Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Care and Feeding of Contractors

If there is one thing I have learned since becoming a TIC homeowner, it is that you must treat a good contractor lovingly. As the guy who is painstakingly re-tiling my bath area put it, "I like to think I'm an artist, not a laborer."

If you are a new TIC homeowner, you will inevitably be hiring contractors and tradespeople. Over the past several years my building partners and I have faced a myriad of maintenance problems, from exploding hot water heaters to falling pieces of plaster facade. Because we made the decision to manage our building ourselves, we alone have been responsible for handling all the various dilemmas that come up while living in a circa 1910 building. Here are a few things we have learned.

1. Approach any project as a collaboration. If problems arise or mistakes are made during the project, don't assume an adversarial attitude. If your water is shut off on Christmas day, but your contractor is making a good faith effort to remedy the situation, make sure he or she knows that you are on the same team and working together with him or her to find an effective solution.

2. Divide responsibilities among your building partners, based on their skills, talents and what they can bring to the project. In my group some individuals are good at managing the human side of the contractor/building relationship. Because they have the best public relations and communication skills, they handle meetings with the contractor, fielding his phone updates and communicating back to him regarding decisions that are being made. We also have an individual who, thanks to her training in civil engineering, is great at inspecting work and making a checklist of all the details that need to be resolved before the final payment is issued. We rely upon her to sign off on the project, but if there is bad news to be delivered regarding quality issues that need to be resolved, we leave it to the diplomats to deliver that information in a tactful and supportive manner. Contractors will quietly charge you as much as ten or twenty percent more based on a "pain in the ass" factor if they find themselves in a hostile or antagonistic situation.

3. Estimate up. In older buildings, there are often strange bedevilments lurking behind the walls. If a contractor needs to readjust the estimate after the job begins, it is likely that he or she is justified and not simply taking you for a sucker. (Unless of course you have been a yelling, accusatory pain in the ass client, in which case he feels justified socking it to you.) To be on the safe side, whe you get the first number, double it.

4. Be human, be kind, set boundaries. I once had a housepainter call to ask me if I had any work for her. As it happened, I did, and because she gave me a sob story about her life situation I accelerated the schedule of my project. This put me under undue stress, making decisions I was not ready to make in order to help her pay her rent. And then I had to deal with her incessant phone calls after I mailed the final check, because she had suddenly moved and it took the post office a week or two to forward the payment. In retrospect I wish I would have planned the job when it was convenient for me to do so, and not given her the impression that I was interested in involving myself in any other aspect of her existence other than our professional relationship. Then I might have kept her on my list of contractors I like to work with, and she wouldn't have lost a client for future jobs.

5. Batch jobs. If you are putting in a new tub and your downstairs neighbor needs a new faucet and the common area has a leaky pipe take advantage of having a plumber on site and get it all done at the same time.

5. Maintain your sense of humor. One afternoon several years back I received a phone call at my office from one of my building partners. He smelled gas in our hall and was convinced it was emanating from my unit. I raced home and sure enough, PGE confirmed his suspicions. There was a live gas pipe hidden behind one of my ceiling lighting fixtures, a remnant from the time when our building was lit by gas lamps. At some point in the building's history, some owner or contractor or tenant or landlord had decided to stuff the end of this deadly gas pipe with a wine cork. Sure, it could have killed me had I fallen asleep the previous night and not been alerted to the leak. But I had to laugh at the absurdity and crazy ingenuity of the corked pipe. How many years had it been up there before it finally gave way?


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