Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Grouty New Year

A special visitor came to the house today to grout the tiles. I wanted to do it myself, but he insisted that he do it. As you cannot win an argument with Mike, I stayed out of his way, and worked away on my computer, listening to the whir of the 1/2" drill mixing up the grout. Dan carried up pails of fresh water and Mike sponged it down. I grabbed this photo just to document that Mike was generous enough to spend the last day of the year working on our bathroom. I need to do one more sponging of the tiles before heading off to a festive New Year's dinner.

The yukon white subway tiles with mocha glass mosaic accent are glistening in a field of snow white grout. It is good to end the year on a high note. It sets a positive tone for the year ahead.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

How HGTV ruined my life

For 5 1/2 years, I lived peacefully in my condo, never watching HGTV. But once I signed the offer of purchase and sale on this money pit, I immediately tuned in. I even got a subscription to Style at Home magazine. It started innocently enough with some paint, the odd piece of furniture, and making my own headboard, but then the shows made me believe that I could actually renovate the house myself. Watching real people framing, tiling and drywalling, I could see myself doing it too. So, against the sage advice of my friend Matthew, I didn't hire a contractor and began this bathroom reno on my own. This has resulted in many sacrifices, including holidays spent at home, the cancellation of my Saturday squash games, and not having a shower in my own home. Plus I've lost the ability to carry on a decent conversation, with all topics leading to renovation. I call the HGTV personalities by their first names, as if they are people I actually know. I've become a tired bore, and I blame it on HGTV. With their 24 hour programming of all things reno, my reality has been warped so that I'm not happy with anything in my home and I am in a state of inflated confidence, thinking that I can build it myself.

I guess that it could be worse. If my vice was Slice, I would be on multiple diets, planning an outrageous wedding, and addicted to plastic surgery. Or if I got hooked on Mystery TV, I would have a collection of spy tools and be registered in an online University program in forensic science. Or if I was hooked on the Canadian/American Idol franchise, I could be terrorizing the neighbourhood with my song stylings, believing that I too can be the next big thing.

Reality TV is evil. I must unplug myself from it and start living again, rather than watching other people "living" in the shadow of a boom microphone. I miss the days of good drama. Last year's actors strike gave reality TV a boost and gave me the boot. I don't usually make New Year's resolutions, but I think that I've found a good one for this year! I'm going cold turkey in 2009.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The tile fairy

When I was at work today, the tile fairy came to visit, and did a mighty fine job on the tub surround. Thanks Mike!

I have to say that choosing the tile is mighty stressful. It exceeds the indecision and worry of choosing the kitchen counter top. I have a hard time seeing how the tile will look in the finished space. I love glass mosaic tile, but thought that it would be too much for the whole tub surround. So we decided to go with the basic subway tile - clean and classic. But just last night, we ran over to see Tino at Home Hardware, and to see some glass mosaic tiles. I was thinking of the Aqua (blue) mix, whereas Dan was thinking of the Seaglass (green) mix, but we both agreed that the Coco mix would be prefect to tie in the Espresso vanity (that is currently in our dining room) and the Travertine stone floor (which is currently in our spare bedroom). The tile fairy has a bit more work to do, but soon we may be showering in our own home again. Maybe before the year is out. Maybe. But the YMCA is open 365 days of the year, so a shower is always close to home, just like Home Hardware!

With this tile (in)decision settled, next up is the paint colour. Fun times. Where is Peter Fallico and his design team, when we really need them?

Monday, December 8, 2008

Help is close to home

Everybody is talking about the 100 mile diet and shopping local, but the parking lot at the big box store is always full. And why? You can rarely find anybody to help you and delivery is a whopping $75. But, if you shop local, these happy men in red shirts are always there to help. They are full of knowledge, always friendly, and they speak Portuguese!

We have purchased the majority of our bathroom fixtures, tiles, lumber, drywall, etc. from our local Home Hardware: Downtown Lumber on Ossignton Ave. (across the street from the trendy and delicious, Foxley). They are the largest supplier of tile & stone in downtown Toronto, and their prices are as good or better than all the other places we've been. They have free parking in the back (2 or 3 spaces), delivery is only $25, and I can ride my bike over there in minutes, plus they give you Aeorplan points! It sure beats a Saturday in traffic to get up to the Junction. Maybe one day we'll convert this costly renovation into a trip.

I love old hardware stores, where the shelves go up to the ceiling with stock, and they have those long sticks to get stuff down. Not the best place for browsing, but honestly, they have it all if you're not afraid to ask. Plus, they can always have great advice. Call Max and Tino, the bathroom and kitchen specialists. When I call, they recognize my voice now, which is a bit embarassing. But if I had a kid, I'd ask them to be the god fathers because they are that good.

Thanks guys. It is nice to have help so close to home.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

(Some) Drywall is up!

Wow. I thought that the framing looked good, but now that all the vapor barrier is up and some of the drywall boards are up -- it is looking like a real room (actually, two rooms)! Yesterday we had a hired gun come to hang drywall with us. Dave is a skilled and experienced drywaller/handyman, but he is also a talented singer/songwriter in the Toronto band, The Warped 45s.

Dan woke up in the night with chills and sweats -- not good. So I got up at 7 a.m. to pull all the insulation out of the ceiling - again - because I put in too much. I replaced it with an adequate air space and started with the vapor barrier. The 22 sheets of 4' x 8' drywall arrived around 8:30 a.m. And Dave arrived right on time at 10 a.m. With Dan out of commission, it was just the two of us, and we finished up the vapor barrier and then started hanging sheets on the ceiling. My friend Chris very kindly offered to come and help out, standing in for Dan. It was great to have an extra pair of hands for the ceiling.

I learned a lot from Dave. He seemed to think that I knew more about drywalling than I really do, but since I'm good at faking it, it seemed to work out. We finished most of the ceiling and all the tub surround. At the 12 hour mark, I called it quits.

This morning I woke up with blisters on my drilling hand but a desire to keep going. Dan recovered from his 24 hour flu and together we attacked the most challenging board first. This one had six cutouts in it, plus the cutout for the recessed medicine cabinet. Dave and that DVD I borrowed from the library taught me how to properly measure and cut holes. The finished product is far superior to the work we did in the kitchen two years ago! Check out the tight fit on those receptacles and plumbing supplies. Woo hoo!

