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How to make everyone mad at you — three easy steps to frustration and fury!

Lately the City of Vancouver has been telling us all how they are looking out for us, working to find solutions to the problems of minimum housing stock, diminishing numbers of heritage homes, and keeping Vancouver green — reducing our carbon footprint.

Now, according to this story in the Globe & Mail,  they’ve managed to crush any good will they may have developed in these areas in just three simple steps:

Step One:  Buy a heritage home and leave it empty for over a year

The COV purchased a lovely, restored, 1919 home at 3030 Victoria, in a great neighbourhood in 2016.  They didn’t rent it out, no, they didn’t subdivide it so it could house more citizens — although the area is zoned for duplexes — no they left if empty for 17 months.  Sure, they could start collecting money from themselves with the new empty houses tax, but that would not be a sustainable plan.

Step Two: Announce plans to rip down the house — and all the heritage houses on the block

Yikes!  Lose housing stock AND lose valuable historic properties all in one move.  The city planned — and still plans — to buy and tear down these homes to add more space to Trout Lake Park.  It’s a nice park, my granddaughter plays softball there (Go Diamondbacks!) but tearing down these homes will apparently add a mere 1% to the existing space.  Often the city buys a house, rips it down, and the other people on the block line up to sell their places.  But in this case they didn’t want the other homeowners to hike up the already high housing prices once it was known that it was the city that was buying so they kept these plans on the DL.  Now that’s another thing — each of these houses, eight in all, cost well over $1,000,000.  In fact, if you could get them for under $1.5 million each it would be a miracle, 3030 Victoria sold for $1.6 million. So 8 houses = 8 x 1.5 million, or $12 million dollars just to increase the size of the park by 1%.  And just to flog a dead premise — lose valuable HERITAGE housing stock.

Step Three: Send hundreds of tonnes of materials to landfills

Just 3 years ago, the COV was bemoaning the fact that heritage homes were being destroyed .  And they were concerned about the amount of waste created by each demolition:

the average demolished house adds 50 tonnes of waste,

Even if significant portions of each house was recycled, and that’s not likely, it still means many truckloads of housing materials being dumped into the landfills.

I’m pretty steamed about this, and have already emailed the mayor and council (vanmayorsoffice@vancouver.ca) to ask them to reconsider this plan.  That email address is a link, by the way, so feel free to vent a little spleen on our elected officials.

 

Aging in Place in our Laneway

 

What does it mean to get older?  Don’t shake your head at me, I’m serious.  What will it mean to me, physically, to get older?  Not just greyer and wrinklier, but weaker and more frail.

But still, you know, hip

But still, you know, hip.

I recently had the pleasure of spending some weeks with a relative as she started her recovery from hip replacement surgery.  Overnight a healthy, athletic lady became disabled, albeit temporarily.  She needed a walker to get around even short distances.  She had trouble getting up and down stairs.  And she wasn’t allowed to bend over from the waist, meaning she needed devices to grab items, a long-handled shoe horn, etc.  She’d prepared for the recovery by having a sturdy metal bar installed in her bath/shower and used a bench when she showered.

She’s well on way to regaining her bouncy life.  But staying with her really brought home how prepared we have to be for getting older without having to move.  Because moving is out of the question.  So I looked it up on the AARP website to see if they had any good ideas.  And they did!

Of course, it’s more than making a cozy home, it’s safety, too.

Aging in place isn’t just about comfort. In very basic terms, it’s about avoiding falls. If an older person can avoid falling and breaking a hip, he can prevent a cascade of other health problems.

We have stairs, not ideal in a home where we’ll be getting older.  But our bathroom and bedroom are on the same floor so we don’t have to try to go up and down a flight of stairs in the middle of the night.  And our shower is big enough to get a bench in.  The sink and shower faucets are easy to operate, and we set the temperature on one fixture without having to fiddle with knobs.  Living small means our sink counter is close enough to the toilet to supply a hand-hold if we need assistance standing up.  Also in our shower,

a tiled shower area with recessed shelves at arm’s level to stop you from having to stoop down to the floor or reach up to a shower rack

The kitchen/living room area on the top floor has enough places to hold onto to make it easy to get around if balance is a problem.  And we can sit at our counter and work, so won’t have to stand for long periods if we are trying to avoid that. The dishwasher is in a counter-level drawer for easy loading and unloading, we have deep drawers instead of under-counter cabinets, so no stooping and reaching into the depths.

