Moving from Preston Towers – Learning from Tradies and Salespeople

As some of the people who read my tweets might know, Preston Towers is a place. The nom de plume of your author is derived from a set of apartments that many would categorise as just some kind of dull, anonymous two story apartment block built in Penrith in the early 80s. And now, almost precisely a year after that moment of the birth of this name, I am no longer a resident of those Towers.

It’s been a fascinating two years as a resident of Penrith. It’s also been a very interesting past few weeks. As we have vacated the apartment, we made a decision to upgrade the apartment to a standard in which we would like to live if we were tenants – though with an eye to increasing the value of the place. And through that process, many lessons have been learnt. We have also been purchasing new furniture for the new place in the Blue Mountains.

Preston Towers has had a makeover – the place, not me – where we have replaced the taps, vanity unit, lights, carpets and I am about to tackle a shower screen. The bench tops are being resurfaced and my partner has taken on the painting of the bathroom and kitchen. I think she is insane – I don’t mind 80s style yellow/beige tiles and doors.

In order to achieve this, we have achieved our objective and purchased everything from within 2 kms from the front door (except the benchtop resurfacing – there’s nowhere near as many firms in Sydney doing that as there are in Melbourne – I suspect we in Sydney just like to get new stuff all the time). It helps being in South Penrith, mind you. But really, I can’t imagine a better place to be if you are wanting to do an inexpensive makeover.

What we have learnt, though, is that it’s not just about the prices, though, in terms of searching through the shops within the 2k circle. It’s also been getting into contact with a commercial world that is trying to cope with a shift in buying habits and patterns and coming up with a range of solutions.

First of all, most of the shops don’t have a good online presence. The furniture shops try, but you see pictures on the net that don’t really do the furniture justice and the prices are hard to keep up with, so they don’t have them. The people who run the shops are usually in some kind of frustrated battle with head office (which seems to be Wetherill Park for a number of them) who hand out misleading stock details, have items on the website that are sold out, or create long delays in delivery windows. So, really, you need to go to the shop. And Saturday and Sunday are ground zero for these shops – one of the very best things about being a teacher Is being able to go after work. And know that as soon as you can feel like the shop isn’t going to be your kind of place, just leave. No point in deceiving the shop owners.

Second, you really do need to ask questions and find experienced people on the shop floor who can give you sound, realistic advice. And there’s plenty of those in South Penrith. People who will get to the point, size you up and tell you exactly the choices that would suit. That way, I bought items that weren’t that much more expensive than things with dodgy brands on the net – but things that already had proven track records in reliability. I also picked up genuine bargains, like a mixer tap that was more expensive than the quoted price (they’d run out of the one I was getting) but I got it because the plumbing supplies bloke sticks to his quotes.

It’s a world away from Dick Smith and JB Hi-Fi where you find kids who have to constantly dash off to kind the one experienced person on the floor. The working conditions of those places must be terrible if experienced people don’t want to touch the places. It’s also a world away from the soul sucking Harvey Norman. I hadn’t realised how manipulative that place was until I was in the middle of my LCD/LED TV discovery tour. I had my price range and optimum size worked out, and there was the bloke in HN trying to push me up. I can imagine they are taught those tricks and are told to stick to them on a daily basis.

Third, carpet installation ads are lies. Carpet installation is never as cut and dried as you measuring your place and then predicting the price of your carpet installation from the ads. One of the interesting features of this whole process was the carpet. The grey, horrible stuff in the apartment was hard wearing industrial carpet – the sort you see in foyers of outer suburban dental surgeries and schools. Stuff that’s impossible to keep clean. Apparently, it was only 4 years old. But it’s rubbish. So, we wanted to get new stuff. And were told on a few occasions that we were mad. “But it’s only a rental” was the message we got. As if tenants are just scum that should only have depressing grey industrial carpet in their home. Even people at work whom I respected held that view – I heard “wait until it’s completely rubbish and replace it while the tenants are still there – it doesn’t matter if that inconveniences them”. Even one of the people who provided a quote on the job was wondering why we were replacing it. The same one who asked me what nationality I was. Me, who is so pale that I sunburn when I look at the sun, red headed and has a Celtic name. Cote d’Ivoire, clearly. (Needless to say, he didn’t get the job).

We did get carpet that’s more at the upper end of the “rental carpet” segment of the market – polypropylene carpet with a pattern. It actually looks like carpet that should be in a home, not in an 80s rural club. I did that thing where I had already got one quote – but when the second bloke told me exactly how he was going to install it and didn’t treat me like an idiot, I told him what the first quote was. He lowered his quote and got the job. And, now I know how carpet people actually do their quotes.

Fourth, one of the best guides to the success of your purchases is when tradesmen came in to install the things you have bought. Experienced plumbers, for example, install a whole range of things in apartments across Sydney. And you can tell the good ones from the rubbish ones when they tell you exactly what you’d be paying for and give accurate time estimations. And my taps were hard to install, because the original 80s installed bath and laundry taps needed oxy torches in order to remove them. The plumber had never needed to do that before. He thought the taps were a bit fancy for a rental property – as was the ceramic sink vanity. Indeed, he had not seen one put in many rental properties ever. We had no idea, because it was a cheap one bought from the bathroom shop 500m down the road. The bloke there (yes, they were mostly blokes – except in the lighting and bed shops) told me that the ceramic Chinese built vanities were better than the more expensive Australian built resin ones.

That is one common theme – many of these people don’t seem to want to “upsell” you to a more expensive thing if you go into a place with an open mind and are prepared to listen to expert advice. Unlike Harvey Norman.

Fifth, Hire a Hubby is a poor option. There is a bathroom screen to be removed and new one to install – the old one is terrible. I am not terribly competent as a handyman, so we thought that it would be better to get someone in who could do it. But he quoted $528 to install a $130 shower screen. A one hour job for an expert. So, I’m having a go at it – after all, I was told at the shop that it’s actually pretty easy to do, even for the handy challenged.

Sixth, building relationships is one of the best things about the whole experience. I wouldn’t mix socially with any of the people who have sold us stuff, moved stuff or installed stuff. Not because of any fault on either side, it’s just differences in groups and lifestyles. However, it’s been great to build positive bonds that form quickly and disappear just as quickly. I have talked a lot about rugby league, the carbon tax and a whole range of other things. The conversation with one of the movers about the conspiracy involving the IMF, Illuminati and the Carbon Tax was one that will stick with me for a while. Still, a nice bloke. I also remember making a couple of trips across the road (literally) to a storage place that also sold boxes and having a detailed conversation about how GWS will go next year. But the AFL shouldn’t get too excited – I still get more comments in response to my Swans gear in the Blue Mountains than I do in Penrith.

So, now I am out of the physical Preston Towers. Well, sort of. We are terrible packers and I have to transport more stuff up here tomorrow. But, never fear, the Preston Institute lives on and I’m pretty much stuck with this name.

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