Monday, August 29, 2011

Don’t Stop Believin: A Journey Into Contractor Land. (get it?! Journey!!!!)

Oh contractors... It's been a long year.

First you wouldn't even talk to me, then we went on same really bad dates, then I had to break up with you before finally settling on a hopeful candidate which my house tried to kill.  You took your revenge - perhaps rightly so - by fucking up my countertops.  It's been a complicated experience.

It may have appeared that I focused on what went wrong in my kitchen project and that's partly true.  I tried to show when I thought my guys got it right because they DID do good work. Mostly. But I made a point to show the problems because that's how I - and hopefully others - learn. Despite this seemingly negative tone, I feel like I was incredibly lucky in my overall experience. My guys were super dependable, had good personal hygiene, didn't try to swindle me and showed up erry day. Honestly, this is about 137% better than many other people I've encountered so they were ahead straight out of the gate.

Don't you wish you worked at a job where you were able to get bonus points for just SHOWING UP? Unfortunately I live and work in the real world where being present at my job every single day is somewhat required.

But I'm beginning to see that the contractor biz isn't really like a normal business where the rest of us work - it's Contractor Land where there are completely different rules and numbers never seems to add up like you think it does. It's like quantum mechanics but with more sawdust.

Even though I am tremendously better equipped to handle future renovations like this, I unfortunately feel like some of my worst stereotypical thoughts about contractors were confirmed. This is sad. These conclusions are not just from my personal experience but from highly scientific research I conducted by talking with other homeowners, talking with other contractors, scientific studies of ant colonies, spying/eavesdropping, voodoo magic and lazy generalizations. Nothing would make me happier than proving these conclusions false at every single project I tackle in the future.

That's not to say I am now racist against all contractors. I have a great amount of respect for people that can build things and have skill sets that I don't. When the zombie apocalypse comes I will definitely need more contractors to help build my bunker than silly accountants! Money will be useless then and I'll have to resort to trading ammunition or sexual favors to get what I want. In this case, a kitchen/zombie-proof bunker. [MS sidebar: Could you imagine what kind of contract fuckery a zombie bunker would have produced?!]

But until this country is overrun with the walking dead, I just don't think I'm in the tax bracket to actually employ any of the good contractors I want. So if you're stuck in the same shitty tax bracket like me (and I'm pretty sure the majority of Americans are), here are some things you homeowners might want to keep in mind as you navigate through the strange wilderness of Contractor Land:

Trust: You still need to do it with protection.
The first test you encounter during your journey through the CL is a test of mental fortitude to see how prepared you are for the actual project. Perhaps you can avoid this test if you don't constantly tread water in a black pool of anxiety like me. Lucky you. But for me - I don't really like strangers, I certainly don't like strangers who are men and I'm not too fond of lots of people in my house. So let's put all of that together at the same time WHILE YOU'RE NOT EVEN HOME! Every day for an indefinite amount of time.

*nervous laughing*

Isn't this fantastic???!!!!

That pain in my chest is the utter lack of control in my life as I'm drowning in anxiety coupled with the knowledge that they are most definitely going through all my drawers and stealing blank checks from my desk right fucking now. I spent all day at work thinking horrible uncontrollable thoughts:

Omigawd, are they going through my dresser drawers? Reminder to check for possible webcam locations when I get home...

I could be in a meeting at work and the thought would pop up that they could be taking a nap on my bed in their dirty clothes or petting Charlemagne in that spot she doesn't like and there's not a damn thing I can do about it because I'm not even there!

Contractors may or may not give a shit about understanding the intimacy of their job. You can only hope that when the time comes they make an effort to be respectful.  Either way, it's still really unnerving to come home from work and have a stranger - maybe a subcontractor you've never even seen before - open the door for you and then proceed to navigate your house with familiar ease. I don't even let my family do this.

It’s not like these guys are going to be seeing all of my darkest, filthiest spaces every day for months!  I mean, no one has ever been so deep in my crawl space but please don’t bother going slow or being gentle with my property. Please keep hammering away in your dirty boots and calloused hands without mercy. I shouldn’t be nervous or have reservations - I should rely solely on the promises of the experienced person in this cherry-poppin equation.

Trust like this is not something that should be earned - goodness, that might take a lot of time! The homeowner isn’t giving a contractor permission to earn that trust when they sign that contract, they are just blindly handing it over with their keys and rights to complain.

Nothing bad has ever happened in that kind of situation.

Stop being so selfish, homeowners!

Did I leave panties in the bathroom floor??? GAWDAMMIT!

