true tales of home improvement horror

Ask any first-time homeowner, and they'll tell you; there's nothing scarier than the horrors that lurk within a recently purchased home. However, it's the contractors that are paid to deal with the blood-chilling dangers that hide behind that sticky linoleum, rusty pipes, and mold-covered walls. Learn from these true tales of home repair woe... or prepare to repeat the terrifying tragedies of the past!

A Shocking Experience: "One of my first gigs as a contractor was working for a remodel company that specialized in insurance work. That means most of our jobs involved repairing houses that had caught on fire--and there were always four inches to a foot of standing water left over after the fire department had left. Have you ever worked with electrical equipment in ankle-deep water? Our power cords were constantly being dragged through the stuff, and we were all getting shocked on a daily basis. Once I remember falling through a half-burned roof and getting electrocuted--all on the same day. I quit shortly after that."

DIRTY, DIRTY CLIENT: "When you're a contractor you practically live with your clients. That means you often witness things you wish you hadn't. One contractor I know was doing some painting for a lady's bedroom, and needed to move a dresser. When he opened a drawer to get a better grip, he noticed it was filled with enormous sex toys; vibrators, black dildos. He could never look at the woman in the same way again.

"Another contractor was doing some kitchen work for a guy, and was asked to install an outlet next to his bed for a 'reading light.' When the contractor and his partner moved the bed out of the way, they made a horrifying discovery underneath--an inflatable sheep. And it had been used. I mean, a blow up doll of Cindy Crawford is one thing... but a sheep?!? Please tell your readers to hide all their playthings before the contractor comes over. Our job is tough enough as it is."

WHAT LURKS BEHIND THE WALL: "A gal called us in with a bathroom problem; said she had loose grout in her shower. It was a condo over in Beaverton, and was decently maintained other than the grout falling out. The first sign of trouble came when I pushed on the shower tiles--they were loose. This is a common problem with quickie homebuilding; you should never attach tiles directly onto sheetrock. It makes the sheetrock spongy and the grout won't hold. I pull off a couple of tiles, and some sheetrock comes with it. I pull off more tiles, and more sheetrock keeps coming down, until there's a huge hole in the wall--and inside the hole? Millions of black carpenter ants.

"And they all come spilling out of the hole like some sort of biblical pestilence. The woman begins screaming uncontrollably, 'OMIGOD! OMIGOD!' and runs out of the house. By this time, the tub is a quarter-full of these ants and they're still streaming out of the hole. We can't stop 'em. Her kid comes in the bathroom, grabs anything he can out of the medicine cabinet and begins spraying the ants in an attempt to kill them--deodorant, perfume, foot powder. We were all overcome by the fumes and were forced to run for our lives.

"The job was eventually cleaned up and finished, but here's the really scary part--what the woman thought was a $100 grout job, turned into a complicated repair of the wall, frame and siding. It cost her thousands of dollars. Not to mention the cost of going to sleep every night with the thought of all those busy ants in your wall...." WM. STEVEN HUMPHREY

Do-It-Yourself Do's and Don'ts Home contractor Tim Cook is a former musician-turned-house-repair contractor with 10 years of experience under his tool belt. So he knows what you're capable of doing around the house... and what you should avoid with a 25-foot measuring tape. Listen and learn.

* DO YOUR OWN WINDOW REPLACEMENTS. "If you've got drafty, worn-out windows, don't hire me... do it yourself with Tilt Pack window replacements. It's incredibly easy--the hardest part is ordering them."

* DO SPRUCE UP YOUR KITCHEN. "You can often avoid a costly kitchen remodel by sprucing up the cabinetry on your own. Order new cabinet doors from a cabinet-maker, paint them and replace the hardware. You'll be amazed at how much better the room will look."

* DO YOUR OWN WEATHERIZATION/INSULATION. "Little holes around ceiling light fixtures lets in the same amount of cold air as an open window. Insulation can be a little tricky, but if you seal up those drafts, it will pay for itself."