The boards in the bathroom are almost done and then we'll finish off the new office. Hopefully Dave will have some free time to do the taping and mudding, although his schedule is pretty full with music gigs and other jobs. We just may be tiling before December!!! Imagine that.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

How to install recessed lights

If you are in the middle of a long bathroom reno that has left you without a shower, I recommend that you embark on a side project and install pot lights in your kitchen. I mean, the whole house is already a mess, so why not wreck the kitchen too.

In my defense, the idea popped into my head when we were tearing up the subfloor in the bathroom, exposing the kitchen ceiling, which got me to thinking... while we're in there, why not upgrade the kitchen lighting. So, when my poor brother-in-law arrived to help us, or shall I say, to replace the bathroom floor, I brought up my crazy idea for kitchen pot lights, and he was very helpful. Turns out that our kitchen ceiling has been dropped 13", covering up an original tin ceiling. Quel dommage! But, there must have been a leak in the original bathroom, because the tin ceiling below the old tub is all rusted out and curled up. But the rest of it is in mint condition. Alas, we are not about to tear out the dropped ceiling now. All we want is some pot lights, dammit!!

This inspired a trip to the horrid big box stores, commencing the debate: PAR20 vs. GU10? Which type of bulb should we choose? Both are halogen. Both have a non-dimmable CFL energy efficient bulb alternatives. I read widely on the internet and could not decide which was better. (Please comment if you have anything to share on the PAR20 / GU10 debate.) It seems that the Europeans & Australians are far ahead in energy efficiency than we North Americans, due to their higher energy costs. I found out that they have a Megaman GU10 bulb that is dimmable, but have not seen these in Canada yet. Hopefully these will soon be available here.

The fixtures sat on the floor for weeks while we made small advances on the lighting each week, between bathroom reno jobs. First thing was to determine the placement of the fixtures. This required the use of a stud finder, to avoid the ceiling joists. Lots of careful measurement and finally we had the marks on the ceiling. We drilled some small pilot holes and put a fine wire up into the ceiling to make sure that there was sufficient space in each location. Only one proposed hole was too close to the joist, so we had to modify all the locations, so they were evenly spaced.

We sat on this for a week, to ensure that the placing was correct. The following weekend, we used the template to trace the proper sized circle for each fixture, and I directed Dan in cutting each circle with a drywall saw. We protected the cupboards and contents with some old striped sheets. Then we pulled some 14/2 cable from one hole to the next. We were almost out of time before sunset, but there was still time for a quick coat of ceiling paint. Robomike was here, working on the bathroom, and shaking his head in disbelief at us. Poor guy was trying to get to the table saw in the back yard, which required passing thru the kitchen/painting zone. When he was done his day of work we fed him some mediocre delivery pizza because the kitchen was covered in sheets, but he didn't complain (to us).

A week passed with no progress, but this weekend there was a big push. I did some last minute internet research to confirm that GU10 was still the way to go, and at 5 pm on Sunday, we started to put the cans in the ceiling. The electrician on Mike Holmes said that those inexpensive big box recessed lights bug him, and now I know why. They are tiny and it is hard to fit all the cables in there. Plus, they don't come with the strain release connectors, so you need to buy them separately. The instructions are very poorly written and poorly translated, so you really have to read them over a few times to try to figure out what the hell they are saying. But eventually, I figured it out, and by 10 p.m. on Sunday -- we had pot lights in our kitchen. Every morning and every night, we are thrilled with our new kitchen lighting.

Watch out. Once this bathroom is done, will the dining room lighting be next?

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Let there be light!

For two weeks we have been at the electrical stage of the reno. We already pulled the wires in preparation, set them in the correct rooms, and planned the electrical layout. We need six receptacles (one GFCI), one recessed shower light, three overhead lights, one over mirror light, one exhaust fan, one TV/internet cable jack, one telephone jack and several switches to control it all. (We ran the wire for the floor heating, but we won't be installing that for some time.) I've refreshed my electrical knowledge with some books from the library, but the biggest challenge has been figuring out how to use a vapour barrier with recessed lights in a flat ceiling -- mixed messages!

For some reason, I thought that we could do all this in one Sunday. But now, as I write the list of work in prose form, it does seem like a lot. On a schematic, it seemed more straight forward.

Two weeks ago, I was thrilled when I installed a GFCI receptical which would protect all the other fixtures in the bathroom. The highlight of last weekend was getting showered with ashphault soot when pulling cables for the overhead lights and switches. It seems that when the roofers replaced the flat roof 3 years ago, the ashphault sifted through the roof boards and has been sitting on the insulation all this time. When we shifted anything in the ceiling, soot rained down on us. I was wearing safety glasses and a mask, but my face still got pretty dirty (see photo). Although I cheered up when I was able to wire the overhead fixtures.

But, there is never enough time! I still didn't get the new bedroom wired until today. We sealed the plumbing stack and window sill, and replaced 95% of the ceiling insulation. Tomorrow we hope to get the vapour barrier up and everything ready for drywall.

We were prepared to call in a pro for the drywalling, but he called today to say that he's too busy to do our job. If you know anybody, let me know. Otherwise, we're gonna try it ourselves next weekend. Wish us luck--we're going to need it!!!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

A good plumber may be easy to find!

I found my plumber Paul at a night course that I took at Central Tech two years ago. It was a great intro to the world of plumbing, and inspired me to renovate our kitchen by moving the sink and adding a dishwasher. So when we decided to reno the bathroom, I gave Paul a call again. After spending hours in a classroom with him, he is really somebody I trust.

We removed all our bathroom fixtures on October 5, so we have been without a shower for 17 days, but the YMCA is close by, as are many kind friends with hot showers, so we've been getting by. But today was a huge step forward in "Project Bathroom": we have running water in the tub again! We can staple up some plastic and shower at home again. Exciting.

Many thanks to our plumber, Paul McErlain (left), and his trusty apprentice. Many of you have asked for Paul's contact details and here they are: 416-854-9846 and

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Keeping up with Robomike

I know that my brother-in-law Mike thinks that I'm crazy. We are exact opposites in many ways. He hates city life, can't understand why we paid so much for such a small house, and is baffled that I would consider a month in China a vacation. But, when I asked him to "help" me replace the subfloor and put up some framing in our old bathroom, he didn't hesitate. I would like to learn how to frame a wall myself, so I wanted to be involved. I have written about Mike before: he's a man of few words but many skills. He arrived at our house on Tuesday morning, just after Dan left for his first day on his new job. I decided to use a few of my vacation days for my reno-vacation, if only to buy the supplies at the store and help carry stuff in and out of the house. I grew up on a farm and I don't have any brothers, so I was raised to pitch in on any job. Nobody in my house was too small, too young or too female to help out.

