February 3, 2012

Where Are The Good Repair People?

Seriously, have our standards really fallen this low? Have all the people who are good at repairing problems around the home retired? Since there hasn't been much work for the last several years, have all the home contractors forgotten how to do their job? My wife and I have just about given up on finding anybody, at any price, coming from any source, who knows what he is doing, or commits to doing it well. This lack of skilled workers is starting to mess with our satisfying retirement.

Just within the past 10 days we have had a handyman come to the house to repair and re-tile a portion of an upstairs bath. He and his "helper" mis-cut the green board but put it up anyway. Then he proceeded to put so much adhesive on the tiles that they stuck out a good 1/8 of an inch from the undamaged tile. He left enough gaps in the grout and caulking to defeat the purpose of the repair job. To make sure we really appreciated his work, he got the rows of tile crooked. The effort was so poor we had him rip out half the tiles he had just installed. Against our better judgment, he promised to return the next weekend to finish the job. Of course, he never showed up nor did he answer his phone. The only good news? He didn't get paid.

During that same period we decided to install a new toilet in the same bathroom. It was purchased from one of the big box stores, along with an extra fee to have it installed. The day for the installation arrived and the plumber appeared at our door right on time. That was the last good thing that would happen. He took one look at the old toilet and said he couldn't help us. The old toilet had a line of grout between it and the tile. He said he was not allowed to even attempt to cut the grout for fear of damaging the tiles. If we cut the grout ourselves or hired a tile man (see above!) to loosen the toilet he would come back to install the new one.

Even though he was more than 6 feet tall and at least 250 pounds, I suggested in words and tone that were probably not appropriate for a good Christian man that he get out of my house...NOW. After storming up to the store and ranting about the poor quality of "professionals" they used, I got my money back for the installation. The new toilet is still sitting in the upstairs hallway.

About 10 months ago we had a contractor install wooden steps in place of the worn out carpet. Not cheap by any means, his crew was sloppy enough we had to retouch the stain and the paint on virtually every step and support. Half the stairs squeaked because they had been cut incorrectly, so they were taken out, re-cut and reinstalled which resulted in more marred paint. As a final insult, one man cut the carpeting upstairs wrong so there is a nice rip in the rug. You can read the whole story here.

Go back 4 months before that and another two men, with good references, did such a crappy job painting the inside of the house that my wife (primarily) and me (a little) spent almost a week afterward applying touch-ups to the places they missed or over-painted. 

You get the picture. No matter how we search and research, what passes for quality work is not. It is average, marginal, or substandard. The people doing the work are always baffled when what they have done doesn't meet our expectations. They truly believe the type of performance cited above is good.

So, what are we to do? As I've noted in other posts, we are in this house for another 5-7 years. Things will need to be repaired, fixed, painted, or replaced. We can't just stop all maintenance. After thoughtful consideration of our options, I have decided to go to a technical college and be trained as an handyman.

No..that isn't the choice we made. I am extremely lucky to be married to a woman who enjoys tackling projects that many people, especially women, wouldn't touch. She may not have ever replaced tile before, but as this picture shows, there she is, in the bathroom repairing the mess made by the handyman and learning as she goes. Guess what...when finished it will be better than anyone else could or would do, because she has pride in her work and will do it until it is perfect.

She has decided we will replace the toilet. Our wooden front door is badly worn and starting to crack. With a replacement door costing almost $3,000 or a refinishing of the current one almost $2,300, Betty has said we will do it ourselves. We will take the door down, sand it, wood putty the cracks, sand it again, and then paint it. The sidelight panel will have similar treatment. Our cost will probably be less than $300.

We have remodeled the powder room downstairs, including ripping out the counter, refinishing the cabinet, repairing tears in the dry wall, and faux-finishing the walls. She has built a three level rock waterfall in the backyard and a brick accent wall in the front yard. I could cite a dozen more examples, but the bottom line is: I trust her to do a better job at virtually anything we need to have done (minus biggies like a new roof or repainting the house) than anyone we could hire.

She shouldn't have to do all this. Yes, on one level she enjoys the hard work. But, it takes away from things she would rather be doing and wastes time spent on cleaning up after others. Unfortunately, with the current state of sloppy, uncaring, or untrained repair people dominating the marketplace we have been burned too many times to trust again.

This post is not a good example of what makes a satisfying retirement lifestyle. But, it is an accurate representation of what homeowners face today. A condo or rental never sounded better!


The last tile fits !

