Thursday, October 18, 2012


Kathy and I have issues with contractors.  Every time we have one, I am shocked.  I wonder when I am going to learn to lower my expectations about this.

I think most people tend to think that they are reasonable.  I am no different in this regard.  I know there are times when I am being unreasonable, and can't seem to help myself, but generally, on this topic at least, no.    And yet, all too often, when we have to hire a contractor for something, we experience the same set of issues:

Getting an estimate.  No one ever wants to give us one.  When we were fixing up our flooded basement, once the first contractor fell through, I called three other contractors for estimates, and only two of them even bothered to call me back, one showed up, and zero returned an estimate.  I thought a full-scale basement remodel was a decent sized job, especially in a recession, but apparently the contractors in our Westchester town could not be bothered.  And, it's not like I only called these people once.  I made multiple phone calls.  For the basement, this threshold issue was so severe that we eventually just did the work ourselves.

Timing.  The first contractor that fell through on our basement did so because he couldn't meet our timing.  And by that, I mean that we received an estimate for the work in August, and in November he informed us he wouldn't be able to start until after the holidays.  I think that six months is an extremely long time to wait with your basement furniture sitting in your foyer.  It was at that point that we said thanks, but no thanks, and I started trying to get other estimates.  We've also had this problem with a painter and a gardener.  Delays of months before they are willing to even get started on our projects.

Communicativeness.  Okay, so maybe I am a little bit horrible at returning phone calls sometimes, but come on.  If someone hires you to do work, calls and leaves several messages that say "When can you start?" I think common courtesy requires a call back in under six weeks.

Then, the same thing happens.  I become increasingly irritated.  I call and begin leaving messages, which start out really nice.  "Hi, this is Erin again, I was just checking in to see if you could give me a ballpark of when you could stop by for an estimate/return the estimate you were working on/get started?  I'll be home all day, please call any time.  Thanks!"  And become increasingly urgent.  "Hi.  This is Erin.  We last spoke nearly seven weeks ago.  I just want to know if you are planning on starting the work, or if there is some kind of problem.  Please call back as soon as possible."  Polite, but firm. 

Kathy and I have actually been fired by our contractors twice for asking them to get started in under six months.  As in they, the contractors, told us they would not work with us and we should find someone else.  I know you are probably thinking this is because we were rude, or called them every ten minutes, or screamed at them, or made unreasonable demands.  I assure you this is not the case.  Just polite conversations requesting a ballpark of when they could get started, and, if relevant, an assurance that they could meet a deadline discussed at the time they were hired.  Never an insult, never a raised voice.  And still, they were eventually unwilling to do our jobs.

So, each time we run into this, I run through a list of possible reasons.

1.  Other people simply wait years for their work to get done, so they are not used to people pressing them.  I don't know if this could be true, but maybe, just maybe, our timelines aren't realistic?  I don't know.  I really don't think other people wait months and months for contractors.

2.  We have had rotten luck.

3.  Our projects aren't big enough to warrant their attention.  Maybe our basement repair isn't as juicy a job as we thought?  And other people in our area are doing bigger or more fun jobs, so they'd rather not do ours?

But I always reject these explanations and land on the same one.  We're women.  There is no guy to deal with, no guy to call.  Assertive women are "bitchy" and "demanding," while assertive men are "reasonable" and "professional."  They don't take us seriously; they don't think we know what we are talking about.  When I show them that I do know what I'm talking about, sometimes they actually laugh at me TO MY FACE and say patronizing things like "Did you used to help your dad a lot?"  They often call us "girls."  (As in, "Hi girls, I'm here to look at your _____.") I honestly think these contractors, who are invariably men, are just dismissive of us because of our gender. 

So what do we do?  Sometimes, I honestly don't have the skills or tools to do the job.  I don't have a table saw, I don't know much about plumbing or electrical work beyond the basics, etc.  Sometimes it's a job that requires more than two people, or Kathy is busy and I can't do it on my own.  Sometimes I just don't have time or interest to devote to the job -- I have absolutely no interest in exterior painting or re-roofing our house, for example.  And when that happens, we will have to hire contractors.  But most of the time, we just can't, despite our best efforts. 


  1. Definitely not just you. We've gotten around it by using folks recommended to us by friends/neighbors, especially when we've been able to watch the work progressing at their homes and liked what we saw. The time factor though(long waits for start/completion of job) is one we haven't yet solved.

  2. I see two options:
    1) Only hire female contractors and test your theory
    2) Only use contractors who have good reviews on Angie's list (I think you have to buy a subscription, but seems like it's worth it given your experience!)