Steve's blog

Renovation of a circa 1903 Brooklyn Row House

Posted by Steve on Fri, 09/15/2006 - 11:00am


This blog is about the challenges of renovating an old Brooklyn, New York row house.

My last renovation project was the master bedroom, most of which is about finish carpentry. You can follow the progress here (or backwards in time if you prefer). You'll find other completed home improvement projects in the Renovation Photos in the navigation above.

Do you have a home improvement blog of your own? If so and you would like to see it promoted, please visit HomeOwnersLike.Us.


Citizen Journalist of the Year

Posted by Steve on Tue, 10/31/2017 - 12:34pm


It's possibly the first crowd-sourced criminal investigation in history leading to federal indictments.

Last February, Time/Life war correspondent, Ed Barnes, texted me about a neighborhood blog in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, called Pardon Me For Asking, run by a blogger, Katia Kelly. Katia's blog isn't much different than mine, with the exception that she updates hers a helluva lot more frequently than I do mine. 

For quite some time Ed had been working the international angles on Paul Manafort, Donald Trump's ex-campaign manager. He focused on Manafort's involvement in the corrupt Ukrainian presidential campaign of big-time embezzler, Viktor Yanukovych, which resulted in corruption charges against Manafort  in the Ukraine. Ed asked me to do some tech research for him, including trips into the Dark Web to retrieve information I definitely didn't want on my computer.

I remember Ed's comment when he sent me Katia's blog link, "She got him!"

Katia reported an eyesore property in her neighborhood with a NYC Dept of Buildings Stop Work order on the front door. She did some research and found that it was purchased by Paul Manafort. She dove into public records at the NYC City Register's Office and learned that it was purchased for $3 million but, curiously, had $12 million in mortgages on it, split between two banks. There were other suspicious records associated to it too.

Banks don't normally write mortgages for 4x the value of the property so this story attracted a real estate attorney from the neighborhood who was a casual visitor to Katia's blog. He contacted a friend in Bay Ridge who was also an attorney. Together, they created their own blog, 377 Union, (the address of Manafort's Brooklyn building) to focus on these curious transactions as well as other strange Manafort dealings.

Nine months later, Paul Manafort and his deputy are facing federal charges adding up to scores of years in prison, millions of dollars in fines and the Trump White House in full damage-control mode.

Katia is just a Brooklyn woman who normally writes about restaurant openings and other such local interest happenings in her quiet, gentrified neighborhood. But she became one of the snowballs that started the biggest investigative media avalanche since Watergate, proving the value of an alert citizen with a blog.

It's nice seeing Katia getting some recognition. The Daily Beast did an article on her and her cyber-partners today. If Pulitzer had a category for Citizen Journalist, Katia would surely win it.


Product Warranties vs. The Big Chain Stores

Posted by Steve on Tue, 07/14/2015 - 11:05am


The NJ Tool Show is an annual event that my tool-nut friend and I eagerly anticipate all year. We get to see all the latest innovations in shop tools, from programmable laser cutters that sliced with such precision that they could duplicate a business card in 6 point type in a piece of oak veneer to shade tree inventions that seemed to have no practical use at all.  It's tool porn, no doubt about it.

At one of the shows, maybe 2001, I ducked outside into the freezing January weather to grab a smoke -- a habit I'm glad to say I kicked many years ago. Outside I met a district rep for a well-known German power tool maker. We chatted about the show and I expressed surprise not to see either Home Depot or Lowes in attendance. After all, both were huge tool retailers in the NYC area. He grunted and said that the worst decision his company had ever made was to bring in big chain stores as retailers for their products.

I commented on how much cheaper it was to buy tools from these stores than from dedicated tool stores like A.W. Meyer. "Guess it's their volume advantage, right?" He said I was correct, except not in the way I thought. These stores were able to use their clout as volume sellers to make the companies build models just for them, cutting corners to save costs. He said that's mostly why they're cheaper. "Wait. Are you saying that the same tool bought at a big chain store isn't the same as one bought at, say, Wankel's Hardware on 3rd Ave?" Yup.


