03 Jan 6 Things You Should Know To Answer the Question, Why Are Contractors So Flaky?

House Love

A couple I know has been living with their refrigerator and stove in their living room for over a year because the contractor they hired to re-do their kitchen — in 2012 — can’t seem to finish the job. In fact, he can’t seem to show up to do any work. But they’re stuck because, through their insurance company, they hired this guy’s company and the job’s started and it’d would be a nightmare to undo all of that. I hear too many stories like this, and all of them beg the obvious question, “Why are contractors so frigging flaky?”

When I first bought our old house, I hired a contractor to re-do my roof. Without telling me, this contractor sub-contracted the work to another company. These guys were so flaky, they started the day by downing a few six-packs of beer (40 feet up on my roof). My success with contractors in those early days of home ownership was about 50/50, the same odds you have in flipping a coin. I’ve gotten acquainted with a lot of contractors since then. In fact, a few are friends. Here’s what I’ve learned.

1) Anybody can become a contractor. You don’t need a high school diploma or certification of any kind. You do have to take an exam in the area of expertise you want to work in; it will test your knowledge of basic skills and applicable laws in that area. You have to buy insurance, etc. But that’s it.

2) It’s fair to assume that most contractors have a knack, even a gift, for working in their area of expertise. But this is not always the case. Some people are contractors because it seems an easy thing to be. It’s not. Contracting demands expertise not only in construction but also in running a business and dealing with the public. Which brings me to the next point.

3) Just because you own a business doesn’t mean you know anything about business. It’s like parenting: sure, you can have a child. That doesn’t mean you’ll be a good parent. A lot of contractors have no business sense whatsoever. They don’t know how to manage their time. Above all, they don’t know how to communicate. The number one failing of the flaky contractor is that he/she isn’t clear with client, doesn’t review expectations, doesn’t apprise the client of probable complications.

This means that, if you’re looking for a contractor, the first thing you want to check out is how well he/she talks through the project. Here are a few questions to get it started:
a) What are a few things that could go wrong with this job and cost more money or cause delays?
b) If things get complicated, how long might it take to finish this job?
c) If I call you, typically how soon will you return my call? (Get a second, back-up phone number.)
d) If you leave the job for more than 3 days, can I penalize you? (Remember, you can build such provisions into the contract. For example, you can pay for the work in phases, as each part gets completed.)

4) Contractors are overly optimistic and, as a result, they will underestimate how long the job will take and how much it will cost. Know this: if it sounds too good to be true, it is. This was the case with those roofers I got stuck with. The contractor pitched the job so low, I felt I had to take his bid. But, then, when it came time to do the job, I saw why his bid was so low: instead of using a cherry-picker (one of those trucks with an extendable arm that holds a bucket somebody can stand in) to puy his men on the roof, he was making them climb a 40-foot ladder. For the safety of his crew, I ended up paying for a cherry picker truck at $250. a day. So much for the great deal I thought I was getting from this roofer.

Reality check: it may be that you couldn’t survive as a contractor if you weren’t overly optimistic. It’s a tough gig. As one contractor put it, “Clients want you to build them the Taj Mahal. They want it yesterday. And they want it for free.” Our expectations as customers are sometimes wholly unrealistic, mostly because we don’t know construction and, generally, we’re impatient. We DO want it all done yesterday so that we can get on with our lives. Knowing this, contractors try to please us by telling us what we want to hear. Otherwise, we wouldn’t give them the job. So, we could make our lives easier by being more realistic and, in turn, encouraging the contractor to be the same: “No, really, how long will it take to get this job done?”

5) Contractors go MIA on the job for one reason: they are chasing the money. They’ll happily take your job but, then, if a better job comes up the next day, they’ll take that too. Then they’ll take another the next day. The result is that they’ll be working several jobs at once or, more likeyly, they’ll work first on the job that pays the most money. Then, when they get time, they’ll come back to your job. This could take weeks or months or even years. It’s all about sustaining the maximum cash flow. There are quarterly taxes to pay, after all, and ongoing expenses.

The way to protect yourself from contractor abandonment is to have a stipulation in your contract that a) allows you to get out of the agreement easily and/or b) penalize the contractor (e.g., for each week he’s MIA, you get a 10% discount off the project fee). Most people feel obliged to stay with the contactor who started the job, no matter what. Like a bad marriage. But it’s often better to cut your losses and move on. Which brings me to my final point:

6) Finding a good contractor for your house is like finding a good nannyt for your children. It’s not to be taken lightly. The best method is networking. Use a contractor that a trusted friend or associate can recommend without reservation. If that seems impossible, then ask the contractor for references. And call at least 3. If somebody else has had experience with this person, get the low-down. Word-of-mouth reputations are vitally important. If you’re not having much luck, try this: find the contractor you think you want to use, but hire him/her first for a small job and see how that goes. For instance, you may need a lot of electrical work in your house. But, for starters, you need that electrician to inspect your electrical panel and clean it up. If he does well with that, then you can move on to the larger work.