Why you should (never) hire a lie-censed contractor

W henever my corporate- and magazine-article writing business slows down, I turn to construction work to support my two favorite hobbies: living indoors and eating. During the two most recent slowdowns, (both of which, amazingly enough, coincided with Republicans from Texas by the last name of Bush sleeping in the White House) I've had to set down my pen and pick up hammer and saw.

Recently, I took on my first "job," that is, a construction project that I bid, went and bought the materials for, and completed all by myself. In the process, I learned the difference between being "day labor," a "carpenter," and an "un-lie-censed" contractor (me). I also took critical steps toward becoming a "lie-censed" contractor. The key difference is found in the letters "l-i-e."

Most people think the exam to becom a "lie-censed" contractor has questions designed to test one's knowledge of building codes and the ability to use numbers, compute angles for rooflines, ensure toilets actually drain, and so forth. That's because most homeowners have never actually seen the general contractor's exam.

Far from testing your ability to add 3 feet, four inches, and 7/8ths to 5 feet, 7 inches, and 3/16ths, and come out with no more of a gap than caulk can fill or trim can cover, the state-required contractor's exam tests something far more important: One's ability to make excuses for construction projects that are either over budget, behind schedule or both, and/or workmanship that is either butt ugly, on the verge of collapse or already leaking.

Take for instance, my first jobsite. I admit, with a little more experience and a few more hours studying Time-Life's "How to Build Decks and Patios," I could have remodeled that woman's deck in less than two days, working 8-5's. Unfortunately, it rained almost every day for two weeks, and personally, I don't like stomping around in the mud. And then each afternoon the sun would come out. On sunny afternoons, I like to ride my bike. None of this contributed to getting her deck completed promptly. I kept waiting for her to ask, "When are you going to finish my deck?" as the weeks went by.

Fortunately, I have several "friends in the business" willing to pitch in and help out. When I told Tom, owner of Kennebunkport Construction, about my dilemma, he immediately had an answer. He said, "Wade, you know those metal hangers you're using to attach the 4x4's to the roof joist? Well, Home Despot ran out of them, and they won't be getting any more for several days." I replied, "Tom, I bought four of them this morning, and they had a whole boxful remaining when I left!" Tom's face turned sour, and he said in his most gravely, child-scolding voice, "You want to complete that job this afternoon or go for a bike ride?"

I immediately understood why Tom is a lie-censed contractor and why I was desperately trying to cling to the sawhorse of success for more than eight seconds.

Not that my first job was, by any means, a piece of cake. I've made no less than six trips to Home Despot - so far. "Measure once, cut it too short, then go buy some more lumber" is my nail-banging mantra.

In addition to deck blocks, 4x4's, joist hangers and pressure-treated 2-by's, I've come home with a new Skilsaw, a nifty miniature screwdriver set, four books on decks and patios, enough deck screws to last through my next five projects, a genuine laser level, and a roll of "caution" tape just to keep people (a.k.a. the homeowner) from inspecting my work too carefully. (Copyright 2003 - All Rights Reserved)

Now, the homeowner herself is clearly responsible for the majority of the cost overruns I've incurred. Or at least that's what someone, like Tom, who has passed "The Test" would know to be true. Every time she starts a sentence with the phrase, "Do you think you could?" you can almost hear the "ka-ching" of Home Despot's cash register and see little green dollar signs floating holographically in front of my safety glasses. I mean, who's going to notice a couple of new carbide saw blades thrown in with another $175 worth of pressure treated? Homeowners, without knowing it, make participation in the "Excuse Olympics" like having Tiger Woods as the "A" player in your pro-am foursome.

Knowing how to manage homeowner expectations is, of course, a critical part of passing the contractor's exam. Say you bid $500 to repair a deck, underbidding every lie-censed GC in town by at least $1,000. After you tear the first board off the old deck, (but before you invest one penny in materials) you should gasp, go get the homeowner, point out the extensive termite damage, dry rot or wet rot found beneath every deck in snow country and say something like, "Jeez, when I prepared my estimate I was counting on being able to rip and re-use all this planking. Replacing all of this with pressure-treated lumber that won't rot out in two years would boost the cost of the project considerably," followed by, "Of course it's your choice, we don't have to use pressure treated. Regular lumber would work just fine - for awhile." Add to this a very sour face, and you can know with certainty what kind of lumber the homeowner is going to opt for. Fail to offer the "example" homeowner his or her choice of lumber, and you're going to fail the exam.

