About the House: A Few Thoughts on Working With Contractors

By Matt Cantor
Thursday February 04, 2010 - 08:58:00 AM

As a longtime contractor and one who inspects the work of contractors, I have had the good fortune to see both sides of this curious and often heated area of commerce. 

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 “If you can’t make it in a REAL profession, why not try contracting? Anyone can qualify.” 

Unfortunately at least part of the problem is that the latter case is, to some degree, true (yes, I AM a contractor and I DID say that). Since anyone can call themselves a contractor, pass out a flyer and dive in with both feet, a lot of bad work does get done.  

Much of the really poor workmanship I see has been done by the owners of houses who wanted to be their own contractors. However, some of the worst work is done by people calling themselves contractors or handypersons, and still more is done by new or inexperienced trades people. 

Now, of course, there are some very talented handypersons out there and they’re worth their weight in gold. The same is also true of many of our local contractors.  

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.  

Although licensing exists, it is important to note that very little is assured by this.  

There are a number of schools that will prepare anyone to pass the test (guaranteed or your money back!) over a single weekend. 

The best thing about hiring someone with a license is that there are greater opportunities for recourse with licensed contractors. They must post a bond, which you can capture to pay off poor or unfinished work if the case can be justified. Also, a contractor pays amply for the license and will try, generally, to avoid having it clouded by complaints or lost entirely. 

Unqualified workers (including ill-equipped licensed ones) also reduce the real cost of work to below a level where competent persons can do work properly in a competitive environment. In other words, good contractors can’t complete.  

This isn’t true all of the time but it’s true far too much of the time. For any given job, Mrs. Jones may solicit three or four bids from names she’s collected, and it’s very likely that only one or two will be prepared to do the job well and will bid commensurately. The others are more likely to get the job because they bid lower. They will then produce a poorer and perhaps faulty result, leaving Mrs. Jones, one more person who thinks that all contractors are fools, thieves or both. She is actually an active participant in the ongoing downslide of quality in the marketplace.  

A lot of the work I see smacks of this effect. It shows first in the lack of planning. A short-term fix is often apparent. A manner of workmanship that shows that only the immediate economy was in play. Homeowners own much of the blame for this, and, given our personal economies, it is hard to blame them. I have to make these choices, too, although I am loath to do so with someone’s staircase or gas feed. 

Houses are where we live, and we are very much dependent upon their proper function and their safety for our daily satisfaction. Bad work on them can leave us unhappy each day, resentful and regretful. In my not very humble opinion, it is the much better, but often untaken, path to pay more for each job, do fewer jobs each year and have work that lasts and performs well. This is not that easy to do. First you must find good folks. They will not be the low bidders in most cases, they are much more often the high bidder. They can also generally read and write and speak like good business-folk. Look at the literature and contracts offered to you. These speak volumes. Ask for references and actually call them. 

If you are doing more than small jobs, go and see their previous clients and their work. This is no guarantee that you may not have a “bad fit” with this contractor, but it gives you a much improved chance of liking your work in the end. Also, I strongly recommend that you feel an affinity with your contractor. Distrust from the beginning leads to bad places, and you will be essentially “living” with this person when they work for you (sometimes for weeks or months). 

Last, if you are having trouble with a contractor, try and talk with them. Tell them what you want, and try to listen to and think about the responses. 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 it out. If you’re on a fixed bid and contract and you’re unhappy about some aspect that cannot be talked out easily, seek a mediator. 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 10 years or more have had to learn to provide some satisfaction for their clients and that almost always means that they will be twice as expensive as someone who doesn’t know how to do that. 

The buying public is an integral part of a system that produces much faulty workmanship, and each of us has a choice when we face our next home improvement task. Pay now or pay later. I hope you’ll be smart, lucky and happy with the results.