110 West 123 Collapses To The Ground

A little after 4pm today Dan and I felt what I thought was an earthquake. Our whole building did a quick, but major shake. It wasn’t an earthquake – a building down the street form ours (110 West 123rd Street) collapsed to the ground – only about 15 minutes after Dan walked past the building…

building collapse

A permit to do structural work had been pulled a few weeks ago, and they had started work earlier this week. First a construction fence, and then I saw the ground floor was pretty much gutted. Given what I had seen I thought for a moment about calling 311 and asking that a structural inspector check out the job to make sure everything is safe. But I didn’t call. Lesson learned on that one. Guess there are times when being a meddlesome neighbor is a good thing.

There was an empty lot to the left (east) and the block association’s community garden to the right (west). The building was sold late last September for $600,000. The last two SRO tenants had stopped living there around November, and the new owner put it on the market for $1.1M in December.

I had taken a couple clients through the house back in December/January. There were serious structural problems evident in the cellar. Here are some pictures of what the foundation looked like…

bracing to support failing structure

In the picture above you can see that they had put bracing in to support the structure that was failing. You can also see that a portion of the foundation had failed and was patched with cinder blocks.

In the picture below you can see another part of the foundation that failed was patched with brick…

brick patch of foundation

One of the times I went through it our contractor joined us. He told us he was “scared of the building”. That it was the type of building that could collapse without warning if you messed with it. He wasn’t worried so much about the patches as he was about parts of the foundation where the mortar was missing…

missing mortar in foundation

All in all it was VERY spooky to be in that cellar. You could just feel trouble. It wasn’t just that it was dark and dank – I go through a lot of places like that. It was all the bracing and patching.

The problems with the building were evident even outside the building. We were in the community garden next door a few weeks ago and I snapped this photo of the corner of the building…

problems at corner

Stuff like that just isn’t good – especially when combined with a wonky foundation.

The extension you see in the picture above is actually interesting. It hadn’t settled, but the rest of the building had. So at one point the floor sloped rather dramatically – probably went up 9 inches over as many feet.

The origin of the problems is that the townhouse used to be part of a row of townhouses, but over time all but this one were torn down. It was never designed to be a freestanding house. To be a freestanding house it needed a lot of reinforcement.

Our contractor said it would be best to tear the place down and start over. If it had to be salvaged you’d have to cocoon it and put walls all around it. Problem is, the garden folks didn’t want to give up land, and the party wall on the other side was already 6″ over the property line. I’m not sure there was really a way to save this building. At most, the façade could have been braced and the rest of the building demolished.

I will say it’s unusually lucky that the workers had left the site when the collapse happened and the community garden was closed and locked. Apparently no one was even walking past. While demolition was most likely what was needed – there are cheaper ways to demolish a building. The City is going to want to get paid all the overtime for their workers. NYPD, FDNY, Parks Department, etc. Apparently right now they’re taking every piece of the building out, spreading it on the street to look for body parts and anything else that can help them in their investigation – how much is that going to cost?

Inside it was a grand townhouse – 20 foot wide. There were some incredible fireplaces…

great old fireplace

And a grand staircase…

The ceilings were really high, and on parlor there were some that had great plaster work…

In fact the ceilings were so high that the 5th floor could see over it’s neighbors to the south – all the way to midtown.

It’s sad to see buildings like this die, but alas, it happens…

Wood Stairwell Screen Is Going In

Probably the biggest architectural design statement in our house is our staircase. A big part of that is a wooden “screen” that extends over 30 feet creating a bit of a wall in the stair hallways as you go up. It’s made out of the old floor joists from the building, so it’s our stab at “original details”, since we had none to start with inside the house.

stairwell screen out of reclaimed lumber

Clearly it’s the rustic element in the stairwell. Here’s another shot looking from the other side…

wood stairwell screen

(The electrical cord wrapping around it is temporary.)

There are still curvy/organic frosted plexiglass panels that have to be installed. The architect went over proper installation with the contractor today – so they’ll be in soon.

