Home & Garden

About the House: Working Well with Contractors (Horror Story or Happy Ending?)

By Matt Cantor
Thursday December 04, 2008 - 10:11:00 AM

Why do so many people have horror stories about remodeling and the contractors who perform this work? Is there a direct line from the Mafia to the remodeling industry? Do they post notices in High School locker rooms reading “School not working out? Why not try contracting? Anyone can qualify!” As a recovering contractor and one who inspects the work of contractors, I have had occasion to see both sides of this curious and often heated area of commerce. 

First, there are some very talented handypersons and contractors out there and they’re worth their weight in gold. Among the best contractors, you will find folks with the aesthetics of artists, the business acumen of Wall Street traders and the organizational skill of CEOs. These are a special breed and worthy of their fees and of our respect.  

However, the worse-case scenarios, in which contractors fail us, are also, accurate portrayals of occasional occurrences. Part of the problem is that anyone can call themselves a contractor, pass out a flier and dive in with both feet and a crowbar.  

It’s important to note that licensing is no guarantee of good quality. There are loads of schools that can prepare someone with virtually no construction skills to pass the test over a single weekend (many let you keep taking the test until you pass.) Still, the advantage in hiring a licensed individual is that there are greater opportunities for recourse in cases of poor quality or some other bad behavior, although I would argue that this is a pretty poor excuse for a hiring strategy.  

A licensed contractor must post a bond (currently set at $12,500), which one may capture to pay off poor or unfinished work if the case can be justified. Getting and maintaining a contractors license takes some work and some commitment and surely places this individual above the lowest tier of skilled (and perhaps unskilled) personnel. 

Further, a contractor will generally try to avoid having their valued license clouded by complaints or lost entirely due to an infraction of the law, so one stands an increased chance of having a good experience with a licensed contractor. 

Homeowners are partially responsible for the proliferation of bad construction experiences when they make their hiring decisions based focally (if not solely) on economics. That said, I have great sympathy with those who try to get work done cheaply. Construction, and even minor repairs can seem terribly expensive but as you will see, the net result of underpaying is often harsh and, in the long-run, rarely worth the savings. 

For any given job, Mrs. Jones may elicit three or four bids from names she’s collected (actually, most people won’t get that many bids and may suffer for it.) It’s often the case that some of these bidders will not be prepared to do the job properly and will bid commensurately (too low). Some may, in fact, bid far lower than the reasonable cost of the work virtually assuring some sorry result or some financial surprises during the job (these same contractors often have to ask for extra money during the project). These unqualified workers (including ill-equipped licensed ones) will have reduced the real cost of work beneath a level where competent persons can do it properly, even in a competitive environment. But because they appear to be a bargain, they’re more likely to get the job. As a result, good contractors can’t compete and are, in fact, continually being driven out of business. That’s right. The best people are constantly being driven out because of the popularity of lower bidding contractors who are incapable of doing the job right. This must seem very odd but it’s quite true. 

Another result of this collection of ill-effects is that Mrs. Jones becomes one more person who thinks that all contractors are fools or thieves or both when she was actually an active participant in the downslide of quality in the marketplace.  

Houses are where we live and we rely profoundly upon their proper function and their safety every day. Low quality repair-work or remodeling can leave us resentful and regretful as we cook our meals or brush our teeth and have to live with the loose sink, the uneven tile or the misplaced window that could have been done well for a one-time higher outlay. 

It seems to me that it’s a much better (though often untaken) path to pay more for each job, do fewer jobs each year and have work that lasts and performs well. This is a serious task for the homeowner. First you must find good folks. They will not be the low bidders in most cases. They are much more often among the higher bidders. They can also generally read and write and speak like good business-folk. Look at the literature and contracts offered to you: the quality of these documents speaks volumes. Request references and actually call them. 

If you are doing more than one small job, go and see their previous clients and the completed work (most people are pleased as punch to show off these small triumphs). This doesn’t guarantee that you won’t have a “bad fit” with this contractor, but it gives you a much improved chance of liking the work s/he will do for you. Also, I strongly recommend that you feel some affinity with your contractor. Remember that you’ll be essentially “living” with this person when he or she works for you—sometimes for weeks or months. Distrust or discomfort from the beginning often leads to disappointments later on. Frankly, some people aren’t suited for major remodeling on this basis but that’s truly another discussion. 

Lastly, if you are having trouble with a contractor, try and talk with them. Tell them what you want and try to listen and think about the responses. I like to employ the dictum of W.A.I.T. (why am I talking.) Be sure to hear what they are saying and take your time in replying. 

Just asking for it to be cheaper will generally lead to bad places, but if you’re working on a time and materials basis, you can stop (or redirect) work until you’ve figured out a new strategy. If you’re on a fixed bid and you’re unhappy about some aspect that cannot be talked out easily, seek a mediator or third party. 

Professional mediators are worth their weight in platinum. Remember that most licensed contractors who have been in the same business in the same area for ten years or more have had to learn to provide some satisfaction for their clients. That level of professionalism almost always means that they may be twice as expensive as someone who doesn’t know how to do that. 

Each of us has a choice when we face our next home improvement task: become part of a system that produces faulty workmanship, or support genuinely good crafts persons. Pay now or pay later. I hope you’ll be smart, lucky and happy with the results.