38 comments:

  1. Yup. Your gal is surely a keeper!

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  2. It is a huge problem, I agree. I live in a neighborhood where many nice old homes have been demolished and condos built in their place. The demolishing part goes well. It seems we have many highly skilled people who drive backhoes and are great at destroying things.

    When it comes to building the new buildings though, I tell you it is bad. Every single new building on my street has had major repairs already. Some only a few months out. Every one of the buildings has major leaks. It is a disturbing trend.

    We had someone come to do maintenance on our furnace. Simple maintenance. We nearly had to replace the furnace after he was done with it. They eventually sent the owner (nearly retired) to fix the damage. For free.

    I think we all better get handy and soon!

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    1. Unfortunately what you describe isn't unusual. During the housing boom in Phoenix in the early 2000's so many homes and condos were built so fast that quality lumber and dry wall were almost unavailable, along with the people to build everything.

      It didn't matter. Substandard materials and people slapped together homes that almost instantly developed cracks and leaks. Doors and cabinets wouldn't close, floors settled....every mark of rushed, sloppy construction. Whole sections of developments were unlivable.

      Frankly, I don't see how the situation will ever change. We have come to accept "good enough" as good enough so there is no incentive to perform high quality work. Like health care and retirement planning, we are pretty much on our own.

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  3. Hi Bob,

    I'm always thankful that my husband is so good at most any repair that needs to be done around our house. We've also bought 2 rentals though and had construction companies rehab them for us. Even tho these companies have great reputations, we had a terrible time with one of them getting the work done in a timely manner and we had to keep having them come back to redo things they messed up. Even with the company which did the better job, I had to go there daily and check to see that they were getting things done.

    I live in a large city and can't find a lawn care service who is reliable and does good work. We do our own lawn but needed some landscaping done last spring. The company was overpriced and I had to keep on top of them constantly to make sure they did what they'd promised they would do. We've been trying to get someone to clean up our rental house yard and the company promised they'd go there to give an estimate and they never even called me back.

    On the other hand, if we do find someone reliable and who does good work, we always call them again and recommend them. We have a tree service guy who is wonderful and he's taken down trees for several in our family. We also found a chimney cleaning company who is very good and we've used them twice in our rental houses.

    There are lots of places online, like YELP, where you can leave reviews and ratings of local companies. I always check them out.

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    1. Joan, before I forget, my wife is a big believer in Chia Seeds. I noticed your article on your Fitness over Fifty blog!

      The on-line ratings services are good resources, though even there I have been sent to someone who got high marks but did a poor job (the painter referred to in the post). The most disturbing part of all this is price is no longer an indicator of quality. Higher prices used to mean more professional and better quality. Now, it just means...higher prices.

      In our area 95% of the lawn and yard services are made up of crews that speak little or no English. Trying to explain how you want things trimmed with just hand signals is almost impossible. I have my lawn cut and trimmed and the leaves blown and raked up. But, bush shaping I do. It is the only way to keep them looking good.

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  4. It has been hit or miss for us in TN since we moved here fifteen months ago. Repainting the large house went well. We were not even in the area but contracted with an individual who did an outstanding job. Replacing both furnace and air conditioning units was outstanding, but we paid top $ for those units. Landscaping was a nightmare since I believe the owner of the firm was on meth, and the work showed it. Lost $ on that deal. Everything I do myself, including replacing a toilet, goes well but my time is more limited. Yard work I will continue to handle, and as many repairs as possible. It is a reflection of the poor quality of workers, and the pace that everything is performed at (get the work done and collect the $ - quality be darned.)

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    1. My re-roofing and house painting went well several years ago, as well as a new heat pump. All three jobs were pricey, but well done. Everything else has been hit or miss..more miss. I would normally do my own yard work, but I just can't tolerate the 100 degree lawn cutting and blowing anymore. The money each month is worth protecting my health. Besides, with us occasionally gone for a few weeks it is impossible to find someone who I would trust to come in for a one-time use to cover for me.

      In several cases I have hired a particular firm or person, and then the job is subcontracted out to another individual or firm. That is where the problem tends to arise. He isn't as concerned with doing as good job as the primary owner is and it shows.

