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.