How to Deal with Contractors

Question them like you question your doctor.


Imagine going to the doctor because of knee pain. The nurse checks your not-so-great blood pressure and then asks you to change into a really-not-great gown. You then pass the time away tapping on the phone. The doctor finally walks in. He pulls out a few shiny instruments and performs a few tests. After a few minutes he sits straight up and, with thoughtfulness on his face and authority in his voice, he declares: “Your knee is shot. Buy a new one.” He then hands you off to a salesman who offers you good, better and best knee replacement options.

Medicine has its problems, but no one in their right mind would accept that kind of treatment. “Shot” is not a real diagnosis. You’d want to know exactly what’s wrong, why it went wrong and what all the treatment options are. Replace it rather than treat it? You’d want to be convinced. Good, better and best replacement options depending on your budget? Not likely. You’d fight the insurance company to get the best option no matter what the cost. Medicine may be complicated, but the general concepts are not. A good doctor explains things in a way that’s understandable and makes you a part of the process.

Unfortunately, that which is obvious in medicine is less so in the trades. I get a lot of phone calls asking for a price on a new furnace or air conditioner. In most cases another company has condemned the old equipment, so the caller wants to compare prices. That’s reasonable. However, when I ask the caller what’s wrong with the old equipment, the most common answer is some version of “It’s shot.” In other words, the caller doesn’t know what’s wrong with the old equipment except that it’s not working. That’s not reasonable. Anyone asked to spend thousands on new equipment should know why they’re doing it. And they should know what all the options are, including a repair option, even if the repairman doesn’t think repairing is a wise choice. After all, it’s not his choice to make.

It’s time to demand more of repairmen. If you’ll question a doctor who has a decade of formal training, you should darn well question a repairman who’s probably had none. You’re not mechanically inclined? Compared to your doctor, you’re not medically inclined either. But that doesn’t stop you from busting the doc’s chops. You may have watched all 331 episodes of ER, but I can assure you that the knowledge gap between you and your doc is an order of magnitude greater than you and your repairman. If you’ll keep your doctor talking until you have a basic understanding of the problem, then you should keep your repairman talking just the same. If the repairman can’t make you understand, it may be that he doesn’t understand himself. Or it may be that he doesn’t want you to understand.

What’s written here applies to small repairs and big replacement jobs alike. Ask lots of questions!