Housing Inspections Ain't Insurance

Posted by Steve on Thu, 07/02/2015 - 12:57pm
House: 


Recently, I discovered a terrific binge-watching series on Netflix, Holmes Inspections. I don't care much for home improvement shows.  They're either too cute or too elementary or they leverage painfully poor architectural taste.  This Canadian show, features a general contractor, Mike Holmes.  What I like most about this show is that it focuses on fixing problems created by bungling contractors and overlooked by incompetent home inspectors -- two topics with which I strongly relate.  The show no longer airs on HGTV but fortunately there are a bunch of old ones streaming on Netflix now. They're a wake-up call for anyone looking to purchase a home, new or otherwise.

I learned my lesson about bad contractors years ago. It's why I try to do most of the work myself. It's taken me years but I've assembled a short list of professionals I trust when I encounter a job I can't handle myself. 

But the home inspection game is a crap shoot.  Your bank wants the house inspected before they'll approve the mortgage and finding one is usually on you.  Chances are, you're moving to an area where you don't know any trades, let alone any house inspectors.  What most people do is ask their realtor for a recommendation.  This is a huge mistake.  Your real estate agent isn't going to recommend anyone who could potentially queer the sale and the inspector probably has an ongoing business relationship with the agent he doesn't want to alienate.  So guess whose interests aren't being served? Yours.

Every episode on Holmes Inspections is about how new homeowners got screwed by a parade of shoddy existing construction and capped by a bad inspection which ended up costing them tens of thousands of dollars to fix.  Some of the examples are egregious, like missing stair railings, no plumbing or roof vents, obvious water damage and mold infestation and sagging porches which the inspector passed with a "well, it's an old home".  So wrong.

Holmes' show has obviously struck a nerve with Toronto-area home inspectors because at least one of them released a video attacking Holmes' credibility: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kg0iPVF-SZw  I suspect that this unnamed inspector was the featured bonehead in one of Holmes' episodes.  He nitpicks about how Holmes tested where a leak was coming from, using a garden hose.  Laugh all you want, buddy, butt it's a technique that waterproofing companies use as well.


Well, it's done.

Posted by Steve on Wed, 10/22/2014 - 12:55am


After three years in the making, the boiler epic finally wrapped today. I have a brand new, Williamson 140,000 BTU steam boiler.

Granted, it's not on the epic scale of Lord of the Rings but I think it took even longer to complete it.

This story began in 2011 with this tale of woe.  I had big plans about extending the house renovation by gettting rid of steam heating altogether and replumbing the house for hot water heat instead. 

It made sense to do this for several reasons.  First is that hot water heat is cheaper to run.  You're not heating a cauldron of water to the boiling point and having static pressure force steam evenly throughout the house.  

You don't have to concern yourself with the black art of air vent sizes and with water spills from stuck air valves or, worse, stuck float valves in the boiler.

You're not dependent on gravity for the return so you can heat basement spaces easily. You can zone your heat with a manifold, even solenoid driven ones that will let you have a wireless thermostat in every room.

Plumbing hot water heat is relatively easy too because you can use flexible Pex tubing and compression fittings.  It would give me the option of having a heated towel rack in the bathroom doubling as a radiator.  The current master bath has no heat (and a vented skylight... brrrr).

On the other hand, it would have meant ditching all seven existing steam radiators in the house and replacing them either with larger units or with more radiators... probably twelve. Even the DIY cost of doing this job would push the new heating plant installation into five figures.

My old boiler actually worked fine.  It was the autofeed -- a device that maintains the boiler's water level -- that broke.  Replacement was $1100-1500 and there was no guarantee that the boiler wouldn't croak the next day leaving me with both no heat and a useless mechanical autofeed. 

I probably could have nursed the old boiler untll warm weather by manually filling and purging the boiler every couple of days.  Then I could have started on building the new heating installation in the spring. 

But pragmatism and a good spreadsheet rules.  My new steam boiler is 82.9% efficient. Factoring in my current gas bill + the additional 12-13% efficiency of hot water heat + the current cost of natural gas, it looked like hot water heat would save me only about $200/year, and that's based on the old boiler's heating season costs.  It could be 30 years before I saw break-even.

So when Dennis Behan at Bay Ridge Plumbing gave me an estimate that beat the next lowest estimate by almost two thousand dollars, the decision made itself.  The bonus is that Dennis is a nice guy.  He even knocked another hundred bucks off his estimate today.

Dennis told me last week that he'd start the job Tuesday morning and be done by around 3pm.  True to his word, he did. 


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