(This is Part 2 of a two-part series. See Part 1: Remodeling nightmare come true.)
Last week, I wrote about homeowners’ tales of contractors from hell, and all the ways remodeling can turn dreams of better homes into nightmares of suburban rubble.
Like all occasions of love, war and real estate, there are two sides to every conflict. The problem is that most people know only the bitter reports of their homeowner neighbors, not the horrible anecdotes from those working on the construction front.
By all anecdotal and statistical evidence, construction is a brutally tough business. According to Michael C. Stone, author of “Mark-up and Profit: A Contractor’s Guide,” construction contracting as a business has the “highest failure rate of any business in America today.” And, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, new construction businesses face especially steep odds, far steeper than start-ups in other industries.
That’s right: Contractors experience nightmares, too, some of which are of their own making (failing to find a leak in a wall) or their own business incompetence (failing to hire a professional subcontractor). But sometimes the aforementioned nightmares look rather like, well, me. That is to say, a homeowner with a tight budget, lots of opinions and all the handiness of a sodden power cord: Plug us in, and we’ll give you a jolt, but no enlightenment. Still, we’re in charge, and no one must forget it!
I recall giving my contractors–two gracious young men who were charging us $20 an hour (!) and designing the work as they went–the evil eye after they became frustrated with me for wanting them to replace a single row of tiles in our tiled bathroom wall. The half-assed job was saving us about $1,000, but it was also wreaking havoc on their sense of professionalism. It was like asking a doctor to do half a surgery, adding insult to injury. I also got angry about the bill, which was running toward (an unbelievably low) $2,500 for nearly three weeks of work. They never recovered, even when I cheerfully began chipping in and removing the tiles myself.
I later learned I’d broken three cardinal rules of dealing with a contractor: Don’t quibble about money if they’re already undercharging you. Don’t dis their sense of good craftsmanship, even if you disagree. And whatever you do, don’t “help”!
So, owning up to my potential to induce night sweats and violent impulses among certain patient tradespeople, I went in search of those who could speak truth to power, or at least answer the question, “What is it really like to be a contractor?”
Pete Humphrey, a 41-year-old San Francisco-based general contractor (and a friend of mine) who has a degree in philosophy and has been working in the trades for more than 15 years, treats the question like a joke.
“It’s easy,” he exclaims with sunny sarcasm. “We’re living the good life, ripping everyone off and rolling in the dough.”
Like many contractors who run smaller operations, Humphrey has had to learn to crunch numbers without the numbers crunching him: “In the beginning, I underbid a lot, and so at times I was working for free. But I chalk that up to my education.”
Even recently, however, he’s found himself in absurd financial positions: “I recently put in some double French doors into a basement, and I bid $5,000 on the job. I had an employee at the time, and so by the time I paid him to do the work, I had paid out $5,002 in wages and materials. That didn’t count insurance or workers’ compensation insurance, or the rent on my workshop or the depreciation of my tools.” He also spent another day cleaning up after his carpenter. “In the end, I paid $2 plus all my overhead for the privilege of doing 10 hours of free labor,” he adds.
Because of such experiences, Humphrey has recently decided to scale down his operation, maintain no employees, and do more jobs that pay in “time and materials” (he charges $50 per hour) and fewer with predetermined bids.
“Bidding with remodeling is almost always a risk because there are always surprises,” he says. “If you underbid, you end up feeling resentful. If you overbid, you might not get the job, or the client might end up overpaying. I’m a firm believer in situations that are mutually beneficial.”
Humphrey says his experience as an employer has shown him why bigger contractors end up charging so much. “Workers’ comp and liability insurance is incredibly high. For big contractors to succeed, they have to charge a lot of money.”
Indeed, sometimes insurance overhead can double the cost of an employee. For instance, if a carpenter is being paid $25 per hour, the contractor might have to pay an additional $20 per hour in insurance costs. Add to that a margin of profit for the contractor, and suddenly the homeowner is paying professional wages for someone to dig ditches.
Or, as one contractor who e-mailed me after last week’s column puts it, “If there are any questions concerning what someone in the construction industry gets “paid” these days, it is probably best to direct some question toward the do-nothing California Insurance Commission and their heads-in-the-sand attitude toward workers’ compensation (presently more than 50 percent for a carpenter!), and liability (doubled and tripled for many California contractors in the past year!) rates soaring over the past few years.”
