A Commentary on Contractors

We are crawling with contractors right now.   I used to inwardly roll my eyes when I was a resident at the intense discussions between my work colleagues (usually doctors and nurses) over their home renovations and the pros and cons of various contractors.  At the time I was a longtime renter, I really didn’t know anything about the topic, and I really didn’t care.  There was also the fact that I don’t come from a family that ever did a lot of renovating.   My mom has lived in the same house since 1974.  It was built in the late 50s.  Among other things, the kitchen cupboards, bathroom tiles, vanity, and some of the windows are ORIGINAL to the house when it was built.  Wallpapering the bathroom was considered a “big deal” renovation to us kids, even when my mom did it herself for almost no cost with the help of a neighbour.  If something wasn’t perfect, you just lived with it as it was.  Getting the driveway paved and then re-blacktopping it every  other summer was a highlight of the school holidays. We got used to not having handles on the doors, only one bathroom for four people, and the indoor rainfall which would flood my sister’s downstairs bedroom every time my brother used the shower.  “INSIDE!!” would come the yell from one of us while we pounded on the bathroom door, “PUT THE SHOWER CURTAIN INSIDE THE TUB.” Not sure why that was such a difficult concept for him to grasp, but by the time he did, there was a hole you could see straight through to the basement if you lifted the linoleum in the corner of the bathroom by the tub.  We got used to the hole and I’m pretty sure it’s still there.

Now all I talk about is renovating, the one we just did, or the one coming up, or the one we are currently in the middle of (which happens to be the dreaded full kitchen reno). When we bought our first house, both my husband and I were working full time, and finally realized it made sense to hire a professional for these jobs.  We started out slowly and over 10 years later I now consider myself a bit of an expert.  Electricians, plumbers, handymen, carpenters, painters, landscapers and jack of all trades contractors have all been through our various houses for jobs from small to massive.  We like to consider ourselves friendly, reasonable people who pay our bills on time and aren’t too demanding. Ok sometimes we need to be reminded gently about the bill BUT we don’t barter over the price, as long as we knew in advance what the cost is going to be.  I assume that when a contractor quotes a price, it’s a fair one, and if I don’t like it, I don’t assume it’s open for negotiation.  I just don’t hire you for the job.  You have to be a bit careful if you are nickel and diming these people, they are trying to make a living at it.  If they end up not making money on the job, they’re going to be pretty motivated to finish up quickly, likely cutting corners as they go.  We’ve certainly gotten a lot smarter about it as the years have gone on.  As usual, you get what you pay for.  If you are at an intersection and see one of those signs stuck to a utility pole that says “Granit Kountertops!  $1.50 square foot” and a 1-800 number underneath, and you decide that is where you are getting your new kitchen countertop from, you are on your own, I can’t help you there.  There are some commonalities about these people though, whether they are the good, the bad, or the ugly.  They really like deriding other contractors work.  The guy who went before was always incompetent, whether it be the size of a plumbing pipe (too small), the painting job, (atrocious), driveway levelling (terrible water drainage- what were they thinking?) or the electricity hook up (NOT TO CODE!!!- gasp).  I’m not sure if this is from the plethora of TV shows featuring horrible renovation work.  Recked Reno, featuring uber-competant Harry Hero Handyman, saves couple from shoddy work by unscrupulous contractor.  At the beginning there are usually tears of frustration from the home owner and at the end, tears of joy when their now magnificent reno is revealed.   Sound familiar?

