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By Roz Leiser
When my contractor, we'll call him Bob, asked if he could use me as a reference, I didn't know what to say. After all, he had finished the job on time and stayed within the projected budget. What self-respecting contractor in San Francisco would want such information spread around town?
I first became nervous about Bob when he returned my phone call the day after I made it. Of the nine other contractors I had called over the previous month, only one had even bothered to call back--two weeks after I'd left a message for him. The busy man politely informed me that he was giving me the courtesy of returning my call only because I had mentioned in the voicemail that his best friend referred me. However, it would be impossible for him to do a job as minor as my kitchen remodel any time in the next three years. Good luck!
There was the unlicensed contractor from Eastern Europe whose response to all questions was "No problem." As in, "Move the plumbing? No problem." "Permit I don't get. No problem." When I asked him for a business card, he said he was so well loved he didn't need one.
I did manage to speak to another contractor in person while she was working on a project for a friend, but she refused to work outside Brisbane. "I wish I could help you, but San Francisco is way too much of a hassle," she told me as I kneeled beside her ladder and pleaded to make her even richer.
When I finally got a second contractor to put in a bid for the job, I became really anxious at the thought of having the work done for half the price by Bob. Sure, Bob wasn't going to seal off the room with zippered three-layer impenetrable plastic, but was it worth having to vacuum up dust to save $1,500?
History was guiding me, as well as the endless list of horror stories I'd heard from friends and strangers when I mentioned that I was going to have my kitchen remodeled. This was one of the reasons we had waited 15 years after first setting eyes on the "brother-in-law special" that came with our house. So what if the bottoms of the kitchen drawers are falling out. We can live with them for one more year, can't we?
When the subject of remodeling arose in any gathering of friends, a free-for-all competition for Worst Nightmare or Funniest Excuse ensued. I had gotten quite a few laughs at dinner parties telling the story of how the contractor who'd built the deck on our house had forgotten that his wife was having a baby until the day after his son was born, and thus had a great excuse for not coming to work for the next month. That, it seemed to me, was normal contractor behavior. A contractor who left me with nothing to complain about would be a marked social liability.
Still, I threw caution to the wind and hired Bob. After spending an entire weekend frantically packing up everything in the kitchen, I was shocked when he appeared as promised to start the job on Monday. In the course of the next six weeks, there were several occasions when I thought I might have the experience I'd anticipated. The floor tiles mysteriously disappeared on the boat from Singapore. Then the paperwork showing that they had been ordered at all was nowhere to be found. A stud appeared where the vent hood for the stove was supposed to go. The cabinet door handles, on back order for two weeks, took three months to arrive. One cabinet had a huge scratch on a side panel. Did any of this deter my contractor? Did he say that he would have to put his crew on another job for a "few days" and then not reappear for three weeks? Not Yessirree Bob.
Day after day, his crew showed up for work as scheduled. When my friends asked me how the job was going, I was ashamed to murmur, "Fine." "Oh, that's good," said my friend whose contractor had removed her roof to build a second story and then discovered that the foundation had to be replaced, adding another $75,000 to the cost of the job. When she complained, he handled the conflict by disappearing at the start of the worst rainy season in a decade. She had regaled me for hours describing the tons of water breaking through the tarp on the roof, the phone calls asking friends for help in the middle of the night, not to mention the lawsuit that was still dragging on three years later. To cheer her up, I told her about the missing floor tiles, but she seemed unimpressed.
With nausea-inducing speed, I watched as the ugliest, cheapest brown plywood in creation was replaced with lovely new maple cabinets, and as the 16 extension cords hanging from every available plug vanished and 12 outlets materialized. The three-spotlight track lighting that made me feel like I was starring in an underfunded special on the food channel was gone, and instead there were 16 recessed lights, three pendant lights, and under-the-counter task lighting. Everything worked. The dishwasher was so quiet I couldn't believe it was running. The burners on the stove could actually be turned down without blowing out. The toaster and microwave operated simultaneously without tripping the circuit breaker. And it all looked beautiful.
After mulling over the ethics of being used as a reference for the person who had made this miracle happen, whose work and work habits were suspiciously faultless, I finally decided that I could say yes. I called Bob to let him know, but he never returned my call.
Roz Leiser lives on Stillings Avenue in Glen Park and works in Noe Valley as a health and bereavement counselor. Her writing has been printed in such publications as The Sun and Across the Generations. After Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, she decided to give this year's remodeling budget to Habitat for Humanity.
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