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“He came by, took his time, and then never gave me a quote.”

“I was paying him $18,000 and he would barely help me.”

“He wouldn’t finish the last part of the job, so I didn’t pay him. It’s like he didn’t care. He never got his money.”

“He said he would start on Monday, he didn’t start until Friday, and then he was gone for half the time.”

“He gave me one price and he charged me something completely different.”

“I said I wanted a green job, but it wasn’t green at all.”


This is just a sampling of the complaints I hear about contractors basically, um, every day. And I could probably list a dozen more with the focus generally on price, quality, and speed, and how one (if not more) was lacking.

To kick-off this discussion, I’ll rely on an old but insightful joke: When dealing with a contractor on price, quality, and speed, pick two, get one. Along those same lines is something we used to say to our (our good natured) customers: “We may be slow, but at least we’re expensive.”

choose contractor

So why is the world of contracting so messed up? A lot has to do with the economics. General contracting is a hard business for many reasons: despite what you hear, it’s a low-paying business, with a contracting firm generally making less than a 20 percent gross margin (revenue versus direct cost of jobs), a net margin of closer to 10 percent (revenue versus direct cost of jobs plus the overhead of the company), and then true profit of less than 10 percent–and in some years, closer to zero. Compare this with a law firm, for example, and those numbers are at least double, if not more.

There are other factors, too, like high working capital requirements (you have to front the cost of payroll, supplies, material, etc.) and how awful it is to get yourself paid; the volume of bills coming in and going out requires at least one full-time bookkeeper, and the amount of staff turnover boggles the mind. Put all these things together and you have one crappy business.

So what makes this business less crappy is being able to work all the time for easy-to-deal-with customers.

green contractor

Simply put, your crew has to always be working (to spread your fixed and overhead costs) and you can’t burn time and money on small jobs that you can never get paid on. A contractor wants big jobs that stretch over long periods of time (particularly the winter), for which he will never be called back on. So basically, a contractor would rather redo a whole kitchen for an understanding customer than fix the drawer in the kitchen for a crank of a customer. The whole kitchen is good money, for a long period of time (possibly over the winter), with a customer who understands that if they have a problem in the future they should call the subcontractor (plumber, appliance installer, etc.) and not the general contractor. If they agree to fix the drawer, they’ve bought themselves a small, short money job that will never be right and for which they’ll be called back on all the time or flamed on social media. You sure don’t need a job like that.

Another way to make contracting a less crappy profession is by double-booking jobs. If you do that, when the schedule slips on one (something that’s out of everyone’s control), you always have a second one as a backup plan. Also, there are times when a contractor feels like he needs to leave a job. If he feels he’s done all he can do for you, he doesn’t come back. After all, he thinks, why continue a job for very short money (the balance you owe him) when he can start a new job for much more money?

So to answer the questions first posed in this blog, here are some thoughts:


“He came by, took his time and then never gave me a quote.”

You didn’t pass the personality test. The contractor thought that it would be a never-ending job because you’d never be satisfied. Or, no matter how hard he tried, he suspected you’d bad mouth him to your neighbors and trash him on the Internet.


“I was paying him $18,000 and he would barely help me.”

That’s not as much money as you think it is. By time the job’s ended, he’ll maybe put $1,800 or less into his pocket. For a job that takes two weeks, forget it.


“He wouldn’t finish the last part of the job, so I didn’t pay him. It’s like he didn’t care.”

He could make more money at the new job. Keep the money you were supposed to pay him and find someone else to wrap it up. (Such a person is called a small job carpenter, or the “punch-out” guy who attacks the “punch list.” Everyone hates doing punch-lists.)


“He said he would start on Monday, he didn’t start until Friday, and then he was gone for half the time.”

He’s juggling a bunch of jobs to make enough money to live. If you don’t want to see juggling, get yourself a much more expensive contractor who doesn’t have to run jobs simultaneously.


“He gave me one price and he charged me something completely different.”

Quoting is an art; a good estimator is worth their weight in gold. Your contractor probably just misjudged the whole thing. You may have been tipped off to this possibility if the quotes you received for the job were all over the place.


“I said I wanted a green job, but it wasn’t green at all.”

You were probably sending mixed signals about timing and price. Green need not be more expensive, but it does require long lead times, as most of the products have to be ordered. Your choices were probably anti-green most of the time. You went for fiberglass insulation instead of cellulose because it was far cheaper. You went with the regular paints instead of the low-voc paints because your color was right there and it didn’t have to be ordered. It goes on and on. So after that, the contractor just assumed that cost and convenience was the tail wagging this dog.


Finding a Contractor

University of Salford Press – CC BY 2.0

My goal here isn’t to say the customer is always wrong, but to sensitize you as the consumer to how contractors work. So maybe there can be more understanding on both sides of the business.