This business is personal.
Homeowners, you might have been under the impression that this was a business arrangement. How naive you are!   This isn’t like selling your old lawnmower on craigslist - the chances of you remaining detached and objective are fairly slim. This is a HUGE investment in time, energy, money and resources in addition to the forced intimacy of such a project. In no way can this be profession - it is actually a personal relationship during the course of which a renovation may or may not take place.  But not the fun kind of relationship with date nights and exchanges of bodily fluids - an emotional relationship where one side is a woman with constant PMS.

And that woman is not me. (Get ready for some tired and tasteless jokes about gender... ZING!)

Contractors are like delicate hormonal flowers with access to large amounts of power tools. It's important to treat them with kid gloves while wearing your safety glasses in case they lash out. Their inflated egos are only dwarfed by their white trucks. If you ask a question you will most likely be met with an eyeroll or condescending explanation. Stupid homeowner! Don't question their methods or things you don't understand. They are always right and like to remind you of it.

But it’s really just an act to hide their sensitive nature - they are always the victim here in Contractor Land regardless of the fact that they are in charge of the payment schedule, can select their own projects and have all of the knowledge, skill and power to cause to cause absolute misery or joy in this project. After all, the client is standing in the way of their great love of providing mediocre craftsmanship to kitchens and garage-slash-family rooms across the country. They are ARTISTS! Don't sully their creativity with your money or your own opinions. This isn't about you! It's about them and you should really stop being such a self-centered dick about it.

Besides, they're not being bitchy for the hell of it - they are merely responding in kind to the idiocy around them. (Psstt... that’s you!) This is my personal favorite because I practically invented this line of PMS reasoning.

Attempts at lightening the mood with jokes will only be met with stony silence. Gifts or bagels are empty gestures that are quickly forgotten. I think the only solution is lots of hugs and letting them cry it out. THEN go for the bagels.

Carbs make everything better. And chocolate.

At least it works for me...

What. The. Fuck. is on my nightstand right now.......????  Please, please, please let me have at least shut the bedroom door....

I’m not sure this “business” is a business at all...
Many times I’ve heard about homeowners being unprepared, not knowledgeable of the contractors' time and ignorant of the process in general. I think those are valid complaints. Contractors seem to run into these problem clients over and over and over... So often that I’m beginning to think that perhaps these aren’t problem clients but just actually how clients are.


Certainly the only solution is to bitch about how problematic clients are. Contractors aren’t there to provide a service for the client and to make their dreams come true, clients are there to make sure the contractors job goes as smoothly as possible. It’s always about the contractor, remember!? If a contractor calls the homeowner for an immediate decision - a decision the homeowner knew nothing about and is unprepared for - the contractor does not suck at managing his business and timeline, the client is flaky and unprepared. How inconsiderate of the homeowner!!

I’ve said a million times that homeowners should do their homework and try to get as much accomplished beforehand as possible so as not to upset the delicate disposition of the contractor. Pick as many materials and fixtures as you can or at least have a good idea of where you're going, have a good grasp on your own budget, understand your personal expectations about a project - you should probably go ahead and research how to build and install every component of your project too in case the contractor runs into any problems regarding placement of undercabinet lighting or how to install a sink or faucet per se. They can’t know everything and you will definitely need to fill in!

By no means should contractors institute some kind of procedure or checklist or a “What to expect when you’re expecting a remodel” type of brochure to educate people. That sounds like a lot of work! And a lot like a real business. A contractor is not supposed to provide information up front - they fly by the seat of their pants! It’s more fun that way when they are making birdhouses or drilling shit together.

Or watching the subcontractors do it.

Homeowners really only pay them to babysit the subcontractors.

I can’t imagine why a homeowner would want to pay someone to have all of these business-y type skills? That type of easy solution sounds too good to be true. It is totally my responsibility as a nit-picking homeowner to manage the entire project and anticipate the contractor’s needs, provide him with all of the information that I can’t possibly even know about, manage the timeline, put all the emergency numbers on the fridge, have the kids’ pajamas laid out and then drive him home at the end of the night.

Maybe we’ll stop for ice cream since everyone behaved tonight.

I think I accidentally left the giant tub of pimple ointment next to the sink!!!!! Oh well, at least they're not looking IN the medicine cabinet! Oh gawd they are totally IN my medicine cabinet, those assholes!!!!