When Mike arrived, I showed him the scene. He looked around, shook his head and said: "you've got a lot of work to do here". But, he got to work taking measurements and we were off to Downtown Lumber for our first of many trips. As we were struggling to get a 4' x 8' sheet of 3/4" plywood up the winding stairs in our narrow house, I'm sure he was shaking his head again, although I couldn't see him through the plywood. I had to take the oil paintings that his 11 year old daughter painted for me off the wall, so that we could swing that sheet, tilt it, and get it up the stairs. Thank god the ceilings are 10' high in here!

We only had two days to replace the floor, frame some walls and install the bathtub, because we both had to go to work on Thursday. He was determined to get it done so that we could have the plumber in again on Saturday allowing us to start bathing at home again. I appreciate his determined work ethic and agreed that I would not talk too much, nor try to hug him. For all of our differences, I think that we got along well. But keeping up with Robomike was tough! He didn't eat all day, he barely drank any water, didn't pause at all, nor did he complain. I did my best to keep up, but after three days of hauling junk out of this bathroom, I was starting to wear out at 3 p.m. But, I keep dragging my butt until 9 p.m., although I did take several breaks.

By the end of the 2nd day, we had two walls and two doorways framed. We are renovating our oversized bathroom back to its original bathroom with small bedroom. When Dan returned from work, he helped Mike carry the new bathtub upstairs, and finally the rooms are taking shape. The drills are moving forward now. But, as Mike said, there's still lots of work to do! (And lots to write about.) Mike ate a tiny bit of food, drank a thimble full of water, filled his truck with the rubble from our front porch and drove off into the night. Who was that masked robot? He looked like Mike, but he didn't seem human.

Once again, thank you Mike. These words seem insufficient, but I am truly grateful for your dedication to your work and your family. And I promise that I will never try to hug you.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Pulling Cable

We spent our long weekend hauling crap out of the room that was once a bathroom. It has been two weeks, and yet the power drill is still running in reverse. When will we be putting it in forward and actually building a bathroom, not demolishing one?

We spent Friday night at the holy trinity for home renovators: Home Hardware, Rona and Home Depot. I bought myself an electrician's fishing tape - hooray. I've always wanted one. And today, I needed it, as we fed the four different gauges of wire thru the bulkhead down to the basement and to the panel. (We didn't connect it. We'll get an electrician to do that part.)

Thinking ahead, I want our new bedroom/office to be wired with coaxial cable and phone, plus we are putting a laundry rough-in as well, in the event that we move the laundry upstairs for our golden years. So this required pulling two electrical cables: a 14/2 for the washing machine and 10/3 30A cable for the dryer. That flipping 10/3 cable (the orange stuff) is heavy and expensive! Plus, the future dryer location is as far from the electrical panel that you can get with our tiny house, so we needed a lot of it. This was what I had listed as our easy job for the weekend. Relatively clean and quiet work, yet it still took us a few hours. But, I got to use my new fishing tape, and it worked like a charm.

The harder job was tearing up the remainder of the 3/4" plywood subfloor. It was a loud and dirty job, which I'm sure was even less pleasant for our neighbours. Just pepper the roar of the power saw with some colourful cursing when the head of one of the several screws popped off. The quote of the weekend came from Dan when he said: "drywall comes down a lot faster than it goes up".

After two weeks of toiling in this zone, I'm sure that Dan is happy to be starting his new job tomorrow. He's off the hook for a few day. My super brother-in-law is swooping in tomorrow to save us from this hole that we are in. Super Mike to the rescue!

Monday, October 6, 2008

Renovation is not a dinner party

Chairman Mao famously said: Revolution is not a dinner party. Well last night during a candle-lit dinner party on upper Montrose, I proposed that we should make t-shirts of Chairman Mao holding a reciprocating saw with the tagline: Renovation is not a dinner party. Of course, we thought this was brilliant, but how many t-shirt wearing, renovating sinophiles are there, other than me, of course?

Well, cottage industry aside, it was time to get the floor out today. I was supposed to be off at the end of the week, but asked my kind boss this morning if I could switch with today so that I could help Dan (somebody has to remove the wiring), and my kind boss said yes! So I was free to make dozens of trips up and down the stairs with heavy loads of rubble to the almost full Rhino Bag decorating our front lawn.

After a few pilot drills, we realized that the two layers of subfloor were both 5/8" thick. Many of the screws would not come out or were hidden by tile grout. We had torn out our kitchen floor with relative ease just two years ago, so as always, I underestimated how difficult this would be. I guess that if I thought it would be hard, I wouldn't take it on. It's like some women with childbirth: they know it is going to be difficult, but they do it anyway. I guess the new bathroom is like my baby. I just hope that it doesn't take 9 months!

After several passes with the circular saw, and many hours later, we had an opening 16" across and about 24" long. It allowed us to see the ceiling below and the bulkhead in the kitchen, where all the plumbing passes. After about 30 minutes of gawking at the damage and admiring how strong and sturdy the existing floor is, we thought that we should leave it at that and let the plumber tell us if he needed more floor removed. It was time to walk up the street for a shower and to vote at the advance polls. I may be a sinophile, but I also enjoy the benefits of democracy, so it was my honour to exercise my civic duty.

I think that Chairman Mao would have been proud of my three days of hard labour. It has certainly reformed my thoughts about civil society, but I had the luxury of a hot shower at the end of the day, after a short march north, so it wasn't really that much of a revolution -- just the start of a long renovation.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Bathroom renovation begins

Dan starts a new job after Thanksgiving and had a miraculous two weeks off. I thought that we should celebrate with either a trip to New York, or by renovating our over-sized and hideous bathroom. For better or worse, we have chosen the more expensive but more permanent option: the bathroom. New York will always be there, right?

