September 20, 2020

Where Are The Good Repair People?


After the post about higher education prompted several comments about the viability of a trade career, I thought the time was right to bring back this post from eight years ago. I have freshened it a bit to relate recent problems, but the bulk of the post remains unchanged.

Finding dependable repair people is not easy. Places like Angie's List, Yelp, or Google reviews may give us a starting point, but I take those writeups with a heavy dose of caution. I used to depend on friends or neighbors for ideas, but they tend to be as lost as I.

For the last six months, I have had a few auto repair disappointments when my long time favorite sold to a new company. Late last year, we contracted with a handyman to fix a closet door. He never showed up.

Our ice maker has been out of service since March; I am very hesitant to have someone come traipsing into our home while the virus is still a deadly concern. And, even when I finally feel it is safe, it will be a crapshoot to find someone who won't rip me off. He (or she) will see an old guy and figure they can tell me anything, even though I am pretty sure it is the water input valve. 

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 months, 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 they are doing or committed to doing it well. This lack of skilled workers is starting to mess with our satisfying retirement.

At one point we had a handyman come to the house to repair and re-tile a portion of a 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 sloppy 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 of 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.

Before moving out of one of our previous homes five years 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. 

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 told what they have done doesn't meet our expectations. They genuinely believe the type of performance cited above is suitable.

So, what are we to do? 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 a handyman.

No..that isn't the choice we made. I am fortunate to be married to a woman who enjoys tackling projects that many people 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 nearly $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 a 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 drywall, and faux-finishing the walls. She has built a three-level rock waterfall in one of our backyards 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 under-trained 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. 


The last tile fits!

Bring back apprentice programs and incentives for those handy with tools to produce quality workmanship!


45 comments:

  1. This problem is especially acute for us seniors. I am getting to the point that my balance is so bad that I don't trust myself on a ladder or one sloped landscape. Part of the problem is caused by my deafness and another by aging. I promised my wife when we moved here 20 years ago that this would be the last house she lives in. It is getting harder and harder to keep that promise.

    Fortunately, I do have a good friend who helps out quite a bit. But what happens when circumstances prevent him for doing that? We live in a small town and were told when we first moved here that there are many people in the trades here that think they know what they are doing but the vast majority don't. We have experienced that a couple of times, but since I am like your wife I have done most of the repairs myself.

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    1. Like you, there are household repairs that we once took care of, but don't feel comfortable doing so now. One of the reasons for a move to our current house was to get into a single-story residence. Once I cleaned windows upstairs or cleaned out gutters. Now, windows are within reach of a step stool and the gutters are reachable with a stepladder.

      Finding a good handyman: or dependable repair company is like finding gold. You treat them well and hope they last longer than your needs!

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  2. Professional contractors tell me the Number One problem in the industry is drug/alcohol abuse. You're probably a victim of this, even if it's not obvious. (Contractors say it isn't, which is why they test everyone constantly.)

    A careful interview up front will spare you problems.

    You can learn a lot just from a handyman's ad. The initial response to your inquiry is also extremely telling.

    And never, ever, pay up front. If materials are needed, buy them directly (in other words, pay the supplier yourself.)

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    1. To your last point, while I permit the handyman to go to Lowes or Home Depot, I must see a receipt before paying for the supplies.

      The highest bidder and the lowest bidder are never hired for a job.

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    2. I live in the southwest corner of the U.S. and for many decades there has been an influx of the poor from Mexico who are willing, or have to, work for unbelievably cheap wages. When I was very young all these craft jobs were done by people who expected to be paid a living wage. Not any more. No matter how you feel politically about the issue, these people are taken advantage of, paid poorly and trained almost not at all. So, to some extent, craft skills have fallen off due to economic reasons.

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  3. Generally I've had good luck with trades people but you do need to be careful and recommendations and references are gold if you can get them. And be prepared to pay more for quality work, going with the low cost provider isn't always the best. Remember, it's about more than price.

    Obviously don't over pay for poor workmanship but I find many don't want to pay for the level of skill required for the job. As such often they end up with poorly trained people working for low wages and in that case it's no wonder they get poor results. In my experience, in our own work life, we all seem to think that we are underpaid (at least by a little) but that everyone else, especially trades people, are overpaid. How many times have you heard "That plumber wanted big bucks to fix our sink! I got my cousin's friend to do it for cheap". Taking the side of the trades people a bit... Sometimes you really do get what you pay for.

