Thursday, September 10, 2009

Oversized, Overpriced, and Crappy

One of the problems with being an occasional blogger instead of an occasional poster or commenter is that I need to sustain my own level of output. If nothing gets posted for a week or two, then the place doesn't go on without me. Any previously tempted reader (I kid) will simply wander away for lack of activity. Anyway, it's not a political post, even if you could parse the title that way with depressing ease. There's enough of that coming down the pipe in the form of book reviews (one turgid and one fervid), and I'm not exactly the rare writer that rises above being a bore about that sort of thing. So as I try to procrastinate my way through another rough month, are there some fallback Keifus posts I can depend on here: Recipes? Kids? Mediocre science writing? Home improvement? Colorful complaints? The last two, let's go with that.

I don't know if mentioned it in these pages, but in the last couple of years, my darling wife has re-educated herself (over-re-educated herself really), and worked her way into a new career, which, by all evidence, she thoroughly enjoys, at least for these first few months. If I don't say it enough, then let it be known--she has impressed the hell out of me. Now that we have more income, as well as less frustrating time to spend it (the mythical black positively looms), we're re-evaluating the pointlessly expensive home projects we've been putting off for seven years, things like a working drier (which could have easily paid for itself by now), replacing the tattered and filthy carpets that came with the place, replacing the kitchen chairs with ones that aren't broken and downsizing the table to one that actually fits in the room.

Pity the poor furniture shopper that doesn't live in a McMansion! All of our choices over the years have been made to creatively optimize comfort in a small space, having quickly found the overstuffed sectional with the built-in recliners and a pull-out drink holder (what a fucking mistake that thing was) isn't really designed to be tucked into a corner, or even to occupy a mere wall, or even to leave room for thoughtless family members, those who occasionally choose to disrespect the mighty altar of sedentariness, to perform the profane act of opening the door and walking out into the air. For a springy monster like that to fit, it either has to be the center of attention, or your living room has to be the size of a cathedral. And it's all like this. I want to fit a hypothetical new kitchen/dining table into a finite oblong space, but even the so-called pub tables you can buy demand to be massive centerpieces, only tall enough for a barstool. Yes, you can buy small items that are cut-rate in quality, but I want something to at least survive the kids here, without devolving immediately either into trailer-park chic or tasteless excess. The woes of the petite bourgeoisie, lemme tellya. I don't know how the city folk do it. Probably with less whining.

And let's not pretend the quality gap isn't intentional. I've lamented(in media now buried and forgotten) the extra engineering that it takes make lower-priced bathroom fixtures stay ugly, but that's mostly because it's a tube of metal without many moving parts. When there are obvious pathways to chintz, they're rarely left unexplored, even in the suspiciously sparse land of mid-level pricing. Home Depot, I want to point out, is the undisputed king of the shitty middle. Their basic hardware doesn't deviate very far from the standard (understandable enough, given the piece of the retail market they occupy), but it's the suite of more aesthetic and individual products--carpets, lighting, cabinetry, things like that--that carries that special vibe of inferiority about it. A knock in quality, but at all of the price. Even a hack like me can spot it a mile away. Back when my buddy Jay bought his suburban palace, I could identify every fixture and accent as a Depot special--it screamed. (He has since made a lot of subtle improvements that have classed the place up immensely. The fact that it's far better than my mashed-thumb, bent-nail masterpieces is only partly because he has better tools, space to work, and can sometimes afford contractors.) You will never, ever get a deal on anything at Home Depot, and its semi-exclusive product lines makes it very difficult to shop around if you do find something you like (except maybe at Lowe's, which is close enough to exactly the same to not really matter).

About four years ago, I tiled my kitchen, and it's finally looking like we can afford something comparable on the adjoining living room side, get rid of the ancient doggie damage at long last, and just in time for our own dog. We're planning on wood or laminate (i.e., fake wood) floors for the purpose, because it matches our general style (if you can call it that), and because while they might wear (or fade), I've been looking at stained carpet for altogether too long.

Flooring is an excellent window into pricing and quality standards of retail outlets. We were lured down to one discount flooring place, naturally enough, by $0.79/square foot laminate, which would have been all right as far as the thickness and durability went (sinking too much quality in this place is folly, and at that price we could just replace it in five or ten years), if it didn't look so godawful fake. There were about six samples below $3, two of which were the ludicrous choice of unfinished pine, and a big cluster of okay material between $3 and $4, before heading right off into exclusively furnishing the loathed hautes.

