The Increasing Uselessness of the American Tradesman
I’ve been using repairmen and vendors to repair rental and rehab properties in Austin for almost 20 years. It is with increasing disappointment I must report that the percentage of useless dimwits is increasing. Most recently I’ve spent a great deal of time facilitating “do-overs”, or return calls to properties to fix things that were not done right the first time.
This is one of the hidden time wasters that our property management clients are rarely aware of, but which we do behind the scenes on behalf of clients. While we still have a lot of good, quality Austin vendors available to work on our properties, they are thinning out as the years go by and the older ones leave the trades. The replacement ranks coming up behind them are notably inferior in both skill level and work ethic.
For example, I had to replace a leaking shower pan in the tile shower of a rental property recently. This required tearing out the ceramic tile three rows up from the shower floor, including the shower floor, replacing the pan, then installing new tile. The tricky part on a job like this is getting the new tile to match the existing so that we don’t leave behind a mismatched looking shower, and thus a crappy looking tile job.
I met the tile guy there in person to look at the job and make sure he understood what I wanted. My instructions were:
“If you can’t match this tile exactly, so that any difference in color is virtually undetectable, than I want a designed look, with an obviously different color in a band around the bottom with a deco border”.
What we ended up with was this crappy looking tile job where part of the tile was replaced three rows up and part of it replaced four rows up, and the color doesn’t match, leaving an unprofessional appearance. All I could think of as I stood and looked at the finished job was, “somebody thought this was good enough”.
Would this be the photo you’d want of your shower when putting the home on the market for sale or lease? Of course not. It’s unacceptable.
So, this required another trip to the house, my fourth (first to look at the leak, second to meet the tile guy for a bid, third to view the crappy tile job, fourth to meet the tile guy again), to tell the tile guy the job was unacceptable and find out why the heck my instructions were not followed. The tile guy agreed it was a poor job (done by his employee) and agreed to fix it.
I told him to go ahead and take out the rest of the 4th row, and that we’ll add an accent colored band to break up the color change between the old tile and the new. This still won’t be optimal, but it will at least look like a purposeful, intentional design instead of mismatched tile job, and it’s a lot more economical than retiling the entire shower.
Other things I dealt with recently:
Landscaper didn’t take care of yard work as promised before tenant moved in to a managed property, so my promise to the tenant that it would be done before move-in was not kept, and I looked like just another landlord who says something will be done but then doesn’t get it done. Not acceptable. Landscaper said “sorry, I went out of town for 5 days and forgot about it”. Not acceptable. Landscaper is fired and won’t be receiving any more jobs from me, ever.
Carpet company was suppose to clean and stretch a carpet prior to tenant moving in. Carpet was cleaned but not stretched. The tech said it “wasn’t on the ticket”. Had to call them out the next day. Stretch job was done, but done poorly, leaving an ugly jagged seam in the threshhold between the living area and the hall, and fuzzy, messy tuck job along the base board. I looked at the work and thought again, “somebody thought this was good enough”. Not acceptable.
Carpet company is going back to fix it, and is on probation. Any more problems, and they are fired too, as these screwups have become more common with them recently. I can function only with a carpet company that produces top quality work for my clients and can be trusted to get the job done right the first time.
And another: Locksmith went to a property to rekey it and bring it up to code for the first time. The garage doorknob was a mismatched Kwikset knob while the rest of the property was Schlage. Instead of using the existing doorknob from the front door to replace a mismatched knob at the garage, and replacing the front door knob with an inexpensive passage knob (it already had a deadbolt, which is all that’s required by code), they put a brand new $50 Schlage doorknob on the garage door. This is wasting my client’s money, which I’m in charge of preventing. I called and they adjusted the bill to charge only the cost of a $12 passage knob, because they should have known better. I’ll keep using the locksmith, but I’ve put them on notice that my time is valuable and I don’t like spending it addressing issues like this. They agree and understand.
The above are just samples from one recent week in my life as a landlord. All of these kind of issues require wasted time on the phone, return trips to the property, and further followup. It happens so often now that I have a canned speech that the vendors hear, and I’m not joking when I deliver it.
“There are only two kind of vendors; the ones who make my job easy and make me look good in front of my clients, and the ones who do poor work, embarrass me and waste my time. I have no use for the latter, and right now you’re in that category. What are you going to do to change that, or do I need to remove you from my vendor list?”
For my part, I am easy to work for, provide clear well defined expectations, and I pay really fast. In other words, I’m a vendor’s dream customer, except that I don’t tolerate substandard work and stupid, repeated screwups. Some are intimidated by this and we part ways after one or two jobs. Others work hard to provide good service and are prompt at addressing mistakes. I can live with that as long as the screwups are not frequent.
I never use to spend this much time holding vendors accountable. I’m not sure what has happened, but the American male worker has fallen to a low status with me. Anyone in their mid-40s, like me, or older, probably remembers when we were kids that we all had to know how to fix stuff, paint the house, mow the lawn, change our own oil and spark plugs in our cars. Even if we were not destined for blue-collar careers, we almost all had some basic blue-collar skills and abilities in us. We fixed our own bikes when we were 10, knew how to build and repair our own skateboards, knew how to fix the lawn mower, and had to wax Dad’s Suburban once a month (back when waxing the car was a regular required chore).
None of us dreamed of candy-ass jobs were we could sit around pecking on computers all day, sipping Red Bull. We worked hard-labor summer jobs, at gas stations, car washes, or, during my highschool years in Fallon NV, on farms and ranches (though I did have a cush lifeguard job one summer at the Officer’s Club pool on the Navy base). We all knew how to work hard and we did things right the first time. Teenage kids and young male workers today just are not made of the same stuff as the crowd of boys and I grew up with. This worries me.
Just ask any owner of a landscape company why they don’t have American highschool kids filling during the busy summer months. The answer will be, “they can’t work. They don’t last more than a couple of days or a week at most “.
Ask the same question to a framing crew boss and you’ll get the same answer. Ask the HVAC company owners and plumbing company owners why they can’t recruit kids out of high school or trade school to train and work up to a career in the trades. Same answer. The young kids today don’t want to do that type of work. They want easy jobs sitting around in airconditioned spaces. So, for the trade companies looking for good, smart workers to train and bring up to replace the aging tradesmen, it’s slim pickins and most now have to turn to non-english speaking immigrants.
The main handyman (he hates that word) I’ve used since 1996 is well into his 50s and his knees are going out. He can do everything, including HVAC, plumbing, electrical, appliance repairs – everything. And he does it right the first time. He’s a dying breed. I can’t find anyone else like him, which means, as time goes by, a big part of my role as property manager for our clients will be holding the younger new-age vendors accountable in a way that just wasn’t necessary back in the 1990s and before. What a shame.
Maybe I should add to my list of qualifying questions when considering a new vendor or service company, “are all of your tradesmen at least 40 years old? If not, I can’t use you”.