Problems with general contractors

Written by Paul Dail

I used to think that the ‘80s movie, “The Money Pit,” which follows the struggles of a young couple attempting to remodel their newly purchased home, was hilarious. Every time the husband (played by Tom Hanks) asked one of the contractors on the job how long it would take to fix one of the many problems, he was given the stock response of “two weeks.” The project stretched into four months. When my wife and I were considering purchasing a home, I joked that we would most certainly have to watch this classic comedy.

Then we actually bought a home.

Let’s just say that it might be awhile before I’m able to laugh about this one.

Before I go any further, I’ll start by saying that I worked for several years in construction; it’s what one does when he has an English degree with a creative writing emphasis. So I know that projects rarely—if ever—go as planned. Even the simplest home improvement project almost always runs into unexpected complications.

I will also say that, as a result of this work experience, I have several friends who are general contractors. I know that many of the problems with contractors I’m dealing with stem from the fact that the housing market is picking back up and everyone is super busy. For my friends, I couldn’t be happier.

Combine the nature of the work with the current housing market, and you get contractors whose timelines don’t always meet up with the expectations of your average customer.

However, I’m not here to talk about how long a job actually takes once you get someone to show up. Well, I have some issues with that too, but given my personal experience in construction, I’m more understanding in that arena. What I’m talking about is just trying to get someone out in the first place.

Listen up, contractors. Let me give you two scenarios, and you can decide which one you would prefer when it comes to public perception of your business.

Scenario 1: You’re very busy (again, glad to hear it). You ask me on the phone for a rough idea of what the project will entail and decide it’s either more trouble than it’s worth or you just don’t have time. You tell me that you probably won’t be able to do it in the timeframe I desire. I decide whether my timeframe can be extended. If not, I thank you for your time, and when someone asks, I say that you were too busy, so you must be good at what you do. I just couldn’t wait that long to get it done.

Scenario 2: You’re very busy. I tell you about the job over the phone. You show up at the house, take a half-hour of my time, and tell me you’ll call me the next day with a quote. You don’t call the next day. I give you an extra day because I understand you’re probably busy (even though you haven’t told me as much). I call you again, and of course, I get your voicemail. You don’t ever call back. Ever. When someone asks, I say you’re an a**hole. And if I’m feeling mighty vindictive, I also spread it around Facebook and write an opinion piece about you.

Why is this so difficult to understand?

As you might have guessed, this is what I went through when trying to get someone to do a drywall job at my new house. But it wasn’t just one person. When I called one of my aforementioned general contractor friends for a recommendation, he gave me the number of his drywall guy. I called (and got voicemail. Seeing a trend?) and left a message saying I had been specifically given his name “by my good friend.”

When I called my friend back to ask if it was normal that I hadn’t heard back after a week, he said it was.

“But you can bet if it was slow, he would call back,” my friend said, “and he would have sent you a quote. Then, he would’ve called to make sure you got the quote. Then, he would’ve called to see if you had any questions about the quote.”

I’ve been shocked by the lack of the simplest of business courtesies, practices which I would say are tantamount to good customer service. I mean, isn’t “responsiveness” supposed to be one of those cornerstones?

My father-in-law, a southern Utah native, would say it’s endemic to southern Utah (as would many friends who have recently chimed in with similar experiences). While I don’t think that’s exactly right, I recognize some truth in the sentiment. However, I think the root of the problems with contractors is in the nature of the business.

Unlike many businesses, when times are good, contractors rarely have to rely on repeat customers to keep them afloat. They finish a job and move on to a new customer. But word-of-mouth is certainly powerful, right? Especially in this modern age of social media. Well, sure, but here is where southern Utah (and any other smaller community) enters the picture. Word-of-mouth is effective, unless there are no other (or extremely limited) alternatives. Do you think that, if these inferior contractors had to compete with numerous contractors who were offering that first scenario of service above, they would keep up these practices? Probably not for long.

Case in point for longtime Cedar City residents: Prior to Home Depot opening in Cedar and offering lower prices, Hurst Ace Hardware was really the only game in town. And their customer service was awful. Even if you wanted to support a locally-owned business and were willing to pay higher prices, the experience of actually trying to do so was enough to turn many residents to the box store. However, over the years, they have successfully revamped their customer service and, as a result, their image.

Again, why is this so hard to understand?

Unlike Tom Hanks in “The Money Pit,” my two weeks before I need to get my family into this home is running out. So what did I do? I called a handyman. Do they necessarily go as quickly as a general contractor? Nope. But typically, a good handyman does meticulous work, and when you consider the fact that I’m still waiting to hear back from some contractors, my dead great-grandmother would get the job done faster.

Beyond this rant, I won’t go so far as to mention specific names here. I find the guilty usually recognize themselves. However, if you want to email me directly, that might be a whole other story.

In the meantime, if you’re currently in the middle of experiencing problems with contractors or looking down the barrel at having to hire one, here are a couple resources which will hopefully help you out.

“How to work with a contractor and not get ripped off”

“How to fight back against a bad contractor”

Paul D. Dail is a freelance writer and managing editor of The Independent. He received his BFA in English with a creative writing emphasis from the University of Montana, Missoula. In addition to his contributions to The Independent, he also enjoys writing both creative nonfiction and fiction (with a penchant for the darker side of the page). His collection of flash fiction, “Free Five,” has spent over a year and a half in the top 50 Kindle Horror Short Stories since its publication in 2012.

Currently, Paul lives on the outskirts of Kanarraville, surrounded by the sagebrush and pinyon junipers, with his wife and two children. Read more about him at www.pauldail.com. While he prefers that any comments directed at a specific article be posted in a public forum, he welcomes all other correspondence at [email protected].

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Paul D. Dail is a freelance writer and managing editor of The Independent. He received his BFA in English with a creative writing emphasis from the University of Montana, Missoula. In addition to his contributions to The Independent, he also enjoys writing both creative nonfiction and fiction (with a penchant for the darker side of the page). Paul's first novel, a supernatural thriller entitled “The Imaginings,” is available wherever ebooks are sold, and his collection of flash fiction, “Free Five,” has spent over two years in the top 50 Kindle Horror Short Stories since its publication in 2012.