The Florida Keys House Railing Story
This true story should be called the 4000 easy steps in doing a renovation project in the Florida Keys.
The story was written 2010 and rewritten 05/03/2016 unedited
In September of 2001, we purchased a property located in Venetian Shores, it is on the island of Islamorada in the Florida Keys.
When we bought it, we knew that every square inch of the existing house, its seawall, and its overgrown landscape, were in such bad shape, that they would all need to be completely renovated. We bought the property because its location was just perfect, it was a large corner lot at the end of one of the fingers of land in the Venetian Shores subdivision, and it overlooked the “Snake Creek” waterway.
The Snake Creek waterway in front of the house is the main artery for all boats traveling from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean or the reverse. So we knew whatever time, work or money we had to use in order to renovate the property would be well worth it. We also knew that because we had once heard that Michael Eisner the former president of Disney, he had said, “You can never go wrong buying waterfront property,” and we knew that he was right.
When we bought the property we had erroneously assumed that there was going to be no shortage of designers, contractors, and craftsmen available in the Keys to help us. We thought trade people would be anxious to want to work with us on this big renovation project. Even the realtor that sold us the property recommended an architect-designer that we could work with. We thought that, because we always saw homes that were being renovated in the keys, there would be a lot of good people we could work with. That turned out to be our first assumption that was completely erroneous.
The first recommended designer we hired had to be fired, after three months he had done absolutely nothing. Naturally, beforehand, we had been warned by everyone regarding “Keys Disease”, a situation where Keys people fail to show up to work, or fail to do what they promised, but since we had never experienced it ourselves, when the Keys Disease actually happened to us we were kind of surprised.
We really couldn’t even imagine that all of the contractors we were to meet in the Keys were going to be as bad as they were, but as we went from project to project we did find that most all of them were pretty bad, and we found that everything we had heard negative about them, was true, and Keys Disease was only one of the many problems they had.
Besides from the lying, and the poor craftsmanship, we found that overcharging was a common practice, and some of the contractors we found were in collusion with local lumber yards working together to overcharge the customers and split the profit. It was an easy thing to do as most of the homeowners in the Keys are not there to watch what’s happening.
Then, besides from this overcharging problem, there was always the problem of the poor workmanship, so we found that trying to get anything done in the Florida Keys was in many ways probably like to trying to get something done in a foreign country, and our being outsiders, actually living in Miami, compounded all the problems as we were not there every day to see that work was being done properly.
Once we saw what was going on, we thought that we could probably solve the problem by getting qualified workers from Miami, but we found that the travel time to have them come to the Keys just added to the overall costs. We found that very few Miami contractors wanted to travel to the Keys. Then another problem we found was that many of the Miami contractors didn’t have Workman’s Compensation Insurance which was required in the Keys. So due to a combination of all the problems, including the criminality and the poor craftsmanship in the Keys, it started wearing Katherine and myself out, and eventually, whether we liked it or not, we were forced to look for labor to come from Miami, and of course almost none of that really worked out well for us either.
Every project we did renovating the property in Venetian Shores, became worthy of writing a book about, a book for others to learn from, and the house railing story I am going to relate to you is just one of them.
The “Florida Keys House Railing Story” is all about our project of putting up an aluminum railing around the house once we were finished doing the exterior renovation. Originally the house had two inch steel pipe railing which didn’t meet the current building code in the Keys, so an aluminum railing had to be designed to go around the total exterior of the house, with all its stair cases, balcony’s and walkways.
The railing should have been a relatively straight forward project, as all we needed to do was to have our contractor let us pick out the railing we wanted from a local railing company catalog and they would come and install it. Well it was not quite so simple, we needed to decide on a design, and as we were renovating an art deco style house into a Mediterranean style, not all railings would look good. So to get some ideas, for several days, Katherine and I drove all around the Keys streets, just looking at railing designs.
The way it started out, our contractor first took us to a railing store that stocked standard every day aluminum railings. They showed us stock railings that mostly comes preassembled and look pretty much like what is on every other contemporary house in the Keys. The problem was that our house wasn’t contemporary, and the other problem was, their prices weren’t cheap, the
Railing stores had all jacked up their prices to include a percentage for the contractor, the whole situation was enough to make you sick. The estimated cost of railing was way over $100,000.00.
