Posted in Austin, Texas, Cooking, Family Life, Uncategorized

(Wo)man in the Mirror

After Trump’s decision to leave the Paris accord, chatter has increased about what individuals, cities, states, and companies can do to abide by our pledges. This article from Forbes has a clear list of ways all of us can help. I already do a bunch of these things: the majority of my wardrobe is secondhand from charity shops (I love Savers in Austin, TX–can’t wait to go there whenever we visit next!), we have a car but only use it a few times a week as we prefer walking and public transportation, and we buy as much organic, local food as we can afford (hello, weekly farm box delivery).

But I still think there’s more we can do. In particular, I’m going to renew my focus on eating vegetarian and vegan meals at least 2 days/week (or six meals in total). My husband and I were both vegetarians for a long time before we met, and while we do eat meat now, we work hard to minimize the amount of animal products we eat while also paying attention to what we replace them with (e.g. more fruits and veg, rather than highly processed substitutes).

Cooking from scratch takes time and energy (and usually adds to the workload of women/moms), so when I find pretty easy recipes that are also vegan/vegetarian and yummy, I hang on to them for dear life. While I like cookbooks, I actually prefer recipes from bloggers because I find them easier to replicate in my own kitchen. Here are three of our favorite vegan (or easily made vegan) recipes from other bloggers:

Sweet Potato Taquitos: This recipe is our newest addition and my current favorite! I use a blend of sweet potato and butternut squash, but you don’t have to. I find them easy to make AND super easy to freeze, so I always double or triple this recipe and save the extra. We eat them with guacamole, black beans, and rice.

Slow Cooker Morrocan Eggplant: Super easy to make, and while you do have to hunt down the spice blend depending on where you live (in the US, I’ve found it at HEB, Central Market, and Whole Foods; in the UK, our local Sainsbury’s and Ocado both carry it), it lasts for ages. We like it with couscous.

White Girl Dahl: Easy and so, so delicious. This one is my husband’s fave out of the three. Pick any butter substitute (we just used veg oil) for the start of the recipe and skip the added butter at the end to make it vegan. We had smoked paprika roasted cauliflower on the side (chop up a head of cauliflower, toss in a couple tablespoons of oil with plenty of smoked paprika, salt and pepper to taste, roast for about 20-25 min) and naan.

So there you have it: three ways to be a climate activist. New recipes welcome in the comments section!

Posted in Austin, Texas, House renovation

Hiring a Contractor: 6 Tips for Beginners

Two years ago, I was nearly 42 weeks pregnant with my second little one and every hour stretched into eternity. Those extra weeks past my due date were exhausting, but probably really helpful in the long run: we’d only just finished our South Austin home renovation, and in our last-minute panic spare time, we set up the house and adjusted to our new space.

And here I am, reminiscing about my baby-turned-toddler, and contemplating a second renovation project here in London. I can hardly believe it, but it’s got me thinking about how we got started in Austin. The first big step, sometimes even before picking a property, is looking for a reliable contractor. But if you’re a total beginner, where do you start?! Here’s how we chose our guy in Austin:

#1: Look for someone with reviews. We started by looking for companies with reviews on Houzz and Yelp. I’d eliminate anyone who didn’t have four stars and up, and often eliminated companies without at least 5-10 solid reviews. We were inexperienced, and we didn’t want to hire someone who might also be inexperienced! Then I scanned the reviews for key words and phrases: “on budget”, “on time”, “polite”, “respectful”, “professional”, “quality”. I also paid attention to the scope of the project(s) mentioned – if a company only had experience with huge, big-budget projects (or the opposite), they probably weren’t going to work for us. (More on this later.) We were looking for someone who dealt with modest additions and home renovations.

#2: Check their website and portfolio. After looking at reviews, I headed to the company’s website to see how they described themselves and the type of work they wanted to do. There’s no point in hiring a contractor who wants to work on million dollar projects to do your modest project, because the minute something bigger comes along, you’re likely to be ignored. Some people might argue that all contractors have to start somewhere, and I’m sure this is true with some companies, but I didn’t want our house (and life savings) to be ceremoniously dumped if a juicier option appeared. I also looked at photos of projects they’d completed: did it look like our style? Did it look like quality work?