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    1. To amplify your point, many trades people are now simply contractors or employees of a plumbing company, for example. The rates are predetermined for a particular job so it is tough to pay that person extra for good work. Positive comments to the company help both the employee and your relationship with him. I will ask for someone by name if I have had a good experience.

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  4. We have experienced this as well. the handyman we used for a few years retired.He did decent work most of the time. The last job he did was To bring the gas attachments to the place where natural gas comes to the yard,so I could have a gas stove (MY FAVORITE KITCHEN APPLIANCE!!!!). He was “gas certified.” Ken can do almost everything that does not involve gas, and he doesn’t LIKE plumbing repair but can do some minor things. Luckily, about 2 years ago, an experienced,reliable handyman with a professional looking truck, and years of experience in Iowa, moved into the neighborhood.,Howard is hard to book, as the entire neighborhood keeps him busy! He is clean and reliable and can do most jobs. Ken ran into trouble installing an above the stove microwave (after I set ours on fire..) and called Howard..the thick tiles had to be drilled to attach it, it was quite a mess..but Howard did not gouge us on price for all the time it took. When we needED a new toilet put in,Ken was able to remove the old one, but needed help seating the new one. Howard helped. We paid over $200 to have an old tree cut down out front, and that guy did not remove the stump,said he would return and never did, would not answer calls. Ken still has to trim that stump down,every few months. there is no way for us to remove it. We had to go through calling and leaving messages at SIX different palm tree trimmers till we got ONE who actually came out, and did a decent job and showed up only one hour late.. (HOPE HE IS AROUND NEXT YEAR!!) Neighbor had her house painted last year and it’s a poor job, poor coverage, sloppy work.It’s a real issue. Makes you think: In times like this with people losing jobs, a sincere, honest handyman, or landscaper could make a great living and have their own business!! Yes, I believe many of them have drug./alcohol issues .Years ago, we did have a landscaper who had to help us put in an entire front yard,build brick surrounds,etc. and he left every day at Noon for an AA meeting, he told us.But he was actually reliable. We had house painters at that house , which had a HUGELY POINTED,TALL ROOF , smoke marijuana and climb up on the roof to paint (Found this out when we came home from work for lunch one day..) I am SURE many readers have MANYS STORIES. LUCKY FOR YOU Betty is so handy!! But it would be great to have a reliable handyman available too!!

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    1. The tile job was eight years ago. She wouldn't attempt that today. She is a perfectionist so few jobs are done to her satisfaction, but she is recognizing that her standards are not normal and we must accept (and then fix) what passes for "good" today.

      Smoking pot while working on a pointed roof? Wow, that is just plain dumb.

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    2. Those guys can probably fly while smoking pot.

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    3. Yes, we lived in a PYRAMID shaped house in Tempe.. it was very unique and you can picture how tall that pointed part of the roof was..and they had to walk on a stand to paint the other parts too.. we fired them on the spot (liability!!!!!) and had a hard time finding someone to finish!

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  5. These are scary stories, given the fact that next spring I'll have to get my house ready to list. I've been spoiled by a father and husband who could do anything and everything that needed repairs around a house. My dad wasn't a builder by trade but he did built a house from from the ground up and my husband owned rental and most of the repairs and updates himself and I did the painting and cleaning.

    With so many You-Tube videos showing us how to do stuff, lots of things are easier to fix ourselves than to find repair services to do stuff for us.

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    1. YouTube has been quite a boon to DIY folks. But, if something goes wrong there needs to be backup.

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  6. I would not rely on Angie's List. The people listed pay to be there, and they are not vetted. A friend hired a roofer from Angie's List assuming they'd been vetted, and surprise, they had not. It was an absolute disaster of a job, and yet, when I did a five second search on the company online, the reviews were all there for the reading, and they were awful. As always, let the buyer beware.

    We have had generally good luck with our service people, most often as a result of asking neighbors for referrals. I really don't see much having changed over the many years we've been homeowners. On line reviews are, unfortunately, increasingly unreliable due to the preponderance of paid and fake reviews, so referrals seem to be the way to go at this point.

    In general, I find people are as good or as bad as they've always been. In closing, I would offer that we have to be careful not to put on our rose colored glasses about 'the good old days' when making broad assessments about human behavior.

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    1. In principle I agree with the good old days comment. But, at least for us, the quality of handyman services and the overall quality is not what it once was. Places like Angie's List or Yelp are avoided by me; so far I have found reviews on Google to be more accurate, but not foolproof.

