My grandfather, an old world Italian guy who raised his younger brother in the aftermath of the Great Depression, never paid another person to work on his home. When I was eight and he was sixty-something, I acted as his helper over my summer vacation as he rebuilt the porches on his duplex, including mixing and spreading cement and holding up the second floor porch with enormous boards he pulled out of the garage. On subsequent summers, I watched him wallpaper, plaster and set masonry. He passed away in 2000, and five years later I bought my house. It immediately sprung a leak in the basement, and when the plumber came his propane torch sounded distinctly like a body spinning in its grave.
I have some issues surrounding home improvement.
So when a twenty-something guy walked by on a hot summer day to offer to do odd jobs, my first instinct was to send him away. Then I looked at my overgrown lawn, thought about the grad school work ahead of me, the run I wanted to go on, and the writing I wanted to do.
“Don’t I deserve a break?” I thought. “Shouldn’t I shake off my grandfather’s immigrant ways and fully embrace comparative advantage?” So I had the guy mow my lawn. I found myself charmed by his affable personality, and I promised to hire him again. Going off on my run as he started up my lawn mower, I felt a great lightness, like I’d crossed into a new phase of my life. A week later he broke into my house.
When the dust was cleared, here’s what it cost me:
iPad: $450 – not replaced. This was interesting. We got to watch our iPad make a trip around our town due to the “Find my iPad” function, but as much as you think that this will change everything, an eighth of a mile circle does not give probable cause for police to knock down every door in an apartment complex. Plus, it only popped up occasionally, when it could find a Wi-Fi spot I’d used before. Our suspect didn’t have it anymore—he’d quickly traded it for drugs. In the end we made the decision to remote-erase the iPad and let it go rather than risk giving away personal information.
Nikon DSLR Camera: $450 – replaced with a similar model. Why can’t mass-market electronics still be big and clunky with faux wood? This modern stuff is too easy to steal.
Old iPod: $200 – not replaced. It was just sitting in a drawn unused.
Old video camera: $50 – very outdated, without a power cord or battery. Also sitting unused. Good luck using it.
Wife’s laptop: $300 – It was a low-end Toshiba with lots of identifying stickers. It was terrible, but she loved it. Not replaced.
My work laptop: $0 – No cost for me, but a lot of paperwork and probably a good amount of money (~$,1000) for my company.
Neal’s Dairy Tote: $20 – but according to my wife, priceless in sentimental value.
Fireproof safe: – $60: This is the painful one. There was nothing of value in this safe to a stranger. But losing our passports and our car and mortgage titles led to $500 in fees and hours of waiting in DMVs, banks and Post Offices throughout the state of Rhode Island. I replaced it with a new safe for $80 that would be very awkward to walk away with.
Total: $1,610 in value stolen (about $1,000 under our very high insurance deductible). $1,030 actually spent by us replacing items.
But in the end, he took nothing that couldn’t be replaced. No one got hurt. And the fact that we chose not to replace some items (and barely miss) them shows how lucky we are, and how inundated we are with stuff. They couldn’t finger our thief from our robbery alone, even though a neighbor clearly saw him loitering around our backyard that day. But they caught him the next week in the act of breaking into someone else’s house, and he’s gone now. We’re more careful about locking up, but otherwise our lives are unchanged. We started out feeling violated and scared, but the feeling slowly ebbed away. We really do live in a great neighborhood, and one robbery is not going to turn us into gun-toting survivalists. The hardest part for me to shake is the moment when I caved and let him mow my lawn. I’m trying hard not to take the event as a message from my grandfather.
E.A. Mann is an engineer and freelance writer living in Warren, R.I. He has a twitter account, but feels like an old person when he tries to use it.