#3: Make sure they’re registered with the Better Business Bureau. This type of organization may seem less important in the days of Yelp, etc. but to me, it’s a sign of integrity. Your local BBB will log and handle disputes between customers and businesses, and you can check if a company is registered (and for how long) and that company’s history here:

#4: Read between the lines. I called one company and had a super short chat with a partner there. He gave me their pitch, I told him what we wanted, and he said, we don’t do projects under $250k. (He also said, we don’t build things that fall down, which made me laugh. Like, those are the two alternatives: a house that collapses or a super-high-end architectural masterpiece.) Thank you, goodbye.

One company with a reputation for doing mid-range, high-style projects couldn’t return our calls. Message received.

We found a contractor we really liked, and on their website, they featured a remodel for a house one street over from ours. The style looked great and they had a strong reputation – sounds great, right? We held a meeting at their office and went over our plans. The guy was totally unenthusiastic and his ballpark estimate was definitely out of our price range. When we asked him about the house in our neighborhood, he kind of shrugged and dismissed the question until we brought it up again. Turns out that project was for a family member – someone’s sister-in-law. Suddenly, the guy’s attitude made more sense: they didn’t usually work with our style of house (that is, 1960s ranch – they preferred older homes) and they didn’t usually work with our budget. We moved on.

The next contractor was a guy in his 50s: very friendly, professional, great reputation – he met me at the house to discuss our plans. His estimate was 50% over the top of our budget and didn’t even include everything we wanted. He told me it wasn’t possible to get what we wanted for our budget. He also had a six month lead time before he could even begin to work on our project.

I started to think that contractors were overbidding for our project because they didn’t want it – and I was right. Austin is a highly competitive market for anything involving real estate. Successful contractors with a lot of capital have their pick of projects, and ours simply wasn’t glamorous or expensive enough to justify their time, so they jacked up their prices to discourage us (or rake in a big profit if we agreed, I guess).  Once I learned to think about our project from a contractor’s point of view, the process became much easier. I started pitching our project as the Toyota of home renovations: I’m not looking for a luxury product, just something functional and reliable made with safe, quality materials (and a hint of design). The pace started to pick up, and the next contractor I spoke with was “the one.”

#5: Choose someone you respect – and who respects you. You’re going to spend a lot (A LOT) of time talking with your contractor, so pick someone you respect. Between my husband and me, I knew I’d be the person working most closely with our contractor. He worked full-time and I was a “stay-at-home” mom. (Of course, anyone who’s done that job while pregnant knows it’s hardly a walk in the park, but it was more flexible than my husband’s schedule.)

Also, my husband really didn’t have the vision for this project. He was on board, but he couldn’t see it. He also had very little experience with construction, whereas I’d grown up with a Mr. Fix It dad (also an engineer) and worked with Habitat For Humanity, so I felt more confident talking about the process. So I needed a contractor who I wanted to work with AND one who was willing to work with me – not so easy, it turns out.

All of the contractors we met were male. Most of them were at least a decade (more like two) older than I was. If my husband was in the room, they spoke to him – even if I’d asked the question. One contractor – the one who overbid to discourage us and told me we’d never get what we wanted for our budget – said as his parting remark that he’d be happy to go over all of this with my husband since he was probably the one making the decision.

Uh, no. Absolutely not. I am not going to pay someone who thinks it’s acceptable to engage in overtly sexist behavior. In the end, the contractor we hired was a man, but he was younger – pretty much my age – and totally comfortable working with me.

#6: Be completely up front about your project from the minute you first meet your (potential) contractor until you shake hands at the end. Tell them what you want. If there are things you’re not sure about, speak up. Give them your actual budget, including your contingency. (We did generally wait until we’d had a rough estimate from contractors before revealing our magic number, but I’d done enough research to know I wasn’t asking for the earth.) Tell them how you’re paying for it – cash, finance, or both. For example, we told our contractor that we’d being paying cash. Bonus: no delays waiting for the bank to release the funds. Downside: once the money was gone, it was gone. That number included our contingency for any problems that emerged, and he needed to know that up front. Honesty now makes everything else so much easier later.

I could actually keep writing about #6, but I think I’ve held you hostage long enough. Maybe next I’ll tackle tips for a successful relationship with your contractor! If you can add to this list, feel free to comment below – and good luck finding “the one”.

Posted in Austin, Texas, House renovation

Home Renovation: Finished Product!

