Most days, I’ll get a few emails or phone calls from folks who want a little advice on getting work done around their houses. I’m proud and flattered that these folks value my opinion, and I guide them as best I can.
There’s a recurring theme, though, in the emailers’ and callers’ gentle requests for assistance, and it’s a bad theme. A whole lot of people who ask me about fixing things say they need to find somebody who’ll do the work “for a good price” or something “reasonable.” Of course, these are code words for cheap.
After 20-something years of being an old-house fixer, a how-to writer, a curmudgeonly home inspector, an expert witness in construction-defect cases, and a volunteer handyman for sweet little old ladies, I’ve learned one thing very well. If you want something at your house fixed, hiring the cheap guy is the worst thing you can do. Hiring the cheap guy will cost you dearly, every time.
If you’re one of those people who always hires the cheap guy to fix things, that means you’re a habitual waster of money. Next time you find yourself about to hire the cheap guy, do this instead: stuff a few hundred-dollar bills—as many as you can spare—into an envelope. Then bring that envelope to my house and slide it under my front door. That way, some good can come out of your unfortunate reverse frugality.
Allow me to share this example. Let’s say that your brilliance, hard work and good fortune have blessed you with a $200,000 Ferrari. Now, let’s say some covetous ne’er-do-well runs a key down the side of it, all the way down to the bare metal. Are you going to buy a can of Krylon and spray over the scratch yourself (at a cost of less than $5), or are you going to take the Ferrari to the best paint-and-body guy in town and pay as much as it takes to do the job right?
Let’s try another example, this time at your house. If your roof springs a leak in the flashing around a chimney or a sidewall, and water’s dripping into your attic, who do you want to fix the leak—the best old-school sheet-metal smith in town, who might just charge you a grand, or the handyman with the raggedy truck, who, for $75, will climb up on your roof and smear some tar around the leak? I know, some of you are thinking, “I’m going with the handyman. He’ll save me $925.”
No, he won’t. His tar job will fail, probably in less than a year. The leak he said he fixed will open up, and water will start dripping into your attic again. You probably won’t notice until the water saturates the insulation in the attic, and the weight of it causes your living room ceiling to cave in. I’ve actually seen this happen. Twice.
Once your ceiling is on your floor, covered with soaked insulation, you’ll start looking for a better leak-fixer. If you find one with a fair amount of knowledge and skill, he’ll spend 10 minutes on your roof, then tell you that to fix the roof right, he’ll have to strip off a big patch of the previous handyman’s tar-coated shingles, replace some rotten boards, then re-shingle much, if not all, of the roof. That job will cost you several thousand dollars. And if your ceiling board turned into a mold farm because of the leak, well, it’ll cost a few thousand more to clean up the mess and install a new ceiling.
In my little neighborhood, most of the houses are old and clad with brick veneer. Predictably, there are a lot of cracks in the brick veneer. The usual fix is to have an unskilled or semi-skilled handyman patch up the cracks with Portland cement. The cost of such a job is, well, “reasonable.” Problem is, the original mortar was a soft mix, with more lime and aggregate (little rocks) than modern Portland cement, which is very hard. Over time, the differences in the two types of mortar will cause more cracking. Cheap mortar-patchers don’t even know this. Hire the cheap guy, and the next patch job will require tedious removal of the Portland cement. Patching the mortar correctly will require the skills of a talented old-school brick mason—if you can find one. He won’t come cheap.
The list goes on. Hire an unskilled landscaper to plant your trees and bushes, and he’ll likely plant them too deep or too shallow. Either way, the plants will probably die. The cost of digging up dead plants and putting in new ones won’t be cheap.
In the last few months, I’ve seen six-figure renovations sullied and muddled by cheap roofers, cheap gutter installers and cheap framers. For every dollar the owners think they saved, they’ll end up paying out the nose to correct the mistakes.
I say don’t turn a contractor loose on your house until you’ve confirmed that he’s the very best at what he does. The cheap guys, the jacklegs and the itinerants are like termites. Every day they work on your house, things get a little worse.
It will always cost less to fix things right the first time.
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