Thursday, October 13, 2011

REMODELING: Working with subcontractors also about relationships

Given the depressed state of residential building and remodeling, is it reasonable to assume contractors would respond to opportunities for work like locusts to a green pasture?

I certainly did this past summer, before contacting 150 subcontractors in eight trades for two remodeling projects.

As a small businessman, I was excited to offer work to people who need it. I had recently “unretired’’ and resumed my business of doing consulting work about home building and remodeling and set out to find contractors for my new clients’ house.

Suzette and David Standring planned a new family room, storage area, and half-bathroom in the basement of their brick Colonial in Milton. Their daughter and her family, including two young girls, might soon move in, and the new space would provide privacy.

The centerpiece would be custom wainscoting and an entertainment center with roll-outs for toys, additional storage, and shelving for a wide-screen television, books, and pictures.

The Standrings also wanted to address a lingering problem.

“There is a very old, almost unusable bathroom near the room,’’ Standring said. “We wanted to take out the existing shower, move the toilet location, install new fixtures, and redo the walls, window, and floor.’’

I beat the bushes for carpenters, electricians, plumbers, tile and hardwood installers, plasterers, painters, and insulators, then developed a database to track them, called relentlessly, and awaited the invasion.

Rather than a swarm, I heard a buzz.

“Where did you get my name?’’ some challenged, as though I had hacked the computer of their secret society. When I told them the phone book they said, “Oh.’’

Several demanded to know my occupation, which was probably a test, and pressed for more.

“Are you a general contractor?’’ No.

“Are you a lead-generator service?’’ No.

“Do I owe you anything?’’ No.

“Who pays you?’’ The homeowner.

“How many bids are you after?’’ Three.

“When can I see the jobs?’’ Whenever.

Eight visited, but only two bid.

“There are a lot of hacks out there, and pricing is insane,’’ a contractor volunteered.

Most told me to check references, but one electrician actually asked for my references. So I e-mailed my bio and heard nothing.

To avoid lengthy explanations, I e-mailed the subcontractors links to pictures of the project,
blueprints, prices for plumbing and electrical fixtures, construction specifications that automatically added their itemizations, and project plans.

Of the original 150, the number dwindled to nearly half.

A handful retired, but approximately 20 percent had folded their tents, many of whom were not licensed.

A former plasterer helped: “I’m in college in North Carolina, but call my uncle. He’s a plasterer and knows lots of guys.’’

I did, and the uncle’s bid fell in the middle. A carpenter whom the uncle had referred won the Standring job.

Several were simply uninterested, and others declined because they were busy for the summer. “Please keep me in mind for down the road,’’ a carpenter e-mailed.

Three subcontractors refused to travel outside their towns. A smattering protested their lack of computer skills, while others seized the opportunity to improve them.

“In a world where everyone is expected to be computer savvy, I can utilize all the tools I already have in place,’’ said Weymouth painting contractor Chuck Brown.

One contractor’s ad in a phone book proclaimed “All calls promptly returned’’ but he did not do that. A handyman who advertised “No job too small’’ withdrew from the bidding but explained, “These jobs are too big.’’

Customer referrals - the gold standard for contractors - did not draw bites, either. A painter ignored my calls, and a carpenter declined by saying: “I’ll pass on this one. My bid will be too low.’’ Who can blame him?

Mysteriously, three subcontractors who had recently done work for me at my house, and half of 16 contractors from my past, responded no differently.

Several gave novel reasons.

“My cellphone fell in the water when I was wiring a pool,’’ an electrician said. Another claimed, “My voice-mail service has not been working.’’ I believed them.

My e-mail campaign fared no better, so I persisted. “I never got your e-mail,’’ a ceramic tile installer said. I resent it and followed with more calls, all unanswered.

Overall, I shook my head enough to cause whiplash.

Two subcontractors who did respond were also surprised by this baffling behavior.

A veteran Weymouth plumber, Ed Kelcourse, said: “I just don’t get it. I’m always looking for new work, and I have thousands of past customers.’’

Steve Romano, an electrician from Plymouth, noted: “It took me about 20 minutes to submit each bid. The other guys were foolish not to bid. Times are really tough.’’

Seven weeks dragged by before I presented the bids to my clients.

Although unable to obtain three in all categories, I did develop sufficient information that guided their decisions. The Standrings had not gone through a major renovation before, and the actual bids were considerably higher than what they had anticipated.

So they decided not to redo the bathroom and instead concentrate solely on the family room.

If you are planning a building or remodeling project and intend to hire subcontractors directly, be realistic about the time and effort it will take to obtain three bids in all categories.

Develop a spreadsheet to track whom you called, the date, any conversation, and the status of that contact.

Communicate the same message to everyone by using a script that indicates you are a homeowner. If appropriate, have professionally prepared plans and labor and material specifications. And say that you expect a return call within three business days.

Residential building and remodeling are really about relationships, not merely construction.

Richard Connolly Boston Globe October 2, 2011

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