I Promise You Won't Learn A Thing From This Blog

The official blog for author Ashley Chappell. Check back every week for a few laughs at my expense or, if you know the love-hate process that is writing, commiseration.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

The Disposable State

I’m breaking form a little today with my first non-writing blog in ages. But this is a topic that has been bothering me for a long, long time.
Fall-down Fence
Photo from  loveyourbackyard.blogspot.com

Do you remember the days when making a big purchase meant making a lifetime investment? When even small purchases were quality construction and then cared for and well-maintained – that’s why we still have our grandparents’ furniture and dishes when our modern equivalents tend to be replaced on an average of less than 10 years. There was a time when it was unthinkable to not take pride in what you owned, and in taking pride you took care of it and extended the life of it as long as possible. It wasn’t that long ago that it was also unthinkable to hire a contractor without checking references, reputation, and qualifications. Especially not based simply because that contractor gave the cheapest price. That was when people knew what “You Get What You Pay For” really means. It was a warning to keep someone from making a poor investment, not a cheap grumble to make after the deed has already been done.

Not that long ago at all... But now we live in a world with so many options all vying for our attention that the focus has been switched to the cheapest option, even if it’s truly only cheaper in the short term. What happened to planning ahead, thinking ‘down the road,’ and preparing for the long term??

The reason this is bugging me right now is that I drive past examples of this every single day on the way to work. We live in a new neighborhood where construction is still ongoing, so the salesmen and other contractors still circle our new neighbors like vultures with offers of inexpensive home improvements like fences, gutters, etc. But right now it’s the fences that irk me the most. Imagine this...

Congratulations! You’ve just made a sizeable investment in the purchase of your brand new home! What’s your first big step? Maybe you should build a fence to keep your dog in and your neighbors out. But wait – do you know how to build a fence? Shucks, no. Hey, look - There’s a guy over there putting flyers on mailboxes that say he’ll beat any other price to build a fence, how convenient and cheap!

One year later... Take a drive through our neighborhood and see fence after fence already rotting because part of the cost savings they’d gotten was that the contractor didn’t stain or seal the cheap pine boards in any way. Oh, and where they didn’t cement the posts in and then didn’t even pack them tightly enough entire rows are starting to lean one direction or another. And because they only used two rows of support 2x4s and one cheap nail to hold the pine boards in each, boards are popping right off the nails everywhere you turn. Because of those cheap nails, rust is streaking down the wood because the nails aren’t even for decking. The bottoms are curling up because they were placed right on the ground because, hey, it’s easier to nail in place that way, right?

And the people who live in these nice new houses with fences that look 20 years old want to complain about the contractor they paid up front who suspiciously disappeared without giving them any kind of warranty on his work... But they’d just wanted a ‘for now’ fence at the time. It was cheap and it was good enough ‘for now,’ already thinking that they wouldn’t be in this house for more than 4 or 5 years. So why bother with it?

Why spend a good $3,000 on something that might only last you a couple of years before you have to spend almost the same amount just to keep it from falling down? And why don’t people ask themselves this before they throw the money AND resources away?

We have a fence, too. It was the first thing that Steven wanted to do, and within a couple months after he bought the house we were in the back yard getting ready with post hole diggers, cement, rot-resistant cedar fence boards, rust-resistant decking screws, and enough 2x4s for three support rows all of the way around. Not to mention many gallons of water-proofing stain. This part isn’t bragging on my part – Steven was the architect and his commitment to quality in everything he does is one of the many things I love about him. If he’s going to do something, he’s going to do it right. It took us a long time working on the weekends and after work some evenings, but because of taking the time and taking pride, we have a fence that will still look this good 20 years from now, and a prospective buyer will see that what we have done adds value.

The best part? Even though we used much higher-end materials, the total cost was cheaper than hiring a fly-by-night contractor because we did the work ourselves. And this year after we apply a new coat of stain to our beautiful fence, we’ll get to sit on the back patio and enjoy a nice glass of wine while we watch our neighbors replacing fence boards, propping up posts, and cursing the cheap and rep-less contractor they hired to do a cheap job... for doing a cheap job.

The Architect
Steven, the handsome architect, building the frame.

The Beginning
One cold day in January, but we still installed two sections of fence boards
because we were so anxious to see the fruits of our labor

Almost there
Not quite the finished product, but close! This is before
installing the lattice and staining.
Fence Girl
Steven taught me so much about carpentry
during this project. We made a great team!


  1. America is all about profit and not about work ethic anymore. Just wait until the concrete starts to flake. The reason this happens is because the mixers shorted the amount of cement (which is pricey). It still sets the concrete and only after a couple of years does it start to flake and crack all over the place. By then, those contractors are gone. Yep...cuttin' corners. But they don't pull that shit on their own homes.

  2. I have to wonder how it came to be acceptable to so many consumers, especially AFTER having experienced first hand how cheap products break, degrade, or at worst cause injuries. There is a neighborhood going up down the road for us with houses almost twice the size of ours for not much more cost at all. I fear it won't be long at all before the corners cut by those contractors become apparent.

    What will these neighborhoods like like 50 years from now? Houses built in the 50s are still standing sturdy, but where will these be?

  3. My husband and I are old school quality driven kind of people. Our house, by today's standards, is too small for our family...3 bedroom, 2 bath, full basement...and countless people have suggest we move to a bigger house. But when we tell them why we won't, they don't get it. Our house was built in 1948. Its all oak. From the floors to the boards in the walls. Our house is solid as a rock and built in a time when craftsmanship was king. That horrific storm hat blew through WV? Our house didn't even rattle.

    1. Can you imagine what a quality home like that would cost today? There are contractors in this area who thrive in the county area where the codes aren't enforced. We hear stories about sagging headers, improper struts, leaky plumbing, and (of course) absolutely no insulation.

      But they shouldn't complain too much... they DID get what they paid for.

  4. Ashley, I agree that good fences make great neighbors or whatever the saying might be and it looks like a lot of work. Congratulations on getting quality labor. :)

    1. Thanks so much! But don't you wish sometimes you could have a 10' fence for certain neighbors? ;-) Steven stopped and took a picture for me in the neighborhood of one of the new fences that's already filled with new boards next to the slightly less rotted boards. It makes it look a bit like a gap-toothed grin...

  5. It's really sad how good work has lost much of its value to green bucks. But we know better and thank God for that!

    1. You aren't kidding... it breaks my heart. I can't say that I've always been so thorough, but after you have to throw away new inexpensive products that you can't even get your money out of a few times, you either learn your lesson or you just keep shelling out money to buy new crap :-)


"Feedback is the breakfast of champions." - Ken Blanchard