If you are planning to buy a house, be aware that it’s a money pit.
Yes, in the end — fifteen or thirty years from now — you’ll have an “asset” you can sell, bought with money you’d otherwise have thrown away on rent, and all of the income you spend on interest will be flagged as tax-free. Also, your monthly payment will probably be less than renting, simply because the landlord very likely doesn’t own the place: he’s paying off exactly the same mortgage you would have gotten on the house, if you’d had the down payment and credit score you needed. So he’s charging you mortgage-plus.
But there’s a reason the landlord is gouging you for that plus, because he’s also paying for the money pit expenses. Exploding hot water heaters. New roofing. Clogged toilets.
Which brings me to today’s subject.
Our sewer backed up. No, it’s not the city’s fault. It was apparently a thirty-year accumulation of unmentionable stuff that, for whatever reason, never quite made it to the city’s dark domain. The plumber tried to snake it, but that didn’t work — too old, too thick, too much. They ran the camera. Then they told us they weren’t sure they could pull all the muck back into the house, which no one really wanted to happen anyway, so they needed to go in from the other end.
The sewer lines for this house run directly under the driveway. There are no access-points. So the solution was for them to remove the driveway, dig a coffin-sized pit to get to the sewer line, do some plumber magic that I don’t fully grasp (it involves two lengths of plastic pipe lying in our flowerbed at the moment), then fill in the hole and re-pour the driveway. It isn’t their first such job, and they seem to know what needs to happen.
We’ve needed to do something about the driveway, anyway: one slab had settled and created an ankle-wrenching lip, and the surface was spalling badly in places. I don’t think it needed replacement, but at this point I’m into any cheap thrills I can get, with an emphasis on cheap.
Yesterday, a driver arrived at about 1:00 in the afternoon in an enormous truck pulling an enormous flatbed trailer, with an enormous backhoe on the trailer; the plumber came in another large truck containing a concrete saw and other hardware. They sliced a coffin-shaped opening in the driveway, but the saw was too heavy for the operator to fully control on the slope, and the cross-cuts were angled. They could not pry the resulting wedge-shaped end piece out of the driveway, so the plumber grabbed a sledgehammer and broke up the wedge so they could pull it out by hand and make room to get the backhoe claw under the remaining slab.
Then they started to dig. Unfortunately, there is both electricity and gas in the same area, and the plumber grinned at the driver and said, “You want to know what’s a long day? Try cutting a gas line.” So they alternated between removing dirt with the backhoe, and jumping into the hole to dig around with a shovel to find the gas line, which a city engineer had marked and told them was about thirty-six inches down.
By 5:00, they were down to twelve feet or so and had hit groundwater without having found either the gas line or the sewer line. The plumber was not happy. He came back into the house to re-inspect the pipes, and tested again with their pipe-finding instruments, and concluded that they needed to keep digging. But they’d reached the limits of the backhoe. So they had to call in a bigger backhoe, which should arrive tomorrow, presumably on an even bigger flatbed trailer, pulled by a bigger truck, lumbering in on a road never intended for such beasts.
While I was watching all of this, it occurred to me that ten unskilled laborers, equipped with sledgehammers, picks, shovels, and buckets (perhaps technologically enhanced with a rope and some pulleys) could have made very short work of the driveway and that fifteen-foot-deep grave. Based on what I saw the plumber do with the sledge and the shovel, I can’t imagine it would take an hour for ten guys to turn the entire driveway to baseball-sized chunks, and maybe another hour for two of the guys at a time, in rotation, to get down to the sewer-line without posing any serious risk to the gas or electric lines. But what do I know about that kind of work? Let’s double my ignorant estimate. Four hours for ten guys to break up some concrete and dig a deep grave. Let’s pay them well (for unskilled labor) at $20/hour. Ten guys, for four hours, at $20/hour comes to $800.
I seriously doubt that the amortized cost of the truck, flatbed, and backhoe for four hours was anywhere near as low as $800, much less the cost of bringing in a second backhoe tomorrow to finish the job. I definitely know that I’m not paying anything nearly as low as $800 for that hole in the ground.
The false economies in this entire scenario multiply to absurdity and beyond. Yet this is how we live and do business, and we call it “efficient.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about “appropriate technology” for the last few years, given that I’m pretty sure that we’re all going to be facing a lower-energy future and fairly soon. In particular, harnessing the deceased spirits of dinosaurs to our machines, as we do, is definitely coming to an end, and there is no obvious contender to replace those dinosaur ghosts — a few solar panels slapped on that backhoe aren’t going to do much more than run the radio.
