A home inspector’s job is pretty simple: find problems, explain them, then tell people how to fix them. The last part doesn’t include step-by-step repair instructions. The how-to-fix-it language is usually something like, “Get an electrician to rewire the house.” In theory I could give step-by-step instructions, but I don’t, because personal-injury lawyers walk among us. For me, telling homeowners how to do their own electrical work is about as risky as throwing a dozen burning railroad flares into the trunk of an old Ford Pinto, chugging a pint of 180-proof rum and taking off down the interstate with the car in reverse, demolition-derby style.
Anyhow, as soon I tell somebody to hire an electrician, the first thing that person asks is, “Do you know a good electrician?” I don’t have a good answer. Truth be told, I know exactly one good electrician, and he’s backed up. I’m on his waiting list right now.
It is devilishly hard to get good help these days. Much of the chatter on my neighborhood’s Internet bulletin board comes from people looking for somebody to paint the house, clean the gutters, cut the grass and such like. After long and tedious searches and time spent on waiting lists, the neighbors find useful tradespeople.
Next thing you know, referrals make those tradespeople too busy to take on any new customers. Then the cycle starts all over again. My buddy Kurt tells me that good tradespeople are so rare in Chicago that the going rate for a handyman there is $108 an hour.
It’s tough for us old-neighborhood types to find good help, but it’s a lot tougher for people who just bought new houses. A while back, I told an unfortunate new-house buyer down in Maury County that his builder had screwed up his roof—by not installing any flashing at all—and the roof was sure to leak sooner or later. So he called his builder, who sent a guy over to the house with a bucket of tar and a trowel, which are not substitutes for the absent flashing. The unfortunate homeowner then called me and asked me to check the repairs. When I got to the house, the roof was worse than it was the first time I saw it. The builder sent the tar-and-trowel guy back two more times, and I went back to check the roof two more times. The roof got worse every time. Last I heard, the poor homeowner just gave up and decided to call a roofer when the rain started coming in.
A few years ago, dozens of houses in three new Williamson County neighborhoods were built with defective brick veneer. After many homeowner complaints, the builder sent in crews to install through-wall flashing, which, properly installed, should keep the brick walls from leaking. Some of the homeowners asked me to check the work after it was finished. I did, and all of it was done wrong. The crews had left the through-wall flashing embedded in the walls, completely ignoring the fact that it’s called through-wall flashing for a reason.
I’ve yet to see a builder do a decent long-term fix on a new house. To be fair, I must admit that homeowners call me when something’s wrong, not when their houses get fixed up just fine. Still, from what I have seen, a new house that needs fixing gets worse every time a builder’s repairman touches it.
The problem is that many builders, when asked to make a repair, will either dispatch the same crew who screwed the work up in the first place or, more likely, send a crew that’s even less skilled than those guys. I visited one Williamson County house where a crew had removed and reinstalled the vinyl siding on a new house three times, trying to track down and fix leaks. Last I heard, the house was still leaking.
I don’t really enjoy making homeowners nervous and riling up builders, but I figure somebody needs to explain this stuff, and it might as well be me.
Best I can tell, folks in older, established neighborhoods get much better workers—and much better repairs—than folks who live in new houses. That’s because they have to search out independent tradespeople who’ll have to do decent work if they want to stay in business. That system works, even if some folks have to spend weeks on a contractor’s waiting list and might have to pay $108 an hour for a handyman.
New-house owners typically get a one-year warranty when they buy their houses, so they’re pretty much stuck with their builder’s repair crews for that year. Pardon me saying so, but, from what I’ve seen, you new-house folks would probably benefit by limiting the builder’s warranty work to cosmetic stuff, like touch-up painting. If you’ve got real problems—such as cracks and leaks—do what the old-house folks do and hire some decent independent tradespeople to fix your house.