Monday, January 21, 2008

New Home

You might have picked up in my last post that I am going through transition. It’s personal and I won’t go into detail, but at least I am taking some pleasure getting my new place livable. No use moaning and groaning.

A few months ago, when I realized I was going to have to find a new place I wrote about how some here were suffering from sticker shock. Well, that included me. Aside from the dollar's crash the costs of housing in Angeles City have skyrocketed, so it’s a double whammy. Much of the increase I believe is speculation based on high hopes that the opening up of the international airport at Clark, combined with the soon to be completed highway to the sea at Subic, will cause this place to explode with new industry and people looking to live here near the airport. Primarily, I think it’s the influx of Koreans. They’ve decided to move here en masse and housing costs reflect that.

When expense is foremost, finding a house to live in can be tricky. You don’t really have a system of realtors here, so it’s just a matter of staying out there and knocking on doors. Truthfully, when you’re a white guy in the Phils it’s not so useful for you to do the knocking. Find a local person you can trust to do it and stay in the shadows. Anyway, it worked for me. After a week of searching, "I" found this little house with its “big yard.” The yard was important for my girls to have a place to kick up their heels, and by local standards of size it’s not bad; although in the US some might call it a postage stamp.

No offense to my Filipino friends, but some locals had been living here and from the look of it, keeping it up was not one of their priorities. Frankly, they “lived” it into the ground. What a wreck! But, there IS a plus side to that since the landlady was delighted at the prospect that an American would move in. I’ll explain. We tend to make improvements to rental properties while locals don’t. It’s as simple as that.

Chris, a young Filipino kid, and his wife lived here. My “agent” had stopped by here everyday for two days and at all the other homes around here and nothing—he was never home. Then, on the third day, just like in the New Testament, my agent had a hunch and stopped by one more time. Now, the news was that he had a short notice job offer in Australia and needed to move out quick. They were paying P9K a month and the word was that the rent would now bump up to P10K. I took one look at the place and even though it was a dingy dirty mess I snapped it up. Immediately, I forked over the down payment, about $300, to make sure it was mine. Done!

Here’s what I saw when I first looked the house over. It’s tiny. The master bedroom and bath is small and unfortunately it's in the front near the street just on the other side of my short front wall. There’s a small covered carport out front, just big enough for my small Japanese sedan.

The other bedroom is just across from a small dividing portico. By the way, this small bedroom is where I happened to look into on New Year’s Eve only to see a hand poking in through the freshly torn window screen in the dark. I made a dash back to my room looking for my bolo meaning to get me a severed hand souvenier for the New Year, but by the time I scrambled back the probing pawing hand and forearm was gone. I ran outside hoping to trap me a "varmint," but he must have heard me, dang it. But I was not to forget. I made a mental note to do something about securing that side of my new house first thing possible.

The dining room and living room are one in the same and take up the largest space, basically a big rectangle. The windows on that side look out over the rectangular yard. The house itself is a rectangle. Hmmm.

It took more than a week to paint every wall and cieling and to scour clean every dingy surface. If I wasn’t renting I’d simply change out all the tiles in both bathrooms. I still need a simple surefire way to turn grey grout back to white. Its clean now, but I don’t think they ever scrubbed their bathroom floors even once. It shows.

The first thing I did was to install a high-powered exhaust fan in each of the two baths and one in the kitchen. I don’t know how anyone can have a bathroom without fans, if you know what I mean. I put the kitchen fan right next to the stove—common sense right?

Out the back door is a cement walk breezeway separating a very large added on utility room from the rest of the house. My first thought was that this back room would make the perfect new master bedroom after a few key modifications. To the left, the breezeway runs into the side alley between the house and the neighbor’s 9-foot cement block wall. That’s where the thief had stood on New Years. There is already a gate blocking the alley access to the front, but it was wide open the other way.

Out the back door to the right was a step down to a grassless area where a concrete square and water spigot was used to handwash laundry. Right next to the side of the utility hut was a large decrepit swing. I won’t describe it; see it in the photo.

What most delighted me were the three large shade trees, two mangos and a jack fruit, also located just outside the back door to the right. The branches had never been trimmed and the relief from the sun was fantastic. But, I made the classic error that many foreigners make here. I left instructions on how I wanted them trimmed and left. The lesson: Never EVER leave!

I came back a few hours later and felt a mix of two conflicting emotions—extreme sorrow and absolute consuming rage. Higgedly-piggedly, they had hacked off every limb they could reach and then climbed higher and hacked off more. It was the most wretched example of tree pruning I had ever seen. My trees were butchered almost beyond repair. I kept my anger to myself and filed the experience away under “never again.”

I found the perfect contractor to do all the cement and iron work that I knew I wanted done as part of my “plan.” At first, my electrician brought over a couple of guys from the hotel where he works and after about an hour of conversation I dismissed them. They said it would take three weeks and they wanted WAY too much. The perfect guy turns out to be the brother-in-law of a friend and he’s a keeper. I’ll be using him for everything I need done except electrical work.

The day after I shook hands with this wonderful fellow he showed up with his 4-man crew. I was still languishing in bed at 7 am when I heard them outside digging and quietly chatting. I was delighted.

First step, move a water line to the side alley and have a large cement slab put down for the laundry and washing machine area. They had all that done the first day.

