»  The Straggler, No. 50

December 31st, 2006

  On the House


Procrastination, say the Gods of the Copybook Headings, is the thief of time. A house, says the Straggler, is really just a big black pit into which, every so often, you have to tip a wheelbarrow-load of money, or the equivalent in your personal time.

Back in March we changed insurers for our homeowner's policy. My wife, always suspecting she is paying too much for any service, ever vigilant for a bargain, found a company offering a rate lower than our current one. We signed up. They sent a fellow round to tap at our joists and do things with flashlight and measuring tape in our crawl spaces. In due course a letter arrived from our new insurer. Yes, they would cover us for the advertised rate. However, coverage would not be renewed in March 2007 unless we removed the peeling, flaking 50-year-old paint from our garage, and repainted. We agreed.

Spring passed, then summer. September and October flitted by. In the last week of November I finally put procrastination behind me, borrowed a power washer from a friend, and set about blasting away all that old paint.

Now, as a device for decreasing local entropy — for creating order and cleanliness where there was once chaos and dirt — the power washer is a very wonderful thing. I must warn you though, gentle reader, if you do not already know it, that you cannot power-wash a large and complicated structure like a detached two-car garage without getting soaking wet. This is not late-November work. I should, of course, have done it in the summer. Or spring. Or early fall. Shoulda, coulda, woulda.

At last it was done. Now, with my garage girdled by about a trillion chips of Eisenhower-administration white paint in a sort of thick slurry, I bumped up against the ramparts of the fusspot state. Paint of that era contained lead, you see. Lead, if ingested, has deleterious effects on infant brains. Never mind that there are no infants in my house; nor that even if there were, they would have to scoop the stuff up and eat it in spoonsful to attain the desired effect. Old paint is, like asbestos, one of those substances the merest grain of which is assumed, by the authorities who watch over our lives and safety, to pack the poisonous punch of plutonium.

A knowledgeable neighbor informed me of all this, and warned me that unless I wanted my home sealed off from the rest of the USA, to be swarmed over by agents of the Environmental Protection Agency in white protective suits and visors, wielding whatever is the lead-paint equivalent of Geiger counters, I had better dispose of those paint chips a.s.a.p. I set to with broom, shovel, bucket, and big black plastic contractor bags. A final once-over with the power washer, a trip to the town dump, and there was not a flake of lead paint on my property.

Not a flake, but still some coverage. The power washer was good, but where that old paint had the best purchase, mainly in areas protected from the weather, the surface of the shingles was still white. Further, I noticed many cracks and crevices in which paint was still loose enough to be broken away by fingernail. I began to get the sinking feeling I had signed up for one of those tasks set for wayward heroes in mythology, tasks that renew themselves just when you think they're done. Plainly I am looking at several hours' labor with a scraper and hot-air gun, followed by another EPA-forestalling cleanup.

And after all that, there will still be the repainting to do. Before March. It now being December. A different neighbor advised me that paint cannot be applied in temperatures below forty degrees. It won't stick, he said. You'd be wasting your time, he said. So not only can I not procrastinate for a week or two on the painting, I have to monitor the weather forecasts carefully, and hope for a few dry, warm days between now and March. A half hour of internet browsing turned up partial reassurance. Some oil-based paints can be applied below forty, though they may not dry until the weather warms. And there are specialty paints that can be applied in temperatures as low as twenty.

These are the trials of the poor homeowner. Every couple of years something like this turns up — some issue of plumbing, or wiring, or painting, or roofing, or flooring, or siding, or fencing. You can fix it yourself, if you have the time and are willing to acquire the necessary expertise, and to master the Federal Register-sized book of town building-code regulations. Or you can hire in someone to do it on the cheap, in the fair assurance that it will be botched and have to be done over next year — not to mention the moral peril of finding that your cut-price contractor employs illegal aliens. Or you can kiss ten thousand dollars goodbye and have the job done properly by a contractor who does not sport either a ponytail or a gold earring, who does not blast Death Metal at you from the radio in a dilapidated, salacious-decal-festooned truck, and whose employees speak English.

I am not short of advice here, only of will, and of tolerance for outdoor work in midwinter. Of the advice I have received, the most tempting has been to just demolish the structure altogether and enjoy four hundred square feet of extra garden space. After all, my advisor said, modern automobile finishes can be left out in the weather without any degradation. What do I need a garage for? The thought of taking a fourteen-pound hammer to these ancient shingles and their stubborn paint is awfully tempting.

In my next life I shall attain sufficient wealth to live in a comfortable hotel, where I never have to think about paint, shingles, faucets, flooring, door seals, building codes, or the EPA. Either that, or I shall be too poor to dwell in anything grander than adobe and thatch — materials which, I feel sure, never need the attentions of a power washer.