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  5. Bob,
    The quickest way to go broke in retirement (or at any stage in life) is to hire someone to come and do the work. My advice is that you should start watching 'Ask This Old House' on PBS and yes! start taking lessons. I don't recall ever, even in my childhood, my dad or my husband ever calling in someone to do anything! They did it themselves. You have to, for survival.
    The house I am living in now, my husband built and he never built a house before. He took his time, reading, studying, asking......He did all the plumbing, electrical, heating and air conditioning, carpentry, etc. etc.
    What makes you think living in a rental or condo would be better? In a condo, you still are responsible for the interior and can you imagine, if they hire contractors to do the exterior, what it would look like with such bad quality contractors? Odds are your rental landlords have to hire the same incompetents that you do. These skills are no longer taught in schools, etc. Unfortunately, if you really need to hire one, you might have to look at illegals to do the work. Especially landscaping.

    Your wife is correct in doing the work herself. It's really not as hard as we think. It's NOT brain surgery. My husband does all the manual labor. I do all the thinking labor (taxes, investments etc). I still do all our cleaning and would NEVER hire someone to come in and clean nor cook for us. Hubby does all the upkeep and maintenance. It's the only way to keep expenses under control.

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    1. We are discussing a painting of the kitchen cabinets. That is a big job: taking them down, sanding, cleaning, priming, painting, remounting, new pulls and hinges.....the thought of all that is terrifying. But, a "professional" would want something north of $5,000 and never do a job that would pass my wife's inspection.

      This coming week we will change out one of the upstairs toilets...it should be interesting.

      It would be interesting to see the "unintended consequences" if there was ever a large scale deportation of illegal aliens. At least around here all landscaping and yard work, as well as most construction help would stop. Most Americans won't work that hard for the wages these guys get.

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  6. What a shame...my co-worker's husband is looking for work...any work...and he is FABULOUS! We've used him on our half wall, crown molding and a new back door. However, we've had experiences where some contractors weren't very good at all. Luckily, my husband is handy, does a lot of the work himself. Your wife actually looks like she enjoyed doing it, which is great! BUT, I understand that she may not be able to do it forever...you will need to find a good repairman. Isn't it a shame that the work ethic has gotten so low??

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    1. Every once in a while we find a handyman who can do some stuff we can't and do it well. Usually, they don't last long. They get snapped up by a contractor or company and disappear into the system.

      This area has a lot of the handyman service companies. As I have learned the hard way, many of those guys are out of work and looking for another job that pays well and has security, or they lost a job due to poor performance. They have zero pride in a job well done.

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  7. Thanks for posting this. I actually do feel better now - I decided to tile our foyer & kitchen floor instead of hiring someone. I am learning as I go but it is taking a lot of time - actually taking all next week off from work to hopefully finish.

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    1. When Betty decided to fix the bathroom tile she had never done it before either. With the help of time and a video on YouTube it worked out well. You will succeed, Scott!

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  8. Steve in Los AngelesSat Feb 04, 04:51:00 AM MST

    Hi Bob,

    A little over one year ago, I had a local contractor replace the central heating and air conditioning system in my residence, which is a two-bedroom and two-bathroom condominium. Fortunately, the contractor team did an excellent job. Back in late 2009, I had the kitchen remodeled. The people who did the remodeling job also did a great job.

    I myself also did excellent jobs with some caulking jobs and toilet repair jobs in my two bathrooms. Sometimes, I needed many hours to do the jobs, but I did excellent jobs.

    Although I have excellent experiences with contractors, I myself also have done excellent jobs.

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    1. The key word here is excellent! Too often that is not a word we can choose when someone else does the work.

      What is bothersome is we can even be having this discussion. Shouldn't good jobs be the norm and not the exception? As you said, "Fortunately, the contractor team..." Any sentence that begins with fortunately in this regard points to the issue.

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    2. Steve in Los AngelesSat Feb 04, 10:08:00 PM MST

      One thing I did with each contractor BEFORE I HIRED THE CONTRACTOR is that I checked out their rating with my local Better Business Bureau.

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    3. That is a good idea. Check with the BBB and your local government agency that licenses contractors. You can find out whether their license is still active and how many complaints have been filed against them.

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  9. Sorry, but I sort of chuckled reading your litany of repairman woes. I've gotten to the point in life where I could afford to have "stuff" done but finding anyone that would do things to my standards has me still doing it all. Plus, I do get a good deal of satisfaction standing back knowing I did it myself. Yes, I'm an engineer who has built additions to my homes and a complete home (everything but the framing, roofing, and drywall) but I've been challenged by some things. One was re-doing a tile shower because the idiots who built it did not do the grout bed and pan anywhere near correct. Estimate? $2,000. Cost for me? 2-3 days of patient working and $400. Best part is I KNOW it was done right (after I read through several books) and it looks great. Another pain was when the flashing over garage door that was not done right allowed water to rot the glue-lam beam. I don't recommend that repair to anyone in or near retirement years....mounting a 3/8" steel "flitch plate" and jacking up the sagging beam. Plate probably weighed 300#! That and shower because someone saved themselves an hour or two of work rather than do it right.