All our flooring is laminated hardwood, no carpets to trip on.  We do have an area rug, a cowhide in front of the TV with no pile.  But if we ever had problems with tripping, out it would go, decor be damned.

Elsewhere, we have lever-style door handles, again, no knobs to turn.

Some other ideas for making your home senior-friendly can be found at this Reader’s Digest article.  This includes

• No-step entry: You should have at least one step-free entrance (either at the front, back, or side of the house) so everyone, including wheelchair users, can enter the home easily and safely.

OK, we have a very small sill, easy to step over but definitely a problem if we are in a wheelchair.  But then, if DH or I end up in a wheelchair we are kind of screwed.  The doorways are not wide enough to accommodate one, the hallways are too narrow.  But short of that, our place is pretty well set up for aging in place.

If you’re thinking of making some changes in your home, though, read this article on things to consider about putting in expensive renos like stair glides, elevators, or even walk-in tubs.  At first glance they look like a great idea, but they might not be suitable for you.

Of course, another reason we’re set to get older in our laneway is the proximity of our family.  If (or when) the time comes that we aren’t able to get around town by walking and transit, they’ll be close enough to take us for an occasional shopping trip or medical appointment.  But we are also really lucky that transit is so close to our home, and shopping is a pleasant walk down and up the hill.

Ta ta to teensy weensy

Over the holidays I found myself prone on the couch watching those marathons on HGTV.  I had never really watched those tiny home programs during the season, so it was quite the eye-opener.  I was truly surprised by some people who really, really wanted a tiny home but still had to have full-size appliances, a bath tub, and a king sized bed.  Something tells me these people are not ready to make the sacrifices involved in living in a super-small space.

So it doesn’t surprise me to learn that many tiny house dwellers have given up on the idea of spending the rest of their lives in a space that is typically between 100 and 200 square feet.  In this Globe and Mail article, author Erin Anderssen recounts summers spent in a 320 square foot cottage without hot water, indoor toilet, privacy, nice appliances, and presumably wifi.  It’s a summer house, not built for permanent, year-round occupation.  But it gave this family a taste of tiny-house living, and it’s not for them.

And, it is pointed out, it’s not for a lot of people who thought they wanted it.

Melanie Sorrentino and her husband, Mark,.parked their 150-square-foot tiny house on a wooded four acres in Eureka Springs, Ark. … They lasted one year.

The tiny-house movement is really good philosophically, but it shouldn’t be whitewashed with cutesy little houses,” she says. “My advice for anyone looking at a tiny house – or any lifestyle painted so perfectly – is to try to imagine whether you can grow as a human being in that space.”

For another couple with a child:

Travis Marttinen, who built his own 187-square-foot home in Barrie, Ont., while completing an architectural technology diploma. He sees people jumping on the trend but expecting to live exactly as they did before. “You need to radically simplify. Not only in the number of possessions, but in lifestyle. You cannot have all of the creature comforts that most people are used to. It simply doesn’t work.”

No.  Tiny-house living, even small-house living is not for everyone.  I think it’s best for those who know they are there for a limited time.  A married couple staying in a tiny house before children arrive.  Someone in transition between homes or lifestyles.  Someone coming from “straitened circumstances” like homelessness.  Or those, like this community in Portland, who have their own tiny homes but share amenities.

When DH and I moved to our laneway, we were coming from a good-sized condo (over 1100 square feet).  And we knew that there would be room for us each to have some private space to ourselves.  And we’d lived in lots of other places, mostly houses and large apartments.  We knew what we were giving up.  And what we gained.

It always amazes me when I see people who have never spent so much as a wet weekend in a small motel room with their beloved think they can move out of houses into, basically, less room than the average living room.  Forever.

My advise is to rent before you buy into the tiny-house lifestyle.  It can be done.  But it’s not for the dreamy-eyed.

Vancouver Heritage Foundation Laneway House Tour is October 24

Three years ago, DH and I and our designer, Laurel, took the Vancouver Heritage Foundation’s Laneway House Tour.  It wasn’t the first time we’d been inside a laneway home — we’d seen a couple of examples — but it was a real eye-opener as to the esthetics of the different builders.  Plus it showed us that we didn’t have to be bound by old-fashioned designs and expectations — we could truly have what we wanted in our home.

