The phone rang earlier than usual that morning. It was still dark outside.
The voice on the other end crackled to life. “I’m not sure if you can help me…we seem to have a problem with our house.”
“What type of problem?”
“The ceiling upstairs is cracking and the windows on the level below won’t work.”
“Do you have any idea what might be the cause?”
“We just bought the house not that long ago. We found a leak in the basement, but that can’t be it…can it?” I could feel her uncertainty from where I sat at my desk. Nothing is scarier than having a problem with your house and no idea of the source.
When plumbing leaks, the plumber points to it and gives a price to fix it. When a light stops working, the electrician gives the homeowner a price to fix the wiring. When a ceiling cracks, it could be any number of things.
“I’ll dispatch someone right away,” I said, hanging up the phone to call our carpenter.
I called the homeowner back, “He’ll be right over.”
The homeowners watched from their window as he pulled the truck into the driveway. He grabbed his clipboard, camera, and a few tools. Before walking to the door, he looked up at the towering house. A modern construction of gables and pricey trim, the expensively crafted rooflines complicated the picture. A gust of wind swirled dead leaves around his feet. It would snow soon. The front door eased open, and Mr. Homeowner stepped out to explain the situation.
The family walked our carpenter through their beautiful home: floors carpeted with the highest quality coverings, granite countertops, and glossy bathroom fixtures right out of a magazine. Everything seemed in order. No, it seemed better than in order. Everything was perfect. But something lurked underneath it all-- something waiting to cost the family and untold price.
“You said there was a leak in the basement?” Our carpenter asked the fidgeting homeowner.
“Yes,” he admitted. “I don’t think it could be the problem though. That’s all the way in the basement.” He met our carpenter’s eyes, hope leaching out of his expression with each passing second.
“Let’s take a look.”
They eased into the dark unfinished space. A fluorescent light flickered to life. The homeowner pointed to the dried evidence: a ring on the floor.
Our carpenter bent, reaching down, testing the concrete for dampness, the wall for fissures. He ran his hand up along the rough, unpainted, poured wall and felt his way into the dark cavity above. The insulation melted between his fingertips. He brought his hand back, rubbing the mildew laced water onto his jeans. The homeowner took a step back.
“Not sure.” Our carpenter grabbed a flashlight out of his tool bag and shined it into the dark, cavernous space. He pulled out the obscuring insulation. Accompanied by a sodden slap, it dropped to the floor in a soggy, pink heap. He reached in again, glancing back to the homeowner before pulling his hand out.
The support structure of the house crumbled, wet, into the palm of his hand. The towering home above was disintegrating, deteriorating to a pulpous sludge. The ceiling on the second floor was cracking because the house was sinking.
The homeowner paled knowing the fix would cost him dearly. His wife called from the top of the stairs.
Our carpenter had to say it. He had to say the one thing every homeowner dreads. He could fix it, and he could give him an estimate, but the final bill would be based on Time and Materials.
Mrs. Homeowner covered her mouth and turned away. She busied herself with the children, coloring at the kitchen table, blissfully unaware of the horror brewing just a few feet away.
“I guess we don’t have a choice,” Mr. Homeowner said. He closed the door behind our carpenter who promised to return the next day.
The next morning our carpenter showed up on time. He brought more equipment than Mr. Homeowner had anticipated. He ripped siding off, removed the window, and tore off shingles. He brought someone else to help, and they cut away the rotted wood. They jacked up the side of the house and slid new supports into place. The homeowner went to work, counting the mounting expenses, hoping for a miracle.
Later, our carpenter called me at the office. “My hours are in. Can you create the invoice?”
With trepidation, I collected the receipts, typing the numbers into the spread sheet, calculating the hours, watching the total at the bottom grow with every new line item.
The last number in, I hesitatingly scrolled to the bottom of the sheet. It wasn’t cheap. Slowly, I flipped open the file, hoping our carpenter was close in his estimate, sending a quick prayer that we wouldn’t have to terrify the homeowners with a heart stopping, Christmas destroying, surprise.
“Oh.” I flipped back to the front of the contract, checking again, comparing it to my spreadsheet.
Twenty bucks. The time and materials estimate was within twenty bucks.
I let out the breath I’d been holding and sat back. I’d forgotten. I worked for Degnan Design Builders. These people know how to estimate.
I hit print, emailed the invoice to the homeowner, and smiled, knowing the homeowners would be thrilled.
I guess there’s no horror story here…sorry. Happy Halloween!