Money Pit

Pardon my banality, but what is it with expensive home repairs that causes them to come in waves? Within a week, we’ve found that our water heater needs replacement, we need a termite treatment (they’re not inside the house, thank god, but they’re all over some old pressure-treated wood beams just behind the house), and a standpipe connecting to our sewer line is cracked and therefore clogging the sewer line with dirt every time it rains. I think that means the rock garden and tree house I was planning to build later this summer may need to be put off until next year.

I find myself at a loss when repair or service people tell me about what we need to have done. This is partly because when we first moved in, we had to have an emergency plumbing job done on some pipes in the garage. (The previous owner hadn’t shut them off for the winter when she moved out in the early fall, and I didn’t realize they weren’t shut off, so a couple burst when we had a very bad hard freeze within two days of moving in.) Anyway, we went with a big company that you see around here a lot, and they were a very, very hard sell bunch. They did a fine job with the pipe repair, but then after that, when we called about a much more trivial problem with the bathtub, they were trying to sell us on the need to rip up the whole floor and redo the entire bathroom. Another plumber fixed the problem in about fifteen minutes for about $100.00. So every since then, I’ve assumed that any expensive estimate may be a kind of con game.

The personal manner of service people really tips me one way or the other. A guy who seems too fast on the estimate, too slick, too salesmanlike, alarms me (even if it turns out that what he was saying is 100% accurate and the price fair). On the other hand, a brusque, dismissive person who acts like I’m an idiot for asking any questions at all (we’ve had these from time to time) also makes me wary.

This is where I really start to think about the role of the Internet. For me, it took a few minutes of searching to figure out that the problems the current plumber found with the water heater were pretty much genuine. It’s harder to find trustworthy reviews of pest control companies from which we might get an estimate for termite control, but I certainly got a good understanding of the nature of the problem and the plausible strategies for treatment. (I did get a bit of a sense about which companies I might avoid, at least.)

In 1975, for general information about water heaters or termites, I could have done reference work in a library. For information about the reliability of possible services, on the other hand, I would have had to rely almost entirely on local friends and neighbors, who remain an important source of information. But we’ve all had experiences with a friend or neighbor that we’re obligated to trust who habitually recommends services that end up being intensely unreliable. A network of assessments that blends unknown and familiar sources, trusted and untrusted information, seems the most robust possible way to make decisions about these kinds of issues.

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5 Responses to Money Pit

  1. mgelman says:

    The Center for the Study of Services (a.k.a. Checkbook Magazine) takes a crack at this. It’s a little more statistical than, say, Angie’s List, but serves as a trusted resource. I think they have recently moved into the Philly area. They were started in DC.

    Another difficulty is the sheer number of service providers. I don’t think I ever had a recommendation from a friend who also showed up on the list from Checkbook.

  2. Bill McNeill says:

    Here in Seattle, I use the Homeowner’s Club. The Homeowner’s Club maintains a list of contractors in the area. When you need work done, you call them and they set you up with a contractor. Billing and dispute resolution is handled through the club. Membership is $50 a year, and the peace of mind is well worth it. Basically the problem they solve is the fact that the business relationship between a homeowner and a contractor is often a one time thing—you’ve never hired them before and you’ll probably never hire them again, so there’s reduced incentive on the contractor’s end to do a good job. However, contractors do have a protracted relationship with the Homeowner’s Club, and want to get getting referrals from them, so the incentive is there.

    Presumably you could get the same effect if everyone posted contractor reviews online (and not just when they were displeased), but in this instance I’m willing to pay a little money to have someone manage that feedback loop for me.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    We were in a similar service when we first bought, Bill, but they’re the ones who directed the hard-sell exploitative plumbers at us. I got the sense that their referral base was primarily large contractors whose main vetting was the ability to pay. But they did connect us with a couple of good services as well.

  4. Western Dave says:

    Try asking a realtor that you know for a recommendation and then follow up with the contractor that you will be talking with the realtor. Mrs. Western Dave gives referells (sp?) all the time and follows up with her clients to check to make sure that the contractors do a good job. The contractors play nice because realtors are a major source of recommendations and they know if they screw up it will dry up. A word from a realtor can lead to an apologetic phone call from “hard sell guy” (who maybe was just having a bad day, as you point out). We got hosed once on this before my wife became an agent, the firm was previously had been reputable but tanked our job. There appears to have been shift in who controlled the family business with Dad retiring and alcoholic son taking over. A. S. appears to have run the business into the ground.

  5. Sandy says:

    My cat died the same day the roof to the brand new extension caved in. The same day a soccer ball cam flying through my window. These are all unrelated except for the fact that hey all happened in a 8 hours period.

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