Two years ago, our unfinished laneway was part of the Tour — a real honour for us.  Unfortunately we weren’t able to make the tour last year — but we’ve been looking forward to seeing what the VHF have in store for 2015.

LanewayTour2015

This year those hard working people at the Vancouver Heritage Foundation promise fabulous examples of new laneway homes, showing a wide variety of design. Plus you can also see an infill home that was added to the property of a heritage home on the west side of the city over 20 years ago.

This tour is not just for people planning to build a laneway, it’s interesting for everyone who loves good design.  But it’s invaluable if you are looking for ideas to incorporate into your home. We had never seen a small window set into the backsplash between a counter and the upper shelves in the kitchen before we took the tour.  But we’ve got one now, and it makes the kitchen much brighter.  We loved the way open staircases allowed you to see onto the stairs and the lower storey — so our designer put that into our home.  After seeing how bright the upper floors were on the two-storey homes, we confirmed our wish to put our bedroom in the darker ground floor level.

Get your tickets now!  You won’t be able to get into those tasty homes without a valid ticket.  This is a tough tour to do by transit, if you want to see all the homes start right at 1 pm and drive between the homes — carpooling is a good alternative if you can find someone else who wants to take the tour.

See you on October 25!

Water pressure

faucet

 

The other day the water bill came to the big house on the property.  We split it 3 ways, with the main house paying for two thirds (home and basement suite) and us paying the remaining third for the laneway house.  The bill gave us three amounts:

$XX low season rate
$XX water metered A
$XX meter charge 25mm
and while none of us are sure what those numbers mean, we ARE sure that we are paying our fair share because both houses are metered.  All NEW houses (and those with substantial renos) are metered in Vancouver.  The rest pay a flat rate. The City of Vancouver talks about putting meters on all homes, as this recent story says.  Of course this story from 2013 says the same thing.  AND this one from 2011.  The cost of putting meters in all the homes would be very expensive.  But until government is prepared to go that route they will not convince people to conserve as we should. Counting all the new homes, the businesses and institutions, only 50% of water consumption in Vancouver is metered. And that will cost us more in the long run.
Because think about it….if we are all paying a flat rate, what incentive do I have to conserve?  Not wasting water is not going to bring me any monetary advantage.  And there’s always that feeling that it’s not going to have any effect on the big picture — especially when we’re sure that our neighbours are not doing their bit. Having a meter reminds us all that higher usage means higher payments.
Vancouver has plans to be the Greenest City in the world by 2020. Maybe that means green colour, as in well-watered lawns.  The plan does not include water meters on all residences and businesses.  Instead, they are hoping a stern talking to and short-term incentives will lead to conservation
incentives and programs Low-flow toilets, rain sensors for sprinkler systems, and water meters are some of the many technologies that can improve water efficiency in homes and businesses. This strategy includes actions such as incentive and retrofit programs to install these tools in new and existing buildings.
Even though water consumption is down over the past 10 years, this story in Friday’s Vancouver Sun shows — 40% in West Vancouver which has universal metering, 16% in Vancouver;
  Vancouver uses more water per capita than communities such as Surrey and Maple Ridge
In Richmond, BC, the plan is for ALL homes to have meters by 2018. Vernon, BC also has water meters on all their homes. Most major cities around the world have universal water metering.
Right now the Vancouver area is in the middle of an unusually dry summer. We didn’t have those customary heavy rains in June to replenish our reservoirs.  Plus the unusually dry winter meant that there was no snow pack on the local mountains to fill the reservoirs in the first place.    Water restrictions are currently in place (no watering your lawn!  No power washing!) but many experts feel that it’s too little and too late to avoid a serious water shortage by the end of the season.
In the long run it doesn’t matter so much about the amount of precipitation we get (Tofino, one of the wettest places on earth, suffers from periodic water shortages) as it does the amount we can store.  Currently we have adequate storage for the city if we maintain average precipitation and everyone conserves as best we can.  The city is expecting to grow significantly over the next 20 years.  Metering water is one way we have to monitor and control the amount we use as our community grows.