None of it matters because in the end it’s all your fault anyway!
So much of my research on working with contractors was incredibly enlightening. Apparently projects go wrong all the time because clients are so horrible! It's a wonder why contractors are even in this “service” industry at all and not just building their birdhouses at a monastery somewhere in Tuscany. That seems much easier for everyone. This was so weird to learn because the majority of projects I hear about going wrong are because contractors fucked up, took the cheap/wrong way out, got lazy or just didn't even bother showing up anymore but still demanded payment. Guess what? That's still the client's fault!

If you couldn't guess beforehand that your fully-insured, licensed, highly recommended contractor was going to bail or fuck up then you should have researched better. No matter that all these fuckers look exactly the same with their horrible penmanship and shitty bids, you as the homeowner should be able to look into their souls and know which ones are going to actually do things the right way. Don't know what the right way is because you're not a professional builder? Well, you'll have to find out from a contractor. But he probably doesn't know or won't tell you. Best consult a gypsy fortuneteller. Or Alice Cullen.

Are we behind schedule because the contractor can't get the electrical inspector to come back or the HVAC guy hasn't showed up in over two weeks? Nope! We're behind because I ordered the wrong part for the microwave. How inconsiderate of me to try and have everything lined up for you! I know everything was sitting in the dining room for over a month at which any time you could have made sure it was the correct part but I think we both know it's my fault for not unpacking it for you. I’m so lazy like that!

Oh you installed those cabinets wrong? It's not your fault for ignoring the plan that Nick so generously made for you or by not calling him when you encountered a problem. I know that I wrote his number on the installation packet but I probably didn't make it big enough or include enough smiley faces. It's also my fault for even noticing the fuck up because my expectations are way too high in that I want things done, ya know, correctly. Don't forget to bill me for the incorrect work you did and the extra labor where you had to try and cover up what you fucked up too! I love overpaying!!

I don't feel like myself unless I'm in my natural position as project whipping boy.  Or whipping madame as the case may be...  It's how I best serve the Lord (of Remodeling).

I'm pretty sure there is a pile of Ghirardelli chocolate wrappers and a dirty wine glass I left on the coffee table last night... SHIT!

I'm trying to not stop believin... 
Contractor Land seems to be a magical place - like Narnia - where common sense and logic are flexible forces.  I wish I could say that proper communication could fix all of these things but when one person is PMSing *secretly points to contractor* it turns communication into a constant defensive/offensive “who sunk my battleship?” attack, it makes progress hard. My solution right now is to deal with the PTSD and sink their battleship with enough sarcasm to obliterate an entire navy fleet.

I doubt it's working...

I still believe in a place that exists between the real world and Narnia Contractor Land - like a Venn diagram of remodeling. And that place isn’t reserved for English kids in an weird wardrobe or fancy people here in this country with loads of disposable income. That there are contractors out there who - for a reasonable price - I can just be chill with while they’re all up in my crawl space and we can eat some Turkish delights and bagels and listen to early ‘80s rock music and talk about how much we both love the smell of fresh paint.

Oh hell - I think I left an industrial-sized box of tampons right out in the open...... You know, I don't even care anymore...

So... who wants to do my future bathroom remodel?!!




Steve Perry...??


  1. One problem you mention that I've encountered constantly and that drives me bonkers: that they expect you to anticipate and understand all the potential in-the-field problems that will come up when they begin installing the particular items you've selected. How could you possibly? Are you a contractor? Do you know everything there is to know about building stuff? No: that's why you hired them - so that someone on the job would know how to do it. It's even worse when you've gone above and beyond to get them everything they'll be installing way early in the process and those things are sitting there waiting for them for months and months. But they don't actually look at them until the moment they're about to install, and inevitably there's something about them they didn't anticipate or that they don't know how to handle. Then naturally it's all your fault for not warning them.

  2. I'm glad you understand that it IS our fault! So many people would benefit from this knowledge!

    But seriously, I want to pay for expertise, experience and project management skills. If I wanted to act as the general contractor I could have organized the subcontractors myself - I do not pay someone else only to be the one who ends up having to handle all of the project meetings, repeatedly ask to make sure they have what they need and check up on them. It's still upsetting to know it happens to so many people, even though it's nice to know I'm not the only one who experiences these problems.

    Good luck with your remodel, redbrickbuilding!

  3. Thank Gawd you didn't hire an Architect... This post would have been a novella

  4. I can deal with architects - we speak the same language. And if there's a problem I berate them until they cry. It's fairly easy - they're a fragile bunch... ; )

  5. Madame, I love your post, as always! Since I was married to a contractor of 32 long, excruiating years, I can sympathize with you. They are always right...NOT. They never screw anything up...NOT. I could go on for hours, but I will spare you. I may be one of the few people out there than can stnad toe to toe with them & give them their crap back to them. Oh well, if you need me on your bathroom project, you know where to find me...