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  7. We have faced the issue of repair people never showing up or not even answering their messages. It is very discouraging. We also consistently face the issue of repair people being too busy to put us on their list!

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    1. This comment is directed to everyone: If you have a grandson or daughter of the appropriate age and they are mechanically inclined, urge them to explore the possibilities of the trades for a career. The need is tremendous and good people are always in demand.

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  8. Do it myself? You gotta be kidding. It's a challenge for me to change a lightbulb! I second the Angie's List opinion. It used to be good, with legitimate reviews, but now they've sold out to anyone who will pay. We were lucky to find a couple of ex-IBMers who were packaged out in their 50s and now have a small handyman business in our area. They do good work.

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    1. I imagine they won't travel to Phoenix for some closet work, will they?

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  9. Many contractors are incapable of working in a structured corporate environment. As a country we are kicking out competent Hispanics as fast as possible. If any of us ever use assisted living or a nursing home you will be surprised how many employees are first generation immigrants. These folks are also on the do not enter list. If we continue on our current path only those that can pay the very most will have a chance at getting decent service.
    As a side note consumers in Texas are responsible for all contractors supply and labor bills. If a contractor puts a roof on your house and does not pay the supplier or his labor you are responsible. They can all place a lien on your home. Years ago I made a roofer get his supplier and all his labor sign a release form stating they had been paid in full. He said I was the first customer that had ever asked for this. Contractors typically are using money from your job to finish up their last job. If anything happens to them, accident, sickness etc., the whole pyramid comes crashing down. They will simply reopen under a new name and you are left holding the bag. Roofers in Tx are not required to have any certification. Anyone can be a roofer. This is what a truly unregulated free market looks like.

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    1. Well, that scenario is terrifying! I don't know what the laws are in Arizona, but when I need something major done, I will follow your suggestion and gather signatures.

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  10. Real Estate people are the best resource for the best work at the best prices. If you know one, call them first. They'll usually give you their latest list.

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  11. We find almost our repair people through our next door Community. Won't tough Angie's list. We've been happy pretty much with everyone we've had. Some have been hard to book because its so busy. I expect that not cutting the caulk was an insuranceiability issue, the guy is afraid of being sued if he breaks your tile and or losing his insurance..a fair issue in the cinstruction/hande man field.

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    1. I am sure you are right about the grout around the tile, though Lowe's could have given us that parameter when we bought the toilet.

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  12. We live on Aquidneck Island, in Rhode Island. We have never experienced a "bad contractor." We built our home in year 1985.

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  13. Living here in the Phoenix suburbs (Anthem) I've had the opposite experience. Recommendations of friends and neighbors have been the means to find honest and reliable repair persons.

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    1. I hadn't thought of the Community bulletin board before it was mentioned by Barb above. Our HOA has one that I will consult the next time the need arises.

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    2. A good real estate agent also usually has a list of “vendors” that you can rely on. If you have an agent you know, you can get referrals.Bill Ryan’s office in Chandler is the realtor I work with this when we need one.

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  14. Dear Bob and Friends, a roofing contractor was telling me, part of the reason it would be awhile before they were able to replace the roof in the back (which wasn't leaking, but would soon) was they don't just hire anybody. The company does a good job (and yeah, a bit costly) and they are busy. He said that it's not easy to find dependable people who care about doing the job right, the first time - which was a bit of a shock, but then again, we had both entered the work-world in the mid 70s. Things were so different then. The roof work was done last year, and alot of the materials were being sent south because of a major storm which had trashed entire communities.

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    1. Finding dependable, trained, people is the heart of the problem. But, after a major disaster (which seem to be happening with increasing frequency) I understand a delay in getting material.

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  15. I TOTALLY AGREE with you!!! Even when you hire a company that is really established and professional, you can run into sloppy work. It is so frustrating. And the older you get the more difficult some projects become and you realize that 10 – 15 years ago you could have done this, but maybe not now.

    That is also frustrating – I KNOW I could do a better job if only I could get down on my hand and knees or up on a ladder to do it!!! Joys of home ownership!!! New houses are better, but it doesn’t take long for them to start getting old too!!!

    So fortunate that you have Betty – she can come over anytime she runs out of projects – I’m sure I can find some here to do!!!

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    1. This problem is not one that is going to be solved any time soon. We will need a different attitude toward the people who possess the types of skills that are required. A white collar job is no more important than a blue collar one, particularly when something needs fixing.

