Category Archives: Landlording

Fixing the “crippled” 3-way switch


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The Unit#1 tenant complained that their 3-way switches for the staircase light sometimes work and sometimes don’t. At first I thought it got to be the bad light bulb or poor wiring due to aging. So last week I went there and checked the light bulb and re-connected the wires by cutting out the old segments of the wires and re-stripping and re-connecting the wires. I also noticed the wires were inserted into the slots on the switch instead of forming a loop around the screws in the side the switches. I then found out the poor job that the tenant or her friend had done to fix the problem, resulting in poor connection. After re-connecting the wires to the switch the right way, I figured the problem had been fixed.

Not so, she claimed. The “intermittent” problem still persisted. I then went back and checked that there is no intermittent problem. Instead, the problem was that when the switch upstairs is in the “off” state (as far as the light is concerned) the switch downstairs cannot turn on the light. And yet it’s OK the other way around. After studying the 3-way switch on Google search, I refreshed my memory of the principle of the 3-way switch before I went to the apartment. This Youtube video was particularly informative.

After arriving at the apartment and studying the wires from the switch, I was able to figure out that the wire connection was the switch-switch-light configuration. I then sketched on my hand of what has been installed vs. what the way it should be. The solution was quite obvious that my tenant has reversed the position of the wires between the common hot-wire to the light and the hot-wire from the downstairs switch, resulting in this particular problem. Upon reversing the positions, the switch are now working just fine. Thanks to the power of the Internet, even an electronic engineer can handle the most difficult household electrical problem. 🙂

Double Screen Doors – Double Challenges

My apartment #2 tenant requested to add a screen door to the upstairs room that has a double door opening to the terrace. The double door means two screen doors. Then it’s the added complexity of keeping the doors fixed in position when they are closed. This means that there needs to be something like a post in the middle for the doors to latch on. This post can’t be too wide or the wide opening of the double door loses its appeal. And yet it can’t be too narrow either or it lose its function of holding on to the screen doors, resulting in rattling when heavy winds blow. For some reasons, my other unit #1 has the double screen doors but were poorly installed; it has a a post that allow the hook hinges to latch on – not very steady. I didn’t plan to follow the same scheme.

When shopping at Home Depot, I considered installing a re-tractable screen door. They were nice and easy to install and do not require an ugly post in the middle but they were quite expensive. Two re-tractable screen doors will add up to nearly $400, compared to $100 for two regular 36″-wide screen doors. I would buy it if it were for me to enjoy but not for my tenants. I ended up buying the two inexpensive screen doors plus a 1″x2″x80″ post (~$5). The materials costs me just over $100 after tax.

On the day of installation, I fumbled around and ended up installing on the inside edge of the door way instead of outside. This wasted me roughly 1 hour to re-install. Then I had the original idea of mounting the post with nails nailed at a angle. This turned out to be a bad idea as the pounding of the nails was too noisy and the wood was too stubborn and the door frame too soft (due to the overhang nature of the terrace) to allow nails to drive through. I then gave up that day to re-think. Upon further thought, I decided to use 4x L-shape brackets ($2) to mount the post.

On the next day, I managed to mount the post with the L-shape brackets and then adjusted the screen door width to fit within the opening between the post and the door frame. This didn’t take too long once I had the post as the anchor. Installing the door handles was another challenge. Turns out the door handle push-stem needs to be trimmed by 1/4″ because it’s a 5/8″ width door not the other kinds the manufacturer offer. Thanks to the fine print at the bottom of the instructions. This mis-step took my another half hour to figure out.

I didn’t install the spring mechanism to keep the screen closed automatically because based on my experience it breaks fairly easily and it’s a nuisance when the screen keeps trying to close. I would have spent another hours installing the spring mechanisms if I chose to install them.

To finish it up, I installed the door latch hook on the post and primed the post to maintain the color scheme. Overall, I spent roughly 6 hours installing the double screen doors between the two days. It was quite a learning experience and challenge for me. I’m glad to do this – once. Let’s see how long the screen doors would last.

