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Monday, August 08, 2005

Beware Home Depot

Hello all.

Please don’t get me wrong. I adore Home Depot, and its Blue counterpart Lowe’s. A cottage industry has sprung up ascribing various malevolent forces at work in big box stores, ranging from denuding the rainforests to destroying all small businesses. I don’t see it. It’s just a big store where you buy useful things.

Big box stores are a supremely handy tool. But all tools have a function. Using a tool for things that they’re not designed for leads to bad outcomes. And a fetish for Home Depot has ruined many a home. To paraphrase their advertising: You can do it. But they can’t help.

I’ve renovated hundreds of houses over the years. And the most successful renovations, and the ones that add the most value to the property, are the ones that involve houses that have been neglected. Really. Because neglect is preferable to hamfisted remodeling, or remuddling as we call it in the industry, which expends resources but doesn’t increase value.

You scan the real estate listings. You see a house, barely recognizable behind and under the vinyl siding, and the pressure treated, well, everything, the plastic detailing in a cornucopia of styles, all foreign to the original structure. But in there somewhere was a house with good bones. Someone spent all the money necessary to make it valuable again, but they squandered it. That doesn’t mean they’re going to sell the house for what it’s worth minus their mistakes. It means it will be listed as “move in condition” or “recently updated” or my favorite: “pristine.” Pristine is one of those real estate ad words that the writer has no idea what it means, like calling ranches “colonial.”

What it means, really, is the bracketed cornice over each window has been hacked off to make room for cheap plastic replacement windows, with badly proportioned rectangles of aluminum masquerading as muntins put in between the sheets of glass to mimic a “colonial” window, but looking like a window in a reform school. . It means the wood front door has been removed because it needed painting every five years, and been replaced with a plastic one with a bizarre” Moorish New Orleans” look to it, that sounds like a refrigerator door instead of giving you that satisfying thunk when you close it.

It means the porch is gone, and replaced with pressure treated everything, even though only the underpinnings that had contact with the ground or concrete needed the rot resistance of pressure treated wood; the whole thing is made from the nasty green stuff, or at least the part that that isn’t made of Trex, which is plastic and sawdust, and looks it. And the railing spindles are only available in two styles: a bastard version of a William and Mary post, or a modern looking square section that looks out of place on almost everything. Don’t get me started on the spindle spacing and proportions.

Inside, there’s rubber flooring, and wood carpeting, and plastic everything. The tile is simultaneously gaudy and bland, because there’s too much of it laid in no particular pattern that makes sense. It’s got a cheesy sawdust and glue particleboard boxes wrapped in woodgrain paper for all of its cabinetry. There’s an expensive, permanent granite countertop atop the disposable cabinetry. There’s a lot of unexplained interior wrought iron, everywhere except where you might have found it in a real colonial: the hardware. There are ceiling fans everywhere, like we all live in Casablanca. In short, there’s a bewildering mish-mash of styles, materials, colors, proportions, and patinas, and you’re stuck with them.

This week’s circular from the big orange box has a big splash page touting metallic interior paint. Take it from someone who has credentials going back to the 1970s in faux finishes: a gallon of metallic paint in the hands of an amateur is a very dangerous thing.

It really would be “pristine” if it still had peeling paint on the clapboards, and plank flooring with water stains all over them. I can fix those problems. I can’t fix vinyl siding, if I don’t want it. I can only tear it off and throw it away.

There’s plenty of good stuff at the big box stores, but it’s all mixed in with everything else. And most of the “bad” stuff is good for something, too, it’s just used badly, or in the wrong place. I’m not arguing against different strokes for different folks, it’s incongruity, slipshod design and execution, and unintentional gaudiness or barrenness I’ve got a problem with.

I’ve used the box stores both as a homeowner and a contractor. And I see people wandering around in there, looking at everything quizzically, and about to ask a clerk a question that would better be answered by Martha Stewart or Norm Abram. And I know that they’re going to do awful things to their house. The materials can’t tell you what to do. And the saleshelp are going to point you to the gaudiest thing, every time. You have to know what to do, what you’re after, before you go there, or you’re going to get into trouble.

I love the big boxes because I can go in there, and get hook and loop sandpaper, a junction box, nine volt batteries, chalk, paint thinner, fluorescent light bulbs, a pressure treated four by four, a dishwasher, a screen door closer, a handicapped parking sign, and ten or a hundred other odd bits of stuff that construction projects require. They have everything, and it’s inexpensive, relatively.

But the one thing I can’t get is advice. Luckily, I’m not looking for any. Be careful in there, if you are.

Tomorrow:

Green, White, Yellow, Red, Blue

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