Where — and how — do you want to live

When DH and I began planning our laneway we started by looking around at what was familiar to us.   We had a pretty conventionally designed condo, two beds and two baths,  and we couldn’t get around the idea that we were going to be living in less than half the space we had.  We thought about what we would lose, not what we would gain.

We looked at how other people were downsizing and building laneways, we saw what we liked and what we didn’t like.  And gradually it dawned on us that we shouldn’t just look at how other people live, or how we USED to live, we should look forward, to how we WANTED to live.  We let our imaginations go a little.  We didn’t just want an average house that had been shrunk, we wanted a new plan for us that would lead to a whole new life.  We knew there would be sacrifices (Like “space”.  And “things”.) But in the end we had exactly what we wanted.

There was no way to imagine at the beginning of the journey how it would end. And how it would change our lives.

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Among many other advantages our new life has given us is that we drive less and take transit more often. And we like it. When the car was available down a flight of stairs we used it all the time — whenever we went down town or out for dinner or over to the kids.  Even though transit was right there we didn’t even think about it, we had a car!  Why not use it?

But now we take transit all the time.  I take the 99 Express to work.  It takes a little more time than driving, but I read or knit, and there’s no problem getting a seat because I’m at the end of the line (both ends of the line).  We take transit down town, it’s less than half an hour and we don’t have to worry about parking.  We get down to Granville Island without going through the Hell that is finding parking on a sunny Saturday. If we want to take in a Night Market we can zip out to Richmond or take the Sea Bus to North Vancouver.  All in all Translink is a pretty good system.

So when Translink wanted to expand we were enthusiastically supportive.  Even when the Provincial Government said that the local governments would have to raise their share through a sales tax hike (.5%) we said yes.  But the Provincial Government wanted it put to a referendum; we said yes — but 62% of the region said no.

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I was pretty steamed. Although I could also understand it.  It’s the old problem of trying to see the end of the journey from where you are now (comfortably behind the wheel of your car).

Others were also frustrated.  Peter Ladner in Business in Vancouver pointed out it was a pretty dumb idea in the first place (or as he put it more elegantly “Determining complex funding and planning issues with a single yes-no vote is an abysmal surrender of political leadership.”) Follow the link, he points out other lessons learned through the referendum process. Hard, nasty lessons, but lessons all the same.

But it was a column by Peter McMartin that put all my inchoate rage into a coherent verbal form. Read the whole thing, please, but for me this is the key issue:

The questions pile up. But the most perceptive question was one I heard in a conversation with Gordon Price, director of Simon Fraser University’s City program. To him, the plebiscite asked a question much more philosophical than yea or nay to a transit tax.

“To me,” Price said, “it was an existential question.

“It asked Metro Vancouverites, ‘Who are we?’ ”

Read more: http://www.vancouversun.com/news/Pete+McMartin+real+Vancouver+emerges+from+ruins+plebiscite/11187386/story.html#ixzz3fF1TYKXt

I have to agree with Peter McMartin that Vancouver is currently nothing special.  We’re in a lovely natural setting.  But we’re not living up to our reputation as innovative and free-thinking nature-lovers.  We just can’t imagine our lives without cars.

I want you to do it — to imagine your life with a dependable transit system that can take you all over the Lower Mainland.  Cheaply.  Easily. No congestion. Freeways with smoothly-running traffic from Horseshoe Bay to Hope.   Doing your shopping by hopping on and off the Broadway Skytrain.  Taking the family to the beach or the park on the bus.  No parking problems.  Less pollution.

Or how about this?  Using a service like ZipCar or Car 2 Go in combination with Transit.  Giving up the ownership of a vehicle that sits parked 90% of the time for greater freedom of mobility. Answering the question of Who are we? with “we’re the people with vision, we ARE the future, we embrace change for the better and accept the inevitability of the end of the automotive age. We are part of that change.”

Otherwise those of us who use transit will be forced to use a less reliable form of transportation:

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Reduce, reuse, recycle — a house

In our neighbourhood – as in yours I’m sure – the old makes way for the new.  And it’s disappointing at best and heart-breaking at its worst to see fine old homes ripped down for cookie-cutter-mini mansions (in our neighbourhood) or mega-mansions (in richer neighbourhoods).  We had a moment’s worry when the homes on either side of our two-house compound were sold, but luck was with us, the new owners have renovated a bit and moved into the original structures.

