Where There’s Hope in Housing: The Ins and (Mostly) Outs of Contractors
At the risk of being out of step with the times, I want to say I have no special quarrel with big business. When I buy a car, for instance, I feel confident it will give me years of safe, sound transportation. Apart from rare lapses, the electric utility keeps our house powered at rates that don’t seem out of line with other prices. When we buy a washing machine, we have reason to believe it will give us clean laundry for a decade or more at a cost of a few cents a load. I can make a three-minute phone call at night from my home in Connecticut to San Francisco for 53¢, which is 22¢ less than it cost me 10 years ago.
No, my quarrel is not with big business. It is with little business. To be exact, my quarrel is with the horde of one- and two-man outfits that purport to keep my house in repair and, on occasion, attempt to improve it — the plumbers, painters, roofers, electricians, carpenters, heating contractors and others who beset us homeowners.
The world of the small contractor is a world in which dates and appointments mean nothing. Murphy’s Law reigns: everything that can go wrong goes wrong. Costs escalate as disasters and mistakes pile up. Even the most skilled and trustworthy workers — and there are quite a few of them around — inflict on their customers idiosyncracies that would create hysteria in big business. Would a corporation put up with a worker who showed up for a job a year late? Well, we did. We’ll call him “The Tumbler” because, in order to protect the guilty, I won’t use real names in this article. He does beautiful work, but he has a habit of tumbling off the roofs he’s working on, which leads to long interruptions in his schedule.
Over the past 18 months, my wife and I have had several close encounters with small contractors. We needed two new heating systems (one for our house and one for the cottage next door that we rent out), termite proofing and termite-damage repair, plumbing, painting and wallpapering, sheets of plate glass to insulate some picture windows, and the roof repairs.
Waving at Khomeini
A bout with contractors is one of those stressful experiences that psychologists like to measure on a point scale. Dealing with contractors probably wouldn’t score quite as high as death or divorce, but it might rank with moving or even getting fired. It is time-consuming, nerve-racking and frequently disappointing.
Well-meaning consumer advisers put out guidelines for dealing with contractors. They recommend the usual things: use a well-established firm, get several bids, check with the Better Business Bureau and the contractor’s bank, get other references, get a written estimate, make the contract very specific and so forth. I wouldn’t suggest for a moment that you ignore any of these rules. They might help, but don’t count on it. They could be no more effective than waving a U.N. resolution at the Ayatollah Khomeini.
I followed all these rules in 1978 when I set out to find a contractor to put a heating system in our house. The house is large, old and awkwardly arranged and we wanted the best in energy-saving ideas, so I was especially careful in choosing a contractor. The partners I selected finally met all the criteria: their bid was several thousand dollars below the next lowest, the local BBB and bank had nothing bad to say about them and, best of all, they produced mimeographed sheets listing former customers. I called several of the people on the list, and they professed to be satisfied. With great relief I signed a contract with “The Dynamic Duo,” as we came to call them. They said they would start the job in a week and would be finished two weeks after that. I believed them.
They actually did appear two weeks later and put in a couple of hard days’ work. Then they disappeared for a week. They settled into a pattern of working one day and then disappearing for a week. The fall days got colder and colder. The Dynamic Duo were busy elsewhere, and it was almost impossible to reach them to haul them back.
But the job did get done, bit by bit. Finally came the day in December when I returned home to find a note saying they were finished and “all systems go.” I believed them. But now, more than a year later, all systems still aren’t “go.” On good days, though, when the weather isn’t too cold, we get the dining room and kitchen all the way up to 65°F.
Brooding over this and other experiences, I have tried to think what more I could have done to protect myself. Not a great deal, I have concluded. You won’t change the erratic ways of the contractor. But you will need strength of character to see the project through and survive the crises. I have called the qualities you’ll need the Four Ps: Persistence, Patience, Politeness and Preparedness.
To get a job done you need, first of all, to get hold of a contractor. But unlike other people, a contractor doesn’t return phone calls. He is seldom in his office, if he has one, and seldom home. (He works very hard, I’ll grant you that.) You just have to swallow your pride and keep calling. Like an artilleryman bracketing his target, adjusting the range bit by bit until he scores a direct hit, you will learn just when to hit your contractor with a phone call.
Don’t hesitate to call early in the morning or late at night. After several years I have learned, for instance, that “The Plodding Plumber,” who fixes the leaks in our house, has his coffee while sitting by the phone at just about 7:45 a.m. Call at 7:30 and he’ll be in the bathroom. Call at 8 and he’ll be gone. The Tumbler just doesn’t like to use the phone. On one occasion, after I had called repeatedly, he drove five miles to my house to find out why I was phoning. Of course, I was out.
Delay is endemic among contractors. They are small operators juggling many projects, rushing off to emergencies, fending off threatening or pleading clients. Consumer advisers will tell you to insist that a contract include a date for completion. Fine. But I don’t know of a contractor who would let you put a deadline in a contract or meet it if you did. What are you supposed to do if he misses the deadline? Get a new contractor? That will take even longer.