Every time.

Nickel by nickel, dollar by dollar, a skilled contractor will find out exactly where the homeowner's threshold of pain is. Knowing just how far you can exceed it and how many miles you can get in on your bike before they hire a lawyer to sue your ass is the difference between a professional and an "un-lie-censed" amateur like myself.

A "lie-censed" contractor knows that nothing ever goes as planned and builds at least 100 percent "slack" into both the schedule and budget. Homeowners sometimes act as naive as Canadians. Having helped reroof at least a dozen houses, I can honestly state, there has never been a roof put on a single house in America that didn't have at least some poor design, shoddy workmanship, missing flashing, torn tarpaper or other flaw(s) that resulted in leakage, rot and/or water damage. If you think a roofing contractor is going to tear off all your old shingles and find nothing but three-quarter-inch plywood that's as dry as a brand new box of Depends, then you belong as one of the "Example Homeowners" on the GC Licensing Exam.

"Lie-censed" contractors, would, of course, like to see all "un-Lie-censed" contractors burn in hell because they underbid job after job. It's the process of learning nothing ever goes as planned, or ever goes back together the way it came apart that prepares a young man for taking "The Test." In the process, "un-Lie-censed" contractors make it nearly impossible for a professional to ever win a bid - unless, of course, they've already passed the test, and now know how to turn a $275 minor deck repair into a $1,755 deck overhaul, lube and alignment.

A "lie-censed" contractor knows better than to wear the same pair of sunglasses to the jobsite as he does cycling, or to ever carry a kayak, bicycle or skis on top of his work truck. A multi-colored bike helmet and different pair of shades, and a homeowner will never recognize you even cycling past your own jobsite.

"Headache racks" are for lumber; Thule racks are for sporting equipment - and any contractor who doesn't know the difference, well, they probably didn't pass "The Test." Lie-censed contractors know that having a bike rack on your work truck signals the homeowner that you might not actually be "at the other site" like you claim, but instead, are out having fun - at guess who's expense.

Contractors who don't realize this are responsible for homeowners driving large SUVs aimed at sunglass-wearing cyclists out riding between the hours of 8 and 5. Innocent cyclists, please don't take this personally.

Similarly, you can disappear for long periods during the day, by "Going to The Other Site,'" which happens to be the code name of the new bar on 8th Street, but you'd better have your ass at the worksite at 7:59 and 4:59, every single day.

It's all in the test prep book.

Just like auto mechanics, contractors have learned to expect a lot more trouble with women customers than men. Men know you're going to throw a couple of replacement sawblades in with your lumber order, and deal with it. Women, on the other hand, will scrutinize every line item on a Home Despot bill and force you to justify a pair of new carbide blades with a "gem" of a "line" like "Pressure-treated lumber dulls carbide saw blades faster than cutting through nails." Working side by side with "lie-censed" contractors for years is where rookies like me pick up "conflict diamonds" like this. It's why any Schmoe can't just buy a tool belt at the Despot and start calling himself or herself a "contractor." You hesitate for one second on your response about the need for a pair of new sawblades, and you're dead meat.

The truth is, the majority of guys I've met banging nails, both "lie-censed" and "un-lie-censed" general contractors all have been pretty good guys. Yeah, they screw up an estimate now and then, make a few mistakes here and there (which you, Mr. Homeowner are going to pay for, one way or another), but I've never met a contractor out to screw anyone . More times than not, they're just praying they don't end up holding the bag at the end of a job because of unavoidable delays, expenses, termite damage, the homeowner running out of money, whatever.

Jesus, of course, was a carpenter. A rather funny choice of occupation for a guy who never lied, wouldn't you say? As the story goes, he went into his father's business and was so successful as a carpenter he was able to retire into teaching and the healing arts by age 30. But when the folks he wanted to build the temple for caught up with him, they crucified him for telling them up front about what it would actually cost (every shekel they had) and how the job of rebuilding it, this time using pressure treated, would take them the rest of their lives.

He should have studied harder for the test.

-Wade Nelson



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