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Monday, September 24, 2012

The Local Lens
Published• Wed, Sep 12, 2012

By Thom Nickels

Finding the right contractor for household renovations can be a major headache. That’s because too many contractors have terrible reputations for "getting over," meaning that they overcharge clients—especially naïve or elderly people—for work that does not need to be expensive. That subjective category, ‘labor costs,’ is usually what ups the price, but how do you measure labor, really?

There are many honest contractors out there, but the trouble is finding them. Contractors with big names who own dozens of trucks and vans tend to arouse my suspicions. I see them as little companies that grew into big corporations and in the process lost their "little guy" roots. As "big guys," they very often adopt the ways of corrupt corporations and charge exorbitant prices.

More complaints are lodged against contractors than any other group of workers. According to the Better Business Bureau, roofing contractors are the worst when it comes to customer complaints. Choosing a contractor is no easy task, but once you know a few ground rules, that job can be made easier. It is unwise, for instance, to use the services of contractors whose business cards contain only a Post Office Box number. Another thing I’ve learned is that when you choose a contractor, be aware that a reasonable down payment for a job is about 30 percent of the cost. 50% is steep (but negotiable) but paying 100% is foolish.

Another ground rule: Always pay the balance when the full job has been completed, and not a day before.

The wrong contractor, of course, can help to drive a homeowner off the deep end. I am reminded of a man I worked for years ago when I was in the health care industry. He was rehabbing a house in South Philadelphia and had a number of contractors working for him. Sometimes his contractors failed to keep appointments for follow up work after the initial contract was signed. Showing up to give an estimate, or even the first day of work was easy, but usually a few days into the job the contractor would disappear.

The homeowner would rant and rave. "Where are they? They said they would be here at nine o’clock. It is already 11." Phone calls did no good because very often he’d get the contractor’s voice mail. I felt bad for the guy because the whole thing seemed like a trick: Present yourself as a responsible and meticulous contractor when you give an estimate, bank the deposit and promise a work schedule, then go out and do the same with other customers--so you can be sure you’ll have lots of work—but give no thought about the impending work overlaps that threaten prior job commitments.

"Where are you?" the homeowner would shout into the phone, his face a flush red. "You’re what? You’re on another job? What! You were supposed to be here two hours ago." Next I’d hear a babble of nervous words from the contractor, the fast talking explanation that went on like a babbling brook before the inevitable apology and summation: "We can get to you tomorrow morning, definitely."

"Tomorrow morning I’ll be in Cherry Hill."

Which meant, of course, another postponement, provided it didn’t rain or another job overlap didn’t intrude. And since ‘tomorrow’ always seemed to be a Friday, if that didn’t work it meant the job would have to be postponed until Monday, which in turn meant that the home owner would spend the entire weekend saying horrible things about the people he had working for him. At times I felt really bad for the owner and consoled him with, "How can professionals behave this way?" but he’d say, "They are not professionals, they are contractors." "Yes, but," I’d reply, "You can at least be certain that they will be back—if they want the rest of the money, that is."

But just as there can be bad contractors, there can be "bad" people who hire contractors. The homeowner in question fell into the latter category.

Observing his contractor interactions was always an education. For some reason he’d gotten it into his head that these workers were his personal employees in the old pre-Union sweatshop sense. Technically, the workers may have been his "employees," but his tendency was to treat them like slaves or servants and talk down to them.

All of this came to a head when the boss told the workers to wait while he went to pick up supplies. Since the trip took longer than expected, the workers used the time as an impromptu coffee break until the supplies got there. When the homeowner entered the kitchen for a bit to eat and saw the workers sitting on crates, instead of asking what was wrong he flew into a rage.

He called them a bunch of lazy bums, and told them he wasn’t paying them to sit on their duffs.

I was in another part of the house when this occurred and to me it sounded like the homeowner was scolding a group of nine year old boys. The stunned workers said little but when the boss returned from the store they reported what had happened.

This time it was the contractor’s turn to explode.

"You don’t talk to my men like that!" he said.

And with that, even though the wealthy homeowner needed the work on his house done before his scheduled meditation retreat to the Far East, the contractor and his men picked up their tools and walked out, never to be seen again.