Next, I wanted a back porch made of a secure “iron cage” and screened from top to bottom to keep the flies and mosquitoes out. One of the largest trees is right next to the back utility room. I wasn't about to cut it down, so at first I figured we’d have to keep the back side of the porch just to the front side of that tree. Then my contractor suggested that I let him build the porch around it. I loved it!

“Yeah! Do that!” I told him.

No wonder I love this guy,’ I thought. ‘He knows exactly what I want BEFORE I even tell him.’

“Keep reading my mind,” I said enthusiastically.

I began taking lots of photos with my new Sony Cybershot. I wanted to be able to keep for posterity the progression of improvements. I took hundreds of shots. Then, disaster. I ended up with lots of pictures of the before, and of the after, but I lost hundreds of the “in betweens.” I’m still sick about it. I don’t know if it was the memory stick or the camera, but suddenly hundreds of shots were just gone. I couldn’t believe it. I spent hours trying to “find” them on the stick, but they just weren’t there. Nothing online helped me either. The lesson: “Do NOT wait to download. Get them in the computer every night, if not sooner.” Dammit!

The ongoing iron work efforts were a wonder to behold. The guys brought in hundreds of pounds of long pieces of steel rods, aluminum tube and beam-making material; in days they turned it into a work of artisanship. I never once heard a power tool. All cutting was done by hand with a hacksaw. To join all the pieces together they used a small electric arc welder. They did all this onsite, either on the ground, balancing on a ladder, or squatting precariously on a beam they had just welded up into place.

At first, I was a bit reluctant to watch them work, feeling kind of self conscious that they might resent it. I always feel guilty about watching other people work. It just doesn’t feel right. But the contractor said he preferred my presence. He wanted me there for every step of fabrication and building, because he said he didn’t want to have to guess what my preferences are.

Soon, I really got into it. It’s amazing how ideas sprang into my head as I saw the work advance. Initially, I made hesitant suggestions to him. But after he reacted positively to every idea and incorporated everything I wanted, soon, I found myself approaching him every 15 minutes with new design possibilities. He would just nod his head, tell me how much more it would cost, and then I’d give him the “never mind” or the “go ahead.” It was cool.

We were done with this, the “first phase,” in a just over a week. Now, the back utility room is completely incorporated into the main house by a system of "iron works" gates and walls; the gates are all lockable and the whole “cage” is protected from flying insects with screening. The indoor trunk of the mango tree is a super neat touch. I’m going to train vines around it and I think I’ll get some small birds to live and fly around the inside of the screen porch area to add the aviary touch.

I’ve still got lots to do, but it all takes time and money. “Patience, one thing at a time” is my motto. The cement block yard walls are ugly so I plan on putting up a bamboo wall to cover it. The utility room is now safe and secure as is the entire side of the house where the thief tried to snatch what he could that night. To secure it I put a 9-foot high iron works gate topped with super sharp spikes between the porch and the back wall. That prevents all access to the side alley. Nothing can make one perfectly safe here, but it keeps the casual thieves at bay. The only way to really keep your things from being stolen is to have a trustworthy person in the house at all times. It’s the ONLY way to roll here.

A future phase is to put a little bathroom into the utility room, change the windows to louvers and move my bed back there. The plan is to incorporate the porch and back bedroom into a single living space. It’s going to be great getting away from the street side of the house and to be able to get up in the morning and in a moment find myself drinking coffee in my screenen-in aviary porch with my future little bird friends
trying to dive bomb my coffee. Someday…

To see all the home improvement photos go to my Flickr site of the same name. I suggest the slide show feature.


Ed said...

Looking good although I don't know if I could get used to the caged in feeling.

Out of curiosity, how did they create a joint between the trunk of the mango tree and the ceiling? If the tree gets larger in diameter isn't it going to girdle itself and die?

KA said...

wow... i gotta tell you that is way nicer than anything we had in the philippines. very nice

PhilippinesPhil said...

Edward, Flies and mosquitoes make eating breakfast and drinking my coffee in the comfort of my "cage" a blessing. I guess they don't have bugs like that up in Baguio.

No, they started to cut into the sap wood and I had to give them a quick botany lesson. Most of these people do not understand trees. Their ignorance is amazing to me. I guess because they are all mostly townees. Everything is fitted close to the trunk, or as close as possible. We also used a goopy rubbery sealant around the tree at the roof and some flashing. If a little water comes in, no problem; I had them put a drain in right next to the tree on the down gravity side.
And its gonna get a whole lot nicer Kat, and thanks.

Amadeo said...

Phil, you have your priorities right for safe living over there. Home security is really paramount there given the prevalence of petty thievery, even among neighbors.

It does feel like a caged-in environment, but so long as ventilation around the house is okay that should be no problem.

So is this location outside of Angeles City? And if so, is that the reason why rental rates are cheaper?

And Filipinos will be Filipinos wherever they may roam. In Daly City, iron grilles/grates on doors and windows are the common sight because many FilAms live there. The city had to pass laws for provisions of escape hatches/latches on grilles for emergency purposes.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Its not just a Filipino thing. Most of the world lives like this, inside compounds, behind walls and gates; ever alert against thieves and worse.

Sidney said...

Wow! That is what I call a good tenant ! Amazing that you invest that much in a house you rent.

PhilippinesPhil said...

I'll probably be living here for two or three years Sidney. Might as well make it nice. I don't have the 5 or 6 million pesos to buy one, and even if I did, I wouldn't pay it. The market is way too inflated here. No thanks.