Home Repairs: A Contractor’s Perspective

I had a slow dripping water leak in a pipe of our basement. It dripped into a cup since last winter. Like most home repairs, I finally got around to working on it which was as simple as calling a friend who owns a plumbing service. He is an honest contractor who does not jack up the price or do poor work.

Early last year I finalized the sale of a construction contracting business I had started, owned and operated.  During my time as a contractor I also built three homes, did some basement finishes and room additions. However, our main business was drywall contracting.  We had anywhere from five to 15 people working for us and was happy the superintendent was able to buy me out rather than just liquidating the business. Mostly because our employees were able to keep their jobs. I owe my success as a contractor to those guys.

I hope it will be helpful to others if I made a few comments about home repairs from a contractor’s perspective. I’ll spare you many of the details you can find with an internet search.  As a contractor I did no less than five to eight bids a week for work from simple repairs to large new buildings.  Now, I’m down to just getting this home ready for sale in the next several years.  Can’t wait to get it done so I can purge my tools!

Some of the most important advise I can give you in terms of working with a contractor are:

  • Develop a budget for the repairs so you know what you have to spend before the bid.
    • Professional contractors know you may not have a firm idea of the costs so we expect to help you out by showing you exactly what needs to be done to properly complete the task.
    • You should have an idea of how much you have to spend before you call the contractor. Use that number to reduce or increase the size of the project based on the budget.
    • If the bid is above your budget, then ask the contractor what can be done to reduce the costs. Once a homeowner asked me for advise. I spent a lot of time looking for budget reducing items.  After we worked it out, the homeowner wanted to use the “savings” to add higher end finishes.  I let him find another contractor because he was not being honest.
  • Price is no more important than timeliness, quality of materials and experience of the person you are hiring to do the work!
    • You may want the lowest price and the highest quality. The contractor may want the opposite.  Personally I wanted to know I could see any customer at Walmart and stop and talk with them. So we did the best work possible.
    • Often better materials don’t cost more if they reduce labor cost. Personally, I wanted the home to look as good years later.
    • There is a personal cost when contractors don’t show up or call saying they will be late after you took time off from work. I always believed it was better to have disappointed customer when I called and said we were going to be late (employees get sick). Rather than having a mad customer when we did not call at all.  We spend a lot of time on the phone, much of the time during the weekend and after hours, but it’s necessary.
  • I put all my bids in writing. I itemized the work to be done. This is to make sure we were both clear on the scope of work so there were no surprises during the project.  That does not relieve the contractor of properly performing the work.  I always believed that I was the expert in drywall, not the homeowner.  If the customer did not ask me to bid something that was required to do the job correctly, I included it in the bid anyway.
  • If you can find a contractor to do the work within budget and you trust the contractor, then hire them.  Business is about relationships. Both sides need to agree the deal is fair and they can trust one another.
    • Getting three bids will not necessarily achieve this!
    • Our company was built to be a mid-priced bidder. We geared everything towards that. Sometimes we were the low bidder, sometimes the high bidder. We used the same materials and methods regardless.
    • Contractors understand there are times the customer must hire the low bidder. Let them know upfront.
  • In my opinion, the best way to hire a contractor is by referral.
    • It takes three years of doing quality work at a reasonable price and in a timely manner to grow a contracting business.
    • The first years require a contractor to do a lot of advertising. Once they built a referral base, then advertising needs go down. So don’t expect the best contractors to necessarily be listed in every phone book or internet search.
    • Equally as good as a referral from a friend is referral from another trusted contractor. I never wanted to referral someone that made me look bad. That hurts business.
    • Frankly, our company was like a busy doctor’s office. We often would not take new patients. We could only handle so much work. However, we always bid referral work because if you don’t then other contractors and customers will stop referring work. Good contractors don’t want people telling their friends they called the contractor who said he was to busy to do the work.
  • Before the contractor arrives you have work to do getting ready for the bid.
    • Move things out of the way so the contractor can see the work to be done.
    • Make a list of what you want repaired if there is more than one item. That way the contractor knows what to bid. Going around the house and pointing things out does not always work, and you will not get a fair bid to compare against.
    • Rather than having work done in small increments save up a list. For example, if you need trim repaired in the home, don’t contract it room by room. Have it all done at once. Good contractors are busy. It takes time to schedule jobs, for workers to drive to the home and to have materials delivered.
  • Don’t be the customer that gets a “two way bid.”
    • That’s a bid where the contractor does not care if he gets the work or not.
    • If you are difficult and rude to deal with during a bid, contractors think you will do the same when he is working on your home.  Get ready for a high bid, if he even gives you one at all.
    • There is a saying about $100 dollar people, or whatever amount. We loose bids to other contractors for small amounts. I’ve bid $20,000 jobs and lost by $200.  That same customer will be difficult to work with because they will want work done that was not on the bid.
    • If I drive out to your house to look at a $100 dollar repair it probably cost me money. Gas, time, not being available to bid other work all have a cost. Be prepared to hire the contractor on the spot to do small repairs because he might want to do them while at your home after the bid. Good contractors do the small work for their customers rather than just the large projects. We do this as a favor, yes favor, because you are an existing customer or were referred to us.  If you are looking for a handyman to do small random stuff, then hire one.
    • I may catch a complaint for this next comment. It’s my honest opinion.  The customer is not always right! Especially if they are not willing to pay a reasonable price for the work. Especially if they make life difficult for a valued employee who is doing the work in the customer’s home as if it’s their own home. Especially if the customer does not hold up their end of the deal, such as not being home when we arrive at a scheduled time or asking us to do anything outside of what we bid without first agreeing to an added price.
  • Make sure you both understands one another’s expectations.
    • We know you may not have worked with a lot of contractors and are nervous that you will  be ripped off. Contractors are also worried about being ripped off. So good contractors go out of their way to explain both the good and bad points of the process.
    • If you have a specific requirement then have that on your list before the bid.  Such as having to show up later in the day or having the work done in phases.
    • My best customers were the ones who told me about their horror stories when working with other contractors. That helped me gauge if I could meet their expectations. However, complaining to a contractor about other contractors can backfire.  Make sure you tell the contractor this is not a complaint, you just want to make sure they know your expectations.  By the way, contractors who talk bad about others are not professional. If they are asked for their opinion about a contractor, they should just keep it to if they would hire them or not.

One last point. Sometimes it does not make since to do the work yourself.  Obviously this includes those times when you don’t have the necessary tools or experience.  Sometimes your time is better spent doing other things rather than building your own deck. More often than not, there is a deadline to get the work done (especially if the wife says so). If you keep your house off the market for months because you are doing all the work, then you are missing out on a sale and paying interest if you have a mortgage.

I could write a book about all this. I hope I’ve made it worth your reading. I’d be happy to help with advise regarding working with a contractor. Post a question in the comments section and I’ll answer it.  Even if you are reading this blog five years from now!

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