So when we turned it all down, our contractor then introduced us to another one of his railing friends, I saw that his welding quality was so poor, that a person would have to be crazy to even consider using him. We came to understand that we would never be able to find what we wanted in the Keys, as our contractor was only taking us to where he received a commission.
While we were looking into the railing situation, we noticed another serious problem going on throughout the Keys, it had to do with the railings installation. All the railing installers in the Keys, used steel screws which eventually started to rust, not one installer had the craftsmanship or cared to do a rust free job. As you drive around the Keys, all you see are houses that are stained brown from the rust, and it’s all simply coming from the bad railing installations.
To eliminate the rust problem, the obvious solution is to embed the aluminum railing into the concrete, or use stainless steel hardware, but finding a railing installer in the Keys to do this was impossible, so after several months of just going around in circles, we started looking at railing fabricators in Miami.
While we didn’t find anyone in Miami that actually wanted to do the job, we did find a sample of the Mediterranean bird breast style railing that my wife wanted, and we were able to finally draw on paper the style of Mediterranean railing exactly as we had envisioned it. But by now we were wearing ourselves out talking to people about the railing, several months had now passed by, and nothing was happening.
We again measured, the house, and determined that we needed over five hundred linear feet of aluminum railing for the exterior of the house, and we needed more aluminum railing for two balconies on the third floor, and besides all the exterior railing we also needed quite a bit of steel railing for the house interior, we found that we needed steel railing from the first floor to the second floor, then a curved railing from the second floor to the third floor and about another twenty five feet of railing on the third floor interior balcony.
Our intention for the interior railing was to do it the same as we had done on our previous home. We would use steel railing painted white with realistically painted two foot tall coconut palms mounted about two foot apart. We already knew that the coconut palm design would look good, as we had done our last house that way, and when we sold the house the new owners wanted to be assured the interior railing with the pretty painted coconut palms stayed with the house, everyone loved it.
As the days passed, every free moment I had, I continued to contact railing fabricators in Miami, but they all said that working in the Florida Keys was like working in a foreign country, and none of them wanted to do the project.
One day, one of our former employees named Hector stopped by to say hello. Hector was an excellent machinist that had worked for us, and we had taught him how to weld. Over the several years that Hector had worked for us, he had been involved in several altercations with fellow employees, so Hector had developed the reputation of being a bit of a hot head. While we all liked Hector, when he said he was leaving to work elsewhere, no one tried to stop him.
When I saw Hector visiting our company, I was happy to see him, as he was driving a new pickup truck, so I assumed he was doing well, and I went over to say hello.
I asked Hector what he was doing for a living and believe it or not he said, “I’m making and installing railings.” I couldn’t believe it, so I said, Hector, do I have a project for you, and I proceeded to tell Hector all about the railing project we had in the Keys. Hector said, he would have to come down and look the project over, so I invited him to come down the following weekend, which he did.
Hector who spoke little English, came down to the Keys house bringing his wife with him.
Hectors wife was a lovely girl who was bilingual, she spoke English fluently and had a job working for a government agency. So we explained everything to Hector, about how we wanted the aluminum railing, to be painted with white powder coat, and all upright supports were to be imbedded into the concrete with no steel hardware used anywhere. Hector said he understood perfectly, and he also measured inside the house for the steel interior railing.
The following week Hector came to our office in Miami with all his prices. He said he needed $13,000.00 for materials, $13000.00 for installation and thirteen thousand dollars for profit. I asked Hector when he could start the project, I would write him a check for materials that very day.
Well, that’s when Hector hit us with the fact that he didn’t have Workman’s Compensation Insurance, and that meant he couldn’t get caught working weekdays in the Keys, but he could work on weekends when no one was looking. It was a bad situation, but at that point had no other alternatives, so we agreed to it.
About thirty days passed and on a sunny Saturday morning Hector arrived with five six foot sections of our new aluminum white railing, he also had with him a brand new machine for boring holes in the concrete as well as a tall lanky Cuban helper named Miguel.
They arrived around ten thirty in the morning and it took around three hours for them to drill several holes in the concrete and install the few pieces of railing. So at around two in the afternoon they opened their cooler and broke out the Heinekens. After a few beers they put together their fishing poles and began fishing off the corner of our property, and they followed this exact same routine every single weekend they came, until about half the exterior railing was installed. They always came around ten thirty, started drinking around two and then went fishing off the seawall. Sometimes we would hear Hector and Miguel’s truck leave for Miami about two in the morning.