My first experience of this was asking an electrician to install an overhead fan in our master bedroom. My husband (not an electrician FYI) had installed a light fixture in that spot when we moved in, since the one in the room was broken. “Easy!” he said “Blue to blue and red to red!”  But we had no air conditioning, and so as the Australian summer rapidly approached, desperately needed a fan installed to keep cool at night. To be fair to my husband, the light fixture worked and never caused a problem for the few months we used it.  It turned on when we turned the switch on, and turned off when we turned the switch off.  What more can you ask for?  The electrician was not so kind about my husband’s work.  “This is just dangerous!” he said, “you could have had a fire, or been electrocuted.”  He was outraged and continued muttering  about how utterly incompetent the person who had installed it had been.   I didn’t feel I could leave the room while he was still going on about it, so I stood in the background murmuring supportive things like “Shocking” and “Totally unacceptable”.  Then to paraphrase Dr. Seuss-  that first time customer was so smart and so slick, she thought up a lie and she thought it up quick.  “We just moved in,” I said, “it was like that when we got here.”  Well, the first part wasn’t  a lie anyway- we had just moved in.  “Well you’re lucky I came along when I did,” he replied rather dramatically, “this was a time bomb!” To be honest, I was terrified of his reaction if I told him who had actually installed the light fixture.  I was a bit worried he might try and have my new husband arrested for gross electrical incompetence.

Now I don’t know for sure how dangerous the light fixture installation was, but I took him at his word.  I relayed the story to my husband (including the lie) later on that day and we had a good laugh about it, but still assumed the electrician was correct.  Fast forward 10 years and I’m not so sure in retrospect.  Surgeons don’t generally criticize each other’s work to patients.  You just weren’t there when the decision that turned out to be wrong one was made, and you weren’t there in the operating room when the patient had their disastrous complication from that butcher, Dr. So and So.  I listen patiently while they rant, then explain that I really can’t comment on what went on, because I wasn’t there at the time, practice patterns differ between surgeons depending on their training and experience, I don’t do that particular operation etc, etc.  Contractors have no such professional courtesy and run amok with their criticism of everything anyone else has done in your home and how they can fix it.  I don’t know if this is to make them feel like a hero, to make you think they’re a hero, or just to get you to pay your bill, perhaps a bit of all three.  In addition, sometimes the criticism is true, sometimes it’s not, but usually it’s a grey area.  If you weren’t the one who ordered the work, the people who did may have been looking or asking for shortcuts to make the job cheaper, you just don’t know.  And it doesn’t really matter, unless some major disaster has occurred, like flooding a house or an electrical fire.  I’m not going to say this has never happened, but it’s unlikely.

There is an issue of trust here.  You have to trust that the guy (it is usually a guy, not a girl, that’s just a fact) is telling you the truth about what is needed, knows how to do it, plans on finishing the job and is being honest about how much it’s going to cost.  One time I asked a guy to come and hook our barbeque into a gas line.  Turned out we were missing the adaptor, which I had been told was in the box.  I had to run off to the store we bought it from while the guy waited.  The gas line was already open and he lights up a cigarette on our deck before I can say “Isn’t that dangerous?”  He seemed to know what he was doing though , and I arrived back without a major explosion, and the BBQ was successfully hooked up to the gas line. Another time we were having our furnace serviced by a sort of slow, meticulous kind of guy when my husband began experiencing severe abdominal pain.  I went down to the basement and inquired as to how long he was going to be, as I needed to take my husband to the emergency room, but I was worried about leaving as I hadn’t paid him yet.  “Why?” he says accusingly, “What’s wrong with him?” The guy didn’t know I was a doctor, and I was thinking- if I knew what was wrong with him, I wouldn’t have to take him to the hospital, you idiot.  45 minutes later I managed to shoo him out the door and I drove to the hospital with my pale, sweating, writhing husband. Emergency surgery to remove a rather large kidney stone was done later that night.  I would have paid anything just to get rid of him by the time he left, furnace serviced or no.  While neither of the above guys did anything wrong, not sure I would be so quick to have them come back again.

My advice is, take things with a grain of salt, do some research, get multiple opinions and quotes, use word of mouth referrals, try to avoid cash only people, and if you find someone you like and trust, hold onto that person as long as you can. Pay them in full and on time, try to know their names and a bit about them, show them where the bathroom is and remember a run to the coffee shop or an offer of a drink for the people you are trusting to work on your home helps as well. It certainly can’t hurt.


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