Master Bathroom Is Pretty Much Done…

We’re at a stage where rooms are starting to be complete, but they don’t look complete ’cause they’re dirty, so today I cleaned all the windows and cleaned up the master bathroom while Dan spent time vacuuming… We’re getting there…

The master bathroom is pretty much done – here’s what it looks like…

Master bathroom

We’re not 100% convinced we picked the right color for the wall – it’s a bit purple, which wasn’t our objective. And clearly, we still need a toilet seat on the toilet.

While some people do elaborate “spa” bathrooms, our bathroom is pretty basic and functional. There are a few little things we added… There’s a handheld shower nozzle that still has to be mounted on the wall, but that’s minor. And you can just see the linear shower drain in the shower. In the shower there’s a little inset with shelves where we can put soap & shampoo…

shower shelves

The glass in the window is wire glass, but the window is plastic (since it’s in a shower). I’m hoping we don’t have a problem on inspection with not having a sprinkler head in front of the window (since it’s on a lot line). Our architects researched it pretty well and we were told either wire glass or a sprinkler head was what was needed, but friend just had DOB tell them they needed both. Fingers crossed on that one!

We don’t need any frosting on the window since there’s no one who can see in – just a brick wall a few feet away. But as you can see in the picture there’s still a fair amount of light that gets in despite the window being in a narrow alleyway.

Looking at the bathroom from another perspective (from inside the shower), you see this…

Sink & Toilet in master bathroom

There’s a few things to notice. First is the green handle on the flushometer… It’s a dual-flush flushometer. If you pull up it puts out less water than if you push down. But we had to find a wall-hung toilet that could be flushed with 0.9 gal of water – that wasn’t easy.

Next is the positioning of the faucet… The sink is off-center of the cabinet, so we were a bit worried how that would look, but I think it looks OK…

Off-center faucet

Another thing to notice is the overflow on the sink… NYC requires that or else you can’t have a stopper on the drain.

So at some point we’ll change the color of the wall, but that will be after we move in. Otherwise, it’s pretty much done as soon as we get a toilet seat and the handheld shower head and some towel bars get installed.

Drama With The Floors Delays Our Move In

A week and a half ago our contractor pointed out that some of the varnish that was put on the floors (Bona Traffic HD) was peeling up. The parts that I saw initially were around the edges and I thought it was just because tape had been put on the floors before everything had cured, but it turns out it was a far bigger problem than that…

When we were in the design phase we looked at a lot of pictures of white oak floors. What we both agreed looked best (to us) were whitish floors. Not too white, but just a bit more white than a natural finish. Dan did a some research and found that Rubio Monocoat had a 5% option that should do the trick.

So we started with that and then the question was what varnish should we use. Monocoat, as the name implies, is a one step floor finish, but we were concerned that wouldn’t be enough. We wanted an oil-based varnish put on top, but the contractor and his floor guy talked us into a water-based varnish.

Dan did some more research and found that Bona had a really good reputation. We figured their two part, high traffic version (Bona Traffic HD) would be a good choice and would wear the best. The floor guy liked Bona, so that’s what we went with.

Dan also called and checked and Bona said there would be no problem putting it over Monocoat, but as it turned out – that was just wrong. What we’ve found is the two products are completely incompatible. Once we started looking more closely the Bona was already coming up in a variety of places and just a light abrasion would make it come up just about anywhere.

Unfortunately, by the time we figured it out there were already two coats of Bona on all the floors and nearly all the stairs. So we had about 4,000 sq. ft. of floors that had to be fixed. The floor guy suggested sanding everything down and starting over, but we asked the contractor to test by “screening” the floors (basically a light abrasion pad on a buffing machine). Remarkably that took up about 95% of the Bona – so that’s how we proceeded.

When all the Bona is off, the floors are beautiful – they’re exactly what we were hoping for – a strong hint of white… The photos don’t quite do it justice, but I think you get at least a hint of what it’s like…

white oak floor in gallery

What’s really cool is that Monocoat leaves the floors looking unfinished when they’re actually quite well sealed. Some people on forums say the floors look “hungry”, but as we saw with the Bona – things don’t stick to it.

The other thing that’s cool about Monocoat is that it can be spot fixed. If there’s a problem you just give the area a light sanding and then put some more Monocoat in that area. You can’t over stain a floor with Monocoat because Monocoat won’t stick to itself.