Tearing down old houses creates waste and lots of it.  Each demolished home sends 50 tonnes of material to the landfill.  Often homes are ripped down with no thought of recycling the building materials.

But not in Gimli.  Gimli, Manitoba.  According to this story in the Interlake Enterprise newspaper, clever Melanie Casselman is recycling homes rescued from nearby Winnipeg and putting them on lots in Gimli.

Photo courtesy of Interlake Enterprise

Photo courtesy of Interlake Enterprise

 

It’s a great idea, and not just because it saves money for the developers (because they don’t have to pay for demolishing) and not just because it puts up instant homes in a growing community.  It’s a great idea because it perfectly embraces the idea that we don’t just throw things out.  We try to save as much as we can.

Well done, Melanie Casselman!  Bravo Gimli!

Full disclosure, Melanie Casselman is a distant cousin of my son-in-law.  Further disclosure, I went to college with a girl from Gimli, a natural Icelandic blond by name of Solvason.

A laneway neighbourhood?

Our Vancouver neighbourhood is in transition.  I may venture to say that ALL Vancouver neighbourhoods are in transition.  That is because the land beneath these 50, 60, 70-year old homes is worth more than the homes themselves.  So a developer can buy an old house for $700K, tear it down (and if you got it at that bargain price, the house must be in tear-down condition), and put up a monster home for less than $250 – $350K.  Then sell it for $1.299 million.

For instance this house:

oldnew

 

is currently available at that price.  Check it out. Of course it has two suites for rental, so we’re attaining some kind of density.  But the house to the side indicates the size of house it replaced in its East Van neighbourhood, quite a difference.

Right now the house in our neck of the woods that we affectionately dubbed “the crack house” is currently undergoing such a transformation.  Workers swarm over it every day (even Easter Sunday) as the new structure rises before our eyes.  But what interests us is the large foundation they just poured on the lane.  It could turn out to be for a garage, which would add another $50K to the value of the finished house.  Or it could very well be for a laneway home, which would add another $350K.  I’m thinking it will be a laneway.

And it will be just one of many in our area.  Most are going up behind new builds, such as the one pictured above.  But many are being tucked behind existing homes.

We’ve just got the news that our neighbours are being evicted from their rental basement suite after the sale of the house.  For a few heart-stopping moments we worried that the new owners were going to tear down the mid-century building, but it turns out they are planning a house-wide reno on the two suites therein, and hope to build a laneway on the property.  I remember chatting with the former home owners while our laneway was being built, and they were quite interested.  But one thing definitely will stand in their way.  The house has a HUGE deck off the back.  Much larger than would be allowed if it had been built with a permit.  To build the laneway and still keep the needed 16 foot distance between the two homes, the deck must come down.  That might be a step they are willing to take.  If the reno is done with permits the deck may have to come down anyway.

Whatever may come, laneway homes are no longer a novelty in this neighbourhood, or anywhere in this city.  They are a viable partial solution to the shortage that is driving up the price of housing here and elsewhere.  Laneway homes are popular in Toronto, and have recently been allowed in Saskatoon and may soon hit Regina.

Could this be the Canadian way to achieve greater density?

Being part of the team — simple rules to success.

Now that you’ve found your designer and builder, and signed your contract (or at least looked it over and started negotiations), I guess you can just disappear like those HGTV families and come back when it’s all done! (Cue the OMGs!)

No.  That’s not how this is going to play out.

It gets worse before it gets better

It gets worse before it gets better

I’ve heard where people handed the keys to their decorator or builder and walked away (or stayed in a completely different city) while they worked their magic, but these people are either 1) very easy to please, or b) insane.

You have some obligations to the builder and to yourself to be around during the build.  And more.

1.) Be easy to reach.  Whether it’s asbestos in the heating, collapsing plumbing, knob and tube wiring, or a host of other surprises that won’t pop up until the walls come down, your builder will need to get hold of you.  Make sure you are accessible by cell phone or email so problems can be solved in a timely manner. What if you really are in another town?  Skype, email or phone.  And be prepared for a sizeable long distance bill.

