Fall Real Estate 2005

Publication Date: Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Handyman from hell
If I knew then, what I know now

by Carol Blitzer

I was so happy to find Bill (not his real name) at a salvage sale that it never crossed my mind to ask for references. Or to call them.

For 25 years we've lived in a house that's now nearly 100 years old. It has charm, good looks, nooks and crannies -- and a tendency to crumble around the edges. We've done all the big stuff -- at least once -- and now we're focusing on restoring and repairing.

Last fall, I took a Weekly photographer upstairs to shoot a picture of leaves in the gutters, only to discover that the wooden screen on the kids' bathroom window had fallen onto the roof. I spent the next few months asking everyone I knew if they knew someone who could repair or rebuild wooden screens. I kept getting names of folks who would happily replace all my screens with aluminum -- or were out of business.

In the spring, I went to a salvage sale hoping to find some old wooden screens in better shape than ours. At the sale, they would only part with screens that accompanied double-hung windows -- and they were the wrong size.

But I found Bill, who said he could repair -- or replace -- my screens. No problem. He'd been working on old houses for years. We exchanged cards. I called a couple of days later and he agreed to drop by to check out the screens.

Bill arrived just on time, reviewed the project and suggested a price that I could live with. He said he charged $40/hour, but he was worth it. He didn't have a clear idea about how much time it would take to fix the screen frames, but he assured me it wouldn't be long.

When Bill waffled over the time involved, I missed this key clue. This is when I should have started calling references, instead of saying, sure, go ahead, fix my screens.

While working on the screens, Bill noticed that the house needed a few more things: The lock was sticky on the back door, there was an old bee hive under the eave, the corrugated plastic overhang over the back porch was disintegrating -- and the front porch itself was pretty rickety. I had some concerns about the front porch, given that we've had four bouts with termites in the past five years.

Bill said he could take it apart, check it out, and rebuild it in two days. Sounded good to me. A month had passed before he completed the screen project, but that had involved making new metal parts. He charged about $400 to repair six screens, including materials.

This was mistake number two: Although he did a good job on the screens, I still should have asked for references for larger jobs -- and called them.

Two weeks into the "two-day" front-porch project, we planned a party on the deck. We gave Bill 10 days' notice: Please finish before company comes. No problem, he said.

An hour before 25 people were due, Bill was busily sawing planks in the driveway. A strip of yellow "caution" tape stretched across what once was a front porch.

"Bill," I growled. "People will be here in an hour. Out." And I stomped back through the gate -- after tying on a couple of helium balloons to show people where to go.

Weeks later, we're finally finished squeezing between the lilac bush and a filthy car, through the crumbling wooden gate to our back door. But the project isn't quite complete.

Last month Bill called in a panic at 7:30 a.m.: Could I leave him a check for $500? Rent was due. "Sure, Bill. And, by the way, when do you anticipate finishing?" I queried.

"Oh, it's just a few more hours," he said. And the total price will be $1,600.

I pointed out that he had quoted me half that price before he started. He denied ever naming a price, and claimed a contractor would charge double. I thought back to early days, when he'd said two days max. I'd done the math: 16 hours x $40/hour = $640, plus materials, or about $800. I do remember he told me he could do the screens and the porch for $1,200.

To date, Bill's cell phone number sits on a post-it note on my computer screen. He always sounds surprised to hear my voice. I try to limit the calls to once a week -- there's only so much time I can spend listening to excuses why he hasn't shown up to complete the job. (Most creative? "I lost the key to my shop and it took all day to have a new one made.")

Maybe he'll finish by the time his rent is due again. In my dreams. And maybe I'll pay him more than $800. In his dreams.

It's a trifle mortifying to have made such a colossal error in judgment, given that I'm the Weekly's Home & Real Estate editor. A huge part of my job is helping readers locate resources for fixing up houses. And I seemed to have missed such a basic step: Don't believe a word a contractor/handyman/designer says, unless you back it up by checking references.

So next time I'll know.

Assistant editor Carol Blitzer can be reached at cblitzer@paweekly.com.