But in the misery-making realm, financial risk can’t compete with a client from hell who treats contractors like the enemy–or, worse, like a lower life form.
“It’s a mind-boggling sense of demoralization from people who don’t know anything about the process or procedure,” says Tom Stolmar, who has been working as a contractor in the San Francisco Bay Area for nearly 20 years. “[Contractors] work their butts off to do the hardest work there is. Then they feel they’re invisible, and they don’t get paid much.”
Like other contractors with whom I broach the subject of abusive clients, Stolmar seems genuinely grateful that I’ve even asked the question. “What a great topic,” he exclaims. “Wow, thank you for calling me.”
Yet when asked for his best client-from-hell story, he pauses. “There have been so many,” he says after a moment’s thought. “So many that when the job is going smoothly, you think, ‘Thank God, this is great. They are treating me well!'”
When pressed for details, he recalls a recent female client who wandered the house drunk and naked all morning, pleased as punch about the work he and his associates were doing. But by the afternoon, when the hangover set in, she’d be, as Stolmar puts it, “tearing you a new one over the price of drywall.”
To avoid inane conversations about cost, he recommends that contractors try to work for “rich people, because you get these clients that are so unrealistic about what they want.” In other words, avoid people like yours truly.
But his big pet peeve is clients who think they can somehow help the process along by picking up a hammer (a characteristic also strangely familiar to this writer). “There’s an expression in the trade,” he says. “‘I’ll work for $30 an hour, but if you want to watch, it’s $40, and if you want to help, it’s $100.’ You know, everyone’s an artist, everyone’s a critic. Now everyone’s a contractor.”
Stolmar says he’s been driven to the brink of exasperation watching clients grab a nail gun and decide they are going to use it. “It’s like using a machine gun,” he adds. “The guys who are good with nail guns are like warriors. It’s not something anyone can just pick up and use well.”
Stolmar compares construction to war–except that with construction, few “civilians” understand the risks.
“It’s very unsafe work,” he says. “It’s the closest thing to going into battle.”
“There are nails flying off the walls, but clients don’t take that into account,” he adds, warming to the topic. “We are risking our lives to build something, to make something beautiful, sacrificing our health, building something that is going to support someone’s life, and you get, “That nail doesn’t look right,” mealy leveled quibbling. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Go to Europe if you want to make something beautiful–people, this takes years!”
Stolmar, whose true vocation is poetry, says he’s suffered the slings and arrows of construction fortune, with resulting chronic back pain and joint problems, and he worries about all the carcinogenic materials he’s worked with over the years. And although Stolmar obviously takes pride in his craftsmanship, he wouldn’t wish it on his loved ones. “If my daughter expresses an interest in following my footsteps,” he adds, “I’ll say, ‘Don’t be a carpenter.'”
Despite his experiences with suspicious and clueless clients, he readily acknowledges their unwillingness to trust him. “There are a lot of contractors who are total scum-bag hustlers,” Stolmar says. “I’m just not one of them.”
And therein lies the rug burn: For the ignorant homeowner, getting one’s house remodeled is like traveling in Morocco, a country replete with both hospitality and scam artists. At any given moment, you’re always encountering strangers whose behavior you cannot interpret–sometimes they turn out to be angels of generosity; other times they’re con men angling for your wallet. And it’s often not until later that you can determine their intentions. If you’re a homeowner who doesn’t have construction experience, it’s human to feel suspicious. It’s simply too much money streaming from your pocket into a confusing rubble-filled realm not to wonder what the hell is going on.
But this, of course, only makes the contractor’s job all the more arduous, leading to forlorn lamentations and morbid fantasies of retribution.
Or, as Stolmar offers in his poem “The Carpenter”:
Oh how I despise these people who know
Nothing of my work and have everything to say.
Caring only about their money and power,
They exclaim: “I am the innocent one here, you
Are ripping me off! This is only a house after all,
Four or five walls and a floor, it’s just a box!
And I’ve seen cement before, in the street!
How could it cost as much as you say?”
I am the carpenter; every day and every night
Before I slip into my grave, your houses and pillars
And porches on my mind do prey. Your foundations
Are overloaded, joists all rotting; I have puncture wounds
And my skin is all frayed. I am the carpenter: I profit
From your decay. Shall I build you a coffin Or a Swiss chalet?
Carol Lloyd’s Surreal Estate column appears every Tuesday on sfgate.com. She can be contacted at [email protected].
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