2.) Make up your mind.  Don’t take weeks to pore over samples until you’ve made every decision.  Pick out the cupboards, plumbing features, flooring, lighting fixtures, moulding, door handles — and all the thousands of little decisions that you’ll have to make — early in the game.  These choices have to be made quite early on to make sure there are no hang-ups during the build.

3.) Be flexible.  It doesn’t matter how well you plot and plan, some things just won’t work out.  In our case it was bedside lamps we had to switch out partway through the build.  But it could be almost anything, countertop material that’s no longer available.  Flooring in exactly the right colour.  Then your builder will need to get hold of you quickly (see 1.) above) and get an alternate. But

4. Don’t change your mind.  Some things can be returned to the store.  But not walls.  Once you’ve signed off on the plans everything flows from that, the schedule, the budget, the workers themselves.  Changing your mind during the build can cause terrible delays; yes, it’s just a day or two of work, but that could mean the sub-trades are already on their next job and can only get back in their spare hours.  Those decisions should be made during the design stage.

4.) Get out of their way.  You may not have to actually leave the building — although for big renos that’s a darn good idea — but you should pack up your stuff and make sure all your shelves are cleared and your pictures and mirrors removed from the walls. Demo and rebuild can be rather seismic, you don’t want stuff crashing to the floor.  Your builder will put up plastic sheets where he/she can, to keep the mess contained, but it’s also a good idea to cover your furniture with dust sheets.

5.) Pay your bills on time.  You knew that.

6.) Leave a contingency fund.  There will be surprises — and not all of them good.  That contingency fund will come in very handy — and if you don’t spend it (although you will) you can take a nice vacation when all the hurly burly is done.

 

What to expect when you deal with a contractor

Congratulations!  You’ve found your contractor!  You are on your way to a better home!

Not exactly as shown

Not exactly as shown

What can you expect from your contractor? And what can they expect from you?

Contract.  A contract guarantees both parties know what is expected of them.  You get the assurance that the job will start on a certain date and will be finished by a certain date for an agreed-upon price.  There are several types of contracts, fixed-price, lump sum, time and materials, etc., plus various combinations of them.  Here’s an explanation of the different types and their advantages and disadvantages.  Depending on the size and complexity of your project, the contract can be very complicated or quite simple.  The important thing is that you HAVE a contract.  You should both know exactly what is being built and what is expected.  Read it, go over it line by line with your contractor, so you know exactly what you are getting.

The contract will also show that your builder has insurance, and will lay out the liability limits.

Permit.  If a contractor tells you they can do a job without a permit, think hard about hiring them.  If there will be any changes to the outline of the house (a deck, for instance), if there will be any changes to interior walls, plumbing, lighting,  make sure your contractor is doing drawings and pulling permits.  Yes, it costs you money.  Yes, it can be frustrating when the project is held up waiting for an inspector.  But permits are a guarantee that someone is watching your project.  Benevolently.  From above.

Deposit.  It’s customary to give your contractor 40% of the project fee up front. Then, when you receive the invoices for the work done (the scheduling of the invoices should be laid out in the contract), the invoice will indicate that 40% of the costs have been paid.  So if you get an invoice for $100, you will pay $60 of that, the remainder having been paid by the deposit.

Holdbacks.  These sound simple but are complicated. If your project costs more than $100,000 it’s mandatory for you to have a holdback account, where 10% of each payment you make to the builder is put aside in an account and held there until 55 days after the contract’s end.  This is to protect you — you can hold back that money if the job isn’t done to your specifications (thus “holdback” account).  It also protects the sub-contractors and suppliers because they can apply for some of that holdback money if the General Contractor didn’t pay them. It’s up to you and your contractor to include this in the contract, so talk it over with them.

Schedule.  Your contractor should indicate what job is done when.  The schedule has to have some flexibility built in, because there will be external forces at work to screw it up, whether it’s a storm that holds up deliveries or one of the aforementioned inspectors who’s sick that week.  But you should have a good estimate of who is supposed to show up when, and as the project nears completion you should be given a firm date.

Meetings.  The contract should set a schedule for meeting with the builder/contractor.  You should get together at the project once every two weeks to go over what’s been done and review any problems that have come up.

Good communication.  You should be able to reach your contractor between meetings to ask any questions you may have.  And they should be able to reach you! Problems may arise that have to have a quick answer.

 

 

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