Sunday, September 06, 2009

Don’t finish what you can’t start

It’s never really a good idea to invite a vampire or a salesman into your house. You have only yourself to blame when your blood gets sucked.

My wife Kara and I made this unfortunate mistake last week, when we invited a (certified!) Basement Designer into our home. We thought we’d made an appointment with a contractor, the kind who actually does things, but as it turned out, the company we’d contacted sent us a high-pressure salesman instead, perhaps because we’d wronged them in some terrible way.

Since we had our baby a couple of months ago, Kara and I have been talking about how nice it would be if our small basement could be a playroom instead of a concrete slab surrounded by concrete blocks topped off with exposed insulation, the kind of insulation that drops little pink particles into the air so that after fifteen minutes down there, you’ve inhaled enough fiberglass to legally register yourself as a Corvette.

Originally, I was going to finish the basement myself, using my weekly fifteen minutes of new-father discretionary time, along with my complete lack of relevant experience.

“I’m going to go down there and start finishing the basement,” I said to Kara, marching down the stairs with the confidence of a five-year-old who’s going to build a castle out of sticks and kite string. I stood in the center of the concrete floor and turned in circles, looking at the tangle of exposed pipes, the radon remediation tube, the humming boiler and the hopper windows.

“Done already?” Kara asked as I came back upstairs five minutes later, shaking my head.

And so it was that the salesman came to our door carrying two briefcases full of samples. For the sake of anonymity, we’ll call the salesman Barf, because his real name was Ralph.

Barf was very interested in selling us a complete basement system that used his company’s proprietary materials. Our dog Memphis sat on his feet, trying to eat the crown molding samples that he pulled out of his bag, begging intently as Barf waved them over her head. If Memphis was a Catholic Church, the sign out front would say, “Our Canine of Perpetual Hope.”

“Do you understand that drywall should never be used in a basement?” Barf asked. We nodded gamely, but without the level of enthusiasm that he was looking for.

“No, really,” he said, zeroing in on Kara, “Do you understand that? Because if you don’t, we can go over it again.”

Kara nodded slowly for a second time, and because Barf hadn’t been married to her for five years, he didn’t realize that the intensity of her gaze at that moment might very well have been sterilizing him.

After taking some measurements in the basement, Barf wrote an estimate down on a piece of paper and handed it to Kara. There’s no need to wrap any jokes around the number on that page, which was a punchline all by itself: $38,500 to finish a 500 square-foot basement.

I gave Barf the only rational response I could think of, which was to splash holy water on him, hoping he would melt.

After he saw the shock on our faces, the price magically dropped to $29,000. I realized then that we were in the midst of a haggle. Haggling is my favorite thing to do, when I can’t find anyone to give me a barium enema.

Ninety minutes into what we thought was going to be a quick estimate, Kara and I didn’t feel like playing ball.

“What can I do to get you to sign up tonight?” Barf asked. “This price won’t last!”

And it very well may not. But somehow, spending the next five years in the basement with my sticks and kite string is starting to sound not so bad after all.

You can give a garlic necklace to Mike Todd at


  1. It's already a playroom down there...just teach Evan how to play ping pong, darts, DDR, Guitar Hero or beer pong...stop coddling him. ;)

  2. I am a loser. I love my mommy.

  3. That might have been a good deal if, oh-I-don't-know, maybe a house came with that price! Plus, I HATE it when salesmen pull that move of speaking to ladies as though we're brain-damaged so major kudos to your wife. Besides, if you wait long enough Evan will be able to help you build that basement playroom and you can spend the thousands on his education.

  4. Remind me to ask Kara why you should never use drywall in a basement.

  5. Derek -- I already tried to teach him beer pong, but we have to wait until he can throw a little farther. No son of mine is going to bounce.

    IndiaSpeaks -- Always fantastic to hear from you. Especially when you're really Perlson.

    Loon -- Yeah, that dude nearly got throttled. He got more annoying the more we thought about it later. And that is an excellent point about Evan helping, but if everything goes according to plan, he's going to be too busy mowing the lawn.

    Russ(!) -- I certainly will. Hope you get to ask her sometime soon, preferably over a beer (or a juice box) at our place. I think the main problem is that installing drywall doesn't do nearly as much to stimulate the economy.

  6. OK now I'm interested... what *is* the reason that he claims you can't use drywall?

  7. Dude, Indiaspeaks isn't Perlson. C'mon.

    I would hire the subs yourself instead of some yahoo basement contractor. Draw plan and hire electrical, drywall, fooring, plumbing, etc. I'll help if you need it.

  8. Sergey -- MOLD!!!! MOLD!!!! Not many people know this, but mold is actually the fifth horseman.

    JP -- Dang, man, you're sneaky. Makes sense now, since IndiaSpeaks is your boy and all. And thanks for the offer - we're still waiting on a couple more estimates, so we'll see what shakes out.

  9. Following Barf's logic, you shouldn't use drywall in bathrooms or kitches, either. If you like, I can give you the name of a builder that can at least give you a sanity check, and possibly do some (or all) work. Doesn't hurt that he lives less than a mile away from you, either.