Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Why I learned to use my own power tools IV

Michael Kaplan recently wrote a piece on 10 Things Your Contractor Won't Tell You. Many of them Hedda applied, and still ended up with the sense that she was getting the short end of the hammer.

For example, #4. "Bargains don't exist in my world." "Before hiring a contractor, you'll probably solicit various bids. What happens when one comes in way lower than the others? It's natural to think you've lucked out.

Not necessarily, says Lisa Curtis, director of consumer services for the Denver district attorney's office. Because of the fixed costs of material and labor, a contractor who offers you a stunningly low price is suspect. Common tricks include starting the job based on a bargain-basement price, then telling the customer that the work is more complicated (and more costly) than originally thought. Then there's the contractor who quotes a price that includes windows he knows are subquality; once the job is under way, he'll present his client with what is clearly a better window and talk him into upgrading. 'Ultimately,' Curtis says, 'you may pay more than you would have with a reputable person who started off at a reasonably higher price.'"

Hedda knew this, and hadn't automatically gone with the contractor who offered the lowest bid. She had also studiously avoided signing with the contractor who had done Cricket's bathroom and front door. It had narrowed the field somewhat, but Hedda continued to review and ask questions.

She had received her loan approval in late March of 2004. Under the rules for this loan, the work was to be completed by the last day of February of the following year. By Mid-June, Hedda had found a contractor who promised to meet her needs. They had worked out an agreement by which she would do some of the lighter work of the initial demolition herself, and the team would then come in to rebuild to her specifications.

Hedda began peeling away the cheap paneling and flooring from her kitchen, and, with the help of her friend, Ted, also began a separate project -- the enclosed back porch where lay the trap door to the basement. It wasn't on the list of projects for WIRC to cover, but the structure was beginning to become problematic (leaky roof, no light, difficult access to the trap door, and crumbling door frames, among other issues), and they'd already agreed that replacing doors and frames was an approved project, so nobody raised an objection. Besides, Hedda already had almost everything required in order to do what she wanted -- all she needed was a couple of doors (including "doggy doors"), some nails and some caulk. Ted provided most of those, along with the bulk of the labor.

Hedda and Ted started knocking out the walls, all the way down to bare studs. In a week's time, she estimated, Ted should be able to put in those windows and instal the sliding glass doors to the back yard.

Ted, I might add, is not a full-time contractor. He has the skills and the attitude of a contractor, however. Unless one is a full-fledged, accredited architect, one does not instruct Ted in the niceties of, for example, sinking nails and filling the holes. Otherwise, for a guy who works free of charge, he does good work. Good, but slow. Let me reiterate: S....L....O....W.

They had torn out the walls in the first week of July. The last window went into place in September. Hedda was thankful for the dry August. So, she had a nice, naturally-illuminated back porch, which she then painted on her own, even before the professional contractor had begun the official projects.

He came the following week to remove the lead-paint-encrusted windows and doors. It was now the end of summer.

Previous entries on this story:
Part I, Part II, and Part III.

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