A few years ago we made a temporary fix by removing the wallpaper and giving it a neutral coat of white paint, but we just couldn't get beyond that pink tub and toilet, the waste of space and the fact that the shower dribbled like a water pick. The whole room was disappointing. This is our time for revenge.

Our main bathroom is possibly the largest room in our tiny house. It is the same size as our kitchen and main floor 2 piece bathroom. It was originally a tiny bedroom and a tiny bathroom. Alas, we are going to undo that modification and return it to it's original configuration, but hopefully it will be much nicer.

We started last week by removing the closet and cupboards. Dan began chipping away at the ceramic floor tiles on Wednesday and Thursday, and finally finished this hideous task by Saturday. We bought a Rhino Bag from Home Hardware and put it on our front yard and started to fill it with debris. Any usable pieces were re-gifted to strangers on Craigslist. (Will somebody really want that giant pink bathtub?) Things were looking pretty bare on Saturday night when we used the pink shower for the final time. A little bit more water pressure would have helped my aching muscles, but why would it change now? People and bathrooms do not change.

With this giant task complete, all we had to do on Sunday was remove the fixtures and then tear up the subfloor. We got an early start, but like most things, I underestimated how time consuming these tasks would be. I spent about 30 minutes laying under the toilet as rusty water dripped on my head, trying to loosen the tank bolt. Finally we decided to leave the damn tank on, and Dan carried the whole thing out and placed it proudly on our front porch. A few hours later, we brought the sink/vanity outside as well. I checked my email and somebody had responded to my craigslist posting and wanted all three pieces. Hooray. We had to have the tub out by 6 p.m. because that was when they were coming. This led to the video at the top of the posting, where Dan smashed the hell out of the tiles while I cowered by the windows, and pieces of shattered tile flew through the air. (We both had our safety glasses on.) I got into the action as well. I took my turn with the hammer, and pulled down quite a few pieces of cement board covered in tiles, but we just didn't get any photos of this.

A pink fiberglass bathtub that measures 70.5"x35" is not that heavy, but it is very awkward. We called our good friend Matthew in a panic to see if he could help get it down the stairs, but luckily for him, he was on Highway 407 at the time, and with the new owners coming soon, we had to do it ourselves. Surprisingly, it only took us a few minutes to negotiate it down the steep stairs and over the hand railing, to the front porch, where we leaned it against my bike.

Now it was time to cap the copper pipes so that we could turn the water back on. There are now showers in our house now, but we do enjoy the simple pleasures like washing our hands, or a cool glass of water. Renovators cannot live on beer alone, can they? I pulled out my "plumbing shoe box" of tools and accessories from the course that I took back in 2005 at Central Tech. With an aluminum cookie sheet as a shield, I fired up the torch and managed two good solders on my first try. I was as pleased as Dan when he finished the floor tiles.

Alas, we had run out of time for the day and the floor would have to be done by Dan the next day. So off we went to dinner & showers on Upper Montrose, a civilized way to end a busy renovating weekend. It's not quite New York, but still very nice.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Men's Work

As I was scraping the peeling paint and rust off the wrought iron fence at the front of the house with the blazing sun beating down on me, I couldn't help but think that this fence will likely be gone in a year's time. The dream was to have some landscaping done this year, replacing the wall/fence. But when the quotes came in much higher than anticipated, it got moved to the back burner. When we had the house painted, I foolishly didn't have them paint the fence since a fear of heights was the only thing keeping me from painting the house myself. I tend to underestimate the amount of work that such a job entails. Exterior painting is much more challenging than its interior counterpart. It has to be over 10C with no rain forecast for at least 48 hours, which this summer has been a challenge. The paint purchased in early June has been sitting in the dining room waiting for a good stretch of weather when I had time to do it. Since the downpour on Friday, we've had blue skies and sunshine all weekend, so this was my chance.

We have been in our house for three years now, but rarely have we spoken to the neighbours other than those on either side of us. I recognize many of them, and I'm sure that they know us too. But what do we really have to talk about? They are mostly retired Italian & Portuguese couples who hold court on their front porches, keeping the pavement freshly watered every day, and chatting in languages that we don't speak. We are not married and we don't have any children, so it is hard for them to relate to us. They call us the Canadians. We're the newcomers who are changing their neigbourhood. I discovered that the best way to get to know everybody is to do some yard work. When you use a bucket of water and sponge instead of a garden hose to wash the fence, people take notice. My water efficient technique really turned some heads. And why was I doing this work, and not the man of the house? Painting is men's work.

I was careful to catch all the paint drips on the curly patterned wrought iron fence as the men of the neighbourhood shuffled by, admiring my handiwork. They all took the opportunity to comment and encourage, and to get a closer look at this freaky woman who was doing men's work. I'm a novelty. Dozens of cars circled the block for parking spaces close to the street fair on College Street, as I moved on to the brickwork, covering up the last of the pink. Three men close to my own age were making their way to their parked car and couldn't help but comment on what a strange sight it is to see a woman with a paint brush. I just laughed it off. The wives were straggling behind, and the one guy waited for them to catch up so that he could show his wife that women can paint. They too marvelled at my skill and talent with the brush. Clearly the division of labour in their house must fall along the traditional gender lines. If she wanted the bedroom repainted, she'd have to convince her husband to do it. But not here. I'm too independent to let gender hold me back from doing what I want.

The truth is that I've always been attracted to the more male activities: painting, putting out the garbage, plumbing and math. I was one of only a few women in my university engineering classes so I'm accustomed to standing out. But in my family, there were no gender lines. I thought that it was because I have no brothers and because we lived on a farm, so we all had to pitch in to get stuff done, inside and out. My sister and I piled wood, drove the tractor, trapped ground hogs, and spent hours weeding the garden. When I was four years old, my parents dug out the basement by hand. Watching my mom carry buckets of soil and rocks up the stairs must have had an impact on me. Clearly, women can do anything that men can do. She painted and wallpapered, and cut the grass. My Dad took me with him to cattle auctions. My grandmother would not hesitate to grab the riffle to get rid of a pesky ground hog. But there is one place where gender lines remained: cooking and cleaning. That was always women's work in my family. Women could do it all, and then some.

