Clutch’s Advice to Contractors

Dear Contractors,

We’ve all seen the news stories about the seventy or eighty year old veterans living in dilapidated homes, battling homelessness because a well meaning social worker got their home condemned. I’m not facing that, but I find them relatable. That could easily be me in thirty years. My house went without basic maintenance or repairs for over a decade as I battled PTSD, depression, and agoraphobia. My (veteran) husband watched on, patiently, but had his own struggles too. We managed to not let it get gross or unkempt looking, but our home was definitely held together with love and hope.
Now, here’s where I want to interject something. We budget for home repairs. We know how much things like a roof, flooring, and kitchen projects will cost and can afford them. Money is not the obstacle that’s keeping me from hiring you. I am. Making phone calls and talking to strangers is difficult. Making a series of decisions with long reaching consequences is difficult. Going into a situation without knowing everything that will happen is difficult. Doing all of that at once is so overwhelming that it makes me physically ill.
Last year, we finally reached that reckoning moment of “if we don’t get this fixed, we could lose our home.” I was desperate. I asked around in veteran communities, hoping I wasn’t alone. I was uniformly told to just hire a veteran owned company. Um, okay? But how do I hire them and not die in the process? It feels like that. Like I might die for this stupid and completely harmless phone call. Mental illness is whacky.
When it came time for the roof, fascia, and gutters to be done, I went to my doctor and got enough meds to comatose an elephant. In the absence of a magic button, I was gonna have to muscle through it. I called the three top rated companies (2 veteran owned) and went through the nightmare of sales visits, estimates, phone calls, and contracts. I knew that every single inch of roof and fascia needed to come off (it was not up to code and was rotten) and we moved ahead on that premise. Two out of the three underbid because, “some of the wood might be good.” I iterated that I needed a “worst case estimate” and was told that’s not a thing. Remember, I can afford this. It wasn’t about the money. It was about being forced to babysit a project, face repeat decisions, and talk to strangers over and over.
I picked company number three, for five grand more than everyone else, because they followed directions, were top rated, and said it’d be three days. I never saw the sales guy again, NO ONE on the crew spoke English. I was on the phone all day, every day, because I couldn’t communicate with the people that were on my porch asking if they could fetch the nail gun they dropped through the ceiling, or apologizing for the human shaped hole in my garage ceiling. They also drove a trailer into my garage door, left hundreds of nails in mine and my neighbor’s yards, Oh… and they took eleven days!. They shit the bed… bigly.
My nightmare wasn’t over. I still needed fifty year old bathrooms replaced and foundation work. The roofing experience was demoralizing. I didn’t get five star service and never saw this alleged veteran owner. So, what was the point of that? I finally asked on the Nextdoor app, “Help! I need to hire a contractor but I’m a basket case and need one that is low pressure and patient.” A realtor reached out and suggested dude named Doug. Doug answers his own phone and actually works at job sites. I told him, “I’m sorry, I’m not good at phone stuff. If I’m rude, it’s not you.” He laughed and told me not to worry about it. I told him I’d need a lot of work on my house but just got burned by another company and had some mental health issues that might need navigating. It was so humiliating having to say that, but it was the only way I could think of to cross this bridge, so he wouldn’t blow up when I struggled with a decision or needed hand holding.
He asked if I had a small project I wanted as a test run, and we’d go from there. “If it’s easier to e-mail, we can do that.” God bless this man for offering that! We moved to e-mail and set up a time for him to check out a bad wiring situation in my kitchen. He showed up, looked at it and goes, “$250, my electrician will rewire those and change the receptacle.” Cool! One sentence with all the information I need! He left and emailed me with a date and time for his electrician to come by. The repair was equally painless. A couple weeks later, I e-mailed that I was ready to tackle the bathrooms and foundation. We did the same thing. He swung by, peaked at the aged throne rooms, asked two questions and then said he’d e-mail me an estimate.
The estimates were detailed and fair. I replied that I wasn’t comfortable with picking stuff and asked if he had guidance for that or, “a Denny’s menu of what normal people pick.” He said his foreman was a pro and could narrow it down to one or two decisions and guaranteed the end-product would be attractive. I’m not an HGTV junky and I don’t need magical retreats, or romantic soaking tubs. I do need symmetry and light. This was workable. My final hurdle was scheduling. That eleven day roof project nearly put me in the hospital with twelve hour days of noise and constant drama. I asked about timing and how big the crew was, so I could prepare mentally (code for get adequate amounts of Ativan). Doug offered two options. He could keep it to one or two guys for half days, doing the bathrooms one at a time; OR he could have both done in four long days with an eight-man crew. Onsies, twosies, please!
Fast forward! He was right. His foreman narrowed the finish choices to two shower surrounds and showed me a common paint color, vanity, and flooring that match and are popular. I only had to choose one thing, give a thumbs up, and that was the end of it! Bathroom number two is nearly done. I was comfortable enough to expand a little. I picked from two flooring samples and a paint color from a choice of four. Oh, and the foreman said, “You like shiny stuff, right? Want bright chrome in your bathroom?” Heckin right, I do!
All of this is to say that being rigid and rushed might be how the business works, but being chill and flexible can secure a corner of the market that has ample disposable income and needs your services more than ever. This has been so easy that we’re gonna have them put a patio door in, since they’re taking the back wall of the house off anyways, then build a deck. We’ve never used our backyard… ever. Oh! And I need a pantry put in. Can you widen this door? I have hated that cabinet…. That two hundred and fifty dollar test run and a handful of one sentence e-mails will bring him nearly forty thousand dollars of cash business during a pandemic and economic downturn. It will also improve the quality of life for two veterans that have spent years holed up and struggling in a house that was very much a safety hazard.