However, there’s a lot of what I’m going to come right out and call “preachiness” in the appropriate tech world on the Internet: the self-sufficient vegan gardens and composting toilets and anyone-who-owns-a-gasoline-powered-vehicle-is-a-monster sort of thing. It does serve to make me feel badly about myself.
I look at a situation like this, and wonder what might have been more appropriate for me to have done.
An outhouse occurred to me when I saw the bid for this job. I even asked: $700 for two guys to dig the thing; $40 extra to carve the moon in the door. Of course, there’s the hair-shirt discomfort of using an outdoor toilet in the dead of winter when you’re running a fever. But suffering builds character, right? The real problem would be that, if my neighbors didn’t file an injunction against me for putting an outhouse in my backyard, the homeowners’ association would, unless it’s actually illegal within city limits, in which case the city would shut it down and fine the crap right out of me. A permanent porta-potty contract wouldn’t fare any better. That whole approach is just begging for legal trouble.
We could switch to composting toilets and keep them hidden inside the house. But it isn’t just about the toilets. It’s all the water outflow from the house, including dishwater and effluent from the shower or tub. A sewage connection, so far as I know, is not legally optional within city limits. Nor should it be. I know plenty of people who would “purify” their dishwater with moonbeam-charged crystals and then dump it on their lawn or into the street rainwater gutter. I don’t want to live in a city where that’s legal.
This legal requirement remains a burden even if we decided it was time to walk away from the house and live in a yurt in the mountains. Unless we wanted to run from bounty-hunters and process-servers for the rest of our lives, we’d have to sell the house to pay off the mortgage, and I’m not sure I could live with passing off the bad plumbing to the next owner without disclosing the problem. Assuming we could even get away with that.
One way or another, the sewer line needs to be fixed.
So let’s look at options there.
I don’t have the knowledge or sufficient hair on my dangly-parts to try to tell a master plumber and his crew that they have no idea what they’re doing, and that they should be hiring ten unskilled diggers at $20/hour instead of renting a backhoe, or that there’s some more appropriate (and cheaper) way to fix the problem. I think the only result of that discussion would be to find myself needing to call another plumber.
I could go through every plumbing company in town until I find someone who doesn’t use machines and is willing to do the work for a fraction of the price. Somehow, I don’t think that’s going to work out well — my experience leads me to suspect that whoever I find will not be especially interested in warranting the work, nor in repeat business, and I anticipate great distress in the future when sewage starts bubbling up in my wife’s flowerbeds.
I could contract the digging myself. Not that I have any general contracting skills or contacts, mind you. Nor do I know where (or if) I could round up ten unskilled laborers who would work for $20/hour. Since general contracting is not my business, I’d need to develop those skills, which will be useful maybe a dozen times in my whole life. Which means I’d never become any better than absolutely terrible at the job. I anticipate great distress following from that approach, too.
Of course, I could dig the hole myself, as a testament to manly self-sufficiency. It’s just about the right size and shape for me to lie down at the bottom when I’m done, and have someone else fill it in. I’m not John Henry, and have never pretended I was. Yes, my ancestors would have been ashamed of me: they’d have picked me up and broken me in two like a stick. A sad truth, but not one that is going to change in this lifetime unless I quit my sedentary job and start doing hard manual labor at $8/hour, which is the actual minimum wage in Colorado (which means my ten-guy job should only cost $320, and I know the backhoe rental was more than that).
Besides, my ancestors are all safely dead, so they can suck it.
Have I missed any options? Nothing comes to mind.
We live in a world where vast amounts of money flow around in a big circle. My employers pay me too much, but they have to, so that I can live in this complex world where the plumber charges me too much, because he’s supporting a backhoe company, which is paying its employees far too much so that they can hire plumbers who charge too much. Our human dependencies have stretched into such invisible distances that the whole human enterprise has become subject to the butterfly effect, where a child’s cold in China can bring down a corporation in New York City.
I think appropriate technology has its time, and that time is coming — but it isn’t here yet. Until it comes, we’ll continue to use a machine to do a job that people can do better, faster, and cheaper, and we’ll continue to believe it’s more efficient, more advanced, and more “civilized.”