I feel bad for Dan. I know that all the neighbours look at him and wonder why he doesn't do his duty. But they don't see him cooking dinner every night or vacuuming. Truth is that I won't let him paint, work in the garden or do the laundry. I think that I'm better at it, and it drives him crazy. But, he lets me do all the men's work that I want to do. He grew up in a house of boys with two working parents, so he's not afraid of a little women's work. Plus, he's a much better cook than me. He brought me glasses of water every 15 minutes today, to make sure that I wouldn't dehydrate in the sun. And when I was done painting, he served me a bowl of home cooked chili and opened a beer for me. I'm sure that it's hard for the neighbours to understand, but at least the painting got done. And they can all appreciate a clean and tidy front lawn.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Should I switch to VoIP?

I am fed up with my current telecommunications "solution", as it is riddled with problems and frankly, I feel that it is overpriced. Deregulation of the telephone industry has made everything more expensive. I like competition and feel that we should benefit from it, but really all I see are expensive (and often annoying) ad campaigns combined with confusing marketing packages leaving consumers baffled by choices so that they just pick some phone plan without fully understanding the features and costs, and then when they try to make a change, they find that they are locked into a 3 year contract. When doing some comparison shopping, it is impossible to compare apples to apples, so you just end up going with the company who's commercials annoy you the least.

I have often thought that I'd like to get rid of our land line and just rely on a cell phone. I work from an office all day where I have my own land line (although it startles me when it rings since it happens so seldom), and I don't make that many phone calls on the evenings and weekends, so why have both a cell and land line? Plus, I can supplement the long distance calls with Skype. But, I don't really like talking on a cell phone -- reception is not great and I don't like the ergonomics. I always feel like I'm talking into a tiny spy device that sounds like a tin can, so I haven't made that bold move yet.

My latest telecommunications problem forcing me to make a change is that my voice mail does not work for long distance calls. This is particularly annoying since both our parents live outside our calling area, and all they ever get are three beeps and then it disconnects. I have reported it four times and Rogers still has not fixed it nor followed up with me! I was just going to cancel my voice mail plan and buy a new phone that has a built-in answering machine. We'll save $5 per month and have a "solution" that actually solves the problem. Plus, we need a new cordless phone anyway. But when I was in the store, I saw a Vtech set of two cordless phones that works with Vonage, a local VoIP provider. It was the same price as the other set of phones, BUT it comes with tons of nice features, and the monthly charges are half of my current bill. Humm. Getting away from one of the monolithic telecoms and saving money is very appealing to me.

I had considered going with VoIP three years ago when we moved here because Bell screwed up our order and we were not going to get a land line for 5 weeks. But Dan needed the land line for his job at the time and I could not guarantee that the VoIP line would be reliable. With all the other decisions that need to be made when you've moving to a new house, deciding on a new tele technology was just too much. So we did what Bell recommended and went with the competition. Rogers was happy to set us up with a land line in the newly created 647 area code and has been charging us about $45 a month for it ever since.

Yesterday I did a live chat with a Vonage rep and found out that I can get 500 minutes of long distance plus all the call features (voice mail, caller ID, call waiting, phone messages emailed to you, you can retrieve your message anywhere that there is an internet connection, etc.) for $19.95 per month. That includes the 911 charge and there is no additional charge for system access, etc. Plus, I can still use my fax machine on occasion without issue. So, it seems like I'm ready to take the plunge but a few questions remain:
  1. Which service provider should I use? Vonage sounds like the most established but there are plenty of others that I don't know about. My friend Andrew uses so I should look into that. Does anybody have any suggestions for me?

  2. Should I use my old analog phones with an adapter or buy IP phones? One FAQ that I was reading says that using your existing analog phones saves money but then you don't have all the features like transfer, hold, etc. Since I'm not running a business out of my home, I don't really need those features. I can set the phone on the table if I need to put the call on hold. I just need to know if there is improved reception and service by using the IP phones?

  3. Can I use a mix IP phones and analog phones with adapters? Or if I do go with the IP phones, will my fax machine still work?

  4. Can I set it up so that all my existing jacks and analog phones will work with VoIP? Right now I have Rogers digital home phone, which is VoIP, but at the price of conventional analog phone service. (No wonder they can afford to bring the Buffalo Bills to Toronto and give away $545 tickets to hundreds of people.) The technician set it up so that all the jacks work. Can I just set up the new VoIP system to the existing wiring? Or will I be limited to only one phone in the house? (Or a set of handsets that are grouped to one base unit?)
Hopefully I will find answers to all these questions soon so that our families and out of town friends can start leaving us messages. We were really starting to think that we were no longer message worthy out here in the 647s.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

How Bell Canada lost a customer for life - will Rogers be next?

Bell Canada dropped the ball. I tried to stay with them when we moved but they drove us away. I have heard that it costs more money to acquire a new customer than to retain an existing customer, but how much does it cost to drive one away? Bell wastes their money by calling us every 10 days asking what it will take for us to switch back. We always tell them our sad story but unfortunately their script cannot answer our questions nor offer us what we really need to repair this damaged relationship. I often ask them to pass this info onto their supervisors, yet we get the same call again about 10 days later. If there is no feedback loop on the customer acquisition team, how can I trust that they can even provide me with service, when they let me down three years earlier?

Before I moved three years ago, I was a Bell Canada girl all the way -- so was Dan. I was happy with the service and had no intention of changing. So when we moved, I called all my service providers and arranged to take them with me. Days before moving, I thought that maybe we could get a dedicated phone number for Dan's home office and that's when I discovered the problem. Our phone would not be connected until five weeks after we moved due a labour strike and the earlier customer service person gave me the wrong information. If I had not made this call, we would not have learned about this error until the day that we moved. And unfortunately, there was no recourse. I was tempted to kill the landline and go mobile, but Dan needed it for work. Our only landline alternative was to go with the provider of the previous homeowner's telephone provider: Sprint (which had been just bought out by Rogers).

The problem extended into our internet service provider (ISP). We were both with Sympatico DSL provided by Bell and were planning to take it with us too. After being slapped in the face with the five week wait for the Bell landline installation, we found out that we'd have to pay an additional $10/month for our DSL since we would not have Bell as our TSP. And since we didn't cancel with 30 days notice, we'd have to pay for an additional month. They did not offer me a special rate for a few months until I could switch back to Bell. Instead, they told me that my only choice was to cancel Sympatico or pay the higher fee. This was the nail in the coffin for Bell.

