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Nightmare on the 21st Floor

Things I’ve learned while trying, mainly failing, to fix up an older apartment.


Why is it that, no matter which trade you’re talking to, their estimate always starts at $4,000?

illustration: hanam mun

Friends and colleagues may know that I disappeared for three weeks recently. The Universe had said to me, “Kam, buy a 40-year-old apartment while interest rates are low.” So, because the Universe is not to be denied, I did. Then I thought that two-and-a-half weeks would be more than enough time to get it ship-shape, with half-a-week to spare to move in and unpack.

I was wrong. But I’ve heard that life gives you only two things: gifts and lessons. My gift to you, then—some lessons learned:

  •  If you’re thinking about painting the inside of your home and plan to leave on all the doors and just slap paint over the hinges—do not do this. Four hours of my life were spent digging paint out of the little cross shapes of the hinge screws so I could remove the hinges to paint the doors and frames properly.

I did not get the doors painted properly in time for the move, so they were piled up against a wall. On the bright side? It’s easier to move furniture through doorways with the doors off.

  • It’s true what the old guys once told me: You paint with the tip of the brush, not the sides.
  • Don’t hire anyone over the phone sight unseen. I did. Twice. Then I had to hire other people to re-fix things. By the way, did you know there is a Plumber’s Board in Honolulu to which you can appeal in a dispute? There is. Call 587-3295.
  • When you open the face of an air conditioner installed in 1989, you will find things. Not good things. Half a deck of playing cards. Sad, bent old birthday candles. Positively bubonic-looking, inch-thick layers of dust and grime. The skin cells of generations. Replace it immediately!
  • Every repair you undertake will have one screw that will not budge. It’ll be the last one, just when you thought you were making progress. Similarly, every trip to Home Depot or Target will include at least one thing you need to return. Hours I spent returning and replacing things on a recent Saturday night? Six. Stops made? Four, not including dinner at Zippy’s (chocolate milkshakes are vital to any remodeling effort).
  • Nothing sold as “standard size” today is exactly the same size as the standard size of 40 years ago. It’s as if people, and all their stuff, were smaller back then. Drain covers, hinges, doorknob sets, etc. You will spend time shaving and sanding fractions of an inch to make them fit.
  • Condo dwellers, get to know the resident manager of your building. He or she can’t recommend specific tradespeople, but can tell you which businesses the building hires and who, therefore, have experience with the plumbing and wiring idiosyncrasies of your building. Oh, and the plumbing and wiring in your building are screwed up, guaranteed. It’s as though the people who build high-rises are always winging it.
  • Every single, tiny part in your home has a proper name, even that little metal plate with the curved flange that the plunger thingy in your doorknob pops into to keep the door closed. You don’t know what these things are called. I obviously don’t. Yet, when you can least afford the delay, that you can’t even describe your problem correctly to someone will itself become a problem. Even “da kine” has its limits!
  • Tradespeople all seem pretty darn cheerful. Must have something to do with the $100-an-hour they charge.
  • Really, the best way to do this is quite simple..

1) Get rich.
2) Hire someone to do all the work. The Universe did not tell me this up front; perhaps that was its lesson.

To plumbers, electricians, tub refinishers and handymen, see Unsolicited Advice: Get Squared Away.

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Honolulu Magazine May 2020
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