Take My Contractor ... Please
Updated: Aug 12
By John Rolfe
One lining (silver or otherwise) of being in perpetual pandemic lockdown is you have plenty of time to become acutely aware of your domicile’s flaws. After five months, my dear wife and I can’t help but notice we sorely need a new kitchen and living room as they have grown ratty, dingy, drippy and depressing.
Now, unless you are an accomplished do-it-yourselfer with a variety of practical skills, such a situation presents a (golden or otherwise) opportunity to engage in one of life’s great aggravations: calling in a contractor.
We have ample bitter experience in this realm. Since our love shack was constructed 20 years ago, we’ve had our basement finished, our roof, furnace and well pump replaced, and the outside of our hovel repainted twice. Various plumbing mishaps and other calamities have required professional attention.
The biggest hurdle to unleashing your consternation is getting a contractor to come to your home in the first place. In my neck of New York’s Hudson Valley, contractors work on what is called “country time.” In other words, they get to things when they get to things, which can be after the sun burns out. Once they take your call (assuming they answer or call back), it’s anyone’s guess when they’ll actually show up. Their word tends to be less reliable than a politician’s.
The first thing your friendly contractor will do is denigrate the work of their predecessors. “What clown did this ductwork?” one heating specialist asked after being called in for a furnace estimate. “Let me guess. Was it Lloyd?”
“You know Lloyd?” I asked, referring to the fellow from the concern that installed our farcically underpowered heating system.
“Oh, yeah. Lloyd’s a special person,” I was informed with dripping sarcasm before the specialist recited a litany of reasons why our gracious “Enery Star” home is an energy sieve.
I’ll wager you didn’t know that tearing down competitors is just one of the skills that are taught in Contractor School. Licenses and permits aren’t issued in many states unless a contractor is certified in the following:
* Working part of the day or not showing up at all, even in good weather.
* Moving on to more lucrative gigs after completing the first half of yours.
* Acting like they’re doing you a favor by doing what you are handsomely paying them to do.
* Blaming their assistants for any sloppy work or collateral damage they do.
* Leaving an infuriatingly small but very noticeable amount of work unfinished while asking for full pay.
Contractors are mandated by states as well as the federal government to cut corners and do as little as possible at maximum expense to you. Along with maintaining an ample stock of antacids, headache remedies, and potent beverages to nurse you through the ordeal, you must be sure to:
* Get everything in writing before they start. My last house painter balked at doing our garage door after he’d painted the rest of the structure. “You said just do the garage,” he said before explaining he’d have to charge extra for the door.
“How is the door not part of the garage?” I asked.
“I never agreed to do the door!” he insisted.
“Oh, yes you did!” I replied, waving our contract in his blustery face.
“Well, you can’t paint aluminum,” he said.
“It’s not aluminum,” I replied, wisps of steam slowly curling off the top of my skull. “You checked the first day you were here. Now get out there!”
* Get someone to keep an eye on the rascals. It’s an added expense, but if the project is big, doing so can (possibly) save you from disaster.
When having the New Olde Rolfe Ancestral Home built, I hired an independent inspector to make sure all work was done satisfactorily, as I have neither the expertise nor the eye to know. Of course, that didn’t stop the builder from cutesy-poo shenanigans like telling the inspector to be at the site at 11 a.m. for the pouring of the foundation. When he arrived, it had been poured and everyone had left.
“I can’t verify this work,” he told me, inducing cardiac arrest. “I don’t like the way all this water is pouring out of the concrete.”
Great. A foundation with the strength of a graham cracker. After howling at my builder like a lunatic, he assured me it would be fine. I had no choice (or money) but to proceed and toss and turn at night for months. Fortunately, 20 years later, I can say he was right … but the roof went after less than 10 years, a scant month before the warranty on the shingles expired.
“Good luck getting the company to honor it,” my builder chuckled. “I’m not.”
* Compile of “punch list” of things that need to be corrected or finished, and never, ever, ever, ever pay in full before all work is completed to your satisfaction. If you do, your contractor will enter the Witness Protection Program and you’ll never see or hear from him again.
As a grand finale, my lovely housepainter neglected to paint the cupola on our garage and left a ladder on the roof for good measure before vanishing. Fortunately, I’d withheld $200. It should have been more because I ended up finishing the job myself before leaving a rather tart message that he could come get his damned ladder.
* Bad word of mouth helps. Many contractors rely on referrals, so letting people know that you’d rather stick a lit blowtorch in your ear than do business with someone can be a measure of revenge for lousy work poorly done for big bucks. If you get shafted, notify your local Better Business Bureau. Sometimes the good folks over there can apply a boot to a recalcitrant contractor's posterior.
To be fair, there are reliable, honest contractors who do good work at fair prices. The fellow who finished my basement was an ace. Naturally, he left the business before we could hire him again.
John Rolfe is a former senior editor for Sports Illustrated for Kids, a longtime columnist for the Poughkeepsie Journal/USA Today Network, and author of The Goose in the Bathroom: Stirring Tales of Family Life. His school bus drivin’ blog “Hellions, Mayhem and Brake Failure” is parked on his website Celestialchuckle.com (https://celestialchuckle.com) with the meter running.