Will Bell's current re-branding save them? They have gotten rid of those horrible beaver commercials. They've abandoned all the other brands such as Sympatico. I'm not sure what the blue "er" is all about, but the new print campaigns have an "er" suffix like faster or sexier. Are they implying that they are better? I am not fooled by the crisp and clean aesthetic even if I do like the casting choice in their latest commercials. I'm curious to see what the Teacher's Pension Plan is going to do with Ma Bell after the world's largest leveraged buyout. But I do know that a new ad campaign is not going to pull me back.

Am I happy with Rogers Home Phone? I was until June 2008 when I was told that I had to switch to the Rogers digital home phone or cancel my service. They were forcing me into the arms of the competition. I wanted to keep an analog landline because it will work in a power outage. I guess that we're all frightened after the big blackout in the summer of 2003. I've learned to stock drinking water in the basement, get a solar powered radio, always keep a healthy supply of beer, and keep an old analog phone that will work in case of power outage. But VoIP & Rogers digital phone will not work when the power is out. So I have played it safe and kept the landline. But this aggressive action on Rogers side has made me take a look around and I'm realizing that I'm paying far too much for this service. A traditional VoIP service offers much better features at lower prices. Sure, there may be issues with quality of service, but if I'm paying about 40% of what I'm paying now, it will be worth it. I can supplement the bad times with a cell phone.

It is the lesser of all evils - instead of going with the best, I'm settling for the service that bothers me the least. It makes me wonder that if I'll be looking to switch in another three months or even three years. What new technology will temp with? But will their marketing and advertising turn me off? Only time will tell.

When blogging goes offline

Last week I came home to something very different: fan mail - delivered by Canada Post.

The handwritten envelope was addressed to "Occupant". The only thing that comes handwritten by mail these days are greeting cards, but this was a standard size envelope. Plus, whenever I get a card, the sender usually knows my name! I hesitantly opened the letter, wondering what it could be.

The typed two page letter started out with the words, "you don't know me, but I believe that we have something in common". This heightened my concern, so I quickly scanned the pages, trying to find out what this person wanted. It is terrible that I assume that somebody wants something, but in our accelerated society, people rarely use snail mail for personal greetings (except for my friend Chris, who lives on my street, yet regularly sends me post cards by mail, just to say hi.)

Scanning the letter, I couldn't find the pitch, so I re-read it slowly, enjoying the fact that it was simply a letter full of nostalgia for my neighbourhood. This man had lived on my street in the 50's and his friend lived in my house. He went on to tell me about the way things were back then: collecting green stamps at the mom and pop grocery stores, the listening booths at the original Sam the Record Man location on College Street at Crawford, his friend doing bike deliveries for the old Capp's Pharmacy, going to the Italian barber shops, etc. He fondly remembers the people, the sights and the reassuring sound of the College Street car rounding the curve at Grace Street.

He asked if I had checked out the Toronto Archives website, telling me that there are lots of great resources online. I had already heard that there was a bridge spanning a ravine just south of us, on the north edge of Trinity Bellwoods Park. The bridge is still there, but the ravine was filled in, bringing the street level up to the bridge. It is close to the location of the Trinity Bellwoods farmer's market on Tuesdays. My new pen pal confirmed that this bridge does indeed exist and that there are photos of it online. He also reminded me that Montrose was formerly called Sully Crescent. One of these days, I need to visit the archives.

I'm always surprised when I have comments on my blog from people that I don't know, but I guess that when you put your stories out there, it can happen. I just never expected that I would get snail mail from my blog, but I'm happy that I did. It gives me a whole new perspective on my home and neighbourhood.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

There's no place like Holmes

You may have seen it on TV, but tonight, I saw it in person: the house that Mike Holmes built in his special two hour show, Lein On Me. It just happens that the homeowner is a colleague of mine, and during our United Way fundraising campaign, she auctioned off a tour of her house. Myself and two colleagues were the highest bidders, which allowed us and our significant others to take a behind-the-scenes tour of this amazingly modern eco home. We got to ride in the elevator to the green roof, see the two solar systems, and the awe inspiring 1" copper plumbing that feeds the flexible water supply system. (I can only imagine what their water pressure must be like!!!)

I must admit that I'd never watched Holmes on Homes until the day after I bought this money pit. Three years ago, I was living in a condo, and the whole HGTV network had no appeal to me. The biggest repair jobs that I did there in 5.5 years was replace the toilet flapper and re-tape the dryer vent hose. But the day after I signed that agreement of purchase and sale on a very old house, I switched over to channel 46 for the first time. We both sat silently on the couch watching Mike Holmes discover appalling construction errors and then swoop in like a super hero and "make it right". When I closed my eyes that night, all that I could see was a black hole sucking up all my savings and future earnings. The $400 we paid on a home inspection gave me little comfort. I felt like Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo -- a swirl of worry about the roof, the foundation, the wiring, the plumbing, name it. The more that I watched the show, the more terrified I got. The more scared I was, the more I had to watch. My only salvation was to watch Holmes on Homes -- like a train wreck, I couldn't look away.

Sometimes Mike Holmes comes off as a bit too self-righteous on TV, although I'm glad to see that somebody is there to help homeowners like Christina & Joe. They have been through a tremendous ordeal, and while they are now the proud owners of an amazingly modern brand new home, being homeless for four years has taken its toll on them and their family. Being there and seeing it first hand, I was amazed by the design, architecture, and technology. I'm jealous of the environmental features and the amazing plumbing system that they have. But, I'm glad that my tiny little money pit has not revealed any of the problems that they've seen. I hope that if I meet Mike Holmes that it will be at a book signing or a cocktail party. But seeing his work in person was really fascinating.

To see photos and learn more about the house that Holmes built, visit the website. Or if you're one of my contacts on Flickr, you can see my photos there.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Great beer + amazing customer service = one happy customer

Last week we attempted to refill the fridge with delicious Mill Street beer. Dan is quite taken with the Stock Ale, while I prefer the Tankhouse Ale. As of late, our local beer store is often out of Mill Street. The last two times we've had to drive to a few different stores to find any in stock. When they were out of stock this week, with the price of gas and all, Dan decided to just buy his old brand. When he got home, he wrote an email to Mill Street to ask why they never have it in stock. Within an hour, they got back to him saying that they have been having production problems keeping up with demand, but that they'd ensure that our local retail outlet receives more product. Then they asked for his address so that they could drop off a case of his favorite beer. The next day, a full case of fresh beer was delivered to our house. Now that is customer service!

