You never know when a home-improvement project will find you. Here’s the recent experience of The Times’ own Real Estate section editor, Lauren Beale:
I had been warned. The night before I left town to take my son, Mike, back to college, his friend Kyle — arriving at the fraternity house a day ahead — called with the news.
"Dude, your room is totally trashed and the door is kicked in. And the whole house really stinks. Do you think your mom is going to be mad when she sees this?"
Of all the reactions I could imagine, anger wasn’t high on my list. From the familiarity of home, the information raised some concern yet didn’t really register. The words held no depth of meaning. There was packing to finish, a shopping list to review, details to see to, a plane to catch, car rental, hotel check-in.
But there’s nothing like a visual to bring a point across. In an effort perhaps to spare me some anguish, Mike and Kyle had pitched most of the garbage and pulled the stained and smelly carpet out of the room before I saw it. A kicked-in orange door lay in the trash-strewn hall. Parts of locks and their associated hardware dangled from the wall. Inside the room, doodles and other musings from the former resident and friends were scrawled across lime-green walls: "Warsaw, Warsaw, Warsaw, Warsaw," drawings of elephants and a reasonable likeness of the head of the Pink Panther, advice such as "Get drunk" and several girls’ names. A shelf in the closet displayed a collection of empty Crown Royal and Grey Goose Vodka bottles.
It was a stunning scene of discarded rubbish and lack of upkeep throughout the floor and the one below. Astonished, I withheld most of my commentary. Too much to take in and process.
"This isn’t that bad," Kyle told us. "You should see Peter’s room."
There, one floor below, was another broken door, a cracked window and rotting food and trash sending up an upbearable stench.
Misery may love company, but it takes comfort in comparison. We had a benchmark for worst-case scenario in Peter’s room. That was the bottom, and at least we were a rung up.
"This is going to be so much fun once everyone gets their rooms set," a hallmate commented. "It’s gonna be a great year." It was a sentiment I would hear time and again from the brothers.
The words jolted me from my glass-two-thirds-empty mentally. This scenario was no match for the optimism of youth.
Brooms, garbage bags, paint and new carpet could turn most of this around. The door confounded us though.
Mike and I had never hung a door, installed a lock, rarely used a tool and couldn’t fit a door in our rental car. So we began what may be the only college course we’ll ever take together: Problem Solving 101.
Step 1: Call home for advice and moral support.
Step 2: Borrow nephew Spencer’s van.
Step 3: Go to Home Depot and seek assistance from salespeople.
Step 4: Purchase supplies.
Step 5: Install door.
Somewhere in the middle, the plan started to unravel. We would end up repeating Step 3 through 5 many times before the job was done.
"You know, it took me two days to figure out my door," commented the optimistic floormate. We had arrived late Wednesday, and I was leaving midday Saturday. We hoped it wouldn’t take us as long, but his proved to be an accurate timeline.
The door was not a standard size but one-quarter of an inch shorter and half an inch narrower than the nearest size for sale. After buying a handsaw, sawing diligently by hand for about an hour and getting only seven inches of the way through the door, we tried borrowing a circular saw from another resident. But the battery was dead, and there was no charger. Then by a miraculous stroke of luck Mike just happened to see a circular saw sitting in a hall amid the rubble. A plug-in saw. Within 30 minutes, the door was sized.
Now the doorknob hole didn’t line up with the slot for the deadbolt to slide into. Back at Home Depot, we purchased a bit to drill through the metal door frame. Back at the house, none of the borrowed drills had the power to cut through metal. The last screw on the top door hinge went in funny and the hinge looked wobbly. The doorknob we bought was lockable from inside the room but not a keyed lock. Repeat several steps.
Worried about the security of the contents of his unlocked room, Mike slept in the room Thursday night with a small slider lock affixed inside the door. Since we couldn’t cut through metal, we would cut a second hole in the door — one would serve for a deadbolt, the other for the door handle. The drills at our disposal couldn’t even cut through the wood of the door. Friday evening, in a variation on Step 2, we borrowed a drill and extension cord from Spencer to complete the job.
When Mike and I were stumped or stalled on the door project, we primed and painted the room, swept and power shopped late into the night for furnishings. At first we comparison shopped, were picky, made mental notes of where we might return as we looked for a better deal. By Friday night, most of our time eaten up just getting the room habitable, we bought with a fury, finishing up on Saturday morning at two used-furniture stores and with a trip to the grocery.
We disagreed over the necessity of a TV for watching football games, and I left him with advice to try to find a used one cheap. (He later recycled one someone at the house had discarded because the volume control was broken. A new remote was all it needed.)
I was a klutz driving the rental car, and Mike — either returning the favor or following my example — kept his comments to himself.
Neither of us could sleep well or had an appetite.
There were so many missteps along the way. We bought a $1.29 adapter we didn’t need, too many screws, the handsaw that was no match for the task and the non-keyed lock. At some point, when we were painting a formerly bilious green wall a clean-looking Navajo white, I was regretting having forgotten to buy spackle and second guessing myself. Mike’s comment: "It’s not like any of these are life-altering decisions." That put it in perspective for me.
I left Mike with a room full of items to be assembled — floor lamp, desk lamp, desk chair and a desk that had no assembly instructions — and enough food and supplies to get a start on the school year.
I would have liked to have seen the finished room. Perhaps he will e-mail a picture later. But I did get to see a very patient and methodical young man work diligently to overcome the obstacles that crossed our path. And that’s the image I’ll carry with me.