So unfortunately, we had the floors just how we needed them when we put Monocoat on, and then we managed to mess them up with Bona. Taking all the Bona off is taking time. We were supposed to move in today, but this has delayed that. After 6 days trying to fix the problem they’ve gotten the stairs all fixed and 3 of the 4 floors in our unit. Fixing the floor in the rental will happen after we move in.

Dan starts spring break at the end of the week. We’re hoping we can sorta move in middle of next week, with a proper move-all-our-stuff around the middle of the month. Fingers crossed nothing else comes up as a major issue…

Blog posts will be a little sparse until we’re ready to move in. I’m starting to see why all the make over shows have a bit of a blackout right before it’s all done – there are certain things that just don’t show well in pictures at the end because they’re covered with paper, or dusty. As soon as things are uncovered and cleaned up I’ll take pictures do more posts…

What To Do When You Get A Mechanic’s Lien

[This blog post is not “legal advice” – readers should consult a lawyer for all legal matters. Instead, this blog posts reflects what Dan and I, as homeowners, have learned by going through the process of having liens put on our homes and being sued by contractors.]

Our townhouse got its first (and hopefully only) mechanics lien last month. Our contractor decided to not have his stair subcontractor (and “friend” – Adam Wedrychoski of ABC Stairs Builders Corp – aka “Traditional Stairs Corp”) complete the stairs because he was too expensive and the budgets had gotten tight. Adam got disgruntled and is now going after us for $9,600.

We’ve gone through this before when the contractor for our apartment remodel (Bill Angelov of ABS Construction) went after us a few years ago (a blog post is pending on that one). We were amused that Adam Wedrychoski / ABC Stairs Builders even used the same lien service Bill Angelov / ABS Construction had used – Speedy Lien. Unfortunately the New York court system, and companies like Speedy Lien, make it so disgruntled workmen/contractors/subcontractors can put liens on your property without any proof that they have a legitimate claim.

This isn’t a horrible thing… Liens are good in that they alert purchasers of a property that there may be claims on a property. They also insure that people who add value to a property are compensated when the owner sells the property. But ultimately, they’re just a first step and the workman / contractor / sub-contractor needs to prove their claim in court.

In this case Adam Wedrychoski / Traditional Stairs Corp has no basis for putting a lien on our property. He has no contract with us, nor was there an implied contract with us (e.g. we never paid him directly). He was a subcontractor working for our contractor. If he had talked to a lawyer, he would know that all he is legally entitled to do is sue our contractor. We do have a contract with our contractor, but every time he gets a payment from us he signs a lien waiver stating that all of his subcontractors have been fully paid.

The amount of the lien doesn’t even make sense – which seems typical of liens by Speedy Lien… He took the total amount he would have been paid if he had completed the job, subtracted what he had been paid, and then put a lien on us for the difference. So he’s essentially asking for money for work he didn’t do. Thankfully our court system doesn’t think the same way Adam does.

When we contacted Wells Fargo (the lending bank for our mortgage), what they said worried us – they stop all payments of any kind if there is a lien in place. They wanted us to “settle” with Adam Wedrychoski / ABC Stairs Builders Corp and they erroneously told us that they don’t accept bonds.

Thing is, bonding the lien is the correct way to deal with the situation. It’s actually sort of cool how bonds work… You contact a surety agent (ours is Elmer Hyde Agency), and give them 110% of the lien amount plus a few hundred in fees. They bond the lien, and you file that paperwork along with some other affidavits with a clerk at the court building (harder than it sounds) and the lien is discharged. Once the lien is discharged, it no longer exists. That means your title is clean and your bank will be happy.

If the workman/contractor/subcontractor sues you and the court finds in his/her favor, the bond is used to pay the judgement and you get whatever is left over. Liens are for one year and they can be renewed once – so they can only exist for two years total. If the workman/contractor/subcontractor doesn’t sue you during that time, then you get the bond amount back with interest. However, the workman/contractor/subcontractor can sue you for up to 6 years (in NY), but after the bond expires, s/he just has to hope that you can still pay.