Compare this to Dan's experience with Mazda and the worst dealership: Dufferin Mazda in Toronto. Phone calls, letters, emails -- to the dealer, owner and Mazda HQ, yet all they said is -- that's normal wear and tear. Check out Second blown clutch on 2004 Mazda3: do not buy from Dufferin Mazda! Their record speaks for itself.

Coincidently, I was checking my web analytics today and saw the 4th most popular post on this blog is the one about the blown clutch. Seems that a lot of other people have had problems with the clutch on their Mazda 3. Coincidence? Humm.... you decide. I think not!!

Dan drives his Mazda every day for his job, visiting customers and retail outlets. He spends his day talking to people. Today, as he was getting out of his car, another motorist asked how he liked his Mazda as he was thinking of getting one. Dan told him his story of bad product coupled with appaling customer service, and this potential customer converted immediately against the Mazda move. Yes, word of mouth can also be bad for sales.

What I know is that Mill Street Brewery could teach Dufferin Mazda a lesson on customer service. They have a customer for life, whereas we will never buy another Mazda.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Pink Palace, R.I.P.

The other night, I was sitting on my front porch, well hidden by the cedars, when I heard one of the neighbours telling her toddler that he was not allowed to go past "the pink house" on his tricycle. But the next time, he pedaled right on past, so she came out to scold him. He said: "what pink house?" She pointed up at our house and said: "This one. Right here. The pink one, with the white door. See." But the kid was still confused. I guess that salmon does not look pink to a toddler. He was likely looking for bubble gum pink, or possibly the raspberry, that our trim had been painted previously, probably before this kid was born. You see, our house was known as the Pink Palace -- the house that others used as a landmark, as in "we are two houses past the Pink Palace."

I thought about warning this mother that it wouldn't be the "pink house" much longer, but I didn't want to blow my cover behind the cedars. Plus, I wasn't sure when the painter was going to be available anyway. Who knows -- maybe we would be pink all summer.

When the snow melted this spring, I knew that it was finally time to get rid of the last of the pink. We had painted out the hideous trim two years ago, and now it was time to be rid of the less offensive salmon. We called College Pro painters, completely unsure how much it would cost. I would paint it myself but I'm afraid of heights. Anyway, the house is very narrow and it is only the front that needed painting, not the side or trim. The existing paint was in perfect condition -- no peeling or wear. Therefore there was no need for primer, just two coats of paint. So I didn't figure that it would cost too much.

One day our young College Pro Franchisee finally came over and after several long speeches from a perfectly memorized script and many measurements, he presented us with his written quotation, encased in some glossy corporate College Pro marketing crap. Seeing photos of students who look similar to Brad Pitt did not make me want to go with College Pro. Nor did the fact that he quoted us $800 plus GST for this job. We told him that it was higher than we'd expected, and that we'd look for other quotes before deciding.

Finally I remembered a friend of a friend who I had not seen for awhile who is a professional painter. Why not call him? But instead, I emailed him with a photo of the house and the fact that the house is only 13' wide. He replied that he'd "paint the pink" for about half of the other quote, and just fit it in when he had time. Sounded like a good deal.

A few weeks later, I arrived at work a bit early and checked my email. A new message arrived from my painter friend saying that this was the day. And when I rode up on my bike that night, the house was a new colour. Hooray! Bye bye salmon. Hello Nantucket Gray. The neighbours were full of compliments, and now finally I can hold my head high as I walk out the door. Who would have thought that half a day and 1 gallon of paint could make such a difference?

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Where I went in China

With the devastating earthquake in China so soon after my return, I have had about a dozen people e-mailing to ask if I was close to the affected area in Siuchan or Chengdu. While I wasn't in Siuchan province, I spent two weeks in the neighbouring provinces of Yunnan and Hunan.

View Larger Interactive Map

The maps of China on Google and Yahoo are very limited, so the map in my travel journal couldn't find the places that I visited. So, I made this map using the satellite versions to help find the "smaller" cities that were not marked on the maps. The red cross on the map is Chengdu, about 60km south of the epicentre of the earthquake. Places visited during my most recent trip are marked in red, my 2004 trip is marked in blue, and my visit to China during my 1992 trip to Asia is marked in green. You can click on the coloured markers and an info bubble opens up with some details. If you view the larger map, there is a table of contents on the left, listing all the places I visited, which is also clickable.

Photos from my travels are on Flickr which also has a map showing the geographical location where the photos were taken. It is a great feature, but it won't let me add other markers to the map, so I couldn't add a marker for Chengdu.

The Google / Yahoo war rages on. I live in two worlds that just can't get along. I like Picasa (Google) for offline photo organization, but I use Flickr (Yahoo) for online photo storage. They don't work together. This blog is in Google, but my travel journal was on Yahoo, for easier integration with my photo site. The map couldn't locate many of the places I visited (despite populations of a million or more), so I had to create a Google map too. I guess that I just have to face that I'm a blogging geek and should just enjoy the fact that I have choices. It is like my friend's recent dilemma: she regularly went to two different gyms - one for squash and one for fitness classes. She couldn't pick just one gym to join, so she continues to go to both. I have learned from her that accepting this is half the battle. But will Google win the war?

Friday, May 2, 2008

The carport of my dreams

After a winter with near record snowfall, it is natural for one to dream of a carport. Watching Dan shovel all that snow out of our uncovered parking spot really exhausted me. If I build him a carport, we won't have to worry about snow for the next four years. We will be guaranteed to have record low snowfall if I invest in such a structure.

Spring was in the air last week, and I felt that it was time to get moving on some quotes. I canvassed friends for landscaping recommendations and came back with only two names. One is coming tomorrow to do a quote, and the other one is considering if he has time to do the job at all. I then joined the Home Service Club, who guarantees the work of their recommended contractors or you don't pay. They promised me calls from three contractors within 48 hours to arrange quotes. We are getting close to 46 hours and still no calls. The jury is still out on this club.

As I wait to hear back from contractors, I started researching, and found this great carport plan online. It looks simple enough. Isn't it something that Dan and I could do on our own? It is kinda like building a fence, with a roof -- do I really need a building permit for this?

