Cracking the contractor code

Essay by Marty Jones

Remodeling – August 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

Cracking the contractor’s code

by Marty Jones

They call it the “dream of home ownership.” But for my wife and me, buying our first house here in Colorado was more of a nightmare. Thanks to a long list of pseudo contractors and wannabe builders, our home purchase was a grueling saga of delays, shabby work, and tears. Instead of the happy moment we saw in real estate commercials, crossing the threshold in our first home was a dark event filled with dread and questions.

Had the hot air balloon that symbolizes our agent’s company actually floated in for our big moment, it would have surely crashed and burned on our roof, it’s pilot without experience, a license, insurance, or a clue.

Such is the plight of the house hunter in the rapidly expanding New West, where the folks doing the building enjoy a builder’s market. Because of this boom and the resultant shortage of reputable craftsmen, consumers are left to deal with an unsavory lot of fly-by-nights. Doing so means signing pacts with a new breed of outlaw guns-for-hire, whose language rivals White House aides when it comes to avoiding accountability. To help you skip the loss of dollars, time, weight, and hair that my wife and I endured in having our homestead completed, here’s a quick primer on the secret language of the Front Range fix-it person.

For example, in the jargon of the Colorado Contractor’s Code, “references” does not mean satisfied clients. It means family members who pose as clients and offer glowing testimonials about make-believe work. When asking for references, be sure to ask that your potential contractors exclude next of kin and include at least one person for whom they have actually performed work.

Should your contractor ever proclaim, “this is how I normally do it,” beware. This means they’ve never done it before and that their work will resemble what you’d expect from a sign-painter/cab-driver/cook posing as a professional builder.

If the real estate agent for that same faux foreman vouches for any aspect of the client’s work, plan on redoing it once you move in. Based on the tile and grout that continues to break loose on our floor, our refurbishing expert “normally” places mosaic tile directly over warped, dirty, hundred-year-old wooden flooring.

This same skilled craftsman installed a novel kitchen cabinet that faces directly into the side of our stove. We call this permanently sealed crypt of a cupboard the “Llewellyn cabinet,” in honor of its esteemed inventor.

The man we consulted with to fix this kitchen accessory enlightened us on the secret meaning of “character.” After talking a blue streak over the phone, he disappeared for three weeks before arriving to offer an estimate. His price would have bought a room in our house, but he had an explanation for the lofty bill: “This is too small a job for me. I really don’t want to do it.”

“First thing in the morning” is another phrase to fear. If you hear this after signing a contract for work in your home, it typically means the person you’ve just hired will use your materials deposit to buy controlled substances and pay his bondsman. Likewise, it could mean “I have your money and I’m using it to pay for the materials on the other houses I’m trashing.” Or it could also be decoded as “I’ll see you in several weeks, during which I won’t return your calls.”

There are other terms to be aware of as well. If the person you’ve enlisted to fix your furnace (say, the fourth person you’ve hired to do so) finishes up the job with “that oughtta work for you,” you’ve got trouble. This seemingly friendly comment means “I have no idea how to fix this, but I want to get out of here before you realize it.”

Likewise, if your electrician claims he’s “the best in town,” he’s really the worst. After he incorrectly wires your lights and disappears with your check, every electrician after him will carefully critique his shoddy work while boasting of their own kingly classifications.

If your builder mentions giving you “your money’s worth,” change the locks on your doors immediately. Standing before freshly painted trim replete with drips and sags, our painter explained his value-added impressionistic work with “look, it’s not like this is some $250,000 home in Highlands Ranch”. No, it’s a row house for half that — pick up your six pack and get out.

But of course, not every builder on the high plains is unaccountable, unskilled, and underhanded. We’ve actually heard stories, albeit unconfirmed, of contractors doing what they promise, on time, and under budget. In fact, we think we’ve just lined up one such savior to finish off our basement. He even spent a couple of hours surveying the room while addressing our fears and detailing the quality of his work. Better yet, he promised to call us in a couple of days with a price quote.

That was six weeks ago.

Marty Jones lives in Denver, Colorado. He is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News, based in Paonia, Colorado.