Replacing the oven in Unit #2

Apartment unit #2 tenants complained that the oven did not work any more and they couldn’t cook their turkey over the Xmas holidays. I went there to check it out. Sure enough, the oven was but a bunch of rusted iron in shambles. I decided to buy a new one instead. Too bad that I cancel the home warranty plan or it could have been replaced by the home warranty company just like Unit #1. That goes to tell you. You never know when you need the insurance. That’s why it’s call “insurance.”

So I went to Home Depot on 1/07/08 and found a GE 24″ JRS06BJBB single-oven for $550. The sales lady advised me to wait until the week after, as GE is having a 10% sale that week. I did and I was glad. Indeed, Home Depot had the same unit for $500 + $25 rebate. Not a bad deal. I bought it on 1/17/08. The question was whether I should have them install it or not. Since this is an electrical work with lots of fire liability, I figured I should have the professional install it. I paid $120 for the service + $29 for the haul away. The salesman told me that if I can remove the old unit before the delivery guy shows up, Home Depot can haul it away for free. After much thinking and procrastination, I decided not to remove the old unit – it’s too heavy and I was afraid of finding something I was not familiar with.

The oven was delivered at 7:30am on 1/19/08. The tenant received it but I was not happy to be woken up 7:10am on Saturday morning as part of the process. On Tuesday, 1/22/08, the service guy showed up around 11:15am. I was informed by my tenant per my request and I quickly went there to check it out. The service guy informed me that 1) the circuit breaker needs to be replaced, 2) the junction box is not up to code due to anther branch circuit, and 3) the new oven doesn’t quite fit into the old oven hole. #1 and #2 can be tolerated but #3 is an immediate issue. Not good. It would cost me another $95 to have it fitted. I had no choice. As it turned out the service guy, Greg, spent nearly two hours trying to fit the new oven into the newly cut-out/reinforced hole. Due to the short conduit to the junction box, he had to add another electrical junction box. At the end, I was glad I spent the money to have it installed by an expert. There are simply too many complications when dealing with something like this, especially for an old apartment.

My main learnings: 1) Should have bought the home warranty from a different company and kept it. 2) Go mainstream on appliances. The built-in oven has since gone off mainstream from the 1960’s, resulting in excessive premium. The same combo unit of stove and oven would have cost about the same price without much installation – just plug it in.

Re-piping the apartment – Ouch!

Having lived through many of the plumbing issues of the apartment, I decided last month that it’s time to re-pipe with copper pipes the apartment since one of the tenants decided to leave (but changed her mind two days before she was supposed to vacate the unit, but that’s a different story). This is a major undertaking and costs mega bucks – roughly $12K.

I went through the usual bidding process of having four plumber companies to bid on the job. I even joined Angie’s list to get some feedback on some of the plumbers. I selected Water Quality Plumbing; they came in the lowest bid and yet I was impressed with their high confidence. At first, I was going to do Unit #1 first, then I decided to do both Unit #1 and unit #2 since unit #2 will be impacted somewhat with either option. Might as well bite the bullet and get it over with. Do both and the front main line!

Of course, I had doubt when on the first day the plumber started a fire in the crawl space due to the accumulated lints underneath the dryers. But they eventually completed the job and patch up the sheet rock and the cement work (for the main line) pretty well.

My sincere hope is that my future plumbing work will be much less and easier, due to more a reliable infrastructure in the first place. I would also have less anxiety about the fragile plumbing that was going to burst like a ticking time bomb. Why take a chance?

A Mystery Car in the Apartment

Being a landlord means that I need to deal with many tenant issues including a strange one that just came up last weekend.

One of the tenants complained last Saturday that someone parked a car, a Mercury Sable, on his parking space. He was very upset because the parking space around the block was limited at night especially his dad works night shift. I asked him to place a threatening note on the windshield and hoped that the problem would go away when the car owner re-claimed his car. Well, it didn’t. The car continued to be there through the weekend. I began to conjure up images that there may be some kind of criminal activities: like stolen car or runaway car for a robber of some sorts. A lot of scenarios popped into my mind.

