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We hired a friend to renovate for us - but he's lousy

The question

I'm friends with a woman through the local mommy circle. When I mentioned that we were about to embark on a home renovation, she suggested that her contractor husband could quote on the job. He seemed knowledgeable and fair, so we hired him without much due diligence. Everything started swimmingly; he showed up every day with a great crew and we even socialized en famille a few times. Then things fell apart. He began asking for payments early, which we naively gave him. Then, we started catching him making scary mistakes. Finally, after telling us that he'd lost money on the job, he basically stopped showing up. I still see his wife, and the way she talks about him and his work, I swear she has no idea. She's still reaching out to us socially, and I recently heard her recommending him to mutual acquaintance. What do I do?

The answer

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Unfortunately, this type of thing happens all the time.

We've been through a few contractors. One guy – ugh, finding out he wasn't a good "fit" was a slow, agonizing process. Took years.

We liked him because he was cheap and would often find less expensive ways around problems. For example, our garage was so decrepit the roof was literally falling in. Other contractors would stand around, thumbs in tool belt, hem and haw, eyeball from all angles, and then, finally: "Yeah, you gotta tear the whole thing down, build a new one."

Me: "How much?" Them, with gunslinger squint: "Why don't we go inside?"

Tap tap on calculator, scritch scratch on paper: Twenty grand, minimum. Each thousand like a separate knife in my heart.

This guy figured out a way to rebuild it from the inside. Three grand!

But he was slo-o-o-o-o-w. Too chatty. An ex-hippie, what he really wanted to do was not sand drywall or drill screws but fill the air with "philosophical" palaver, and hammer home various points about our political system. The result: Jobs would take forever and cost us way more than originally projected. Not to mention the wear and tear on the household of having an extra dude in it pretty much perpetually.

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In the end, we had to let him go. That was rough, and he probably still hates our guts.

There was another guy, recommended by my friend to build a bookshelf. Let's call my friend "Fred" and the guy he recommended "Bob." Bob never showed up when he said he would, avoided phone calls, wanted money, etc. When very mildly called out by my wife Pam, in the manner of screw-ups throughout history, he chewed her out.

When I told my friend Fred about it, he revealed that Bob's last five clients were furious with him, and one was planning to sue! "So why'd you recommend him?" I asked. Fred admitted, with an embarrassed chuckle, that he was friends with Bob's wife and felt sorry for him, and her. Thanks a lot, Fred!

(Happy ending: We've got a guy we love now. I don't even want to talk about him. Me to him is like Gollum to the ring. If anyone asks me about him, I get all secretive and shifty: "They want to hire away my precioussss.")

In any case, do as I say, not as I do, people: Do not hire contractors just because they (and you) are cheap; and do not rely on recommendations from friends or relatives or people in your mommy circle.

Get every prospective contractor to provide you with references, e.g. the last dozen people he worked for. And sit down and punch in the digits and check up on the mofo.

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Yes, it's a pain. Yes, it takes time. Yes, it's a bore. But, as you found out the hard way, it could save you a world of grief and a pantload of cash in the long run.

And pantloads of cash are what home renovation's all about, as anyone who's been through the process knows.

One more rule of thumb: Unless it's someone you know and trust, don't cough up more than a third of what you owe – at most a half – until the job's done. Or you run the risk of your contractor just melting into the crowd before he's finished.

As to your case, and whether you should mention the whole shabby situation to the wife, I would have to say: Hell yeah! It's business not personal, and she was the one who took it from the realm of the personal to the sphere of business by putting up her husband for the job.

And he screwed you. So, yes, sit her down and be diplomatic or whatever, but fill her in on her husband's fly-by-night ways.

(I would do this out of earshot of anyone else in your mommy circle and wouldn't talk about it to them: That's just gossip, and borders on backstabbing.)

Put pressure on her to put pressure on him to finish the job he started. Yes, it might cause friction between you and her and maybe even between them. So be it! Me, I find money far too hard to come by to waste it by being a quiet little mouse when these rats are ripping me off!

From the sounds of it, it's not like she's some old friend. She's someone in your mommy circle.

But maybe that's just me. Maybe you enjoy getting fleeced by people you hardly know, out of politeness. Maybe some day the meek shall inherit the earth. In the meantime, life's a melee, a free-for-all, a bare-knuckle brawl, and you have a right to fight for what's right – and what you paid for.

David Eddie is an author of Damage Control, the book.

I've made a huge mistake

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