My contractor buddy Bruce Mott called the other day. “Jowers,” he said, “I’m mad.”
“People taking advantage of you again, wanting you to throw in a bookcase for free?” I asked.
“Well, yeah, that’s every day,” Mott explained. “But my current problem is that people don’t want to hear the ugly truth.”
“How can I help?”
“In that column of yours, tell people that there is no way to get a $2,000 repair job done for $500.”
I know that most people can figure that out for themselves, but Mott is right. Some people still need telling, and I’m just the man to do it. You frugal homeowners, listen to me: In the home repair/remodeling/improvement business, there are no half-price sales, no blue-light specials, and no dang discount coupons. The cost of fixing or building or changing anything at your house is mostly fixed.
There is not a whole lot of variation in the cost of boards, hammers, nails, or saws. It’s the same with pickup trucks, and it’s just about the same with labor costs. In any given repair or remodeling job, the only cost a contractor can mess around with is his profit margin. Given the cutthroat competition, there’s not much wiggle room there.
In general, home-improvement contractors are working-class folk. You won’t see a foursome of them at the Belle Meade Country Club. You won’t run into them in the first-class cabin of a 747 heading for Europe. “I live in DeKalb County,” Mott told me, “where a man can grease himself up with Vaseline, sit naked on his tractor, and fire automatic weapons at the moon all night and not get any complaints. That makes for a low cost of living, and it’s as close as I can come to passing savings along to a customer.”
Before I go much further, I should explain that there are two exceptions to the working-class contractor rule: 1. The sweater-vested trust-funder, who doesn’t have to pay himself anything; this is sort of like Jackie Kennedy when she was a book editor. 2. The uninsured itinerant worker who steals all his tools and materials and pays his help with stolen cigarettes and malt liquor.
If you can find a trust-funder, that’s not a bad option. Problem is, they tend not to fool with jobs under about $200,000. The problem with itinerants is that one of them might steal your silverware, then go out and hurt somebody with your steak knife. The repercussions just aren’t worth the savings.
Anyhow, back to Mott’s current dilemma. Somebody wants him to fix a foundation wall that has a big hole in it. Mott says the righteous way to fix it is to call a structural engineer, get the engineer to specify the repairs, then fix the wall the way the engineer says.
At the same time, one of Mott’s competitors says he can fix the problem with nothing more than a chunk of 6-by-6 wood post, and he doesn’t need any stinkin’ engineer to tell him how to do it.
“I know what he’s going to do,” Mott said. “He’s going to scratch down into the dirt with a claw hammer, drop half of a concrete block into the hole so it looks like a whole block, then put in the 6-by-6, which he’ll shim into place.”
“You mean as opposed to digging down deep, pouring a concrete footing, then cutting the post to fit precisely?” I asked.
“That’s right,” he said. “And he’ll scrounge the block out of the crawl space and break it in half with the same claw hammer he used to dig the hole.”
“Wouldn’t want to use the whole block.”
“Naw, too much digging. And this way, he’s got another half-block for the next job.”
“If he does it that way, will it work?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Might. Hell, it might work if he uses baling wire and an old Chevy rear end. Might work if he does nothing at all and just says he fixed it.”
“I see a whole lot of that last thing,” I said.
“I know you do. My point is, unless we actually design a fix and do something we know will work, the whole thing could just come tumbling down.”
“Let me guess. The customers are leaning toward hiring the other guy.”
“That’s right,” Mott said, “and they’re pissed off at me for telling ’em something they didn’t want to hear. Now they’ll probably go around saying bad things about me and hurting my business. Then, in a year or two, when their wall falls down, they’ll know I was right, and I would have actually been cheaper than the other guy. Once that happensand it has happened many timesthe people won’t even look at me in Kroger. They’ll run two aisles over and hide amongst the pantyhose even though they came for pot pies.”
“It’s a tough business,” I said. “And I don’t think it’ll ever change. You might as well just slick up and shoot at the moon.”