FLIP OR FLOP?

Sara3

You know you’re in for a horror of a home-remodeling story when it’s got an unseen antagonist and he’s referred to only as “the bad contractor.”

Hey, we don’t even want to know the guy’s name. Given what we’ve heard about his alleged handiwork, this case may be headed to Judge Judy.

But linking up with TBC was only one of the missteps that Sara Swanson acknowledges she made when she tried to flip a house on Madison Avenue in Red Bank.

And now here she is a year later, with a house bought at the top of the market still unfinished, hoping like crazy that her new crew—”Elks Lodge guys who I feel safe with,” she calls them—will enable her to finally get it on the market by month’s end.

It’s what you might call an object lesson for any amateur who ever thought flipping a property was easy.

Swanson, a voluble 40-year-old from Manhattan, worked for 10 years in TV & film production, a business that lives and dies by tight budgets and schedules. She’s also been an office manager. But for a long time, she’s yearned to test interior design skills that she says have been her passion since childhood.

So get this: last year, a well-heeled friend, Robert Crayhon, decided to bankroll Swanson’s dream. He dispatched her to find a house, buy it, renovate it and resell it. She could put her design and managment skills to the test, and with luck, he’d pocket a nice capital gain, courtesy of a real estate bubble that showed no signs of deflating.

“Robert wanted to invest his money wisely and help me get my design feet wet,” Swanson says at the end of a long and dusty day on the jobsite she calls home. “So he put up all the money, and I put up all the work.”

After a lot of searching in and around The Green, Swanson found the house she wanted in Red Bank, a town she’d visited in the past. On June 9, 2005, Crayhon paid $450,000 for the 76-year-old structure at 54 Madison, according to county records. The seller was the estate of a recently deceased elderly woman who had owned it since 1968.

The plan was to transform the 3-bedroom, 2-bath house into a 4-bedroom, 3-bath, and have it back on the market by the start of the new year. It didn’t work out that way.

First, Swanson discovered that hiring a general contractor in a tight market is hard, particularly when you don’t have architectural plans. And Swanson had naively decided to forgo the services of an architect, hoping to save perhaps $6,000. Bad move. Not only did that dramatically narrow the choice of builders, she learned, but there’s a special ring of bureaucratic hell reserved for people who cut that corner and then try to get back on track. (In the end, she had to hire an architect and wait months longer than expected for her permits.)

She wound up picking her contractor from the phone book. And early on, he had good ideas, she says. For example, she credits him with the suggestion that she put a hidden “toe-kick” heater under the kitchen cabinets, which enabled her to have a longer run of cabinetry where there had been a radiator.

But soon, disagreements began to sour the relationship—issues related to the building plans and permits, to the number of hours the contractor was putting in and other matters. The big issue, though, was the quality of the work done either by the contractor or subs he’d brought in.

On a tour, Swanson shows off $5,000 worth of tools she bought to do work herself, and the decorative pine doorway frames she made with them to replicate the home’s originals. She remains incredulous that her first-time effort came out better than TBC’s. For reasons Swanson can’t fathom, the plinth blocks he made to cosmetically tie the interior door and floor trim together were pieced-together bits of wood instead of single pieces—we’re talking about maybe 40 square inches of wood here—and installed so that they hovered an inch-and-a-half above the floor they were supposed to meet. Out of 19 plinths installed, 13 had this defect, Swanson says.

Other apparent mistakes seem like real doozies. They include a shallow roof on an additon that apparently could have followed the lines of the existing, more steeply pitched roof; flooring in a new space that’s slightly higher than the adjoining original floor; and air conditioning vents installed so high on a wall that they’re practically touching the ceiling, requiring Swanson to seek out custom vent covers.

“I’m not so much of a perfectionist that I won’t let a few things go by,” she says. “The bottom line is that it was just a nightmare.”

Of course, one has to wonder how Swanson missed some of these things until it was too late. She says she relied on the contractor’s judgment in areas where she had no expertise.

Most recently, the completion of all three bathrooms was held up because of reversed hot and cold water lines. When redbankgreen spoke with her last week, Swanson was relying on the kindness of neighbors for occasional showers. Otherwise, “I sponge-bath a lot,” she says with a laugh.

After numerous arguments, Swanson and the contractor parted company in May. Since then, she’s hired a new contractor to complete the exterior work and a plumber she trusts. Tile work, floor refinishing and painting remain to be done.

In spite of all the angst, missed deadlines and blown budgets, Swanson insists there’s a bright side to her ordeal.

“I’m almost—almost—grateful that he was so horrible,” she says of TBC, “because I’ve learned so much from his screw-ups, and from all the subsequent plumbers and others who came in and rolled their eyes at what he’d done.”

With luck and some hustle from the Elks Lodge types, the house will be ready for tours by prospective buyers in the next couple of weeks, Swanson says.

But how much if any profit her financial patron will walk away with is far from clear. While it certainly hasn’t collapsed, the market has gone soft in the past year. Swanson thinks the house could sell in “the high sixes,” on a street where the record price, from April 2005, is $585,000. Whatever it goes for, Swanson is confident that a fully-refurbished, 4-bedroom, 3-bath house in a town as desirable as Red Bank will command a premium over other listings.

“I don’t think it’s a flop,” she says of her attempted flip. “It’s not going to be sold at a loss—there’s no question in my mind about that.”