So on Monday, I went there and checked the Sunnyvale police department for any missing/stolen car outstanding and there was none. I decided to call the auto towing company – Sunnyvale Auto Tow. The driver showed up and told me that I couldn’t legally tow the car away because I didn’t have a visible no-parking sign on the front, or I may get sued. So I spent $30 putting on the sign and I had to wait another 2 days because I could take any action.

Two days later, today, I went to the apartment, the car was still there. The new neighboring apartment manager told me that the car door was open. So I did some detective work and checked out all the papers inside the car. The car didn’t smell very good so I held my breath while going through the tossed papers and garbage. I now appreciate the work of a detective. Each object would tell me a little bit about who this person is. I felt I was putting together a puzzle from each piece of the evidences. From them, I found out where this person lives from the apartment welcome note (he just rented an apartment in Mountain View) and the business card of the apartment manager. I then called the apartment manager and finally got hold of the manager.

As it turns out, the car owner, a young adult, was admitted in a hospital after a strange/wild party at the apartment across the street from my apartment. He ended up injured (probably from a fight) and had been in a critical condition since. His father contacted me after the apartment manager relayed my message and my phone number. He was very thankful that I didn’t tow the car and told me he’ll pick up the car this afternoon.

A very strange story. The moral: sometimes a little patience and a little detective work go a long way in solving problems and help people out.

Fixing Leaky Shower – my third try!

My tenant called about the water leaking into her kitchen. This is the 3rd time I have attempted to fix it – not much to be brag about. The first time, a plumber (introduced by the tenant) figured it’s a leaky shower door. So he silicone-sealed the the shower door and called it done. The second time, the handy man figured it must be the leaky drainage. Se he silicone-sealed the the drainage pipe area and recommended that shower pan be replaced. Each incremental fix seemed to have done some good. At least it kept the tenant quiet for a month or so. Then yesterday the tenant called and complained that it’s leaking again. This time it’s really “pouring.” So I figured I will probably need to spend some money to replace the shower altogether. This morning, I went to Lowe’s and found the choices of 32″x32″ shower pan/kit to be quite limited. The integrated wall/pan kit is economical (~$300) but it’s too wide and would not fit the narrow door, according to the sales guy. The kits that separate the wall and shower pan and doors are expensive. They would probably add up to over $600 easily. Mmmm… That’s a bit more than I’m willing to pay. So I kept on shopping online. The on-line deal is not as economical as Home Depot or Lowe’s because the transportation costs can go as high as $100 due to the bulkiness of the product.

The more I thought about it, the more I thought I needed a second opinion. So I called up this plumber from the Craig’s List. Yes, I have had reasonable good experience with the trade/service people I found on Craig’s List. You just have to be a bit selective on how “professional” they sound in their ads. I would avoid the desperate “cheap” and “do-them-all” type of people. She asked a few questions and said she needs to diagnose the problem in person.

Fours hours later, this good looking woman with a great figure showed up in front of my apartment. I never saw a woman plumber before and was at awe. My tenant, a woman painter, was excited to see a woman plumber too. The plumber checked a few things and listened for the “quiet” dripping. She hypothesized that the shower pan is leaking water (not from the faucet) as she saw the discoloration of the wall around the shower. So she touched around the shower wall area. Sure enough, the caulk/seal was not even forming a good seal between the shower wall and the shower pan. The wall was flapping and moving. She then determined that it’s the source of the leak. She prescribed that I “go crazy” with the GE Silicone II Clear around all the joints where leaks may occur. I thanked her and asked what kind of plumbing work she usually does and if she has “others” (implying men) working with her. She said she has a crew of 3 and she’s been too busy already trying to keep all 3 employed. She left without asking for a dime.

It just happened that I have a tube of GE Clear Silicone in my car, I immediately followed her direction and went crazy with the Silicone and sealed every possible gaps I can find in the shower.

I will report back if this fixed the problem. Stay tuned….