    One thing I can't do (well, I have done some but get stumped easily) is HVAC repair. I have a one man show who is super. Did the install on addition for mother in law. One time came out for ailing furnace, futzed with it for ten minutes, and when I asked him what I owed him he replied..."got a twenty in your pocket?" He installed a regulator for when I switched from propane to natural gas grill. After three calls to him I gave up. He did it for nothing. So there are good people out there.

    Right now I'm struggling with whether to let someone else do some rotten window sills or once again do myself. First floor not bad, but standing on a ladder for second floor is not appealing. I've painted this house twice and don't care for the laddering. Once again, paying out hard earned dollars and risking sub-par work is really not appealing. Good repair people are like baby-sitters....I think once you find them you covet them and don't share!

    Some day I'll be at point where physically I cannot do this stuff and I'm not looking forward to it. Meanwhile I'm glad I don't have to sort through the incompetence you described. But really, things like a toilet swap (or garbage disposal swap I did last weekend) are not that hard if you read up on it, take your time, and if you know someone who's done it before who can offer assistance ask. Tools? Heck, I've bought tools for one use repairs that either paid for themselves or you can borrow. Good luck all. If you're in Greensboro NC give me a call and maybe I can help!

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    1. Allan,

      As I type this my wife is cutting through the grout that holds the offending toilet to the tile in the guest bathroom. I have learned that most toilets are not grouted to the floor, so I gather the person who did this work many years ago decided to make it look good. Unfortunately, it is complicating the swap out but we'll get it. Yes, I watched a YouTube video from Home Depot on replacing a toilet. My son-in-law and daughter did it too and said it is quite doable if you take your time.

      At some point in the next few years we will need to replace all the windows on the home. They are single-pane circa 1983...terrible for heat and AC retention. That will certainly be done by someone else. Gee, I hope they open and close when the workers are done!

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    2. Allan - I had the same dilemma with the 2nd story window sills. Attempted it with a ladder, took all of 2 minutes to figure that was not the way to do it. Ended up renting scaffolding from Home Depot (it was very reasonable $$ to rent it). Good luck!

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    3. Update: the grout and caulking were cut and the old toilet came right out. Removing the old wax ring was a mess, but is done. Next: see if the new toilet fits, but not on Super Bowl Sunday!

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  10. A few years ago, I wanted to replace the builder carpet in the bedrooms of my home with wood floors. I couldn't afford the product I wanted so opted for the best laminate I could find. My older brother happened to be in town for a convention and had an evening free. He has built homes as a second career, and also works with excellence, as it is engrained in our family values. He offered to do the small bedroom with my help, and then the handyman would do the other two. The room looked so beautiful, and when I was showing the handyman what I wanted, there was the blueprint right in front of him! Long story short, the cuts were not staggered, leaving me to purchase much more material, and both rooms were run in different directions! It is such a disappointment to walk into those rooms - and the guy was just fine with his work! I guess I'll have to beg my brother to take more vacations to Florida - to work! I've had more bad experiences than good hiring people. The smaller things I try myself so maybe I'll have to expand that list. Your wife is a gem!

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    1. First, yes, my wife is a gem. I want to be sure to add that up front since she reads this blog!

      Installing the floors in different directions and cutting them incorrectly? Amazing. What is so disturbing is the fact that he was just fine with what he had done. The unfortunate reality is anyone can call him or herself a handyman. There is no training or test required. Recommendations are easy to fake and very few people will let you into their home to actually look at a job that person completed.

      I think Allan is right when he says it is like finding a good babysitter...so rare.

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  11. Hi Bob,

    What I did prior to hiring a contractor to gut renovate my apartment is to inspect his current work before hiring him. I went to the project he was working on and made sure that the work was up to my standards before paying him a deposit. As my renovation was a $60,000 job, they agreed without any problems. You can check out the before and after pics if you are interested. http://thehungryegghead.com/2012/01/07/renovating-an-apartment-is-no-fun/

    Kelly

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    1. For a job that big, I'd want pictures of his family! Well maybe not, but certainly seeing examples of the contractor's work would be a requirement. But, what to do on a small to medium size job..from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars? That is where most of us struggle to find someone, anyone, who delivers what is promised.

