Hiring a Contractor: Cheaper Bid vs. Peace of Mind
4/26/2011 6:35 AM
by John Sciacca
When contemplating hiring a service professional, people are often faced with choosing between two evils: they can save money and go with a cheaper bid or they can save stress and go with an established but more expensive company. When the economy was stronger and it seemed like custom installation firms were popping up literally as fast as people could get magnets made and stuck onto their pickups, this was something that we faced quite a bit.
Our installation firm, Custom Theater and Audio, has been around for more than 15 years. We have a showroom, we have a fleet of vehicles, we have a full-time dedicated staff that is well trained up, we have regular business hours where people can call and get someone on the horn. In short, we’re established and people coming to our store get a good idea of what to expect when hiring us. We’re not looking to be cheap, but we’re looking to do great work. Conversely, I’ve run into people that literally hired their installer because he was walking around their neighborhood hanging tags on doors. They hired their electrician or plumber or flooring guy to install their system. They made hiring decisions based solely on cost, which can sometimes pay off but often results in stress, frustration, and disappointment, instead.
One of the things that I really drill into our sales and installers – and then sell to our customers – is that our team WILL be there when we say we will be there. A 9 AM appointment doesn’t mean 9:30 nor does it mean a call at 9 saying we won’t be coming. Now that might not sound like much, but if you’ve ever hired another contractor, and then waited around all day wondering if or when they are going to show and get the work done, then you’ll understand that it starts to erode your faith in that company or contractor.
Well, I was faced with this decision myself recently. I’ve had an ongoing leak in my swimming pool. I had been working with an established pool company to come out and identify and resolve the leak. They sent a crew out when they said they would, they performed the troubleshooting they say they would and they eventually located the source of the leak. Turns out I had a crack in a pipe below my deck. So after two $85 service calls to putty around the light and then the skimmer, and a $150 pressure testing, they were now telling me that in order to dig up my deck, burrow down to the pipe, cut out and repair the break, and put the deck back together, I’d be looking at around another $700-800. After a few moments of, “Oh…God! I hate that stupid pool! Hate it, hate it!” I decided that I would go ahead and have the work done. After all, what else was I gonna do, fill it in with dirt and create a bocce court? So I sucked it up, and scheduled the work for the start of the next week.
Done deal, right? Wrong.
So, on a recent Saturday, I was outside talking to my neighbor, when he mentions my pool. “I noticed that it’s really low. Are you draining it for something?” He too has a pool and understands that a swimming pool offers a couple of months of pleasure and enjoyment then turns into a money grubbing succubus for the remainder of the year.
So I explain my leak and how I’m going to have the pool company come out and repair it the next week and how much it is going to cost and how my pool mainly rewards me with pain and suffering. He explains that he has a friend, Patrick, who can do anything. He is one of those master handymen guys and that whenever he needs any work done, he has this guy come over and knock it out for like nothing. And because it’s the way things work sometimes – call it fate or serendipity or just the cosmos looking to set up a good punchline at my expense – Patrick happens to pull into his driveway right then.
My neighbor says, “Tell him about your pool,” and I re-explain my situation – on-going leak, repairs they’ve performed, pressure test, leak located, massive expense for the repair, general cursing of the day that pool was ever born – and Patrick immediately chimes in, “That’s outrageous! I used to be the head repair tech for a pool company, and I can fix your leak in about an hour-and-a-half. I’ll charge you $50 plus probably like $30 in materials.”
“Wow!” thinks John that is quite literally the BEST news I’ve heard all day. I’m trying to hold a poker face that says, “Hmmm. I’ll think about it. Maybe I like spending gobs of money on pool repair. Why should I give you way less to do it?” but in reality I might have clutched my hands together and whispered, “Ohthankyou, thankyou, thankyou!” Sure it sounds too good to be true. I mean he’s offering to do the repair at like 10 percent of the other company’s estimated cost. And if there is something that I like, it is that other 90 percent of money still in my possession. And the price disparity was SO great that it sounded like the other company was just trying to rip me off, essentially knowing that I had a problem and then extorting me to fix it.
We talked for a while and it turns out that this guy IS a jack of all. He has his master’s electrician license, he repairs all manner of heavy machinery, he probably writes a really funny and engaging blog, and he has extensive knowledge of pool repair. He keeps assuring me that my leak repair is nothing; that he has literally drained and cut pools in half to repair major structural leaks and that repairing a broken pipe sounds practically like an insult to his skill set. So I take him to my backyard so he can actually lay eyes on the pool and he reiterates the no-problem-ness of my problem and says he can actually come by the next day, Sunday, to take care of it.
