House Rules: You get what you pay for

Thursday, July 30, 2009 at 12:00am

My remodeling-contractor buddy Bruce Mott called the other day. “Jowers,” he said, “I'm mad.”

“People taking advantage of you again, wanting you to throw in a bookcase for free?” I asked.

"Well, yeah, but that’s everyday,” Mott explained. “My current problem is that people don't want to hear the ugly truth.”

“I don’t mind telling ugly truths,” I said. “How can I help?”

“In that column of yours, tell people that there is no way to get a $2,000 repair job done for $500.”

I know that most people can figure that out for themselves, but Mott is right. Some people still need telling. You frugal homeowners, listen to me: In the home repair/remodeling/improvement business, there are no half-price sales, no blue-light specials and no dang discount coupons. The cost of fixing, or building, or changing anything at your house is mostly fixed.

There’s not much variation in the cost of boards, hammers, nails, saws and pickup trucks and labor costs. In any given repair or remodeling job, the only cost a contractor can adjust is his profit margin. Given the cutthroat competition, there’s not much wiggle room there, either.

Home-improvement contractors are working-class folk. You won't see a foursome of them at the Belle Meade country club. “I live in Dekalb County,” Mott says. “Where a man can grease himself up with Vaseline, sit naked on his tractor and fire automatic weapons at the moon all night and not get any complaints. That makes for a low cost of living, and it’s as close as I can come to passing savings along to a customer.”

Before I go further, I should explain that there are two exceptions to the working-class contractor rule:

1. The sweater-vested trust-funder, who doesn't have to pay himself anything. He has a hobby job, sort of like Jackie Kennedy when she was a book editor.
2. The uninsured itinerant worker who steals all his tools and materials, pays his underlings with stolen cigarettes and malt liquor, and keeps his modest profits for himself.

If you get a chance to choose between the two, I recommend the trust-funder.

Anyhow, back to Mott’s current dilemma. A customer wants him to fix a foundation wall, which has a big hole in it. Mott says that the right way to fix it is to call a structural engineer, get the engineer to specify the repairs, then fix the wall the way the engineer says.

At the same time, one of Mott’s jackleg competitors says he can fix the problem with nothing more than a chunk of a 6 X 6 wood post, and he doesn't need any stinkin’ engineer to tell him how to do it.

“I know what he's going to do,” Mott said. “He’s going to scratch down into the dirt with a clawhammer, drop half of a concrete block into the hole so it looks like a whole block, then put in the 6 X 6, which he’ll shim into place.”

“You mean as opposed to digging down deep, pouring a concrete footing, then cutting the post to fit precisely,” I asked.

“That's right,” Mott said. “And he’ll scrounge an old block out of the crawl space, and break it in half with the same clawhammer he used to dig the hole.”

“Wouldn't want to use the whole block,” I replied.

“Naw, too much digging,” said Mott. “And this way, he’s got another half-block for his
next job.”

“If he does it that way, will it work?” I asked.

“I don't know. Might. Heck, it might work if he uses baling wire and an old Chevy rear end. Might work if he does nothing at all and just says he fixed it.”

“I see a whole lot of that saying-it’s-fixed thing,” I said.

“I’m sure you do. My point is, unless we actually design a fix, and do something we know will work, the whole thing could just come tumbling down.”

“Let me guess. The customer is going to hire the other guy.”

“That's right,” Mott said, “and they're mad at me for telling them something they didn’t want to hear. Now they’ll probably go around saying bad things about me and hurting my business. Then, in a year or two, when their wall falls down, they’ll know I was right, and my work would have actually been cheaper than the other guy’s.”

“It's a tough business,” I said. “And I don't think it'll ever change. You might as well just slick up and shoot at the moon.”

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: pandabear on 7/30/09 at 9:17

Not quite Walter.
Tell your friend that the 75% of the job that is labor, and that
he had been charging $50 hr. for, is not happening.
The days of "we charge what we want because we're SO wanted"
are over.

The worst recession since the Great Depression.

Tell your friend that.

By: Camp on 7/30/09 at 12:15

I can but disagree with Panda's comments. Insurance rates and worker's comp rates have not decreased given this recession. When you figure that a worker with a trained skillset needs to be paid 15 dollars an hour, there is still FICA and taxes to be paid on his wages. Insurance rates for the company and its vehicles, worker's comp, and not to mention the fact that you have to have some money set aside to change the oil and put tires on the truck to go to the next job. 50 dollars an hour sounds great to me.

I am a contractor, licensed, bonded, and insured. This year has been tough. A lot of my competition isn't licensed, has the wrong kind of insurance, and no workers' comp. I promise you the amount my small business pays for just these few things is enough for a good working man's salary. So if you don't want to pay - then I don't think you can afford those home improvements.