      I did look at the place you renovated in New York..incrdible. To be able to see the possibilities in a place that was so filthy and rundown is a real testament to your dedication. I was really impressed that you did that in 6 weeks....6 weeks? I would have thought something that substantial would have taken much longer..like 6 months!

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    2. It is amazing what good contractors can do. I was there from 9am to 5pm everyday to make sure that they were indeed working and not slacking off. Definitely 6 weeks though they promised to deliver in 4 weeks, but I budgeted for 6 and was right on mark. I also did extensive research in materials cost. So for the entire job, I was under budget by $600. This was my 3rd time supervising the gutting an apartment, so experience helps.

      In NYC when I need a small job done, I usually ask for a recommendation from the super of an apartment building. They are the ones with the depth of knowledge as they use the same handyman for jobs that they need done. For example my toilet was leaking onto my downstairs neighbor's ceiling, and the super got me a plumber to fix it within 24 hours. The plumber came and took care of the job in 3 hours and charged $560.

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    3. Being on site for the job is certainly one way to get done what you want. Since your remodel involved knocking out a wall and other major changes, you were well-served by that approach. To be within 1% of a $60,000 job is something to be proud of.

      BTW, the original paint job in your second bedroom was probably one of the worst I have ever seen. What were the previous tenants thinking?

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  12. Your title is "where are all the good repair people?" I think you found her! She's in your pics on this article. Looks like a keeper.

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  13. Our brother in law has five kids. Everyone has a learned skill. They have gathered to build each others houses! My husband joins in being the tile and toilet guy. I am door nobs and grout cleaning.
    Make sure your girls are learning what your wife can do. My husband is now teaching our son in law...
    Unfortunately, academic college has taken over trade school community colleges. I think finding a good repair person will get worse instead of better in the future. The key for you..and me...

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  14. Janette,

    A family of repair people..I may have to move to Kansas to get any good work done! My oldest daughter is like my wife, she'll try any type of repair and home improvement. She's fearless. The younger one is happier letting someone else do it but as all these comments prove, that will become increasingly hard.

    We did find a good grout cleaning guy who did an excellent job and was inexpensive. In fact we gave him $40 more than he charged because we were so happy to find someone who did more than required.

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    1. Janette,

      I forgot one additional comments: I hope you finally finished cleaning out your mom's home. It sounded like quite a job. Add cleanup person and family historian to your list of talents!

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  15. I hear you! My mom was amazing at finding people who did great work. When I had my own home in Memphis (where I grew up) and needed anything, I would call Mom, who always had the perfect referral. Having lived here in Portland for 20 years now, I have managed to ferret out a good roster of skilled workers. I have also found Angie's list to be helpful. But when you have no control over who is sent to do the work, like the toilet installer, you take your chances.

    Of course, I pay for the skill on my list, and there are many times I wish I had the talent and the willingness your wife shows to take care of things myself! I'm afraid do it yourself-er will never be on my resume. As someone once said, the phone is my tool of choice!

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    1. I've had several folks mention Angie's list. I'm aware of it but have never explored it. Maybe it is worth the cost if the recommendations are dependable. We've been here for 27 years and I have a very short list of companies that have performed well for us.

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  16. My husband and I do anything we can ourselves because of the pride and work ethic.We painted our own house(small cape cod)it looked so good we helped our daughter and son-in-law do theirs(much bigger house a village historical 2 story).I learned I can go up a ladder pretty high if necessary.The trick to any of this is the right tools and good supplies,do research on "this old house" or "DIY" heck go to library and any small town hardware store pick everyone's brain.We hardly ever pay anyone to do something at our house.We have found no one seems to take care and work as tireless as yourselves.Your wife is awesome, I am so impressed with her tenacity.And the two of you good game plan play to your strengths!

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    1. Living in upstate New York you have pretty rough winters. I imagine painting your home occurs too often for your taste! If I still lived in Syracuse I would have bought a brick home or one with sidings long ago!

      betty is tenacious in everything. Tell her she can't do something and she will do everything to prove that opinion wrong. Sure, there are mistakes and some wasted time and effort. But, no one can ever fault her for shirking a tough job. I, on the other hand,......

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  17. Thanks for posting this.The complete guide to building your own Satisfying Retirement. Practical, experience-based advice on making the most of your relationships, creating a solid financial base, staying healthy, discovering your creative side and finding a passion that keeps you energized, helping you decide if you should move, and giving guidelines for reentering the work force after retirement.

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