The job was taking a long time, but we were very happy to see the railing getting done, that was until one Saturday morning when Hector’s wife called.
She said that Hector had been in a minor altercation on the Florida turnpike, it was really nothing she said, and Hector would be back to work on the railing the following week. So we waited for him, and the next Saturday and Sunday came and went with no Hector showing up.
After two weeks had passed, I noticed Hectors truck was sitting in front of our building in Miami. It appeared that Hector had stopped by again to say hello to some of his old friends.
I went outside and Hector was sitting behind the wheel, so I asked him in Spanish what the heck had happened, and why he hadn’t shown up. Hector said that he was in a minor accident, and all of it would all be resolved shortly, then he waved a yellow paper in front of me. I couldn’t actually read the paper, but I saw it was a bail bond contract. It appears that Hector had just bonded out of jail. So, when Hector left, I asked his friends what had happened and they said that Hector had been in some kind of accident and attacked the other driver with a hammer. We never saw Hector again, so I suspected his problem was pretty serious, and they had put him in jail for a long time.
So now after over more than a year had passed, and here we were with our railing half up, and no one to complete the job, we had no idea where Hector was, and we didn’t even know where the rest of our aluminum railing was stored. So we tried calling Hector’s home, but his phone was disconnected and no one seemed to know anything.
It was about that time when we were told that the price of aluminum had tripled and it now became of critical importance to find out where Hector had stored all of our aluminum, so that’s when I suggested that we try looking for Miguel, Hector’s Cuban helper.
Our shop manager Luis, took on the responsibility of calling all the Miami railing companies, and luckily after five calls he found the company where Miguel was working, and Miguel promised to come to our office with his new boss the very next day, which he did.
Miguel’s boss, was a very tall thin Cuban fellow also named Miguel and he seemed to know all about our project, he said he knew where all our aluminum was, but he wanted to ransom the aluminum to us, and then he also wanted triple the price to finish the railing job Hector had started. These guys made me so mad, I told them to leave our office. I am sure they thought we were desperate and going to be an easy chicken to pluck, but they both left the office.
The following day, Miguel, the helper called us. He changed the story, he said the tall guy he had brought, wasn’t really the railing company owner. He said the real owner of the railing company was a Nicaraguan fellow who was also in the trucking business and he was financing their company, Miguel wanted another meeting with us.
At the next meeting both Miguel’s agreed to finish the railing, and the price was to remain the same as with Hector, so we all agreed to it and shook hands.
About two weeks passed and on a sunny Saturday morning, unexpectedly an open truck showed up, not only did it have a load of our finished railing, but also they had brought down several young helpers. That day the work went quickly, however, just like before, about two in the afternoon the Heineken beer came out and they all retired to our seawall on Snake Creek to fish.
This same exact ritual with the beer and the fishing went on for two months, sometimes Katherine and I would order pizza for all the guys, and after supper they would all stay late into the evening sitting on the seawall fishing. We could eventually hear their truck leaving around two in the morning.
By now Katherine was getting pretty aggravated, and she constantly asked me to say something to them, but I didn’t, I just wanted the railing job to be finished. Then suddenly, everything changed, the workers started showing up with their whole families, their kids and all. Working on our railing was becoming more like a picnic to them every weekend. They set up big bright construction lights on the seawall so they had light to see at night while they were fishing, and I think they actually started staying all night fishing.
Katherine was now complaining to me every week, as our property was becoming a picnic ground with people fishing all night, but again, I was always afraid to say anything as the railing job would never get finished.
Finally, I agreed with Katherine, I had enough of it, and I called their boss the Nicaraguan money man. He came down to the house in the Keys with his wife, he saw what was going on and he agreed to have them stop fooling around and finish the job.
At first we were very happy meeting Nicaraguan finance man and his wife, he appeared to be a man of means and said he was the owner of several companies, so one night we invited them out for supper. That’s when he told us his brother was in jail for cocaine smuggling.
After more than two years of torture the railing was finally finished. Just before he left, I asked the tall Cuban Miguel to give us a price on putting up a circular aluminum stairway to the roof of the house, so he spent better part of the day measuring everything exactly, and said he would call me with a quote, we never saw or heard from him again.