The Bloom Is Off the Rose

Why the homeowner/contractor relationship often gets thorny.

There are two types of homeowners in this world: those who love their contractors, can’t wait to use them again, and sometimes run off and marry them, and those who know as soon as the first project is completed that it’s their first and last shared endeavor—time for a separation and divorce. Sadly, I think more homeowners fall into the second group.

This is why I think that’s true: Licensing and certification requirements for general contractors vary by state. A GC can also tackle many jobs, except for specialized work that requires a license, such as wiring and plumbing; some get in over their heads. Another reason is that many contractors start with small jobs, conclude that bigger tasks will lead to better sums, and stop working for their original customers who often represented small assignments and profits. 

How do I know all this? As a writer, contractors have been a mainstay of my design, remodeling, and real estate articles. I’ve interviewed hundreds, as well as an equal number of happy and disgruntled homeowners. And I’ve found that both sides have strong opinions about the relationship—and each other. In fact, when I appeared on an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show about remodeling disasters, I was bombarded with questions about how I could defend the contracting profession. I did because I knew many budget overruns were due to homeowners adding in other requests beyond what the initial contract stipulated, which also delayed the timetable.

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I had also learned from personal experiences remodeling four homes that homeowners have valid gripes. When one contractor hired a harp maker to build kitchen cabinets, the contractor should have demanded better proof of his skills than a single cabinet. When another contractor kept saying the work wouldn’t cost “that much,” it was my fault for not asking how much that would be until I was handed several exorbitant bills.

I had a few other sad experiences with unreliable contractors, but the most recent one truly disappointed me. I gave the job of renovating a small bathroom to a seemingly nice young contractor who wanted the work to help build his portfolio. After letting him tackle a few minor repairs, I gave him the job. We listed the work to be done, but I made a mistake: I did not get a formal contract, which is essential. I handed over a 50-percent deposit, rewarded his progress with home-baked goodies and wine, and waited for completion. When it was almost done, I paid in full—second big mistake. He said he would return in the spring to finish a few final tasks. I gave him additional incentive: more work—a deck extension.

Spring arrived, and he didn’t call or email. Finally, an email popped up from him explaining that he had garnered several huge projects. I knew I should be happy for him, and was. It was great that he soon might land on an HGTV reality show: “HV Contractor Makes it Big!” But reality set in, and I realized my little bathroom project and deck extension were small change. He added insult to injury and said he’d come back to finish one part of my job but not the others. “I have my family to support. You’ll have to pay for the rest of the work,” he said.

So, I did what any jilted homeowner does: I started looking for a new, younger contractor in need of a small project until he or she, too, might ditch me for a bigger, pricier job. Maybe that’s why good contractors appeal as marriage material. You’re more apt to keep one forever. 

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Barbara Ballinger is co-author of Suddenly Single After 50, which was released in July by Rowman & Littlefield. 

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