Recently, when I had some plate glass installed, the start of the work was delayed for weeks because the glass factory was said to be on strike. Finally the glass was on its way and a crew from “The Crystal Crackers” came to prepare the window frames. They said they would have the glass in place in a couple of days. Maybe three. I believed them. Then they took off, leaving one worker behind, but even he disappeared after putting in a few hours’ work. When he didn’t come back the next day, I called The Crystal Crackers to ask what happened. The workman had seized a chance to go to Aruba for a week. Who could blame him?
Other delays followed, but at last one day the frames were ready and the truck with the plate glass pulled into the driveway. When the driver just sat behind the wheel, staring out the window, I didn’t need to be told what had happened. The straps had yielded on a curve, and several hundred dollars’ worth of plate glass lay shattered on the truck.
In dealing with contractors the occasion may well arise when you feel provoked to shout and even use coarse language. Don’t. The plumber you insult today may be the only one who can stop the leak in your basement tomorrow. Some time ago The Plodding Plumber’s assistant installed a bare steam-heat pipe at thigh level beside the toilet in our rental cottage. To go to the bathroom in the winter, the tenant either had to risk second-degree burns or turn the heat off and wait awhile. The Plodding Plumber agreed that the location of the pipe was aberrant and said he’d move it. I believed him. For a year he kept saying he would move it. Finally it was taken out by someone else when the whole heating system was replaced. But through all this, The Plodding
Plumber and I remained elaborately polite to each other. And it’s a good thing, for when a leak sprung in our main water pipe, I didn’t know whom else to call.
The Plodding Plumber came right away and fixed the leak.
Just because the contractor makes a good living at his profession doesn’t mean he knows what he is doing. Therefore, be vigilant and learn as much as you can about the job. Read the pamphlets that come with the equipment. Keep your eyes open.
When The Dynamic Duo were installing our heating system, I noticed what appeared to be air filters lying on the floor near the new hot-air furnace. I figured the filters were probably meant for some function other than lying on the floor. I looked in the installation manuals they had also left lying about and saw that The Dynamic Duo had, indeed, omitted a whole section of the furnace designed to hold the filters. Before confronting The Dynamic Duo with my discovery, I called the manufacturer of the furnace to ask how it would work without filters. An engineer there said, “Oh, it’ll work fine. You’ll just have to repaint the inside of your house every year.” Armed with this information, I got The Dynamic Duo to agree to fit the filters in somehow.
In the days following the completion of a job, check it out thoroughly. Look at it frequently. If there is a machine involved, listen to it. Last New Year’s Eve, “The Fiery Furnaceman,” who installed the heating in our rental cottage, decided we needed to get more heat out of the burner. He said he could arrange that by installing a bigger nozzle that would feed more oil into the combustion chamber. I believed him. Thus far he had done an excellent job. But that evening, as we left for a party, I noticed black smoke billowing out of the cottage chimney and then, glancing through a basement window, saw flames leaping up around the furnace. Fortunately, the flames died when I turned the furnace off. It turned out that the new nozzle exceeded the specifications printed right on the furnace, and burning oil was spilling out.
There may come a time when the Four Ps fail. Then you’ll need a club. The only club you have is money, and you hold that only so long as you haven’t paid the bill. Don’t pay until you are satisfied that the job is properly done — or at least withhold a percentage. A few hours after The Dynamic Duo left me that note saying “all systems go,” they phoned to say they’d be right over to collect their final check, a matter of some $1,400. I told them not to hurry. The heating system was functioning, it’s true, but the temperature was hovering around 55°F (inside, not out). Over the next few weeks, they called repeatedly — showing that contractors can use the phone when it suits them — and even came over to demand their money. The discussion must have been pretty tense because my dog, who normally greets any stranger with overwhelming friendliness, joined in with growls and snarls. But I didn’t pay up until a professional heating engineer had looked the system over and decided what was wrong. The Dynamic Duo made some suggested improvements, and I paid the last installment. I should have waited longer. New problems keep revealing themselves.
The ultimate weapon, of course, is the lawsuit. It’s nice to imagine the courtroom scene where the jury gives the contractor his comeuppance. But contractors don’t worry much about such possibilities. When I asked my lawyer to proceed against The Dynamic Duo, he sent them a letter that seemed ferocious to me. “That should shake ’em,” I said. “Not really,” said the lawyer. “Contractors get letters like that every day.”
Suing is an act of desperation, worthwhile only if many thousands of dollars are at stake. The chances are you will lose money even if you win the case. As much as you may be tempted to take your contractor to court, just remember this: if dealing with contractors hasn’t driven you crazy, then dealing with the court system surely will.
Don’t hesitate to call early in the morning or late at night.
The only club you have is money, and you hold that only so long as you haven’t paid the bill.
Would a corporation put up with a worker who showed up for a job a year late?