Answers to Your Toughest Bungalow Questions: Winter 2002

Q: I’m restoring my bungalow and need to hire out projects that are beyond my abilities. I’ve heard so many nightmare stories about dealing with remodelers and handymen. Where do I find workers who are not only competent, but who are familiar with old houses and will do repairs that are historically sensitive?

A: If we had a good answer to that one, we’d be rich and you’d have your bungalow restored down to the last detail. Seriously, we field many questions like yours, or rather, deflect them. You’d think it would be easy to compile a list of recommended crafts people who are knowledgeable in old-house repair. There are several reasons why we haven’t been able to do that.

First, many of the really good people are busy. So busy that they don’t need to advertise. They get more jobs by word-of-mouth than they’re able to handle. They’ve flatly asked us not to give their names out.

Second, one person’s ideal handyman is another’s incompetent fool. We know of a homeowner who recommended a remodeler to an acquaintance. The acquaintance consequently sued the remodeler.

Third, there seems to be a limited number of crafts people in the Twin Cities who are truly knowledgeable about the details of old houses, and who will take the time to do careful repair and restoration. This may be because there just aren’t enough homeowners demanding such work.

Whatever the reason, the market is instead flooded with companies offering one-size-fits-all, quick-fix “solutions” such as vinyl siding, white aluminum “colonial” style storm doors and plastic replacement windows. Applied to old houses, these cruel methods make a bungalow look like it was on the receiving end of a botched cosmetic surgery job.

Now that we’ve thoroughly dashed your hopes, we actually do have a few suggestions.

Educate yourself!

Even if you aren’t able or don’t have the time to tackle a project on your own, find out how it should be done–in a way that is historically authentic and therefore aesthetically pleasing. There are plenty of old-house restoration books and magazines available, and the Internet will lead you to even more information. Collect articles. Take notes. Ask around. Go on house tours. Take photographs. Now you’ll be able to explain precisely what you want and have a good idea how it should be accomplished.

Next, find a contractor or handyperson who is reputed to be competent and fair, regardless of whether he or she specializes in old houses. Explain that you want your project done it a way that retains or replaces the original elements of your home. Listen to suggestions or
recommendations, and if you’ve done your homework, you can be somewhat flexible while staying true to your vision and to the integrity of your house. If the prospective worker is reluctant to do it your way or insists that there’s a new, plastic version of that old house part at Menard’s that will work just as well, say “thanks for your time” and keep searching. If this happens often enough, service people around here will begin to get the message that there’s a market for honest restoration.

Bob Yapp, host of PBS’s “About Your House,” gave a talk recently in Minneapolis, during which he addressed the issue of finding good workers. He said one of the biggest mistakes homeowners make is to get several bids for a job. Using this process, Yapp said, not only increases the chances that you’ll hire someone desperate for work (not a good sign) but also
means that the price of your project will almost certainly inflate as it progresses, as the bidders may under-estimate just to get the job.

Instead, set a budget for your project. Then find a worker or contractor with a solid reputation, and sit down to discuss the project. Be up-front about what you want to spend. A good contractor will work with you to lay out the project so that there will be few surprises along the way.

You’ll eventually find someone who’ll do the job right. They’re out there, in all price ranges. They just take some time and patience to find.

Angie’s List

Check out Angie’s List at www.angieslist.com. Angie’s List is a “consumer-driven” company that collects customer satisfaction ratings on local service companies in more than 250 categories. Companies can’t pay to be rated, nor can they put themselves on the list. When you need a service, you check their Angie’s List (by telephone or Internet) to find out who’s received a good rating from other homeowners.

You pay $37 per year to use the list as much as you like, which doesn’t sound like that much if you’re doing even a medium-sized project. You also get a monthly magazine; a conflict-resolution service; and discounts to local movie theaters, amusement parks and live theatre performances.

But what about the preservation-mindedness of the businesses on Angie’s List? We called the company to ask. A friendly guy said they sometimes received such requests, and that they would do their best to find a worker or company sensitive to, and knowledgeable about, older houses. He said their employees would do some research, perhaps by calling other List subscribers to ask about their experiences on old-house projects.

Not a bad answer, in our opinion. If someone out there is willing to risk $37, let us know how it goes.

Preservation Alliance

The Preservation Alliance of Minnesota (www.mnpreservation.org) has established a section of their Web site wherein contractors, crafts people and artisans who are interested in doing historic preservation and restoration can self-register. Click on “Preservation resources” on their homepage.
PAM would like you to tell them what types of work you’re interested in having done–the more specific, the better. This information will help when they apply for grants and other funding sources which will enable them to hire more staff. Looking for someone who will strip, prime and repaint your wood clapboard siding so that it will last for 15 years? Interested in someone who’ll do plaster wall repair and restoration? Seeking a tuckpointer to stabilize your crumbling chimney? E-mail PAM at info@mnpreservation.org and let them know.

Q: I’ve got an old gas oven from the 1930s or 1940s. It is in decent shap, although it has got a bit of rust, some chips to the enamel and a knob is missing. Do you know of anyone who restores old ovens? Any idea how much these things are worth?

A: There are people who restore old ovens (as well as other old appliances such as refrigerators), but they can be hard to find and the service can be expensive. We have heard rumors about people in Minnesota who refurbish old refrigerators and stoves but at this writing, have been unable to track them down. If any of our readers know of such a person or business, please let us know!

The price of old gas (or wood-burning) ovens varies widely. We’ve seen them for between $100 and $400 in antiques shops, but we’ve also seen numerous fully-restored, wonderful specimens for sale on the Internet for $6000 to $7000.

The Internet is a good place to search for old appliance parts or the entire appliance. We looked at Kovels Online, a Web site of the well-known husband and wife team of collecting experts. In their Web site’s Yellow Pages section (on the homepage), we found 14 business that restored old ovens or sold parts to do so. Check it out at www.Kovels.com. There are restoration businesses as near as Colby, Kansas and Quincy, Illinois.

If you’re seriously interested older appliances, you’ve got to visit the Old Appliance Club at www.antiquestoves.com. The club is for people who are interested in any old appliance built between 1900 and the 1960s. Membership is $35 per year and will get you individual consultation help plus sources and referrals from their nationwide database. Membership also includes a quarterly magazine, The Old Road Home. You can place four “buy, sell or locate” ads in the magazine each year. The magazine also contains advertisements for vintage appliance dealers and restoration services.