  6. I am lucky because my sister's husband was a contractor before he became a science teacher. So he always help me choose the right person. And he hates the crappy contractors who give the profession a bad name. Next time get a relative to become a contractor so they can make recommendations!

  7. Oh my...Sorry, Saucy...not enjoying the rant today. You know I luv ya, but you should take a walk in my hot-pink Timbos one day...

    I can take what redbrickbuilding says and make those same comments about the homeowner. Yes, there are contractors who are less than honest. I have no idea the percentage, but it is as tired and old as all car mechanics are trying to take you. It is your responsibility to check out the contractor and ask all the pertinent questions. Yes, you even need to discuss your expectations up front; that way, there is no disappointment (I expect full remodel of my house to be completed in 1 month with no dust!).

    Customers get mad for mainly these reasons: 1) Job took longer than they imagined; 2) There was more dust and dirt than they imagined; and 3) They imagine when a problem is found behind a wall that we caused it so we can make more money. They are letting their imaginations run away with them. See my comment above about discussing EXPECTATIONS.

    I can only speak from my experience, but I personally do not have X-ray vision, and those X-Ray Specs I ordered from the back of the Contractors' True Confessions comic book have not lived up to their hype. I include in my estimate that there is always the possibility that there is SOMETHING wrong inside the walls or under the floor (did you forget to tell me you had a big leak a few years ago because it's not leaking any more?). And, guess what? Chances are, if your house is over 8-10 years old, things may be going wrong!

    I have a blog article that I wrote one day in a fit of perturbation about this very thing...hubs told me that it was too ugly to post, even after 2 re-writes. Maybe it's time...

  8. Brenda Lynn - Thank you! I always try to give someone the benefit of the doubt but I think I'm much better equipped to handle some of the problems - and spot the warning/trigger signs - in the future. Hopefully it won't take me 32 years... ; )

    AFF - You are lucky because all the contractors I'm related to or are friends with do not inspire great confidence! I need to find the IKEA of contractors - still has all the important stuff but made of plastic. I can be cool with that.

    Audrey - it's totally cool you disagree. I knew there would be a lot of people/contractors that would. But the point of all this is not to just bitch - hopefully people can see that I am offering problems that I (and countless others) encounter and suggest actual solutions for (in a silly way).

    I've stated several times that my guys WERE honest and good guys - I checked their references, reviewed their bid in detail, asked questions extensively before I even chose them. We stapled 12 pages of emails to the contract that we signed. This is not the problem. The problem is the level of professionalism and preparation I extended to them that wasn't returned and yet I’m still blamed when problems arise. Somehow I’M still the one who didn’t do my job. Well it’s not my job – I can only handle what I’m responsible for and yet the contractor seems to be given a free pass because omigawd customers are bitchy and difficult!

    I did not pick a bad contractor – sure, we had problems (some of which I'm responsible for) which I’m choosing to highlight here for the sake of discussion. Telling me to find just someone better is not a solution – it’s a way to blame the homeowner. Do people not properly interview contractors and end up with dishonest ones? Of course. This is a real problem. What I’m saying is that I DID pick the right guys and these are STILL the problems that I encountered and other people encounter over and over. Problems that is not within our power to know about or fix.

    And I completely agree with you about problem homeowners for all the same reasons as you - I've been just as pissy about their faults puh-lenty too. Unrealistic expectations and demands are tremendously damaging to the process and I’ve said repeatedly the exact same things that your article probably talks about.

    The larger point – and what I think you and others are missing – is that I’ve done my work. I’ve done everything I can. I know this process is dirty, problematic, changing and I’ve done everything in my power to make it as smooth as possible for you and me. But I’ve never done a remodel. You have – you do it every day. It is YOUR burden to educate me when my experience ends for both your sanity and mine and guide the entire process. It’s what I pay you for. I don’t pay you for a miracles and x-ray vision.

    I would like to read your article! There is still much love here - but until both sides are communicating then nothing actually changes. Thanks Audrey!

  9. I think you've hit on the meat of it with the "Ikea of contractors" statement.

    After the top layer of talent that is highly professional and priced accordingly, the options seem to drop off pretty drastically. Unfortunately, many of us can't afford the very best, but it would be nice to have more mid-tier options.

  10. Thanks for being succinct, Kim, where I just can't seem to be.

    Everything you said is perfect. Thank you!

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