I called the City of Toronto, just to be certain, and discovered that their bureaucracy really is as bad as people say. I looked on the website and found a definition of a carport but could not find out if a permit was required to build one. So, I called their info line. After listening to several menus and making several choices, I was routed to a voice mail for the help person, who is away this week. The message said that somebody else would return my call, but then the mailbox was full, so I couldn't leave a message. I called back a few more times, trying to get a live person, but with no luck. My suspicion is that you do need a permit, so I have registered myself for an info session on May 13. At this rate, I may have a carport before the first winter snowfall. That is, if I can even afford it!!!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Take it outside!

Spring has arrived and it is time to expand our lives outdoors. Sadly, the hardscaping in our exterior spaces need some major work. Every time I step outside, the bottom of the door scrapes across the patio, not clearing the door jam. Even when I try to focus on the garden, all I can see are the pitted and sagging patio stones and gravel "zen" garden. I find it challenging to remain calm in my "zen" garden, when I can't even put a chair on that gravel. Our outdoor space is reduced to half the size because of the gravel. I cringe every time I take it outside.

My dream: unify the space by bricking the whole surface with a nice stone - all the way to the laneway. We could remove the back fence and build a carport with a transparent roof, doubling the backyard when the car is not there.

I went to an open house last summer and saw my dream carport. It shelters the car, when is it there, but keeps the space open and light. It is modern and zen, but doesn't make me clench my teeth. What a dream. Maybe one day....

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Around China in 460 Photos

I know... it sounds like a lot of photos, and it is, but when you consider that I was away for 31 days, that's only 14.8 photos per day. To see all these exciting photos of China 2008, visit my Flickr page , or for some tales from the trails, visit my travel journal.

It was nice to escape Toronto in late March when it was still blanketed in snow, to hike around the spring flowers and trees of Hunan & Yunnan. But it was even better to return to Toronto a month later to blue skies and 22C weather. Good thing that I didn't have a stopover in Alberta. They had a huge snowstorm this weekend!

Monday, March 17, 2008

Where in the world??

Moneypit fans, I am hitting the road. I'm hanging up my tool belt for a money belt. I'm not collecting Air Miles at the hardware store, but by flying. Bad for my carbon credits, but good for my karma credits.

Try out this fun geography quiz as a warm-up for tales from China. I made it to level 8 and scored 255,505 on my first try. My traveler IQ is 100.

Stay tuned for details on my new travel blog.

(On my third try, I got up to 269,868, but did not get past level 8. Must consult a map of Africa before trying again. Better yet, time to travel to Africa!)

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

What is Obay?

After fourteen days, the Obay mystey has finally been unveiled. It confirms what we all believed: that Obay isn't real.

I loved the campaign, but the reveal was quite anticlimactic. I think that they took too long to get to the next step. People have been blogging about it, and even the Toronto Star wrote an article about it. This led me to an even better discovery: (Why have I never heard or seen this website before! They have such amazing photography!) doesn't just write about stuff they've seen, they actually do some investigating, and they got to the bottom of the Obay story

I was somewhat disappointed, but the line: "pushing them to do what you want isn't right", redeems the whole campaign, in my humble opinion. It ties in directly with the creative, and it works. I was just surprised that Ontario Colleges even needs to advertise. Other than Universities, aren't they the only game in town? But when reading today's Toronto Star story, I see that this is the point. While far more practical and successful for most students, Colleges still suffer from an inferior view. Hopefully this will get people talking about the 30% of parents who would be embarrassed if their children went to College instead of University. Now that is shameful! Why? Because I said so!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

OBay - From the makers of WhyBecauseISaidSo

I was walking to work the other day and I passed a bus shelter with this ad which really caught my attention. Despite the freezing cold winds and blowing snow, I stopped to take a second look. Could this be a real drug? What the hell! Uncertain, I continued along my route. Then I saw a second version only a few blocks away. Humm. Well, it made me laugh out loud, and after a coffee, I realized that this couldn't be a pharmaceutical ad: 1) because we don't advertise pharamceuticals in Canada (may cause anal leakage, dizzyness, dry mouth, watering mouth, etc.) and 2) because it is just too harsh.

Back at my computer, I googled this thing, and I couldn't find anything, except somebody else's post on Yahoo Questions. And for the first time in my life, I replied to one of those Yahoo Questions. (Guess which one is me.) There are several other replies now, but nobody knows what it is all about. It must be a progressive ad campaign, yet I have only seen four of these ads so far.
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Saturday, February 2, 2008

Stepping Out

I have not been very motivated lately to start any major work in our Money Pit, so instead I have been "Stepping Out". I satisfy my reno cravings by helping out friends or by lounging around the MP, enjoying the fruits of our labour. (Not a day goes by that I don't praise the reno gods for the dishwasher in our kitchen. I can't imagine life without it!)

Last weekend was very busy though. I painted at Ally & Ian's new place on Havelock on Saturday and Monday evening. The 3rd floor office is now a tasteful Benjamin-Moore beige with Cloud White trim. Very smart. And on the Sunday, I took a stroll to Upper Montrose with my painting pole to help Denise paint her bathroom a fresh pale blue. (Truth is, I borrowed the pole from Denise, so I was finally returning it!) And as luck would have it, we got a major dump of snow on Friday and my office closed early, so I used the bonus time to help Denise install a new light fixture in her hallway. It looks marvelous (if I do say so myself!)

Friday, January 4, 2008

On the road again...

To get my mind off renovating, it is time for me to hit the highway, or actually the airport, and set out on a foreign adventure. 2007 was a pretty good year, with trips to Paris and New York. I figure that 2008 is the perfect time to revisit Beijing, and see for myself how the Olympics preparations are coming along, and spend some quality time with my good friends Zerlina and Lennox. They've been living in Beijing for years and are planning to move after the Olympics. So if I want to see Beijing again, this is likely my best chance.

I will spend thirty days in China, which seems like a lot of time, but when you're traveling in a country as vast and as populated as China, it is almost insignificant. This time I will go to Hunan, Yunnan, Beijing, and Shanghai - a good compliment to my 2004 adventure in China. I want to go to Mongolia and Tibet, but that will have to wait for another trip. I hear that the sand storms this time of year are not so pleasant.

If you want to read about my travel adventures or see some photos, check out my new travel blog. I'll be updating it from the road. But I'm not leaving until March 20.