I started this blog when we purchased and renovated our first home in Austin, TX. We bought the house knowing we were going to undertake a big project but on a clear budget, and all of the home reno blogs I found were geared toward super high-end projects (I’m looking at you, Houzz). The homes were beautiful, sure – but way out of our price range.

So if you skip back in time to my earliest posts, you’ll read all about the renovation process on our South Austin home. But I lost focus (read: had another baby) and forgot that super important part of the project, the BIG REVEAL! Here, in all its professionally photographed glory, is the finished product…

Sadly – as in, really sadly, I cried when I handed over the keys to the new owner – we wound up selling our house when we moved back to London. However, the renovation paid off, and we wound up recooping everything we invested in the house, plus a teeny tiny bit extra. Not bad, considering we’d owned it for exactly two years. (My eyes are stinging as I write this post. Thinking about this house still makes me emotional!) Here’s a super short summary of what we did:

  • Bought a 3 bed, one bath, 940 sq ft 1960s ranch house in South Austin just off of Manchaca Rd (pronounced Manchack by locals, dunno why)
  • Added 460 sq ft to the back of the house, creating an L-shaped structure
  • New square footage included a tiny bit of extra living room space, plus a master suite with a bath, walk-in closet, and laundry room
  • We also added a 220 sq ft screened in porch that used the same slab foundation and roof as the rest of the structure
  • Updated the existing house with paint, skirting boards, interior and exterior doors, new siding, landscaping, a new tub in the family bathroom, and all new wiring
  • Total budget for renovations: $100k

Actually, that seems like a lot! In fact, I might just have enough confidence after tackling this project to consider doing another renovation when we eventually buy a home in London. Check back in a few months to see if Autumn 2017 finds us looking for another general contractor…

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Posted in Austin, Texas, House renovation

Delayed AGAIN

So much for our (almost) perfect on time, on budget reno – we are still waiting for the addition to be completed. The deadline was Sunday, but I reckon we’re another week away from everything being totally done (laundry room, porch, etc.). Initially the delay was down to the late arrival of the internal doors, but then something has changed about the floors.

Turns out the last phase was a little more complex than we initially thought – but that’s actually not a bad thing as we weren’t particularly pleased with them after the first treatment. We’re going for a super smooth, highly polished pale gray concrete, but the texture was awful and the concrete guy didn’t seem to think it could be fixed. Apparently it CAN be fixed, though, and they spent all day today working on them with a diamond grinder. Tomorrow they’ll apply two layers of gloss, and then we’re waiting on some very small details (door hardware, medicine cabinet), the laundry room and the porch. The laundry room has also been a little problematic, with some dodgy plumbing and an unexpected gas line, but our contractor says it should come together pretty quickly.

We’re so, so close now – although much like the last few weeks/days of pregnancy, time feels like it’s slowed to a standstill. I’m itching to get everything moved around and organized before baby gets here (34 weeks tomorrow!), but at least I’ll have something to keep my hands occupied while waiting for baby.

Pic: the evolution of a wall continues…


Posted in Austin, Texas, House renovation

Renovation realities

We were so close to finishing on time, on budget (aside from our additional requests to redo the laundry room and add landscaping)…but then our custom interior doors were delayed by more than two weeks. I can’t believe after all the work we’ve had done, from rewiring the house to building an addition from the foundation up, it’s the doors that have failed us at the 11th hour! They can’t install trim until the doors are in, and they can’t finish the floors until the trim is in and painted, so we’re going to run from a few days up to a week late. We’re so close!! Below is a sad pic of our plastic living room “wall” and our claw foot tub in its crate, which the delivery guy had to haul up our street on a dolly because his truck wouldn’t fit!

On the upside, things are looking good. We decided to spend extra money on landscaping, or rather, hardscaping: they’re going to install large limestone pavers in a path from the back door to the screened in porch, and river rock along the side and front of the house to the backyard. The lawn has turned into a mudpit in places due to construction, and rather than attempting to regrow grass or plant sod in such a dry climate, we’re going for some xeriscaping ideas. We’ll try planting our own greenery but the labor involved in leveling the soil and installing the rocks is too much for Mr C to do on his own, plus we want the yard to be usable this spring and with baby less than two months away, he might have his hands busy with other tasks!

Meanwhile, I let Mr C pick the paint color for our bathroom and it is BOLD! I don’t mind it, especially as the rest of the house is pretty neutral, but I think we’re going to break it up with some black and white photos to go with the gray and white color scheme. Pics below.