“Out-frickin’-standing!” I’m thinking. I tell him that I attend church on Sunday mornings, but that I’m available after 1. He says that fits his schedule also, so I give him my phone number and then skip and tra-la-la into my home to tell Dana about my unexpected good turn and start thinking about what I’ll do with all of that saved money. It’ll probably involve wine and scotch, but I’m not sure.
So the next day comes and we get home from church and I change into clothes that will be appropriate for standing next to someone while he is working hard fixing your pool and saving you loads of money. Clothes that say, “I’m here to offer maximum encouragement and support. If you need a cool beverage or tool handed to you, I’m right here ready to be that guy!”
Two o’clock comes and then three and then we stretch into four. So I head over to my neighbor’s house and ask if they can phone their buddy and see if he is still coming. You know should I keep hanging around in my ready-to-help/watch-you clothes? “Absolutely,” says Patrick. “My dad and I went out boating and the motor broke so we had to paddle back in. I’m just gonna get my tools and head right over.”
OK, sounds reasonable. I mean, who hasn’t been on a boat with their father where the engine has broken and then had to paddle back in? That’s practically a tale as old as time itself. So five o’clock comes and then six and then seven. My afternoon has now been completely shot, as I’ve basically stayed at home all day waiting for him to arrive. I’m pacing around, looking out the window. I’m on edge because, well, pool problems seem to have a way of unsettling me like few others. I call Patrick again. “Hey, just checking in...”
“Yeah, I just had to stop at Lowe’s. I left and was almost at your house, but I realized I needed to get something back at my house so I went back home. And then I got pulled over on the way over for having bottles floating around in my pickup bed. I’ll be there in just a minute.”
Right? I mean that sounds like it could happen. Right...? So a few minutes rolls by and becomes 8:30 at night, and he finally arrives. At this point I’m actually pretty ticked off. Not only have I wasted an entire day off, it is practically pitch black at this point, and there is NO way that he can fix this problem. But I’m trying not to come across like the Mr. Hyde that is seething just below the surface, because I’m still hoping that I can salvage this and come away smelling $700 richer. And Patrick jumps out ready to work, and he is clearly competent. In a matter of moments he MacGyver-rigs this pressure testing kit together, coupling bits of hose and valves and pressure gauges together, replicating what the pool company charged me $154 for.
“Here’s your leak,” he confidently proclaims. He takes out some hand tools, starts removing my paver stones – my beautiful, oh-so-level and perfect paver stones! – and starts digging a hole with the fervor of someone that smells buried treasure or oil just a few feet down. All the while I’m standing nearby pointing a flashlight into this hole in the deck, missing dinner and Lauryn’s nighttime bed routine, nervously watching as the hole gets bigger and deeper. Dig-dig-dig, shovel-shovel and voila! There is my pipe and there is the leak clear as day.
Man! This is gonna work out! He really CAN do it! Somewhere a unicorn grew its first golden horn and a rainbow added a new color. It was beautiful. If I was the smoking type, I probably would have lit up and just lay there basking in the sweet, warm glow of success.
“OK. We’ve found your leak. Repairing it is gonna be no problem…”
“Great!” I’m mentally interrupting! “Let’s jump right on it. My flashlight can go ALL night!”
“…but I didn’t get any PVC pipe or couplings,” he actually continues, “So I’m gonna have to pick that up from Lowe’s. And I’ve got to go right now; I’ve got an appointment to get a new tattoo.”
Seriously, he said that. I know, I know. You think I exaggerate. But even this is beyond my imaginings. I heard the unicorn crying out in pain as his horn chipped and the rainbow turned grey.
“Uh, OK.” I tell him. “Will you be able to come back tomorrow?” I ask looking at the sizable crater in my deck and as water gurgles out of the exposed, cracked plumbing.
“Absolutely. I get off work around 6:30 and could be here at 7. We’ll get it all fixed up and I’ll have your deck put back together as good as new. You won’t even know I was here.”
Thems the kinda words I like to hear. They’re reassuring, they’re confident, they’re “we’ve got a plan and we’re gonna get it done” kinds of words of action.
Next day – Monday – as I’m heading home from work I shoot Patrick a text. “Hope the tattoo went well. Just want to make sure we’re still on for tonight? I’ll be home ready for you at 7.” Patrick responds confidently that yes, the tattoo went well and that he’ll be there.
Except he isn’t. At 8 I get a text that he is leaving Lowe’s with supplies, which is about, oh, four miles from my home. OK, he’ll be here any minute. Except he isn’t. Meanwhile the crater in my deck continues to look at me like an accusing black eye.
