House Rules: Don't trouble the tradespeople

Thursday, August 13, 2009 at 12:00am

A while back, I met a woman who told me how she carefully monitored the building of her new house. She went to the house every day, she said, packing a tape measure and a level. When she found a problem, she scolded the guilty tradespeople right then and there, thinking that she'd scare them into doing things right.

This scold-as-you-go approach might work in an office, where you're the boss. But it doesn't go over well with tradesfolk, who work in construction specifically so they won’t have to put up with the odd harridan.

Don't you know, this woman ended up in a grudge match with her tradesfolk, the result of which was a house with chunks knocked out of the woodwork, paint drips the size of kittens and human pee in the heat-and-air ducts. Now, before anybody asks me how I know it was human pee, let me say that I lived in New York City, and I rode their subways. That made me an expert on pee smell.

Short of a tornado, there's no force on earth that can wreck your house quicker than a disgruntled tradesman. I’ve seen more full-out, deadly weapons fights on construction sites than I ever saw in redneck rock-n-roll bars. Just a few years back, right here in Nashville, a floor installer actually killed a plumber. As I recall, the floor guy told the plumber that if he (the plumber) dripped sweat across his floor one more time, there would be repercussions. Well, the plumber sweated all over the floor, and that’s when the fight started. It was the plumber’s pipe against the floor guy’s pistol. The floor guy won.

After busybody homebuyers and fighting-mad tradespeople, the second leading cause of worker revenge is a money grievance with the general contractor. I saw one house where unpaid plumbers drove finish nails into the back side of pipes before they soldered the pipes into place. The result: hundreds of little drippy leaks into the walls and ceilings. I’ve seen jobs where the electricians walked off, leaving barenaked live wires on the damp crawl space dirt — a real terrorist-style booby trap. I've seen brand-new, high-end houses where homeowners discovered countless problems, but couldn't get anything fixed, because nobody in town would work for the financially troubled general contractor.

So, if you're a homeowner with a strong quality-control urge, what can you do? Well, my buddy Charlie Wood, erstwhile Atlanta home inspector and devilishly clever guy, admits to a little chicanery when his house was being built.

“I put on my carpenter's jeans and a T-shirt, strapped on a tool belt, and wandered through the house everyday,” Charlie told me. The workers at Charlie’s house-to-be didn't know who Charlie was, or what he was doing. Every now and then, Charlie would hear somebody mutter, “Who's that guy?” But nobody ever asked Charlie to show an ID.

If you decide to try Charlie’s scheme, wear clothes and tote tools that make you look like they’ve been on a job site before. Don’t show up with stiff new carpenter’s jeans, a virgin tool belt and a hammer that still has the price tag on it. If you show up looking like one of the Village People, everybody on the job site will know you're a ringer.

While you're at the house, keep quiet. The tradespeople work for the general contractor, not for you, so don’t try to boss them. That's how you get pee in your ducts.
“You want the workers to love you, not hate you,” Charlie said. “Instead of nagging, people ought to just deliver a case of beer to the jobsite every Friday. That would win them some friends.”

I say if you see a problem at the house, take it straight to the general contractor. “I called the builder about once a week,” Charlie said, “and asked him to correct a few things. He couldn’t figure out how I knew all this stuff. He asked if I was paying somebody to spy on all his subcontractors.”

After his house was finished, Charlie confessed his quality-control scheme to the builder. "You’re that guy!” The builder slapped himself upside the head. “Everybody wondered who you were!”

If you're an easy-going, cooperative, catch-more-flies-with-honey-than-vinegar person, you might just be able to cajole a better-than-average job out of your builder. It worked for Charlie. If you can’t do that, do this: tell the general contractor not to hook up the heat-and-air ducts until the last day of the job.

Jowers has been writing about renovating old houses, and other things, since 1981. His column appears every Thursday in The City Paper. Contact him at

2 Comments on this post:

By: shrub on 8/13/09 at 9:33

This story was certainly eye opening!

By: shrub on 8/13/09 at 9:33

Good advice - don't piss off the subs