* DON'T TRY TO TACKLE PLUMBING. "People think its easy, but there are so many things that can go wrong. It's expensive to hire a plumber, but when you add in the cost of your time, plus all the stuff you ruin with water damage, it's better to get someone else to do the job."

* DON'T GET SHOCKED. "Adding an extra outlet, or installing a three-way switch is okay, but anything beyond that and you're asking for trouble. Hire an electrician."

* DON'T STRIP PAINT OFF THOSE OLD MOLDINGS. "Everybody likes wooden molding--but don't try to remove those layers of paint yourself. What a nightmare! Heat guns cause fumes, lead paint dust is released into the air, and it takes for-ever. Do yourself, your health and your sanity a favor; rip it down and replace it." WM. STEVEN HUMPHREY


* Don't hire the contractor, hire the person. This person is going to be in your house every day for a very long time. And if you can't get along with this person, it can be a very trying experience. Look for someone with a good personality, who is reliable and can get the job done. Remember: hiring a contractor is like inviting in a very messy roommate.

* Ask friends for recommendations. Some of the best contractors aren't in the yellow pages.

* Get at least two bids. ...but understand that in the end you always get what you pay for.

* Want perfection? Prepare for disappointment. An old contractor adage: "For a lot of money the result will be 96% perfect. For even more money, I can get it to 98%." Problems are bound to come up; prepare to deal with it and accept what can't be changed.

* Keep an open line of communication. Let the contractor do his/her job, but it's okay to ask questions. Most customer/contractor disputes come from a difference of expectations. Be clear about what you want, and don't automatically assume the contractor is trying to screw you over. WM. STEVEN HUMPHREY

Don't Be A Tool!

Whether you live in a mansion, log cabin or a manufactured home near the Columbia Slough, you need tools to keep the place shipshape. Even if you're a renter, sometimes it's easier to fix the leaky faucet yourself than to wait for your landlord to sober up and come over. Or, if you're a first-time homeowner, it's time to wake up and realize that the leaky roof is not going to fix itself. But remember, just because you own a tool doesn't mean you automatically know how to use it!

The Renter's Toolbox ($100)

Hammer: Self-explanatory

Cordless drill (a.k.a., the screw gun): I dare you to try to live without one.

Stud Sensor: Anchoring heavier things like shelves to the studs minimizes damage to walls. Great for deposit returns.

Adjustable (crescent-type) wrenches: Can be used for pesky loose bolts and minor plumbing adjustments.

Laser Level: Hang that shelf straight! Fun at an Ozzy concert, fun around the house.

Shovel: Planting stuff/burying your dead.

Cheap used weedwacker or push mower: Acquisition of one of these will keep the neighborhood coalition off your back.

Duct tape: Indispensable; the band-aids for your house.

The House-owner Toolbox ($500; the renter's toolbox-plus)

Sawzall: Great for demolishing walls as well as cutting holes for skylights. Will actually cut through metal if equipped with the right blade.

Circular Saw: Want to build a new wall? A fence? This is the best tool for quick, precise cuts.

Hand sander: Essential for prepping before painting.

Paint roller: Saves time and reduces the human error index dramatically.

Circuit tester and wire pliers: Safely answers the question, "Is that ancient cable and post wiring still live?"

Plumber's wrenches: Pipes will leak.

Crowbar: Because the previous owner had shitty taste and you want to remove every trace of their existence.

First aid kit: Something is bound to happen.

Boom box: A must. Essential for painting and sanding.

The Wannabe contractor toolbox ($1000)

Air compressor: Opens the door to a whole world of air tools and efficiency.

Nail gun: Why swing a hammer if you have to? Will save your strength for lifting beers at the end of the day.

Spray gun: Your new best friend for external painting applications.

Belt Sander: Like a hand sander, but on steroids. Covers a lot of distance in a short time.

Miter Saw: Quickly adjusts to cut all sorts of angles that your public education's math classes haven't prepared you to calculate.

Square: Do it right the first time.

Tool Belt: At least look the part, fer chrissakes. LANCE CHESS