While it may seem odd to welcome a lawsuit, we’ve been through the process before and our attitude is “bring it on”. Adam Wedrychoski / Traditional Stairs Corp is in an impossibly difficult position. Because he is a corporation he is not allowed to show up in court without a lawyer. Because lawyers typically take a percentage of the settlement, they won’t take the case on unless they think they’ll get paid. They would typically get 1/3rd – and 1/3rd of $9,600 ($3,200) isn’t enough for them to bother with the case. And that assumes they’ll get the full amount – which they know they won’t. That means the only  way Adam Wedrychoski / ABC Stairs Builders Corp can get a lawyer, and hence the only way he can sue us, is if he pays his lawyer hourly. Bottom line – he will lose a substantial amount of money if he tries to sue us.

While Adam Wedrychoski / Traditional Stairs Corp has to have a lawyer, we’re individuals, so we can represent ourselves (this is one of the advantages of not putting our building in an LLC). The courts are very lenient with pro se defendants – there are actually judges that only hear cases with pro se defendants. Plus pro se defendants can go in and get free help with filing paperwork, etc. So while it can be time consuming to show up at all the hearings, it doesn’t actually cost us much of anything. Meanwhile he’s paying his lawyer hourly, so if you do the math its in our best interest to drag things out and have as many hearings and motions as possible. 😉

If Adam Wedrychoski / ABC Stairs Builders Corp sues us, the first thing we’ll do is a show cause motion – making him prove that he has standing to sue us. He will fail because he can’t produce a contract with us. No contract = no enforceable terms.

Incidentally, people often think that the loser pays the winners attorney fees, but that’s not the case at all (at least not in New York). That only happens if you have a written contract saying that’s what you agreed to – and of course Adam Wedrychoski / Traditional Stairs / ABC Stairs Builders has no contract with us. That is why we’re confident Adam will lose money if he pursues this, but it gets better…

If he does survive the show cause motion, our next step will be a counter suit. The stairs in the rental are not according to plan – they’re too narrow (the stringers are not flush with the sheetrock), and they’re made of red oak, not white oak. On top of that, the stairs in our unit are not square and the contractor had to correct a number of things that Adam / Traditional Stairs didn’t quite get right. In fact things are so bad our architect suggested either we or our contractor sue him for everything he’s received – about $20,000. At one point we detailed a whole list of things that we wanted him to fix and he never came back to fix them – instead the contractor had to take care of it.

In case you’re wondering, Adam’s / ABC Stairs Builders Corp’s lien is an attempt to get paid for having to fabricate and install the flight of stairs from the parlor to the 2nd floor three times. When this was all going down we insisted that he do shop drawings, he refused and promised to fix any problems that resulted from not having shop drawings. I even mentioned that understanding up in a blog post. He even started before our architect gave him the green light. If he had just waited for approval to start we could have avoided at least one of those fabrication/installs. Plus, we’ll have our contractor, and our architects testifying that that we did in fact insist on shop drawings and that he agreed to fix anything that was a problem.

There is simply no way he can win his case, but I’m pretty sure we can win a fair amount of money on our counter suit. That means if he sues us, between lawyers fees and our counter suit, it will be a lose-lose proposition for him. Which is why our attitude is “bring it on”…

Thing is, all of this affects our contractor more than it affect us. The contractor is liable for the actions of his sub-contractors – including any liens they put on us. So the bond money is coming out of what he would have gotten at the end of the project. All Adam has accomplished with the lien is hurting someone who used to consider him a friend.

The bottom line is, be careful in dealing with contractors and subcontractors. Lien waivers and receipts of “final payment” are always a good idea. And summarize important conversations in writing/email after they occur so there’s documentation. Then when you get a mechanics lien, just bond it and put the ball back in the workman/contractor/subcontractor’s court.

Honestly, I think a lot of (sub)contractors don’t understand the process and have never heard of a bond. They just hear that liens scare some homeowners into settling. They don’t understand that they may actually have to sue the homeowner to get any money. They definitely don’t seem to understand that filing a lien starts a process which could result in them losing a considerable amount of money…

As a homeowner just realize you don’t have to settle with someone who is putting a lien on your property to harass and intimidate you – you can bond the lien and regain the upper hand in the situation.