Get Three Bids. Really?
By Richard Connolly
Given the current, depressed state of residential building and remodeling, is it reasonable to assume that contractors would respond to opportunities for new work like locusts to a green pasture? I certainly did before contacting this past summer 150 subcontractors in eight trades for two remodeling projects on the South Shore.
As a small businessman, I was excited to offer work to people who desperately needed it. I recently unretired to reestablish myself as a home building and remodeling consultant with fourteen-years of experience and another six as a general contractor.
Clients Suzette and David Standring planned a new family room, storage area, and half bathroom in the basement of their brick colonial home in Milton. Their daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughters, 3 and 6, might soon move in, and the new space would provide privacy for the blended families.
The centerpiece of the family room would be custom wainscoting and an entertainment center with roll-outs for the children’s toys, additional storage, and shelving for a wide-screen television, books, and pictures.
The Standrings also addressed a lingering problem. “There is a very old, almost unusable bathroom near the room. We wanted to take out the existing shower, move the toilet location, install new fixtures, and redo the walls, window, and floor,” Standring said.
I beat the bushes for carpenters, electricians, plumbers, tile and hardwood installers, plasterers, painters, and insulators, developed a database to track them, called relentlessly, and awaited the invasion.
Rather than a swarm, I heard a buzz. “Where did you get my name?” some challenged, as though I had hacked the computer of their secret society. When I told them, “The phone book,” they said, “Oh.”
Several demanded to know my occupation, which was probably a test, and pressed for more. “Are you a general contractor?” No. “Are you a lead generator service?” No. “Do I owe you anything?” No. “Who pays you?” The homeowner. “How many bids are you after?” Three. “When can I see the jobs?” Whenever.
Eight visited, but only two bid.
“There are a lot of hacks out there, and pricing is insane,” a contractor volunteered.
“You better check references,” most advised ominously. In an odd reversal, an electrician asked for my references, so I emailed my bio and heard nothing. Perhaps it was best.
To avoid wasting time with a lengthy explanation, I emailed the subcontractors links to pictures of the homes, blueprints, plumbing and electrical fixture prices, construction specifications that automatically added their itemizations, and project plans.
Of the original 150, the number dwindled to nearly half. A handful retired, but approximately 20% had folded their tents, especially non-licensed professionals. A former plasterer helped. “I’m in college in North Carolina, but call my uncle. He’s a plasterer and knows lots of guys.”
I did, and Uncle’s bid fell in the middle. A carpenter Uncle referred won both projects.
Several were simply uninterested, and others declined because they were busy for the summer. “Please keep me in mind for down the road,” a carpenter emailed.
Three subs refused to travel outside their towns. A smattering protested their lack of computer skills while others seized the opportunity to improve them. “In a world where everyone is expected to be computer savvy, I can utilize all the tools I already have in place,” Weymouth painting contractor, Chuck Brown, said.
An ad in a phone book proclaimed, “All calls promptly returned,” but the sub did not, unless promptly means weeks or more. A handyman who advertised, “No job too small,” withdrew from bidding but explained, “These jobs are too big.”
Customer referrals – the gold standard for contractors – did not bite either. A painter ignored my calls, and a carpenter declined by saying, “I’ll pass on this one. My bid will be too low.” Who can blame him?
Three subs who worked recently at my house and half of sixteen contractors from my past responded no differently. From the latter group, two gave novel reasons. “My cell phone fell in the water when I was wiring a pool,” an electrician said. Another claimed, “My voice-mail service has not been working.” I believed them.
My email campaign fared no better, so I persisted. “I never got your email,” a ceramic tile installer asserted. I resent it and followed with more calls, all unanswered.
Overall, I shook my head enough times to cause whiplash.
Two subcontractors who did respond were also surprised by this baffling behavior. Veteran plumber, Ed Kelcourse of Weymouth said, “I just don’t get it. I’m always looking for new work, and I have thousands of past customers.”
Steve Romano, an electrician from Plymouth, noted, “It took me about twenty minutes to submit each bid. The other guys were foolish not to bid. Times are really tough.”
Seven weeks dragged before I presented the bids to my clients. Although unable to obtain three in all categories, I did develop sufficient information that guided their decisions.
“We decided to nix renovation on the bathroom and concentrate on the family room,” Suzette Standring said. “We had no previous renovation experience and discovered the actual bids were more than double what we originally guessed.”
If you are planning a building or remodeling project and intend to hire subcontractors directly, be realistic about the time and effort it will take to obtain three bids in all categories. Develop a spreadsheet to track whom you called, the day and date, any conversation, and the status of that contact.
Communicate the same message to everyone by using a script that indicates you are a homeowner, have professionally prepared plans and labor and material specifications for a certain project, and expect a return call within three business days.
Residential building and remodeling are really about relationships, not merely construction.