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  16. I live where it is wet and very flat. The soil shifts. Consequently, foundations shift. My house was built in 1950. I did not want to "restore" the foundation to its original "setting" because that would have caused more issues. Instead, I wanted to make it stable. I was able to get a company come in and put heavy wooden beams across the center length of my house, with smaller beams on the perimeter, and install adjustable house jacks, because again, foundations shift here. Mind you, this 912 sq ft house only cost me $25,000, in 2014, so I was not willing to spend a whole lot of money. I spent $2300 and can tell that the house is very sturdy now when I walk. I am very happy.
    I had rented the house for two years before I purchased it so I knew the issues before buying. Other than the metal roof I put on it when I first purchased it ($2,000), this has been the only major repair I have had to make (well, I did have a plumbing issue but that is another story and that cost me $300.) The certified electrician said my wiring was fine. So it is in a low income, gritty town, but very convenient to all the counties I have to travel in all different directions for work. I am happy. I still need to install my kitchen cabinets, they are sitting on the floor unattached and I guess I will get around to it eventually. Obviously, I don't get in a hurry about anything...lol. I was given a stove back in 2012, when I first rented the house, before deciding to buy it, and I am really waiting on the stove to die. It is huge and too big for the tiny kitchen but free is free. When it finally dies and I get a smaller stove, add more cabinets, and attach the ones I have, I guess the house will be essentially complete, probably about the time I retire and turn it into a rental....lol. I just plod along and never get in a hurry about anything. I still haven't decided what color to paint the unfinished kitchen cabinets currently sitting on my floor. Obviously, decorating is not my thing. HGTV would not feature me. Cindy in the South

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    1. We are planning on having the kitchen cabinets painted at some point early next year. The medium oak color seems so dated but new cabinets are too pricey. A light color (probably cream white) will give the kitchen and family room a much brighter feel.

      Jacking up a house to stabilize the foundation: that is a job that definitely requires serious professionals. Glad it worked out for you. I would be very, very nervous about such an undertaking.

      For awhile Betty was an HGTV fan, but cooled off after realizing how unrealistic all the fixes and remodels were for average people. That channel is just designed to make you dissatisfied with what you own.

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  17. First off any chance I can hire your wife Bob? I had my house renovated last year and need a number of things fixed. My takeaway here is that there is plenty of work available for someone who takes pride in doing a good job. Becoming an apprentice and learning a good skill looks like the way to go instead of getting that expensive anthropology degree.

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    1. A major in medieval French Literature versus AC repair or making beautiful wooden furniture? That should be an easy choice.

      Betty has retired from work like shown above!

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  18. From a slightly different perspective, and sorry I didn't read everyone's response to see if this was touched on, but since retiring I've been doing some handyman work on the side. What has been my experience in a few cases is people don't want quality work they want cheap. With me I tend to give them both I'm not in it for the money just enjoy the work and it gets me out of the house since the wife is now working at home due to the Coronavirus. I had one woman complain when it took me two days to patch a bunch of holes in her walls and then repaint the room. And these were small holes either! Someone had taking a hammer to them.

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    1. You have raised two good points: retirees who worked in the trades or have a natural inclination toward handyman-type skills can earn some extra money and fill a real need by working in their community.

      Secondly, too many people tend to want the Walmart version of things: quick and cheap, but then complain if a T-shirt falls apart after half a dozen washings. Your only defense is to tell a potential customer up front that you do quality work at a fair price. You are not the cheapest, but you will stand behind every job. If the customer doesn't want that approach, thank them and move on!

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  19. My son did the entire remodel on our downstairs - demolition, framing, flooring, drywall, paint, installation of kitchen cabinets and bathroom vanity, a deck extension to accommodate our little sliding glass door. He did a magnificent job. We paid him $50 an hour, which is less than his usual rate. We couldn't have asked for better work. He will be restarting his own business soon, and we plan to back him financially. He will surely be successful.

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    1. From the pictures I have seen on FB I agree: he does excellent work. Based on the comments on this post, his business restart should have a very bright future.

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  20. I don’t know if it’s training or caring. It just seems there are too many lazy people out there who are only willing to do the bare minimum. They want to finish as quickly as possible and get paid. Who cares if the job is good? It’s really pretty sad.

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    1. A sense of pride in a job done well is missing. Maybe it is because so many of the repair people are working for a larger company and don't feel a real sense of ownership for the work. I would guess there is a better chance of getting higher quality work if the person is self-employed. Unfortunately, that can unlicensed, so the homeowner is taking a risk.

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