical day on the D-I-Y set is pretty much limited to tool-belt models talking about the job, then disappearing into their trailers so the laborers can run onto the set and get some real work done. Later, when the hosts get their hair and makeup finished, the routine starts all over again.

Keep in mind, until the quality of building labor, materials and knowledge improve, you’re most likely the best person to work on your own house.

Jowers has been writing about renovating old houses, and other things, since 1981. His column appears every Thursday in The City Paper. Contact him at

Filed under: City Voices

1 Comment on this post:

By: pandabear on 7/9/09 at 7:41

This is the worst recession since the great depression.
Some people are charging as much as when the real estate
'boom' was booming. Ironically, these people are usually not
nearly as good as the ones charging reasonable prices.
In fact, sometimes the high priced handyman is downright