Again he shows up at 9. He DOES have a new tattoo; the first of what he says is going to be a sleeve. It doesn’t say, “Quality is Job 1,” or “On time, every time,” or anything reassuring like that. It’s an angel kind of reaching its arms out to you. I think it is trying to comfort me. I’m hoping that it knows a thing or two about time management.
So cut-cut-cut, measure-measure, glue-glue-glue, new pipe is back in place. Add pressure back to the line and it is holding. Looks good. Throw the dirt and sand and crusher stone back into the hole, tamp-tamp-tamp get it all ready to level and reset my stones. All that’s left to do is to re-pipe the main line at my pump to start circulating the water. Except Patrick didn’t buy enough piping to repair the main line back at the pump! WHAT IN THE HOLY HELL?!!! So he says that he gets off work early tomorrow and that he can come and arrive early where we aren’t under threat of darkness the whole time. I explain that we already have plans for Tuesday night.
Great? Great. So next day comes, and while he hasn’t shown up before we leave at 6, I’m still holding on to that hope that he IS going to come. There is now an angel literally on his shoulder, so I’m hoping for some kind of intervention or something.
So we get back home, and Patrick is indeed there…along with the first hole totally dug up again. And a ohmyGod!whatinthehellisthis?!?! A SECOND GIANT HOLE IN MY DECK!!! Crap-diddily-ap! Craaaaa-haaa-AAP!
“Hey. Uh, what’s up? Another, umm, giant hole…”
Apparently the line wasn’t holding pressure so he opened up the original hole to check the fittings and then figured we had a second leak. He thought he could dig it up and repair it before I even got home. Except, well, he didn’t. My blood pressure spiked, and my left eye twitched. The unicorn flew into the rainbow and its horn burst into flames and it crashed to the earth. He said that there was no leak at this location – “Terrific!” I think with maximum sarcastic inflection, surprising even my interior dialog – and that he was just getting ready to fill the hole back in.
I tell him that I am getting ready to leave town this weekend and that this is really big deal to me and that I’d really, *really* REALLY like to get this wrapped up. Especially so I can start running the pump again and circulate the water and chemicals before I start growing new life forms out of the quickly greening water. I now go to bed with two meteorite crater holes in my deck.
Next day, Wednesday, he calls me at work and says that he’s extra-special busy at his job and that he won’t be able to make it. He’s got a plan for Thursday, though, where he wants to RE-re-cut the line, use his pressure test rig, try to identify the second leak, something-something, oh please don’t say dig another hole in my deck. So Thursday comes and again he shows up mega-late, probes around for a bit, and says he can’t determine the severity of the second leak or identify where it is located. He wants to discuss before creating any more bomb sites. So, we decide that we’re going to just fill in ALL the holes, and see if the pressure holds.
“Frankly, Patrick,” I say, hoping to tread that line between I’m getting super frustrated and angry and yet still wanting to get this done, “I’m concerned about how the deck is going to look when you put it all back together. I know you are telling me that you’ll be able to do it without me even being able to tell you were there, but I’m just a little nervous about it. The deck was a big investment for me and I’m worried about it. I think I’d like to put this all back together, see how much if any water is still leaking and then reassess.”
He agrees and then assures me that all will be taken care of by the time I return home from Arizona on Sunday. So I call my wife on Friday when I arrive in Phoenix.
So while boarding the plane in Charlotte Sunday morning, I get a text saying that he will be there later in the day.
So what’s the moral here? Will I save some money? Likely. Even with the extra – lots extra – parts that he needed, I’ll still come out hundreds of dollars better than if I’d gone with the pool company. And since he’s a good friend of my neighbors, I’ve no doubt that he’ll ultimately keep coming back until it is all fixed. And when he is working, he seems totally confident in what he’s doing so I’m hopeful that the work will get done correctly. But, at what added cost? Had I let the pool company go ahead with the work, it would have been totally done. They’d have arrived, knocked it out in a single day, and then been there to stand behind any issues going forward. So what I saved in money has been more than made up for in the stress of wondering if he would show, what he would do when he got there, and how it would all turn out.
From a business standpoint, my takeaway is that you have to charge a fair amount for the work proposed. Had the pool company bid a more realistic number – say $300-400 – I wouldn’t have considered going elsewhere. When someone else offers to do it at SO much less — even factoring in the too-good-to-be-true mantra — it can't help but make you question the first bid. Also, you have to definitely sell the value of the stress and worry savings versus absolute cost when going with an established company. While the specter of getting ripped off on the internet for buying merchandise might largely be forgotten, people can definitely relate to the contractor that never shows up when he says he will.