It turned out that matching the tile while not shrinking and darkening the bedrooms was a more difficult task than expected. (Dark wood would look great against light tile, but...) Nothing fit the bill at Discount Floors, but, God help me, the Depot had the perfect pattern. The pricing for flooring at Home Depot is, roughly, $1, $3, or $5-7 per square foot, with striking differences in quality. That rare match was a Pergo brand product, but made by subcontractors in some factory in Croatia, only for the store chain, and not exactly finding rave reviews online. Even at three bucks, I'd rather get wood, or at least get some known product that I could shop around for and compare. As it is, it looks like I'll hold out against my home improvement nemesis for just a little while longer.


artandsoul said...

Home improvements seem to be the kind of thing, sort of like herpes, that you catch and then never quite get rid of.

Having been married now for 25 years and lived in two houses together we have probably spent two fortunes on remodels and improvements (maybe three fortunes) and untold hours and well, it has not all been pretty.

We end up doing things like this: get a proposal on a project that includes an aggregate driveway. Halfway through the aggregate driveway still looms as an expensive item, so we change the drive to concrete to save thousands ... but the new concrete drive ends up costing a mere $100 less because this turns out to be an opportunity for the contractor to make up his losses.

So I end up paying the same thing and NOT having the driveway I wanted.

I cannot tell you how often this has been repeated (in essence, not in substance) or you would lose any respect you might have had for me.

I know I would.

Keifus said...

I pretty much do everything myself (combination of budget and misplaced pride), so getting work quoted is still a different world. It always costs more than originally planned.

On the other hand, the piecemeal pace of it all is such that by the time I get the elective stuff all done, the stuff I built at the beginning will all be falling apart (or I'll be sufficiently disgusted with my shoddy first drafts). It's already started.

[I feel bad about these sorts of posts, I do way too many of them. But I'm going to be a mess until the end of the month.]

twif said...

as for tables, if you haven't already, check out the stores that cater to the urban, tiny apartment crowd. like crate & barrel. not sure your budget, but ethan allen is a) not as expensive as one thinks (particularly if you get something that is either a floor sample or being discontinued); b) awesome; & c) certainly going to survive the kids.

artandsoul said...

My husband's idea of "do it yourself" is "hire a friend" which actually turns out to be the worst choice possible.

Hey - I LOVE your posts! All of them, life is full of all kinds of stuff, and it really is refreshing and lovely to be able to focus on someone else once in a while :)

By the way, I'm working my way through all your book reviews - and may I say I think you ought to contact a small press and see about getting them published!! What great stuff!!

Keifus said...

twif, that's news I can use. Thanks.

art, you're welcome to comment any time!

Schmutzie said...

Oh God thank you for your life-affirming analysis of Home Dumpo.

It's a daily conversation I have.

"Uh, what's better about the doors you install than the ones I can get at..."


"...Home Depot."


"Well, they look pretty much the same to me."

"Well yeah, they're both rectangular and have knobs. Other than that, one will last 30 years and the other will last 30 months."

The Pella Pro Line window is a great example of that semi- exclusive product offering you mentioned.

The actual Pella Store won't even sell it. Only when you'd visit one of their actual stores would the Pella guy explain the difference between his $700 Architect Series casement window and the $200 Pro Line over at Menards or Home Depot or whoever has the fucking contract this week.

I've taken to telling people "Look, don't take my word for it. Here's what I want you to do, go buy your door at Home Depot. Have one of their roll-of-the-dice subcontractors attempt to not damage your home while installing the door. And then, in 3 years, when that thing's falling apart, come back and let me do it the right way."

I think it's a generational thing. Our generation seems to not have learned from the one before us. That's why most of the people wandering the aisle of the big boxes are youngish. They haven't yet learned the lesson my old man taught me long ago...

"It's good or it's cheap. There is no good AND cheap."

Keifus said...

Well, I think a number of us have learned that while there is probably no good and cheap, not-good and not-cheap are all-too-frequent companions. It'd been full retail price for that awful original couch I mentioned. (It was the drink tray--I was young!) I don't necessarily mind paying if it's for quality, and I think on the Pergeaux, I'll just be paying. (And it's the only color match so far, grr...)

Twif: looked through EA today, and they had some things we like a lot. Good suggestion.