Home & Garden Columns
I met a nice couple the other day. Sadly, they were clearly in some distress over the fortunes of their remodeling process. They’d engaged a GC (builder-speak for general contractor) last year to do a rather sweeping and costly rehab on a mid-sized house in the hills of Oakland and things hadn’t gone quite as well as they’d hoped.
It seems that the fellow was something less than the consummate businessman. In fact, I’d say that the fellow (after much questioning and examination in situ) was really (drum-roll please) a “carpenter.” “Oh my gawd” wails the woman with the baby. “For shame,” proclaims the preacher. “What are you talking about?” says everyone else.
A carpenter is not a GC, but what is? A GC is an organizer of work, a writer of contracts and a supervisor. The GC is the person who makes sure that the client gets what they paid for as opposed to the person who provides the labor, although a GC can provide both services.
When is it reasonable for a GC to provide both services? When the job is quite small and he or she is not running several other jobs at the same time. Nonetheless, the primary function and the most vital service isn’t the swinging of the hammer but the communication, conception and organization needed to make the job happen.
This fellow our nice couple had working for them was cheaper than the rest (one of my first questions). This was the attraction and as you’ve hear me say a hundred times, it’s often, but not always a precursor to woes and lamentations. He was probably cheap for at least two reasons. First, he probably didn’t know how much things really needed to cost to cover all his expenses. Most people don’t and builders often take some years (moi included) to begin to figure out what all this stuff really costs. Construction costs are a lot more than lumber and labor. They include profit, taxes, office and shopping time, servicing of vehicles, continuing education, paying the accountant and phone bill. There are, most assuredly, a huge number of costs in the practice of general contracting as there are in the running of nearly all business, except that contracting is more complex in this regard than most. A GC is running a tiny corporation with shipping, inventory, highly skilled labor, PR, advertising and emergency room medicine. It’s amazing that there are so many successful small contractors who don’t end up in court and not at all surprising that so many do end up in trouble with their clients.
The second reason that this fellow was cheap was that he didn’t value his time highly enough and didn’t know how to make sure he’d make money on the job. Every good GC values their time and make sure they make enough money to make each foray worth the trip. Believe me when I say that you don’t want to hire someone who doesn’t know their value and isn’t going to make money on the job. That path is paved with discontent.
The GC in this case was a pretty good carpenter but he was a poor manager of time and of his labor force. He didn’t show up every day and, more importantly, didn’t have a reasonable facsimile of himself showing up every day to make sure that apparent progress on the job was to the satisfaction of the clients.
It would also appear that he did not maintain a good set of accounts on the job because in the legal trouble which is now boiling-over, he is preparing to present tens of thousands of dollars of additional cost which he had never billed for. Now, this may be a ruse but I strongly suspect from previous experience that, at least some of, this is correct.
Small timers and those who should rightly stick to carpentry and, perhaps some plumbing and wiring, often find themselves out of their depths when they begin functioning as general contractors (in this case, read accountant). A businessman with little experience in hammers and saws is probably more qualified in many ways to function as a GC than someone who has all the back issues of Fine Home Building.
I’ll amend the previous lie with one major proviso and that is my strongly held believe that GCs should be very good at telling the clients what they should and should not be doing to their homes. One of the best things that a GC can tell a homeowner is that the “improvement” that they’re attempting to parley for is plainly a bad idea.
A talented GC, like a talented architect (they’re more alike than you may think) can look at a clipping from Sunset magazine and tell the client how to make it look and feel like that that but a GC who lets the client decide where the joist should run is a fool (this appellation, sadly also goes to the client who so directs the action).
Our young couple clearly had someone (possesed of great talents and high hopes) doing more than they were really capable of doing with impunity and reliability. As a result, they’re pissed off and disappointed. Also, I suspect, the contractor is feeling similarly abused since he probably worked his hiney off to keep them happy and may genuinely feel that this house contained some of this best work. He may not yet understand that his failings were not so much in his workmanship but in his business savy. Now, I’ll confess, there were a couple of stupid things he did in the actual construction but that can happen to even the best and I have a feeling that the architect played a small role him or her/self.
Naturally, it’s these physical items that the clients are beating the war drums about and soon the fur will be flying (I hope the arbitration judge doesn’t wear a toupee). Nonetheless, I contend that had the Carpenter been a good GC and had money set aside to fix things that went wrong (and had maintained a good working relationship with the client through speedy work and clear paperwork), they would be splitting the costs of a major screwup and would be sharing a glass of holiday cheer right about now.
As it is, the fellow is probably unable to make his mortgage and might even be suffering the maladies of a strained marriage (I’m not joking).
By the way, I’d like to suggest that the additional cost of a more able GC might well be less than what these sweet folk will end up laying out by the time the lawyer’s bill and the court judgment all come due (not to mention the formidable cost of suffering and delays).
That’s another thing to keep in mind: The court won’t necessarily take their side, even if I and their attorney think they’ve been fleeced and abused. Court, even arbitration is a crapshoot.
At the risk of repeating myself, I’ll close with the following suggestions:
Get several bids before hiring your general contractor. Start by calling their references and visiting some of their previous jobsites. Make sure you’ve heard from some satisfied clients and be sure that they’re not old friends or relatives. A good recommendation might include “she was a bit rigid on how she worked and a more money than we wanted to spend but everyone who comes to the house just oooo’s and aaaah’s at the work. We know we made the right choice.”
You see, the results of good choices are not necessarily sugary-sweet, easy or cheap but that doesn’t mean that they’re not good choices.
Got a question about home repairs and inspections? Send them to Matt Cantor at firstname.lastname@example.org.